There were worse places to be at night than the Alam Coast. The sea breeze cut through the warm summer air, rustling lotuses in the dark. On the horizon, the moon hung white and low, broken reflection sparkling in the murky sea. Black dots of birds darted across it as they returned to the cliffs. It was pretty, but more to the point, ensured that no-one could use the shadows to ambush the small Ben-Hassrath group picking its way along the beach.
The sounds of waves lapping on the shore couldn't quite hide the murmur of voices.
"Think we can get the rebels to have their meetings at a decent time of day next time?" said one man, yawning, sand crunching beneath his boot as he stumbled.
The Bull grinned from where he was leading. "But then they'd realise how much easier it is to hide in plain sight," he said. "Let's not help them figure it out."
He didn't bother ordering the squad into silence. The sound wouldn't carry up the cliffs to their right, and anyway, their tracks were already visible where the moonlight caught the sand. It wasn't a problem. Any rebel group dumb enough to hold meetings under a full moon weren't likely to have a tail on the ambush. Besides, give it an hour and the sea would take care of the footprints. Wading would've been best, but there was no sense in risking the tides. One of the village children had once gone playing in the tidepools and been swept out to sea; it was the Bull who'd dived in and fought the waves for the boy. He'd laid him out on the sand and let the local Tamassran get to work, till finally the kid spluttered and retched and sobbed in the woman's arms. That story had gained Bull and his men more of a foothold in the area than all of their campaigns and battles put together.
Though not with everyone, apparently. Not in the tavern where a bunch of youths had apparently gone to drink and bitch and somehow wound up in an arms deal tonight, with a party of Ben-Hassrath on their asses. Not with whoever had mentioned that the old Vint house on the cliff tops would be a perfect spot for anything shady. But yes, with the barmaid who'd turned the group in while eyeing the Bull up. You won some, you lost some, because neither ever seemed to stick on Seheron.
A wave rushed in and spilled over his boots, sucking at the pits they'd made in the sand. The tide was coming in.
His second in command, an elf named Hessala, frowned at the water round her ankles. "By the way, one of our agents in Alam reported in," she said. "Apparently there's some sort of local festival going on in a few weeks. It's normally harmless, but with all the rebel sentiment around she's worried something might kick off. She wants you to come, maintain a low-key presence."
"Massath?" said the Bull. "That's just when they do the food store census. Seriously, it's a bunch of farmers coming to the city and trying to outdrink the city people. It's the roads you want to watch around then. You get a bunch of Tal-Vashoth trying to take on a druffalo tosser who's three days into drinking homemade wine, and it's anyone's guess who'll end up in most pieces."
"Well, I'm just repeating her information," said Hessala.
"Yeah," said the Bull. "Sure." He sighed. "Tell her I'll go scare the shit out of anyone getting out of hand."
His second looked at him. "Is something wrong?"
"No, it's just... night patrols. You know me, all about the beauty sleep."
A night off. That was what he needed. An evening in the tavern with the barmaid might be too much to ask for - hunting down the regulars never made for a good reception - but maybe he could root out some nondescript little shithole where people just tried to screw each other literally instead of figuratively. Maybe put in to see one of the good men and women back in Alam, get some proper stress relief.
Go through the motions, get the job done.
They passed under an overhang, a great spiky slab of rock that curved over them like a dragon's wing. The Bull held up a hand and led the squad up the beach to the cliffs, staying in its shadow. The sand gradually turned to pebbles beneath their feet, and the steady shuffle turned to crunching steps. In the dark, they found the base of the little track that wound up among the cliffs, hooking round the boulders. One of the scouts had passed it onto them, as if the Bull hadn't learned the layout of the coast weeks ago. In the dark he found the part where the trail flared onto the ground, and the others followed him, single file. The knees and calves burned on the climb up. Felt good.
The house at the top was a great posh Tevinter thing, a summerhouse built back when the Vints thought they'd actually last till summer. Every year, a new magister picked it for a base, and every year the Ben-Hassrath threw good people at the walls until one or two hit. They'd kicked the last magister out back in the spring when they'd retaken the beach. Somehow, between dealing with the mage's friends, repairing damage in the cities and dealing with the million other factions popping up, they'd never got around to tearing the house down. Soon it would be autumn, and the Vints would come rolling in with the tide again and cover the beach like crabs.
"The villagers say it's haunted," said one of his agents, a recent transfer from the capital.
"The informant said it wasn't. That's scarier," said Hessala, jumping onto a ledge over the path. "I'd take a ghost over an armed rebel, any day."
"Besides," said the Bull, "if it's the ghost of a magister, that'd just mean we beat his ass once already."
"And if he summons ghost demons?"
"Oh - seriously? For that, I'm ordering silence," said the Bull. "Alright, people, let's get them surrounded."
They snuck round the edge of the wall till they found where the stone was still crumbling from where they'd taken gaatlok to it last year. They went over, landing on the damp grass on the other side, the broad-leafed, spongy type that covered half the island.
As they spilled over his squad made beelines for the ground floor windows dotted around the exterior. The elves in the party launched themselves over a balcony, so they could seal off the upstairs. The Bull waited till they were all in position or halfway through their entry points before jogging up to his own window. Those Tevinter-style window locks probably kept magisters nice and safe back home, but take a Qunari with a greataxe and they folded like paper.
Just like their owners, really.
- - -
The place was a maze of corridors, each darker and dustier than the last. The Bull stepped lightly on the flagstones, landing heel first and rocking onto his toes. He wasn't built for sneaking around - he had three or four squadmates for that - but you didn't last long on Seheron without picking up some good ways of getting the first hit in. Move the right way, and even someone his size could hide his footsteps.
He took a corner and frowned. He could see the end of the corridor. He shouldn't have been able to. Something was casting light from the right. Dim. Shadows on the floor flickering. A candle, then.
He hefted the axe and ran to the end.
The light went out.
There was an open door to a library, bookshelves looming in the shadows. A window to the side, but not casting enough light to reach the corridor. There was a candle on the desk, but it was out. There was no sign of anyone.
Shit, maybe the place was haunted.
There was no time to waste on investigating, anyway. Any longer, and everyone would beat him to the rendezvous point. Not that his squad couldn't take care of a few rebels without him, but he'd been looking forward to a good clean scrap. They'd bumped into Fog Warriors a few too many times lately, and okay, it was pretty satisfying clashing swords with a dozen guys while blinded, but sometimes you just wanted to stand back and knock a couple of heads together.
He headed back out into the hallway. Was that someone mumbling he heard as he closed the door? No, just the hinges creaking. He shook his head and moved on.
- - -
The rebel meeting place was supposed to be the dining room. The Bull never found out what was going on there, because he opened the door to some fancy entertaining hall filled with cushions and found enough rebels to skewer an entire greatsword.
A quick count made seven including human rebels and Tal-Vashoth, most of them staring at him like they were about to get spanked, a couple looking like they were going to get spanked and enjoy it. Probably pressured into this mess and hoping for a way out. Those ones were looking at the Bull like he was Koslun risen again.
Weapons: one obvious dagger, one obviously hidden dagger, nothing else. Apart from, maybe, the pile of glowing spheres stacked on the table.
Crap. Glowing stuff was the worst.
"Ben-Hassrath," spat the Tal-Vashoth closest to the spheres.
One of the other rebels whispered, without moving, "That's the Bull."
Two exchanged glances. The Bull's mouth quirked into a one-sided smile.
"And you're all trading Vint weapons," he said. Behind the rebels, he spotted Hessala creeping up, daggers ready. "What, didn't have enough balls of your own?"
He didn't need to slip up and make eye contact with his agent to know she was groaning silently.
"Come on, you really want to take on the Bull? Drop your weapons, I'll go easy on you," he said, not out of any real hope they'd comply, but just to keep them distracted, keep them talking. He'd picked Hess as his second for a reason, and that was because while he was big and noisy, she could slip under the nose of a ravening wyvern.
One man's dagger shook, one of the ones looking for an escape route. Unfortunately, the big guy in the centre's fists were rock steady.
"We're not coming in," he said.
The man with the trembling dagger looked round.
"They've flanked us!" he yelled. His friend spun round, swore, grabbed one of the spheres and flung it at the Bull's agent. There was a bang and flames filled the end of the corridor. The hot air hit him like a crossbow bolt, scalding the skin and stinging his eyes. He barely saw Hessala's silhouette before she was completely swallowed up.
There was a creaking above him, and then a splintering, crunching sound as the ceiling beam gave way. He threw himself backwards, then through the smoke and the dust saw a figure carrying a sphere filled with light.
Instincts told him to barrel through the blaze and knock the guy down, but his head overruled in favour of getting the hell away to better ground. Lead them out, split them up, take them down. He stumbled to his feet and ran back the way he'd came. Hopefully he'd also draw them away from any of his people. He didn't want any more Hessalas, and oh, that was another image that'd be keeping him up at nights.
- - -
Sprinting back through the corridors meant he ended up back at the library. Not as good as an armoury, but better than nothing. He'd once seen a Tamassran brain a wolf with a textbook.
The Bull vaulted over the table and landed on a pile of someone.
Instinct told him to lash out, his head told him to rein it back in case it was one of his people, and he ended up shoving them to the floor in compromise. There was no shout of "Hissrad!", which meant it wasn't one of his squad. So who, then? The shadows were too thick to tell. It felt like a man, wrapped completely in robes of fuzzy cloth pulled up to his face. Not like the cotton shirts of the rebels, he noted. The figure thrashed with surprising strength, but eventually slumped back. No weapons drawn, which didn't mean there weren't any, but meant the Bull got a stab at asking questions first.
"So," growled the Bull, "I don't suppose you want to tell me what you're doing in a Vint mansion in the middle of a rebel deal?"
"Rebels?" said the figure. Definitely male, elf or human from the voice. "That's what you're looking for? Not - oh, of course." The man shifted in the Bull's grip. "I should have guessed I'd end up dying of hideous irony eventually."
"I have no idea what you're going on about," said the Bull, trying and failing to make out the man's features in the dark.
"Well, no, you wouldn't. Do Qunari appreciate that sort of thing?" He shifted a little where the Bull was holding him. "Never mind. I'm far more interested in knowing if you're planning on letting me go any time soon. You know, since I'm obviously not who you're looking for."
The Bull tightened his grasp. "I'm thinking no. See, I'm still curious about what the hell you're doing here." Rebel was the obvious answer, but weirdly, he thought the guy was telling the truth. He didn't sound like a Seheron native.
"I live here!" said the man. "I know, I know, you're struggling to imagine someone like me staying in a ruin like this. What can I say? It gains a certain antique charm after a while. And no rowdy neighbours."
There was a crash from nearby.
"Yeah, about that..." said the Bull.
The guy's head swivelled to look at the door, then back to the Bull. "I don't suppose you could just... pretend you didn't see me?"
"Tell you what," said the Bull, "you surrender, comply with the investigation afterwards, and I'll put in a good word for you."
"Ah, no, I'm afraid that... won't be possible."
"Well then, looks like we've got a problem," said the Bull.
The man straightened, and his hand sparked with fire. The Bull's grip jerked around his axe.
"I'm all for solving problems," said the mage.
There was a bang and a roar of flames from the door, where several splintered pieces of wood went whizzing past both their heads.
"For Seheron!" yelled a figure wrapped in smoke.
The Bull looked back at the mage, who said, "And I thought you were an unwelcome houseguest."
- - -
They jumped out from behind the table. A freezing blast of air whipped past the Bull's head, hitting the guy full-on and blowing out the flames in the middle of the doorway. The Bull used the gap to barrel straight into the frozen-rebel obstacle, knocking him back so he could bring the blade over and into his chest.
As the rebel dropped, there was the sound of another explosion, muffled by distance.
"Looks like they're all armed," said the Bull.
"Tevinter rune spheres," said the mage.
The Bull eyed him up. "Guess you'd know all about those."
"Runes aren't really my area, actually," said the mage. "Yes, alright, you got me, I'm from Tevinter. Dorian of House Pavus, formerly of Minrathous!" He performed a sarcastic little bow. "Those still aren't mine."
The Bull put a hand on his weapon. "I haven't seen any other Vints running around."
"No, you got rid of the last of my countrymen to live here. Didn't mean he disposed of all his things beforehand," said Dorian. "Look, if I was going to hand out incendiary devices like candy, I'd give them to people who understood how closed spaces work. "
There was another far-off bang.
"Or at least I'd give them out and then leave the building."
It was impossible to read his face in the dark with his hood pulled up, and the voice wasn't giving much away. Excuses? Or honest indignation?
It didn't matter much. There was only one thing Vints came to Seheron for, and only one way they ended up. But that freezing trick, that might be the difference between getting out alive and not.
Ben-Hassrath used any weapons available.
"My squad were supposed to surround their meeting room, but anyone who makes it there is going to find an inferno," said the Bull. "They'll either retreat, or they'll try to draw the rebels outside. You said you live here? Find us a way out."
"Which one of us just sliced that guy's ribcage like fruit?"
Dorian paused, then bent his head. "Point taken."
- - -
They headed back a bit, then down a turning the Bull hadn't taken before. Dorian stopped when they came to a door, claiming the fire had spread behind it, he could sense the magic. The Bull wasn't sure what the point of fancy magic senses was when the sweat was pouring down you like piss down a wall and you could hear the roof falling in chunks - and he was way too familiar with that sound - but maybe Vints forgot to take in the world like normal people after a while. The two of them doubled back, but even there the air was growing hotter.
"There's nothing for it," said Dorian. "I'll freeze the air, you keep moving, and we can try to make it through here."
The Bull flung open the door. It was some kind of gallery, filled with stone busts of identical-looking Vints, male and female, with their noses in the air and blank eyes that were probably less creepy than the real things. There were slits in the floor for ventilation, where the flames were flickering through.
Someone burst through the door at the other end. A rebel, wild-eyed and carrying a sphere. The Bull dived and brought Dorian down with him, more out of habit than a deliberate attempt to save the Vint. Dorian squawked and dug nails into the Bull's arms that... honestly felt like claws, but then the explosion hit overhead and he forgot to make a joke. They fell into combat, rolling to opposite sides of the corridor. Dorian was a bit clumsy but admittedly quick off the mark with the freezing spells, while the Bull went in with the greataxe, batting the next sphere into the wall of busts. It took out half the wall and showered bits of stone faces everywhere. An ear nearly got him in the eye.
The Bull was up again within seconds and barrelled into the rebel, scattering spheres. A well-aimed strike to the chest, and the rebel followed his weapons onto the floor.
The Bull looked back, where Dorian was yanking at the robes where they'd slipped down a bit from his face. He pulled the arms back down too, re-wrapping something round his forearm that had come loose. What was with the guy?
When he was done, Dorian leaned out and tilted a nearby stone head that had rolled across the floor, minus a nose. "I think that's Great-Uncle Hieronymus. We've got him in our gallery too," he said. "He did like to insert himself into all the...family trees."
"So you've got another home back in Tevinter," said the Bull. "What, one wasn't enough?"
He couldn't see Dorian's expression, but he could guess.
"Oh, I've always aimed high," said the Vint. "I'm thinking of coming back here for the winter. All the fire will make it so cosy." He turned his head to where the sphere had hit. "Alright, that hole in the wall actually makes things easier. Go down there, left at the end, you'll find a door leading outside."
The Bull raised an eyebrow. "And you are..."
"Not keen to stick around longer than necessary," said Dorian. "Not that I'm not grateful for all the hitting things with swords, but I think it's best if we never ever see each other again. Nothing personal, you understand, I just have this aversion to being slaughtered or having my mouth sewn up."
"So you're just going to sit around and burn?"
"There's more than one route out of here. I suggest you go your way, and I go mine."
"And what if I just dragged you out?"
Dorian pulled himself up. "In true Qunari fashion, you mean?" he said, in a cold tone. "How do your people normally go about incapacitating mages? Would you pull my hair? Pin my arms to my sides while I conjure?"
No matter that he couldn't see Dorian's face, that conjured up all sorts of images that were badly timed, even for him.
There was a huge crash somewhere to their sides. It went on for a while, thuds and bangs following the first explosion. Dorian turned, the Bull kept his eyes fixed.
"A collapse?" said Dorian. "Better make your mind up quick before the rest of this place falls in."
The Vint had a point.
"Okay," said the Bull, vowing to track this guy down once he and his squad were out, "down the corridor and to the left?"
"Yes," said Dorian, sounding relieved.
"I should warn you," said the Bull, in a deceptively light tone. "If this is some sort of trap, I'm pretty good at getting out of those. And tracking down the people who set them."
"Maker, just go, will you? I want you away as much as you want to be away. I have everything to gain from getting you as far away from me and the house as possible."
The Bull gave him one last, long look, but it was impossible to tell if he was telling the truth. So he went with his gut, and the sound of roaring flames and tumbling rubble, and headed down the corridor.
- - -
Whatever else the Vint was, he wasn't a liar. The Bull found the way out just as promised. If things had gone well, he'd have got out right then and there, and left the weird mage to keep squatting in whatever was left of the house till he came back later and took him in for questioning.
As it happened, the exit was blocked by one of the rebels, throwing spheres through the window to light up the grass outside. Some of his squad must have made it out already, then.
The Bull looked at the guy. It was the nervy one from before, only he seemed to have got over that with what looked like an arsenal of the rune spheres. Now he was shouting the traditional anti-Qun slogans - which, okay, were pretty catchy - and standing with his back to the door, oblivious. The Bull grinned. Hell, if his squad couldn't take out one itsy bitsy rebel armed with fireballs, what was he to do but wade in?
He roared, and enjoyed the rebel's wide, frightened eyes turning to look before he leapt right at the guy. Down came the greataxe, and the guy dodged to the left, readied a sphere - and then stopped to look down at the arrow poking through his chest. The Bull leaned round him.
"Seriously? I had him!" he yelled into the night.
The man, in a last effort, threw his sphere down, and the room exploded. The Bull managed to throw himself back in time to be left staring at a doorway filled with rubble.
"Could've at least let me get a decent hit in," he grumbled as he made his way back the way he came, running past where he'd left Dorian and up to the only possible route left.
- - -
At the end of the route he came across a door, which he burst through and flung into the opposite wall.
In the middle of the room, Dorian was pinned down by two guys. He'd left another crumpled on the floor nearby - dead or unconscious, it was impossible to tell - but his robes were ripped on one side, and he was throwing blasts at one rebel while scrambling on the floor to dodge the other's fire. The Bull took a moment to admire his technique, then grabbed the door and smashed one guy over the head with it, before using his momentum to swing it round into the one Dorian had just frozen solid. The man shattered into multiple brittle fleshy pieces, and his head skidded off across the floor.
"Well," said Dorian, "I'm not sure whether to congratulate you or throw up."
The Bull looked back, probably to tell him to do both, and stopped.
The robes that covered Dorian's face had been ripped down one side, and the firelight was flickering over his features from below. They were wrong. That was the only word for it - he looked like something based off a person, but his eyes were black and his skin hung grey and leathery from his face, not Qunari grey, but almost corpse-like. A curving, ragged row of fangs poked out over his bottom lip.
The image fitted itself over the memories from the last time he'd fought a magister, with all her conjured pets grasping for him, slippery fingers down his skin and his head.
Dorian saw his face and looked behind him to locate the threat. The movement made the rags around his face bob. He jumped as he noticed it. He raised a slightly shaky hand to his face, then faced the Bull's stare.
His eyes narrowed.
The Bull saw the fire glowing in Dorian's hand and reached for his weapon, shifting his weight into a fighting pose. He'd have had no problem if the ceiling hadn't chosen that moment to fall in on him. His shout was drowned out by the bang of stones all around, just before the flaming rafter hit him in the side and crushed him into the floor.
That, he thought as he lay dazed with embers scorching his face, was the sort of thing that could really put a guy off his stride.
He gave himself exactly three seconds to check in with his body parts - hurting like hell, but present - and make sure he wasn't dead, then he heaved the rafter off his body, rolled out and tackled Dorian, who'd been knocked down by the aftershock. It was less of a tackle and more of an angled flop, using his body weight as a vaguely aimed weapon in an effort to ignore the screaming pain in his side.
He ended up crouched over Dorian, pinning him down and looking him right in those creepy black eyes, which darted round for an exit in a way that said person rather than demon.
But he'd got used to drowning that voice out.
What snapped him out of it was when Dorian's expression set and he started mouthing something. The world burned around them, but he knew the sound of that language, murmured like a creeping poison fog. He was preparing to attack before his head could say spell.
He reached out. Dorian scrambled back, half-pulling the Bull with him, and then the Bull was stumbling too, right through floor that crumbled beneath him. He felt himself fall, and snatched out for something to grab onto, but the only thing around him was earth.
Cold air whistled past his ears, and he smacked onto the ground.
On the Bull's name: this was tricky because his quest implies he went by Hissrad back on Seheron, and party banter tells us the Iron Bull name was his own invention (and that he considered the Silverite Bull & Veridium Bull before going for the only one that wasn't taken).
I originally started calling him Hissrad with the intention of having him create the name with Dorian later. But it was really weird referring to Hissrad in narrative for so long - it felt like a completely different character!
I'm sure I remember hearing something about Qunari nicknames (if I'm thinking of an in-game conversation and you remember where, please say!), so headcanon is that the Bull was an existing nickname, and he just added the Iron bit later.
One time, the Bull had woken up with a blade in his chest. Weirdest feeling.
Three months after he was packed off to Seheron, he'd been sent marching off to the West coast with nine other wet-behind-the-ears agents. They'd been five paces behind the commander all the way, taking it nice and gradual because they were proud to serve the Qun but they were Ben-Hassrath, not the Antaam. They'd heard enough rumours about the situation in Alam to take their time while they could. Who knew when they'd have another chance to shoot the shit while grabbing handfuls of the low-hanging fruit smacking them in the face, tossing the cores back among the trees? The Bull had been relaxed, relaxed and bright-eyed and sharp enough to cut himself, so at night he slept out right beside the others. They didn't bother with a night watch. It was farmland in every direction and besides, who'd mess with them?
He'd been dreaming, he remembered, because there was this bit in the dream where something started crushing him. Then he'd woken up, and there'd been a knife sticking out of his chest, and red eyes above him. Hot breath in his face. The crushing feeling didn't go away and at first he was too confused to feel the pain.
That hit after the commander yelled and pulled the guy off him. A deep, deep ache jarred all the way up his ribs. But he'd remembered enough not to pull the blade out, so he'd just sort of rolled onto his side, because there was still fighting going on. He'd grabbed the nearest thing and hacked away until everyone stopped screaming and someone finally took him under the arm and forced him down on his ass.
Apparently it'd been Tal-Vashoth, worried that the squad were there to take them out. No-one had even known there were Tal-Vashoth in the area, but later Bull would realise that there really wasn't anywhere on Seheron that a threat couldn't come from. He'd been lucky, his commander told him while wrapping the wound, because Tal-Vashoth were too unhinged to remember how to fight with discipline. That one had stabbed Bull in a frenzy, so the wound was deep but badly-placed, whereas a Fog Warrior would have seen a sleeping body and gone straight for the throat.
He'd never really slept properly outdoors again. After a few months in the city, he stopped sleeping properly indoors too.
And yet he still woke up after falling through the floor to a fireball in front of his face.
Not in his face, and that was the thing he couldn't quite work out through the dizzying light and a head aching like the morning after the innkeeper's brew. Just hovering there, warming his forehead.
Dimly, he noticed he was lying in the familiar slick and stench of blood.
He scrunched his eyes and managed to focus past the fireball. There was a face there, another pair of eyes staring back into his, and he must've been really knocked over because he couldn't work out if it was supposed to be Qunari or human.
The heat of the fire seeped into his cheeks. His eyelids slid closed.
It was the best rest he'd had in months.
- - -
Something landed on him. It felt wet.
"What're you doing?" said the Bull. Shit, he was slurring his words. The air reeked of sulphur. He tried twisting his head away from the smell, before realising it was on his skin.
"Maker knows," said the man dabbing a cloth on his wound, biting the words out. "I should just -"He made a frustrated noise. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Me neither," said the Bull. "If I were you, I'd kill me."
The man - a mage, a Vint, he remembered - wrung the cloth out. "Don't count yourself lucky just yet," he said. "I've never been much of a healer. All those bodily fluids. Ugh."
The Bull saw the opening and dived for it, because sometimes you just had to say hell to the circumstances.
"Depends on the fluids."
The Bull heard the guy say something in response, but the world was greying at the edges again, and knew he ought to be staggering to cover, only there was no cover and no way to drag himself there.
Had those been his last words?
"Could've been worse," he mumbled.
He felt two pieces of metal clipping round his wrists, then two round his ankles, and he was gone again.
- - -
He woke up with the knowledge that firstly, he'd better come up with some better last words for next time, and secondly, he'd better think of them soon, because he was about to die of embarrassment over letting a Vint get a drop on him.
Waking up chained was a new experience. Pretending to wake up chained he'd done, the time he'd let the rebels believe he'd drunk the drugged ale they'd bought him. They'd laughed as he'd dropped, rolling his eyes and falling off the chair for an extra touch of realism, but no-one had laughed harder than him when he'd bent the iron links like cheap jewellery and knocked out the leader with the length of it.
He flexed his arms without opening his eyes, like shifting in sleep, but the metal bit tighter where his muscles bulged against them. Solid, whatever it was. Crap.
Slowly, slowly, he let himself go limp again. First, evaluate the situation: sharp pain in his side, wet with blood, he'd worry about it later. He could hear glasses clinking a couple of metres away, so maybe someone was watching, but there were no footsteps directly approaching him.
Almost holding his breath, he opened an eye. It didn't give him much vision, but he made out a cloaked figure bent over a table. A pause, then another, longer look.
He was in a cave. Not a huge one, maybe two to three person lengths, and just large enough that he could probably stand up without scraping his horns on the ceiling. He wasn't too far from the sea, he guessed, from the sand filling in the holes in the rocky floor, and the cool dampness in the air, chilling the sweat on his chest.
Piles of books were stacked neatly around the walls, all resting on cloths that had been carefully pressed over the sand to stop the bottom covers coming into contact with the dirt. In an alcove he could see cheeses and stale looking bits of bread spilling out on top of another cloth that had been stuffed in the cracks a lot more roughly. And on a ledge above that, he noticed with great interest, there was a line of expensive looking green bottles, about a third of which looked empty.
In the middle of it all, the figure - male, human, judging by build - had his back turned to Bull, which was his first and likely last mistake. He was stooped over a table, which was the centrepiece of the room. The passage visible at the far end of the cave curved off, cutting off any daylight, so the only available light came from a large candle on the table and a few small lamps heating weird liquids which simmered softly. One he would've sworn looked like lyrium. There were more books teetering on the corner of the table, and the guy seemed to have at least two open in front of him.
The way the robes were wrapped round his head jogged the Bull's memory. That Vint from the house - Dorian, that was it, whatever he was, because that last bit was coming back now and shit. He definitely remembered a demon or something. And it'd been him who'd sent them through the floor, hadn't it? Part of a plan, or opportunity?
He glanced down at the chain on his wrist and almost screwed the whole thing by cheering. His hands were tied in front of him. That'd give his fellow agents a good laugh when he got back to headquarters and told them about it. Seriously, who did that?
The other agents. Shit.
Before he could stop it, the image of Hessala burning up right in front of him popped into his mind. He pushed her down with the memories of all his other fallen comrades. Someday he'd reflect and honour her properly, but now wasn't the time.
The Bull shook his head.
Then he inched forwards on his belly, winding the chain of the manacles round his wrist so they wouldn't jingle. He sprang, cursing his side, and threw the chain over Dorian's neck. They staggered back together.
"Deorsus!" yelped Dorian.
What had been manacles suddenly felt like bricks strapped to his wrists and ankles. They wrenched themselves to the ground, and the rest of him crashed down with them. The mage managed to twist and collapse out of the way.
They stared at each other: the Bull glowering from the floor while Dorian panted and straightened his robes, eyes flitting over the Bull's chains, fireball in hand. It was the best look the Bull had got at the Vint so far, and he remembered why he'd thought demon at first. Something about this guy was wrong, very wrong. Half his face was going grey and leathery, creeping down to his neck, and the flesh hung limp and dead off his cheeks. His eyes - and oh shit, that was creepy - were these huge black pits, skin red and irritated around them. And when he licked his lip, a nervous little gesture, Bull caught a glimpse of huge razor teeth.
He had, bizarrely, about two thirds of an overgrown moustache.
The Bull wondered: did you know when you got possessed? Was it like being trapped in your own head, or could the demon Vint already be in his head?
"I really should have expected this," said Dorian.
"Yeah, you really should've," said the Bull. He tried to tug his wrist free, but it didn't budge. "What the hell are these things?"
He spoilt any intimidation with a hacking cough right at the end. Damn. He'd really screwed himself over with that attack.
"Rather impressive, aren't they?" said Dorian. "They're attracted to earth when activated. I found them when I was going through Magister Vassilius's old supplies."
"The previous occupant of the summerhouse you so helpfully destroyed."
"Oh, him," said the Bull. "We kicked him out back in the spring. Little guy, kept going on about heritage and magical superiority till we threw him off the cliff."
"Yes, that sounds like him. He was like that back in Tevinter, I remember my - relative complaining about how he'd propose military bills to the Magisterium just so they'd let him stand up and argue about them for two hours. I think he only came to Seheron because someone finally dared him." Dorian scratched his upper lip. "Amazing with earth magic, though. Genuinely knew his stuff. I think he made those manacles, and he definitely made the charm that took us from the house to here. Ingenious little spell, really. Gives an area of earth the properties of water, briefly. Allows you to fall through, then reforms the barrier over you."
He glanced at the manacles. "Shame he was such a prat."
"Yeah, well, it seems to be a thing with you people."
Dorian frowned. It made the grey skin on his face wrinkle.
"I wasn't intending to take you prisoner. I had an escape route from the people throwing grenades at us - remember those? - and I took it. What's that? Thank you Dorian, for saving me twice over? Do let me show my gratitude with this fierce, choking hug?"
"What, you want me to kneel and call you master? Or wait -," the Bull had a thought and grinned, "did you want to be the one on your knees?"
He thought he saw something flicker in Dorian's hollow black eyes, but then Dorian shook his head and it disappeared. He stood up and left the Bull secured to the floor.
- - -
The Bull had tried several different ways of getting free, including brute force, angling his wrists, and trying to squirm free, when Dorian came back out of breath with his robes pulled right up to his eyes. He swept into the cave, candle flames flickering with his entrance.
"You realise the house is crawling with your people now?" he said. "Where it's not still on fire, at any rate. I got a look from a cliff length above them, and I'm still not sure that was far enough. So... I guess we're both trapped in here."
"Both trapped. Right," said the Bull. "You want to put some manacles on and join me down here, while we're doing the common ground thing?"
He could have filled Dorian in on exactly what was happening outside. His agents would be using a post-arson search pattern, fanning off and marking fire and structural damage to be dealt with, tracking survivors and culprits alike. And if it were him, he'd have ordered a search for any suspicious Tevinter objects they'd missed in their first sweep of the mansion. Who'd be commanding the squad now? Saraad, the smooth-talking country girl? Bred from farmers, and that was one the Tamassrans had screwed up the bloodlines on. Or Vitaar, maybe, who they'd nicknamed when they'd found out he made his own. Vitaar could be trusted to keep his head and use a little common sense. He wasn't good on group tactics, though, how would the squad do if they got caught in fog next time?
What if Vitaar didn't survive the raid? Shit, he hadn't even thought of that. They'd lost at least one person, probably more, and normally the Bull would've classed Vitaar as a survivor but hell, everyone had thought that of himself, and now they'd be...
Searching for a body. His body.
"Don't pretend you wouldn't have done worse if I'd ended up at your mercy," said Dorian. "Or sorry, am I misjudging you? I was assuming you'd drag me off to some Qunari court to be executed. Who knows, maybe you'd have just let me stroll back to my cave! We could have kept in touch! You'd send letters, I'd come round for dinner."
"No, I'd have taken you in," said the Bull, who saw no reason to bother with an obvious lie. "Protecting the people here is my job. I see a threat running round, I take care of it."
Dorian rolled his eyes. "And here, you see, is where we're at an impasse." He turned away, frowning, and paced forward a couple of steps. Then he paused, and turned back.
"Alright. You must realise I can't let you go any time soon, and I doubt you're enjoying spilling your blood all over my floor any more than I am, so why don't we just - agree to stay civilised for now, and I'll try to take care of that." He pointed to the wound. "Yes? It's in both our interests. If the Qun will allow you to be near a Tevinter mage without trying to sew his lips together or rip his throat out, that is."
"I don't go in for throat ripping," said the Bull. "Trickier than it looks, and really messy. A blow to the head does the trick."
"Oh, I'm so glad you're awake and coherent!" said Dorian. "So, are you planning on co-operating, or being needlessly stubborn?"
Most of his agents would have taken the stubborn option without thinking. A lot of his superiors too. But he'd been the victim of enough ambushes to know that when the fog rolled in, you didn't stick around getting slaughtered for the sake of pride. You tried to retreat and get the hell out before you heard bodies thudding to the ground.
He'd tried attack. Making nice with the enemy wasn't really his style, but it wasn't going to make things any worse. If the Vint wanted to drain his blood and paint the walls with it, there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop it.
He nodded, and lay on the ground with his arms and legs at awkward angles while he waited for Dorian to get back with a bucket and cloth.
The Vint froze.
"What's wrong? Feeling faint already?"
"I -" he shook his head, staring at the wound. "I'm no healer, but I swear it shouldn't be looking this fixed this quickly."
"Eh, it was more messy than anything," said the Bull. "Lot of show, no killing power. Remind you of anyone?"
"You had half a building fall on you!"
"Yeah, well, I was bred pretty tough. I heal quickly." The Bull craned his head. "You've done a neat job on it. Must be all that practice wiping up after the blood magic."
Weirdly, that one shut the Vint right up. His mouth set so tightly that all the fangs disappeared. Bull was the one in chains, but that expression was one he'd only spotted on people who wound up on the wrong end of the interrogation. It was always good to see. It meant the guy in the chair wasn't experienced enough to realise that shutting someone out was the best way to dare them to break in.
"We have slaves for that," said Dorian after a pause, picking up the conversation and tossing it back to Bull before he could admit that it'd gone off in his hands. He reached in, and the Bull suddenly noticed the claws on his hands. Fucking demon claws.
In training, he'd had instructors leap out at him, keep him in interrogations where he had to reach for peace in the Qun while lying about a piece of information, go through the Kavassa-Raash ritual till he could take hot coals to his back without a sound. He'd laughed while watching people try to poison his fish wraps and pretended the corpse of a fellow agent was a stranger. But demons.
He was too well-trained to flinch, but he couldn't hide the way his arms went rigid. And Dorian noticed, he could see from the flat line of his mouth. He'd probably expected that reaction.
"Just do it," the Bull muttered.
Dorian looked like he was the one who wanted to pull back, but after a moment's hesitation, dipped the cloth in the bucket and started cleaning the wound.
"So was it blood magic?" the Bull asked, waiting till he was occupied. Dorian's hand jerked painfully into the wound.
"Your face," said the Bull, pronouncing the words with a care that meant Dorian couldn't pretend to mishear them. "The whole... grey thing. Blood magic gone wrong?"
"Rather stereotyping of you, isn't it? Oh, I'm from Tevinter, of course I do blood magic. Any moment now I'll be in your head and making you find me three slaves to use as tables!" Dorian said, gesturing wildly, then brought his arms to his sides. "In case Qunari don't understand sarcasm, that was me trying to say that not all Tevinter mages use blood magic."
"Qunari don't understand sarcasm? Now who's stereotyping?" said the Bull. "And hey, I never said all Tevinter mages use blood magic. I bet most of them wouldn't flinch when I say it, though."
"I don't -!" Dorian said, then slumped. "Fine. You're right, it was blood magic, and I'd prefer not to talk about it, if it's all the same to you."
The Bull shrugged. "Hey, you're the guy with the chains. I just want to know if I'm more likely to have you try to get into my head, or drain me dry."
Dorian's hand stilled. "You think - of course you do." He laughed bitterly. "Despite appearances, I am not a demon. Not yet, hopefully not ever if my research goes to plan."
"And believe me," he said, giving the wound a disgusted look, "if I'd ever had any interest in your blood, this would be enough to put me off the whole idea."
"So why haven't you killed me?" said the Bull. "Prestige?"
"Oh, you know!" said Dorian. "It must be those big imploring eyes of yours. That air of innocence and vulnerability. Like an overgrown kitten."
"Funny," said the Bull, "coming from the guy with little fangs."
Dorian smiled tightly, said, "Oh, I'm just adorable," then went back to dressing the wound.
The Bull dropped the topic, and simply lay back and kept an eye on Dorian's progress. If this were an interrogation, this'd be the part where he went to get a drink and left the culprit to stew. But that was why he'd always preferred the hacking and slashing jobs. Getting information took tact and finesse, hitting things with swords less so.
Didn't mean he hadn't been trained, though.
Dorian gave the cloth one final flourish, then dabbed it once with an air of uncertain completion. "There," he said. "Now, if you're not planning on dying in the next five minutes, that's about as much Qunari blood as I want to come into contact with for now. Or ever."
He held the bloody fabric out, flicked it into the air, and set it on fire. They both coughed in the resulting smoke.
"You always get rid of things that way?" said Bull.
"That came from one of Vassilius's robes. I moved them all out of his wardrobe in case there was something that might make this place a bit more comfortable." Dorian looked at the cinders on the floor. "Believe me when I say they all deserve that fate."
He shifted around for a minute, then said, "Right, so I'll - I'll let you get some rest then, shall I?"
He levered himself off the floor, stood blinking for a minute, then shook his head and went back over to the table. The Bull was surprised to find that actually, his body did want some rest, and for lack of anything better to do, gave into it. Dorian looked back over his shoulder at his while he was shutting his eyes, but the Bull ignored him.
- - -
"I can feel you watching me," the Bull said later, without opening his eyes. He really could. It was a talent, one he'd cultivated because sleep was for the dead. Or at least, made you dead. He opened an eye anyway to see Dorian regarding him from against the table, with a thoughtful expression that looked out of place on features made to snarl.
"Well, that's not creepy at all," said Dorian. "It was just... it occurred to me that I don't know your name."
"I don't have one, not like your people do."
"Really?" said Dorian, leaning forward. "I always thought that was a rumour. Surely there must be some term you go by, unless Qunari spend half their conversations going 'you there'."
"Officially, I'm Hissrad," said the Bull.
"Hissrad. I don't know. It's a little... sibilant for someone your size."
The Bull shrugged. "It's a job title, technically. We grow up with numbers, a lot of us get nicknames at some point. Most people call me the Bull."
"Now that sounds more likely," said Dorian.
"I might have encouraged it a little."
Dorian smiled, curiously genuine. "So if Hissrad is a title, what does it mean? Soldier? Tevinter Crusher? Mage Killer?"
"Hey, you never know, I could be a baker. These muscles? Got them kneading bread." said the Bull.
"No, no, that doesn't explain the weapon," said Dorian, though the Bull knew plenty of bakers on Seheron who carried weapons. "How about Devourer of Elves? Or Scourge of Small Groups of Bandits?"
"...Keeper of Illusions," said Bull. "It means Keeper of Illusions."
"Ooh," Dorian raised an eyebrow. "So what's that? A sort of archivist?"
"You're a mage. You conjure an illusion, you go round explaining it to everyone?"
Dorian's expression tightened, just a little, like he'd found himself being civil in spite of himself. "Ah, yes. Can't trip you up there."
"No, but I might be persuaded to bargain," said the Bull, more laying bait for the future than hoping to trigger a trap. The average magister might have jumped at the idea of being the one to discover Qunari secrets - they practically panted over the idea of gaatllok - but Dorian was a cursed creature with part of a moustache living by himself in a cave. The Bull hadn't worked out enough to read him completely yet, but he was pretty sure the Vint had other priorities than politics.
He wasn't wrong, watching Dorian straighten up. "If you're going to ask me to let you go, I'd like you to remember that I'm a mage. I'm used to fending off offers from desire demons, I doubt you can top that." He shuddered. "And honestly, I'd prefer it if you didn't try."
"Not even letting me go long enough to stand up? This rock's pretty uncomfortable."
"Yes, well," Dorian shifted. "Sorry, I suppose. Anyway, back to work! I am glad we had this little chat. It's like I'm getting to know you against all my better instincts."
"Take these chains off, and I'll shake your hand."
The Bull smiled slightly into Dorian's twisted-up face. Dorian blinked at him, then turned and left the cave completely. It was a bit weird, but hey. He'd had worse reactions from Vints.
The next time Dorian came back, he'd cunningly hidden his face behind the teetering pile of shirts, curtains, and robes threatening to burst out of his arms.
The Bull eyed him from the floor. "Uh, I know you said you're not a healer, but how much blood do you think I've lost?"
"Themph -," Dorian fumbled and a bunch of the clothes fell onto the floor. He spat out a shirt sleeve he'd been holding with his teeth. "These are for you to lie on," he said. "Since you're going to be here a while, I thought... and you were right about lying on the rock. I've slept on this floor. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Literally."
"A while? How long are we talking?"
"Until I'm done here."
"So, what's the plan?"
"You've got me alive, what's next? Blood magic sacrifice?"
"No!" said Dorian. "I honestly had no plan in mind. Which, in hindsight, was less than smart."
"Right," said the Bull. "So I sit around, decorating your cave?"
"I'll let you go," said Dorian. "As soon as I'm finished with what I'm doing, I'll let you go."
"Yeah," said the Bull. "Look, I meet a lot of liars in my line of work, you'll have to come up with something better than that."
"I will!" said Dorian. "I finish what I'm doing here, I take you back up to the summerhouse, let you go there. I go back through the floor, giving myself a head start in case you come back after me. You, hopefully, decide not to and go back to taking orders and killing things. Sound good?"
He looked the Bull square in the eyes, and the more the Bull looked back, the more he got the sense that weirdly, Dorian was telling the truth. He didn't seem to have any reason to lie, that was the thing. Even if he needed the Bull alive he didn't need his co-operation, not with the manacles.
Head versus instinct, the Bull was used to having both of his battle it out. But instinct usually won, and right now his instincts were telling him that Dorian was, basically, a soft touch.
In some ways, being a prisoner made it easier. Despite the demon stuff, the mage stuff, and the Vint stuff, if Dorian had just let him go, he'd have been seriously torn over turning him into the Qun. This way, he was simply forced to kill him whenever the opportunity arose.
He looked at Dorian and smiled easily.
"For now?" he said. "Sounds good."
As you may have noticed, I've changed the summary to add an update schedule! I'm aiming for weekly updates on Saturdays if possible, falling to Sunday if I need a little leeway. I'll make an announcement if I'm forced to delay a chapter past this for any reason.
Chapter 3: Air
There were two stalactites in the Bull's line of sight from where he sprawled on the ground, both about the same length. The pits in the rock beneath them looked kind of like eye sockets if you squinted, and there was bit of beard-shaped moss. It looked as much like the Arishok as any arrangement of those things could.
For a while he moved onto staring at a dip in the sand ahead of him in the shape of Seheron, and a stalagmite silhouetted by Dorian's candle which looked a bit like the spire on the Alam City Hall. His personal favourite feature, though, was the jagged outcrop the desk was stood against. It threw a shadow that looked a lot like a dragon, if you took two peaks as wings, particularly when the wind moaned through the cave and made the candlelight flicker.
There might have been other things to amuse himself with, but being stuck to the floor was really limiting them.
Time was tricky to measure away from daylight, but by his estimates the Bull had spent about a full day conscious. It was starting to dawn on him that being held at the mercy of a Tevinter blood mage was way more boring than rumours suggested. Also more boring than in that dirty pamphlet he'd found once, tucked in the corner of a bookcase in an abandoned cabin. To be fair, Dorian didn't seem to have five rebellious slave girls or mysterious love potions on hand, so maybe he was saving himself for the good old orgies of home.
What he did get up to, as far as the Bull could tell, was a lot of reading and occasional heating of vials. Sometimes he tipped a vial into another one and it changed colour. Once, the smell of apples filled the air before being replaced with blown-out candle smoke. The cave went hazy for a bit.
Magic was also way more boring than rumours suggested.
His leg was starting to cramp up and a ridge on the rock underneath him was really digging into his shoulder, despite the clothes beneath him. Plus. his stomach had been gnawing on itself for about an hour. And that was a point. When was the last time he'd eaten? He didn't think he'd been out more than a day, but even so, that was a long time to go hungry on an injury. And hungry was the word. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen Dorian eat anything so far.
"Hey!" said the Bull.
Dorian spun round, looking genuinely startled. "...yes?"
"Does this prisoner thing feature food at all? Or are we doing an old-fashioned starvation routine?"
"Food?" said Dorian, as if he'd never heard of the concept. "Oh. Alright, but I warn you, you'll wish you'd gone for starvation." He shuffled a few things on the table, blew out a candle, and went over to the ledge being used as a pantry. "Or maybe not, who knows? I have no idea what Qunari eat. "
He grabbed a whitish-greenish lump off the shelf and held it out in front of the Bull's face. He pinched it between hooked claws and kept his hand as far away from the Bull's mouth as possible, like someone unused to horses forced to feed one.
The Bull eyed the object. "Not two week-old bread, unless things are going really bad."
"Well, it's all I've got, and I don't have much as it is. I didn't exactly plan for having an extra mouth to feed. Certainly not one your size."
"Hey, my mouth usually gets me compliments."
"What? Oh." Dorian looked half-confused, half-irritated. It wasn't an expression that sat well on the demon features. He looked at the lump in his hand and winced. "If you really can't stomach it, I think the seaweed's technically edible."
"Nah, it's fine. I've had worse," said the Bull. "Mould's green, right? Practically a vegetable."
"An optimist," said Dorian. "I thought they threw you out of the Qun for that sort of thing."
"Are you kidding? We still think we're going to conquer the world someday."
"Hmm. Fair point."
Dorian actually gave him a little half-smile then, and the Bull smiled back. He glanced at where the bread was still dangling.
"Hey, would you mind letting one of my hands go?" said the Bull.
Dorian's smile disappeared. "What do you think?" he said, and waved the bread pointedly.
Oh, there'd been a flicker of something there. The Bull could've rubbed his hands in glee, if they hadn't been fixed to the floor. That'd been a flash of underbelly, a hint of something soft to be worked on and persuaded. There had to be an opening with this guy. But where?
The Bull craned his neck to bite the lump as slowly and with as much exaggerated care as possible, all without breaking eye contact with Dorian. The little jump when the Bull closed his mouth didn't escape him.
The mouthful was... exactly as good as promised. He resorted to an old Qunari mental discipline trick to swallow the thing and then - with an effort - keep it down. The lack of having his fingers bitten off seemed to relax Dorian, who sagged a little while watching the Bull lick his lips.
Then he blinked.
"I should be getting back to work," he said.
That wasn't what the Bull wanted to hear. Not when he'd almost made a connection, when there was still the faintest chance of making one while Dorian was in a mood to talk. Because he was. It was in the way his eyes tracked the corner of the Bull's mouth. The corner of his robe that he hadn't noticed coming untucked. And the way he leaned in was like the biggest damn broadcast to the world - I'm talking about leaving, but my attention's nowhere near the exits!
Not even the Tamassrans knew their charges like the Bull knew his targets. He looked around the room for a topic to hook the Vint back.
"What were you putting in those flasks anyway?" he said, as his eyes landed on the table. "Fingers? Blood of a freshly caught slave? Slugs?"
"Really, the disgusting ideas you come up with," said Dorian. "Slugs are just snails, but indecent."
"So? What were you working on?"
"Trying to conjure better food?" said Dorian. "It's magical research. I could explain it, but I assumed when you said you wanted to leave, you meant within the next ten years."
"It's to fix the whole - you know," said the Bull, jerking his head towards Dorian's body for lack of a hand he could wave, "right?"
"How did you -"
"You said before that you wouldn't be a demon if your research went as planned."
"Ah. Clever intuition."
The Bull started warming to his subject. "Plus, what else would you be doing? Most Vints come here to stir up trouble, but you - don't take this the wrong way, but you've not got a face for politics."
"I've met a lot of politicians," said Dorian, smiling narrowly through a row of fangs. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"You could be a plant for one of them, then, maybe. Blood magic gone wrong, that makes for good blackmail." He watched Dorian for his reaction. "But then you'd run into the same problems."
Dorian laughed, which killed that theory. "If a magister sniffed me out, you think they'd waste me on petty Qunari-baiting? I'd be invited to enjoy the hospitality of some remote and mouldy attic while they worked out how to repeat the experiment."
"You're not a magister?"
"No. Mage, but not a magister. They're similar words, I know, but I'll say them slowly. Mage. Not magister. Well, not ye- " He sighed, a little huffing sound. "Not ever, I suppose."
"Let me get this straight: you're running from magisters and you came here? I mean, that's one way to do it, but it's kind of extreme."
"I had my reasons," said Dorian.
That was a misstep, somehow. Dorian's smile turned frostier.
"Oh, you know," he said. "The sunshine. The food. The peace and quiet? It's sad to think of the Tevinter party scene without me, but I'm sure my adoring fans will understand. One does so tire of the social whirl."
The Bull watched as Dorian's eyes lost their focus on him, watching some memory of home. He shook himself, then stood up.
"So, I suppose I'd better go back to the research. If I've been enough entertainment for the time being?"
He left, and the Bull wasn't sure if he'd lost that round or not.
- - -
There was this one Seheron's fisherman's song that all the natives knew. It had a pretty simple tune, a sort of heave-ho rhythm for the big old guys to follow when they were swinging sacks of squirming silver tuna over the sides of the boat, swaying with the waves. The practicality made it one of the few parts of native Seheron culture that the Qun had actively approved of, rather than tolerated or wrestled down until it was either squashed or sprang right back up again. The lyrics were mostly nonsense words - a wrinkled man with muscles bigger than the Bull's once told him they came from old Elvish, long ago, though his friend swore down it was pigeon Qunlat - and it stuck in the head for ages after you'd heard it. Any daytime patrol down the docks, you'd hear it ringing out across the bay. Depending on how long he'd been out, his agents might be down there right now, squinting in the sun dazzle off the water while they interrupted the song to ask questions.
The Bull started whistling it. It took two verses before Dorian's shoulders stiffened, two and a half before his hands started fumbling the vials. He'd given the Vint about an hour to play with his candles and potions, and it seemed about time to remind him of his prisoner. How was he going to get into Dorian's head without some good old quality time?
When Dorian's hand was literally trembling with the effort of ignoring him, he mixed it up with a couple of tunes he'd heard in bars. Dorian's shoulders gradually relaxed, and he started mixing vials again without pauses.
But he'd never been a bard, so he ran out of stuff pretty quickly, and went right back to the fisherman's song.
"Will you stop that?" said Dorian, turning from his desk. That pissed off look was really something, particularly on that face. His frown looked about ten times more furious than it needed to be. Honestly, the Bull could've kept himself amused for days trying to get that reaction.
"Sorry," said the Bull. "That's got to be annoying. Almost as annoying as being stuck on the floor with nothing to do."
Dorian sighed. The noise whistled through his fangs. "Can't you just... meditate on the Qun or something?"
"I've never really been one for meditation. Sends me to sleep."
"Sleeping! That sounds like an excellent idea. You were quite good company when you were unconscious."
"Company, huh? You Vints have interesting ways of treating guests." He thought about it. "Though actually, the chains fit pretty well with the rumours. You keep whips around to go with those?"
"I left them in my other cave," said Dorian. "Look, just... amuse yourself quietly, will you? And I'll do my work and neither of us need annoy the other."
"You think you need to be talking to piss me off?"
"I'm not listening to this. I explained why I'm keeping you here, I'm not going through it again," said Dorian. "You know the really nice thing about being the one who's not chained up? I get to turn round and go back to my experiments. See? Let me demonstrate!" He spread his arms wide, pivoted, and bent back over the desk.
The Bull looked at his back for a while, eyes narrowed, considering his next action.
He began humming.
"Oh, come on, now you're being deliberately irritating!" said Dorian, spinning round with a despairing expression.
"You think so?"
"Have you any idea how difficult this is? How long it's taken me to make one measly draft of a potion? No, what am I saying. Your activities are what, raise sword, drop sword, growl, smash Tevinters?"
"Hey, on Fridays I smash Tal-Vashoth. Got to have some variety in there."
Dorian sucked in a deep breath, and it was like the temperature in the cave dropped with it. The smile slid off the Bull's face as he looked into black eyes that seemed to be getting hollower.
"A friendly word of advice," he said, through gritted teeth. "Stop."
The word hung in the air with more threat than any jumped-up magister should have been able to inject. It sounded like a footstep in an alley at night, like the shing of a sword being drawn.
And then Dorian blinked and took a step backwards, looking vaguely from side to side as if there was someone coming up behind him.
"Sorry, I..." He ran a clawed hand through his hair. "Sorry. Just, please stay quiet and I'll work something out, after I've finished this."
The Bull did stay quiet after that, thinking. He didn't take his eyes off his captor.
- - -
Okay, so demons. Just - how could he describe the way they got his back up? They were unnatural, for a start; the Bull knew his enemies, knew the way to trap a magister with pride or trick a Tal-Vashoth into getting mad or stop a tavern brawl. Even animals had motivations, triggers. But demons...they were these blank monsters who were called on for battles and the only thing you could do against them was the physical stuff. Angle your shield, if you had one, or work out where the biggest threat was. But it wasn't like fighting people. You couldn't even bargain with them, that was what got mages into trouble in the first place.
And the getting in heads thing? Shit, there were so many things in his head that were locked up tight, for his own sake or the Qun's. Keeping it together and keeping secrets were the two things the Qun asked of him, and demons could just...stroll right past the gates and strip him bare. It was probably like being stuck on the floor, he thought, trapped and aware of it.
It wasn't - he wasn't scared. Just cautious. For damn good reasons.
He stayed quiet for a while, taking Dorian's advice and meditating, which he was just as bad at as he had been the last time. There was nothing to focus on, that was the problem. Hit him with a stick for an hour and he'd steel his mind against the pain, but steeling yourself against a lack of anything? He'd never got that. Eventually, there were other problems.
"Hey!" he called, figuring Dorian had taken enough time buried in his books to snap out of the hissy fit, "You mind letting me up for a bit? Things are cramping up here."
Dorian turned round and chuckled.
"Seriously, just five minutes. No funny business."
"Oh, but it is funny," said Dorian. "I see how you could have got the impression, given that I didn't kill you while you were unconscious, but I'm not completely stupid."
"Joke's on you, Vint," said the Bull, smiling with narrowed eyes. "Sooner or later you're going to have to let me up, or I'll piss all over your floor."
Dorian went pale in the patches of his face that weren't already grey. "You had to go there, didn't you."
"No, but I will soon."
Dorian scrubbed a hand over his face. The Bull found himself wondering when the man had last slept. He'd spent a fair time unconscious, but he hadn't woken up to find Dorian anywhere but by him or stooped over that table.
"Fine," said Dorian. "Fine - I'll stand behind you, and release your manacles, and then we go forward slowly. If you look like you're about to jump me, or trip me up, or - I don't know, rip my head off and use it as a flagon - I'll spell them again."
"You think I'd ruin a perfectly good drink with the insides of your skull? You Vints really are perverted."
Dorian smiled tightly. "But we do hold all the best parties," he said.
- - -
Progress out of the cave was slow. The Bull shuffled ahead obedient as a newly broken-in rookie, in a straight line, one foot in front of the other at a pace you could count off, aware of Dorian right behind him. Not close enough that the Bull could take him by surprise from the front, unfortunately, but close enough to hear his breaths coming just a little too hard and fast for the speed they were going. The Vint got nervous around a big bad Qunari? Good to know. Once or twice, there was a scuffle of shoes on rock as Dorian stumbled. Lack of coordination from the demon features, sleep deprivation, or natural clumsiness? It would be good to find out.
He had to hide the growing throb of adrenaline singing in his veins. He'd done it. He'd got Dorian to lower his guard, lower the chains. In a few days! He was so close.
The air got warmer and clammier. The smell of the entrance became apparent before anything else, that salt and old seaweed stench of the Alam sea that you could smell as far as the nearest town whenever the wind blew south. At first he just thought he had it on the edge of his nostrils, then he was breathing the stuff in. Then he heard the sound of waves in the background, behind the padding of his own feet on the rocks, and he started to spot puddles in the dips in the rocks.
Then they turned a bend, and sunlight broke full in his face.
It wasn't even proper daylight - late afternoon at best - but it hit his eyes like a hammer after spending the day relying on a single candle flame. And the air! He'd been in pitched battles where his squad ran rings against a trio of magisters, he'd had a bottle of two hundred year old wine and he'd met a dancing girl from Minrathous, but no experience compared to standing in the way of the breeze and drinking in the fresh air.
"If you're done staring? I heard Qunari were a little slow on the uptake, but please don't tell me I have to show you what to do," said Dorian from behind him, his voice tight.
The Bull had forgotten he was there. He'd not even thought about running.
"Keep your hair on," he said, turning round. "Wouldn't want to lose that too."
If he'd expected Dorian to loosen up in the sun, he'd been mistaken. The Vine was as stiff as a training dummy. At first the Bull thought he was worried about the potential for escape, but his eyes were only flicking to him occasionally, mostly scanning the horizon outside the cave. In the sunlight, the Bull could finally see every inch of him that wasn't covered by robes, his face and the line between tanned flesh and the grey mass where it was being ravaged by the spell.
"Are you scared I'll get spotted?" the Bull said. "Or that you will?"
"Both," said Dorian. "Which is why you should hurry up so we can go back in. Or I'll throw a fireball at you. Maker, was it always this hot outside?"
The Bull examined him. His hands were trembling.
"When was the last time you left the cave?"
Dorian let out a long, shaky breath. "Yesterday. At night," he said.
The Bull hadn't planned anything for when he got out, he realised. He'd just sort of assumed something would occur to him, that there'd be an obvious moment and bam! A quick fist to Dorian's head, drop him before he could say the trigger word for the cuffs. Everything else had been going as standard for capture situations - read the captor, work out how to get the small favours, manoeuvre him into granting you the opportunity you needed for escape.
He hadn't counted on just how wary Dorian would be. What had he missed?
The Bull took a deep breath of the salt-stinking, seaweedy air, then looked from the sea to Dorian. Any last thoughts of escape evaporated when he took in Dorian's twitching hands and hard stare. He knew what a man with his finger on a crossbolt trigger looked like, and magic was a hell of a lot harder to dodge.
He turned round to go back in, and opened his mouth. "How -"
Dorian's hand burst into flame with a whoosh that seemed to take even him by surprise. The Bull jerked back, bringing his own hands up.
"Hey, hey! No need to cook me! I was just going to ask a question!"
The fire winked out. Dorian's shoulders slumped.
"Sorry," he said.
They returned to the back of the cave without the Bull making so much as a sudden movement.
- - -
He sat himself down in a much comfier position than lying on the ground - so there was one victory, at least - and kept himself as still as possible while waiting for Dorian to reactivate the manacles.
But Dorian stayed quiet, fidgeting.
Finally, he said, "What were you going to ask me, outside?"
"Oh," said the Bull. "Just wondering how long you've been here."
"Was that all? Er... a month or so, I think. I'm not sure. It's hard to keep track down here. When was Molioris?"
"That's Bloomingtide in Common, right? Three months ago."
"That long? Maker," said Dorian, voice a little higher than usual. "Well. They do say time flies when you're having fun."
"I've been here a lot longer than that," said the Bull. "Time goes by differently on Seheron."
Dorian laughed, a short, surprised sound, then shook his head. "Sorry, it's just I used to study exactly that sort of thing. My mentor was an expert on theoretical time magic. Could never get it to work, though, so maybe you're right and the whole island's in a bubble."
"You better be joking. The last thing we need here is 'theoretical time magic'."
"Don't tell me you can't handle a little added excitement."
"Magical excitement," growled the Bull. "I have all of that I can handle."
"Oh, I bet," said Dorian, and it took the Bull a second to figure out where the insult was hidden. "Anyway, I... I should get back to work. And please try to stop distracting me? If you do want to get out, that is."
"I get it, breaktime's over. Go back to your table, play with unnatural things," said the Bull, waving him off. Dorian muttered a quick "Deorsus" and was heading back to his position before the Bull's arms had thudded to the floor.
Before he opened any of the books, he looked back over his shoulder at the Bull. Then hesitated and turned back again when they made eye contact.
Half the time Dorian forgot he was there, and when he remembered it was like he could barely bring himself to tear his eyes from the Bull's face. Could just be a crush, of course. He was willing to bet half the magisters had dirty thoughts about big bad Qunari and how well they'd fit.
But the Bull's thoughts were chasing a new pattern. Three months here. That meant three months alone.
Was the Bull seriously the only person Dorian had been in contact with in that time?
He groaned. Lowering the mage's guard was one thing, but he might as well be jumping up and down naked covered in glow-in-the-dark vitaar for all the chances that Dorian would overlook him any time soon.
This was going to be trickier than he'd thought.
Chapter 4: History
The Bull's eyes flew open; he'd forgotten to follow up on the assassination of that Alam city official.
He'd have to chase up the Tevinter steel blade today and tell Saraad to get information out of the census-taker. After Rasit had a chance to go through the woman's desk, of course. Was she done with tracing that west group of Tal-Vashoth? He'd need to send two more guys undercover...
He blinked once, into the rocky cracks of the cave ceiling, and groaned.
Dorian, leaning over his potions as always, turned round and gave him a strange look, but the Bull ignored him.
It'd been five days. Probably. He'd tried to keep track by seeing how high the sun was when Dorian let him out, but he couldn't be sure that he hadn't spent two days in a row in the cave at some point. He'd thought about using the edge of one manacle to scratch a tally into the rock, but decided against it. If he couldn't remember up to five, he'd have a problem, and if he stayed here long enough to lose count, that'd be an even bigger problem.
But even after five days at least, he woke up every time by smacking himself in the face with a list of responsibilities as long as the Arishok's horns. And he couldn't do a damn thing about any of them.
It was a habit from his early days in Alam. He'd stayed in a boarding house at first, when he wasn't on missions, because the people who worked out of headquarters were the ones the Ben-Hassrath wanted linked with them, or who were too high profile for covers. He kind of missed the place. The guy working in the kitchens must've had a connection to the black market, because some of the food was way too spiced to have been made from distributions, particularly in the winter when the shipments from Par Vollen were often delayed and you could go without cocoa for weeks. As far as he knew, there was no such thing as a black market back home, where distribution worked properly and everyone got what they needed, but someone was always trying to screw with the supplies on Seheron.
Having a good meal and a drink to come back to - and, occasionally, the kitchen boy - was one of the things that helped him keep his head at first. He'd been trained for command, that was the problem. It wasn't like he was completely green, since he'd served a fair stretch in the capital and done some missions outside (and thinking about the explosions that time in Minrathous still brought a tear to his eye). But it was no preparation for leading a squad on Seheron. He and a few others from the group he'd come with had been flung straight into the deep end. One got the bad end of an axe three weeks in, another went Tal-Vashoth, and he'd been the only one of the batch to learn to swim above the muck. He'd been left with a solo mission and three different patrol routes and eight underground contacts, plus a growing lack of confidence in keeping track of it all.
It'd been the boarding house administrator who'd helped him. She was a migration monitor, sanctioning and tracking officially sanctioned travellers from other regions of Seheron, and she knew every one of the fifty people staying under her roof. He'd asked her how, and she'd taught him how to fix things in his mind, to use the pressure he was feeling to make sure that even when he had to grab some rest, his responsibilities were the first thing in his head when he woke. Open eyes, bang, reminder that he had to speak to that informant today. Push that away and smack, don't forget to patrol the warehouses to find what the deal was with the manager. By the time his heart stopped racing, he'd have his day's schedule repeating in his head.
A flask on Dorian's table let off a slow hiss, and he put a hand over it without looking down. He glanced back to the Bull, opened his mouth, then shut it and turned back.
What the hell to do next? That was the problem. Things had been balanced for days, teetering on a truce where Dorian refused to give an inch and the Bull couldn't find any more to take. He wasn't getting out of the manacles by force. He couldn't count on a patrol coming by, not if Dorian had already stayed hidden for months. Give him time and he knew he'd be able to work on the Vint, but he didn't have time, not when he had a job to do.
He realised Dorian was looking at him yet again, which was about twice as many times as usual while working. Also, his book was closed.
"You're... quiet today," he said.
The Bull grunted.
"Ah, eloquence. It's the conversation I keep you for, you know," said Dorian. "Any reason you're being so reticent? Bored of taunting the Vint?"
"Though you wanted me quiet."
"Well, yes, but you shouldn't just go round being amenable without warning. I'll think you're ill." His eyes widened. "You're not ill, are you?"
"Well," he said, but his expression was unsure. The Bull didn't feel like reassuring it.
Dorian left his table for the food shelf. He rooted around at the back before crouching in front of the Bull with... a lump of bread, like always, but this one was white. Scooped out of the middle of the loaf, maybe, where it still had the memory of softness and the insects hadn't explored yet.
A treat, then. The Bull's lips drew up grimly as he took a bite. Sounded about right for the magister's pet. Or - not magister, he had to remind himself, but he'd bet ten sovereigns that Dorian had been heading that way once.
Dorian sighed. "I know I'm going to regret asking, but this is making me feel down, and I already have claws for hands. What's wrong?"
"You want to take a guess?" said the Bull.
"Yes, alright, I realise there's the obvious -"
"Go on, have a few," said the Bull. "I've got a while."
"- but you've been surprisingly calm about it so far -" continued Dorian, expression tightening.
"- apart from the time you strangled me, I suppose, and will you be quiet?"
"First you want me to shut up, then you want me to talk, then you want me to shut up again? Come on, Dorian. You've got to stick to things, or the prisoner'll think he can walk all over you."
"Agh!" said Dorian, throwing up his hands. "Why do I bother? Civility is wasted on you."
The Bull met his eyes. "You really want to know what's wrong?" he said.
"Why, was I hinting?"
"What's wrong is the longer you keep me in here, the more people die out there," he said. "But hey, as long as you don't risk the hair on your little head, it's all fine, isn't it?"
"My hair is a national treasure. And what do you mean, people are dying?"
The Bull took a moment to consider, then decided it was worth throwing the mage a bone. He dealt in information, after all, and sometimes that meant spending it. Silence was better than truth if you could keep it, but the truth was always better than a lie if you could spin it. It was consistent, it made people trust you, and anyone who thought it was less flexible hadn't tested just how far it could be pushed.
"I'm Ben-Hassrath," he said. "Know what that means?"
Dorian frowned. "I've heard the term, but Qunlat was a dark spot in my education."
"It's like the Qunari... " he hesitated. How did you describe Ben-Hassrath to someone completely removed from the Qun? He'd never had to do it before. "Peacekeepers," he decided. "Or... secret police."
"Basically, but we work by any means necessary. Sometimes that means busting a few heads, sometimes it means taking people in for re-education. Sometimes it means keeping an eye on the situation, gathering intel, working out whose secrets to poke."
"You make yourself sound like a spy," said Dorian. He was still crouched on the ground, but he was leaning a little closer now. His potions were completely abandoned on the table.
The Bull shrugged. "That's not a bad translation. Doesn't cover everything, but it's close enough."
"You, a spy?" said Dorian. "Well, all credit to your recruiters, I'd have never guessed." He frowned. "And now I'd rather not know what sort of things a Qunari spy would have to get up to."
"Really? You might be the only Vint who doesn't, then."
"What can I say? I have a perfectly horrible imagination."
"It's not like... " The Bull sighed, looked Dorian in the eye. "I keep the peace, that's it. Well, okay, that's impossible, but I can stir the usual chaos up a bit. Make sure it's a Tal-Vashoth who gets it in the neck, not a civilian."
"And you do this... what, all by yourself?"
"Oh, shit no," said the Bull. "I think there might be more Ben-Hassrath here than there are back in Par Vollen. Even I don't know all the informants we've got among the people."
Dorian raised an eyebrow. "So why does it matter so much that you're in here?"
"Because I'm damn good at what I do," said the Bull.
"And? You could have died back in the fire." Dorian looked at the rocky floor, which was still marked with the Bull's blood. "What would have happened then? Surely someone must step up to take your place."
"Well, yeah," said the Bull. "But they wouldn't be me. I know this place."
"A hero complex. How fascinating."
"Call it that if you want. Doesn't change the situation. If civilians die out there, it's on your head."
"And if my countrymen die when I let you go? Is that on my head too?" Dorian smiled, eyes glittering. "You hadn't forgotten, had you? I'm a Vint. Believe me, you don't want me over-thinking the benefits of freeing you."
The Bull stayed silent because Dorian had been right. He had forgotten. Not outwardly, but in the part of him that had thought Dorian might be remotely susceptible to persuasion. Was it such a dead end trying to deal with a Vint? He knew for a fact they weren't all alike. Even his own people spat out Tal-Vashoth once in a while.
"Nothing to say?"
"Why not?" said the Bull. "You're not wrong."
"That's..." Dorian stared at him. "That shouldn't have been so unsatisfying to hear."
He drew himself up and stood there for a few seconds, running a hand through his hair. His eyes wandered round the room for a focus that wasn't the Bull, and landed on the foodshelf.
"Right! I suppose I should have something too," he said. "Although it hardly makes me salivate at the thought. And when that's gone, I'll be forced onto the seaweed." He shuddered. "Well, we'll be forced onto the seaweed, I suppose. Hope you don't get too hungry."
"Where did you even get all that stuff?" said the Bull. "From the mansion?"
"The pantry was surprisingly full. It's as if you didn't give Vassilius any notice before throwing him out."
"There were trebuchets," said the Bull.
"Ah, yes. No excuses then, he should have spent his last hours having a banquet that would shame the Archon," said Dorian. "Though I'm grateful he didn't. Every time I struggle to choke down a brick masquerading as cheese, I remind myself that the alternative is three square meals consisting entirely of soggy plant life."
He grabbed a piece of something off the shelf and took it to the other side of the cave. The Bull lay on the ground, thinking about gratitude for small mercies.
- - -
What it all came back to was: what if he had died?
Back at the mansion. What if he'd been crushed when the building came down?
Well, he'd have never lived it down, that was for sure. Getting killed by a bunch of guys who would've run onto his axe if he hadn't sliced them with it? That was no way to go. Sure, his agents were decent people, so they'd have probably spun him something better when they got back to headquarters. Maybe something where he'd been taking on the group single-handed, or brought down the building intentionally to bring the conspiracy to a sad, squishy end. Hey, there was a fire, was a dragon too much to hope for? A wyvern would be more believable, but he ate wyverns.
See, that was the thing. It wasn't like he'd never thought about how he'd go out before, but it got boring. Everything could kill you on Seheron. Newbies panicked, the ones who couldn't hack it went Tal-Vashoth, and anyone who stayed as long as he had just... got used to it. The fear of death stopped ringing alarm bells, and just became this ever-present, background thing.
If he was being realistic - though where was the fun in that? - he'd always thought a Fog Warrior might get him. It wouldn't be a good last fight, since he'd never see it coming, but that was the point. By now, the thing that took him out would have to take him by surprise.
All the training of the Qun hadn't sharpened his guard like the Fog Warriors had. Walking through the market at the end of the day? You were a target. In the middle of a straight-up scrap with a group of Vints? You were a target. The second was worse than the first, because you could learn to be wary when things went silent, but when lightning was flying and swords clashing, it was easy to miss the first wisps of fog snaking round your feet.
What if he'd died?
Better not to think about it. With any luck, he'd go out some crazy way even he hadn't thought up.
- - -
Dorian stayed awkward for the rest of the day. More than usual. Really, the Bull almost enjoyed trading lines with Dorian sometimes, because for someone who'd chained him to the floor the guy could hold a conversation, but it never quite seemed worth the pissy mood they both ended up in.
He needed... something else. A distraction from his thoughts. A routine. One of his mentors had told him about two weeks separated from his squad and stranded on one of Seheron's rock islands by storms.
"Just kept thinking about the next thing on the list," he'd said. "Stops you thinking about all the other crap, losing your mind to it."
His mentor hadn't had arms and legs restrained at all times, but hey, he could beat the old guy any day.
With a bit of shifting his knees, he managed a clumsy attempt at a press-up. Dorian turned round again when the chains jingled and stared.
"Enjoying the view?" grunted the Bull, between press-ups.
Dorian huffed. "What are you doing?"
"Weight training," said Bull. "Haven't bothered in a while. The greataxe mostly takes care of the arms, but looks like I need to build them up a bit more."
"You - wait, you're training to lift the manacles?" Dorian's eyes went wide. "You can't be serious, you'd be trying to fight the earth itself!"
"I like a challenge," said Bull.
"Well fine, if throwing brute force at the problem makes you happy, knock yourself out," said Dorian, throwing his hands in the air. "Literally, if it suits your mood."
The Bull pushed up on his arms and started counting to ten in his head. His right arm was stretched just a bit too far and the burn was distracting. Not as distracting as Dorian, though, who hadn't stopped watching.
He lowered himself back to the floor. "You mind?"
"I was just -" Dorian said, then stopped. "Never mind."
He went back to his table, leaving the Bull to his crappy half press-ups and the growing cramp in his leg.
A minute later, he unsurprisingly turned back.
"Look, I was just thinking. About what you said, about your role."
The Bull didn't pause in his press-ups, but Dorian learned round to turn down the flame under a vial of bubbling blue before continuing.
"Do you know, at first I thought a Keeper of Illusions might be a sort of archivist? But I knew that couldn't be right. You're obviously a warrior. I'm not even sure if - can you even read?"
This time, the Bull paused. "Nope," he said. "Can't make out the squiggles through all the blood of my enemies."
"I should splash some of that around here myself, it'd make the place a lot more homey," said Dorian. "Mount your head on a wall, hold a few dances, I'd be the talk of Tevinter."
"Wouldn't want you to go back empty-handed," said the Bull, falling back to the floor and resigning himself to conversation.
Dorian looked up, slyly. "You know, I'm surprised the Qunari have a written language. I thought you were all told exactly what you needed to know so no-one would have to do anything as inconvenient as figure it out for themselves."
Okay, the way he kept trying to get those digs in? Like the Bull hadn't heard worse? That was almost cute. He grinned and said, "Yeah, but we have lousy memories."
He was rewarded with another of Dorian's confused half-smiles, like he didn't want to show that he was enjoying himself in case he was being set up for one joke too far.
The Bull waited for a shot back, but it didn't come.
"I was thinking... would you like a book to read while I work?" asked Dorian. "Most of this is critical for my research, but I'm sure there's something I can spare."
"Depends. You think you can let me have a hand free for turning pages? Promise I won't give you paper cuts."
Dorian stood up again and walked off to the back of the cave. The Bull shrugged inwardly. He hadn't held out much hope, but it was a worth a try. One more press-up.
While his arms were trembling from the bad position, Dorian came back, laden with a pile of books.
"Ancient Tevinter or Demonology?" he said, trying to balance them with one knee.
"You're letting my hands go?" said the Bull.
Dorian shifted. "Well, no. But I - I realised earlier, I've been rather caught up in my own problems. It's something of a flaw of mine. Now, to be fair, my difficulties are uniquely horrible - except for Southerners, I suppose, half of them have to be born looking like this - but I'm willing to concede that your position is not exactly a good one. And perhaps I haven't fully appreciated that.
I'm still not prepared to let you go, but I thought perhaps I could make it up to you a little. By reading, if you like." He re-balanced the books. "So! Ancient Tevinter, or Demonology?"
The Bull looked at him. He knew he should hold out for the free hands, show Dorian exactly what he thought of jailors trying to curry favour with their prisoners. But the guy had the best puppy dog expression the Bull had ever seen, and that was an achievement for someone with hollow eyes and teeth that could scare off a drake.
Would it really be that much of a compromise? Seheron would be falling to pieces outside whether he was trapped with a book or without.
"Definitely not demonology," he said.
- - -
Dorian turned out to be a pretty good reader. It made sense, considering how much time he spent with his nose stuck in books. He described the rise of the Imperium with a sort of dry dismissal of the whole thing that the Bull could really get behind, and which was probably the biggest reason yet for believing that Dorian didn't intend to stir up the rebels. They did a lot of things differently in Tevinter, but he didn't think most patriots would refer to Archon Darinius with a raised eyebrow and quirked mouth.
In fact, reading wasn't really the word for the way Dorian presented a book. Oh, he started by reading, but then he got to adding little comments about Magister So-and-so and how they kicked the bucket in bed with six elven slaves, and by the second chapter he'd somehow managed to get into an argument with the author and was rambling off on his own version of the story.
"...see, it says that Archon Romylius was Laetan and took the throne after conjuring a great storm against Qunari raiders, but I have a friend who thinks he was a bastard of some powerful Altus line and was discreetly brought back into the fold for the sake of preserving the blood. And the so-called magical storm doesn't have any descriptions of the blizzards that usually come with a Storm of the Century, so quite frankly I think he just took credit for the weather."
"Sounds smart," said the Bull. "Using what you've got."
"Yes, well, he was trampled to death by one of the palace snoufleurs in the end, so he could probably have done with learning some actual spells. His sons carried on the dynasty, though, ended up in Minrathous and Vyrantium."
"Say that again?" said the Bull.
"His sons -"
"No, the last part."
"...Minrathous and Vyrantium?"
Dorian looked at him like captivity had finally made him crack, but the Bull smiled back. There was just something about the way the place names rolled off the tongue in a Tevene accent, particularly Dorian's Tevene accent. He liked the way it veered between a drawl and a crisp, I-can-say-these-places-because-I-own-them type of delivery.
And...huh, that was a new thought. Not a bad one, though. Maybe it should have bothered him, but just because he was a prisoner didn't mean he'd put his cock on ice. Sure, Dorian wasn't exactly a looker, but at least the fangs were kind of badass if he didn't think demon. And if he ever got the urge to talk dirty, the Bull could always close his eyes.
It wasn't the first time he'd had thoughts about people he'd fought. As long as knives went into backs at the right time, it didn't have to be a problem.
"Were you an archivist?" he said. "You said you weren't a magister, so what, you were too busy with the books?"
Dorian smiled. "Something like that. I was a researcher, mostly. An apprentice learning the ropes."
"With the time magic guy?"
"That's the one." He sighed. "It's been a while since we worked together, but it was fun at the time. He and I, drinking mint tea while discussing magical co-variances and Fade ripples and all sorts of things you... couldn't possibly appreciate, now I think about it, but it was fascinating."
"So what's with all the history?"
"History's the most important subject in Tevinter, after magic," said Dorian. "Say what you like about my people, we have the oldest culture in Thedas and we know how to appreciate it. A little too much sometimes, perhaps - there's a difference between remembering the past and trying to live in it - but I'm in favour of preserving our roots. Besides," he said, and grinned, "my nanny was furious if anything did slip my mind. I had bloodlines, the reigns of the Archons, and every former nation of the Imperium literally beaten into me. And you see, it's come in handy! Though I'm surprised to find you so interested, I'll admit."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"You hate Tevinters, for a start."
"Nah," said the Bull. "I hate the things you all get up to on Seheron, but Vints in general? Hating's too much effort. Your people are doing what they've done for centuries. Hating Vints is like hating the sea for sinking ships."
It wasn't really in line with the Qun anyway, that killing hatred. He'd known recruits who got some chip on their shoulder about a squadmate lost to the Vints, or the Fog Warriors, or whoever was screwing things up that week, and you did not want to stand next to those guys in a fight. The Bull knew the way he got in a battle, and he couldn't imagine how scary it'd be to have that reined in by the fraying leash of a loose temper.
"Oh," said Dorian. "So it's all impersonal then. Honestly, I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse."
"Then don't think about it," said the Bull. "What were you saying about that Laetan guy's sons?"
Dorian, for a wonder, dropped the subject and opened the book again. The Bull found himself grinning as the story went onto a tangent about a magister who was far too attached to her seven pet nugs.
Dorian looked up briefly and smiled back, the most open expression the Bull had ever seen on him, before returning to ancient Tevinter.
- - -
It only took a little thing to ruin it.
It started with Dorian yawning, halfway into the Towers Age. The Bull was sprawled as much as the manacles would allow at that point, and mostly letting the words wash over him. It wasn't as relaxing as cooling down in a tavern after a really good fight, but it wasn't a bad state to be in either.
"Right," said Dorian, "I should -" and stood up, and stumbled.
Maybe he'd got stiff from sitting on the floor for too long, or maybe - against everything the Bull had witnessed so far - he really did need to get some sleep. Either way, he was clumsier than usual, and he fell back into the table.
The vials rocked in their cradles, and the blue one in the centre rolled right out of it. Dorian's eyes widened as he caught sight of it, already leaking as it clattered to the table edge, but his dive to catch it was too slow. The glass smashed down on the rocks and sand of the cave floor, spraying bright little droplets.
"No, no, no!" said Dorian, trying to scoop up the shards and only succeeding in getting blood dripping down his fingers. "No, not - no!"
He abandoned the wreckage to yank himself to the tabletop, where he tried to sweep the remaining puddles of potion into his hands, but most of it had already flooded off the table and run off onto the floor. He cupped his hand under the flow, but it was too late. He couldn't have caught more than a few drops.
He raised a hand: shaking, sticky, and blue. His eyes were wet.
"Three months," he whispered. "Three months of - of this, and - "
He threw his fists down on the table, down in the glass, and moaned in at least two voices.
"Uh, Dorian?" said Bull.
Dorian started shuddering, almost vibrating. The table creaked and made cracking sounds where his hands were gripping it. The Bull yanked at the manacles, swearing when they didn't budge. He tried to grip the corner of the book with the tips of his fingers - any object would do, some sort of distraction - but he just managed to fumble and drop it.
Was it him, or were the grey patches on Dorian's skin widening?
Dorian tipped his head back and howled like a gale at sea. It wasn't a human noise. He wasn't human at all. His head came up and his eyes were black pits and his fangs were bared right at the Bull.
The Bull strained and pulled at his chains, but there was nothing he could do. An arm, a leg even, he'd have been able to fight back.
Dorian dived towards him, nothing in his distorted features to suggest rationality. The Bull used the only body part he had left and tossed his horns at Dorian as the mage came down, claws out, scratching a line down the Bull's chest.
Just as Dorian lifted his arm to rake him again, the Bull got in a headbutt, a good solid slam. Dorian reeled backwards. He looked as if he was going to strike again, but then his eyes widened and he stopped.
The Bull lay, panting slightly, horns aimed up.
Dorian blinked, then groaned and sank to his knees on the ground. He looked exhausted. He looked just like before, like a normal guy wearing half a demon suit.
If the Ben-Hassrath ever found out how close the Bull had come to being taken in by it, he'd have to resign his post and give himself up for re-education, because he'd been betraying everything trained into him without even thinking about it. But he wasn't dead, so he could fix his mistake. He'd got the wake-up call he needed.
The fog had rolled in.
Chapter 5: Sun Blonde
Warnings for drinking in this chapter, and brief reference to self-injury in relation to blood magic.
"So you are a demon," said the Bull.
The wreckage of the potion had been cleared away, mostly, after Dorian had spent a few minutes crouched on the floor, breathing hard with his head in his hands. The Bull hadn't been allowed to get up and help, either with that or the painstaking work of picking glass off the rocks. He'd left Dorian to it. After all, if there was something that'd make things worse, it'd be either of them stepping on something and getting an infection. So he lay on the ground, and waited, and picked the moment Dorian reached for the final piece of glass to go on the attack.
"What gave it away?" said Dorian, with a bitter smile. "Was it something I said, or the way I turned into a mindless monster and almost destroyed the cave? You must be an excellent spy, reading those subtle tells."
He hauled himself off the floor and dropped the last shard on the pile on the table, where it landed on the others with a defiant tink. Dorian's face twitched briefly into a grimace, and he glared at the fragments like he was considering pounding them into dust.
It was probably just as well he didn't. If Dorian had started taking out his mood on random objects, there would've been no way the Bull could've held back.
"I never figured demons for sarcasm," said the Bull, making sure to inject the word demon with everything he'd ever felt fighting them.
"You've evidently never met one," Dorian answered, not taking his eyes off the glass. "Dealing all day with foolish mages tripping over themselves to be the first ones gobbled up gives them a natural contempt, I suppose." He finally looked up at the Bull. "But demon isn't really the correct word when we're talking about me. Assuming we have to talk about me?"
"You just tried to take my skin off," growled the Bull. "We're talking."
Dorian looked as if he was about to argue, but then, apparently forgetting that he was supposed to be the captor, simply sighed.
"The word you're looking for is abomination," he said, bracing himself on the table. "In the south, it means a mage who's been possessed by a demon. Back home, it tends to mean someone who tried to show off and wound up sprouting horns. Mostly embarrassing, really. Like grabbing for power with oven gloves on your hands."
"I've heard the word," said the Bull. "And fought a few. I didn't think most abominations got reading and started hiding out in caves, though."
"No," said Dorian. "Normally, by the time an abomination manifests physically, there's nothing of the mage left."
The Bull cocked an eyebrow. "But I bet you've always hated being the same as everyone else."
"Well, if I had to be unique, I suppose not going instantly crazy isn't the worst way to stand out."
"Just going gradually crazy," said the Bull, pointing the words like a knife.
Dorian looked down. "Yes."
The Bull looked past him at the table, with books lying open and abandoned, to the conspicuously missing vial, to the wooden edge still stained blue.
"So what now?" he asked. "Can you make that stuff again?"
Dorian spat out a laugh. "Oh, of course! All I need is a fresh stock of lyrium. Do you think it might wash up on the beach?"
"Why not? Vints do."
"That - " Dorian stopped just as he was puffing himself up for a rant. "That's not even a terrible idea." Then he seemed to think for a moment, and slumped back down again. "Except that it's going to be a good month or so before invasion season gets going."
"I didn't even know if it would work. I was trying to - I had some idea of confronting the demon directly in the Fade. Circle mages sometimes do it, go through a Fade ritual to test themselves. Southerners do the same thing, except there it's some sort of trial to check the mages aren't dangerous."
He rolled his eyes, then went on. "You need a sort of particularly refined lyrium potion to do it. The recipe's not as simple as you might think, though. Knocking up something to give myself a magical boost would be one thing - Vassilius had plenty of that sort hidden away - but concoctions for Fade exploration aren't something one leaves lying around. I didn't have time to track down a supplier before I left, so I decided to distill the lyrium I could get my hands on in the summerhouse, then re-combine it. With equipment intended for brewing up elfroot." He looked at the Bull. "I realise that might not mean much to you, but it was very impressive of me."
The Bull looked at the stuff on the table. Magical knowledge or no magical knowledge, it seemed pretty ambitious to him. But go big or go home, right? Dorian might've been a messed-up abomination, but the Bull had done enough operations on over-stretched resources to spare a shred of respect for a fellow survivor.
"So what's the next step?" he asked.
"Maker, I don't know! I was onto a long shot with distilling lyrium." Dorian ran a slightly shaking hand over his face, then brought it down to his side. He took in a breath. "I go through the books again, I suppose. See if I can come up with any other ways of accessing the Fade. I was looking into dealing with demons, but that'll be pointless if I can't face the thing."
"And how far are you willing to go?"
"What do you mean?"
"This whole thing started with blood magic, right? So what if it turns out you need blood magic to cure it?" He met Dorian's eyes. "I'm just wondering if you're going to slice me up after all. Or is it not the same unless it's a slave? Or... " a thought occurred to him, "did you use yourself?"
Now that'd make sense. Dorian seemed pretty squeamish about inflicting injuries in cold blood, but maybe he'd be willing to do it to himself. It was definitely possible. He'd seen magisters putting blades to themselves often enough when all the slaves were down and they were desperate.
"You think this was my fault? I'm not sure which is more insulting, that you think I'd resort to blood magic or that you'd believe I'd be this incompetent at it."
"You said it was blood magic, and I've just seen you smash your own potion," said the Bull. "What happened last time? Tripped and fell on a knife?"
"I didn't do this to myself! It was done to me. And I have no wish to discuss it, thank you, so can you just assume I'm not going to start cutting you up any time soon and move on?"
Dorian's face was set. That topic wasn't going to be worth digging into right now.
"Alright," said the Bull. "You're not going to slit my throat. But for someone who said he wanted me alive, you weren't rushing to set me free while you went all demon right next to me."
"You're right," said Dorian, to the Bull's surprise. He scrubbed a hand over his face, wincing as it came into contact with the leathery patches. "I thought I had it more or less under control, I thought I could hold out until the next potion attempt. But then the potion broke..." He looked at the Bull. "I know you're technically my prisoner, but I truly don't want you dead on my account."
"Means squat as long as you're keeping me chained here for the next time you chip a plate and start getting evil."
"I know," said Dorian, to his surprise. "I can't let you go," he continued, "not till I'm in a position to make my own getaway. But I think it might be best if I left one of your chains off from now on. That way you'd at least be able to defend yourself properly if I went for you."
The Bull stared. "Not that I'm going to argue, but... really?"
"What can I say?" said Dorian. "You must have turned me soft."
"That's not what they usually say. I must be doing something wrong," said the Bull.
"Are all Qunari this hilarious, or is it just you?" said Dorian, then his expression went serious. "Oh, and incidentally? Please don't mistake my not wanting to accidentally slaughter you as any sort of prelude to being let go before I'm ready. And if you try to take advantage of this, you'll find I don't need to be demony to make you regret it."
"Yeah, yeah, secret Vint powers, I get it," said the Iron Bull, then rolled his eyes at Dorian's face. "I get it. I don't try to throttle you, unless you start it."
"Though I'm going to be on my guard if you go wild-eyed and drooling again."
"Have you seen yourself when you've just woken up? Maybe I should do the same," said Dorian. He came and crouched by the Bull, reached out a hand, then hesitated. "I, ah, have to be in contact with the manacle if I'm only releasing one."
The Bull looked him in the eyes. "Go ahead."
"Right," said Dorian, but didn't move. "Do you have a preference?"
"Right arm. Very well."
Slowly, slowly, Dorian stretched out his hand. He placed it over the manacle, and his fingertips slid over the metal onto the Bull's wrist. His claws tickled the palm of the Bull's hand.
The Bull realised it was the first time since the very beginning, when Dorian had treated his injury, that they'd made physical contact. He'd been hand-fed, sure, but Dorian had always taken care to keep his fingers out of reach.
It should have bothered him. Not just the way Dorian looked, but he knew what those claws could do, what Dorian would do if pushed a little too far. But the face was throwing him off. No way he could mistake it for that mindless demon rage, not when the eyes were wide with concentration and the remains of the moustache were trembling slightly over his lip. This was the face of the guy who'd read to him, who'd washed the blood off him, and he looked a hell of a lot more nervous than the Bull did.
"Apertus," said Dorian, and the manacle sprang open. The Bull was left staring at the piece of metal on the floor. Maybe it was because he'd been let outside a fair few times, maybe it was because it was only one chain gone, but the whole thing felt weirdly like a letdown.
Dorian stood up and moved back before the Bull could even think of lunging for him.
- - -
Annoyingly, having one arm free didn't change much at all. He could read his own history book now, but if he was honest, it had a lot less appeal without Dorian's asides. There were no longer flasks bubbling away and stinking up the cave, but Dorian was still bent over the table, combing his library for alternatives. They worked in companionable silence, hunched over their respective volumes while the Bull ran scenarios in his head.
"Did you know there was a magister who theorised the possibility of assuming spirit form so you could travel the Fade and then physically re-materialise elsewhere?" Dorian murmured. "Apparently they found his remains in three separate cities." He looked up from the desk, eyes gleaming.
The Bull laughed, and said, "Guess we don't have to worry about your people using that way into Seheron."
There was a candle on Dorian's desk. He could throw his book one-handed. It would knock it onto Dorian's research, or maybe send it flying into the books piled behind it. Smouldering mountains and fluttering scraps of paper, Dorian's eyes wide and wild in the glow. Maybe he'd lose himself and charge at the Bull, head forward to have his neck snapped, or throat crushed under Bull's bicep. Maybe the flames would spill onto the lyrium stains on the table and they'd both lose the fight before it began.
But the Bull would only end up caught in the blaze with a corpse, because his left hand was still fast to the floor, and in the end, one chain was still a chain.
The Bull grinned at Dorian, who smiled back and said, "Well, I guess I should try to find accounts of magisters who didn't explode," and turned back to his book.
"You do that," said the Bull, and went back to his.
- - -
And sometimes, Dorian would turn round and go, "So what do Qunari do for fun, anyway?", or the Bull would look up and go, "Are you reading three books at once?" and they'd start talking. After an hour the Bull would realise that he hadn't thought of a single new way to take Dorian down, not even at the back of his mind.
Each time he slipped, he immediately forced himself to come up with three ideas, just to get back on track. None of them were workable, of course, but throw enough shit at a wall and something would stick. Right?
Of course, there was option A, which, yeah, he'd been avoiding. But. He could take Dorian out along with himself.
There was a voice in his head that told him he should, before the mage snapped completely and got loose. He crushed threats like this, that was what he was for, and he'd always been ready to die in service to the Qun. But honestly, it would be a waste. There was plenty left of him to bleed into Seheron, and blowing it all on one Vint would be... inefficient. The Qun didn't approve of inefficiency.
He ignored the other, more selfish little voice in him that argued that he'd fought long enough, he deserved to survive this. There was no such thing. He'd seen enough good men and women die to know that you didn't get to earn your lifespan.
That aside, though, there was a more obvious deciding factor. If something was taking him down, it damn well wasn't going to be a demon.
- - -
The problem wasn't even with getting Dorian to let him up, since he could always time something for one of the trips outside. But what? How was he supposed to take the guy out?
His bare hands? Too risky. Strangulation was slow, concussive blows were unreliable, and if he just dazed Dorian, it'd only take one word to put him right back on the ground.
The table? Too big, same problem. He'd need to take Dorian out fast if he wanted a chance.
A rock? Could work, but the decent ones were too far away.
A book? A shirt? Cheese? Okay, cheese would be impressive. Though Dorian probably wouldn't appreciate it.
A bottle? He'd never reach the shelf quickly enough, he -
The Bull eased himself up onto an elbow, catching Dorian's attention. "Okay, so something I've wanted to ask for a while," he said. "Those bottles up there. They're alcohol, right?"
He gave a little nod to the ledge up and to the side of Dorian's head, where a row of green glass bottles had been standing ever since he'd been stuck in the cave.
"No," said Dorian, briefly killing all his hopes, "they're Sun Blonde. Calling them alcohol is like calling one of your dreadnoughts a boat. Technically true, but only likely to breed dangerous misunderstandings later."
"So they're good, then?"
"Exquisite. For Vassilius's conquest celebrations, no doubt."
"I've never seen you touch them. You saving them for something?"
"Not exactly. I was practically swimming in the stuff the first week, though mostly in the summerhouse, of course. The cave didn't have the same decadent appeal," said Dorian, with a wry smile. "I'm not sure if that was the worst week or the best, but I had to stop in the end. Believe it or not, working with concentrated amounts of lyrium is one of those things best done sober."
"Okay, that makes sense," said the Bull. "But they're kind of wasted on the shelf, don't you think? And a bottle of fancy Vint wine is the least you owe me."
"Well, I suppose it is my duty to share Tevinter culture with the poor deprived Qunari. Did you want one now?" said Dorian.
The Bull lifted his free hand as Dorian put his book down and headed for the shelf. "Hey, you're joining me."
"Come on, why not? I've spent the day buried in your Archons, you've been squinting at demons. We could both use a break."
Come on, thought the Bull. Take the bait.
"Oh, alright," said Dorian, a reluctant smile appearing. He grabbed a bottle off the shelf and tossed it the short distance to the Bull, who caught it one handed and dug out the cork with his thumb. He tipped the neck back down his throat and shit. Dorian hadn't lied about the quality or the strength. It went down like honey and warmed the stomach like lava. He could work with that.
Dorian gave him a speculative look while he placed more wine on the table. The way the bottles thudded down made great promises as to the weight of their contents.
"I thought Qunari didn't drink," he said.
The Bull watched Dorian peer at the bottle in his hand, then slide a claw into the cork. "Some don't. Most save it for certain celebrations, particularly back in Par Vollen. Seheron natives are better at finding excuses."
Or hiding. There were plenty of the Par Vollen-style taverns on Seheron, quiet places where groups of fellow labourers gathered to relax minds and bodies after the day of work. The Bull wasn't sure you even could get drunk on the weak ale, but who'd bother? You'd get disapproval at best, and questions from the Ben-Hassrath at worst.
But there were also the hidden bars. Some were unauthorised taverns, some were dark rooms stocked with whatever Vint spirits fell off the boats the autumn before. There you got your stupid kids, who just needed a warning, your stressed-out doubters who needed re-education, and plenty of out-and-out rebels. The Ben-Hassrath shut a lot of places down, often at weapon-point, but they always left a few for gathering intelligence. It'd been a while since the Bull had last played the potential Tal-Vashoth, but he'd downed more than one drink for the Qun. They'd never doubted he'd come back from it.
And then there were the agricultural collectives, who lived out where the water was unreliable and were allowed to make weak brews from their crops. It was common knowledge that they abused the privilege, but the Ben-Hassrath had mostly given up there. The rural districts were too far to monitor easily, and they had bigger problems in the cities.
"It's supposed to be a distraction from the Qun, stops you from dedicating yourself completely," Bull said, taking another swig. "I get it, but..." He shrugged. "If not drinking helps you get closer to the Qun, great, but it's not about whether you've ever had a bottle of the farmer's finest. It's about knowing who you are, and submitting to that. There's not enough wine in the world to make me forget who I am."
"Want to bet?" said Dorian, holding up his drink.
- - -
The Bull paced his drinking carefully, trying to make sure Dorian stayed at least half a bottle ahead, but it wasn't really hard. Dorian had a disregard for moderation that'd impress a Tal-Vashoth, and whatever resiliences his demon side gave him, alcohol tolerance thankfully wasn't one of them. The Bull watched as he started out leaning against the table as usual, then started pacing while carrying two-thirds of the conversation. Once the pacing got a little wobblier, he tipped back the remainders of his bottle, opened another, and sat himself down on a ridge in a stalagmite.
"Chairs," said Dorian, a little mournfully, shifting himself on the completely insufficient seat. "Chairs," he repeated, "I should have brought some. Before they burned. But have you any idea how hard it was just to get the table down here? Vassilius was far too fond of heavy furniture."
"You wouldn't let me on one anyway," said the Bull, examining the flush on Dorian's cheeks, the loose frame of his body as he tried to prop himself up again. He considered the timing, and made his decision. He finished most of his remaining drink with a few swallows, while Dorian was busy giving up and sliding down to sit on the floor.
When it was mostly gone, he made a show of holding the bottle in his free arm and craning his head at the right angle to catch the dregs. Fortunately, he didn't need to sell it too hard. The position involved way too much twisting. The Qun hadn't trained him for flexibility.
"Hey, you try it, then laugh," said the Bull. He bent his neck back again, stretched it not quite far enough.
"You know," he said. "This would be a lot easier if you let me sit up for a bit."
Even with most of a bottle of Sun Blonde in him, Dorian had more than enough wits to scowl.
"Come on, you're sitting right there," said the Bull. "What do you think I could do to you? Seriously, I just want to be able to finish my drink. And this could stand to be a bit friendlier. I hear that usually when people end up on the floor, it's at the end of the night."
"How dare you," said Dorian. "I'm a perfect drinking companion. It's why I left Tevinter. I just couldn't take all those people pressed against the windows, all trying to offer me wine."
"This stuff? You should've taken them up on it."
"I could have bathed in it," said Dorian, waving his bottle. He looked at the Bull. "Oh, alright. Sursus. Pull up a rock, join the party." His gaze hardened. "And for the sake of being a good host, I'm giving you fair warning: make a move and I'll barbecue you."
The Bull could barely believe it as he felt the weight drop from him; the manacles were still attached but he was as free as when he made his trips outside. He was as obedient a prisoner as one might hope for, grabbing a boulder from the side of the cave and dragging it next to Dorian's stalagmite with a grinding noise, leaving a deep trail in the sand. He got some small satisfaction from watching Dorian's eyes widen and flick to his biceps, before reluctantly dragging themselves up to his face.
Dorian laughed softly as he sat down on his rock.
"Oh, nothing. Just thinking of what my mother might say if she saw me now. Holding a salon in a cave, with a Qunari as the guest of honour."
"This is a salon?" the Bull said, looking at their surroundings.
"It could be. We'd need to make interminable gossip about our neighbours, then have some fashionable music, then tea. I'm afraid that's where it all falls down, though. I'd shame the family name if I didn't have at least three types of sweetmeat on offer."
"I can give you some mouldy bread, some seaweed, and the remains of a dangerously concentrated lyrium potion."
"Hmm. Maybe I'm not cut out for your fancy noble life."
Dorian lifted a hand as if he was about to pat the Bull's shoulder in sympathy, then thought better of it. "There, there," he said instead. "You're better off without knowing. After all, I can't imagine the terrible time we'd have trying to fit you in my formal robes."
The Bull took a long, slow drink, using his newfound freedom to tip his head back and drain the dregs. He could smell the wine on the air now, heavy with some Tevinter fruit, and on Dorian's breath when he leaned in. Could Dorian, with human senses? Or was he oblivious in more ways than one?
"Your mother," he said. "What's she like?"
"The perfect magister's wife, you should see her. I get all my good looks from her, you know," said Dorian, with a dry laugh. "She's powerful, I'll give her that, and she's got a real knack with conjuring spirits. Doesn't brag, of course, that wouldn't be genteel. just...lets it be known."
"Hmm. I can imagine that," said the Bull, picturing a woman with Dorian's acid tongue, but reined in by a long life among the snakes of Tevinter. Maybe Dorian's skin, or at least the brown he could see mixed with the demon grey. His nose, perhaps. He couldn't really guess at any other features, not when Dorian's were all so screwed-up, but the woman probably didn't have his moustache.
"And you? Qunari don't know their parents, do they?"
The Bull peered into his empty bottle, and Dorian passed him another without comment. "Nope," he said, opening it, "We're separated not long after birth, raised by Tamassrans."
"Oh right, yeah. They're women with the role of raising children, right till the kids grow up and start serving the Qun." He grinned. "I wasn't bred to be Ben-Hassrath - soldier stock, they told me - but my Tamassran said she had me picked out since I was five."
"And that doesn't bother you? That your whole life was decided for you before you even had a chance to consider it?"
"Why would it? She was right."
Dorian shook his head. "Qunari. I can hardly expect you to understand."
"Likewise," said the Bull, and took another sip. "So you people get raised by two parents, right? What about your father?"
Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't for Dorian to crack up into somewhat wild laughter.
"Uh... this some sort of Vint joke I'm not getting?"
Dorian shook his head and wiped one eye. "No, no, it's just... you have no idea, and you just ask like..." He let out one more snort of laughter, and then his face fell back. "I don't even know why I'm laughing. I suppose this whole thing still feels absurd."
"What whole thing?"
Dorian paused, took a swig. Put the bottle back down.
He stared into its depth for a few seconds, before biting off the words, "My father did this to me."
"This -" and then the Bull got it. He tried to suppress his reaction, but the shock slipped through in his voice. "Your father turned you into a demon?"
"Not deliberately, I think." Dorian chuckled darkly. "Maker, if he did then this is all even more twisted than I thought."
Dorian fell silent. The Bull didn't push, just took another pull from the bottle. Leave a silence, and words would flow to fill it.
The Bull watched out of the corner of his eye as the words rushed in to fill Dorian, till the guy was drumming his fingers on the bottle, trying not to make eye contact.
"I like men," said Dorian.
"And I like really big weapons," said the Bull. "So?"
Dorian looked up at him. "Isn't it - it's not important in the Qun? Whether you prefer men or women?"
The Bull shrugged, knocked back his drink. "Nah. We don't really do relationships the way humans do, and how you take care of your needs is your own business. We have people whose role is to help you satisfy your urges."
"Ooh, the scandalous side of the Qun," said Dorian.
"Only if it's a big deal to start with," said the Bull. "It's a big deal in Tevinter, right? You people fuss about everything."
"True," said Dorian. "And... true. To a point. I don't think anyone cares what the commoners do with each other, but Altuses are supposed to keep the family lines going."
"I knew my father disapproved of my choices, of course. But for him to -" he stopped, swallowed. "I had no idea. A slave called me to his study one day, and I thought nothing of it until I walked in. Then the door shuts behind me, I see the circle on the floor..."
He stared into the distance, past the candle and the cave wall to another country entirely. The Bull had seen that look on his agents, often just before they went for re-education, and he'd seen it on the faces of civilians after the smoke and screaming had stopped.
"I keep thinking I should have seen it coming, but how? How could I? He's always sworn against blood magic! 'The resort of a weak mind.'" Dorian spat the words. "But there he was, with the knife, and... I think he used the slave. I'm not sure. I don't think he'd have killed her, but I don't remember if she was still in the room afterwards. Honestly, a lot of it's a blur.
I still don't know what went wrong. I I remember... the demon. I think. I remember it speaking to me. I don't think I said anything back - I don't think I could, at that point - but..." He took a violent pull of his drink. "I hear it. Sometimes. At the back of my mind. It's barely coherent, really, but bits come through."
He shook his head.
"Well, I suppose at least I can get some satisfaction in knowing this went almost as badly for Father as it did for me." He downed the rest of his wine, in two determined gulps. "He couldn't marry me off now if he tried."
"So what happens now?" asked the Bull. "You fix yourself up here, you go straight back?"
"And what a touching family reunion that would be," said Dorian, with a grim smile. "No. No, there's no going back for me. Even if I could forgive my father... I've thought for a while that my homeland had problems, and everything I saw getting here just proved it. This senseless war... look at Vassilius! What did he gain?"
"We got his wine, at least."
Dorian was startled into a chuckle. "I suppose it was all worth it, then."
He looked down at the empty bottle in his hands, turning the glass over and over.
"I don't know. I've thought, sometimes, maybe I should go back. Not to my family, but to see what I can do in Tevinter. I don't even know where I'd start, but... " He spread his arms wide. "Well, I doubt it'll ever come to more than a fantasy. Honestly, my main goal now is not dying as a demon." He gave a little half-smile. "That doesn't seem like so much to ask, does it?"
The Bull watched him bring the bottle to his lips again, swallow down the dregs, and drop it onto the sand.
Dorian's eyes met his, half-lidded and warm with reflected candlelight. The demonic features sat like a mask over that humanity. The alcohol melted away his guard and his defences. It might give the Bull a few seconds to smash his own bottle on the boulder, and slice Dorian's throat with the shards.
Dorian's head drooped into his hands. His robe slipped to the side and bared the back of his neck.
Bull's hand curled around the neck of the bottle.
It stayed there.
Dorian scrubbed his eyes, sighed, and sat up.
The moment passed.
Chapter 6: Scars
Warning for discussion of scars in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next time the Bull woke, it was like a hammer to the chest.
It was pitch black. That wasn't right. And in the darkness, he could hear someone trying to be quiet. Little breaths, the pad of a foot on stone. A lurking danger. He tried to leap up into a roll, but his limbs were pinned. It was only straining to get free that he felt the metal bite into his wrists, and finally remembered where he was. The cave. Right. It was dark when it shouldn't have been, and there was someone out there, but he'd faced worse.
A pebble skittered over rock. He tensed up, eyes closed again, waiting for the threat to come to him.
He waited, and was rewarded with the reassuring thud of someone walking into furniture.
"Vishante kaffas!" yelped a familiar voice in the shadows, and the Bull opened his eyes to see a fireball roar into life. It lit up Dorian, wincing and rubbing his leg. It also showed him the cave walls, and the bottles on the floor, and the same old table with all the books he remembered from the day before.
Still cursing, Dorian leaned over and inspected the candle. "Looks like it's burned down," he said. "I blame you for my not noticing. If I'd been reading rather than drinking, I'd have changed it the instant it got flickery. Now I have to conjure flame with a thumping headache."
He looked up for a reaction, then frowned as the firelight reflected onto the Bull's face. "Are you alright?"
The Bull filled his lungs once, then again, and got his breathing back under control. To think he'd wondered a while back whether the cave would've dulled his reflexes, when he still felt pumped for a fight. It was probably the false alarm thing throwing him off. Normally, by this point, there would've been an attack, and he'd already be up and scrapping with the intruder. At the very least, he'd be on the ground with his eyes closed, breathing slow, listening for the approaching crunch of feet on grass. He taken more than one watch with his eyes shut.
"I'm fine," he said, because he was, no problem, or at least he would be in a couple of minutes when his body had calmed down. "So... does this mean you're going to have to keep that thing around from now on? Like a Vint-sized lantern?"
He gestured at the fireball.
"Absolutely not," said Dorian, going to the wall and reaching for something one-handed. Another candle, the Bull should've expected he'd have spares. He grabbed it and stood up, rubbing his head. "Ugh. Some wisdom they won't teach you in Par Vollen: magic and hangovers don't mix."
He placed the candle on the table with more of a thud than was really necessary, and lit it with a wave. The light glittered off the pile of glass shards still discarded on the table, and the Bull was hit with a sudden flashback to yesterday: to the image of a broken bottle, of swinging it up and into Dorian's throat before he had a chance to open his mouth, of stepping over his corpse to freedom.
Dorian shifted the candle into the centre of the table, still looking away from the Bull and completely clueless.
What had gone wrong?
He'd already spent plenty of time stewing on it, even while they'd continued drinking and chatting into the night. Dorian had drunk till he was practically sliding off the rock, and the Bull had taken sips and smiled indulgently at Dorian's increasingly long rambles. It'd been easier than he'd have liked: he didn't care much about the ways magisters showed off at parties, or whatever he'd been scowling about, but he couldn't deny enjoying the way Dorian delivered it.
And all the while he'd watched Dorian keep breathing, and talking, and he hadn't done a single thing to stop it.
There hadn't been any clear-cut decision. He just... hadn't done it. The opportunity had been there, and he hadn't moved.
Of course he hadn't wanted to, that didn't need saying. Dorian didn't seem to be a bad guy; his shitty situation wasn't his fault, and ideally the Bull would've liked to let him go down fighting. But that wasn't the point. The Bull did what needed to be done, and he didn't let crap like that get in the way. How could he? He'd killed Tal-Vashoth, agents he'd previously worked alongside. He'd fought rebels who were way too young to be out there, and probably just needed someone to give them a good scare and take them in for re-education. Even the Vints probably had families, though after talking to Dorian he thought that might be an extra reason to take them down in future. But any of those people, if they made it about him or them? There was only one choice.
Even if - okay, he could admit it, just this once - it was tiring. Pushing it down for the length of a fight one thing. The empty space in the duty roster afterwards, or in the place the kid had lived? That was what you couldn't think about if you didn't want to go nuts.
But it was his job, right? And he'd lived, and he had some damn good stories about how. It could be a lot worse.
Still didn't help him figure out what he'd been thinking last night, though.
"So, you fell asleep yesterday, huh?" he said, shelving the problem for now. "I was beginning to think you didn't do that sort of thing."
Dorian looked up from the candle. "Not much, nowadays. I don't seem to need to. I'm not sure if it's a side-effect, or if the demon is deliberately trying to keep me out of the Fade. It might know about my plans." He looked grim for a second, then he smiled. "But apparently even demons aren't a match for the effects of a couple of bottles of Sun Blonde."
"If that's true, you and I need to talk about weaponising that stuff. You any idea how long I've been hacking and slicing my way through demons? If there's a way to drink them under the table first, I'm down," said the Bull.
"Well, if you happen to have some different vintages, I'm quite willing to test them out. Purely for the sake of research, of course," said Dorian. His expression stiffened. "And ah, speaking of demons..."
"Last night, I remember getting... rather more talkative than I meant to on that subject." His face twitched. "Not that it's a problem, I suppose, other than you being forced to hear all about my family drama, but I'd have been quite happy with no-one knowing about it. Since that's impossible, can we just agree to keep the topic closed and never discuss it again?"
He shifted his weight onto his other leg, and looked away bringing his gaze back to the Bull's eyes. The Bull wondered which of them was feeling more uncomfortable about last night's events. It was a toss-up. Dorian got het-up pretty easily, but the Bull had been plotting his death, and that always made things awkward.
"Sure," he said, safe in the knowledge that he knew all he needed to for now, and if more came up later, he'd dig into it anyway.
Dorian crouched down and picked an empty bottle up from under the table. "You know, we might have overdone it last night," he said, reaching for another one that had rolled further under. "I think that's half my remaining supply gone."
"You left some? I figured you were trying to get through the lot."
"Don't doubt my abilities. Unfortunately, neither of us are getting another go any time soon. I'd rather not run through the rest that quickly."
"Fair enough," said the Bull. He refused to examine whether he was disappointed at not getting another whack at the plan.
"Shame," said Dorian, looking at the bottles and then at the Bull with his mouth downturned. "Last night was not... entirely terrible."
"Aw, I bet you say that to all the captives you go drinking with," said the Bull. "But you know, you were right yesterday. That wine? That was definitely the good stuff. Maybe you Vints have something worthwhile after all."
"Really? Hooray, the war is over! We have the solution! To think, all this time we just needed to invite you all over to our parties."
"You could try," said the Bull, grinning. "I'm sure our Arishok would kill to be in a closed space with a bunch of magisters."
Dorian seemed to be considering it, then sighed dramatically. "It would never work. Your lot make terrible drinking companions." He reached down to another discarded bottle. "You see the part where I'm having to clean up my own mess? That's a disgrace. By rights we should be breaking into your mansion right about now so your slaves can make us breakfast."
"Funny thing about the Qun," said the Bull. "We have ways of feeding ourselves without having to enslave people."
Dorian paused with his hand on the bottle. "Yes, freedom. That's the word I associate with Qunari."
"At least we make people work for everyone, not who's holding the biggest ball of lightning," said the Bull, unsure where this was heading but unwilling to let it drop. "You've got slaves back home, right?"
"My family does," said Dorian. "We treat them well."
"When you're not slicing and dicing them for blood rituals, you mean?"
Dorian took in a breath. His claws tightened and skittered off the glass he was holding.
"Yes, well," he said. "Apparently no-one's perfect."
He carried on tidying. He didn't look back at the Bull.
Welp, that was the mood broken. Again. That was the trouble with any conversation round here - there was just way too much shit between them to overlook for long. Maybe that wasn't a bad thing. Maybe, if they kept clashing, he'd stop thinking stupid stuff like last night was a good idea.
Dorian had to turn the Bull's way when he walked over to dump things on the shelves, but he was careful not to make eye contact. His face was doing that thing where he tightened up and stopped blinking, when he was feeling hurt and trying to push it down, and hadn't the Bull learnt to read him well?
It was almost hard to get mad about the Vints' slave trade on Seheron, where they were getting up to so many other crappy things instead. Organising attacks on buildings, poisoning wells, blowing up distribution wagons so people went hungry... he'd lost the ability to be shocked at some point, and it was probably for the best. But he knew enough ex-slaves personally, had seen the way they cringed or railed at orders, to still have a little anger left. And if he'd bruised Dorian's poor feelings? Well, he wasn't going to apologise. He couldn't help feeling it'd do more Tevinter mages good to wear looks like that.
But maybe, he thought, watching Dorian look round an empty floor for something else to focus his attention on, the blood ritual thing had been a low blow.
"Hey," he said.
Dorian straightened, but didn't look at him.
"Don't suppose you could pass me that book, could you?" said the Bull. "I left it over by the stalagmite last night."
"Of course," said Dorian, abruptly. He picked it up, walked over, and passed it to the Bull.
The Bull opened it and flicked back to one of the earlier chapters, just before Dorian had stopped reading the last time. He had no way of measuring time, so he read three pages, figured that'd been long enough, and looked up.
"About that Archon you were talking about last time," he said.
"I'll need something a little more specific than that."
Rather than giving a name, Iron Bull pointed to the page. "Here."
It worked. Dorian came over and crouched down next to the Bull. He peered at his fingertip on the words.
"Oh, Archon Orentius?" he said. "What about him?"
"You said he had trouble holding onto the title, right? Why was that? Didn't he have the magister guys on side?"
"No, no, you're thinking of the one after him," said Dorian, sitting himself down properly. "See..."
- - -
And so life went on for both of them, even if the Bull hadn't planned it to. It wasn't quite the same as before.
Like it or not, the Bull knew Dorian now. He was careful not to bring up the night of confessions, because if reminded then Dorian got skittish at best and shirty at worst, and if dark enough would make some excuse to leave the cave completely. But the Bull could work around it. If Dorian wanted to pretend the guy on his floor was still a strange Qunari he had zero connection with, so much the better. It made his work a lot easier when people came up with the lies themselves.
As for Dorian, he seemed to have gained a new determination, whether it was down to the reminder of what'd brought him to the cave or something else. It wasn't just in his research, though there were more and more books balanced on the increasingly abused table and less and less on the floor. He scrubbed the lyrium stains off the table. He went through his stack and earmarked a few more volumes for the Bull's "cultural education". He also came back from a late night trip to the spring near the mansion with enough water to last them both for a month.
One time, he even changed the rags the Bull was lying on. After moving him, Dorian held up a shirt, sleeve pinched between his fingertips.
He eyed it doubtfully. "Shame this is so ghastly. It's perfectly pressed. I think I finally understand why we keep picking fights with Qunandar."
"To get us to sleep on your clothes?"
"500 pounds of Qunari, for the perfect finish!" said Dorian. "Now, if only I could do something about the smell."
The Bull raised an eyebrow. "You know you're not exactly sugar and roses yourself?"
"And whose fault is that?" said Dorian. "I used to use Vassilius's bath. Funny thing about an inferno, it drastically reduces your living options."
He fiddled with the shirt.
"I suppose I could work something out. I don't know, it all seemed more important when I first got here."
"You're sharing the cave now," the Bull pointed out.
Dorian waved a hand. "Yes, but at first I was trying to live normally out of spite. It's a wonderful motivator. Don't let the bastard win, you know?" The Bull straightened a little at the reference to Dorian's father - or the demon, could be either - but Dorian didn't seem to even notice what he'd said.
"But then this got worse," he continued, "and I was living in a cave, and I thought, 'What's the point? What's the point of keeping my favourite robes when my claws snag them whenever I put them on?'"
"Beats me. I never know what the point is of any of the crap you Vints wear."
"Ah yes, I should take fashion tips from someone who's constantly shirtless."
The Bull shrugged, making sure to make it nice and slow. The muscles rippled along his chest. "Come on, you'd make me hide this?"
Dorian, to his great interest, seemed to be fighting a war with his face. "I wish I could," he muttered.
He looked away.
"It's a shame you couldn't have seen me before. You missed out, I was amazing." He pulled himself up a bit. "Oh, I know, you've probably seen some fairly presentable Tevinters in your time, but I had it all. Natural flair, build, and charm."
"Modesty?" said Dorian. "Modesty's for people who have something to downplay. I was gorgeous."
"You? Nah," said the Bull. "Sorry, I've seen enough Vints to know you guys breed scrawny. That's probably not even hair you've got there, just a demon mane." He smiled to take the sting out of it. "Tell you what, I'll bet you five royals that when you fix this thing, I'm going to be completely unimpressed."
Dorian's face split into a grin, and the Bull knew he'd caught the right word. "I'll take that bet with interest," he said. "What better way to celebrate my return to society than with money in my pocket?"
- - -
Sometimes, after that conversation, the Bull found himself watching Dorian as he worked, trying to picture the man underneath the demon bits. It wasn't as hard as it might've been. He'd seen enough pampered Vint peacocks to be able to guess at Dorian's style. Maybe the guy had given up on himself a little when he'd started sprouting lumpy bits, but Bull would bet more coin that there'd been a time when he'd spent as long arranging every hair into place as he did putting bottles back now. That moustache was probably teased and trimmed once, and he'd probably been scented and oiled, just like every magister Bull had ever fought, only Dorian wouldn't have been vulgar enough to try and drown a smell in perfume. Maybe there'd just have been a touch, a hint in the air if someone got close enough into his personal space to breathe it in.
He'd probably always been toned, since the Bull had spotted muscles under the demon skin when Dorian rewrapped his arm coverings. Those hadn't been won in the space of a few months. And he'd have had more grace without a helping of claws to screw him up, only he'd have strutted around, Master Pavus, head held high and daring the world to come on, take its best shot...
Yeah. He'd probably have been something, alright.
- - -
And sometimes, Dorian watched him.
Well, okay, Dorian watched him a lot, and had for a while, but the way he went about it had changed. Once, it'd been a hawk's stare every time the Bull drew his attention, like Dorian didn't trust the manacles were working unless he kept an eye on them at all times. He'd got the Vint Look too, but that wasn't anything special. Every magister the Bull had ever fought looked at Qunari the same way, a mish-mash of awe, fascination, and revulsion. It was pretty hilarious watching them try to make three different expressions at once, and occasionally he'd managed to get the first hit in while they were distracted.
But nowadays? The Bull could've sworn that Dorian was trying to be cunning about the little glances over his shoulder, about the looks when the Bull was working out, or half-pretending to sleep. He wasn't sure what it meant, exactly, but if that was Dorian's idea of subtlety then no wonder the Vints didn't have Ben-Hassrath.
It was another reading day, since Dorian had proved to be more comfortable with suggesting history lessons than just talking like a normal person, and it worked well enough for the Bull. Neither of them seemed to be concentrating on the book today, though. Dorian kept looking up at the Bull and losing his place; the Bull kept wondering if Dorian was sitting close enough now that he could knock him out before he had the chance to ready a spell. It was only an idle thought, since Dorian had let both his hands free but kept his feet pinned. Still, it was good to keep the mind working.
It was only after the third time Dorian had looked up that the Bull realised his eyes were flicking to the scar on the Bull's collarbone. Well, fair enough, probably not many people got marked up where Dorian came from, and that was an impressive one, though he'd probably only rank it number 3. The scar on his thigh was one of the best, unfortunately, but it was hard finding good places to show that off.
The wound on his side from the mansion was shaping up to be a decent one. It'd healed well, but it was too large to fade completely. He'd had a couple of healing cuts on his arm at the time - how were they doing? He had a look down, looked like those had almost vanished.
A thought occurred to him, and he burst out laughing.
"What?" said Dorian, in a tone that suggested he thought the joke was on him.
"Oh, nothing," said the Bull, waving away his suspicions, "just realised this is the best shape I've been in for months. At this rate, I'll come out of here more healed up than I came in!"
Dorian's eyes went wide. "You mean all that back in the summerhouse - that was normal for you?"
"Well, not that brand of craziness, no," said the Bull. "But fights and stuff, sure. Often come out looking a lot worse, too. " He pointed to the scars on his right shoulder. "See these? Tal-Vashoth, at least a head shorter than me, tried to gore me with his horns. He had four, and the right ones got me right there. Stabbed him in the back while he was stuck."
He picked another, high on the left side of his chest. "That was a Fog Warrior. He was aiming for my heart, wasn't too far off." He moved his finger down. "This one? A rebel who tried to stab me in the gut. Felt it hit my back ribs. I had to saw through the armour on his neck to kill him."
Dorian sucked in a breath and lowered the book onto his knees. "And you want to go back?"
"Why not?" said the Bull. "I won, didn't I?"
"You make it sound like you enjoyed it!"
"Well -" said the Bull, about to offer one of the gung-ho lines he'd usually give a new agent, but saw the look on Dorian's face and thought better. "A lot of it," he said, honestly. "I do like hitting things, and I never run out of things to hit here, Say what you like about you Vints, you make satisfying targets. And I wasn't kidding when I said I was good at it. You know no-one else has lasted as long, doing what I do? They need me here."
"Getting stabbed in multiple places?"
"Okay, yeah, that part's not fun," the Bull said, trying not to think about lying helpless and bleeding on a tavern floor, waiting to see if his guys or the rebels would survive to pick his fate. "But, you know. At least I got these cool scars."
"Oh, I'm sure they'll be delightful adornments on your eventual corpse."
"Hey, don't knock them! Rebels see these, they think twice. Then a third time. 'Cause they know that's how many times I'd kick their asses."
Dorian shook his head slowly, with an amount of disbelief the Bull had never seen on demon features before. "They told me Qunari didn't think like normal people, but I think it's only now I'm truly appreciating it."
He looked like he was about to give up on the conversation and go back to his book, when the Bull felt himself say, "Civilians."
Dorian turned back. "What?"
The Bull almost kept his mouth shut, but then decided there was little point. He wouldn't have said it to one of his agents, but the situation on Seheron wasn't a secret, and he had no need to keep Dorian's motivation up.
"Civilians," he repeated. "That's the part I don't like."
"What do you mean?"
"It's -" the Bull paused, tried to figure out the words. "A fight's one thing, okay? But bring in tamassrans and farmers and people just trying to do their jobs, and -" he suppressed an image, from a raid gone wrong a few years back, "-kids, and the whole thing becomes a mess. Nothing fun about that."
He believed in the Qun, believed that everyone was born into their role - he took himself as living proof - and it worked like clockwork on Par Vollen. Everyone in their position, passing things to the next person in line, and somehow everything gravitated to where it had to be and everyone contributed. But knowing how things could be made it harder, somehow, on Seheron. He knew that fishermen shouldn't get murdered and children should grow up and no-one, no-one, should have to hold a weapon unless they were hunters, Antaam, or Ben-Hassrath. He saw a tamassran with the silhouette of a knife concealed under her clothes, and he took it as a personal failing. Not as large a failing, though, as the knowledge that he wouldn't dream of taking it from her.
"Dead friends, too. That's hard," he continued, then stopped, wary that he'd gone further than he meant to.
"I'm sorry," said Dorian.
The Bull waved him off. "Eh, you didn't know them, and most of them would've killed you on sight." He picked up the book and handed it back, forcing back the images clouding his head. "Come on, what were you saying about that Imperium battle?"
- - -
It was only afterwards that he realised that was the first time he'd ever tried to put it into words before. Stupid exercise. There weren't any words to neatly sum up the shit that happened on Seheron. 'Civilians', he said, like Dorian could just read the rows upon rows of staring corpses in his head.
They didn't talk about it, back in the Ben-Hassrath. No-one did. No-one asked questions like, "And you want to go back?" because then you'd have to give an answer, and the answer was irrelevant. The right question was, "Are you going to go back?" and he was, so that was fine. Anything else, and he'd have been abandoning his role, and there was a word for people who did that.
But he was going to go back, just as soon as he figured out a way. So it was okay.
- - -
Only it didn't go away.
They were getting into a routine, he and Dorian, now that Dorian didn't have to stand guard over the potion at all times. Dorian joined him on the floor, and mostly they read, and when the Bull got bored of that, he suggested other things. Dig out some paper and a discarded quill, and they were able to play a Qunari game which involved the strategic placing of crosses and circles in a grid. They were both pretty good at coming up with logic puzzles. And one night, the Bull went to sleep to the scratching of a quill, and woke up to find Dorian had produced a wobbly looking chessboard. Dorian cheated dreadfully, right from the first move, but the Bull didn't mind too much. He liked a challenge.
He tried, he really did, to think of ways of escape, but there weren't any he hadn't discarded a million times before. Plus, even he was forced to admit the urgency was gone. It had been ever since his first plan failed, if he was honest. He still woke up reeling off the list of tasks and agents under his command, but none of it was relevant anymore. The assassination would be solved by now, or all the leads stale, Rashaad would be back from her mission with the Tal-Vashoth and reassigned by whoever had replaced him, and any one or all of the names in his head could be dead by now.
It was during another game with Dorian that it really hit him. A word game, last letter of the previous word started the next, no repetitions.
"No Qunlat!" said Dorian. "It's only fair if we're limited to languages we both speak."
Dorian stared at him.
"You speak Tevene?"
"Eh, mostly the swearwords. My Common's better."
They'd tried to teach him, during training. Every single Ben-Hassrath had to learn Common, and most were told to pick up another language too. They'd assigned him Tevene, probably with the mission in Minrathous in mind, but it never really took. His teacher, like most Tevene teachers, was an ex-slave elf who'd been picked up in a battle somewhere and converted. The trouble was, she wasn't much fonder of the Qunari than her old masters. Oh, she said all the right words, but she'd been a fighter back home, an ex-gladiatrix, and they wouldn't let her fight here. Too female, too small, too hot-tempered to be a soldier, but not subtle enough for the Ben-Hassrath, so they told her to teach. The Bull remembered a handful of lessons taught in a monotone, practising the basics again and again, and then one day she'd just up and ran. They found him a new tutor, but he hadn't managed to get fluent before graduating training.
And here Dorian was, gazing at him like he'd recited one of the texts on the shelf. For someone so up himself half the time, he was pretty easy to impress.
"Fasta vass," said the Bull, and Dorian beamed.
"Your accent is atrocious," he said, unable to keep his smile from spreading wider.
"Oh, I've got more," said the Bull. "Vishante kaffas."
Dorian laughed out loud at that, and the Bull grinned back and a thought struck him out of nowhere: what would happen if he stayed here till Dorian was done with his potion?
What if it took another week, two, three?
What if he took a break and stayed in the cave, playing games and not getting stabbed in the chest?
The answer came before he had a chance to push his thoughts back down: if he stayed, Seheron would just keep falling apart at the exact same speed and degree as when he was in charge.
Dorian kept laughing, utterly oblivious.
"Let's go outside," said the Bull.
"Come on. Fresh air. Let's go."
Dorian stared at him, unable to tell where the mood shift had come from. The Bull wished he knew. One minute he'd been having a good time, the next, that, and now he just wanted to be outside and run. Maybe run and chase things down and hit assholes, and he couldn't do any of that, and knowing that made the itchy feeling in his muscles feel worse. All he knew was, he needed to be off the floor now.
"Why?" he said. "I don't even know if it's dark out yet."
"Then let's go see. If it's not, you'll get a view."
"That's not a view," said Dorian. "My window at home looked out on the gleaming spires of the Minrathous Circle Tower. I didn't even have to get out of bed."
"Yeah, well, today you get sea and rocks. Come on."
For a moment Dorian looked like he was going to refuse, then he opened his mouth and shut it again, and finally lifted the spell on the manacles.
- - -
They stood outside the cave, side by side, breathing in the salt air. The Bull felt some of that twitchy feeling leave him. Dorian huffed.
"How long do we have to do this?"
"We've only just come out here."
"I know, but I hate the sea." Dorian shuddered, and closed his eyes. "I was sick the whole way here. The spell gave me demon claws and demon skin and demon fangs, but apparently not sea legs."
"How did you even get here?" asked the Bull.
"How does anything get from Tevinter to Seheron? I enlisted a smuggler."
"You just found a friendly smuggler, walked up to him carrying an armful of books with a face like that and asked if he'd take you to Seheron?" he said.
He'd wasted far too many good agents trying to infiltrate smuggler groups over the years. They were a sneaky bunch of assholes.
"Pretty please will you take the demonic Altus on your ship and hide him in a Qunari nest, do you mean? To this handy abandoned magister base?" said Dorian, mouth quirking. "No, I... asked a friend for help. A debt I doubt I'll ever repay."
"Must've been some friend," said the Bull.
"The choice wasn't too hard," said Dorian. "As much as I hated to admit it, it was clear I was never going to negotiate passage alone while looking like this, not without weeks of research into illusions. Felix is as good a man as any I've known. He's not opportunistic or the sort of mage who'd be inclined to see this as an interesting experiment."
"I'm surprised you didn't stay with him."
"Are you joking?" said Dorian. "I value my friends a little higher than that, thank you very much. He'd have been forced to put me up, keep me a secret, and risk the interest of any magister who found out."
"Brave of you to go it alone, then," said the Bull.
Dorian looked startled. "That wasn't what I expected you to say."
The Bull shrugged. "It seems pretty obvious to me."
They stood in silence for a moment. The Bull watched as Dorian's breathing slowed, and his shoulders finally lost some of their tension.
"Risky, for a smuggler to land here," said the Bull. "The sea on this bit of the coast doesn't take prisoners."
"You're telling me," said Dorian, shuddering. "I'd rather not think about having to get back."
"I had to pull a boy out of it, once," said the Bull, thinking back to the flailing body in the water. He wasn't prepared for Dorian to whirl round and go, "That was you?"
"Just after I arrived, over there." He pointed out to where the beach was almost dipping out of sight round a bend in the cliffs. "I saw something, thought it was - I don't know, a large fish at first, and then I realised it was a child. A Qunari child."
He shook his head. "I had no idea what to do, of course. Revealing myself would have been a death sentence, and I wasn't even positive the child was struggling, but... Honestly, I don't know what I would have done, but then the choice was fortunately taken out of my hands. Some massive Qunari brute," and the Bull caught the sly glance, the fangs peeking out in a smile, "dived off the cliff and pulled him out. So that was the second time in one day I'd seen Qunari about to throw away their lives in a ridiculous manner. I must say, the trend is continuing to bear out."
"So, you're saying I saved two lives in one go?"
"I'm not sure you can claim heroics for saving people by accident," said Dorian. "But I suppose I do owe you. Feel free to claim a reward from the great riches at my disposal."
"Only one reward I care about," said the Bull.
Dorian winced and looked away. "Ah. Right."
He didn't order the Bull back in immediately, just stood there, gazing out to sea with an expression that that was unreadable even to him. The Bull wondered, as always, about knocking Dorian down and running, but Dorian's guard hadn't dropped that far. It was an idle thought, more a force of habit than a serious escape plan, so he shelved it in favour of breathing in the smell of the ocean.
Somewhere, buildings were being set on fire and his agents were being murdered and Fog Warriors were plotting in their camps, but for once, that wasn't his problem.
He took another breath, and heard voices. To the right, round the bend. Deep voices. His people.
A patrol? Now? Had someone changed the roster while he'd been away? If they had, he'd kiss them, this was it. He'd risk Dorian and the manacles, whatever it took, but he wouldn't waste this opportunity.
He tried not to tense visibly as the figures came round the bend below, but Dorian's attention had already been caught. His head whipped round.
"Quiet," he hissed, and the Bull was about to disobey that and start bellowing, before the figures came into better view.
There were three of them, laughing and murmuring and making no effort to hide their tracks. They all carried different weapons, but they definitely weren't Ben Hassrath, not with the blood smeared down their chests and on their faces. One had what looked like skin wrapped round his horns.
"Tal-Vashoth," said the Bull, in a growl so low that even Dorian looked scared.
"What?" he said, trying to act like he hadn't been unnerved.
"Bad news," said the Bull. He took a step towards the cliff path, trying to keep both Dorian and the Tal-Vashoth in view.
"Stop moving," said Dorian. "I don't want to turn the manacles on and send you off the side of the cliff."
"Tough, because I'm going," said the Bull.
Dorian let out a shocked laugh. "You think? Just because your people are there -"
"Those are not my people," the Bull said, voice rumbling like thunder. "They're Tal-Vashoth. They were Qunari, now they're not, and all they've got left is violence and killing. No, not killing," he said, thinking of himself in battle, "they like pain."
"Your Ben-Hassrath will take care of them, right?" said Dorian, not looking confident. "You said there were plenty of you."
"In all places, at all times?" said the Bull. "They'll find those Tal-Vashoth, and they'll find them too late. There's a village down that way, it's on the outskirts of the city. The Tal-Vashoth find it, and they'll kill civilians. Children. Is that what you want?"
Dorian looked back at the Tal-Vashoth, then at the Bull, looking stricken.
"I won't hurt you," said the Bull, words falling out of him to keep Dorian's wide eyes on him. "I won't hurt you, I swear on the Qun, just let me go."
Dorian's finger twitched, then reached out a hand towards the manacles.
"I... alright," he said, and nodded once, jerkily. "Apertus."
The manacles fell off, all at once, clinking as they hit the ground. The Bull barely had a chance to register the lightness on his wrists and ankles. He met Dorian's gaze for a second, nodded back, and ran down the cliff path.
So, here we are! This was originally supposed to be the mid-point, though it might end up being a bit under that.
This is where I'm I afraid I have to apologise: there won't be an update next week. I'm basically taking a break so I can properly plan and make a start on the second half. (I started this fic with about 14k of the first part already written; I've only got 4k ready on the second bit.) As you can probably guess, I'm going to be playing round more with the Seheron setting from here on out, and I'm looking forward to it, but I think it's going to take a little more planning than several scenes set in a cave.
I'm confident I'll be able to resume updates as usual the weekend after (9th-10th May). I can't promise I won't need another brief break before the end, but I'll see how it goes.
Honestly, I'm not looking forward to missing the next update - the comments in my inbox seriously make my week, and breaking 200 kudos absolutely thrilled me, you have no idea. Thank you so much to everyone who's responsible for that, and to anyone else reading this message, thank you for sticking with me this far! Fingers crossed I can write you a decent second half :)
Chapter 7: Alam
And I'm back! Made a few retcons while I was working on the next part:
1) Changed a festival mentioned in the first chapter from "Summerend" to "Masath", because I originally meant to invent a Qunari term and forgot to put it in the uploaded chapter.
2) Changed a reference to how long the Bull had been on the island to make it a lot vaguer, because World of Thedas 2 completely defied my guesses about how long he stuck it out.
3) Changed a mentioned agent's name from Savat to Saraad, because I misremembered it and liked the second one better.
That's it! Hope you all enjoy the rest of the fic :)
The Tal-Vashoth were already well ahead of the Bull as he skidded down the last section of the cliff, scattering pebbles under his boots. Not only had he wasted valuable time arguing with Dorian, it'd taken far too long to get down from the cave without killing himself.
He resisted the urge to look back and see if Dorian had stayed to watch him leave.
The sun was low in the sky over the horizon, and the sand he landed on was still warm from the heat of the afternoon. His boots sank into it as he started to run, almost slipping forward, and he felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back. After all that time spent in a nice cool cave, he'd forgotten what it was like to run under the Seheron sun. It was like training in an oven.
This was a seriously bad idea, he realised. Muscles that hadn't seen any sort of training in weeks, no back-up, and more to the point, zero weapons. He was rushing in like an overexcited rookie, and if one of his agents had pulled this stunt, he'd have sat them on their ass and yelled the heroics right out of them. He'd probably end up with another of those scars that Dorian had got wide-eyed over. But what choice was there?
He sped up as a jetty came into view in the distance, jutting out into the water, with another visible when he came round the bend. Sabanam was one of the very few fishing villages on the west coast. It was risky forcing fishermen to share waters with Tevinter, but Seheron relied too much on the rich stocks there.
But he could only spot a few small shapes bobbing next to the jetty; most of the boats were still out to sea, or their owners away down the coast diving for shellfish. Crap. Fishermen weren't fighters, but they wound up well-built, and if civilians were going to get sucked into this then he wouldn't have minded having some on side.
"Hey!" he yelled into the distance. The sea breeze snatched some of the sound, but he saw the Tal-Vashoth turn as his shout reached them.
One of them said something to the other as he ran closer - discussing whether to fight him, most likely - and then they turned the wrong way and headed into the village.
"Shit," he panted, and started to sprint.
- - -
Some of the town had been smart enough to get inside - live on Seheron long enough and most people learned eventually - but there were a few gawkers left, and more than one person probably caught out too far away from a door.
No warriors or likely-looking allies among them though. In the middle of the group was a Tamassran, the one he remembered taking the boy he'd pulled out of the ocean. She'd made a good impression. She was practical, calm in a crisis, and the last damn person he wanted mixed up in this.
"Surely you can see you'd be better to wait until the catch comes in," she said in a level tone. He could see her face, but not the Tal-Vashoth, who had their backs to him.
"We don't want fish," he heard a harsh-voiced woman say. "We want stuff that keeps. Your distribution stores, as much as we can carry, or people start dying."
It was weird to hear Qunlat again, after weeks of speaking nothing but Common. The words sounded sharper, somehow, and it took his head a second or two to catch up.
"Maybe they'd be quicker if we killed a few first," said the guy next to her. His fingers curled and uncurled round the hilt of his blade. Whatever the Tal-Vashoth woman was using to keep her head, it obviously wasn't working on him. The Bull would need to take him out first, or he'd have to spend the whole fight distracting him from hostages.
The third Tal-Vashoth, the one with skin on his horns, glanced round and spotted the Bull. He elbowed the woman, who glanced back, gestured to the first man to keep on at the Tamassran, and positioned herself side on so she could watch him and the Bull at the same time.
The Bull approached, feeling naked without the familiar weight of a weapon hanging off his back. Well, too late to do anything about that now. Still, he thought, shame he hadn't been able to bring Dorian along. He remembered the ice spells back in the mansion. Even without a staff, the guy practically was a weapon. Unacceptably dangerous maybe, with the demon and all, but he could use someone unacceptably dangerous in his corner about now.
"You guys want to tell me what you think you're doing?"
The skin guy curled his lips into a snarl of a grin. "Shouldn't you be on a boat, fisherman?"
"I get seasick," said the Bull.
A Qunari might have looked to the leader, or waited for an opening for an attack. This guy was well past listening to anyone. He laughed, then without warning charged at the Bull, whipping out a sword. The Bull dodged a split second before the blade hit, stepped to the side, and twisted the Tal-Vashoths's arm up behind him, squeezing the wrist till he dropped his weapon. The Bull kicked him in the side, grabbed the sword while he crumpled, and ran it through his back.
"Also," he said, letting the body drop, "not a fisherman."
The remaining male Tal-Vashoth turned to face him then, forgetting the Tamassran as the Bull had hoped. His yellow eyes gleamed. Now the Bull could see him full-on, there was something weirdly familiar about his face.
"Ben-Hassrath," he spat.
The Bull gave him a hint of a smile, the one he usually saved for magisters to make them run for their boats.
"Tal-Vashoth," he said.
And then a voice rang out from the left.
"What's going on?"
The Bull didn't dare turn his head and lose his lock on the enemy. Instead he glanced sideways, just long enough to take in the man leading a small group in through a gap between the houses.
"Gatt?" he said.
In his peripheral vision, he saw Gatt stop dead.
"Hissrad?" he said. "You - they said you were dead!"
And Gatt was supposed to be somewhere in the south knocking mages round the head, but here he was, and the Bull had never demanded that million-to-one flukes made sense. True, Gatt wasn't much taller than the last time the Bull had seen him - elves for you - and he was still wielding that teeny one-handed sword, without even the decency of a whacking great shield in the other hand. Okay, the Bull was using a similar one, but he'd literally got that off someone's dead body.
But he still grinned at the familiarity. For the first time since he'd left the cave, he was starting to feel that good old prickle of excitement. The thrill of realising you were coming out on top. He had Gatt backing him up - whatever he was here for, right now he couldn't care less - a weapon in hand, and two Tal-Vashoth waiting for a beating. He was back.
"You believed them?" he said to Gatt, grinning. "Aw, that hurts. All this time, and you still think there's something that could take me down."
Gatt shook his head slowly, disbelievingly. "I'll not doubt you again. It looks like you could use a little help now, though?"
The Tal-Vashoth woman's eyes tracked them back and forth with the conversation, like watching swings exchanged in a battle. The yellow-eyed man edged sideways, just a little, and the Bull tightened his grip on his stolen sword.
"Wouldn't say no," said the Bull. "Seems these guys were going for the food stores."
"And? You have a problem with us eating now?" the woman burst out, fists twitching.
"I have a problem with you coming in and taking it at swordpoint," the Bull said. "You'd have been fed under the Qun."
The man moved, with a speed the Bull had expected but was too far away to stop, and he grabbed the Tamassran by the horn. He had a dagger in his other hand, which he pressed up to her throat.
"Stop talking," he snarled. "Food, now."
In the building behind them, the Bull noticed three or four small faces pressed against the window. The Tamassran's charges, then. Shit. He just hoped she'd taught them well about staying indoors when things got rough, or this could go downhill even faster.
He looked between the two Tal-Vashoth, calculating.
"Your emergency stores. How full are they?" he asked the Tamassran, who'd gone limp in the Tal-Vashoth's hold.
"Full enough, I think. Masaan," she said, referring to the administrator who would manage supplies, "would know the exact figures, but I see no reason they should be depleted. We've had a calm summer." Her voice was so reserved, the Bull thought he might've been the only one who caught her edge on the word "calm".
"Alright," he said. "You," he pointed to a woman on the edge of the onlookers who looked like she might be able to keep her head, "Go find your Masaan, get the key for the emergency stores. Bring me back a full bag."
"We can carry more than that," said the Tal-Vashoth woman.
"Yes, but she can't," said the Bull, making no attempt to hide his annoyance.
"Alright," said the woman, looking from the Bull to Gatt's group. "For now."
Gatt was staying quiet. Good man. For all that he hadn't got taller, he'd definitely grown. He still had all the defiance of the spitting, screaming slave boy the Bull had pulled off a Vint ship all those years ago, but his straight posture no longer came with balled fists, and the anger on his face rested in a sort of mocking smile, just right for needling the enemy. The Bull remembered a time when he would have been screaming at the Tal-Vashoth for taking a hostage, probably getting her killed in the process. Now, the Qun had taken iron and fashioned it into a weapon.
They waited, frozen like some messed-up mural in the middle of the town. The Tal-Vashoth man got visibly frustrated. At one point, he huffed and his dagger pressed just deep enough into the Tamassran's throat to make her suck in a sharp breath. It made the Bull put a hand on his sword before he realised it was useless, and he wished again for Dorian. If Dorian were there, he'd probably have been able to block the knife with ice or something. Maybe set fire to the guy's pants. That could've been fun. If he'd thought some magister's robes were worth burning, he'd have got a real kick out of that.
Eventually the woman he'd sent off came back, carrying a bag, and brought it to the Bull.
"Leave it there," said the Tal-Vashoth woman, pointing to a spot just in front of his accomplice.
"Sure," he said. "Just let the hostage go."
"After the bag is on the floor."
The Bull nodded, and bent over to put the bag down. He kept an eye on the guy, waiting for the exact moment he relaxed and loosened his grip on the hostage.
He didn't straighten back up. He charged forward right from where he was, the Tamassran having the sense to twist away as he slammed forward. The guy was too shocked to block him. He heard a roar from the side and a clash of metal as Gatt went in on the woman.
The man shoved him back, sheathing his dagger and bringing out a sword.
He'd been trained, the Bull realised. The swings were wild, but there was a pattern to them. Not Antaam, though. He was too well-practiced with a one-handed weapon, and the melee-fighting karasaad were given greatswords.
The guy had been Ben-Hassrath, then. And once he realised that, the Bull finally recognised the face. A young agent from a year or two back, who'd snapped after losing the rest of his team in a fight with Fog Warriors. What position had he held..?
"Vissras," he said, and the Tal-Vashoth faltered mid-attack, his eyes automatically meeting the Bull's. The Bull swung straight at his neck; the Tal-Vashoth fell to the ground in two parts. His yellow eyes still stared ahead, forever confused.
The Bull looked away. No sense thinking about what he'd been. What he was, at least until a moment ago, was a Tal-Vashoth. And an asshole. Put like that, it'd been a pretty good victory.
He was finally able to turn to see Gatt slice deep into the neck of the Tal-Vashoth woman, a couple of his guys helping to wrestle her down. She collapsed with a gurgle, and that was that.
"Are you alright?" he asked the Tamassran, who was dusting herself off.
"Thanks to you, Hissrad," she said, smiling, though he noticed her hands were shaking. "You do your duty well. This is the second time Sabanam has had the privilege of witnessing it."
He smiled back. "You know, I was just thinking about that kid I pulled out of the water last time. He around?"
"Not for long," she said. "He comes of age in two days. We decided he was more suited to baking in Alam than fishing here." Her mouth quirked. "I won't say that incident had nothing to do with it."
Gatt finished up with the Tal-Vashoth's body, and the Tamassran bent her head to him as he came over. "Your hard work was also appreciated," she said.
"Yeah, thanks for the back-up," said the Bull. "Uh, not that I'm not glad to see you, but what're you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be down south."
Gatt gestured to their surroundings. "A few of us got shifted up here. We've been dropping in all the west coast towns lately. We're trying to root out any sympathisers receiving weapons drops before the Vints arrive," he said.
The Bull nodded. Getting caught in one had been more than enough for him.
He thought he saw the flicker of flames for a second, then realised it was the sun glinting off the Tamassran's well-polished horns. He forced his reaction down.
"Split tactics," Gatt continued. "I'm the visible, approachable presence, then we've got informants in the village for continued surveillance."
"So that's why you were stalling!" the Bull said. The images of fire vanished, and he laughed out loud as he turned to the Tamassran. "You knew there'd be a patrol along."
"I certainly hoped there would be," she said.
There was a noise from the building behind her, and she turned. The Bull spotted two kids in the window turning on a little one, who had his fist raised to knock again.
The Tamassran raised an eyebrow. "I'm needed, it seems," she said.
She turned and left, heading towards her charges.
After she'd gone, Gatt rounded on the Bull.
"Not that I'm not glad to see you," he said, "but where have you been? Was the death part a cover?"
The Bull almost winced, steeling himself for Gatt's reaction. "Not exactly," he said. "I got captured by a Vint mage in the middle of an operation."
"A - but how? How did we miss that?"
"Probably thought I was dead," said the Bull, shrugging. "We were in that Vint mansion up on the cliff. The roof fell in, things were on fire... there was a lot going on."
Gatt shook his head, looking ready to go find and chop up a few magisters right then and there.
"People mentioned the mansion, but no-one seemed to know exactly what happened to you. They guessed the body burned. Now I know why."
He looked up at the Bull with as much concern as any experienced Ben-Hassrath had to spare when things had gone to shit yet again.
"You've been gone for weeks," he spat. "You were held all that time? Are you..." He paused. "Alright?"
"I'm fine," said the Bull. "Seriously, look at me. There's not a scratch on me. Well, not any new ones, anyway. I mean, apart from these two, you won't have seen those." He examined his collarbone, then twisted to show his side. "Oh, and this one. But I got that in the fire, not from the Vint."
"Anyway, the point is, I'm good. The mage wanted me in one piece."
Gatt shook his head again.
"More fool him, I suppose. But I'm glad he did." He smiled. "It'll be good to have you back in charge. Where you belong."
The Bull looked round at the village, where people were starting to come back out of the buildings and go back to work, at the Tal-Vashoth bodies on the ground, at Gatt looking as pleased as he'd ever seen him. Sweat was prickling on his chest, but his muscles were feeling the familiar good ache of a well-fought fight, and there were no manacles forcing him down.
"Yeah," he said. "It really is."
The Tamassran came back out of the building, with a boy next to her. The Bull recognised him from their last encounter, though he'd looked a lot wetter back then.
"He wanted to greet you," said the Tamassran. "Kathek?"
"Shanedan, Hissrad," said the boy - Kathek, for now - mumbling somewhere around the Bull's chest.
"Shanedan," said the Bull. "Hey. You doing okay?"
Kathek looked up at him, then. "Very well, Hissrad." He paused, then went on. "I'm coming of age this week."
"So I've been told," said the Bull, careful to put on a nice, non-threatening smile. "You're joining the bakers, is that right?"
"Yes, Hissrad," said Kathek.
"Well, I'm sure you'll serve the Qun well," he said, and that finally made the boy smile back.
"Nehraa Qun," he said, then added a respectful, "Hissrad" onto the end.
"Good boy," said the Bull, then looked at the Tamassran. "Good kid," he said.
"Sorry about the mess with the Tal-Vashoth," said Gatt, addressing her. His face twisted into disgust. "We've only just chased them off the distribution wagons. No way to know they'd crawl out again here."
The Bull thought that process of elimination should've probably told his subordinates exactly where the raiders would go, but it was done. And he was back, he realised. He could make these decisions now.
"No harm was done. Your mistakes were fixed, " said the Tamassran. "Can we provide you with anything from our stores before you leave? You seem short on supplies." she said.
"We're only going as far as Alam, we'll eat late tonight. We should probably go as soon as possible. Oh, are our superiors going to want to hear his debrief." Gatt grinned, rubbed his hands together, and looked at the Bull. "Hissrad? Are you ready to go back?"
The Bull took another look at the working village, at the smiling faces on the Tamassran and her charge. The sun glowed orange on the horizon. Not too far away, somewhere in the cliffs, there was a cave floor he wouldn't be sleeping on tonight.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm ready."
- - -
Alam was, appropriately, a mess of a city.
Par Vollen had been Qunari as far back as anyone could remember, and the buildings were exactly what they needed to be. Great domes in Qunandar to fit a third of the nation. Straight roads connecting them. Rows upon rows of identical buildings out in the country, deliberately designed to be possible for any builder to make in his sleep. They jutted out of the hills like sets of stone teeth.
The towns on Seheron, though, were mostly Tevinter-style, or even native architecture in the areas the Vints hadn't cared about enough to wreck. The Qunari had no intentions of knocking down perfectly functional if over-decorated buildings, so they'd simply moved in and converted them as required. Sometimes you saw a newer town that was all Qunari work, or a building tacked onto an expanded settlement, but most of it looked consistently foreign.
Oh, probably over half of Alam was still Vint through and through, and the ridiculous stuff too, the sort of shit they stuck in their own capital. His people had scrapped the statues, but you still got marble crap and columns everywhere, and buildings like the messenger station which was covered in carved vines for no reason at all. Plenty of spires too. The good ones were on buildings that needed to be seen, the bad ones were on buildings that simply wanted to be seen.
But Alam was too big not to need changes, so the Qunari had gradually replaced some quarters, or dotted buildings round the city where they needed them. The violence helped too, because one man's arson attack was another's great opportunity to tear down the ex-Chantry they were using for a weavers' hall and replace the thing. The roads were still too Tevinter, twisting round in a way that got recruits raised on a Qunandar layout totally lost, so sometimes the administrators took it upon themselves to knock down buildings and shove in new streets. The problem was, then people forgot about the basements and you got rebel ratholes cropping up all over the city.
The city had ended up a mish-mash of Tevinter and Qunari with neither barriers nor blending between the two, and it looked... well, Dorian's half-demon, half-human abomination face sprang to mind.
Dorian would probably have hated it. All those fancy old buildings stripped down, things stuck everywhere with no regard for style? The Bull could practically see his lip curling. But he might have liked some of the historic ones, the places that would've had meaning to the ancient Vints.
The Bull did like it, despite everything. It had its own flavour, and he took pride in knowing exactly where all those alleys went and how to beat a rebel across town in the dark.
It was weird walking through the streets again, though, after how long he'd spent away. It felt like things should have changed, somehow. Seeing the same old smithy, the same old tavern - it jarred.
Plus, he was strolling up the main road in pants he hadn't changed since he'd got stuck in the cave, his horns were beginning to flake, and he had a stolen Tal-Vashoth sword strapped to his back. It shouldn't have bothered him. He'd walked this path in much worse condition and dripped blood on the cobbles more than once. But that'd been him coming back the proud victor, not shuffling in from captivity.
The sun was setting overhead, but the merchants were still stationed along the main square, still handing out supplies to administrators. Like most on Seheron, they'd picked up the native trick of sitting under waxed paper umbrellas to save their goods in the heat and protect them whenever rain started splatting down from nowhere. The Bull breathed in the mingled smells of everything from bread to musty cloth to medicines, and they stared at him as he passed. He usually got a few looks, but from the expressions, he guessed the news of his death had got around.
There were spaces at the end of the square, he noticed, and his mind started grinding away at possible reasons why before he spotted the markers on the ground. He vaguely remembered Hess reminding him about the Masath festival an age ago, before they'd gone into that fucking house. And now they were already marking out the plots for the farmers.
Headquarters were located right in the centre of the city, perched on the heart of the information network like a spider. Gatt accompanied him inside the oak doors, then stopped.
"They'll want to speak to you alone, I'm sure," he said. "I've got to go report my side of things and the mess with the Tal-Vashoth. But who knows, maybe they'll have us working together again?"
"Here's hoping," said the Bull, and Gatt smiled.
"Once again: it's good to have you back, Hissrad," he said, and walked off.
The Bull's boots clinked off the marble floor as he strolled through the hall, drawing the attention of the few people having conversations at the sides. They stopped to stare, some open-mouthed, and one even dropped her papers. Oh yeah. These guys had definitely heard about his early demise. He flashed them a grin, just to throw them off further.
He walked over to a desk over by the far wall, where an administrator was sat.
"Hey," he said. "I don't suppose you could get hold of the current Hissrad, could you?"
"The current Hiss-" she repeated, then looked up at him. She'd been trained well, but he saw the shock flicker over her eyes. "Hissrad. I - I have you recorded as dead. Was an error made -?"
"Uh, yeah, you could say that, but don't worry, it's been going around," he said. "So, about that meeting."
- - -
It wasn't exactly a triumphant return.
A runner was sent, during which he stood himself at the side, blending into the shadows, amusing himself by watching people jump when they passed by and noticed their dead boss. The news would be spread all over the agents by the next day (and if it wasn't, he really needed to overhaul his information network), so he had to get maximum mileage out of it while he could.
The runner came back and conferred out of earshot with the administrator, and after a couple of worried glances thrown his way, she came and ordered him to go, via a back corridor, to a waiting room.
It turned out to be a little room tucked away underneath the building, some musty hideaway that'd once probably been some Vint's study. He was flattered. The unimportant information was passed in big rooms, sometimes with a guard on the door. But the important, intimate reports? In the smallest cupboards in the dingiest areas, in rooms where theoretically anyone could walk in and yet no-one ever did.
The people who did walk in, after keeping him waiting just long enough for him to guess if it was deliberate, were his replacement and the Satal, head of the Re-Educators.
His replacement took a seat immediately. The Bull vaguely recognised the face. He'd held the post of Askash over on the other side of the island. A reliable guy, the sort who got the missions done, though the Bull had never worked directly with him. He must have impressed someone high, at any rate.
Satal was about two-thirds the size of either of them but seemed to radiate enough power to smother them both. His horns were short but sharper than arrowheads, and his eyes were pale.
He stopped after he took a step into the room, took a long look round the walls, then at the current Hissrad.
"This will serve," he said, and folded himself into the chair directly opposite the Bull.
The Bull forced himself to meet the guy's eyes.
His replacement spoke first.
"Commendable," he said, his face perfectly neutral. "Not many manage to serve the Qun even after death."
"I always do my duty," answered the Bull, keeping his expression equally still.
The new Hissrad allowed him a nod. "It's a shame you couldn't make your return in secret, of course. We could have used that."
Satal didn't bother to acknowledge either of their comments. "We have the written reports of those involved with the operation. We require your detailed verbal report now, starting from the beginning of that mission, and a written one afterwards pending other decisions," he said.
"Other decisions" meaning "possible re-education". They didn't trust him, then. It should've hurt - it did, a little - but he pushed the feeling down. After all, he'd expected it as soon as Satal had walked in. Someone disappeared and stayed away from his duties as long as he had, it made sense to be suspicious.
The Bull nodded.
"Acting on intel from an informant, I commanded a raid on an un-repurposed Tevinter building. We left at sundown..." he began.
It was a long process. They didn't interrupt - stupid, to offer a comment before you had all the information - but he knew the level of detail they'd be after.
When he got to Dorian, he found himself stripping the Vint of personality, just like he did to his opponents in a fight. He hadn't been held by a person, simply a series of descriptors. Male. Tevinter. A mage. An abomination. It made him feel better, somehow. Mark it out plain and separate, and maybe the last few weeks would stop feeling so confusing in his head. The conversations they'd shared became information-gathering, the night of drinking had been a failed attempt to lower his opponent's defences, and he told himself it wasn't lying, simply reducing the details to what they'd consider relevant.
The more he broke it down, the more he felt properly in control again for the first time in weeks. The guard came down over his feelings. He was Hissrad again. He was the master of his own situation, and he relayed it as commanded to those he owed loyalty.
When he finished, Satal leaned forward, and made him give the entire story again.
He left out a detail about how they'd breached the walls. Satal cut in to point out the omission. The Bull said something about eating bread and cheese in the cave, when he'd only mentioned bread the first time. Satal's eyes narrowed. Could he relate every meal he'd been given, in order?
Those first shots during his story jolted his mind, but when he was done, Satal launched into his barrage. The Bull continued to look him in the eyes as the questions came. Do you believe you failed the mission? Do you bear fault for your agent's death? How did you remember your duty to the Qun? Why were you left unharmed?
The Bull gave them truth, re-presented for their convenience. The same thing he'd told Gatt: he was unharmed because the mage had wanted him intact. The reasons why the mage had wanted him intact were irrelevant.
Finally, Satal leaned forward. "You didn't mention killing the mage," he said.
"I didn't," he answered, without hesitation. It gave him a weird sick feeling in his chest, but he ignored it. "The situation with the Tal-Vashoth was urgent. Getting in a fight would have wasted valuable time."
There was no need to bring up any other reasons. That one was enough.
"Prioritising an immediate threat over a potential one," said his replacement. "Practical, if unfortunate."
Satal grudgingly nodded.
"Your ties to the Qun appear strong," he said. "But we can't be certain you remain entirely uncorrupted. You will report to the Arvaarad to be examined for traces of blood magic contamination. Your reports will be passed to our offices, and your colleagues questioned. If we are satisfied, you may be allowed to resume your role."
The current Hissrad - or Askash now, probably, nodded. Whether he was disappointed to lose the position, glad to be free of it, or simply resigned either way, the Bull couldn't tell. He was far too well-disciplined to let something like that show on his face. They'd done well filling the Bull's boots.
But the guy frowned at the re-educator all the same. "Respectfully, Satal, the mage is a threat that must be taken care of now."
"I won't risk an untried being in service to the Qun."
"But you'll risk lives on the Saarebas?"
Satal turned from Askash, peered at the Bull with a gaze that had been trained to see the underside of souls, and nodded.
"Fine. For this, he may be Hissrad."
"Then our recommendation, if the re-educators will permit it, is that you are made temporary Hissrad until the Arvaarad declares you uncorrupted. In this role, you will lead a task force immediately to deal with the Bas Saarebas."
The Bull bowed his head, and banished a flash of Dorian's face in the sun, voice breaking as he spoke the words to release him.
Asit tal-eb. The way things were meant to be.
"I will serve," he said.
Chapter 8: Hunt
Once he was sure he had the dim room to himself, he let himself give, just a little. He slumped forward onto the table, rubbed his eyes, and took in a long, deep breath.
It was going to be a nasty business. Not during, so much. He was used enough to compartmentalising during a fight, and it wouldn't be the same as last time he'd let the Vint's life slip through his fingers, he could tell. Whatever last time was - probably best forgotten, one of way too many weird moments in a weird situation. This time, there'd be a sword from the Ben-Hassrath armoury in his hand, and a team of his people aimed at Dorian's throat like an arrowhead. He wouldn't forget himself.
He wouldn't forget himself ever again.
But afterwards - fuck, even now he couldn't get Dorian's last expression out of his head. How long had he spent in that cave? He'd lost track of the days, somewhere along the line. Maybe if he found out how long it'd been, he'd know how long it'd take to shake all the crap in his head.
He hadn't felt anything the first time Dorian had spared his life. It'd seemed more stupid than anything else, and he wouldn't be thanking him any time soon for the manacles. It was the second time that was bugging him. Dorian had looked him in the eyes and let him go. It hadn't been out of squeamishness, or whatever had made the guy pause before. Had he really been dumb enough to trust the Bull? Or had he knowingly risked his life to save those villagers?
Whatever it was, the Bull couldn't help feeling that he owed him. But he owed the Qun a lot more.
He sighed, just the once, and straightened up again.
He wasn't sure exactly how long they left him waiting alone at the table. It wasn't like being left to himself in the cave, though. This was waiting for a mission, for a call to arms. He'd spent all night hidden in a bush for a single strike before.
Eventually, a woman opened the door.
"Your agents wait upstairs, Hissrad," she said, and stood back respectfully as he walked past her to exit the room. He gave her a once-over as he did, but he didn't recognise her face, and he'd have remembered that impressive spiral she had going on at the ends of her horns. It wasn't really surprising - he'd been here long enough, but people were always coming and going - but it rubbed in how out of the loop he was.
He got more annoyed when she started to follow him up, her boots clacking about two paces behind, and he realised she was planning on accompanying him all the way there. How much did these people think he'd forgotten? He knew where the damn briefing room was!
His sour mood evaporated into confusion when he opened the door and saw only two of his usual agents: Saraad and Hammer. Gatt was sitting with them for some reason, when he should've been off bashing Vints, and he'd never seen the other elven Viddathari next to him, sitting straight-backed and stern. The woman who'd escorted him took a seat to their side, and the picture came into horrible, horrible focus. Five people, and him. Shit. Shit.
"Well damn, it's true! You really are immortal!" said Saraad. She was grinning. "That explains a lot."
Hammer gave him a wave, but the Bull was too busy running through the set-up in his head to respond.
"Seems my old team is a bit thin on the ground," he said, with a little bit of laughter in it, hoping they'd make some crack about the others being reassigned, but the looks on their faces said it all. He dropped the smile. "Vitaar, Rasit, they..?"
"Gone," said Hammer. He didn't bother to soften it. Agents like them only bothered for the new recruits, the ones who hadn't got their shells yet. Once you'd seen too many good people go, you realised that no words would make it any nicer, and all you wanted was to get the news like a short, sharp stab and move on.
"Shit," said the Bull. "Did they get it back in that weapons drop too?"
"Not the first one," said Saraad. "But the second one did for them, yeah."
"The second one?"
"Another group of rebels getting hold of magister weapons," said Gatt. "They were better organised that time, too. We barely got anyone out alive, let alone with the weapons."
"But where did they get them from? The mansion? I thought that place burned down to the ground."
Gatt shook his head. "I doubt it. You've confirmed what we thought, that all rebel deaths were accounted for inside the building, and the only traces of those spheres we found afterwards were beyond use. No, I think we must have missed a big drop a while back, and we've just caught the stuff that's been handed out."
"Vashedan," said the Bull.
"That's one word for it," said Hammer.
"We've been diverting resources to try and catch any other drops - it's one reason we're seeing the Tal-Vashoth getting braver -" Gatt continued, "and they've assigned me here for the time being."
"Makes sense," said the Bull. "If there's one thing you're good at, it's sticking it to magisters."
Gatt smiled and put a hand on his sword. "And sticking it through them, at that."
"We've also got the new guys," said Hammer.
"I have been reassigned from Par Vollen as your new Rasit," said the woman. She turned to the elf next to her.
"Shanedan, Hissrad," he said. His stony face would have done well at covering his nervousness, if it wasn't for the twitch in one finger. "I am your new Talshok."
Talshok, Talshok, thought the Bull, then remembered that'd been Vitaar's title. Pretty stiff, this new pair, but they'd loosen up eventually. If they got the chance.
"Speaking of sticking it to magisters," said Gatt, "how about we track down yours?"
"Perhaps an assessment of the situation first, Hissrad?" said Rasit, glaring at Gatt. "We were briefed on your captivity, but not the mission strategy."
Gatt looked back at the Bull without argument, and he realised there were five pairs of eyes, all on him.
His mind went blank, then latched onto that last image of Dorian again.
How would Dorian react to him returning with a party of Qunari? What sort of threat would he be? How was the Bull supposed to sum him up?
"Okay," said the Bull, thinking. "He's not your average Vint, so watch out for surprises." They were waiting for more, but that was all the explanation they were getting on that front. Probably for the best. It'd keep the newbies on their toes.
He thought back to the one time he'd seen Dorian in combat, back in the mansion. "He's good in a fight. Probably won't use blood magic -" almost certainly, though he wasn't quite certain enough to leave his guys unprepared, "- but he'll likely bring out the fire and ice. He's also got a demon in him. That's the biggest threat. If that comes out, he'll be strong and unpredictable. Watch out for the claws."
"Could he be behind the weapons drops? Is it worth bringing him in?" said Gatt.
"Unless you think the rebels are happy to take orders from a guy speaking through a face full of fangs, I doubt it. Plus, he never left the cave for all that long. No," he said, thinking this was one thing - maybe the only thing - he could do to repay Dorian, "we finish it quick. Take him out as fast as possible."
"Understood," said Gatt, and nodded. "Lead the way."
- - -
It was already dark when they left: the merchants were gone from the square, the preparations for the Masath festival halted. In Par Vollen the streets would have been empty, but in Alam there were guards. They watched the group leave without interfering.
Another time, they'd have split up and taken different doors out of the building. One or two might have even done the job of shaking any watchers by stopping by the Healers Hall, where even at this time candles glowed yellow in the windows. No need to bother with the secrecy measures tonight, though. It didn't matter who saw them leave or who knew where they were going, since the only target was Dorian.
"Okay," said the Bull, as they passed under the aqueduct marking the edge of Alam. The rush of water overhead was loud in the night. "It's a tricky climb up from the beach, so we head down from the cliffs. Least that way if anyone falls, they might land in the right place."
They headed out into the grassy expanse that surrounded the city. There were trees dotted here and there, the large-leafed type you never got back on Par Vollen. It was under one that Saraad sped up a bit, matched her strides to his so she could join him at the head of the group.
"You know, it's good to have the Bull back in charge," she said, and he smiled at her, though it ended up a little crooked. Barely anyone had called him by his nickname since he'd been back, he realised. How many people were left now who'd use it? Oh, the criminal types would be telling stories of the Bull for decades, but among his own kind? He and Saraad had served as equals in the same unit back on Par Vollen for a while, and Hammer had been on his team for a good few years. Gatt had earned it, but he'd always been formal. Was there anyone else on the island who wouldn't get weird about the idea of not calling Hissrad by his title, at least to his face? He wasn't sure.
"You've got to tell us what the hell happened sometime," said Hammer, coming up on his other side. "One minute we see you disappear in an exploding room, the next you're back and Gatt's telling us a magister had you."
"Not a magister, just a mage," said the Bull. "Apparently there's a difference."
"Whichever it is, I wouldn't mind hearing the story," said Saraad. "They only gave us bare bones in the meeting, and if you've got a way of coming back from the dead, I'm all ears."
The last thing the Bull wanted was to bring up everything from the cave again right now, when he was on his way to put an end to it.
"Remind me later," he said. Saraad gave him a look - not much got past her - but nodded and fell back again.
They were quiet, mostly, for the rest of the journey. Saraad and Hammer continued to make the odd comment, with Gatt occasionally throwing his weight in, but the other two were far too embedded in their night raid training. Both of them had somehow missed the fact that the moonlight and openness would make an ambush impossible. Talshok was looking increasingly uncomfortable, but maybe he just needed to learn where he fit. Rasit wasn't even trying to hide her disapproval when someone opened their mouth. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He'd rather have someone with a little temper and initiative than someone who followed orders up until the point they got separated in the fog, and couldn't decide which way to dodge.
Not that he wanted a loose cannon either. The line was thin.
So it wasn't really the same as last time, when they got to the beach. No jokes, different people, and the moon over the sea wasn't a perfect circle. But the light caught off the water all the same, and he remembered Hess walking next to him, and then the way she'd burned. Saraad looked at him again, but he ignored it.
It was easier when they got to the top of the cliffs, because that didn't match his memories at all. He'd never seen the mansion after that night. He'd dropped through the floor and come out the other side without looking back. The front had fallen in on itself, leaving beams and half-walls sticking up like bones through a shallow grave. The back was still standing, just, but with ragged holes and half the roof missing.
They walked past the wreckage to the top of the cliff. There was a track down, but it was narrow and half hidden by rocks jutting out above it. He wasn't sure even the scouts would've found it, and he was beginning to understand how Dorian had kept himself hidden so long.
Well, until now.
But the guy brought him into his lair and let him go, he reminded himself. Dorian must've known the risks, surely.
They sent Gatt down first. He was light enough on his feet to maintain the element of surprise, but with enough power to keep himself alive till everyone else got down if necessary. There were no immediate shouts, sword clashes or fireballs when he'd disappeared under the cliff, so they sent down Talshok next. Another elf, just in case Gatt was keeping quiet and trying not to blow a position.
Then they were out of elves and out of stealth, and no-one had yelled yet, so the Bull headed down, though not easily. The trail was way too narrow for someone as big as him. He ended up hugging the cliff as best as possible, hands wrapped round the rocks above, knees getting grazed by the wall.
As he went, he prepared mentally for the fight by breaking down Dorian in his head. Vint. Mage. Demon. Corpse-skin and hooked claws. Making him into a non-person.
Hammer was following behind him, and he heard him mutter something about "damn tiny rebels and their mouseholes". He'd have told the guy off for blowing their silence, but it wouldn't have carried down to the cave, and besides, he agreed completely. One thing you could say about Tal-Vashoth, at least they made their hide-outs easy to get to.
He dropped down to the mouth of the cave and followed the passage round and in. At one point, he spotted something that made him pause. His footprints, still in the sand on the cave floor. He shook his head and made to move on.
"He's gone," said a voice, Gatt's voice, from round the corner.
The Bull hurried into the main cave. Dorian really had gone.
Not temporarily, either. The piles of books were about half the size he remembered, and the table empty of equipment. The food shelf was empty, apart from some crumbs, and there were no more full green bottles. It made the cave look larger, somehow.
One thing Dorian had left was the pile of rags the Bull had slept on. The indent of his body was still pressed into the top layer. Every single one of his agents stopped to glance at it as they searched the room, and he groaned inwardly. Keeping things low-key was next to impossible when you worked with people trained to be observant.
"We're not going to find him here," said Hammer, and headed out. A couple of the others followed.
The Bull looked at the place he'd been held.
He hadn't wanted to end it. But he had wanted it over. Now he'd have to spend however long hunting Dorian down, waiting for the axe to fall.
And if he had got away, really away? Part of him wanted to laugh and clap him on the back, because Vint or no, anyone who managed to survive months on Seheron fending off both Qunari and magisters deserved to keep their head. Hell, if he wasn't such a terrible liar, he'd want him as an agent.
But this wasn't just about some Vint going for the prize for worst escape route. Whether his fault or not, Dorian was dangerous, and getting more so the longer that demon sat in his head. Whatever the Bull had said to encourage him, the guy didn't have a chance without that lyrium or a good back-up plan. This was about more than duty. Duty was all he needed, but the threat of a demon getting loose and rampaging in the nearest town was a damn good motivator.
It was a shitty situation, but he'd been bred for those.
"Hissrad?" said Gatt, the only one who'd stayed back in the cave. "Can you see any clues to where he ran?"
"No," said the Bull. The only things here were traces of what'd come before. No-one lived here anymore.
"No," he repeated, "let's go back."
- - -
They put him back in his old bed overnight, at the end of two long rows of sleeping Ben-Hassrath. He spotted a few eyes crack open as he walked by, and he'd have been amazed if the story of his resurrection hadn't started spreading by breakfast the next day.
The bed was plain, but comfortable enough. It made no sense for the Qun to deliberately keep its people in less than their physical prime. The sounds of tens of other agents snoring quietly around him should have been reassuring, though it had never helped in practice. He'd want someone awake and standing guard to feel comfortable letting his guard down, and even then, there weren't many he'd trust.
Where had Dorian gone, anyway? He'd been stewing on it the entire way back, but he hadn't come up with any good ideas. He'd honestly never expected the guy to run, despite the danger, because where the hell could he run to?
He lay with his eyes open, and couldn't help imagining thick robes piled to cushion his back against a bed of rock, and drifting off to the familiar sounds of bubbling flasks and pages turning.
He almost found himself drifting off again, but the realisation shocked him into waking. It was tempting to give in and picture it deliberately, if that was what it took to get some shut-eye before whatever was waiting tomorrow, but he didn't. The sooner he forgot all that crap, the better.
He lay awake in the darkness, listening to his co-workers' breaths and waiting for the dawn.
- - -
Morning came as the first sliver of light slipping in through the high windows, followed by the dawn-call to wake the city for work. On Par Vollen they'd used gongs spread across the island; there'd been a big one right next to the building he was raised in. They used them in most places on Seheron, in fact, but in Alam they rang the huge bell on the city hall. He'd got used to the sound, but waking up anywhere outside the city always made him nostalgic.
He was out of bed and heading down between the rows before the vibrations stopped.
People were filtering onto the street as he walked through, mostly administrators going to the market. There was the odd work unit chatting amongst themselves, but most had beds at their workplaces so they could jump straight out of bed and into their jobs. He passed the square, passed the crafting quarter, headed for the back ways.
He still got a few stares. Would the whole back from the dead thing ever get old? Nah.
The Arvaarad hall was entirely Qunari, a great circular construction built solid and smooth from stone, with a dome on top. No fancy carvings there; the Vints had never needed anywhere to lock up their mages. It stood away from the main city, down the side streets and lurking by Alam's walls. It wasn't really necessary - with chains and collars and constant supervision, Saarebas were probably less likely than the rest of the population to snap - but somehow no-one had wanted them amongst the civilians.
Or maybe it was about efficiency. There were plenty of groups getting into pissing matches over who got to be near the centre, and it wasn't like the Saarebas got out much.
The front room was almost empty when he walked in except for a single Arvaarad, holding a mage on a long leash. The mage stood behind him in the shadows, chains glinting as he breathed.
They'd obviously been warned to expect him. The Arvaarad showed no surprise at the Bull's appearance - might even have been waiting there for him - and nodded at him before gesturing to a door. The Bull was surprised not to hear his title till he realised: until the examination was over, he didn't technically have one.
The Arvaarad led him down a corridor and into a room where another two were already waiting with their charges. The heavy security presence threw him until he remembered why he was there. He knew that the only blood shed in the cave had been from his own injuries, and that Dorian hadn't so much as healed him magically, but as far as the Arvaarads were concerned, he could have been enchanted and even now be on a trigger.
Once he was in and the door closed behind him, one of the Arvaarads stepped forward, leaving his mage by the wall.
The Arvaarad came right up to Bull, grabbed a horn and pulled his head forward. He peered into one eye, then the other. He grunted and stepped back.
"Strip," he said.
The Bull swallowed down the waiting joke about them not looking like his usual Tamassrans, and shrugged off his harness and pants. The Arvaarad walked round him, taking a hand to inspect his fingers, making him bend his neck this way and that. Checking for knife cuts. It took him a while, with all the old scars criss-crossing the Bull's body, but whatever report he'd received had obviously told him what freshness of wounds to look out for.
Finally, he stepped back again.
"Dress," he said.
The Bull did.
Of course, just because he hadn't been cut up didn't mean he hadn't been exposed to blood magic, which was probably why the final part of the examination involved the Arvaarad beckoning his Saarebas over from the corner.
The mage was human, to the Bull's surprise, though presumably born under the Qun. He wished it was someone of his own race. It shouldn't have made any difference, since all race distinctions vanished under the Qun, and the human's face, red where the stitches entered the skin, looked as calm as any bound mage he'd seen. The Saarebas stepped forward, and at a barked command from his keeper, started to examine the Bull with senses beyond sight. His expression didn't change. Mage, handler, warrior, submit to your station and everyone found the same peace in the end.
So there was no reason to think of the Saarebas as suffering, any more than his handler, but his mind kept substituting Dorian's face over the mage's. It was just like when it replayed the times he'd been stabbed in a fight, or the expressions on his dying subordinates. He couldn't help imagining how it would be if his people caught Dorian, how he'd stretch the stitches with screaming and how they'd crack the papery grey around the corners, how he'd gnash those demonic teeth and how it would make zero difference in the end.
But then he pictured Dorian's face like any of his own kind, mutilated but tranquil, resigned.
It couldn't help but turn hollow in his mind. He wasn't sure which image was worse.
He comforted himself by reminding himself that it was stupid to worry about things that'd never happen, and this one definitely wouldn't; they'd just kill Dorian outright.
The Saarebas shook his head, and stepped back again.
"You are untainted," said the Arvaarad. "You may return to your duties, Hissrad."
- - -
There were already less strange looks when he got back to headquarters; good on the gossip vine. Taking the familiar path through the corridors made him feel more himself than ever, as he headed into the buzzing heart of the building. The central hall was maybe the biggest room in Alam, with a ceiling high enough that they could stack ten guys the Bull's height and only just have horns scraping the top. The floor was marble, the columns to the sides were marble, everything had tiny gold flecks in. He didn't know what the Vints had used the place for, but it must've been important.
Nowadays, the place was lined with rows upon rows of desks where agents could go and write their reports, even during the night shift. There were always people passing through the room, particularly at mealtimes. The distribution hall was right next door, so it wasn't unusual to see people take food back to the desks.
The mission reports, those confidential accounts of what every single Ben-Hassrath agent was doing or planning at any one time? Kept at the back of that busy room, behind an unlocked door.
Once or twice he'd seen a Viddathari rookie freak out when they realised exactly how much security the Ben-Hassrath wasn't placing on their secrets. But there was the thing: Qunari didn't use locks all that much. No true Qunari would even think of going somewhere their role forbid. And okay, the Bull could see the problem there. It worked fine on Par Vollen, but Seheron had way too many people who turned out not to be true Qunari at all.
But there was a practical side to it, too. Which was a more effective way to keep people out: hiding the place somewhere deep with a lock that could be picked and guards that could be distracted, or putting it where every agent in the building could keep an eye on it?
Every single desk faced the door at the back. There was a flap in the middle where agents dropped in reports, either for themselves, or for agents under cover who'd had to pass missives along via dead drops, but the only person who had cause to open the door was himself. It was impossible that anyone who approached the door wouldn't be seen, and there was no-one in the building who didn't know who he was and what his access was.So sure, theoretically anyone could stroll up and go inside, but they'd never get away with it long enough to come back out.
Still, strolling up through the desks to the door felt weird after so much time away. He couldn't help feeling like someone was going to jump up and tell him that he hadn't got his role back after all, then haul him back to the re-educators. But the door swung open with the creak of metal hinges, and no voice came from behind him.
The inside was filled with shelves and shelves of papers, all neatly organised; his replacement had obviously been taking care of the filing. Damn, maybe he needed to get captured more often.
He automatically stepped over the pile of papers that had piled up behind the door, scooped them all up, and dumped them on a table in the middle with a grunt.
Gatt's name jumped out on the top one; his replacement had decided to keep him on the trail of the Vint weapon drops. He'd been looped into an information network with Tevinter and was apparently receiving information from contacts in Minrathous. The rest of his group, he discovered as he leafed through, were all assigned in various spots around Alam. They wouldn't be working as a team, most of the time. Gatt already had his own group to manage anyway. The Bull would rope them all back in though, when he next heard about a fight brewing. For the meantime, he had his own assignment tucked amongst the top papers. Rooting out a Tal-Vashoth network. Sounded like fun.
He pulled it out and put it on the table, then continued flicking through the stack till he found the report he'd been expecting. About a raid on a warehouse staffed by rebels, filled with Vint weapons. Two casualties.
He let that line sink into his brain, then placed the whole report aside, face-down on the table.
He'd read it another time.
Another piece of paper slipped out of the pile just a couple of sheets from the top. The Bull picked it up. It contained the details of the new patrol group sent to scour the island for Dorian.
It made sense, of course. They weren't going to waste the Bull on a search that could take any length of time, not when he didn't have any more information to bring to it. There were a couple of scouts in the new group; they'd recommended checking the caves further south. The Bull couldn't argue. It made as much sense as anywhere.
Only it didn't.
How the hell would Dorian have got all the way down south in the daytime without being seen? Maybe if he managed to stick to the cliffs the whole way, but that was a lot of climbing. And what about all the stuff that'd gone missing? Was there some sort of spell that made things easy to carry?
It just didn't check out. None of the running part did. Oh, there were plenty of magister boltholes dotted over the island - even a few more Vint houses like the one where they'd met - but he couldn't see any way Dorian would've made it to one alive. And he'd have heard if he'd been caught, his people didn't slack on getting a message through.
So where the hell was the guy?
It wasn't his problem anymore, not officially, but he'd never been able to let go of a mystery. Knowledge was a weapon, and he'd always liked having lots of those.
Was there another cave he didn't know about round there? Maybe, but how many did Dorian know about, then? There weren't any other hideouts aside from the summerhouse, and since that'd burned -
His thoughts jarred to a halt.
He glanced at his assignment, discarded on the table. The Tal-Vashoth thing looked important. He should probably get on it.
The paper was left with the others on the table as he headed out of the room and strode back through the desks. He didn't stop to get his team. It would've been bad to drag anyone else away from their duties, just on a hunch.
He walked out of the headquarters, and headed for the city entrance.
- - -
It didn't take him all that long to get back out to the coast. He travelled quicker by himself.
The mansion looked even more wrecked than he'd remembered, stark in the late morning sun, and it got worse as he approached it. He found himself picking over discarded chunks of stone and bits of wood that had been thrown out onto the grass, and the closer he got, the better view he had of the bits of the house that had been ripped away. The back part, he could see now, was blackened with smoke up all the remaining walls. It made it look like there was still a fire lurking under the debris.
But was there still enough to live in, for someone really desperate?
He passed under a still-upright door frame, although the wall around it had holes in it, into a corridor. The floor was coated in soot, but he recognised a face sticking out of what he'd thought was shattered bits of stone. It was the statue gallery where he and Dorian had fought before, now lacking a roof.
The gaps in the walls and rubble blockages had turned the place into even more of a maze. Something creaked in what remained of the ceiling, and he began to wonder if it was even safe for him to be there, or if he was about to leave another Ben-Hassrath corpse under the wreckage.
He took a left out of the shell of the room, deciding to head back to the outer walls and hoping that was the quickest way. He ducked under a collapsed door frame. Through an arch. Through another gap.
Straight into flames in his face.
He dodged back without even thinking about it, slamming back against a wall. From there, he had a perfect view of Dorian standing in a fighting stance, with a fireball in one hand and a frown on his face. He looked more of a mess than usual. The cloth he wrapped round his demon features was torn and peeling away, and the grey had crept up both sides of his head, almost completely covering one ear. It looked like he'd lost a tuft of hair on that side.
His eyes widened in recognition.
"This isn't the worst greeting I've had," said the Bull.
The fireball vanished. Slowly, like he was being forced to insert it into a jar of cockroaches, Dorian lowered his hand.
"What are you doing here?" said Dorian.
He'd let the fire go out, but he was poised as if to start it up again at any minute.
"Testing a hunch," said the Bull. "Good one, though. Should've worked it out quicker. I've never met a Vint who wasn't drawn to marble."
That startled Dorian into a short, sharp bark of laughter. "Oh yes, it's the decadence of this place I like!"
He spread his arms wide, showcasing the melted floor beneath them, and the blackened and crumbling walls. The sunlight streamed down through a hole in the ceiling behind him and left him backlit. The deeper shadows on his face made the demon features look even more harsher, somehow.
Then he looked back at the Bull, and slowly lowered his hands back to his sides.
"It was..." he said, and frowned. "After you left. I thought you'd..."
The Bull watched in silence as Dorian came to the right conclusion, then dismissed it completely.
"Well," he said. "It doesn't matter what I thought."
He relaxed his stance into something less combat-ready, though the lingering frown said he hadn't dropped his guard entirely.
"Not to sound suspicious," said Dorian, like that wouldn't just be smart, "but I repeat: what are you doing here? I thought you'd be happily back with your people by now, Growling, hitting things, bashing them on the head... whatever it is Qunari do to bond."
"Vints don't bond that way?" said the Bull. "Damn, now I see why you're all so stuffy."
"We tend to prefer treachery and betrayal," said Dorian.
The Bull snorted. "That figures."
"Don't knock it till you've tried it!. It really livens things up." He raised an eyebrow. "Do you know, I once went to a party where a magister and her husband both turned up murdered, and it was a hideous scandal until someone discovered they'd both poisoned the other's drink?"
"I can top that," said the Bull, knowing he shouldn't be getting drawn into a conversation, but unable to resist the story. "This one time, me and my guys got ambushed by a bunch of rebels. Only when one guy tried to take our weapons, the leader thought he was arming himself for a challenge. So they're yelling at each other, and then this third guy swoops down, grabs one of our swords, and really does challenge the leadership. Claims the first two are plotting to take all our stuff and run with the profits. Suddenly, everyone's too busy staring each other down to remember us."
"And then -" he started laughing, thinking of it, "and then one of my agents pipes up and goes 'What about my cut, boss?' The rebels start fighting, we duck out the way, and the next thing you know they'd taken themselves down and we didn't lift a finger!"
That got a proper, full-bellied laugh out of Dorian. The Bull hadn't heard those much, back in the cave. It sounded surprisingly good on him.
Finally, Dorian dropped his gaze and smiled; just a tiny quirk of the mouth, like he was testing the waters. The Bull smiled back. He knew he shouldn't be playing along, not if he wanted to end things quickly - because damn if he was bringing back a whole group of agents to hunt Dorian down again, he realised, he owed it to him to make this one-on-one - but maybe it'd be the best way to finish this. Make him laugh, hit him from behind and drop him before he had the chance to stop smiling. There were worse ways to go. At least that demon wouldn't be a problem.
Dorian stepped back further into the room, or what was left of it, giving the Bull space to stroll in. He didn't look away, and left no openings. For now.
The Bull watched Dorian go over to a little semicircle of open books on the flagstone. They were one of a number of things he remembered from the cave. He spotted the remainder of the food dumped in a corner - and it really was down to remainders, at this point - with some of the green bottles lined up more neatly beside them. The distilling equipment was stacked against the furthest wall from the large hole in the roof, and next to it was a very small pile of books Dorian hadn't been using. That was it. The room looked even less liveable than the cave, particularly with the sunlight filtering in to highlight how bare and wrecked the place was.
Despite everything, Dorian bent down and started closing the books, as if that could possibly tidy things up at all.
"Speaking of treachery, I got those Tal-Vashoth," the Bull said, before Dorian remembered where the conversation had previously been going.
Dorian put a book on a pile to one side. "Good. I'm glad my decision didn't turn out to be entirely misguided."
"They took a hostage. Could've turned out nasty if I hadn't been there," said the Bull. "So yeah, it was a good call."
Dorian looked a little surprised, if pleased. The Bull wondered if the guy had assumed the whole Tal-Vashoth thing was a lie to get free, in which case, smart assumption, if wrong. Of course, he shouldn't really have brought the subject up at all, not if it reminded him of the good man underneath all that demon skin. But it seemed right to put Dorian straight.
The mage in question looked away back at the books, and started stacking them at twice the speed while the Bull watched. Seeing Dorian fuss with things for deflection was oddly nostalgic.
"It was a good fight," he continued. Then he had a brief flash of the ex-Ben-Hassrath Tal-Vashoth, lying on the ground. "Or not bad, anyway."
Dorian snorted, looking back up. "Yes, but you like picking up scars. I'm not sure I want to know what you regard as a good fight."
"Simple. A good bad guy, a good weapon, and me coming out on top."
There was a small crack of something ripping. The Bull automatically looked at the book in Dorian's hands, where he'd got a page stuck on one claw. Dorian scowled, swore, and unhooked it slowly, but there was still a big puncture mark left in the paper.
"You know, you don't look so good," said the Bull.
Dorian glared. "Really. You think I don't look good. Tell me, is it my shoes or the sleeves that are letting down the ensemble?"
"You know what I mean," said the Bull.
"I'd prefer it if we pretended I didn't," Dorian muttered, reaching for the next book and closing it with care.
The Bull, as usual, ignored him. "You're looking more demony than when I left."
"Fine," said Dorian, putting the next book to one side and looking up at the Bull. "I had a moment. Not one of my proudest ones. I pulled myself together, got over it, and managed to keep my humanity intact. Now, could you stop looking at me as if I'm about to devolve and bite you, or do I actually have to bite you?"
The Bull's eyebrows drew up. The "Kinky!" slipped out almost automatically.
"Vishante kaffas, that's your reaction?" said Dorian.
"Why?" said the Bull, smile dropping. "If I'd reacted with questions, would you answer them?"
"Almost certainly not."
"Then you can't blame me for taking the easy shot."
That got him a fully-fledged eye roll. It was pretty damn impressive when the eyes were solid black.
"If it makes you feel better, I shouldn't have to stick this out all that much longer. I have a plan." Dorian's lips twitched into a smile, the cocky one that seemed the most human of all his expressions.
"A plan? To get rid of the demon?"
"Mmm," said Dorian. "I thought of it not too long after you left, actually. Fingers crossed, I'll be able to put it into action in..." He looked up. "a couple of weeks or so, judging from last night's moon."
"There's magic that depends on the moon?" said the Bull.
"Something like that," said Dorian.
He went back to tidying. The Bull waited.
"Don't suppose you're going to fill me in?" he said, eventually.
"I wasn't intending to."
"Yeah," said the Bull. "That really doesn't reassure me."
Dorian tutted and got to his feet. "Look," he said. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I'd really rather you weren't involved in this. It's going to be risky, and it's going to need careful handling, and you're not the first person who springs to mind when I think of the word 'careful'. Now, if I need someone beaten and bruised, I'll know who to call."
The Bull didn't bother to keep the gritted-teeth grin off his face. If only Dorian knew how careful he could be.
"You're talking like you have a choice in this. You don't," he said. "Spill."
"No," said Dorian, with a twisted smile. "Sorry, was that not plain enough for you? Alright, here it is: I don't trust you. Not with this, not even if you're back and not immediately swinging a sword at my throat. The fact you're back at all is the part I trust least."
"You realise you're asking me to trust you by letting you keep quiet about all this?"
"Why do you even care?"
"You said this was risky," growled the Bull. "I don't like risks I don't know about on Seheron."
"Yes, it's risky, for myself! Not any of your innocent bystanders," said Dorian. "Two weeks, and the hard part will be over. A little more, and I'll be out of your hair completely. That's all you need to know."
The Bull looked at him, his practiced Hissrad investigating stare, the one he used on agents who'd fucked up or rebels who were a word away from giving up all their secrets. Dorian met his gaze and returned it with interest, back straight and fists clenched.
There'd been a time when he'd looked away whenever the Bull looked him in the eye, back in the cave. For all he talked about a lack of trust, he wasn't nervous about staring back now. Even when the manacles were off. But that was it, wasn't it? He'd lost all that guilt about having all the power, and now he was facing off like they were equals.
The Bull must've given him the impression he could, somewhere along the line.
"For the main part, yes," said Dorian.
"No risk to anyone else, you said. That include going demon again?"
"No more than usual."
Oh, he knew what he should do, but damn it, this sounded like it could actually be a good, simple wrap-up. He liked simple.
He looked again at Dorian. If he was honest, Dorian had provided far more reason for the Bull to trust him than the other way around. Part of him wanted to keep squeezing for details, but the guy's claws were flexing and the last thing he wanted was to trigger a fight or flight response. Neither would be fun to deal with.
Two weeks. Plenty of time to figure out the angles.
"Alright," he said.
The word felt weirdly final, falling in the space of the burned-out room like an axe blow. Dorian couldn't have known what rested on his decision - could he? - but he drew in an audible breath.
They stared at each other for another few moments, until the Bull decided to do Dorian the kindness of looking away.
"I should be getting back," he said.
"That's what I've been saying since you got here," said Dorian. "Go on, go save the island. Or crush it. Do your people discriminate?"
The Bull chose to let that one slide. "Depends who's on the island," he said, then let his face fall into a more serious expression. "Hey. Watch yourself with the moon magic thing."
Dorian's mouth twisted. "I'll take all possible precautions."
Taking all possible precautions had never been a guarantee for any mission he'd ever been on to go right, but he'd take what he could get. He nodded, and turned to leave.
"Bull?" came Dorian's voice behind him as he walked under the doorway.
"It's been alright? Going back to being a... what was it, Ben-Hassrath?" asked Dorian, with an odd look.
The Bull thought about re-educators and Arvaraads, about walking into a room split between strangers and people he'd kill with, and about hunting Dorian down through the grassy plains of Seheron.
"It's been different," he said.
"After all of a month?"
"Yeah. Two of my agents died."
Dorian looked like he'd swallowed a lemon, having accidentally walked smack into an area of grief, then confused by the Bull's calm delivery. For the Bull's part, saying it out loud hadn't felt nearly as bad as he'd thought it might. The plus of being able to lock away his feelings way down deep.
"I'm sorry," said Dorian.
The Bull thought about blowing him off, maybe turning it into a joke. Or not answering at all.
But in the end, all he said was: "Yeah. Me too."
"Take care of yourself, then," said Dorian. "You're not entirely terrible, for a Qunari. And I've been picturing you as this impossible crime-fighting brute. You wouldn't want to die and prove me wrong, would you?"
"You think that'd happen?" said the Bull. "I am an impossible crime-fighting brute."
And despite all his instincts screaming at him, he left the house and its occupant in exactly the same state as he'd found them.
- - -
He went back to the city. The advantage of sneaking out when you were a Ben-Hassrath high-up; no-one knew where you were supposed to be anyway, and if they did they'd likely assume they'd been deliberately misled. So it was a shock to head back into the central hall and see Satal standing by the door to the reports room, casting a glance at the flap in the door.
How did they know? How could they possibly have known? He'd have noticed a tail, and no-one should've been able to beat him back to Alam fast enough to have the re-educators ready and waiting.
The possibility of running flitted briefly into his mind, mostly because it was part of his standard reaction to surprises now. He pushed that crap away. You didn't run from re-educators, because if they took you, it was for your own good - and the Bull couldn't deny he'd been playing with fire. Maybe - maybe it'd be better, if he wasn't the one deciding what to do about Dorian.
He carried on walking through the rows of desks, expression neutral, no changes in speed.
"Hissrad," said Satal. "Do your duties require you urgently?"
He was thrown by the polite tone, though he really shouldn't have been. Dragging someone away was inefficient if you could get them to come voluntarily.
"No," he said.
"Then come with me," said Satal. He tilted his head slightly, but didn't break eye contact. "Our halls are some distance. This would be most efficient done within your headquarters, I believe."
The Bull waited to see if Satal had somewhere in mind, but the guy didn't offer anything further, so he just led him out of the room.
Something was very off. No way should Satal have settled for anything less than the Bull bound for precaution and stuck in one of the deeper re-educator cells.
With no better options, he led Satal down a corridor and into the first room on the right, which turned out to be an armoury. A test, of sorts, to see if the guy would demand somewhere more private or with chairs. But Satal simply nodded, and closed the door behind them.
The room went dark.
There was a pause.
"When we investigate loyalties," said Satal in the shadows, cutting straight to his point. "Do you know what the investigations typically entail?"
"A watch on the suspect," said the Bull.
Satal looked surprised. "Only if they seem likely to lead us to others, and that part we leave to you. Why would we chase them outside our buildings, when we can have them brought in?"
Okay, that made sense, but now the Bull had no idea where the conversation was supposed to be heading. He made a non-committal noise. Fortunately, Satal seemed willing to pick up the slack.
"First," he said, "we look through their records. Try to understand them, and where we might fix them."
The Bull had nothing to add, so he said nothing.
"I looked through your records myself."
"And did you find where to fix me?" the Bull said, in a low voice.
Satal raised an eyebrow. "You think you need it?"
Outside, under the sun with people all around, he'd have trotted out a nice denial, a quip to relax the troops. But it was just him and Satal in a darkened armoury, and Satal's pale eyes were scrutinising him for reasons he was getting less and less of a fucking clue about.
"I don't know," he said, and wondered if Satal would be able to read the half of him trying to keep his reactions on lock-down even as the other half wondered if he should put his hands up now and let the re-educators have him.
"Your records didn't suggest so," said Satal. "Mission after mission, completed to the highest standard. There were no errors that weren't unavoidable. No failures." He smiled, just a tiny quirk to the sides of his mouth. "I've never had cause to look through the records of previous Hissrads before. Did you know you've lasted almost three times as long as any of them?"
"Yeah," said the Bull. People brought it up from time to time.
"I also spoke directly with your closest coworkers. Their words were as supportive of the records as could be expected. No abnormalities in the accounts. All evidence suggests you are as you seem: one of the finest Ben-Hassrath produced by the Tamassrans in decades. A silverite hammer to stand the heat of an unusually hot forge."
He was even less sure how to take that. It wasn't as if he didn't know he was good at what he did, but it wasn't not like he did anything any Qunari wouldn't - just did his duty as well as he could. His best just happened to be better than others. And yeah, maybe he was a little proud of that, but Satal shouldn't have been encouraging it, not as a re-educator.
"I serve the Qun," he said, a vague response for a vague discussion, and Satal nodded.
There was a pause where Satal eyed him. It didn't seem to be deliberately intimidating.
Finally, he said: "You know, one of the reports I read was how you hunted down and dispatched your Tal-Vashoth predecessor? Another of your successes." His eyes narrowed. "And my predecessor's failure."
The Bull had never thought of it as anyone's fault. As far as he knew, no-one had expected the last Hissrad to snap until the day the guy started yelling at some agent who'd blown their cover. The kid had said something back and the Hissrad had flipped, just beat his subordinate into a bloody pulp and broke another's neck escaping from headquarters.
If none of them had seen it coming, he wasn't going to blame the re-educators for not jumping in and pulling his predecessor on the straight and narrow in time. But it didn't matter. There'd been a job to do, and the person in charge hadn't done it.
"You've been here for a very long time. I can believe you exceptional, but not invulnerable. It would be a failure on my part and a waste of what you offer the Qun to let you fall the same way."
"You're changing my job?" said the Bull.
"No," said Satal, and made a small, frustrated sound in his throat. "No, you've proven this your natural role, and it would be more wasteful not to keep you here as long as possible. But know this, Hissrad. A silverite hammer is a wonderful thing, but less use than iron if broken. There are other paths we can place you on if you lose yours. You say you don't know if you need to be fixed? When you do, submit to it and come to me. Submit to the Qun, and it will find a use for you for as long as you have use."
The weird thing was, Satal's face softened into what looked like genuine concern during his speech. His body was stiff, but his eyes sought out the Bull's. Maybe it was real concern. The best re-educators could be a best friend and worst enemy all in one, to help the broken make the obvious choice.
"Understood," said the Bull, the only thing he could say. He made no promises, but Satal had to know the message had been received. Even he had to admit that bringing up his murderous Tal-Vashoth predecessor was a pretty good way of driving things home.
Satal, to his surprise, smiled before turning to open the door. The light flooded in.
The Bull found himself standing behind for a few moments, thinking the conversation over, before realising he was by himself in a damn armoury getting worked up over comments from someone who didn't know the half of it, even if he was a re-educator.
Although, he could admit privately, Satal hadn't been wrong.
But he'd done his duty: he'd reported Dorian, led the raid to his last known position, and then handed the job over to a group who were probably still scouring the coast. No-one had instructed him to give updates.
And yeah, that was complete bullshit, but it fit better in his head than the giant question mark he'd had floating over the mess before.
"Oh," said Satal, as he left, "and I do hope your agent recovers well."
The Bull stared after his disappearing silhouette.
- - -
The reports room greeted him with what was already a huge heap of crap piling up behind the letter box. When he opened the door, he had to stick a foot out to stop the mound of paper ready to slide past. He groaned. It was the easiest way of having all the pieces of the puzzle at his fingertips, but sometimes he just wanted to take a match to the lot of it.
Instead, he dug down through the mess before he found what he was looking for: a single, red-edged square of parchment with an injury description on it.
- - -
Rasit was lying on a cot in the Healers' Hall when he walked in. It was just as well he'd read the report, which had stated that she was fine, that her leg would suffer no non-superficial permanent damage from the wound, and that she'd be ready to perform light duties again in a week.
Rasit didn't look ready to celebrate, though, glowering up at the ceiling, then lifting her head to give the Bull a shamed look as he walked in.
The Bull paused, taking in her body language to work out the best line of attack, then sat by her bed.
"You've been on Seheron what, two, three weeks?" he said. "You were overdue a battle scar. Not sure I'd have gone for the leg, though. It'll be a pain in the ass while you're healing, and it's tricky to show it off."
"A badge of failure," she said.
The Bull scratched his chin. "Not a bad thing to have. You're less likely to fuck up the same way twice."
"I shouldn't have made the mistake in the first place."
"Tell me what happened," said the Bull, dropping the lightness in his tone, and Rasit responded gratefully to the order.
"I was confronting a group of Tal-Vashoth on the west side of the city," she said, and whatever had gone wrong with her mission, she'd mastered that neutral, distanced report-giving voice. "I talked my way into the group and confirmed they were Tal-Vashoth. I attempted to leave the meeting so I could pass on the information before they left the building. They thought it was... suspicious."
"Well yeah, those groups don't like people leaving just after they get all the dirt a Ben-Hassrath might be interested in. Why didn't you stick around?"
Rasit looked at him as if she thought he was crazy. "And try to take them all down myself?"
"No!" said the Bull. "Definitely a no. I mean, why didn't you stay right till the end of the meeting, and leave when the others did?"
"Because then they would have left," said Rasit, still frowning. "It was supposed to be infiltration of one meeting, not deep cover. I was supposed to signal headquarters and call reinforcements while the Tal-Vashoth were in the building."
"But instead they all went for you?"
"And you got out with only a slice to your thigh?"
Rasit looked at where her leg was all bandaged up, sticking out stiff on the cot.
The Bull grinned at her. "Not bad, Rasit."
He watched until she started to smile back, waiting till she'd got over that burst of shame from the beginning - because guilt helped no-one - then went in more seriously.
"Look." The Bull sighed. "Sometimes it looks all nice and neat when it's laid out on a mission report, but things go messy on the inside. Things that should work on Tal-Vashoth don't always cut it on Seheron. You know about a third of them here are ex-Ben-Hassrath? They know how we operate here. If you'd stuck around till the end of the meeting, we could've had people hidden inside the location of the next one, and they'd have ambushed the lot while the suspicious ones were waiting for you to go send your signal."
Rasit's mouth dropped open. "But the mission... I was trying to follow regulations. The Qun says -"
"Until the Qun tells you exactly what to say when two Tal-Vashoth start questioning your cover, you're going to have to fill in the blanks," said the Bull. "We might play by the rules, but half of Seheron is making their own game."
"But how is that right? Going against training to make my own path?"
"You might be going against training, but you're serving the Qun," said the Bull. "You're Ben-Hassrath. You think they put you here because of how well you follow orders? They bred you to think. Or pulled it out of you, I don't know. But that's why I'm here, and it's why everyone else is too. You have that ability and you don't use it? You're wasting yourself."
"So I have permission to... get creative?" said Rasit.
The Bull groaned. "Up to a point. You still need to follow my orders, and you still need to carry out the mission end goals. Just trust a bit more in your instincts, okay?"
"I think so, Hissrad," said Rasit, looking anything but okay.
"You'll get the hang of it," he said. Or die, he didn't say. "Now rest up, and I'll see you bright and early when you're healed up. I'll find something for the team to do in a week or so, we could all use some group practice."
That put a hint of a smile back on her face. "Yes, Hissrad!"
"Good," he said, and left.
- - -
There was meat in the distribution hall. It put him in a much better mood.
It wasn't that there wasn't meat on Seheron, just that there wasn't much of it. One of the farming communities kept a small herd of qalaba out on one of the flatter parts of the island, and there was an even smaller herd of druffalo descended from some brought over by Vints. But mostly Seheron was too hilly, too small, too crawling with jungle to farm large animals, and on an island where five different groups were scrapping over every inch, no-one wanted to set aside an area for a damn druffalo.
So what meat there was got mixed in with the barrels of salted stuff shipped over from Par Vollen and everything ended up just a bit chewier than back home. He'd got a taste for it, after a while, but damn if he didn't miss the fresh stuff from back home once in a while. Of course, on the rare occasions he'd gone back home he'd missed the Seheron fruit, so probably the trick was to enjoy what you had wherever you could get it.
The Ben-Hassrath were one of the few groups who got a choice in their meals. One side of the hall served the same broths and stews that most people got across Seheron. It was filling, nourishing, and easy to prepare and serve up standardised amounts, and the Bull usually made a beeline for it.
But Ben-Hassrath often ended up away from the distribution hall, or even out of the city, and sometimes they wouldn't be back for days. So there were stocks of cold food too, of unprepared salt meat and cooled root mash, and anyone could help themselves. No questions asked, since Ben-Hassrath couldn't answer half the time anyway. The administrators made notes of who took what, and those frequently using supplies would be recognised and queries forwarded to superiors. A Qunari didn't take more than they needed, but the more organised Tal-Vashoth were known to hoard before they ran.
The Bull headed for the hot stuff, but glanced over at the cold supplies. He'd never thought they were much before, but they looked good when he thought of Dorian's cold stocks.
Decent food. That was the sort of thing that could buy information anywhere. Giving distributions to a Vint was... well, something told him he shouldn't even be thinking about it, but it wasn't any worse than leaving him alive in the first place.
After all, he thought, changing direction in the middle of the room, he'd just told his own agent about being flexible within the rules. What sort of Ben-Hassrath would he be, if he turned down a tool at his disposal?
- - -
And when he went back to the house - when he handed Dorian the lunch and dinner supplies he'd taken (he'd go peckish for a half day, but he'd been through a lot worse). When Dorian eyed them up like he wasn't sure whether he wanted to devour the lot right then and there or stick it on a shelf as a safety net for when the rest of the food ran out -
"What, no cheese and biscuits?" joked Dorian, but his voice was unsteady and he looked at the food so he didn't have to meet the Bull's eyes -
Until he looked up, and the wonder shone out from under the demon features.
When that happened, the Bull told himself he was glad because it'd help his information gathering.
It was at least half right.
Sorry for the delay on this one!
Basically,various real life things have been going on here recently, but the biggest is that I'm in the process of moving apartments. I realised last week that there was no way I could keep up my normal writing amount and sort out all the necessary bits at the same time.
My first idea was to switch to fortnightly updates for a bit. Unfortunately, the weekend after next falls smack after when the internet goes off at my old place, but before it goes on at the new one. (Fingers crossed - I've got to actually get a phone line installed, so I'm hoping that goes smoothly!)
I'm therefore abandoning the update schedule for now. I'll still be writing every day (I've made this New Year's resolution last till JUNE, no way I'm stopping now!), and hopefully I'll have another chapter in two weeks-ish, but I won't be sticking an exact date on it.
(On the plus side, if I were left without laptop internet for a while, I'd get SO MUCH writing done. So much.)
Thanks to everyone who's been reading this far, and I hope to get back on track as soon as possible!
Chapter 10: Knives
First, an important notice: I absolutely have to link these two amazing pieces of abomination!Dorian art!
* This one, by the incredibly talented rockymountain-oyster,
* and this one, by the awesome doozerdoodles!
Seriously, go have a look, they're fantastic :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
During long stakeouts, some Ben-Hassrath liked to kill time with a game. It started with everyone pooling their knives - and with four or five Ben-Hassrath, you really did get a pool - and then people took it in turns to stack them. It was harder than it sounded. The blades slipped, the handles skewed the weight, and no two knives were quite alike. It could get harder, though; the challenge version involved stacking them in threes to form a pyramid, then balancing a final knife on its tip at the top.
The days after the Bull went back to the house felt like playing a constant, island-sized round. He threw himself back onto all the jagged edges of his missions, onto the details that caught at his brain, onto the pieces he laid out across Seheron. One day, he sent three agents undercover in Tal-Vashoth camps. The next, he tightened someone else's cover by giving them some grief in the street. Two days after that, he raided an illegal tavern, and stumbled into bed not long before the dawn bell rang. Time blurred.
And then there was Dorian, the final knife on the top.
"No, I've never come across that one," said Dorian, when the Bull mentioned the game to him during one visit to the house. "But there's only one sort of magic you carry a knife for, and something about the whole abomination thing has rather put me off the idea."
He frowned at the crumpled pieces of parchment in his hand, before letting out a pleased "Oh!". With a smile and a flourish of the wrist, he tossed one onto the pile. The Bull looked. It had "4 - Cups" written in curling, sloping handwriting.
The Bull had arrived at the house at sundown, after wrapping up a patrol of the docks. He timed it as carefully as any of his visits; twenty minutes here and there; not every day, never at the same time. This time he'd barely got a foot through the doorway before Dorian was brandishing a homemade deck of cards in his face. Cards were a bas thing; knife games to fill a wait were one thing, but the idea of making something purely for entertainment was alien to the Qun. Not that he couldn't get used to the idea. The Tevinter rules were the bit that kept tripping him up. There was pretty much no way Dorian hadn't made half of them up - if that was the authentic version, then he was a five foot Tamassran - but eh, he could let it slide. He could appreciate creativity.
The Bull laid down a five. "Your go."
"Fine," said Dorian, laying down a card while his lips sparked into a grin, "seven."
Dorian? Dorian, he could handle, whatever sort of crap was going on elsewhere. Sure, getting information out of an abomination wasn't on his usual list of duties, but it could've been worse. Dorian stayed in the same place, wouldn't cause trouble until his moon thing, and couldn't lie for shit.
The tricky part? The people he felt slipping out of place with every new report? His team.
Rasit had gone back into action a few days ago, and had gone from taking dumb risks to risking nothing at all. Her last reports had been dry, cautious things: monitoring a group of suspected Tal-Vashoth; no action taken. Identifying the leader; could not confirm or deny. Talshok had spent almost three weeks tracing a network and okay, these things took time, but it seemed like he'd got nowhere.
Gatt wasn't wholly in place either. It was the Vint mission; he'd got stuck in it. He'd written reams of messages about contacts and dates and people who deserved to get a sword up the ass, and the Bull wasn't sure he'd been sleeping when he was supposed to. He hadn't looked into it, because he didn't want a reason to write the guy up, but he couldn't help wondering what would happen when they finally tracked down those smuggler bastards.
He needed to do something about his people. Even Saraad and Hammer, his two good veterans - they were far too much a pair these days, setting themselves off from the newbies and the Vint hunter.
"Hello?" said Dorian. "You've only got five cards to choose from."
The Bull shook himself and dragged his attention back to the cards on the table. "Thought we were going for numbers in order."
"Ah, but seven's one off the order, and therefore I can put it down now and fill in the gap later," said Dorian, not even trying to hide his smile. It was the worst bluffing expression the Bull had ever seen on anyone, and he'd once dealt with a drunken rebel pretending the sword in his hand was for chopping wood.
"Hmm," said the Bull.
"Are you... alright?" asked Dorian, raising an eyebrow. "You seem distracted today. And not by me."
"Work stuff," said the Bull.
Dorian didn't press - he didn't often push for details of what the Bull actually did, which was probably for the best - but he didn't look satisfied either. The Bull stared at his cards, and weighed up his options.
"We've got a couple of new kids," he said, finally. "Straight from Par Vollen. To replace the people we lost while I was out."
"Not good?" said Dorian.
"If I wanted people thinking they're going to save the island single-handed or sitting tight in a corner all day, sure." He sighed. "But they'll learn."
Or they'll die. I give it even odds, he didn't say.
He put down a nine and watched Dorian splutter.
"You know if you make up rules, I can use them too?" he said, grinning. "Try more sleight-of-hand, it'll be a better challenge."
"Making up rules? Well, I never!" said Dorian, and the look of arch indignation on his face was almost convincing.
He scooped up the spare cards, and started dealing again. His claws flicked against the paper edges.
Almost like he was thinking aloud, he said, "But good to know, if you want a longer game sometime after Sunday."
Sunday, thought the Bull, and it took him a moment to realise he'd been handed the exact day the moon stuff was going down. He had to force down his own smile when he picked up his cards.
- - -
When he got back, he didn't go straight to his post. Instead, the Bull stood at the back of the huge Ben-Hassrath hall, with its constant murmurs and rustling of paper echoing from the rows upon rows of desks, and played Spot-The-Elf. It didn't take too long to pick out Gatt's bent head amongst the clusters of grey. There was just enough background noise to cover an attempt at slipping down the aisle and up behind him, but he'd never managed to sneak up on Gatt yet. In the end, he got all of a metre away before the guy spun round. It counted as a victory.
Gatt looked up the same way he always did when startled: muscles tense, teeth gritted for a fight. He relaxed almost as quickly.
"Nice to see you didn't lose your reflexes while I was in that cave," said the Bull, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Where are you with the Vint stuff? Think you can spare some time tomorrow?"
"Depends," said Gatt. Someone else, the Bull might've taken it for unwillingness, but Gatt had almost as many priorities to juggle as himself. "What's the mission?"
"A Tal-Vashoth sighting over on one of the outer settlements. Rasit got released from the healers a few days ago, and I want to take the team out now she's back in play. I've got everyone else between assignments tomorrow, and I'd need to send a group there anyway, so..."
"- It might as well be us," finished Gatt. "Can do. I'm waiting on the ship from Qunandar anyway. I'm expecting a message from Minrathous."
The Bull thought back to Gatt's last report. It had been long, but came with a letter attached in coded Tevene, with standard Ben-Hassrath double-twist cipher worked into an illustration at the bottom.
"From out agent out there?"
"Exactly. I've been getting communications from her directly," said Gatt. "She'd traced the smugglers back to some magister in the last message, and she'd managed to infiltrate the house as a slave."
"I remember," said the Bull, and thought of fire bombs that incinerated people before they even had a chance to fight back. Thought of screams and a crumbling mansion.
He rolled his shoulders. "You find out what they've got up their sleeves, you let me know. Get someone to yell for me if I'm not around. I want to stay on top of this one."
Gatt smiled. Of course, he hadn't known Bull's old team that well, but it wasn't like he was short on reasons to want to screw over some Vint douchebags.
"Don't worry, Hissrad," he said, with a smile that oozed a promise of revenge. "I wouldn't keep you out of this fight."
- - -
The next day was a Thursday. It had chiselled itself into the Bull's brain, like all the days till Sunday.
The Tal-Vashoth had been spotted not far from one of the inland settlements, out on the fringes of the jungles. He waited for his team at the city limits, where he stood out of the dawn sun under the shadow of the aqueduct. Passing carts threw up dust in his face. All farmer wagons: early comers for the Masath festival.
The weather had already gone cooler, for Seheron - a week earlier, and the sweat would have prickled on his skin as soon as he'd stepped outside - and the breezes were getting stronger. Autumn was on the way.
Rasit was earliest, and quieter than usual. She nodded to the Bull without so much as a "Hissrad". He sent her back to the end of the street to see if the others were on their way, and took the opportunity to watch her stride. Looked like the leg had healed well. As for where her head was at, that'd become obvious soon enough.
The others filed in on time. Gatt was frowning.
"I read the brief. You didn't mention the Tal-Vashoth were at the north villages. That's not normal, is it?"
Hammer nodded. "Jungle area. Too close to Fog Warrior territory."
"And it's only been sightings?" said Saraad. "That's weird, a group coming that close to a town and not raiding."
The two rookies watched them talk: Rasit's eyes were sharp, like the team was keeping some secret of how to do well and she'd catch it if they slipped. Talshok just looked confused.
"Maybe they're scouting it out?" said Gatt.
"Or maybe something's driving them out of the jungle," said the Bull, head running through all the scenarios. "Could be the Fog Warriors are on the move. Keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks like smoke."
They headed out into the grass. The sky was still streaked with the pinks of sunrise, and the light glittered off the dew on the ground. His boots were damp with it. Seheron, he thought, not for the first time: might be a shithole, but it was damn pretty.
Almost made things worth it.
They'd barely hiked for all of five minutes before Hammer pulled out his rations. He shrugged when Saraad raised an eyebrow at him.
"Eating and walking," he said. "It's efficient."
"Fair point," said Saraad, and opened her bag to take a bite of her own.
The Bull opened his, looked, and hesitated. He needed his strength up if they were going out to the villages, but they'd been serving varok today, and it'd be a waste to eat that himself when he had a chance to watch Dorian eat it instead. Oh, his face if he found out what that was! Though he was almost looking forward more to trying the guy on the karass paste in his bag. Karass only grew on Seheron, in shrubs on the ground, and it had a sort of peppery taste.
He hadn't meant for the food to become a regular thing. But Dorian was close to running through his own supplies, and the Bull couldn't bring more than one meal at a time. Also, the first time he'd brought something with a bit of a spice to the mansion, Dorian had closed his eyes and moaned as he'd chewed. He wasn't sure if it was a good look or not, with all the demon features in the way, but the Bull found he'd liked putting it on him.
Dorian would like karass, probably.
He pulled the supplies out of his bag, and popped half the varok in his mouth while they walked. Then a handful of the karass paste. He put the rest back. Some for him, some for Dorian.
Balancing the knives, he thought, and smiled as they reached a hill.
- - -
The settlement was an old one: mostly human natives living in Seheron-style thatched buildings. The Bull flashed them a grin as he passed through and shielded his eyes from the sun to stop them narrowing. Most of the watchers smiled back, or at least nodded respectfully. He remembered a few from the last patrol - must've been months ago, now. There was the merchant who'd arranged their food top-ups, and the Tamassran who'd brought her charges to meet them, and over there, the team of lumberjacks, coming out of the jungle with a long trunk of palmwood hoisted along their shoulders. The whole place smelt of the bark.
He'd arm-wrestled them last time. A distraction from their work, strictly speaking, but old towns like this needed different handling from the inner city. Most Qunari appreciated the respect you got with formality, but natives liked proof you were approachable. He didn't mind. Going up against a bunch of guys who'd spent their lives throwing trees around? There were Tal-Vashoth who wished they could give him as good a challenge.
Not everyone looked happy to see his team, though. More than one native looked suspicious, and there were way too many faces that he couldn't place at all. It'd been too long since he'd done a circuit of Alam's outer settlements.
One face he did recognise was strolling his way: the Ben-Hassrath agent stationed in the village, the one who'd sent in the report. She was human, a native for the natives, and wore her rank openly. The Ben-Hassrath didn't place people under cover in crappy little nowhere villages unless they were following a lead.
"Hissrad!" she called. "The person I wanted to see."
There was a girl walking just behind her. Also human, gangly, not much older than the kid the Bull had met back in the fishing town those weeks ago. A couple of years past her majority, maybe.
His body language was closed off. Hands tensed. The Bull's eyes focused in on the details.
"Marad here was the one who saw the Tal-Vashoth," said the agent.
"So they were Tal-Vashoth, then?" said Saraad.
The Bull looked at the Marad - the gatherer - and smiled to try to get her to ease up. She didn't smile back, but she did look up and nod.
The agent nodded too. "Seems so, but I couldn't do much by myself. It's impossible to find your way unless you know that patch of the jungle, for a start."
"How are we tracking these assholes, then?" said the Bull.
"Marad's agreed to show us the way," said the agent.
The Bull looked at the girl again. Well, that explained why she was so nervy.
"No. We don't take the kid," he said.
None of his team seemed impressed. Hammer and Rasit was frowning. Saraad looked ready to protest and Gatt looked ready to break heads. Talshok actually looked upset.
"I don't like it any more than you," said the agent. "But I can't show you the trail."
"It's alright. I can do it," said Marad, in a quiet voice that sounded anything but alright.
The Bull almost told the agent exactly where she could shove her ideas of bringing a gatherer in on a Ben-Hassrath mission, but then his own thoughts checked him. If they didn't find the Tal-Vashoth, Marad would be going out into the jungle anyway, but alone and unprotected. The idea of deliberately taking a civilian along made his teeth grind, but the alternative was worse.
"Fine," he said, and followed the pair, with his team, past the gawking lumberjacks and into the jungle.
- - -
He didn't stare - didn't want to intimidate her - but he kept a steady side eye on the girl as they headed into the trees. Her movements were sure: her feet always found the gaps between the rocks and clumps of grass, and she ducked every branch just before it whacked Hammer in the face. But her hands, her hands were trembling.
She paused at one point and let the Bull catch up with her. He bent his head down to her.
"We spot the Tal-Vashoth, you run back to the village, okay?" he said. "I'm not letting you end up in a fight."
"Yes, Hissrad," she whispered, and from there on stuck to his side as they walked.
They picked their way through the jungle, occasionally having to hack down branches. At one point a snake wriggled through the undergrowth, but the Bull brought his axe out and on it before it reached their path. Marad stared at the two halves, but didn't seem any more freaked out by it. Fear was all about what you knew, he guessed, and she knew the jungle.
They got to a clearing, and she stopped.
"This it?" he asked. "You -"
He felt rather than saw the movement behind him. Muscle memory saved him. His body knew to flinch away, and so Marad's knife raked deep across his back instead of going in by his spine. Something opened up, warm and wet and painful.
Gatt lunged for the girl, but the Bull was already twisting to grab her wrist, pressing a thumb into it to force her to drop the knife. His back burned.
"We've got company!" yelled Saraad.
The Bull took one eye off the struggling kid to follow her gaze to a mess of trees. A couple of men and a couple of women were staring at the Bull with horror and rage.
They'd meant to take him out first, then.
Their faces set hard when they realised they'd been spotted. Weapons came out; they were going for him anyway. The throb in his back got lost in the immediate haze of the fight. He grabbed the knife and dropped the girl. He charged with Hammer into the undergrowth, branches cracking to the sides. They hit him in the face. He didn't slow.
One guy rose out of the bushes in front of him. His mouth was set, eyes locked on the Bull's chest. He came in with a sword and the Bull swung his axe up and over and into it. Felt like fire ripped right through his back. It made him dizzy for a second, but by the time he'd shook his head the enemy was already recovering. Another blow, sloppier but with all his weight in it, and the guy went down to the floor. He was just readying his weapon one more time when a knife flew from nowhere and lodged itself in the rebel's throat. The rebel gurgled and stilled.
The Bull looked back. Saraad was a distance away from the melee, her eyes already flitting from fight to fight and working out where to send the next knife. Rasit was scrapping, but she was blocking Saraad's shot.
Talshok was on the floor and in trouble, with a rebel raising a sword over him. Staggering but standing, the Bull flung himself over and cracked the opponent on the back of the head.
"Thank you," said Talshok, eyes wide, like there'd been any chance the Bull wouldn't have stepped in. He'd never been more obviously Viddathari.
The Bull leaned over to help him up, but as soon as Talshok grabbed his arm, he felt the strain go right through his side and shred through the wound on his back. He lost his balance, and then it was Talshok trying to hold him up as best he could with slim elf arms.
Someone grabbed him from the other side - Hammer, lifting him up nice and easy - and then his team were crowding round him. The battle was over.
"Ah, shit. No, I'm fine," said the Bull, waving away his team's concern. "Stings like hell, but I'll be good. What about the girl?"
He looked around, and spotted Gatt kneeling by a crumpled body.
"Dead," he said, removing his hand from her and standing up.
He moved, and the Bull was stuck looking at the blank-eyed face of the girl who'd tried to stab him in the back. Her cheeks were shiny with moisture. It took him a second to realise she'd cried, sometime after he'd dropped her, during her last moments. Had she been forced into this, and been sorry for her part of it? Or a willing volunteer, sorry that she'd failed?
The blood loss was draining him. He pulled himself straighter.
"Let's head back," he said, and took the arm Saraad held out to keep him balanced.
- - -
He was listing by the time they got back to the town, but he managed to pull himself up long enough to stumble over to a rock. He'd hoped to slip the injury under the villagers' noses, but he'd forgotten that this wasn't Alam, or one of the settlements on the coast getting raided by Tal-Vashoth once a month. People didn't usually end up bleeding heavily here.
They crowded round, murmuring.
"Are the Tal-Vashoth gone?" asked someone.
"No Tal-Vashoth," said the village agent. "There were rebels. There aren't any more."
The muttering grew louder at that. The Bull looked round. The faces were a little blurry, but he could make out shock and... nervousness. A lot of nervous people. That needed taking care of.
Someone moved in on his left. "Hissrad, the healer is on her way."
"Hey, don't sweat it," he said, finding it in himself to smile at the onlookers. "There's so much scar tissue back there, it's like having armour."
A few faces shifted into relief: relief that Hissrad, their Bull, would survive; relief that the whole town wasn't being grouped with the rebels. He reinforced the image a little by calling over Hammer and getting him to compare the wound with one he'd picked up last year. Saraad measured it against one on her arm, and soon the town was grinning at the friendly competitiveness.
They'd remember him like this. If he'd shouted or snarled, he might've intimidated a few into sharing information, but he'd have scared the rest off. This way, he'd make them grateful. Get them to remember how approachable and merciful he was. Maybe make them not want to plot in the first place.
He met the eyes of an administrator. She smiled at him: a little, nervous thing.
Nervous because of her worry over the injury? Or because she'd been in on the plans?
The crowd seemed to double in size. The space felt tight. There were smiles all around him, and he couldn't tell which were fake. The usual tells were lies. He felt blind.
Rebels didn't make up plots by themselves. How far did the conspiracy go? Had he got them all? How many of these townspeople were looking for a chance to kill him?
"You doing alright there?" said Gatt, frowning down at him.
Civilians, he reminded himself, looking round at the crowd.
I'm so sorry for the delay on this chapter! June got taken up with house moving stuff as expected, and then I kept writing, and writing, and writing... and before I knew it I had an unwieldy thing of over 8,800 words, and I realised I'd basically written two chapters.
The good news is that I split it up and posted only the first half as chapter 10, so the next chapter is already in the editing stage. I'm lacking a beta at the moment, though, so if anyone has the time and inclination to look it over for me, I'd be eternally grateful!
Hope this was at least slightly worth the wait :)
They got him into the healer's room. A shabby Seheron-style shack, one exit, reeking of the elfroot she'd hung from the walls to dry. He breathed in the sweet, familiar scent.
Gatt and Hammer got his ass down on the one stool, then backed out of the shack. The healer came down on him like an arrow. She tutted over the cut - told him it would scar, but he wouldn't need more than a day or two on rest - and said she could fix him up.
She got a jar of salve. Standard clay medical supply pot, salve the same sloppy green stuff he'd seen the healers use back in Alam. The elfroot stench got even stronger when she popped off the lid, but he couldn't smell anything suspiciously bitter. The tips of her fingers dug into his back when she rubbed it in.
The healer was short, but she had long horns. He could use those to disable her if she tried anything. His hands had tensed up all by themselves, he realised, but that was okay. It meant he could afford to keep the rest of himself looking relaxed.
"I'll bandage you up now," she said.
"Alright," he said.
He couldn't seem to snap himself out of a fighting state. He needed - he needed to be up, to be lashing out at someone who deserved to take the blows.
The last time an injury got him this way - though it hadn't been quite this bad - he'd gone to the Tamassrans in Alam and had them fuck the tension out of him. In a place this small, maybe this healer would've taken it on as part of her role? Would there be someone else in the village who could help him out? It was probably better not to ask. He could stand to have her dressing his wound, visible at his side and smoothing down the bandage with firm, businesslike strokes, but the idea of lying back and getting her to take him out of himself? No way. He didn't want a stranger's hands, not right now, not in this village.
The reverse was even worse to picture. Maybe if he had someone in his arms, someone he could do something good for... but right now he wasn't sure he was stable enough to direct anyone, and the healer didn't deserve the risk.
His heart didn't really slow down at all while he and the team made their way back to Alam, in a wagon the village kept for the rare times someone needed to travel to the capital. He was on edge even while he talked and joked about his injury to his guys ("Remind me to go at the next rebels from the left. I want the next scar to be symmetrical. It'll look like one extra-long one that way."). Some of them rolled with it ("You want it longer, we need to start fighting better rebels," said Saraad), but Talshok stayed silent the whole journey.
The Bull couldn't jump - well, slide - out of the wagon fast enough when they passed under the Alam aqueduct.
"I'm stopping by the Healers," he said. "You all go write up your mission reports."
"Are you alright?" asked Gatt, glancing at the bandage around his hips.
"Yeah," said the Bull. Should he mention his plans, reassure them a little? No, he decided, it'd be better to let them fix on his physical injury. They'd worry about that anyway, no need to let them in on where his head was at.
He settled on saying, "Just think something's come loose at the back. I should probably get it checked."
"Yeah, it'd be embarrassing if our Hissrad got taken out by a scratch like that," said Saraad.
Hammer grunted. "Well, I'm off to eat. Anyone?"
His team shuffled off, with the exception of Rasit, who gave him a respectful nod before turning, and Talshok, who lingered.
"About the fight back there..." he started, once the others had gone. "I wanted to thank you for pulling me out."
The Bull sighed. "That's how it works," he said. "You really want to repay me, get yourself into training and practice some balance moves and takedowns. Don't let them get you on your back again."
"I will, Hissrad," said Talshok, and a flash of something - guilt? - twisted his face, just for a second, and then he too turned to leave.
The Bull thought about stopping him, then changed his mind. Who knew, maybe if the kid was beating himself up about having Hissrad step in to help, he'd work hard at not needing the save next time. Something to keep an eye on, but not now.
Instead, he walked into the Healers' Hall.
His shoulders relaxed all by themselves under the high-ceilinged Vint entrance. There were familiar faces all around, since no-one got to spend as long as he had on Seheron without knowing the healers like their own work unit. Some people in here he'd known as long as his best agents - longer, in some cases, since healers didn't tend to snap or die so often - and a few he trusted as much as anyone. Getting injured was a bitch, but the recovery wasn't always so bad.
He didn't go for sexual management as often as he had in Par Vollen, though. The authorities made sure that there were the exact number of healers in Alam required for a population that size, but no-one had ever figured out a number for the amount of healers needed when half the population was getting regularly beaten up in the streets.
"Hissrad!" said one of his favourite Tamassrans, a woman large enough he'd always wondered if she'd been bred from farmer stock. Her eyes immediately darted to the bandage at his hips, and narrowed with a lack of recognition.
"Just picked this up in one of the outer settlements. Nothing to worry about," he said.
"You need further treatment?" she asked, walking round him to look at his back.
He waved her off. "Nah, that's all good. I was just kind of worked up, wondering if anyone was free to take the edge off a little."
"Well, your usual healers are currently with other patients. But it's been a while since you've come in, isn't it? I'm sure you're overdue for sexual management. I'll move one of the ward assistants here for a while, and that way I can take care of you myself."
Someone he knew, with hands he trusted. He nodded.
She smiled, and fetched the forms for him to fill in in duplicate. She read through, filed them, and lead him into a plain back room with a bed, where they both undressed. He took the cloth from the bucket of water in the corner and wiped himself down, while she lit the oil burner near the bed - whiteflower oil, for relaxation. She dabbed more of it on his forehead when he sat down.
"Now," she said, pulling out a chest from under the bed and pushing up the lid, "let's see what you need."
- - -
He felt far more himself walking back to the Ben-Hassrath headquarters. His back ached, though both he and the healer had been careful, but there was enough of the good kind of soreness that he couldn't bring himself to care too much. There was still that jolt of wariness when he walked through the doors out onto the street, but he felt like he might not rip the head off the next person to call out his name. Between the injury and the treatment, he mostly felt drained.
No-one so much as glanced at his bandage as he headed through the corridors to the reports room. Ben-Hassrath walked around with injuries more often than they walked around with colds.
There were shelves next to the report room with all the necessary paper and forms to fill in, handy for taking back to one of the desks that filled the surrounding hall. The Bull took a standard piece of parchment, then remembered: red, he needed the red form to report an injury.
The red form pigeonhole, however, was completely empty. Qunari didn't tend to run out of stuff unless someone had deliberately messed up the supplies, since someone was always on the job of refilling what needed to be refilled, but forms tended to run low. Not because of the number of wounds on Seheron - well, not just because of that - but because people who needed the red forms were mostly too distracted to pay attention to the level of the paper.
He had spares in the back of the reports room somewhere, though; he gave up on the shelves and let himself in.
One of these days, he thought as he rooted through the piles and piles of paper, he'd get round to tidying things up. Maybe when there weren't Tal-Vashoth to take care of and Vints to hunt down and - yeah, that wasn't happening any time soon. Maybe he should just get Dorian to kidnap him again for a while, let his replacement take care of it. Or maybe he could just light the whole thing on fire -
He stopped as his fingers found two yellow sheets, stuck in the middle of the pile.
The final mission reports for the agents he'd lost while he'd been in the cave. Completed posthumously, left to gather dust in the reports room. Left by him. When he'd got back from the fishing village, he remembered, he'd turned them over and stuffed them at the back and told himself he'd read them sometime, just not then -
But if not then, when?
Part of him desperately wanted to leave those two reports exactly where he'd found them. Bury them under a ton of paper and leave them at the bottom to rot.
But it wouldn't be fair to either of them, to ignore their final sacrifices. And more important, this was his job. The Qun hadn't put him on Seheron just so he could turn a blind eye to the messy bits.
He turned one over.
Alam Sector 15, Salt Warehouse
Team entered the building from two sides in flanking manoeuvre. 6 rebels on interior detected the approach. Method of detection unknown: suggests hidden sentry. Rebels concealed themselves before team entered.
The agent was immediately hit from behind with an explosive device. Device was of Tevinter origin, similar to a fire bomb. The agent sustained severe burns and concussive wounds. Likely killed instantly.
He stared at the paper, and thought of fire, as it had swallowed up his second in the mansion all those weeks ago.
He turned over the other sheet.
Agent was killed on escape by concealed rebel. The rebel threw a fire bomb from a distance. The agent sustained severe burns and concussive wounds, estimated to have died within four minutes. Death was witnessed by agent Gatt.
There. Pretty much what he'd expected. And now it was done, and he could move on with bringing the bastards who'd spread those grenades down.
He looked down. His hand had balled itself into a fist, crumpling the paper.
He needed - something. Some sort of work to throw himself into, only something where he wouldn't have to deal with the civilians for a while, maybe. He had his mission report, of course, but he needed the red paper and he still hadn't found what he'd actually came in for -
He growled, once, then took a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Untensed his fingers.
He half-thought about going right back to the Healers' Hall and calling the Tamassran to fix him up all over again, but he put that out of his head pretty quickly. For one, they'd note his excessive use of medical services down as a concern, and two, they might start questioning the healer's earlier performance. She didn't deserve that. It wasn't her fault it hadn't stuck.
What he really, really wanted to do was go to the sparring ring and hit it all out. Maybe get someone to give him some blows. But he wasn't dumb enough to go throwing punches when it'd been less than a day since he'd had his back sliced open.
There was one place he knew where there wouldn't be eyes all around. And he'd been planning to bring Dorian food anyway, since he'd saved some of his supplies from the trip to the settlement. Going there now would just be another item off the to-do list.
And yeah, he didn't usually try to give himself that kind of crap, but he really didn't want to go looking at his own motivations too closely right now. Bringing Dorian some food. Something to do, not going to screw his back over. Simple.
No-one noticed the exaggerated looseness of his muscles as he strolled back out through the hall. No-one stopped him in the street, or called out as he passed under the aqueduct and out of the city limits.
He breathed in deep as he headed out into the grass. The light was fading and there could be someone out in the shadows right now, hidden behind a tree. But it helped, anyway, that warm Seheron air unclogged by the dust of the city.
He found Dorian in a different room from usual, where the floor had gotten all messed up but most of the roof was intact. Dorian was just a shadow hunched in the corner.
"Well, if it isn't my only visitor," he said, standing up. In the dimness with the ridges of his face and the tips of his claws picked out in faint light, he looked more like a demon unfolding itself from the ground than ever.
Freaky, thought the Bull, but more as an afterthought than anything. Was it a problem? Something about his instincts were off, if he got tense when an unfamiliar Tamassran bandaged him but not when a literal abomination started pulling poses.
The Bull covered his distraction, rooted around in his bag for the pouch of rations, and held it out. "Visitor? You mean I've been upgraded from delivery?"
"When you put it that way, better not," said Dorian, taking the pouch. "Imagine the scandal if people found I was mixing socially with a tradesman!"
He looked up, and the Bull saw the black eyes flick down to his bandage.
"What happened to you?" asked Dorian.
Dredging it all up again wasn't what the Bull had in mind, so he simply said, "Rebels. Lured us out to an isolated spot, got me in the back. Better than it looks, though."
"That's not hard, you look awful," said Dorian, coming over and inspecting it, as if the guy who'd admitted he was terrible at healing magic was going to do any better than dedicated Qunari healers. It must have looked like a good job, though, or Dorian couldn't tell, because he backed off with a nod.
He put his hand on the lid of the pouch to flip it off, then paused.
"You know," he said, and hesitated, then continued. "If you Qunari hadn't stepped in and dragged the island kicking and screaming under the Qun, you wouldn't have any rebels."
For some reason, that stung more than it should have done.
"What, we should have stepped in and enslaved everyone instead?" asked the Bull.
"Didn't you?" said Dorian.
"Yeah, that's... not how the Qun works," the Bull said, shaking his head. "Okay, sometimes this - well, sometimes it doesn't work how it should-" and that felt like a sword in the chest to admit - "but it's the best of some really crap options."
Dorian looked disbelieving. "Really? You think those people would be so much worse off if the Qunari all left?"
"Yeah," said the Bull. "Because the moment we were off the island, you Vints would waltz right in and crush the place. "
"Oh," said Dorian, and huffed. "So that's what it comes down to, is it? We won't back off while you're still here, you won't back off because we won't back off, and the whole thing goes around and around because no-one has any better options?"
"Yeah," said the Bull. "Pretty much."
He didn't sigh - didn't think he let anything slip - but something in his expression made Dorian frown.
"You're not..." said Dorian, with a strange look on his face, then trailed off.
"I'm not what?"
"No. Never mind."
The Bull waited, and finally Dorian sighed and said, "You're not alright with this, are you?"
Something flipped in his chest. He pushed it down, and said lightly, "Never pretended seeing innocent people get hurt was fun."
"You've also talked about how much you like fighting things and picking up scars. I suppose I just imagined you as this sort of - Qunari machine, wading through the blood and butchery, with few thoughts one way or the other."
"I am a Qunari machine," said the Bull, not liking where this was heading.
"You sound... tired. That's all."
Well... sure. That summed it up. If he broke it all down, if he boiled down every incident and injury and the way he felt like ripping the island apart and letting everyone squabble over the pieces - yeah, he was tired.
But so what? You did what you had to do and kept yourself as whole as possible while you did it and it didn't matter if you were tired. It didn't matter if you got beat up or your friends died or there were traps around every corner, it didn't matter if things got so bad you couldn't fight or fuck the tension away. You did your job, and at least you knew that even if things went to shit, it was what you were supposed to be doing. That it was all worth something.
Hell if he wanted to think about that right now. He'd given Dorian the rations already, right? Job done, check. Time to move onto the next shitty thing on today's to-do list and maybe tomorrow they'd let him just go bash bad guys over the head.
"I think I'll head back now," he said.
He turned to go, wondering if the walk back would take care of the way his hands kept clenching and unclenching.
He growled under his breath, but he wasn't enough of a bastard to completely ignore it. He took a deep breath, held it, then looked back.
Dorian was looking as desperate as he'd ever seen him, hand outstretched as if to yank him back. The talons made it look like he was going in for the kill, though, and he watched as it clicked and Dorian dropped the arm.
"Look, this... amazingly, this was not what I had in mind," said Dorian, scrubbing the clawed hand over his face.
"What did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Dorian. He brought his hand to his side and met the Bull's eyes. "I can't imagine what I was thinking. Let's just put this aside for now, shall we?"
He rooted around and pulled the pouch out of a fold in his robes. "I haven't even opened this yet. You wouldn't want to leave me to it, would you? I'll have to guess at what everything is and I'll end up slandering all your food."
The Bull looked for a long moment, then nodded. Dorian sagged as he fumbled for the lid of the pouch.
He pulled out the contents. "Oh, it's those little pressed root crackers."
"Sak-mas," said the Bull.
"That was it. Oh, that reminds me, that mash you brought last time? With that spicy vegetable in it? I don't suppose you could grab some more of it if you have a chance, could you?"
Despite everything, the corners of the Bull's mouth lifted. "You want me taking orders now?"
"Oh," said Dorian, looking horrorstruck. "I think I'm developing a taste for Qunari food."
"Hey, our food's not bad," said the Bull. "Sure, it may not be drizzled with five kinds of wine or however the hell you Vints eat, but it fills you up."
"Our cook used to do peafowl drenched in six," said Dorian, and for once the Bull had zero idea whether he was joking.
He remembered the varok in the bag, and gestured. "Hey, don't forget the rest."
"And this is..?" asked Dorian, pulling it out as if it might explode.
The Bull did his best to restrain his smile. "Just try it."
Dorian looked suspiciously at him, then back at the food, and then finally picked it up and gave it a nibble.
"What do you think?"
"It's..." Dorian took another tiny bite, but with his face all screwed up even on top of the demon bits. "I don't know. What am I eating?"
"Varok," said the Bull. "Seheron delicacy."
Dorian raised an eyebrow.
"Well, we don't get that much fresh meat on Seheron, right? There's not a lot of space, so people eat more fish."
"And food - it's not like on Par Vollen. Too much crap going on with the supplies means there isn't always as much to go round as there should be."
"...yes?" said Dorian.
"So say you're slaughtering a druffalo. On the mainland, you'd probably take all the good bits, the steaks and stuff that'll keep a guy going, but if you're on Seheron, you don't waste anything. If you can eat it, you eat it."
Dorian peered down at the part-eaten varok in his hand, and the bits of his skin that weren't already grey went pale.
"And what part of the druffalo have I been eating, exactly?" he said, speaking carefully.
The Bull finally let his grin spread over his face. "You can't tell?"
Dorian looked at the round thing.
"...oh. Oh no."
"Yep!" said the Bull. "Bull testicles."
Somehow, all the crap of the morning, the nagging pain in his back and that constant on-edge feeling; all of that blew away with his roar of laughter at the look on Dorian's face.
- - -
The sun was setting when he strolled back into Alam, a cool breeze cutting through the last warmth of the day. Gatt was waiting by the doors of the headquarters.
"Where were you?" asked Gatt. "I left a message in the reports room and sent out two runners to see if you were in the city!"
The edge in his voice caught the Bull immediately. His heart rate jumped up a little.
"I got a message from my contact in Minrathous, that's what happened," said Gatt. "You know, I was all prepared to let you have your slice of the action, but if you don't want to come cut up some smugglers..."
Smugglers, smugglers he could go for. The standard thugs weren't just upfront about wanting to kill you, they monologued about it, and they often came up to their wrists in blood.
The Bull smiled, the not-so-nice one he pulled out on suspects. "What've we got?"
"The date and location of the next smuggling drop," said Gatt. "Three days from now, an inlet on the eastern coast. Not far at all, less than half an hour's hike."
The Bull nodded. "Any more details on the drop-off? I'd like to know what kind of security they're packing."
Gatt looked down at the letter, slid a finger down to help him scan through the information. No-one had taught him to read before the Qun had taken him in. The Bull remembered watching him pore over sentences - deliberately written in large, block letters - with his tongue stuck between his teeth and his eyebrows furrowed in concentration. These days, it was almost impossible to tell unless you already knew or were very, very good at spotting the signs.
"According to my contact, the magister won't be accompanying his investment - sorry to disappoint - but he's loaned the group a couple of mages for the run. The agent says it's a small boat, crew of about 10. The cargo's mostly weapons. You know the sort. There're some fancy goods for bribery purposes, and enough supplies to keep the crew well-fed and well-armed."
"Ten," said the Bull, thinking. "Better not try to outnumber them, we'd be better off doing a quiet ambush with a small group and taking them by surprise. You bring whoever you've been hunting Vints with, and I take the rest of the team?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," said Gatt.
The Bull nodded, and turned to go.
The thought hit him like gaatlok before he'd taken a step.
"Three days," he said slowly, turning back. "That's Sunday, right?"
"That's right," said Gatt, frowning a little at whatever he saw on the Bull's face. "Not surprising, really. If I were a smuggler, I'd want to make the trip at new moon, go for maximum darkness."
Several things in the Bull's head went click.
"Right," he said, in the same easy way. He turned to leave with no real hurry. "Well, I'll work on a plan before then. You keep your guys in the loop."
"Got it," said Gatt, and the Bull smiled at him before heading out, feeling like something inside him was going to explode.
- - -
"Back so soon?" said Dorian, when the Bull arrived.
He was sitting on the floor surrounded by books. He smiled as he turned, but it quickly fell off his face when he caught sight of the Bull's expression.
"Are you alright?"
The Bull forced himself to stay a distance away, muscles rigid, fingers itching. He had to take in a deep breath and hold it - a Qun technique for self-control - before he started talking.
"Just heard the weirdest thing," he said, keeping his tone conversational. "I got back, and one of my guys told me we're expecting some Vint smugglers. Sunday, same day as your plan. Under the new moon."
Dorian made an "Oh shit" expression, and he stood up with his hand in front of him like he thought he might have to use it.
The Bull continued. "I don't like smugglers. Weaselly assholes, and half the stuff that gets used to bribe or kill people round here comes from them."
"I've got nothing to do with that," said Dorian, voice low. "I'm only after lyrium. I hid the remainder of my gold when I got here - I've got enough for a vial."
The Bull smiled, but not nicely. "Yeah, strange thing about that. See, when I found out about the drop, I got thinking. You knew about this. You could've guessed the date based on the moon, but you had to know where these dicks would land. You were planning on it."
"Well, it wouldn't have worked very well if I hadn't," said Dorian, now staring in a way that was more confused than nervous.
"So how did you know?" said the Bull. He took a step forward. "How did you know there'd be weapons incoming, when you've been stuck here for months?"
The Bull saw Dorian flinch on the word "weapons" came in; his mouth opened, then shut.
"The first weapons drop," the Bull growled. "That was your boat it came in on, wasn't it? You arrive, a couple of months later we get Vint crap all over the island? Some coincidence."
"No! Well, maybe, but if it was, I had no idea!" said Dorian. He had his hands up in front of him, and his eyes landed on them as if realising for the first time the weakness of his position. He scowled, lowered them, and pulled himself up straight."Sorry, did you think the nice smugglers just let me have a good look through all their things? I spent most of the journey staying quiet at the back of the boat, hoping they wouldn't decide I wasn't worth the half of the money they'd get for my safe arrival."
"So it was all fine, as long as no-one hurt a hair on your entitled Vint head?"
"...yes?" said Dorian. "I don't know! I didn't think about it. My family never supported the war, my father always thought it was a drain on the country's resources. I never had to consider the logistics of it before. I just found a boat that was heading away from Tevinter and made them take me too."
"So you financed the guys who brought Vint weapons onto my island and got three of my agents killed," said the Bull. "But you didn't mean it. You just didn't consider the logistics."
Dorian looked away. "I'm sorry. If I'd known - well, I don't know what I'd have done, if I'd known."
The Bull slammed his fist into his thigh. He took a deep breath. Then he looked straight into Dorian's wary eyes.
"Fine," he said. "But don't come to the drop. That's the only warning you'll get."
He got up and turned to walk away, when he heard Dorian say, "No."
He turned back.
"I said no," said Dorian. His mouth was set in a stern line. "I'm sorry about your agents, I really am. And if you want to stop the smugglers on Sunday, then do it. I'll even help you if I can. But I'm not giving up on getting that lyrium."
"Oh, you're not, are you?" said the Bull. "That's too bad, because the only stuff that's getting off that ship is getting off in the custody of my guys. If you want to join it, then be my guest."
He left the ruins with his hand on his battle axe, wondering if he'd need to use it.
On Qun-regulated sex: I got mixed up on the details of the in-game conversation and remembered Bull saying they went to the healers for it. He actually just says it's like going to the healers would be for non-Qunari. I considered re-writing it, but realised there's nothing explicit to say it doesn't come under healing, and I liked the idea of making Qunari sex literally clinical.
The sky was as black as expected when the Bull and his team got to the beach, where one of the cave mouths riddling the cliffs served as a hide out. The one they picked was barely deep enough to be a dent, but it just about fit all of the Bull's team plus the four stiff-faced Vint hunters Gatt had brought along for the ride - a couple of Qunari, a human, and an elf. Given the way they were squeezed in, straight backed, he kind of wished the Qun would get a move on and convert more dwarves. They'd made Rasit stand at the back so those long, curling horns of hers didn't take out an eye.
Maybe something had warned off any passers-by - not unthinkable, given the rebel communication networks they could never keep up with - but there wasn't a sound apart from the lapping of the waves.
"They're late," muttered Gatt, to his left. His frown was just visible in the shadows. "The boat was supposed to leave Tevinter at sundown."
"Not much wind tonight. That'll slow them down," said Hammer.
The Bull peered out at the ocean, keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon. He resisted the urge to scan the shore. If Dorian was skulking out there somewhere, he was on his own.
"There!" said Saraad.
What he'd thought was a dark edge of cloud was coming into focus. Saraad was right; something was sticking up from the waves.
"See, Gatt? You'll get your chance to knock some Vints around after all," he said. There was no reply, but he did spot a glint of white from Gatt's full-toothed smirk.
Saraad leaned forward, peering. "Uh, Bull? I don't think that's a smuggling ship."
The thing had been further out than he'd thought, because it kept getting larger as it moved in. A few seconds later and he caught a low, rhythmic thud, so steady that at first he thought he'd heard his heartbeat. The sound barely carried over the sea, but he recognised it.
"Oh, crap," he said, as the prow came into view. There were long, thin shadows to the side. No visible detail yet, but even he couldn't miss the movement of a lot of oars.
"That's a galley," said Saraad. "A ship that size, that's got to be forty people, at least."
"We should have brought a dreadnought in," said Rasit, from the back, clipping the sentence in a way that suggested she'd been gracious in cutting her opinion off partway.
"If I'd known this was what we were facing, I would have!" said Gatt, frowning at the ship. "But we've just sent the fleet west to head off Vint attacks. I wasn't going to divert one for a boat with ten crewmembers and a settled landing spot."
"More Vints for us, then," said the Bull, forcing a smile through his teeth.
"Are we still going to ambush them when they land?" asked Talshok.
The Bull squinted, trying to get a better estimate of the ship's size. "No, that's not gonna work. Even if we still had equal numbers, there's no way they'll want to beach a ship like that. They'll weigh anchor as close to the shore as they can, then get the goods off some other way."
"I can go for reinforcements," offered Rasit.
"By the time you get there, round people up, and get back again, we'll have missed our shot. And be stuck out here one down." He let his voice go a little softer. "We don't need to go rushing in, people. Hold back a minute, let them show us what they've got."
The shadow of the galley grew bigger as it came closer, till it was almost level with some of the rocks on the very tips of the bay and he could hear it smashing through the waves. The thud of the drum was set against the faint smack of oars.
What were they doing, using a ship like that for smuggling? It'd be faster than a dreadnought, but not by much, and even with the drum muffled they'd have a hard time sneaking in. It didn't make sense.
Finally, just when he was wondering if he'd been wrong about the ship not landing, there was a flicker on its side, followed by a splash. It stopped.
"They've anchored," murmured Hammer.
No more movement.
The moment stretched into the night air, till he could hear fidgeting from one of the group. Someone else shuffled, and Gatt let out a hiss of breath. Maybe the Vints had got spooked off.
Then there was another splash. The whizz of ropes being let out, just audible over the waves, and more splashes. Boats deployed to get the crew ashore. He counted six dark shapes on the sea: at four a boat, that could be twenty-four against his group of ten. He'd fought worse odds, but not voluntarily.
Then the weirdest thing of the night happened: all six boats lit lanterns. Or whatever the magical equivalent was, because there was no way that was normal flame, not with heat-white beams that seared straight lines right across the water and onto the sand. Something scuttled away in the corner of his eye - something large - but he had to duck his head before he got a good look. His eyes were watering too badly to see.
"What're they playing at?" said Gatt. "Are they trying to get themselves noticed?"
"They know we're here," said the Bull, trying to crack an eye open again.
He blinked the sparkles out of his vision and turned to Gatt. "The big galley? The lights? It doesn't make sense unless they don't care who sees them. They know we're here. They want to outnumber us on the beach before we set foot on the ship."
He glanced back up, but there was nothing but the beams and the night surrounding them. The shape he'd seen before - he might've taken it for an animal, if he didn't already know nothing that big lived on the coast.
Well, hopefully the people watching the shore from those boats hadn't got clued in on Seheron nature, or Dorian might've just shredded the last of their cover to bits.
"So what do we do?" asked Rasit.
The Bull grinned. "We give them the fight they're expecting. Gatt, you and your guys prod them a bit - a few slashes, lots of shouting, but don't get too close. Run if they get onto you, don't get caught by any of those fire grenades. Make it noisy, but don't make it serious."
"A diversion?" said Gatt, lips quirking. "We can handle that."
"Leave one of your guys behind," said the Bull. "If any of them stay back and start transporting it, I want them followed. Let's not lose the stuff while we go after the bad guys."
He turned to his other team members and smiled.
"That leaves us the fun part."
- - -
The lanterns bobbed closer and closer to the shore. The Bull's eyes had adjusted enough to the light that they weren't stinging anymore, but it didn't help much. There was no way to make out what was behind the blazing spots.
"Hissrad," said Gatt.
Gatt pointed. "Those oars. They must have a whole team of slaves rowing under the main deck. If we're taking down the ship..."
"We can't wait to get them out after all the fighters are down," the Bull finished. "I know. When you're done with your part, send someone down to the village to get boats. I'll see what I can do."
Gatt nodded, though his eyes were cast downwards. The Qun came first; they both knew that. But it wasn't so long ago that the Bull had rescued a scrappy elven slave off a ship not too different from the one closing in, and the kid had saved his ass enough times that he was probably owed one.
When the lights started to narrow in on a patch to the right of the cave, Gatt made a hand signal to his team, and with a muttered, "Fight well, Hissrad", slipped out of the cave. His team followed, heading left while hugging the cliffs. The Qunari disappeared first - grey skin into grey rocks - but soon the Bull couldn't spot anyone past the thickness of shadows.
One by one, the boats hit the beach, grinding to a halt on the sludge of shells in the shallows. The slaves - or mercs - jumped up like Stens and started dragging the boats up past the waves, lifting chests out of each with the speed of people who knew they'd be in serious shit for dawdling. Conversations were kept short and hissed. The Bull wondered who they were getting more nervy of: the Qunari they had to know were waiting ahead, or their masters waiting behind.
Out of nowhere, a high humming sound. It lasted no more than a second before there was a thick crunch. One of the Vints dropped the end of the box he was holding and fell to his knees. In the spotlights, the crossbow bolt in his thigh was all too obvious.
"Qunari!" yelled the man who'd been next to him, looking around wildly. There was another thud and he dropped next to his friend.
After that it got harder to track; some of the Vints started panicking, one or two barked out orders, and a couple of the brightest ones got on the ground before more bolts went whizzing through the air. Eventually some dropped the chests to go charging off into the night, leaving all of four men guarding the cargo.
When he heard the screams coming from somewhere out along the beach, he stepped out of the shadows.
"Hey," he said, watching heads snap towards him. "You guys in charge, or are you here to do the dirty work?" One good look at them answered the question. Grubby shirts, worn boots, swords barely good enough for training with.
"Tell you what," he continued, "you get on your knees, and we end this nicely. Your masters can do shit all here, but the Qun's got a place for you. What do you say?"
They didn't take it. One guy with balls of steel charged him head on; Hammer burst out of the shadows and hit him from the side. The others fell quickly. The Vints had banked on having superior numbers, not great fighters.
When they were done, there were four slaves staining the sand red. Maybe it was for the best. They'd still have had to tie up and secure any who'd surrendered, and it would've taken time. The Qun approved of minimising waste, but blowing missions for rescue operations wasn't something the people upstairs looked on kindly.
"Alright," he said, looking away. "Grab the boats."
He looked up and met Saraad's eyes across the sand; he nodded and they moved for the nearest boat. The faint shouts and clashes of metal drifting from the other end of the beach were getting fewer. Gatt had taken care of his end, then.
Saraad gave the boat a heave. It caught the tip of a wave and bobbed out into the water. "These look pretty flimsy. You sure we can't go grab a few proper ones from down the coast?"
She stepped in anyway, though the Bull noticed the pause before the thing rocked and she sat down. Bred for the land, was Saraad, but apparently the Qun didn't give a shit.
He swung himself in with a deliberate thud onto the wood, grabbed an oar and raised it to her with all the swagger of an Orlesian making a toast. "You worried over whether a Vint boat will hold a couple of Qunari?"
"It's a Vint boat," she said, gripping her own oars. "I'm worried it'll sprout demons and eat us."
He pushed off against the shore and said, "You get seasick, aim at a magister!" before the noise of the waves made talking impossible without yelling.
They were the first of the boats on the water. When he looked back, he saw more slipping into the sea, fanning out behind them.
They rowed, he and Saraad matching stroke for stroke. The blackness stretched on and the waves shook them constantly, and he was almost wondering whether he'd imagined the ship till it loomed overhead.
"Hold!" yelled someone overhead, followed by a smattering of Tevene.
Saraad, whose Tevene lessons had stuck a lot harder than his own, shouted something in the cut-glass accent he'd never managed. He understood it better than he spoke it, though. We're returning the boat. We need reinforcements.
It was just possible to make out a black shape moving over the side of the deck that might have been a face. He couldn't make out any features, though, and with the dark night the Vints had been nice enough to pick for this, he'd bet they couldn't make out much from above either. Just a boat that looked the right shape to be one they'd sent out, and someone calling them in the right language.
The Bull decided to chance it, and pushed the boat a little closer with an oar in one hand and the rigging gripped in the other. When it bumped against the side, he grabbed the rope knotted to the front of the boat, looped it round the rigging, and started to climb with Saraad close behind him.
The face leaning over became clearer, until the Bull could make out the confusion in his eyes.
"Hey!" he said. "You're -"
Even he didn't expect the shink and glint of Saraad's blade flying right past his ear, followed by the first guy stumbling back. Saraad reached for another one while he was swinging himself up and at the second man before he had a chance to cry out.
"Qunari!" yelled someone on the deck, and eh, being sneaky had its limits.
He swept his axe in a wide circle as they rushed him, knocking them back from the rigging. Another knife whooshed past his head, and he looked back to see Saraad still clinging to the top of the net, ducking back behind the side of the ship while she readied more.
Over the shoulders of the lackeys who'd jumped him, he spotted a couple of guys standing by the mast.
"Out of the way!" yelled one, and yep: robes covered in fancy green stitching, a sneer, and a voice that squawked orders in the same pitch as the circling seabirds. That was one of the mages in charge, right there.
He knew what was coming as soon as the man raised his staff; he dived to the left. A crackle of lightning whipped past on his right. There were familiar yells behind him. The rest of his team were making it onto the deck.
He went in again for the magister, saw his eyes widen. The other mage next to him did something flashy, and the Bull's axe smacked into a barrier before a blast of something knocked into his chest, taking him clean off his feet. He landed on his side and slid along the deck. The wood grated. He growled. A hack to the stomach or slice to the arm, those were proper injuries, but friction burns were just fucking annoying.
When he sat up, all his guys were still clashing with a rapidly dropping number of Vints, but he couldn't spot either of the two mages. No glitter of fancy robes, no flashes of green, nothing.
He opened his mouth, and a boom buzzed up through the deck and cut through the air. Another. Then the scattered slides of wood somewhere to their sides.
He sucked in a breath and yelled: "They're rowing!"
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Saraad and Hammer both making their way for the stairs. He pushed himself up and almost went after them, but by the time he'd shoved off a Vint and got him down on the floor, he'd got cornered by two more.
It was easy to get into a rhythm, with a group fight, particularly up against people who'd been trained to a fault - moves drilled into them, sense drilled out of them. Qunari liked that kind of thing in a Sten. You wanted a guy who could take on a mob for hours, hit-block, hit-block, counter-strike. The Ben-Hassrath kicked that shit out. They trained their people for quick and dirty scuffles, for sneaking and surprises. It took more than a hit from behind to shake a good agent.
Just as well. He dodged when the drum skipped a beat, when the ship juddered. The drum stopped, then beat again, then nothing. One Vint looked at the deck, and the Bull dived in with a strike to his neck. The last guy standing almost had Talshok on the ropes till they all lurched to the left, and Rasit took him out while he was staggering.
The air was silent, and the ship only rolled with the waves.
"Alright," the Bull said, "now we've thinned the crowd -"
A shadow, on the other side of the ship. His fingers twitched towards his weapon before he made out the swaying strips of torn robes, the mangled profile.
Which was when he realised he wasn't on the ship, he was poking his head up over the side. In the centre, where there wasn't any rigging. How the fuck -?
Neither Talshok nor Rasit had spotted him. Why would they? They were facing the Bull, and also, they weren't alert for anyone climbing up the bare wood.
"Just thinking," he said, which was both completely and not anywhere near the truth.
He glanced down the main deck. Two staircases down, one fore and one aft. Shit, he'd warned Dorian. But he'd been willing to climb up the side of a fucking ship for this, what were a few highly-trained Ben-Hassrath agents?
Part of him wanted to let the guy find his own way down, serve him right for being so insanely stupid. But he didn't really want him chopped up for it any more than he wanted his squad caught in an unnecessary fight.
"Let's head down there," he said, making sure to point to the aft staircase and speak a little louder than he needed for a two-person audience. "It'll take a few minutes to get the slaves free and lined up, then we can bring them out this way."
He glanced up as he stood over the entrance to the galley deck, but whether Dorian was taking the hint or rethinking the whole plan, he'd melted back into the shadows.
- - -
The air below deck was stifling with the breath and sweat of a full galley of slaves. No-one was fighting back, which was good. No-one was talking, which wasn't so much, and every single pair of eyes was fixed straight ahead. They'd been made to stand, somehow, but the only ones out of position were the ones being ordered out from the back. Vints probably didn't like free thinkers powering their transport.
The deck was silent, apart from the shuffling of bare feet on wood.
"Hissrad!" called Saraad, over the sea of people. "We've got a problem for the Bull, right here."
He thought he'd have to push his way through, but one step forward and the slaves parted like oil on water.
At the back, Saraad was standing like a trophy hunter over a crumpled pile of dead Vint. Just the one, he noticed, as she said, "Took this one down while he was messing round with the slaves, but the other ran down below. "Hammer went after him, but he's not come back up."
Shit. Hammer was a big guy, but one-on-one against a cornered mage... "Talshok, Saraad, you stay here and get these slaves out. Anyone who can swim, give them a bit of wood and get them kicking till Gatt brings the fishing boats round. We don't have enough boats to get them all in one go, and anyone who stays on here is dead if we don't take that mage down. Rasit, you're coming down to the hold with me."
"I'll, uh, just move this out the way, then," said Talshok, grabbing the mage's corpse by the shoulders and dragging it awkwardly to the wall. He started patting it down, and while the Bull didn't usually have his people stop to loot, even he could see a high-up like that might've had something useful on him.
"Come on," the Bull said to Rasit. "We've got a Vint to find."
They headed to the aft staircase, and if the Bull was thinking of a particular Vint, he didn't let it show.
- - -
The way down to the hold was dark; someone had extinguished the lanterns below. There was frost around the entrance, like someone had iced it over, but there was also a large melted-looking hole in the centre.
The Bull went down with his back to the ladder, lowering each foot as slowly as he dared and gripping the rungs behind him at an odd angle. He couldn't see anything in the dark, and he couldn't hear any of the tell-tale signs of someone hiding above the rush of waves outside and creaking below.
In the shadows; a movement. It took a second before the Bull's eyes adjusted enough to realise it was Hammer, lifting his head from where he sat slumped against the wall.
"Taking a break?" he asked, keeping his voice light even while he crouched in front of Hammer. The dark patches of blood were visible even in the shadows.
Hammer grunted something that was almost a laugh. "A nap."
"Looks like that mage got you pretty good," said the Bull, feeling for damage. There was blood lying sticky between his horns, and what felt like burns on his chest, still warm to the touch.
"Got me in the eyes with something. Stupid, I should've dodged the next hit. But that lightning..." He tilted his head to better look the Bull in the eye. "I thought... someone else walked by after..." He shook his head, wincing.
The Bull nodded. "I'll handle it. We need to get you out."
"I'm... good," growled Hammer, bracing himself against the wall and dragging himself to his feet, but he ruined it when his hand slipped and his legs proved unable to hold him up by themselves. They buckled, and the Bull was just able to get a hand under his arm before he hit the floor.
"You can't stand," said the Bull. "If you can't stand, you can't fight. If you can't fight, you'll die. You want to waste everything the Qun made you? Here, on these assholes?"
Hammer made a low grunt in answer, but it was clear he didn't have much more argument in him. His head was sinking further back against the wall, and his eyelids were half closed.
The Bull turned to Rasit.
"You can probably get him to walk if you can keep him upright," he said. "Get him off the ship and get yourselves to shore. I'll clean up the last of this mess."
"Hissrad?" she said. "But you -"
She stopped, poised over Hammer but facing towards the Bull, eyes flicking the two of them.
"One mage, one of me," said the Bull, trying not to think of the one way he could tip the odds. "I'm good."
"I'll come back when I've got him to safety, Hissrad."
"No, you won't. If that mage is already in the hold, I might need to take the ship out to stop him. Get everyone off," he said.
Rasit opened her mouth, then shut it again and nodded. "Yes, Hissrad."
She took one of Hammer's arms, while the Bull took the other. Together, they got him slumped over her shoulder.
"-take care!" she blurted, as he turned to head into the hold.
She immediately looked like she wanted to get off the ship and get a posting to the far side of the south, but he gave her a smile.
"You just keep an eye on that guy's ass for me, and I'll watch mine," he said. "Deal?"
Rasit, after a pause, nodded. The Bull, once she'd taken a step, turned back and headed into the shadows of the corridor.
- - -
The hold was divided into sections, unlike the galley above, with rooms off to each side. All he could do was go slowly in the dark, trying to keep his footsteps light and ears open for anywhere he needed to check.
He'd walked about half the length of the ship when he heard it: a breath.
Shit. "Dorian?" he called into the shadows, trying to rein in the volume as much as possible while still being audible.
There was a crackle and hiss of flame and a bright light to the side. He nearly took Dorian's head off before his features became visible.
"I didn't realise you were calling me to kill me," said Dorian, sounding more put out than anything.
To be fair, the Bull was already sheathing his weapon. "It's one of our sneaky Ben-Hassrath tricks. How did you even get on the ship?"
Dorian wiggled his fingers. "The advantages of claws."
"You climbed up the wood?"
"I know, I'm just as impressed," said Dorian. "I think I might be stronger with demon parts." He coughed and started rearranging the bindings on his arm. "Were you really after my company, or the idiot in the hideous lime robes who ran by?"
"You saw him?"
"Heard him first, managed to duck out of sight," said Dorian. "I was planning to head to the hold myself once he'd come back this way. Call me dull, but I was thinking I'd leave all the fighting to you."
"Just let me cut down all your people, huh?"
Dorian shrugged. "I'd hardly call them my people. Besides, you do seem disturbingly good at it."
Half hidden by twisted grey skin and the tips of fangs, the Bull might almost have missed the grim set to Dorian's mouth. The fact he didn't spoke to the months spent learning his expressions.
"So you won't mind giving me a hand, then?" said the Bull, hefting his greataxe. Dorian sighed with a huff that sounded way too loud in the dark of the corridor, but stepped forward with a small bow.
"I suppose someone has to make sure you don't get killed," he said, as they started walking. "What possessed you to chase him alone? It's -" He paused, looking at the Bull with an odd expression. "It wasn't because you knew I'd be down here, was it?"
"No," said the Bull, shortly. He didn't bother to soften it. Better to cut that shit out straight off. "I wanted two of my people, but the mage took one out. I sent the other off ship with him."
"Ah," said Dorian.
He left the syllable hanging in mid-air.
The Bull sighed. "If you're not a threat, I won't treat you like one, but I'm not compromising the mission for you."
He had a flash of standing on deck, dropping a loud hint as to where Dorian could go, but he shoved it down. If anything, making sure he was out of the way had just removed him as a distraction.
"That's - fair, I suppose," said Dorian, after a beat. Maybe he was thinking about the moment on deck as well.
They walked a few metres further down, when Dorian's voice came again. "I'm sorry to hear about your friend. I saw him, I think, but there didn't seem anything I could do for him." He huffed. "I don't know why I was thinking of trying. I doubt he'd have taken it well. Your bad influence, I suppose."
"Ah, he'll be fine," said the Bull, trying to picture what Hammer would say if he knew a Vint mage was asking after him, rather than what would happen if Rasit hadn't got him out alright. "He's a big guy, he's got a lot of blood to lose."
Dorian snorted. "Don't let any magisters hear you say that."
- - -
Behind the last door at the end of the corridor, they heard rummaging.
Sounded like something heavy being dragged across the floor. The Bull mimed heaving something the width of his arms, and Dorian nodded. He held out his hand, called up one of his balls of flame with nothing more than a quiet flicker, and cocked his head at the Bull.
The Bull nodded, and pointedly raised his greataxe.
Dorian opened the door with his spare hand, and the Bull charged.
He heard Dorian's yelp from behind; he'd probably expected to walk in and go "Hands up!" or make some smartass remark. That was all well and good for intimidation, hostages, or when you weren't sure who the bad guy was. This guy had taken out one of his agents, so that cleared things up nicely, and they were starting at a disadvantage by being on the attack. The least he could do was even the score by making the mage shit his pants.
The Vint was fast. The Bull saw his eyes flare wide, saw him stumble back even as light ripped through the air, and his axe came down on the barrier. It winked out after the blow, but by that time the mage was already throwing out a lightning bolt.
The walls were lined with chests, and more had been pulled off the racks and left spilling their contents onto the floor. Bull dodged and almost fell back into an open one, likely already rifled through. He caught a glimpse of blue lyrium vials, power amulets, and some nasty bubbling things - all good stuff for one crazy Vint on a rampage - before he was up again and back on the offense.
"Filthy ox," spat the mage, throwing an icicle into his path.
Dorian, somewhere behind him, snorted. "How terribly creative." A blast of flame seared through the air over the Bull's shoulder, and that, that shocked the mage. He reared back, eyes shooting to Dorian.
"You're not Qunari!"
"Top marks for observation," Dorian replied, tugging a little at his hood.
If the mage had been hoping for an ally, his hopes would have been squashed by the arm Dorian raised to strike. Next to him, the Bull raised his axe, and he saw the exact moment on the mage's face when he realised he was outnumbered.
The Bull should have ducked.
The guy pointed his staff, and aimed a burst of crackling lightning at one of the chests.
The Bull didn't even get the chance to mock his aim. He caught Dorian's eyes widening, the mage's teeth-bared grin, and there was a bang that flung him against the wall of the cabin.
- - -
There were a good few seconds where he couldn't remember where he was, why he was sprawled on wood in the dark, or what he was supposed to be doing. Then, a crack of light. A guy in green robes staggering to his feet, and shit.
He tried to pull himself up, but his leg screamed with it. He looked down. One of the chests had landed smack on his calf. The pain was wrenching right up to his knee.
As he fell back, a thin stream of flames sizzled over his head and singed the wall on the left of the mage. The guy lurched right, braced himself, then shook his head and stumbled out of the hold.
The Bull looked back to see Dorian, robes askew and blood pooling in the wrinkled grey of his face, scrambling across smashed bottles and broken wood.
"Your -" He coughed, choking on wood dust, then tried again. "Maker, your leg. Hang on, I'll get you out."
The Bull could see the thickness of the oak even from his angle on the floor and was about to tell Dorian not to bother, but he just grabbed a handle and heaved it into the air. It damn well wasn't lighter than it looked, so maybe Dorian was right about demon strength.
"Hurry, I can't hold it long -" Dorian said, shaking with the strain, and Bull pulled the mangled mess of his leg free just before the chest came crashing back down.
It looked as bad as it felt. The angle was definitely weird, and he could see the blood running off even in the dark.
"Crap, that's going to sting."
For that, Dorian gave him both raised eyebrows and a disbelieving head shake.
Then his head snapped down. "Ah, Bull?"
The Bull followed his gaze down to where Dorian's hand was braced on the floor. His fingertips were skating a puddle. A rapidly growing puddle which, once he looked, seemed to be gushing from the wall.
He looked back up at Dorian. "Shit."
It took a lot of effort from both of them to get him standing - more or less, braced on Dorian's shoulder - then Dorian almost went and undid both their work by crying out and turning round so fast he nearly had the Bull over.
"Watch it!" he growled.
"Sorry!" said Dorian, readjusting his arm where it had slipped. "I didn't want to go without this."
He held up a flask, glittering with a familiar lyrium blue. It wasn't the only thing glittering. The water was now lapping his boots.
"Is it just me, or is it coming in faster?"
"Pressure might be making the hole worse," said the Bull. "We need to move!"
Dorian threw a hand back and blasted a jet of cold air at the water. A patch froze by the wall. "That won't hold it for long," he said.
"Doesn't have to, we -" The Bull was cut off by a large bang, and a wave of heat that hit them from out in the corridor.
Dorian was the one dragging them then, the Bull trying to limp fast and not skid on the damp ground. It wasn't far before they came across the charred and smoky patch of corridor, with water torrenting in from a hole in the side bigger than the Bull's head.
"He blew a hole in the ship!" yelled Dorian.
"Eh, I was going to do that anyway," said the Bull. "I'd have done it from a distance, but you can't plan for everything."
The ice cracked, and Dorian whirled round and froze the spray coming through in mid-air. "Well, I hope you have a plan now!"
"You just keep freezing the sea. I'll come up with something," said the Bull.
"Just freeze the sea, he says. What's next? Cooling a volcano? Blowing over a mountain? It's -" Dorian muttered, then stopped mid-rant and glared at the Bull, almost tripping over. "You're enjoying this!"
The smile had crept up on him, but he couldn't help but grin wider at the look on Dorian's face. "Me? Nah."
Dorian opened his mouth for a retort, then his eyes narrowed and he stopped dead, forcing the Bull to pull up short before he barrelled into him. Normally, he might've been tempted to make some smartass remark about the water coming down on them, but he wasn't about to second-guess the look on Dorian's face any more than he'd doubt it on one of his agents.
"I could've sworn..." he said, but trailed off. Then his face hardened. "No. No, there it is. Feels like..."
He strode over to a door on their left, and yanked it open to a row of faces.
Three people: a woman in a dress, leading, and two men with uniform trousers and broken chains. His mind spotted the discrepancies and he was almost about to rush the woman before he caught the details: plain cotton weave outfit, no jewellery, and no staff. She was brandishing a bit of broken banister, and that was no weapon for a mage or a smuggler.
"Stop," he said, in a voice firm but without anger.
"So you can take us prisoner?" she answered, and raised her banister.
"You don't want to fight me," said the Bull, and as her lips curled in disagreement, added, "at least, I don't think your friends do."
Neither of the two men were looking at the Bull with anything like the same defiance as their leader. One had taken a step back, and the other was shaking so hard the Bull could hear the tinkling in the chains.
The woman glanced back at them, and the Bull noticed her slump, just a little. "The captain had them chained up for disobedience," she said, her voice almost flat enough that the Bull could believe she was unbothered. Almost. "One was plotting an escape. The other stole rations."
The question went unspoken. "They'll be taken care of, under the Qun."
"Also, the entire ship is filling with water," added Dorian. The Bull looked back, and realised he'd taken the time to re-wrap the bindings on his arms, pull his robes together and throw the hood over his face. Even with the low light coming from the storeroom the slaves were standing in, it was unlikely any of them would be able to make out Dorian's true appearance. It didn't stop the woman glaring at him, though. Well, she'd pick up on the accent.
"He'll help us get out," he said, not specifying whether he was a captured magister or a fellow slave. Let her hear whatever she thought she heard and make the right assumptions. "You coming?"
She looked back at the others. "I suppose we have little choice."
They filed out, feet splashing in the growing puddle. It must have been like ice to walk in on bare feet, but none of the slaves did more than wince.
He glanced back down the corridor, but he couldn't see the mage ahead. Shit. He probably should've left the slaves to drown, or find their own way off, but... well, it was done. Now to fix the situation.
"We need to get moving," he said. "Your master's getting away with the weapons."
To his surprise, she saw Dorian supporting him and came up without asking to brace his other side, pushing them at a pace quicker than the one they'd been setting before. If she was uncomfortable handling a Qunari, she didn't show it.
"I'm Hissrad," he said, as they walked. "Or you can call me the Bull, if you like."
She didn't look up to see him gesture towards his horns. But after a minute or so, when they were nearly at the stairs, she said, "Calpernia."
"My name," she said. "It's Calpernia."
"Charmed, I'm sure," said Dorian, and the Bull smiled at her, and together they got him up on the stairs to the galley deck above.
Sorry for the delay! It was a long chapter anyway, and then I spent about half the writing time going "But WHAT ARE BOATS." (Credit goes to Brosencrantz for any nautical details I got right. For any I got wrong, I blame Tevinter shipbuilders.) Then there were outings, other fics, this ridiculous cake... looking back, it's been a bit jam-packed.
Next one might also take a while, because I'm going to be away for half of November. But I'm definitely sticking with this thing :)
(Also, when I planned Calpernia into this, it was under the justification that, "Well, who says she couldn't have had a previous master who brought her to Seheron?" Then that short story with her backstory came out, and it was, "Well... Bioware says." So I'm just going to take further liberties with canon :D )
Making it up the stairs was a trial to rank with any the Ben-Hassrath had thrown at him. Dorian and Calpernia crammed themselves on either side to brace as much of his bulk as possible - and there was plenty to go round - while the Bull dragged his wounded leg one step at a time, gritting his teeth against the pain. If either Vint objected to being pressed against Qunari skin and sweat, they didn't complain. Well, Calpernia had probably handled worse, and Dorian was busy pretending he wasn't freaking out, like his fingers didn't twitch every time the Bull's foot thudded down on a stair.
Whenever he slipped, he felt a couple of trembling hands supporting his back. The other two rescued slaves. They could do alright in the Qun, with that sort of teamwork.
By the time they all surfaced into the cool night air, the mage had already got a boat into the chains dangling over the side.
"You might want to step away from there," said the Bull, raising his voice over the sound of waves.
The mage didn't move, but he did - no joke - drop his hands from the boat chains. "Might I?" he spat back, rather than just jumping right into the boat. Vints. Always had to have the last word, and that was something he'd learned to be very, very thankful for.
"I remember you!" said Dorian, to his side. The Bull had been on the wrong end of the sneer in his voice, but he'd never heard Dorian wield it straight at one of his own. He sounded almost vicious in his glee, and it served as a good reminder that Dorian was dangerous. "Magister Ilius's apprentice, yes? Has he got you doing his dirty work, or is this your own little enterprise? You'll need to be a lot further than Seheron if he catches you raising funds behind his back, you know."
"Who are you?" snapped the mage, taking a step forward. Away from the boat. The Bull wasn't sure if this was Dorian's idea of a plan or more Tevinter crap, but he kept his mouth shut anyway.
Dorian's grip tensed on the Bull's arm. "Did he ever resolve that nasty scandal with the blood magic and the Black Divine, by the way? Disadvantageous, being the apprentice of a blacklisted master."
"Shut your mouth!" The man peered forward, trying to make out Dorian's face in the dark. He was still too close to the boat - and a getaway - for the Bull.
"Still blacklisted," said Calpernia, her voice cutting across the argument. "They say if his apprentice can't make good, he'll be sold."
The Bull's skin itched. Mages liked to talk before a fight; he'd been begged, bragged to, and even offered bribes. The thing he never forgot? Always, always keep one eye on the staff.
So when the mage's hand clenched, he didn't even think before yanking both Dorian and Calpernia to the floor. His leg gave out as the lightning seared white overhead, with a crackle that left his ears buzzing. He only just heard Dorian's yelp beside him. The air was thick with the reek of scorched cloth, and the Bull cracked an eye open to see Dorian flapping at his sleeve.
And aw shit, his leg, that was - well, it kind of felt like he had a good few knives jammed into his calf, which probably meant he shouldn't have wrenched it like that. Better than getting fried, though.
The Bull couldn't run, but he could roll, so he hurled himself to the left just as the next bolt slammed the deck. It was followed by a force spell that flung Dorian smack into the mast and Calpernia and the other guys back across the deck.
There was no follow-up blow. The skipped beat had him bracing himself on reflex, till he looked up.
The mage was standing, legs apart, with his feet encased in several inches of solid ice. The Bull looked to Dorian, who was blinking from where he lay crumpled by the mast. It must've taken all he had to have pulled it off. Calpernia was standing tall in front of the other slaves; her face promised nasty stuff for someone still armed with nothing more than a broken piece of wooden banister. Probably wasn't the first magical free-for-all she'd seen, but damn. He was no Tamassran, but he'd put a woman like her in the Ben-Hassrath before she even stepped off the boat.
The mage howled at the ice around his ankles like he'd got mud on his shoe, his arms windmilling for balance. The Bull couldn't help a snort of laughter.
"How's the weather over there?" he shouted. Calpernia grabbed one of his arms and heaved.
The mage scowled, and held up his staff. "Nothing an Altus can't handle, oxman," he said, and sent his own legs up in flames.
"Stop him!" yelled the Bull, pushing Calpernia away. Calpernia froze for a second, head turning from her master to the Bull. Her eyes were wide.
It was only a second of indecision before she raised her banister like a battle flag - and knocking someone out was harder than it looked, but Calpernia looked like she could manage a killing blow - but it was the same second the flames burned out. The mage, robes dripping, sprinted for the side. The Bull grabbed Calpernia's sleeve and hauled himself up on one knee. He threw his arms forward as the mage reached the boat - as if they might somehow close the distance of a few feet - but ended up snatching at air as the boat rattled out of sight down the side.
He staggered to the side of the ship. Dorian yelled something behind him. Even in the shadows, the Bull could make out the silhouette of the mage below, already bobbing too far for him to make in one jump.
"I would have fought him!" said Calpernia, glaring into the darkness. "The coward."
The Bull rapped on the wood next to her. The mission had gone to crap, he'd failed to grab the asshole with explosives and they were stuck on a ship with a hole in it, but he still knew better than to touch an ex-slave without warning. "Go, check on your people," he said, meeting her stare. "I've got this."
She looked back to where the guys in chains were standing on deck. She nodded, and the flint in her eyes softened, just a little, as she turned to head towards them.
The Bull turned back to where Dorian was standing, watching wide-eyed. "Over to you, big guy!"
"What?" said Dorian, taking a step back. He pulled himself straight. "You're asking - you want me to swim after him?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of a fireball, lightning - whatever'll blow him back to Tevinter. Just pick it quickly -" He stopped at the look on Dorian's face, because despite all the twisted skin and fangs, he'd got more than used to recognising that particular expression of guilt.
"I can't," Dorian said, slowly, like he knew he was breaking a death sentence for someone. "I drained myself in the fight. If I had ten minutes, maybe, or a staff - "
And crap, he really wasn't lying. His hands were shaking by his sides. But it didn't change the fact that the mage was rowing slowly, but with no-one to stop him, steadily away.
"Try," the Bull growled, and Dorian opened his mouth as if to answer, then nodded and stepped up to the side. He held up his hand like a prayer, stared at his palm. There was a glow, then a flame that slid to the tips of Dorian's fingers. It flickered out once, like it wasn't sure about existing, before flaring back.
Dorian drew back his arm and lobbed the fire with an effort would have had him almost over the side of the boat, if the Bull hadn't grabbed his robe. Instead, he tumbled back against the Bull's chest. He raised his head just long enough to see the fireball fall in a brief arc before it melted into smoke.
Dorian stared after it. Pressed his lips together before saying, "That's - that's it, I'm afraid."
"If he escapes with those things, people are going to die!" said the Bull.
"So it's on me to stop him? I'm out of magic!" shouted Dorian, struggling back up to standing. "Believe me, if you could guilt me into it I'd have blown him back to Tevinter!" His hands flew into the air on a wave of bluster, but they came back down when he caught the Bull's expression. His whole body drooped, and when he spoke again, even his voice fell lower. "I'm sorry, truly. But I - I can't."
The Bull didn't plan for his eyes to fix on the lyrium, but Dorian noticed and took a step back.
"No. Absolutely not. You can't be thinking -"
"Have you got any better ideas?"
Dorian made a strangled noise. "Anything!"
"He's getting away. You know what a bundle of magical weapons could do," said the Bull. He leaned in, as if he could push the thought into Dorian's head. He narrowed his eyes. "You've seen them."
"Please don't make me do this," Dorian whispered.
"I wouldn't ask if I had a choice. I'm sorry," said the Bull, and meant it with a fierceness that surprised even him.
Dorian gripped the vial between two shaking claws, and brought it up into the moonlight. "Appealing to my better instincts?" he said, with a smile that seemed to be shoved rigid between the rows of fangs. His head dipped. "And here I thought I didn't have any."
He followed it with a laugh, but so light it might have been a shuddering breath. Then he snapped off the cork and almost flung the neck of the bottle into his mouth. The blue liquid disappeared in three long pulls, Dorian's throat flexing steadily with each swallow.
"Right," he said thickly, once it was done. He didn't look up at the Bull.
Instead, he set his eyes on the ocean, and raised his arms.
The lightning exploded out of Dorian's fingers in a thousand splintered forks. The outer sparks zig-zagged far into the night, with fresh lyrium behind them and no staff at the head. The rest were a crackling, sizzling mass that arced over the waves and came smack down on the boat.
The figure inside seized and shuddered for a second, then slumped over.
Dorian stared out at it for a long moment.
The Bull kept his eyes on Dorian, and the rigid way he stood. The tight, single breath, and the way he didn't blink.
Finally, Dorian ducked his head. When he lifted it again, he'd fixed on a full-fanged smile.
"Right!" His voice rang out, even as he turned on his heels and started striding away from the side. "One apprentice, charred for your pleasure! Don't say I never do anything for you."
"Dorian," called the Bull.
Dorian did stop and look back, at that. "Ah yes, the leg. Calpernia, was it? I don't suppose you'd mind taking him? I'd help myself, but I think I've had enough of selfless gestures for one day."
"Dorian," the Bull repeated, and carefully didn't react when Dorian's glare met his eyes. "You're good?"
"What, when I've literally drunk away the last chance for my sanity? Why wouldn't I be?"
His voice cracked on the last word with something more than distress. The Bull spotted Calpernia moving into his peripheral vision. He kept his body angled towards Dorian, standing tall without puffing himself up to intimidating, but motioned her back with a hand behind him.
The Bull held his hands up, open-palmed. "You think that was your last chance? Come on, we both know how your people operate. Wait a week or two, tops, and there'll be enough Vint boats around to give my guys target practice for months."
"More, and every one useless under their excuses for captains," said Calpernia. The tone was familiar enough. He'd spent enough time with Gatt and other Viddathari to get a full range of the way former slaves handled the bitterness. She fixed them with a glare. "But currently less a concern than the ship we're on."
The sentence was punctuated by a groan from the wood below, and they all stumbled as the deck tilted and righted itself beneath them.
Calpernia drew herself up. "Whatever your problem, I suggest you both save the squabbling."
"I can't just keep sitting around!" said Dorian, to the Bull. "You don't know what it's like! It whispers, and I-" He threw up his hands. "How long am I supposed to hold it at bay? It's a demon, I'm a mage. The odds aren't exactly in my favour!"
"We'll sort it," said the Bull, even as the ship rocked again. He resisted the temptation to watch for Calpernia and her friends. He kept his eyes fixed on Dorian's.
"Like you sorted it this time?" Dorian's fists clenched. "But what do you care? Job done, praise the Qun! And everything we - all the -" He shook his head, and the Bull wasn't sure if he was shaking it in anger or trying to shake something out of it. When he raised it, his fangs were longer. "It all means nothing."
"Crap," said the Bull, and as Dorian snarled, turned to Calpernia, "Move -!"
And as Dorian pounced, he felt for the weight of his axe, pictured the odds of being able to use it with a wrecked leg and clinging to the side to stay upright, and discarded it. Literally, by hurling the axe straight at Dorian's chest.
The hilt clobbered him, which was the best he could've hoped for, really, trying to use a greataxe as a throwing knife.
It didn't do much more than knock Dorian off-balance, though, and he came in claws out. One set grazed over the Bull's chest, but the Bull grabbed his other arm and wrenched it up. Bare-handed fighting - not as fun as a massive weapon, heh, but nothing better in a pinch.
Dorian was fast, though, and squirmed out of the Bull's grip like a rabid cat. One set of claws caught his side. The Bull shoved him back, but -
"Watch yourself!" shouted Calpernia.
It was just as well his body knew to react to the motions of a spell cast without a staff; it overrode the shock of seeing Calpernia, dressed in slave rags and posed like a soldier, flinging a patch of blue ice at their feet. The Bull dodged; Dorian didn't.
As Dorian skidded, another blast hit him in the chest, sending him flying back into the side. He snarled. His eyes darted between his two enemies, the Bull noticed, like he couldn't decide who to go for, but his arms were folded in, hands clenched around his wrists. His wrappings were shredded around the tips of his claws, and the Bull thought he caught a glimpse of blood. Dorian was even more lost than he'd realised, so far gone he might even take himself down in his frenzy.
He glanced at Calpernia, who was eyeing him up with an almost identical suspicion. Was she - no, definitely a slave. She had too many of the tells not to be. But Vints did enslave mages, he knew, so how had he missed that? Could he keep her pointed at Dorian?
Fighting alongside a mage with no back-up, against another mage he'd helped - what was he doing here?
"Come on," growled the Bull. "Let's end this."
It was easy to forget, when you spent your time analysing every little nuance and developing months-long covers, that simple was best. Getting faced down by a snarling demon, though? Really focused the mind.
The boat rocked, and the Bull threw himself into the lurch, using the momentum to make sure his shove hit Dorian like a sledgehammer. The wood splintered and cracked behind him, already scorched from battle, and Dorian plunged over in a tangle of robes.
For a moment, as the Bull snatched at one of the remaining posts for support, he thought he'd got away with it.
Then the ship rolled on a wave. His leg - well, he'd been on his last leg long enough, and it went out from under him with a wrench of pain. His hand slipped on the post. He caught a glimpse of Calpernia running towards him, and then she fell out of view as his fingers lost their grip.
He hit the sea like a cannonball. The waves dragged him down immediately, cutting off the world with water slamming into his eyes and ears and nose. The chill seized right into his muscles. It was like the first strike of a Fog Warrior ambush; one second you were fine, the next you were drowning in the smoke and blood.
Despite his training, there was a moment when he just couldn't think.
Normally, he felt the Tamassrans had things sorted pretty good, but they'd really messed up the whole water thing. They'd bred him to kick ass, lift weights and pound Tal-Vashoth to dust. Floating? Yeah, not so much.
He punched up, kicking - flailing - with one leg, dragging himself up through the water. He couldn't see through the salt sting, so he just kept pulling. Like a drill. One, two, one, two, as his lungs burned. He gasped as he broke the surface, and almost choked when his head fell back under again.
The ship loomed like a cliff face up behind him. He didn't even have two uninjured legs, let alone claws like Dorian's for climbing. No way was he getting back on the boat - if the ship even stayed afloat long enough, while it was taking on water.
Which way was the shore? With a moon, he could've worked it out, maybe, but in the dark...
His people would send boats, eventually, for rescue and salvage. But if his guys got to shore and came straight back...that could be 15, maybe 20 minutes. That - a wave pulled him under for a few seconds, till he broke through, spluttering - that was a stretch. He'd lost more blood than he thought, and that and the cold were sapping the strength from him.
Then, in the distance, he caught a glimpse of - something. A dark shape, something bulky, bobbing up and down on the water.
The mage's lifeboat.
That was more like it! He reached both hands out and dragged himself through the next wave, shaking off the spray. Then the next. His legs trailed behind him. Not the easiest way of swimming, but as long as he kept his head up...
The boat seemed to get no closer the more he swam, though. It was hard to keep a fix on it. The horizon was dim, but there was no way of knowing how much was due to the dark sky overhead, and how much was blood loss greying out his vision. His arms started to ache, like he'd been knocking around in the sparring ring for a few hours rather than paddling a few strokes. His leg - well, he kept his teeth gritted against what was going on with his leg.
It took him almost by surprise when he looked up and saw the boat right in front of him, no more than a couple of metres away. It wavered in and out.
He managed to reach up and grip the side, but almost managed to pull the thing over on top of him. His fingers scrabbled on the wet wood. Things went black, for a second, then came back.
Again, he threw his arm up. There was a splash to the side. Someone pressed up against him. Gasps of breath, and he couldn't quite work out if it was from him or the body next to him.
Claws hooked into his sleeve, but the pinpricks barely registered against the throb in his leg. Somehow, somehow, he tumbled up and over the side. Whether he'd helped Dorian or Dorian had helped him, he wasn't quite sure, but it ended with the two of them heaving gasps on top of a charred Vint corpse.
This has been SUCH A LONG TIME COMING. I'm sorry, and thank you to anyone who's still actually keeping up with this!
Chapter 14: Ashore
The Bull woke all at once, with someone - something - gripping his leg, and his hand shot out before he even opened his eyes.
When he did open them, it was to find his fingers clenched around Dorian's forearm. Just below his hand, Dorian was holding some sort of cloth half-wound round the Bull's leg. Dorian, for his part, was frozen.
"Ah," he said. Cleared his throat. "Not a morning person, I see. I can't say I blame you."
The Bull took a second to take stock. He was lying in a human-sized rowing boat, one hand flopping over the side, and some lumpy thing pressing uncomfortably into his side. It took him a moment to realise he was lying half on top of the corpse of the Vint mage Dorian had fried. The boat seemed to have washed up in the shallows of the coast.
It wasn't fully morning, not yet, but from where his head was tilted back he could see edges of paler grey sky breaking through the night clouds. He'd been out over an hour, then.
He tightened his fingers a little harder where they gripped Dorian's skin. "Get off me."
"Let me finish this first," said Dorian, dropping any pretence at light-heartedness to reply in a tone as low as the Bull's.
The Bull was aching all over - the upshot of napping in a wooden boat after a full night's mission - but he could shrug most of it off. The leg, though, that was something else. The slightest shift sent jolts of agony strong enough to make him wince.
He raised his head, and - yeah, shit. That was messy. A splint could wait, but the wound should've been bandaged an hour ago.
He let his head fall back, and his horns thunked down onto the wood.
"Do it," he said, loosening his grip.
Dorian nodded, once, then went to work. It was slow. It seemed like every other time he wound the rag round, he ended up having to unpick it from his claws. They'd got longer, from what he could see in the dim light. And he paused every so often, eyes flicking away from the Bull's leg, before he refocused his attention. The Bull didn't know what was distracting him, but that in itself was worrying.
Dorian tied the bandage off with a neat Tevinter-style knot. "We really must stop meeting like this," he said, voice still low, like he wasn't sure what he could get away with.
"How's the demon?" the Bull asked. He couldn't help the way his jaw clenched on the last word. "You bandaging my leg up so you can rip it clean off later?"
"Depends. Have you finished making me throw away my - my -"
He paused. Fisted his claws into his thighs. Breathed in.
"Dorian," said the Bull.
Dorian let out a shaky breath, then looked back at the Bull. "I'm alright. For now, at least. And you're right to be cautious. I don't know where to begin apologising for what happened on the ship. Or - or if I even can."
"I knew it was a risk," said the Bull, and found himself looking at Dorian's hands. Something in his chest, something bitter and nasty, retreated back to where it had been lurking. He had known. Putting it all on Dorian, however much those claws made him want to reach for an axe right now, was the easy way out.
He sighed. "But it was worth it. What you did? That was more than most would have." He paused, realising his face had gone into the same calm expression he used for nervous recruits. "You did good, Dorian."
"And the bit where I tried to rip you limb from limb?" said Dorian, voice light like a joke, but the Bull could see the plea in his eyes.
The Bull shook his head. "Wasn't you."
"But I am dangerous," said Dorian.
And there it was. The Bull looked him clear in the eyes. "Yes."
Not that there was anything he could do about it, even if - well, there was nothing he could do about it. With a busted leg and Dorian just hanging in there, it'd be suicide.
"Any idea where we are?" asked Dorian. "It's not the same bit of coastline we left, that's all I know."
The Bull lifted his head, shelving the problem for a different one. "Nope, but we're less than an hour's walk away," he said, scanning the features on the nearby cliffs. "Guess we got lucky with the tides."
"I rowed us most of the way, once I worked out where the land was," said Dorian. "I, ah, came back to myself just after I found the boat. Something to do with seeing you thrash in the water like a stranded whale, most likely."
"Yeah, you try swimming with one leg crushed and bleeding another ocean," said the Bull. "But hey. Thanks for the help back there."
Dorian stood up, in a swift motion that had Bull twitching towards the knife he didn't have. "Don't mention it. Really, don't. Now, I should go find something to splint that, if there's going to be walking. Otherwise you'll likely try to drag yourself along the beach by your teeth."
As he stood up, the full effect of his brush with the demon became obvious. His robes had been shredded down the middle, and what he could see of Dorian's chest was entirely grey and leathery, aside from a patch of brown skin in the hollow above his ribcage. His face was more demon than not, now.
Then the Bull caught sight of his feet. Or rather, it was the first time he'd seen them - as far as he could remember, Dorian had always worn boots before. But these wouldn't fit in boots. They were far too big for his body, and ended in deadly-looking claws for toes. He'd rip through the ground, let alone leather. They were also the same corpse-grey as his face, and the long bones of the foot stood out on the surface.
"Those are new," said the Bull, gesturing.
"Yes, well," said Dorian. "I could hardly expect to keep one body part untouched, could I?"
"Could be worse. I heard a good rumour about guys with big feet."
That got him a twitch of the mouth, at least, even if it didn't reach Dorian's eyes. "Qunari too?"
"Seheron natives, I think, but it caught on," said the Bull.
Dorian rewarded him with another jerky attempt at a smile "Some things are universal, I suppose," he said, before turning away and heading toward a pile of driftwood higher up the beach.
The Bull was left to his thoughts, sprawled in the little rowing boat on top of the dead mage.
With a grunt, he rolled onto his side. That way he could push away the Vint corpse, or at least stop its elbow from poking into his spine. Not like he'd never been on top of a Vint before - heh - but normally it was in the process of tackling one alive. More squirmy, but less pokey.
He stopped when his hand brushed something hard and smooth. Cold like glass. He pushed himself more into the side of the boat, so he could pull it out from under the mage's robes.
A translucent sphere, with the glimmer of flame inside.
He'd have known it anywhere, of course, after that fight with the rebels so long ago, but the only times he'd seen the fire spheres was when people'd been trying to take his face off with them. He'd never got to look at one up close. For some reason, he hadn't quite got that it was literally just a fire spell, trapped in a bubble of glass.
Just when he thought he was done being surprised at what that damn country would sink to, here came the Vints again, with something new and horrible just to screw over his people. It wasn't - even the best fire spell had nothing on the explosions you could get out of gaatlok, so something like this would be useless to the Vints in a fair fight. Wasn't much good to any mages, really, unless they needed something fast and they were out of staves or lyrium, because they could just cast fire if they wanted.
This? This was a weapon for non-mages, to fight like a mage thought they should fight. This was a weapon for scraps here and there, for a few hotheads to go make mayhem with. This was a weapon purely for the purpose of making Seheron into even more of a desperate, deadly shithole and taking out as many of the poor bastards stuck with it as possible.
He glanced up to check Dorian was still occupied with picking through driftwood before he started to pick through the rest of the dead mage's stash. He found three more spheres, which he lined up carefully beside the first; a bag of gold, which he pocketed - Vint currency might come in handy for one of his operatives; and the unmistakeable blue of a lyrium potion.
He stared for a second, then without really thinking, stuck it in his pocket with the gold as he heard Dorian's footsteps start to crunch up on the beach.
It was followed by the slithering sound of something being dragged along the sand. He looked up.
Dorian was tugging along a huge twisted branch, shriveled and mossy where it'd been floating too long on the sea. The Bull had to give him points for finding something his size - a human-sized splint would've been a toothpick to him.
"Hold still," said Dorian, letting the branch thud down on the sand and crouching beside the boat. "I'll just -" his eyes fixed on the sphere "- wait, you haven't found more of those?"
"Yep," said the Bull. "Looks like he didn't go out empty-handed. I really hope these are the last of them."
"I don't know that I'd take that bet," murmured Dorian, peering over at it. He reached out and tapped a claw to the glass. "Hmm. A little crude, but clever enough." The sphere reflected the rough lines of his face, growing bent and deformed as he leaned in, whilst the fire glittered back in his black eyes.
The Bull felt weirdly sick, and tried to pretend it was just the throbbing in his leg. "Yeah. Clever."
"What do you plan to do with them?" asked Dorian, and the Bull didn't let out a breath when he sat back on the sand.
Technically, he knew he should find something to carry them in and bring them back to be stuffed in a dark cupboard somewhere under the Ben-Hassrath's watch. Maybe they'd even be able to find something to counter them, though they'd never managed to counter actual fire spells.
But he was already in for a bitch of a slog back all the way up the coast, inching his mangled leg along the sand, and that was without loading up on dead Vint junk.
Plus, the idea of it sitting on a shelf right under his chair somewhere in headquarters made him want to break something. And hey - two birds, one stone.
He set one in his palm, tested the weight of it, then hurled his arm back and flung it ten feet along the shoreline. It smashed in a satisfying crackle of glass and sparks, while Dorian yelped and shot backwards. The spell was snuffed almost as quickly as it erupted, thanks to a wave which crashed in and swept the whole mess back out to sea.
"You might have warned me!" snapped Dorian. Then, his face splitting into a slow smile, "And you'd better leave me the next one."
The Bull spread his hands and grinned, leaving Dorian to have his own turn at flinging that piece of crap into oblivion. Demon strength or not, it was nice to see that Dorian still couldn't match him for distance. They had to duck from the cloud of acrid smoke which gusted back over the boat. After that, the Bull finished obliterating the rest, while Dorian splinted his leg.
"Done!" he said, tying it off with what looked like one of the bindings from his arms. "It's such a shame I never went into healing. I've a talent for it, evidently." He looked up at the shore. "I do hope we haven't just sprinkled shards of broken glass in the direction we'll be walking."
"That's what those feet are for," said the Bull.
"Yes," said Dorian, his smile briefly disappearing, before flickering back thin-lipped. "I'd almost forgotten them, for a second."
He stared at the sand up ahead, which was charred and shiny in patches despite the best efforts of the tide.
Then he looked down at his feet. "I feel the need to apologise again," he said. "About the smugglers. I didn't know what they were carrying, I swear."
"I believe you," said the Bull, because really, he did. You didn't think, he didn't say, because there was nothing to be gained in dragging it out, and the thing with the lyrium potion went pretty damn far as amends. "They'd have come anyway. They always do." He sighed. "We're good, big guy."
Dorian gave him a wry smile. "For now," he said, then looked away. "Wherein lies the problem."
The Bull nodded.
"I don't know what to do about this. If I'd had the potion, I know I could have held out for another week or so to prepare it. But now I'm back to square one. It could be months before I get another chance. So, do I try to hold out as long as I can, knowing I'm a risk to you and everyone on the island? Or do I give up -" his voice cracked - "before it goes too far?"
The Bull found himself with one hand actually reaching for his pocket before realising what he was doing. He turned it into an awkward shrug. Giving a lyrium potion? To a Tevinter mage? A demonic Tevinter mage? That was smuggling. No ambiguities, no excuses, nothing his superiors would accept - that was a betrayal of the Qun, pure and simple.
And he'd almost done it without thinking. Because Dorian needed it.
Even now, he hadn't told Dorian to give himself up for the sake of the island, or stepped forward to snap his neck. Dorian was sitting there, fists balled in his lap, blinking madly against the surge of terror - because the Bull knew what it was to offer your life up, even when it was right - and he was still ready to risk it all rather than hurt people. He was... gentle. Caring. Damn annoying, sometimes, but just about the only good thing left on the damn island.
And not a part of any of the crap going on around him. Wasn't an ally, or a citizen, or outright defying the Qun. He was just - there. Something that was just his.
But he couldn't just turn his back on the Qun for him. Not for this.
"Hey, we've only just got off the ship," he said, instead. "Let's go back. Take a week. You go over your books, I'll have a look through the reports. There might be another group of Vints that needs an ass kicking."
"You think that's likely?"
"It's possible," said the Bull. Literally, it was possible. The fact that he hadn't heard anything before they left, and the likelihood that the magisters would bicker for a while before volunteering the next asshole for the end of an axe, didn't make it a lie.
Dorian's whole face shifted as the frown disappeared. The remains of his moustache twitched with a smile. "Well, then. That's - that's something, then."
"Yeah," said the Bull. He mustered up a grin from somewhere. Years of muscle memory, perhaps, in the face of fucked up shit. "So... a little help getting up?"
- - -
It was slow going back along the coast, even with the splint on and an arm around Dorian’s shoulders. The shards of glass in the sand needed some working around - "Still worth it," he insisted, to Dorian's huff - and Dorian kept leaning into him as he struggled to get the hang of the demon feet. On his other side, he dragged another big stick he was saving for a crutch.
The Bull kept glancing up to the cliff tops to check for watchers, even though he knew for a fact there weren’t any settlements or patrols in the area. Trackers weren't going to be an issue, whatever the tides. The footprints they left behind looked like a drunk wyvern had gone dancing with a one legged warrior and something that’d flopped down the beach.
He switched his focus over to the sea on the other side. No boats out; it was too early even for the fisherman. The ocean was glittering a deep, dark black that was nothing like the blue of a lyrium potion, so he really needed to stop thinking about the damn thing.
"Alright, what is it?" asked Dorian.
The Bull turned his head. Dorian was peering at him, a strange look in his dark eyes.
"What?" said the Bull.
Dorian raised an eyebrow. "You've been very quiet this whole walk."
The Bull carefully sifted through everything he was feeling, let absolutely none of it reach his face, and instead pulled an exaggerated wince. "Yeah," he said. "Turns out walking on a leg injury's not so fun. Bad for the concentration."
It was even the perfect truth, as his knee reminded him when the splint thudded down on the ground and jarred his entire body. He gritted his teeth against the wave of pain, and took another step. Beside him, Dorian looked down, opened his mouth, then fell back into silence.
Another step, then: "I’ve seen you brutally injured before, you know. I was expecting more disturbing jokes.”
“Hey, cut me some slack. I'm on my last legs here,” said the Bull.
“Thank you,” said Dorian. “...I think.”
With that out of the way, they continued the trudge down the beach, while the sky above split further into streaks of daylight. Dorian had him thinking of leg puns, then, so that was an improvement. Beside them, the cliff stood as one long, identical sheet of rock - unless someone knew what they were looking for.
The sun was glittering pink-edged on the horizon by the time the Bull spotted the crag that looked kind of like an elf face.
"Take the cave tunnel here," he said, gesturing to the almost invisible gap behind the chin. "We only patrol it once a week. You'll come out further down the coast. With your claws, you should be able to climb straight up the cliff from there.”
"Such faith you have in me," muttered Dorian, and looked at the opening, but didn't move. Then he looked down at his feet.
The Bull side-eyed him. "Dorian?"
“I never told you why I came to Seheron, did I?” said Dorian. He glanced back up, but still didn't meeting the Bull's eyes.
“You said you didn’t want to stay with your friend,” the Bull said, turning to face him. He kept the cliffs in his peripheral vision, just in case they were interrupted, and kept an ear out for any sound that wasn't the waves.
“That was part of it,” said Dorian, examining his claws, “and I couldn’t stay in Tevinter, at any rate. Too close to my father and any number of mages who'd have wanted me for an experiment. There were practical reasons, too. Anyone offering transport to Seheron won’t ask too many questions about who they're taking, and I knew there were old Tevinter landing spots which might have what I needed.”
“...but?” said the Bull, after a pause, when Dorian didn’t.
“It did occur to me, if things...got worse. If I couldn’t fix it.” He ran a clawed hand through what remained of his hair. “What’s one more abomination on Seheron? You fight magic all the time, here, even the guards must have guards by now. If the demon won out, it'd probably have a dozen arrows sticking in it before it got off the beach. Not like if I was in – I don’t know, a Rivaini port town, somewhere like that...”
“If I lose myself again,” he said, looking at the sand, “I'll trust you to... take care of it. Don’t try to talk me down. I don’t know if I'll even be able to get another potion, and I can’t risk killing you. Or anyone.”
“...aw, crap,” muttered the Bull, under his breath. Dorian caught it.
Whoever moved his hand into his pocket, like dragging it through an ocean, it didn't feel like him. It was some other fingers closing round the unfamiliar curves of the glass vial. Probably the only reason he could say, with a mouth that felt miles away: "Yeah. The potion. About that.”
He pulled it out and placed it in Dorian's leathery palm, with a quiet clink as it brushed his claws. Somehow, he managed to pull his own hand back.
“Wait, this –“ Dorian stopped mid-sentence, holding his breath like any motion might break the vial. He tore his eyes from it to the Bull. “Where did you – when did you get this?”
The Bull met his gaze. Didn’t let any of the screaming in his head reach his face. “Off the dead guy in the boat. It was with the fire spheres.”
"Wait, you've had that all the time? And you let me -?"
“Can you use it?” asked the Bull, cutting him off.
Dorian stared. “Well, yes, theoretically, but –“
“Then take it,” said the Bull.
Dorian looked down at the vial, cradled in his palm. It lit his hands with a blue glow. “I – thank you.”
The Bull nodded, while his head thudded with wrong wrong wrong. Like after a fight. Like hearing the sword clashes again and again and again. And underneath it all, something rotten and twisted, that grey part of him that didn’t fucking care any more.
“Get going, before the patrols start out,” he said.
He looked at Dorian, but he was still staring at the lyrium. Then he looked up.
“No, wait,” he said. “You honestly expect me to pretend that didn't just happen?“ He raised an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you give me this when you found it? Why wait until now?"
"Really? Do tell!" said Dorian. "I hardly noticed.”
"Qunari don't help Vints," said the Bull.
Dorian looked half frustrated, half baffled. "I hate to call it to your attention, but you've been feeding me, hiding me, and playing card games with me for over a month! What, were you fattening me up?"
"Technically, I didn't break any rules," said the Bull. "When I found you, I didn't have any orders to bring you in. I didn't lie when they asked me about you. And there's nothing to say we can't share food, within reason. "
"So the lyrium potion?"
"I gave a magical item to a Tevinter mage," said the Bull. "That counts as weapons dealing. It's forbidden." The next words stuck in his throat. "I defied the Qun."
"It's really that bad?" asked Dorian. "One lyrium potion?"
"One lyrium potion."
"Worse than everything else?"
"Yes," said the Bull, but he knew, even as he said it, that it was a lie. And not a good one. A lie he'd been telling himself far too long, that there was space to work with the Qun, around the Qun where necessary. That rules were rules, until lives could be saved. It felt logical. It felt right. And somehow, he'd moved inch by inch away from the one truth he held constant, till he was gazing at it across a mess of his own trickery and deceits.
"No," he said, because really, was there a difference between giving Dorian bread and giving him a potion? Really? "Maybe. I don't know."
"If I - what if I gave it back?" asked Dorian, though he looked sick at the thought. The Bull shook his head, and not just because it would have been a shitty time to deal with the demon again.
"It's done," said the Bull. "I already made the choice. Even if I undid it now - I'd still know what I did."
Dorian let out a breath of disbelief, and looked up. "So what now?"
“Now, you go before the patrols turn you into Vint meat.”
“You handle the magic stuff. Leave the Qunari stuff to me,” said the Bull, summoning up a smile. It sat on his face like a painting. “I’ll figure something out.”
Dorian opened his mouth, then shut it again. “Fine,” he said. “Just...be careful, alright? I realise it’s a new skill for you, but I'd like to hope you’re up to the challenge.”
“I’ll watch myself. Get going.”
With one too-long glance up to the Bull's face, and a twitch downward of the mouth, Dorian nodded. He slid out from under the Bull's arm, letting him shift his weight to his makeshift crutch, and slipped into the crack in the rocks. After a moment, the Bull started hobbling away. It was a lot slower going on his own, and with his thoughts weighing heavy on his head.
Okay, so he was broken.
Something in him, anyway. And it'd been broken for a good long while, maybe even before Dorian, but he must've been too sick to see it. Hadn’t noticed that his connection to the Qun was hanging by frayed ends.
But the re-educators had seen it coming, right? Satal had even warned him. So they could fix him, put his head back how it was. It all used to be clear, before he'd come to this shithole – he didn’t do crap like wonder who he should be fighting, or who the bad guys were.
He inhaled, for a count of three, as he dragged his aching leg along the sand. Exhaled in time with the waves.
Inhaled, and felt his chest return to something solid.
He could use this.
He'd see out Dorian’s recovery – or putting him down, he wasn’t stupid about the odds – then get help. The re-educators could fix anyone. It was written in the Qun.