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Wolf In The Breast

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The Dalish came to Dirthavaren a clan at a time. In daylight their aravels crawled across the boulder-strewn plains, visible from a distance like a slow procession of painted beetles. In the evening the campfires spread beneath the night sky like a carpet of rival stars. But the Veil was filled with howling and the regrets of the uneasy dead, for the humans had warred there and killed each other until the Fade itself grew heavy. Even now, years later, it echoed with the dying cries of warriors. If Andraste heard them she did not answer, nor did the Maker quiet them. The Dalish had brought their own gods, placing statues around their camps—gentle Sylaise and horned June, Ghilan'nain and Fen'Harel. At this invitation it was not surprising that a god walked among them.

Hooded, cloaked, the god kept to the shadows where the light of the fires did not reach. Sentries did not challenge him. Wards did not wake at his approach. A restless lynx paced at his side.

He paused outside each ring of light to study the faces of the quickened elves. Perhaps he loved them in his way—he would have answered yes if asked—but he loved secrets more. He plundered their minds with as little conscience as a pickpocket. Legends, lies, and sacred oaths. Jealousies and grudges petty as a midge's bite. He found fear and contempt of outsiders, love and kindness for kin, and precious little empathy for any other race. He found them absurdly proud of their scant knowledge and admirably hungry for more.

The god did not find, as had the Dread Wolf, a barbaric counterfeit of true elvhen. No, if the Dread Wolf had found the shemlin wanting it was because he had been born in a more sophisticated age. Fen'Harel, for all his rebellious ways, could not bear the loss of the civilization he had railed against.

His expectations were not as high as the exacting, idealistic Wolf's, nor did Dalish customs trouble him. He liked much of what he saw. They treated clan as family; none went hungry unless all did. They did not hoard the relics that remained to them. Their leaders were mages and elders respected for their learning. As for the crudeness of their crafts, how could it disappoint him? He had stood beside Sylaise when she taught the People to kindle fire. He remembered June's first copper axe.

The People needed the Creators. Look how far they had fallen without them.

And so he walked among them, taking their measure, for he wanted to be sure of his reception and he didn't have much time. He had always been the disciplined one, the one who acted out of wisdom, who took scrupulous care.

Hadn't he?

A moment of doubt—a flutter of confusion—he felt bewildered and strange. What am I thinking? Those aren't my memories.

The god crushed it.

They were one again. The doubt disappeared.

As he passed another aravel he heard the sound of sickness—a woman coughing—and he paused, letting the bulk of the landship conceal him in its shadow. Beside him the lynx sank to its haunches. He reached out to stroke its head with soothing thoughts.

An elderly woman sat before a campfire. A much younger man with pale hair knelt to spread a blanket on her lap. Across from them stood another elder. All three wore what they thought of as finery—leather picked out with studs of metal, ironbark ornaments, cambric embroidered with leaves and vines.

"Are you sure you won't attend the hahren'al? I was hoping for your support," the older man said.

The younger looked up from his task. "Do not tempt her, Keeper Hawen. Keeper Elindra is far too sick."

The aged woman gave him a kind but tired smile. "You worry too much, Cillian. Falon'Din will guide me when it is my time. Not before." But her voice was hardly a whisper.

"Don't speak of such things," the younger man protested.

The woman coughed again, a deep and tearing sound. Fluid had gathered in her lungs. In his day sickness had never touched the elvhen, but that was the god's memory, not Lysander's. It was fascinating to recall things he didn't know. Just as it was fascinating to watch himself raise his hand in a bored gesture and clear the sickness from the woman's chest.

Stop thinking so much, the god thought. His irritation was tangible.

Oh! Sorry, Lysander replied. And he did his best to minimize himself, lapsing into passive observation as the god preferred.

"I will not say the hahren'al is a waste of time," Hawen continued, "but last night we spent two hours arguing about toast. And that was before Clan Ghilain arrived. I once told their storyteller the sky was blue. She demanded proof."

"That's because you never admit you're wrong," Elindra said in a stronger voice. "Are you saying you did not discuss the vallaslin?"

"And derail the toast discussion? I didn't dare." Hawen stroked his chin in thought. "It's a hard thing to contradict ages of tradition with a dozen clans ready to call you a shem-loving liar. I wonder at you and Keeper Evin. Maybe they're right. Why shouldn't we keep the old ways? What harm is there in honoring the Creators with the vallaslin?"

"I don't consider slavery an honor," Cillian said, revealing his lack of sense, an alien point of view the god detested.

Elindra gave a prim declination of her head. "We have a duty to the truth. Evin said that, and I agree."

The god observed that none of the three wore vallaslin, but all of them formerly had. The Dalish might carve vallaslin on their faces as they pleased but they had no intermediary to speak for them. Did they think the Creators accepted just anyone to their service? Wretched children.

They would learn.

What of the Inquisitor? he asked them silently.

"Have you heard anything of Keeper Evin?" Hawen said.

"Dark rumors. Stories I do not care to repeat after sundown. I hope they are not true," Cillian replied.

"My First went to speak with the Inquisition scouts," Elindra said. "Why don't you go find her, da'len? I know you are worried."

"That can wait. I'll stay to look after you, Keeper," Cillian said.

"I'm feeling better," Elindra said, patting his hand. "Besides, I wish to speak with Keeper Hawen about the things we found in the Wilds. You've already heard those tales."

The younger elf built up the campfire before he left. Once he was gone the two Keepers fell into a conversation about the Temple of Mythal, where Clan Ralaferin had most recently been encamped. The god stayed long enough to pilfer the location of the hahren'al from their minds, then left, following Cillian. After a grudging moment of hesitation the lynx followed.

"Why so impatient, spirit?" the elvhen asked.

The lynx padded silently beside him. It neither looked at him nor away. "Release me," Guile said.

"You cannot return to her. Not yet."

"I will not ever return," Guile said.

"You will. Soon."

The lynx's unhappiness was obvious, yet it didn't try to leave his side. The man smiled at it, satisfied with sullen obedience, and followed a bare track through the plains. Cillian strode somewhere ahead, too far away to see in the darkness. At some point Cillian turned off the path, but the god continued without caring, because he already knew everything the Inquisition did.

What the Inquisitor knew was less clear. How much had she lucked into and how much was the product of a mortal's imperfect foresight? Impossible to tell, even for him.

He thought of the others he had tested. A litany of faces, some with names still known to history: Garahel, who was tainted. Ameridan, who had fled into a crevice of time. A thousand years of failure. How much longer must he wait? How many bright ones must he feed to a kiln of failed hopes? What did he care about them or even the Dalish as long as he was alone? Divided from himself!

The god's lips parted and drew tight over his teeth. He gasped in anguish and ferment while his heart pounded like a fist in his chest. He felt the muscles of Lysander's body strain against their tendons.

The lynx hissed its unhappiness. Lysander fell very quiet.

The god forced himself to calm. He would not fall into despair. His twin, his shadow, the other half of his soul—he mattered. No one else.

Evin was not properly prepared. The Wolf had saved her too many times. But if she broke he would find another. There was always another. He had heard of an elf in the north with white vallaslin. Perhaps that one. Perhaps Evin's son.

If she failed the Wolf would be furious, and that would be amusing, a small bite of revenge. He must arrange a fitting reception.

Evin had challenged him. None of the others had done that. He hoped she would enjoy his response.

All the hahren met in the hollow of a rock pile to the west of the other camps. The site was protected from the wind on three sides where a natural chimney guided the smoke of an enormous campfire up to the stars. Each hahren sat ensconced in their own place—a woven blanket, a pile of pillows stuffed with straw—adorned in their finest clothes for the purpose of defeating their peers with their wisdom and mastery of lore. Or, when that failed, by shouting them down.

Overhead the constellation Eluvia had lately appeared with the coming of spring. At the second hour past sunset the constellation's third star announced the opening of the Arlathvhen.

Or perhaps it was the first star. Opinions differed. As did the shouting.

The god paused outside the meeting place to listen to the elders. After a while he realized there would be no lull in the discussion, no break in the debate. He would have to grab their attention the old-fashioned way, by making a louder noise. Gone were the days when he could issue a command and find his faithful priests reverent and ready. He hoped Evin would appreciate the effort.

He cast down his hood and folded his hands in his sleeves. The lynx gazed up at him, watching his silent preparations with equal silence. He stepped forward into the circle.

A few hunters near the entrance watched him pass. Eyes glowered at his lack of vallaslin. And then he heard a voice murmur, "Lavellan." Another voice: "Inquisition."

The murmurs spread like the light of a candle dispelling a minor bit of darkness: ignorance. Except they were spreading more ignorance. He was not Lysander. He wore a body that was not his, one he'd repaired and cured of Blight.

Lysander did not exist.

You do not exist, puppet, he told the one inside him. And laughed at the man's agitated response.

The god strode forward, doused the enormous fire with a gesture, and restored it with a thought—cold, flickering veilfire far brighter than before with a sound like cracking ice. The amber light on their vallaslin-marked faces vanished. Eyes dazzled, they looked away.

When they looked back, they saw the man they thought was Lysander with a spirit at his side, flanked by two varterrals. Creatures of twisted wood and smoke—tall as trees bound to his will—wrested from the war-pocked ground and given life.

"Creators," someone cursed.

"Lavellan!" another called. "Did the Inquisitor send you? Explain yourself, da'len!"

"Not like that," the god said. "You must address me properly, shemlin. Call me ruan'in."

"Highest One?" The man's face was a rictus of astonishment. "Who do you think you are?"

"You wear my brother's vallaslin. You aren't permitted to argue," the god snapped. "Kneel. All of you—kneel."

The questioner had been sitting. He came to his knees, as did every Dalish present, falling forward or rising from their seats like grain swept by a scythe. Surprise, then fear, then horror and disbelief dawned on their faces.

"Fen'Harel locked me away. Yes, my body is still in his prison. I speak to you through the mouth of a believer. I come to you now because the Dread Wolf is no longer content with his prison. He killed the All-Mother, he killed the Huntress, he stole away your Inquisitor. I am sure I will be next unless we defeat him, lethallin."

"Skyhold—we heard such tales of Skyhold—" someone said.

"This is the answer to your prayers, is it not?" he asked the elders. "Your gods have returned. Just as you always wanted. As for me, I will answer any question put to me in the proper form. But know this—I will answer either with the truth or with death. Ask carefully."

"Blood magic! Fraud! It can't be true!" a voice cried.

It was not a question. The god lifted his hand. One of the varterrals bowed, extending a tangled limb to let him climb up. "Do not fear," he said, addressing the others. "You need not kneel forever. The magic will cease when you call on my Name. There were only nine Creators. You will learn."

Perhaps they were too afraid, struck dumb with terror. He thought no one would stop him. But a small, dark-haired woman surged to her feet almost instantly. She ran forward, peering up at him with no fear of the varterral, only a desperate desire to know. "Wait! Where are you going? Ruan'in, where are you going?"

He gazed down at her with an affectionate smile. "I will raise a fortress at Unadin, a little way to the east. You will find me there, Merrill."

A while later, as the god stood outside the grotto, he found himself in thought. "The trouble with precognition is that threats are never enough. One must actually wield the blade," he told his audience. "I wonder how many I will have to kill before Evin comes out to play."

He threaded magic through the war-torn Veil to construct his stronghold. And as the blocks of stone assembled themselves Dirthamen wondered—what would foresight would feel like when he read it from her mind?