Chapter 1: From the Rift to the Earth
Temptation had always been his greatest fear. It wasn’t a material thing one could shove beneath their bed and pretend it had never been. Temptation was an impulse spring-loaded into the mind, ready to snap in a moment’s notice and drive forth sinful actions. Sometimes the stirring impulse came not from himself, but from an outside force. Dorian was no stranger to demons in the Fade as, more often than not, he was approached by Desire demons possessing bodies of sculpted splendor and words sweetened with promises of fantasmic pleasure. He never gave in to those charmed words for the sweetness was rather flammable and tended to burn hotter than hellfire. Demons could be picked apart effortlessly. No human could possibly so perfect as to know everything Dorian liked before ever meeting the man. Fear could be undone by acknowledgement of one’s terrors. Rage was easily frozen. Envy could only push so far through a person’s mind before it found itself weakened to a useless, strained form. Terrors usually went hand in hand with Fear, unless it sought to slow its prey before striking a final blow. Pride went down if you hit it enough.
Despair was difficult. For one, it refused to be pinned to one place for extended periods of time. The demon would leap across the battlefield with high-pitched whines and shrieks before blasting a stream of ice at the person it deemed most dangerous. Wraiths tended to linger around the more powerful demon and cast shields, to which attacks would sometimes bounce off completely. Dorian hated fighting Despair demons, especially in the Fade where they could hide behind figments of imagination and strike from afar.
"Would you hold still for once? You'd think I'm fighting a bloody Nug instead of a demon!" Dorian scoffed as he slid left to avoid the chilling stream of a screeching Despair demon. Sharp shards of icy wind still permeated the mage's clothes and sent shivers along tanned skin.
Determined to beat the unholy beast into oblivion, Dorian spun his staff around once as he drew raw mana into the crystal and fired off a perfectly timed fireball into the air as Despair leapt to gain another vantage point. It’s shrieks intensified as the smell of sizzling flesh filled the air, followed by pitiful moans of agony before the demon dropped dead among the hazy memory drawn from the Fade. Why so many Despair demons were encroaching on his area in the dream-like Fade, Dorian wasn’t sure. On average, one or two demons might approach him within a single month, but now it was every other week the little gremlins decided to skitter their way to the mage’s mind. Perhaps Solas would know more about why they were being drawn towards him.
Then again, a conversation about Dorian’s personal life and dreams would most likely end with a condescending retort from the elven mage and he wasn’t eager to place himself in that kind of situation just yet. The Fade was calmer now. When Dorian had first awoken in the realm, he was greeted by familiar sandstone walls, dragons carved from onyx along the lip of the roof, statues of demons and mortals alike frozen in time, and a set of grand ponderosa doors shut tight to bar intruders from entering. Yes, home had never felt more unwelcoming. Perhaps it was the influence of demons strewn about the courtyards of Dorian’s childhood home, or the pain brought about through seeing his father in Redcliff only a week before, but as the mage fought through claws and fangs alike to enter the memory of his home in Tevinter, there was an ominous, suffocating air about the Fadescape. Once inside, the pressure ebbed away into nothing amid gilded halls adorned with animal trophies and tributes to the Old Gods. Where the clamor of roaring demons had once resounded, the now faint huff of Dorian’s breath became the only sound around.
“Well, I suppose it could always be worse. I could have stumbled upon my father trying to convince me of the shame I brought to the Pavus house. Or maybe the time Mother scolded me for ‘accidentally’ set her favorite drapes on fire. I was right, though. They burn faster than paper,” Dorian mumbled to himself as he strode through the seemingly endless halls of the Fadescape. The silence was a blessing, but it also proved to be rather unnerving when the sky beyond the windows twisted with fluctuating spirals of green and black energy, marred with occasional hisses and moans of something else. Fade study was best left to Solas, who was more than happy to throw himself head-first at any terrifying thing for the sake of knowledge. For now, the empty halls were Dorian’s own until he awoke from sleep.
If the Inquisitor had sent out a memo the night before, Dorian most certainly would have boarded up his bedroom door and refused any attempts at goading for the next hour. Hell, even spending prolonged periods of time with The Iron Bull sounded more interesting than endless expanses of burning sand and hot rock. Hissing Wastes, more like a waste of time. The Inquisitor wanted Dorian to come along because of the threat of Venatori influence, which the mage highly regretted showing apprehension to, so the number of Venatori mages wouldn’t outnumber theirs. Perhaps having a mage for an Inquisitor would have evened out the numbers, seeing as Solas and Cassandra were also marching along with less complaint. Dorian nearly broke into another sweat at the sight of Cassandra.
“Aren’t you hot in that armor, Cassandra? I can feel my pores leaking just looking at you in all that metal."
“I did not need that visual, Dorian. And I am fine in this armor," the lady Seeker replied as she kept her back to the Mage.
"Perhaps you should consider wearing lighter clothing next time?" Solas suggested with a calm smile as he strode alongside the Tevinter man.
Dorian raised an unamused eyebrow. "And destroy my tireless wardrobe efforts? I think not. Although, that’s a lot of ice for one person. Any more and you'd turn into an ice cube fit for fruity drinks. We might as well have a picnic with the Venatori while we're at it!"
The smile curved into a smirk along the elven man's face. "Unless you can find another solution for keeping cool, I would suggest you learn ice magic at once, most impatient Altus."
A middle finger wasn’t the most eloquent of retorts, but Dorian was too exhausted from the heat to muster brainpower for something other than crude rebuttal. Solas, at least, had the decency to look slightly offended by the gesture. Cassandra paid them no heed as the Inquisitor lead a change in direction towards the all too familiar hiss of a Fade Rift.
"More demons. Lovely," Dorian thought. First, his dreams are overrun with the tainted vermin then the Inquisitor leads their group towards a swarm on purpose, just to seal up a tear in the sky. Dorian made a mental note to forego suggesting the Inquisition make any extra effort besides solidifying treaties and stopping Corypheus. An extra demon here and there could be tolerated for the sake of protecting all of Thedas.
Luckily for them, the rift appeared to be rather small in size compared to the looming spires of ethereal Fade which could spit out demons faster than a dragon spewed molten flame. Dorian drew his staff to ready a flame glyph while the Inquisitor opened another hole in the Fade and watched as demons were syphoned into the howling abyss. Cassandra lead the physical charge, sword in hand, as she brought down her purifying blade on a wisp wraith and cleaved it in half. A Rage demon swelled to twice its height with a drawn out groan as it lunged for the Seeker, talons itching to sink into her flesh. Solas spun his staff and fired off a winter’s grasp spell before Rage could ignite anything aflame, then watched the demon freeze solid before Cassandra pierced the creature’s midsection and smashed it to splinters. With the advantage of a reduced hoard, thanks to the Inquisitor’s bizarre rift power, Dorian and Solas remained untouched by the first wave of demons. However, the party wasn’t quite out of the woods yet, as the Fade Rift strained to keep demons inside, glowing bright green for a few moments before the familiar splash of a second wave came forth. Two Despair demons and three Great Terrors leapt from the ground to surround Cassandra and the Inquisitor. Dorian nearly went mad from the cacophony of screeching and howling from the unholy creatures.
“If today is ‘cause Dorian grief day’ I have clearly missed the message and would appreciate prior notice in the future!” He hissed and cast a fireball at one of the Despair demons, which shrieked and began leaping around to cool the lingering flames.
“What? Did you say something about grief?” Solas shouted back in question over the deafening screams. The ground beneath the mages’ feet rippled with an eerie green glow before a Great Terror leapt out and struck at the elven man with sharpened treant claws.
Solas rolled out of the way, but not before Dorian was swept off his feet by the force of its entrance. His back hit the ground first as darkness danced along the edges of his vision; air refusing to sink into his lungs when Dorian tried to take a breath. The wind had been knocked out of his body. With a shaking wheeze, he moved to sit upright and came face-to-face with the hunched over figure of a Despair demon sitting right on its haunches before him. Dorian's first instinct was to lob as much fire as he could manage at the creature, but when a dagger protruded from beneath the black cloak, the Mage found his concentration torn from spells and up to the face of his tormentor. It wasn't grotesque with rat-like features, as the other Despair demons were. This one had a human face, one with two coal spattered eyes, a jaw of grinning canine teeth, and blonde hair so pale it appeared white in comparison. It's body was thin, practically a skeleton with hunched over shoulders and a crooked gait to each step it took towards Dorian. A black cloak was wrapped around the demon's body, covering torn and patched up clothes beneath which were covered in grime and littered with scratch marks. It's hands were long and thin, black tinted nails sharpened into points along pasty skin. Everything about the Despair entity screamed 'human' and 'demon' in an unholy matrimony of spiritual being. Ice cold metal against his throat, Dorian's hand stopped just above his staff as the Despair demon hissed at any little movements from the Mage.
“Just an inch away. To summon flames hotter than hellfire. Close. Cold. Cruel. Its smile is crafted of razor blades. Well, you wouldn’t be wrong,” the demon cackled with a raspy drawl of a voice. “In your head, beneath the skin of your heart. You are no stranger to Despair.”
Dorian swallowed against the blade and felt it bite into his skin, drawing a thin trickle of blood. "Well...I should hope not. That would make me a rather boorish fade host."
“Hiding behind sickening sweetness, fleeing confrontation. Don’t give it what it wants. You think you’re clever, but your secrets are not as well hidden as you believe. I smell it. Skin deep. Tantalizing. Fear. You fear me,” Despair growled. It leaned in closer, ice cold breath chilling the mage's skin with each huff, as it grinned with sharpened teeth.
"Really?" Dorian chuckled and played back his own smile as the familiar glow of Solas' staff caught on the edge of his gaze. "Allow me to return the favor. I can smell your fear as well."
As flames engulfed the Despair demon's cloak and body, the creature let out a piercing shriek before withdrawing its blade and leaping over Dorian in one bound. Instead of fighting back, however, the demon rolled itself along the sand, extinguishing its burning clothes before skidding to a halt on all fours in an animalistic crouch. Dorian was back on his feet without hesitation, staff in hand, to face the hissing thing on the sand. Despair flashed him another crooked smile before it leapt backwards and vanished into thin air without another sound.
"How odd. I was not aware demons were capable of using weapons," Solas said as he stared across the endless sands of the Hissing Wastes.
"What do you mean 'you didn’t think it capable of using weapons'?" Cassandra inquired, joining the conversation while the Inquisitor sealed the Fade Rift.
"Demons are usually incapable of using tools such as swords or knives. That is why they attack with elemental or spiritual magic," the fade fascinated Mage explained. "For one to use a dagger against Dorian and not its power of ice is most unusual."
"I would have almost preferred the ice. At least then I might not still be sweating my arse off,” Dorian grumbled. He pressed his hand against his neck to cast healing magic and knit together the blood tinted flesh, previously sliced open by the talking demon.
“It will be nightfall within the hour. You may change your tone by then, when the desert drops to almost freezing temperatures,” Cassandra said as she stepped to the side for the Inquisitor.
“Are you alright, Dorian?” The Inquisitor was watchful of the party, as always, when she turned to the Tevinter mage to ensure he wasn’t gravely injured.
“It will take more than a twisted ice sculpture to shake me, Inquisitor,” He purred with a charming smile.
Cassandra shook her head to the flirtatious charms of the mage and elected to follow Solas as the group began to migrate towards the nearest Hissing Wastes camp. Sand which once burned and blistered through leather boots now grew cold in the evening. Light was waning as the sun dipped to the curve of the skyline. Scarlet streams melted into indigo oceans, littered with twinkling pearls of starlight, sifting sea foam of dark clouds, and the silver hue of the rising moon. Quiet had settled amongst the travellers as they walked past now deserted Venatori camps with flickering embers proclaiming the loss of their tenders. Most of them were dead, anyway. Bodies scattered behind barriers of iron, constructed to protect, now stood as sharpened mausoleums in the pale expanse of desert sand.
Dorian’s mind wandered with the effortless travel, veering apart from the chafing of sand in his boots or the rapidly declining temperatures, to the Despair demon he encountered not very long ago. Just as Solas said, the demon was not akin to the shriveled up monsters which roamed the Fade and jumped at any chance to siphon the very will from humans, but something else entirely. It had spoken to him. It read his mind and called to Dorian with a near teasing tone. Highly intelligent, enough so to use daggers instead of claws, the battle instincts to smother fire before it could be badly burned, and a vanishing act akin to Varric’s power of stealth. Dorian would have called it human had the creature not possessed icicle breath and fallen from a fade rift.
A crackling fire punctuated their arrival at camp as several scouts sat upon rocks encircling a large fire to keep themselves warm. True to Cassandra’s word, the night was bitterly cold, marked by gusts of sandy winds every so often. Solas had dispelled his shield and retired quickly once the Inquisitor sat down amongst the scouts to listen for news from Skyhold and the other regions. Cassandra busied herself with cleaning the demon taint from her blade and left Dorian to his own devices. His first impulse was to secure a draught of wine and retire for the evening, but the thought of the Despair demon brought upon a second’s pause. He hadn’t taken note of it before, but Dorian felt as though he were being watched from afar. A quick scan of his surroundings revealed nothing but empty sands and the idle wandering of Inquisition soldiers. No screeching and no inhuman hissing around. Perhaps he was allowing paranoia the best of him. Surely, should something attempt to approach the camp, the soldiers on lookout would have enough time to sound an alarm and wake the others. Specifically Cassandra. Slaying demons was her specialty and bolstered with the power of a Seeker of Truth, Dorian would rather Cassandra be the first one to tackle a Despair demon. Still, standing around and letting himself freeze in the night wasn’t an option either. Trudging towards his tent, Dorian bid the Inquisitor a curt goodnight before stepping into the canvas shelter and letting the entrance flap fall closed behind him.
He’d skip the drink, just this once.
Running from a demon was a lot harder than Dorian thought it would be. The Rage demon chasing him down the halls of his childhood home once more was being a particular bastard with it's fireballs. Another blast, which the Mage leapt to the left to avoid, had Dorian rolling from the floor and onto his feet as he continued to run past paintings of long dead Pavus relatives, windows holding back shimmering fade sky, and even a few glimpses of memories from long ago. Dorian cursed himself for being too focused on learning Pyromancy to adopt some ice magic, or even electricity for a backup. As always, Solas had hit the nail on the head with the slightly offhanded comment about his single-minded focus on Pyromancy. That didn't make Dorian helpless, though. He still knew how to fight, regardless of elemental disadvantage. He spun on his heel at the end of the hallway, spinning his staff to draw in power as the Rage demon slid with bubbling, magma skin around the corner to face the Mage.
"Well? What are you waiting for?" Dorian taunted with an eager smirk.
Rage howled and stretched itself further in an attempt to reach Dorian, but was promptly hit square in the face with an explosive fireball which sent the demon reeling back with the force. The Mage's barrage continued as he advanced on the demon with multitudes of fire magic and simple spell attacks alike. As long as Rage continued to stumble backwards, there wasn't any reason to panic over the strength of his attacks. Yet, as Dorian struck again and again, it became clear his magic was having very little in terms of damaging effect on the demon. Rage just seemed to grow in it's anger, between startled howls and sluggish backlash as Dorian's flames struck the demon with relentless fury. Letting out an enraged snarl, the demon pushed past the mage's barrage with outstretched arms, grabbing for Dorian with burning claws. Dorian barely managed to raise his staff to match the demon's attack as sizzling talons grasped the metal rod and shoved the Mage backwards. The Fade had done a marvelous job mimicking Dorian's memories of his house. The loose carpeting over wooden floors slid beneath the Tevinter man's feet, like a sheet of ice. Without a foothold, Dorian's lack of balance left him falling onto his back for the second time in one day, the Rage demon leaning over him with a dripping maw of molten lava.
"Rather...rude!" Dorian hissed as he twisted his head aside to keep the droplets off his skin. The beast closed in to gobble the pinned human's head, but an eerie hiss echoed around the fadescape, followed by a stream of ice which pierced the demon's back and spread icy tendrils along it's skin until Rage was no more than a frozen statue.
"No, no, no. You can't kill him. That's my job," Despair hissed before stabbing one of its daggers into the demon's back and relishing the shattering of it's body into hundreds of tiny shards.
Dorian pushed himself away from the cloaked monstrosity in a second, staff at the ready as he watched Despair closely, his heart still thudding rapidly against his ribcage."Stay right there," he demanded as his eyes tracked the demon's every little movement.
Despair laughed. The sound was warped, edged with an unnatural echo, and chilling to hear. A voice akin to icicles and frost. "You are one to talk. I saved you. Rage leaves no bone unturned, a testament to eternity.”
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Dorian snapped. "Because the words 'You can't kill him. That's my job' don't exactly call for thanks."
“Stay back. Not another step. A thundering heart struck with panic. Fear. Fright. Fleeing, but where is there to go?” the stick-skinny demon muttered as a dagger was spun between the bony fingers of it's left hand. “Leaving so soon, Dorian? We just started talking.” It grinned and slid forward another step to back the mage closer to the wall.
“The time for talking is long over. It's time for you to disappear like all the others."
“You can’t kill me, Dorian. I don’t die like a howling animal,” Despair replied none too kindly.
He scoffed. “I can assure you, dying has nothing to do with how you go, especially since most of time it ends in flames for your kind.”
With that, Dorian spun his staff towards the Despair demon and tossed a flaming sphere its way. The demon leapt out of the spell’s trajectory before twisting around and slashing at the mage with a dagger. Metal sparked against metal with a harsh clang. Dorian deflected the dagger from his staff to the wall and ducked beneath the demon’s reach to gain a flanking point. Yet, Despair twisted back with a second blade in hand, drawing a thin line along the mage’s arm as he dodged the main swing. Dorian hissed as blood dribbled from the cut and hit the floor with a silent splatter. Despair laughed at the mistake, abandoning its first blade to dodge another flaming attack, sidestepping each rune set on the floor to trap the demon, then leapt onto a carved stone statue with a toothy grin.
“Pathetic. This is the ‘great’ Dorian Parvus? The man who spent so many years becoming a powerful mage?” Despair whispered with its taunting smirk. “Your father would be quite disappointed in you. ‘No son of mine would bow to a demon. Incompetent fool.’ Can’t you hear him? Shameful boy.”
“This would go a lot quicker if you’d stop darting around! Honestly, you Despair demons are always so jumpy. Were you part fennic before taking on that hideous form?” Dorian snapped back, keeping his focus on the cloaked being. If he thought about his father, if he lost sight of the true enemy, Despair would certainly win. Yes, the whispers were flowing faster now that Despair had stirred up buried memories. But they wouldn't conquer him, not while Dorian still had the will to fight.
"Would you rather I be something else?" The demon questioned before slipping into the shadows without another word. Now there was no sign of the ethereal being, only the faint hum of Dorian's primed fire runes and the whirl of fade sky outside the Altus' home. "Perhaps I should become Envy. To exploit as I see fit. Elastic stretched thin until it snaps into shape. Yes. Yes, I think that will do. Let's go back to a time when your magic wasn't such a bother."
What? What the hell did that mean? Despair couldn't just become Envy. They were two vastly different spirits, corrupted in separate ways, and possessing abilities not like one another. Then, why was Dorian's fadescape twisting backwards in time? He could feel the engulfing hold of consciousness reeling him backwards, past the months spent with the Inquisition, the fight with his father before leaving Tevinter, his years as a young man fending off suitors pushed his way. All control had been lost to the demon's will and now Dorian was at the mercy of his own tidal wave of memories. It was too much. So many memories, so much pain, those feelings tore through Dorian's mind with silenced screams until the mix of colors and sounds brought his world to merciful unconsciousness.
When Dorian came to his senses, the fade had stopped shifting through his past and now rolled forward at a snail's pace through time. He slowly sat up, rubbing his arm which still ached, but not as badly as before. Then, he stopped altogether. Holding up his arms, Dorian nearly screamed as he found two gangly and bandage wrapped appendages where his arms were supposed to be. But, those were his arms, since they responded to his flailing about with immediate action.
"Okay...calm down, Dorian," he said softly before slapping his small hands over his mouth in shock. That was a child's voice, far before he had grown into a young man. Belonging to a time when his mother had servants follow him around to ensure Dorian wouldn't dig beneath the back garden wall to escape their household. He had to be no older than thirteen, at the most, and just by standing up, Dorian could see the difference in age. He was short now, terribly short, as Varric would have probably been the same height as him. Let it never be mentioned to the dwarf.
"I'm-I'm a child again. A child. Me," Dorian stammered as though he couldn't believe the words coming from his own mouth. He turned to look at himself in a mirror and stared into the wide eyes of his child form. He was clean-shaven now, an outcropping of neatly combed over hair on the top of his head, punctuated by an undercut just to the tips of his ears. A ring of flat lying hair punctuated the end of the undercut and remained the same color of the rest of his hair. Dorian's clothes were extremely lavish now, being of midnight silk laced by golden threads, embroidery of serpents along the back of a cloak, a child's robe tied with a rope around his middle, pointed walking shoes and gold bangles around his ankles which jingled as he walked. They would have to go. Despair didn't need to hear where Dorian was going. It was an aching view of innocent years, when Dorian's concern had centered becoming the most powerful Magister he could be and impressing his father with his skills.
Now, his father was left behind in the waking world and Dorian was a child, lost in the fade. That pegged another question as well. Could he even use magic? Surely, in the fade, his magic would be at it's strongest, no matter what his body's size. Dorian closed his eyes and held out his right hand as he sought the link to the magic within his body and soul. He searched hard, but the spark of life, the twinkle of power was nowhere to be found. Gone. His connection to magic had all but disappeared.
Fear gripped him harder than anything else as the reality of his situation sunk in. He was a powerless child in the fade, a conscious without any means of defense with a Despair demon hot on his trail. The only reason it hadn't possessed him earlier revolved solely around Dorian's magic keeping it at bay. Now Dorian was exposed with only a staff twice his height for protection. He’d have to hide.
“Where are you, little Pavus? I can feel your despair. So small, so helpless. No mother or father to protect you. The Inquisitor is a few feet away, but you can’t even reach out to her,” Despair cackled with an unearthly rasp as it shuffled down the empty halls. Memories danced past him, a ghost among the living, and floated toward a door left ajar. It let one of its daggers slide into its palm and grasped the worn, leather handle with the certainty of a predator as it closed in on its prey.
Despair threw the door open with a deafening bang as it stood in the doorway with a crooked grin. Its shadow seemed to twist and flux in the light from the hall, with tendrils snaking out to explore every crevice until Dorian could be found. Its footsteps were muted scrapes along the floor now as the demon bent down to check beneath the bed for the small child. No luck there. It stood back up to survey the room and grinned at the crack in the closet door. A sliver of vision which Dorian had peered out of to check for Despair’s whereabouts once it slammed the door open. Now, the small child could almost feel a cold chill creeping down his spine as the demon stood back up and shuffled to the closet door with uneven steps.
“There’s nowhere to run, Dorian. The game is over. Give in now. I’ll be merciful and spare you pointless agony,”Despair whispered before stabbing its knife deep into the closet door. It relished the muffled yelp of the mage as he pressed himself back against the closet to avoid being killed.
The demon pulled the knife out and grabbed the handles of the closet instead as it threw open the doors to claim its prize. Instead of a trembling human, an excessively heavy fur coat was thrown into its face as Dorian ducked beneath the lanky demon’s legs and dashed out the open door. Despair hissed and threw the offending coat to the floor before chasing after the escaped mage with his blades at the ready.
“Get back here! You cannot escape me! You will surrender to me!”
Dorian forced himself to ignore the frustrated screams of the demon behind him as he ran as fast as his little legs would carry him through the formulated halls of of his memories. He had to evade the demon and throw it off his trail. It was impossible to fight back in this form when magic wouldn’t answer his call and any weapons around the house were placed up too high for him to reach. Perhaps he should apologize to Varric later for making a comment about his height. If he survived this ordeal, Dorian swore he’d do a lot more apologizing.
Suddenly, a cold hand was wrapped around his ankle before Dorian could even think to kick it away, the mage yanked upside down in the Despair demon’s grasp. It looked so thin, but the strength it was squeezing Dorian’s ankle with was already causing bruises and ice to spread along his skin. He cried out in pain as his fragile, child’s body was held in the air and the snarling face of Despair stared deep into the boy’s soul.
“Playtime is over,” the pale haired demon hissed and pulled out one of its daggers, ready to carve out the innards of the dangling human child.
Dorian couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, as the blade slid from the demon’s coat into its hand. He was scared, terrified, petrified, with helplessness. This was the true influence of despair. His chest felt tight, like the strings of his mother’s corset wound around his ribs, crushing the lungs and heart into confined space. Any feeling in his ankle was now lost and the ice covering his leg cut like thousands of tiny knives into his skin every second it it crawled closer to his hip. This was it, he was going to die.
Just then, survival instincts kicked in, the raw need to survive digging deep into Dorian’s bones, as he threw out his hands towards the demon in an attempt to shove it back. He was rewarded with a blast of fire so brilliant, it glimmered with golden flames and set the demon's skin alight. Despair screeched in agony and dropped Dorian on the floor as it began to roll along the carpet in hopes of smothering the flames. The Mage slowly sat up, his leg still frozen, but everywhere else still untouched, and stared at the panicking demon on the floor. Eventually, the flames ceased to lick along the demon's body, but not before they had consumed almost all of it's clothing. Pale skin stretched across bone, so thin in places that Dorian could see muscles flexing beneath, a form so human it seemed the demon was closer to an abomination that a production of the fade. Despair turned and hissed at Dorian, two pale blue eyes surrounded by orbs of black stared back at him beneath pale, white hair. The demon did not appear furious, though. If anything, it appeared to be frightened of Dorian.
"You win this time, Pavus. Next time. You will not be so lucky," Despair seethed before limping off into shadows with the remains of it's cloak clutched between bony fingers.
Dorian released a held breath with ecstatic relief before a choked laugh bubbled past his lips. He had done it. The demon was gone and Dorian would wake up again, free of possession and the tiny body of a child. With shaking limbs, Dorian clutched at his chest to calm his hammering heart, thanking every god he knew the name of. He would live to see another day.
To see frost lacing the outside and inside of his tent was an unnerving sight for one who just awoke. Yet, it only confirmed the mage's fear. Despair was following him. It had stood there, with him, in the tent and pried into memories long buried by alcohol and time. Dorian supposed he should consider himself lucky. After all, there wasn't a single trace of frost around his bedroll or on his leg, which had been iced over in the fade. He was content to leave the issue to himself and deal with Despair alone. Outside his tent there seemed to be an odd commotion, however. It wasn't until Dorian summoned the strength to dress himself and step outside that the second concerning factor presented itself. A dagger was embedded in the sands, right outside of his tent, it's gilded dragon-headed handle glinting ominously in the morning light.
The game wasn't over yet.
Chapter 2: In the Eyes of Mercy
I should be updating this story bi-weekly from now on. Thank you to everyone who left kudos, you guys really make my day!
"Are you sure you don't know where this came from?"
Dorian sighed as the Inquisitor pressed the issue of Despair's dagger into a fraying argument once more. How many times would he have to repeat himself before she accepted his word as truth and let the subject drop? Stating outright that it was left behind by a Despair demon was a dangerous declaration of weaknesses. The Inquisitor might not suspect foul play but Solas, Vivienne, and perhaps even Iron Bull would be able to tell Dorian's problems ran deeper than a simple encounter with a demon. Possession would be whispered about like a plague and before long the Advisors would use their charming little tactics to shovel Dorian into the nearest Circle to be made Tranquil. No thank you.
"As I've said before. I woke up and there it was, shimmering in the light outside of my tent. No, I did not put it there, and no, I didn't see the person who did," Dorian repeated again with a pinch of irritation. "Can I please have breakfast now? My stomach is going to devour my insides at this rate."
The Inquisitor rolled the blade over in her hand once more before nodding. "Yes. I apologize for questioning you so early in the morning. Perhaps the scouts will know more about it's origin."
Dorian left the Inquisitor's tent without another word and was surprised to see Solas sitting just outside of the canvas dwelling on warming sands. He turned to Dorian when the Altus emerged from the tent and stood to walk alongside him.
"Dorian, a moment, please."
"If this is about the dagger, I've repeated the details to our Inquisitor several times over already," he interrupted with a hint of irritation, not bothering to slow his stride.
"You and I both know of its true origin. What I wish to understand is why you insist upon hiding the truth."
Ah, there it was. Of course Solas wouldn't be fooled by the innocent rouse. No matter how low Dorian attempted to play the situation, he was still dealing with a Fade expert, one who spent his days dream-walking with spirits.
"Accusing me of being a fraud? Solas, I didn't know you had it in you!" Dorian laughed.
"You are still avoiding the question."
The elven Mage sighed heavily. "Was the blade left by Despair?"
"You know, it might be best to ask the demon himself. 'Hello Sir, might I ask why you decided to stick a dagger outside my tent? What's that? You wanted to kill me? Perish the thought'." Dorian jeered before returning to ignoring Solas.
The Altus approached a group of Inquisition troops and accepted from the cook a plate of whatever the scouts had managed to come up with that morning for breakfast. Some sort of porridge, he guessed, sticking a spoon into the gloppy mixture to have a taste. It wasn't too bad, considering some of the meals Dorian had been exposed to on the scorched Exalted Plains were rancid enough to make him stomach sick. It could always use a little more water. A little more substance. And possibly a flavor other than stale wheat.
"Are you listening to me?" Solas finally snapped as he grabbed Dorian's shoulder and spun the man around in one fluid motion.
Spoon still between his lips, the Altus stared at Solas with surprise before pulling the utensil from his mouth. He must have been talking while Dorian lent focus to the terrible meal in his hands. "What do you want from me, Solas? I don't know any more than you do. The demon I encountered was dangerous and it wanted to kill me. That's it."
"It froze your tent, Dorian. It left a dagger outside for you to discover. Whatever it is doing has now gone far beyond reason of Despair," pale fingers slipped away from the mage's coat as Solas took a step back to calm himself. "Perhaps the demon wishes to communicate, but does not realize how. If you see it again, I would be grateful if you were to let me know."
With an exaggerated sigh, Dorian nodded and stuck his spoon back into the bowl of breakfast mush. "If I see it again, and it doesn't try to kill me on the spot, I will try to get your attention. No promises. Dodging a dagger to keep my heart intact might just take precedent over calling in a scribe to document demonic undertakings."
"I can ask for no more, Dorian. We will be returning to Skyhold soon. Perhaps once there, demon will not follow," Solas said with just the slightest hint of hope.
"Somehow, I doubt that," Dorian muttered beneath his breath.
Sands blurred into flat, barren land and then into rolling hills of green grass and trees of towering heights. The Emerald Graves. Dorian was more than pleased to leave sand encrusted camps and clothes behind for miles and miles of ancient trees which never caused sunburn or heated up to ridiculous temperatures in the light, as rocks tended to do. Here the stones were cool to the touch and crawled with moss in every crack, crevice, or curve water could touch. The breeze was cool, the sun was warm, and everyone in the party was content on their trek along winding dirt paths. An occasional whinny from the Inquisitor's horse punctuated chirping and squealing of native animals around the travelers. They would make good pace at this rate, perhaps even all the way through the forest by night fall, then back to Skyhold the day after. He hadn't felt the oppressive presence of Despair along his back, either. It could be attributed to Solas taking up last in line while Cassandra lead and Dorian walked beside the Inquisitor's horse, or maybe it had finally given up when they left the Hissing Wastes. Whatever the reason, he was grateful for the reprieve from constant guard.
That is, until Solas slammed the end of his staff into Dorian's back and shoved the Mage to the ground.
"Venhedis, Solas! What's-?" Dorian's words were silenced as the Inquisitor's horse reared back with a cry of pain and bucked the leader from the saddle.
"Inquisitor!" Cassandra shouted as she spun from the front guard to the fallen leader's side.
Seated deep in the flank of the horse was a dagger with a glinting, silver handle right where Dorian's head had been. The beast was inconsolable now, whipped into a frenzy, bucking back and forth as blood gushed from the knife wound. A screech echoed across the silent trunks around the group and obscured the demon's true position. The horse raced forward in a panic, galloping down dirt tracks before a spray of blood, following the ripping of flesh, filled the air and down the animal fell. It's backside had been carved open, a line from ribs to the rump, muscle splitting from bone as the creature writhed on the ground. Despair stood beside the fallen horse, donned in a new, blood splattered cloak and wielding the blade in its bony fingers.
"I am surprised it holds such boldness. I had expected a more passive approach," Solas commented as he spun his staff to cast a shield about the party.
Dorian rubbed his back and rose to his feet, bearing a scowl. "I think it might be best to be rid of it before it attempts to assassinate someone else."
The demon charged at the group with it's blade drawn to attack, screeching, and moving side to side to dodge Solas' ranged attacks. It leapt into the air, preparing to drive it's blade into Dorian when a shield was positioned between Mage and demon, followed by a loud crack. Cassandra bashed her shield into the descending Despair and deflected the demon into a nearby tree. A mix of pained hisses and a startling, near human cry slipped past the demon's lips before it ducked left to avoid the Seeker of Truth's blade swinging just above its head. The demon staggered back, dodging more magic from Solas and another sweep of Cassandra's blade as it spat back a blast of ice to incapacitate the Seeker. While it didn't freeze her body, Cassandra was pushed several feet back by the force of the stream as it froze her shield and feet to the earth.
"Dorian! We need fire, now!" Cassandra commanded over her shoulder, hacking at the ice shackling her ankles in cold, dead weights.
The altus mage tossed a fireball just short of Cassandra's feet, watching the ice melt in the heat, before turning back to the Despair demon still on the prowl. It had leapt through the air and now stood a few meters from Dorian, putting the pyromancer between itself, Solas, and Cassandra. Clever demon. Drawing a rush of magic through his veins to create an explosion, Dorian froze as gently curving lines of light portraying the Inquisitor's stealth ability shimmered from behind the demon. His eyes caught the movement and awaited the leader's move, but so did Despair, which turned to look over its shoulder and instead of the Inquisitor, found a knife stabbed deep in its back. The scream from the creature shook Dorian from his steady stance as a high-pitched and incredibly human, bellow of agony ripped from the throat of the demon. Blood stained black with decay and corruption split along emerald grass until the demon was hunched over a small puddle of stained earth. He should be fighting, Dorian thought bitterly, as he stood stone still and watched the creature suffer beneath the hands of the Herald. It's his job to kill demons and twisted beings alike. Why, then? Why couldn't he bring himself to ignite the pained demon like a dry branch in summer heat? It had to be its eyes. The voice. Too human-like for its own good. While Dorian fought with himself, the Inquisitor raised her other blade in preparation to strike but just before the demon's head could be taken off, it disappeared in a flash of bending light. Stealth, even with a bleeding wound, made the creature nearly impossible to see as the feeble wheezing of its breath faded into the background noise. The Inquisitor scowled and turn to Dorian with a disappointed glare.
"Just what did you think you were doing?" She asked while tucking away one of her daggers.
‘Hoping the demon would get away, actually’, but an answer like that was sure to get the Inquisitor to deliver a judgement most unpleasant on Dorian's head. "Well, I thought we were fighting a demon."
"We? The only contribution you put forth was unfreezing Cassandra's ankles."
"Apologies, Inquisitor. I wasn't aware we all had to be shining stars of the battlefield," Dorian quipped, crossing his arms rather defensively.
"I had it pinned. You could have burned the damn thing to ash!" She shouted back.
"Burning things to ashes isn’t my style. Besides, it's going to bleed out anyway, there's no point in chasing it down!"
“Enough! Both of you are acting like children!” Cassandra declared, stepping between the Inquisitor and Dorian, placing a firm hand on each of their shoulders.
The Inquisitor shrugged away Cassandra’s hand with indignant coldness and spun on her heel to inspect her fallen horse and bring mercy to it's suffering. Dorian pursed his lips in a thin line as he watched them go, Cassandra's hand holding strong against his bared shoulder, just a little cold. She held her shield with that hand. He could still envision the stream of ice against the Seeker's shield, freezing the outer layer along with her ankles from the deflected line of attack. They weren't wrong, the Inquisitor, about needing Dorian in battle against Despair demons. Besides dispelling the perverse spirits of their barriers and slicing into their skin until death, the most effective magic was fire, something Dorian alone had honed for many years until his skills surpassed all other mages of the Imperium. It didn't matter. The thing was limping around with a knife embedded deep in its back. Despair wouldn't last the night.
Cassandra withdrew her hand once Dorian relaxed his muscles beneath her gloved palm, her steel eyes calmly observing the Mage for any signs of hostility. Once deemed sufficiently calm, the Seeker turned on her heels and followed the Inquisitor, right hand curled loosely about the hilt of her blade. She was tense with the impending threat of danger, drawing up a whisper of conversation amid silence with the rogue kneeling before their fallen horse.
"That was no ordinary demon," Solas remarked. His eyes focused on the direction Despair fled, staff still held between calculating fingers. "It was singling you out, Dorian. The assassination measure it took was a facsimile of Antivan techniques, one which normally takes years to master."
Dorian turned towards the elven mage's back, looking past Solas and out to the trail of black blood in the grass. "So it's a terrifying mix of demon and human. A chimera of sorts?"
"I suppose. I have never observed a demon willing to follow a target for an extended period of time. All skills Despair exhibits indicate a human origin, though how long ago they were possessed is unknown. The human qualities have long since vanished beneath demonic influence."
"Don't tell me you want to find it," Dorian said with a shake of his head. "It's not a Mabari one can heal and release back into the wilds. We're talking demons capable of tearing off the faces of pretty mages and I, for one, am not inclined to give it such a chance."
Solas advanced upon the demon blood trail and knelt before the splatter of black taint smothering emerald grass. "Even demons were once spirits of the fade. It could be reasoned with, healed, and sent back through peaceful means."
"As interesting as that sounds, I highly doubt it will want to get anywhere near living beings. Especially a Mage who set it on fire in the Hissing Wastes," the Tevinter man rebutted with just the barest hint of a smirk at the apostate.
Solas cleared his throat rather uncomfortably before standing tall on the grass. "Yes, well, I suppose lighting anyone on fire would cause distrust."
"Dorian! Solas! We're walking to Direstone Camp for the evening. Inquisitor's orders," Cassandra shouted to both of the mages, breaking the strained conversation between them.
Solas brushed past Dorian, tucking his staff over his shoulder for the tedious trek. "Let us be off."
Somehow, the Night Watch seemed more of an ironic punishment than behavioral adjustment in Dorian's eyes. The Inquisitor was insistent he remain awake for at least half the watch and so kindly assigned the scouts to ensure Dorian remained awake with them. After batting away several invasive hands and at least one sword, Dorian reluctantly capitulated to consciousness for the evening. He supposed it could be worse. Through the canopy of ember lit leaves, marbles of starlight poked holes in an indigo curtain of night sky, the moon casting it's silver glow by shafts of dusty light. Faintly, the memory of Despair's equally shining blade stuck to Dorian's thoughts as he stared across the endless plains of grass and crumbling stone monuments. He shouldn't be thinking about it. Dwelling on a being which had presumably passed would do no good. Dorian took the moment of calm to slip from his punishment watch, passing along a simple excuse to the scouts for his leave of absence before stepping quietly into the abundant tufts of overgrown grass. Firelight ebbed from Dorian's vision until the silver of the moon emerged as the only source of light. He dare not create his own through magic, lest he call upon forest creatures best left sleeping, or worse, demons.
Had the woods stirred with nocturnal life, Dorian might not have caught the barest whisper beneath collapsed Dalish ruins. It was pained, human, and muffled to near silence. Drawing his staff, Dorian took cautious steps towards the sound until an amorphous mass of shadows swelled in the mage's wake. The thing hissed at his unwelcome approach, but relented when the head of Dorian's staff pressed against a sliver of pale flesh. Despair, shivering and clutching blood stained cloak between it's thin fingers, stared up at the Mage with burning blue eyes as Dorian's staff rested just under the demon's chin.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised you didn't die. You seem to have an unusual talent for escaping the afterlife," Dorian's voice broke the calm. Spoken in a soft sentence, but deafening in the stone archway.
Despair said nothing in rebuttal, instead drawing in a shuddering breath as it continued to stare into the eyes of its executioner.
Dorian narrowed his gaze on the demon, pressing on its neck until he was assured Despair felt pain. "Although, I doubt you'll be slipping through my fingers this time." When the demon refused to reply, he continued. "It'll be simple. I cast fire, you turn to ashes, the Inquisitor stops getting on my case about letting demons go, and then I go back to Skyhold to stop a corrupted Magister from taking over the world."
Again, no reply, no cryptic riddles twisted about metaphor or memories, just a shuddering demon staring up at the Tevinter mage. It was starting to unnerve Dorian. Perhaps it was toying with him to see if he'd succumb to sympathy and let it go. Solas might have felt the desire to give a demon aid, but Dorian was obstinate in matters of forgiving those who attempted to assassinate him not just once, but twice.
Slowly, Despair reached behind its back and Dorian prepared himself to cast the killing blow, when instead of a weapon, the demon drew aside the midnight cloak covering its albino skin. A dagger, one of Despair's, was stuck deep into its back, wound held closed with a sheath of ice around both blade and skin. Cracks shone through the ice, brought on by the demon's painful writhing as it limped in agony to the archway, where it had lain until Dorian found it. Stained black with cursed blood, the ice casing was beginning to fail, leaking droplets along bare skin in tainted trails. The Inquisitor had returned the blade to the demon in a devastatingly, ironic twist.
"Please..." It whispered, throat hoarse from pain and the staff pressed against its windpipe. Lyrium blue eyes wide, harrowed and pleading for a merciful hand. Despair attempted to draw amity from the mage's heart, just this once. "Hurts...please...help..."
"Help? You want me to help you? Don't be ridiculous," Dorian scoffed. "You invaded my dreams, turned me into a child, attempted to kill me twice, and tore through the Inquisitor's horse without so much as flinching. And now you want my help?"
The silence between them was deafening with the mage's contemplation. He shouldn't help it, regardless of what the elven Mage had suggested only hours earlier. Solas was a day-dreaming apostate who couldn't get his head out of the fade long enough to see just how dangerous demons could be. Once spirits or not, it didn't matter, they were corrupted beings which had to be stopped. Yet, this one didn't behave like the others. The only comparison Dorian could assign between the two stemmed from the demon's eerie, human-like appearance. Perhaps its origin dictated the difference of a normal Despair demon, hence why this Despair was pleading for its life at the feet of a pyromancer it had attempted to kill several times prior. He knew it would turn around to betray Dorian the moment he caved; so why, he wondered, was he pulling his staff away and kneeling down to inspect the wound?
"If you try to kill me, I'll make sure you never make another sound, got it?" He grumbled with disdain.
The bite of leather against his palm as Dorian gripped his staff reminded him to be wary of the capricious nature of Despair, regardless of its physical state. By pumping a little mana into the crystalline end, a faint glow arose to fill the alcove with pale light. From what Dorian could see, the wound was deep, but not long. To heal the demon required both repairing internally bleeding organs and stitching together the split flesh in a matter of seconds or it would certainly bleed out.
"Alright, now hold still. You might want to bite something besides your tongue, unless you prefer only having half of one," Dorian instructed as he wrapped his right hand around the blade to melt the sheath of ice.
Despair dug its teeth into part of its hood to muffle a groan of pain as Dorian melted the protective patch and extracted the blade dug deep into its skin. Blood resumed flowing the moment it was gone, spilling like an overflowing goblet. The Altus Mage pressed his hand against the bubbling wound and poured as much healing magic as he could spare into the demon's body. He could feel innards stitching themselves together, flesh forming anew, veins wired in delicate pathways, all the way up to Dorian's hand where the outer wound pulled itself closed. When he parted with the demon's back, black blood coated the mage's hand, but the wound was no longer leaking or visible. A line of scar tissue ran through drying fluid from the bottom of Despair's ribs and stretched whenever the demon drew breath. Exhausted, and through with fulfilling the demon's pitiful plea, Dorian moved to stand up when a cold hand clamped down on his right wrist and fixated the Mage where he knelt. A blaze of orange rose from Dorian's staff in warning as he watched Despair's bony hand remain braced around his tanned skin. Panic seeped under his calm facade as hesitation held back immolation in a second abnormal act of mercy. It was silent, at first, as it watched Dorian with piqued curiosity.
"You. You helped me," Despair whispered in a raspy voice. "Why? It should have been as you said. Kill it. Inquisitor's orders. But the flames never came."
"Yes, well, I had a lapse in judgement," Dorian explained. He gave an experimental tug on the hand holding his wrist, but Despair refused to budge. Maybe talking would distract it long enough for the mage to break free. "But, enough about me. Why can you talk?"
Despair blinked once and, with an air of innocent confusion, tilted its head to the left. "I have always been able to speak. Not quite a loud human, not quite a silent abomination. You and I have a lot in common."
"We're not alike. You're a demon and I-"
"You think you're different?" The demon shook its head and leaned in closer to Dorian's face. It's breath was cold, smelling of decay and punctuated with a crafty smirk. "You delude yourself with appearances. Gleaming. Glittering. Flashing. Shining on the outside to conceal dull stone beneath. I may look like a monster, but I only speak the truth. You are wicked on the inside.”
Dorian swung his staff down to cast upon impulse, but was stopped as Despair grabbed the metal rod, just above the altus’ hand. “Shut up. I thought we could be civilized, but you clearly cannot hold back on prying into someone’s mind for even a moment," he snapped back through gritted teeth.
“That is how I am, Dorian. You want me to change myself? Like how he was trying to change you ‘for your best interests’ he said. Pain in rivers of blood down the skin. Forbidden fruit pressed to a pulp under his heels. Father, you beg, but he doesn’t listen. He hasn’t listened since that night,” the demon purred as it relished the twisting agony of Dorian’s heart through agony-laced memories. "He wanted a better son than you. Why couldn't you have been perfect?"
"Stop it. Stop that right this instant!” Dorian spat as his grip on his staff faltered and Despair leaned forward again, its pale hair brushing against the mage's forehead. He should be fighting it, Dorian thought in a swell of bitterness and pain, but after expelling so much energy on healing his tormentor there wasn't anything left to draw strength from.
"Let it sink in. Don't try to fight. Accept your failure," it cooed with a sickening sweetness to its voice; one that made Dorian go rigid and sent freezing shivers down his spine. He couldn't move or fight back against the web of truth spun by Despair. The gravity of its statements crushed down on the Altus' heart with the weight of several tons until pain bloomed through his chest in deadly, crimson roses. It might have continued the onslaught on Dorian, had the ring of the Inquisitor's voice not broken the silence between demon and Mage. The demon made no other comments or jabs as it released its grip on Dorian's arm and staff. It stepped back once, twice, then turned towards the forest with glinting knives between its fingers once more.
For a moment, Dorian watched it slip into the shadows of The Emerald Graves, Despair melting into the darkness like an escaped shadow until it was nothing at all. The quiet settled around the mage in a heavy fog of mental anguish which refused to leave him be. Dorian knew he should stand, call out to the Inquisitor, say or do something, but his legs remained folded, like carved stone, beneath him. He felt raw, wrecked, as though a herd of Druffalo had trampled over his body. Now wasn't the time to crack, Dorian reminded himself as he dug the base of his staff into the damp earth to rise on shaking knees. His arm ached from the cold clamp of Despair and reminded the Mage with every twitch of muscle just how poor of a decision his judgment allowed him to make. Another cry of Dorian’s name broke the mage from his thoughts as several Inquisition scouts and one rather cross Inquisitor emerged from the direction of camp with torches in hand. He turned to the search party to offer an explanation, but finding all words failing his usually sharp tongue, submitted to a fierce scolding from the sleep deprived rogue. At least the remainder would be served out at Skyhold and not on the road. With Despair still on the loose and the party weary from fighting Venatori, Dorian wondered just how much longer they could continue to hold out before the demon finally succeeded in tearing them apart.
Chapter 3: A Chink in the Armor
Skyhold was a welcomed sight for bleary eyes and strained nerves. Dorian could practically hear the relief of Cassandra and feel the tension ebbing from the Inquisitor as their party walked along the cobblestone bridge connecting the watchtower to its main fortress. Dorian was simply relieved he wouldn't have to bathe in cold water again. Frigid temperatures summoned memories of a certain being whom the mage ached to forget. He had saved a demon, yes, and it forewent its immoral compass long enough to leave without slaughtering him, of which Dorian was rather thankful. It did, however, leave with quite the slew of scathing remarks pried from Dorian's mind. Granted, such passing between two beings did not guarantee safety of company nor attribute to a change in the demon's goal. More likely than not, it was lying in wait outside of Skyhold for Dorian to return, stalking the winter wonderland like a starving wolf. At least the ancient, magic-imbued walls of Skyhold repelled evil and brought a veil of seclusion from unholy invaders. Surely, if Corypheus could not find Skyhold, a Despair demon would be no different. The residents of Skyhold greeted the party warmly with most interest on the Inquisitor, asking about the expedition to uncover more shards and stop the Venatori expansion in the wastelands. Solas amassed most attention to himself so Cassandra could take the opportunity and slip away from the people of the Inquisition for much needed repose.
While in a fit of good fortune, the Inquisitor informed Dorian of his lifted punishment seeing as the remainder of their journey went along without incident. Perhaps she believed Dorian slipped out of camp to kill Despair and thus decided his behavior to be irrelevant to further action. He was willing to let the rogue believe what she wished, just as long as it didn't cast suspicion onto his being in the Inquisition. Dorian didn't need 'conspiring with demons' added to the extensive list of Tevinter's misdoings lumped on his plate, regardless of how incorrect the assumptions about him were. As things stood, it was best if the business with Despair was left forgotten in the Emerald Graves. With time, Dorian had little doubt the incident would be replaced with much more pressing matters.
But first, a bath with something other than frigid spring waters. Dorian couldn't understand why the Inquisitor never took the time or coin to purchase rooms at local taverns instead of spending night after night camping like savages in the middle of nowhere. Yes, they had to travel many a long distances to protect the innocent from Apostates and rogue Templars, but would an evening without bedrolls and sleeping in storms be so much to ask for? Perhaps he should suggest the idea before the Inquisitor's next little excursion.
Dorian decided he'd change in the bathroom instead of his quarters given the distance between them and persistent chill of Skyhold's winter weather. The bath had cemented his first real link with the Inquisitor; after a particularly callous argument left both sides sore for weeks. He had been surprised, some time after the fight, to see the rogue loitering about his library space with flushed cheeks and muttering in her foul tongue about an apology gift. Abrasive as sandpaper she was, but the elation brought to Dorian by the Inquisitor's refurbished bath had proved even the uptight leader could share kind sentiments. The bath itself was a circular tub of smoothed marble, large enough to fit several people at once and filled with heated water smelling faintly of lavender. Upon the wall facing the mountain ranges a stained glass window portrayed an arrangement of flowers surrounding the Inquisition's symbol, with Andraste's Grace shining a pale cream at the heart of the image. Covering the sturdy stone of Skyhold's walls were panels of oak to hold in the excess moisture of the bath and beneath Dorian's feet lay clay tiles heated from below, which were pleasant to stand upon in bare feet. Clustered in the corner were several potted crystal graces and a twisting topiary of elfroot which climbed the wall in eager, serpentine lines.
Shedding his cold coat like an old skin, Dorian slowly peeled away the layers of his clothing until he was clad only in a pair of breeches. Just in case anyone else decided to join him for a soak. Not that anyone would want to, for Dorian was from the Imperium, after all, and good little boys and girls made sure to stay ten paces away from any of those rotten Tevinters, blah blah blah. He wasn't diseased for Maker's sake! Ah, but what would an outsider know about the injustices of Tevinter?
Dorian slowly dipped into the heated tub and leaned his shoulders back against the warm marble sides before tilting his head back to stare heavenward. A circle of constellations painted into the ceiling projected a sense of insignificance compared to Silentir and Toth in all their immortal brilliance. Sometimes, it all made him feel small, as though he were nothing but a speck of dust in the universe. Perhaps that was true and hoping for more was only a desperate act to keep one's dreams alight for the days to come. Or, Solas was rubbing off on him. Sighing to himself as steam curled through the air, Dorian closed his eyes and sank deeper into the water, until his shoulder were soaking in the warmth engulfing his body.
Then something touched his leg. Dorian flicked his eyes open and sat up once more, looking around the bath for the uninvited companion. Not a soul in sight. It was as if the touch had come from the bath itself and not outside. The latter thought made Dorian's insides twist uncomfortably. It couldn't have followed him into Skyhold. No, not here. Slowly, he tilted his head down to search the water, only to find the liquid turned black as ink. Dorian gripped the edge of the tub as panic set into his body, before caving to fear of an unknown evil.
A hand grabbed the mage's ankle, cold and pale, risen from the black water to wrench him back in. Dorian kicked at the offending hand as he tried to buy time, call for the Inquisitor, something besides allow himself to be drowned!
"Inquisitor! Someone! There's a-!" Dorian's words faltered as another hand closed around his free ankle. Then another around his calf. One grabbed his left wrist. A fourth clawed at the air as a fifth rose from the water, as though each hand was merely an extension of something bigger, something much more dangerous.
Dorian yanked his right hand into the air to cast magic on the hands, something to free himself from the clammy chains that wouldn't let him go, before realizing anything he cast would hurt himself in tandem. The hands pulled harder. Dorian continued to struggle with everything he had, still shouting for someone to help. Why couldn't anyone hear him? He could barely stay above the water now with the sheer pulling force from the cold hands. His muscles ached with the effort to stay above the water, to breathe. If he stopped, he would die, no matter what. He had to keep kicking, clawing at the tubside, had to-
In a split second, Dorian found himself under the surface.
Everything around him was dark. The frigid water bit into his skin with each inch deeper he was dragged until his fingers were stiff and his lungs burned from holding his breath. It should be impossible for the water to be so immense. Dorian couldn't see an end, much less himself, the black water went on forever in all directions. He thrashed around again, but not a single limb budged from the iron grip around his limbs. Cold. So cold. Was he turning to ice? It wouldn't surprise him at this point. Dorian's chest ached with the need to release, to draw in a breath before his lungs gave out with the pressure. Claws from the deep curled around his throat, pulling tight to squeeze bubbles from Dorian's lips. Teeth and lips against his ear, like daggers, which belonged to the only being who could possibly be so bold as to approach him directly.
"Now, no one will hear you scream."
Dorian gasped in his surprise, inhaling deeply, which traded the stale air for bitterly cold water. His consciousness slipped in the shock of cold liquid filling his lungs with no oxygen left to keep him alive. Only water now; tasting of bitter ashes and death.
Cold water spewed from Dorian's throat as he sat up in the tub, coughing and wheezing, until he was sure all liquid had been expelled from his body. His hands trembled hard as he stared into the clear bath water around him. A dream? Had the black waters, the hands, Despair only come from Dorian's mind? Whatever the case, it was obvious he had been soaking in the bath for far longer than anticipated. His hands were wrinkled as dried prunes and his head felt full of thick fog from sleeping in a bathtub while the room had grown increasingly dark with the setting of the already short winter sun. After taking in a few ragged breaths to calm down his panicked heart, Dorian slowly grabbed the edge of the tub and pulled himself up and over the sides; never breaking gaze with the water. No hands appeared, no callous voice whispered evils into his ear, not even the dazed confusion of a passerby called out to see why Dorian had been screaming.
A dream. It had to be a dream, there couldn't possibly be any other logical reason. Dorian repeated those words to himself as his feet touched the very real and very solid tile floor. When Dorian attempted to stand, his knees wobbled and caved with a shuddering bout of weakness, leaving the man on the floor in a puddle of cold water. Pain prodded at his legs from the fall, but it barely registered in the mage’s muddled daze. He trembled violently, pressed against cold marble for stability and still dripping wet, before reaching out to a stack of towels resting only a few inches away. Movement kept the chill off his back while Dorian rubbed his shoulders and face dry with the absurdly fluffy material.
“Orleasian,” Dorian muttered into the deep blue cloth. “Can’t say I’m not grateful for your ridiculous gifts, Inquisitor.”
Once sufficiently dry and able to stand on his own two feet, Dorian changed into the second set of robes he brought into the bath with him, pleased with the warmth brought by wearing actual clothes. He stepped into the hall fully expecting to see the Inquisitor looking for the source of screaming or maybe some confused patrons of Skyhold. Instead, only a soldier or two loitered in the halls and all of them appeared no less shaken or curious about the mage leaving the bath. Dorian approached them with slow, but deliberate steps to draw the attention from idle conversation to his approach. They had the decency to keep from scowling at his approach, as most people tended to do when confronted by the ‘Vint’ as Iron Bull so eloquently remarked.
“You two wouldn’t happen to have seen anything unusual around here, would you?” Dorian proposed to the armor-clad men.
“No. We’ve been at this post for a few hours. Unless you count yourself as ‘unusual’,” one of them replied with a smirk.
Dorian replied in kind with a smile made from nettles. “Aren’t we the clever one? Good for you, a sense of humor in all that metal. I’m asking if you’ve seen abnormal things around here. Frost on the walls, maybe? The Inquisitor, screaming from the baths, a unnatural hissing sound?”
The other man shook his head. “I ‘aven’t seen nothin’ like that. Jus’ one of them spies wit’ a pile o’ books.”
“Maybe you’ve been bathing for too long, ser. The last guard said you were in there for their entire shift.”
Partially relieved, but also troubled by the normality, Dorian nodded just once to the guards. “I see. Pardon my interruption of your watch. Although, I’d watch the bath a little more closely. Wouldn’t want the magic keeping it hot to leak out and turn you two to mush. Ah, but I'm sure you were briefed on such delicate containment procedures by the last watch."
He pressed by the unnerved guards without another word and continued on his way though Skyhold to ponder his strange dream.
If he was asleep once again, Dorian wished the fade would present its ethereal properties as normal, instead of shrouding everything around the mage in thick darkness. He couldn't see farther than a few feet into the abyss and its unnatural thickness forebode something much more sinister hidden behind darkness. Slowly, Dorian stepped forward to test the solidity of this fog and found the solid surface beneath his boots held against his weight. With this assurance beneath his heels, the mage advanced into the unknown, wary of anything approaching from the darkness. For a long time he continued to walk. Then, darkness peeled away as Dorian approached a silent figure standing stone still in the darkness.
"Inquisitor? What are you doing here?" This was supposed to be Dorian's fade dream. Why was there another person in the abyss with him?
"Don't touch me!" She snarled when the mage placed his hand on her shoulder. The rogue whipped around, double daggers nicking just the fabric of Dorian's robes, and backed away from the man. "Don't come any closer."
Now, Dorian was simply confused.
"Inquisitor. I'm not your enemy here," he insisted with a calm, collected tone. "What's wrong? Was there a demon nearby, perhaps?"
"The only demon here is you, Vint," The Iron Bull's voice rose behind Dorian without so much as a scrape or shift of the giant's steps. A calloused hand with thick fingers gripped Dorian's neck tightly from behind and pressed bruising fingerprints into the tanned skin. “Did you think we wouldn’t take notice?”
Dorian' hands flew to his neck and raked along Iron Bull's skin as he gasped for breath. "...Bull! I'm...not a demon...you big idiot!"
"You are. Was it not obvious? You are the one corrupting the Inquisition from the inside," Despair laughed as it stood behind the Inquisitor to tuck a knife between her fingers.
"Corruption must be stopped. You must be stopped," she droned in utter monotone. A blade raised to Dorian's stomach, she pushed it in slowly and carved in a circle from navel to ribs.
Every slice, every cut of flesh was burning agony to the mage as air and blood rushed from his body. The Inquisitor yanked her knife away when the circle was completed and dragged along a slopping pile of intestines coated in blood. Dorian could feel them dribbling out, slithering from a gaping cavern to the darkness below, the heavy weight of being disemboweled meshing with the choking pressure on his throat. His eyes rolled back into his head and for a moment it seemed the Altus was truly done for.
Until Dorian opened his eyes and found himself laying on a completely dark floor once again.
A hand flew to his stomach to check for a hole, tear, missing organs, but when it came back clean, the mage almost shed tears of relief. He wasn't dead. Still in impossible darkness, Dorian rose to his knees as a rush of prickling pain threw his stomach in a loop, and forced the mage to brace himself against the floor with his arms. A wave of bile spilled from Dorian's lips as the grounded stained with thick crimson. Blood. He was throwing up blood. An ocean of tumultuous waves throwing foam across the sand over and over. The puddle beneath Dorian continued to grow as dark red stained the mage's robed and dribbled down his chin.
Footsteps approaching drew his attention from the endless puddle to a robed figure above. Dorian craned his neck upwards to see Solas standing just outside the dividing line watching the mage carefully.
"Solas...Solas, please. I need help, o-or a wake up call. Something to get me out of here," Dorian begged to the elven mage.
"Why should I help a slave of the Imperium?"
Solas' voice overlapped with Despair in an all-encompassing echo ringing through the darkness. It was impossible to see anything but the dancing sparks of electricity from the elven mage's staff. He raised it up, just high enough to ensure the bottom could be set down in Dorian's pool of blood. The Altus figured out Solas' intentions far too late. Just as Dorian scrambled to drag his weakened body from his pool of blood, Solas brought down his staff, electricity coursing through Dorian's body in the blink of an eye. Every muscle in his body locked up as a gut wrenching scream filled the silent darkness with a sound strange to even the Altus' ears. Inhuman, tortured; an animal's pitiful cry for nonexistent mercy. Pain prickled through every fiber, blood spilt from the corner of his mouth, and Dorian still couldn't stop screaming.
Not until he awoke in his bed, hands buried in the covers with white knuckles, sweat dripping down tanned skin, and the window to his room drawn aside for winter chill to slink its thin finger about Dorian's room.
It took a few minutes, but once Dorian confirmed he was indeed awake, he ran an exhausted hand through the slick strands of his hair with a heavy sigh. "Festis bei umo canavarum."
"Something on your mind, Sparkler?"
"I can't fathom why you'd say such a thing, Varric," Dorian drawled over his fourth, or perhaps it was his fifth glass of whatever disgusting ale he'd requested to down with the dwarf. On any other occasion, he wouldn't even attempt to drink the piss tasting slosh the dwarf would, but wasting coin on wine, with which he had all intentions of swamping himself in, was a poor decision for the wallet.
"You haven't stopped drinking since you sat down. You don't even like Dwarven Ale," Varric punctuated with a frown.
"You don't know me," Dorian snapped back none too kindly.
"I know enough to tell a man drinking to enjoy and one drinking just to forget some awful shit."
The glass was artfully swiped from Dorian's fingers by the dwarf, much to the mage's dismay when his next drink resulted in nothing but air. He groaned and leaned over the bar counter in a reluctant surrender to Varric's cap on his allotted amount of alcohol.
"Alright, let's hear it. What could possibly have your feathers so ruffled you found it necessary to drink something you absolutely hate?"
Dorian scoffed at the remark about feathers before slowly sitting up in his seat. "It's that Despair demon. I left it behind in the Emerald Graves, but it won't leave me alone! It's like a rash that won't go away, no matter where you apply salve."
"There's a demon here? In Skyhold?" Varric pressed, waving away another offer for more alcohol. "Have you told the Inquisitor?"
"I-I don’t know. I had thought it only an illusion at first. But it keeps showing up no matter where I go or what I do. I don't know if it's here, not truly," the mage clarified. "It might be here, scrounging around the halls like a wild dog. I could be going crazy. Nothing like the voice of a demon echoing inside your skull to paint a pretty picture of 'crazy Tevinter mage' like a target on your back."
"I don't think people peg you as the 'evil magister' anymore. You went with her Inqusitorialness to the Hissing Wastes to stop the Venatori, after all."
Dorian rubbed his temples at the mere mention of the wasteland of hot sands. "That's where this all started, Varric. I shouldn't have gone. I should have refused and let her thrash me several times over instead of following our dear friends into a horde of demons."
"Wouldn't it be best to just kill the demon? Once it's gone you won't have to worry about it anymore," Varric suggested.
"I tried killing it, several times in fact, but I just...it wasn't–" he paused between thoughts as the sight of a black cloak and jagged teeth stared at him from across the tavern. “Fasta Vass! It’s–!"
Varric was on high alert the moment Dorian staggered off his barstool and onto the floor with wobbly footsteps. “What? What is it, Sparkler? The thing isn’t here, is it?”
“Can’t you see it?” Dorian cried as he threw a hand to the direction of Despair. The rogue followed his hand, but instead of hideous skin and a balking black cloak, only an empty space unoccupied by several tavern patrons presented itself. He could feel Varric’s eyes turning back to him with a questioning raise of the dwarf’s brow.
“There’s nothing over there. Are you absolutely sure you’re being followed by a demon?”
Dorian spluttered out his reply in utter mortification. “Am I–of course I’m sure! You’re trying to pass this off as a drunkard’s impossible visions, but I assure you that thing,” He pointed again, only to glance over Varric’s shoulder and see the crooked spectre standing a few feet away, watching the mage closely. "Is...following me."
Laughter from the dwarf was punctuated with the drawing of a blade from Despair. "Okay, okay. I can see this is getting you too riled up. Why don't you just calm down and take the rest of the night off?"
"Varric, the thing is–!"
Despair raised a finger to its lips as it bared a smile of splintered glass for Dorian. The message was clear. "The thing is what, Sparkler? Why are you acting so jumpy tonight? This isn't about the prank Sera pulled last week is it? I had thought you two were old enough to keep games to yourselves."
"Varric. Don't look now, but it's right behind you," Dorian said softly as electricity crackled around his fingertips. If he didn’t strike now, Despair would surely take the initiative to eliminate another member of the Inquisition before the dwarf became aware of the dangerous presence behind him. The demon raised its blade and poised to strike as Dorian leapt over Varric with his magic at the ready. Screams filled the tavern as Varric’s hand caught the mage’s ankle and roughly yanked Dorian back. A panicked patron, standing where Despair had once occupied, shouted something about insane mages before bolting right out the door. Despair was nowhere in sight.
“Are you insane, Dorian?!” Varric had used the mage’s name only one other time before this frustrated outburst. Last time, Dorian had almost gotten eaten by a dragon, if not for the Inquisitor’s quick thinking and several dozen arrows in the high dragon’s snout by the dwarf. Now, Varric stared at the mage as though he was something to be feared and destroyed.
“They don’t want you here. Go home, Sparkler. Take your filth back to Tevinter.”
Dorian rose to his feet once Varric let go of his ankle with only a slight, drunken wobble. “Varric, I didn’t mean to…”
“I don’t want to hear it. You should go. Now,” He spit back before the mage had a chance to defend himself.
Leaving was the coward’s way out, but Varric and the other patrons of the Herald’s Rest affixed their eyes to the mage as one did with daggers upon a target. Dorian wasn’t wanted. No, not only unwanted, he was the target for unrest and unease. It appeared Varric’s words didn’t hold as much water as Dorian had thought. The mage took one last wobbling glance around the room for a black cloak or glittering teeth, before turning on his heels and walking on shaking feet out into the chilly evening.
Chapter 4: To Bend Without Breaking
More demons and more angst.
He should have known better. He should have killed it when the damned creature first showed itself in the Hissing Wastes or the Emerald Graves. Pity clearly meant nothing to the abomination. Dorian paced back and forth in his quarters with shuffling and wobbly steps as unease gnawed away at his nerves. It was making him look paranoid, insane, a raving Tevinter lunatic! Even to Varric, whom Dorian had the pleasure of talking to without receiving backlash of judgemental quips pertaining to his origins, was succumbing to Despair’s trickery. How long could Dorian afford to sit back and wait for the demon to strike? How long until it ceased to delude the mage into attacking others and bring the matters of death into its own hands? Would his mind be sound enough to combat Despair?
Too many questions and too few answers.
Dorian paused in his endless walk and shut his eyes for a moment to nurse the oncoming headache of too many pints of Dwarven Ale when he heard a sound in the silence of his quarters akin to the tapping of nails on glass. Now, what could be knocking against the window so late in the evening? He prayed it wasn't one of Leliana's ravens. Those bastards had an awful habit of stealing shiny objects from his room, regardless of value.
Instead of spotting a bird, Dorian was greeted to the sight of Despair sitting just inside the window frame, one hand on the glass and the other bracing the demon against the stone of Skyhold's walls. He wasted only a moment's breath before a blast of fire hurtled the demon's way and out the window as the creature dodged the attack. Dorian began to cast the spell again, but he was met with a countering stream of ice from the demon. Cold mist filled the room as the elements cancelled each other out and Despair cloaked itself in a blanket of stealth. His hands aflame and heart palpitating, Dorian scanned the room for a telltale shimmer, anything to find Despair before it could launch another attack. Nothing to his left. Nothing to his right. He slid his foot back along the floors to feel for cold or an invisible leg, but finding nothing, moved one step towards the door. The second step moved much more quickly than the first.
Despair must have predicted Dorian's actions because the third attempt to move back was countered with an invisible demon leaping at the Altus with a high-pitched hiss. It came from the front, grabbing the mage's wrists and shoving them upward to redirect the fireballs blazing under Dorian's fingertips, to the ceiling where they hit and dispersed in a crackle of heat. Despair shoved the mage onto the floor and pressed the tanned hands against cold stone to pin him down. Stealth had all but vanished now and left the demon with blue eyes staring down at Dorian while the two wrestled on the floor. Despair's hands nearly burned with frigid cold against Dorian's skin as frost spread around the contained area.
"Let go of me, you abomination!" Dorian spat as he twisted back and forth in the thing's iron grip. He loathed having the demon pin him down as though it was nothing.
“If you keep screaming, I’ll have to cut out your tongue,” Despair rasped with a cold glare. “I only wanted to speak with you. Stop struggling.”
“You’re not being very convincing, you know,” he quipped with nothing less than a venomous scowl.
"I don't want to kill you. I promise," the demon insisted.
Dorian rolled his eyes. "Here we go again. 'Let's tell Dorian I have no intention of killing him and maybe he'll be merciful' won't work anymore. You armed yourself with my past and delved into secrets I had no intention of sharing with anyone else. I healed you and you turned around to spit in my face!"
“I could have done worse," Dorian had no doubt a demon was capable of much more malevolent deeds."But that isn’t what I came to talk about. I need to know. I have to understand you. You didn't fold. Didn't break. I whispered and watched, waiting for you to succumb. But you never did. Pained. Agonized. Fallen, but not downed. Why didn't you give in?" Despair asked with a look Dorian might have classified as confused if he wasn’t being pinned under a freezing demon.
"That's what this is about? You want to study me for an emotional experiment on why you couldn't kill me through despair?" Dorian snapped back.
“Understand. It always worked before, but I can’t seem to dig deep enough. Hidden hurts clash with sodden sorrows until the lines blur into madness. Your pain is made of nettles and silk. I can’t grasp the pearl properly."
The mage grit his teeth as the sharp nails of Despair dug into his aching wrists. “I’m not helping you understand people just so you can tear them to irreparable pieces. People aren’t puzzles you can take apart and put back together. We’re feelings, memories, and emotions! Despair and agony are not the only things that we experience!"
“Then teach me to feel. Teach me to be human and I will leave you all alone. Varric. The Inquisitor. Skyhold. I will not pursue you any longer,” it bartered with increasing persistence.
“And if I refuse?” Dorian posed to strike a counter argument against Despair’s deal.
“I kill you here and now. Your body becomes mine and Skyhold will burn from the inside.” the demon threatened.
“Ah. Point taken.”
What choice did he have now but to accept the idea of teaching an inhuman spirit of frost and driving madness to behave as a person would? It was dangerous to teach a demon such skills. Should Despair learn the fabric of human beings inside and out, it would become not only impossible to uncover, but also the most lethal killer in all of Thedas. Demons were demons because they held no other purpose than destruction and ruin. It was, for all intentions, wrong to teach demons how to feel and yet, here Dorian was, about to take one under his tutelage. Not by choice, of course.
"Fine," he conceded with a heavy sigh. The Inquisitor was going to kill him. "I'll teach you to feel. Now let me go."
Despair slowly pulled his fingers away from the mage's wrists and sat back on the floor. It was still bristling from the battle, eyes locked onto the Altus' hands, nails scratching floorboards with anticipation, uncertain of allowing Dorian the freedom of his hands. In the moment Despair inched away, Dorian threw out his hand to cast a fireball, but was stopped by a knife plunging into the thick of his robes. Thankfully, it only nicked his side and drew a thin trickle of blood, which blotted Dorian's deep blue robes with muted scarlet.
"Don't test me. I held back, now you do the same," Despair spat with an irritated glare.
"You can't blame me for trying," Dorian replied as the demon pulled its knife out of the folds of cloth. Despair was silent for a moment before it spoke again.
"I suppose not."
"What does bathing have to do with being human?"
Dorian refused to turn around and answer the question. For one, he was leading the stealth cloaked demon through populated halls and turning around to converse with the air would appear ridiculous by any standards, but it was also something Dorian didn't feel like explaining to the demon with looming daggers up its sleeves. Not to mention, it was rather late in the evening to be sneaking around Skyhold, even for an evening inhabitant such as Dorian himself. Thus, the Altus said nothing until he stepped into the lower baths with Despair on his heels. Beneath several layers of earth and stone flooring, Dorian doubted anyone would hear their hushed conversations, much less alert anyone to the demon's presence. Just to be safe, Dorian made sure to bolt the door from the inside.
Although they had been inside the bath house for less than a few minutes, Despair's interests had been whisked away by the steam curls wafting from a freshly drawn tub. Apologies to the poor sod who's bath it was supposed to be, for the water now belonged to a Despair demon.
"You smell worse than the Commander's pauldrons. Which is saying something, considering one of those pieces alone is enough to knock out an army of darkspawn," Dorian finally replied as he approached the tub and waved his hand around in the water.
Despair stood across the tub from Dorian and extended a bony claw into the steaming bath below. It hissed in pain and wrenched the finger out of the water as quickly as possible.
"I can't bathe in that. It will boil me."
"Really?" Dorian raised an eyebrow to the pained demon's resistance. "Oh, that's right, you're an ice demon. Of course you wouldn't be able to survive in heat."
"This one would work," Despair piped up from across the room. It seemed uninterested in Dorian's remarks as it ran a hand through one of the unheated bathtubs.
It had to be freezing when one took into consideration to Skyhold's ever so crystal clear water streamed from melted mountaintop snow. Then again, cold water would probably work best for an icy demon. Dorian left the steaming tub and crossed the room to stand beside Despair's to instruct the demon on proper bathing instruction.
“You’ve seen people bathe before, haven’t-” Dorian began as the bloodstained cloak of Despair was tossed none too kindly into his face. He bundled the cloak in his hands and sighed sharply in irritation. "I'll take that as a yes."
Despair sat down slowly in the bathtub, still holding its hunchback figure, and ran a knobby hand along one of its arms. The demon was all bones and skin in gaunt angles which barely resisted collapse by a thin layer of muscle surrounding each joint. It's outward appearance mimicking a malnourished young man rather than a terrifying demon. Pale skin stained redish-grey with blood and rock of the earth was slow to clean as the demon rubbed its limbs with cold water. Dorian watched it with mild curiosity before clearing his throat to catch Despair's attention and held up a bar of soap in his hand.
"You're going to need this."
Despair's mood shifted ever so slightly as it stared into the Altus with a knowing smirk. "I am not Desire, Dorian. There is no rich voice, silken hands, or defined muscles. What you see is what I am. Thin. Pale. Skin as thin as paper. Fading into dust. It is thin because of his fate."
"His fate?" the mage asked cautiously as Despair's long nails scraped his skin and left pale lines through tanned palm. Dorian withdrew his hand quickly, in fear the demon would attempt to scratch deeper next time.
"He died. He starved to death in a tower. Cold. Terrified. Alone. Can't cry out. Throat dry. Twisting knots in the stomach. I took hold of him as hunger feasted on his soul." Despair replied without a second thought.
“Then you are possessing someone,” Dorian said softly as Despair cut through the soap with sharpened nails.
"Yes. No. Not quite possessing him. 'He' doesn't exist anymore. I am the boy who starved in the tower. I became him."
The mage pondered Despair's answer with ever-budding curiosity. "You became him? I hadn't thought becoming a person was possible."
"Neither did I," Despair echoed. "But I am him now. Cole, I believe. So close to cold you can still feel the stone."
"Cole," Dorian tested the newfound name with a cautious tongue and found it left a lingering chill beneath his skin. The name of a dead man.
“Yes?” Said the once dead man from the icy tub as he turned to look at Dorian with dark, inhuman eyes.
It gave room for a pause, not that Dorian was searching for a reply, only a moment of consideration for the strange demon sitting chest deep in cold water. “It’s nothing. Now, turn around so I can wash your hair. It’s far beyond the filthy slop one of those mabari bring in after a hunt.”
He twirled his finger in a circle once, then waited for Cole to twist his pale frame around once more until his skeletal framed back faced the mage. To the demon’s credit, he didn’t attempt to fight back against Dorian, nor snap back with twisted remarks about bitter pasts. Perhaps with his current objective of understanding the inner workings of people, Cole was no longer focusing upon inner turmoil. It would relieve the mage greatly if it were true. Silence stretched between the two as Dorian pried the cork from a bottle of shampoo and poured a decent amount of liquid into his palm. Standing behind the tub and Cole proved too far of a distance to lean comfortably, so onto his knees the Altus dropped as his fingers scrubbed through dirt and blood splattered hair. If the demon thought having one’s hair washed was a pleasant pastime he made no indication of such thoughts. Did demons even have thoughts?
“We have thoughts. We just don’t use them as people do. We know what we want.”
Dorian’s exasperated eye roll was lost on Despair, but he sighed audibly anyway. “Again with the mind reading? Can’t you go five minutes without prodding around like a hot iron through someone’s head?”
“I didn’t know it pained you so much. Perhaps I should have used my mental presence instead of my physical one…”
“No. Not like that. It was just a metaphor and you will find yourself in very hot water should you try to go back in,” the mage corrected before picking up a bucket and dipping it into the icy tub. Cole shifted to the side, just a bit, before closing his eyes and tilting his head back. Dorian slowly poured the clean water down Despair’s flaxen hair until its pale blond color could be seen once again. “There we go. I always figured you were a natural blond.”
“One by one they followed me,” Cole whispered in a lilting voice. His clawed hand caught a tanned wrist lingering in its automatic task of fetching water and slowly guided it to the icy depths below. “Laughing, drowning in the sea.”
Dorian hadn’t registered the demon drawing him in until the frigid sensation of his chin pressing against bitterly cold skin awakened all the mage’s senses at once. He yanked his hand from Despair’s grasp, shook hard to snap feeling into his fingers, and backed up a few paces from the bathtub. Cole glanced over his right shoulder, the very one Dorian had just touched, and stared with an ill-boding gaze. “The rest of the poem is sad.”
“You tried to drown me! Again!” Dorian nearly shouted while matching the demon’s gaze. A startling fact clicked into place at the familiar memory of seduction. “That-that was a desire demon’s allure. Where did you learn to do that?”
Cole nodded just once and turned his head back to the murky waters of the tub. “His voice a gentle wave. Drowning me in sweet sadness, foregoing favor for forgiveness. He isn't the first. He won't be the last. But this one doesn't mock me. Cautious. Tender. Warm. The love is wrong, but the feelings are right. I'll have to kill this one too."
"I thought I told you to stop going through my head," Dorian warned as sparks leapt from his fingertips and into the tile floor.
"He tried to take your heart. Instead, you took his. But it hurt you. You wanted the love to be real. You needed it to be real," Cole continued undeterred until he rose from the bath and stepped onto the tile floor with a hunchback posture. "You wished she was a man."
"Enough!" Dorian forewent his silence and filled the room with not only his shout, but a crackling sphere of electricity which danced from tub to tub and finally right into Cole. The demon howled in pain as its body convulsed with tremors from the sharp shock and bent back in a frightening twist. It looked as though Cole was going to break in half, but the demon instead curled its fingers around the body of a dagger and threw the blade straight at Dorian. It stuck fast in the mage’s exposed shoulder as blood oozed from the wound and drew attention from Despair to the knife in his shoulder.
Cole had Dorian pinned in seconds, the other knife pressed so tightly against his throat that each breath was a painful bite from the blade. “Don’t tell me what to do! I follow because you can show me, but I will not be hurt by you,” He hissed sharply. “I can’t stop listening. It’s what I do. Pain. Agony. Compassion. Penitence. Hearing emotions as one hears songs. What if someone told you to stop using magic? Bound and branded. Unable to reach the fade. Too quiet. Too loud.”
With an almost regretful scowl, Despair pulled away and yanked the blade out of Dorian’s shoulder as he turned to dry himself off with a towel. The mage clasped his shoulder while green healing magic leaked into burning skin with a soft and soothing whisper of power. Next came the throat, closed to stop the blood, and Despair who was now curled up on the floor with a towel wrapped around its body to mimic its ragged cloak.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Cole murmured in a meek whisper. Almost as though he were speaking to a small child.
“That’s not true. I understand a great deal of things. Certainly more than a demon like you does. Besides, I don’t read minds,” Dorian pointed out as he pushed himself onto his feet and scooped up a small pile of clothes brought along to clothe Cole after his bath. The mage tossed the clothes to Despair much as the demon had done before and reveled in the childish victory of seeing the demon claw down the fabric on his face. “If you want me to understand, you have to make an effort to communicate, just as I am making an effort for you to understand people.”
“It won’t help.”
“Now you’re just being negative. Try focusing on something other than your irresistible draw to despair. Most people do,” the Altus sighed as he cast sidelong glances towards the demon in a human’s skin pulling on the spare robes. Silk hung in terribly loose folds along his bones, just as death sheers would rest over skeletal remains in decaying caskets.There was no substance to the possessed body before Dorian. Only the bare bones of humanity which sought to reconnect itself with the fabric of society before tearing it apart once more. Once Cole was finished he rubbed a clawed hand along the expensive materials as though to assure himself the finery was not merely an illusion.
“These remind me of the fade. It wasn’t as soft, but there were things of silken strings here and there,” the demon said with innocent fascination before letting its arms drop back to its sides.
“Ah, one more thing,” Dorian interrupted as he stepped just a single pace closer to Despair. “Do stand up properly. You look like a young man, therefore you need to stand like one. People don’t hunch over unless they are obscenely old or were thrown down a mountain as a child.”
Cole merely gave a soft ‘oh’ in response before rising on a straightened spine until he was standing tall as Dorian had instructed. It surprised the mage to see Despair was actually taller than him in terms of height, if only by a couple of inches. Hunching over gave the impression of a tiny, weak being and perhaps applied a camouflage against larger demons who would challenge anything which would so much as look at them in the wrong way.
“Alright, good enough. Now throw on your stealth before I open the door. We don’t need spies seeing the two of us walk out of the bath-”
“People would talk. Ask questions. We’re not together. I don’t even like him,” Cole finished for Dorian as he vanished into thin air with a plume of sour smoke.
The Altus eyed the now empty space warily before shaking his head.“Right. No talking in the hallway.”
Dorian Pavus was many things, but he was not paranoid. Granted, he had once spent almost an entire evening at Halamshiral with his head on a swivel for the feathered headdress of a mother who would certainly have dragged the mage away by his ear for going along with the Inquisition. Other than a soiree filled with blackmail and the death of Grand Duchess Florianne, Dorian was never paranoid. Just cautious. Which is why it was certainly necessary for there to be four overlapping fire runes set around his bed in a protective semi-circle.
“You don’t trust me,” Cole said simply as he sat atop a table at the exact opposite side in the Altus’ room.
“No, I don’t. You’ve given me good reason not to. Besides, the floor is perfectly acceptable to sleep on. I gave you blankets, didn’t I?”
“I don’t sleep.”
Dorian rolled his eyes. “Wonderful. You didn’t even need those.”
"How long will you be sleeping?" Cole asked persistently as he swung his legs back and forth at the edge of the table.
"I don't know. However long my body or the Inquisitor decides for. If she wants to go on another quest through sandy mountains, I'd say fairly little. She's one to get up and go, no matter how little sleep everyone else gets," he said simply. Hopefully, the demon wouldn't think of waking Dorian or activating the numerous fire runes around his bed. The end result would be one dead demon and one burning room with the Altus inside.
Regardless of their uncomfortable circumstances, Dorian needed to rest for longer than a few tiring hours bolting about the fade. Back in the Inquisition and with Despair staying away from his head for the time being, there was no better time for Dorian to sink into the expensive silk of his bedsheets and sleep the rest of the evening and a good part of the morning away. He was wearing more clothes than usual tonight, partially out of fear Cole might try something stupid while he slept, and partially because a demon who blinked as often as a toad was unnerving to be naked around. It wasn't even the lustful glower of a Desire demon, but Despair's twisted smile and void filled eyes watching restlessly, drinking in the nature of people. Dorian set his staff on the empty portion of mattress beside him and slid in beside his weapon of defense to sleep.
"People say something to their children before they sleep, don't they? Something about dreams?" Cole asked Dorian one last time, just as the Altus rolled over to keep Despair's eyes from catching his when he woke.
"Sweet dreams, or something like that. Good night," Dorian muttered to the darkness before he closed his eyes to force himself into the dreaming world of the fade.
"Good night, Dorian," Cole echoed into the silent stretch of sleep.