Jane can stand more or less presentably in the war room, nod thoughtfully, ask a question or give an answer if prompted. But her body is betraying her, little by little. She can’t sleep for fear of the things she sees when she closes her eyes: charred bodies and creatures with armored skin and claws and too many eyes. She’s a sack of bones, her hips and elbows and knees sharp and knobby. She quakes and trembles, a shriveled leaf blown in the wind, frozen brittle and racked with sobs. It’s so cold here, she never stops shivering. The bags under her eyes never fade, stained violet under translucent skin. She’s so tired, defenses breaking down, and it’s getting harder to hide. Harsh words make her flinch and she can’t keep her face from burning, her eyes from welling up.
Her fingers drift to the worn parchment in her pocket of their own volition, seeking comfort. Most of the letter is burned beyond legibility, but she clings to the remaining scrap anyway, carefully smoothing it on the surface of her desk whenever she finds herself alone in her room.
-mages and the Knight Commander seem to have high hopes for the Conclave. Speaking of which, I hear you’ll be joining the elder Trevelyans there? I am sure mother has gone weak-kneed at the news. I, however, cannot wait to see you. I only wish it were under better circumstances.
Give everyone at the Chantry my best. I will see you at the temple. I’ll be the one in the plate armor.
Haven may be cold and desolate and unwelcoming, but at least they have plenty of books here. She’s pleased to find a few volumes on Dalish elves; the chapters on hunters inspire her to pick up her bow for the first time in weeks. She keeps the Chant of Light next to her bed in hopes of chasing away nightmares, a surprisingly engrossing history of Ferelden in her pack. Eventually she works up the nerve to ask Varric for a copy of Tale of the Champion, which he gives enthusiastically along with a stack of his other work. “In case you get a chance between all the meetings and demons,” he says with a wink.
“Are you -” Jane stifles a gasp and makes an effort to close her mouth as she finds Cassandra opposite her at the breakfast table. She has been, as usual, completely unaware of her surroundings. “I apologize, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Cassandra continues, shifts her weight to her other foot, then back, “I only wondered if you were looking for something to read. After....after you finish what you’re reading now, of course.”
Who is this woman? Certainly not the one who held a sword to Jane’s throat only a few weeks ago. The Seeker, a holy warrior, imposing and impressive. Though, Cassandra was not lacking in softness even then. Now without her armor, her sword and shield, her authoritative tone, she’s all propriety and awkwardness. The knot in Jane’s chest loosens. “Always,” she marks her page and sets her book aside, “I take it you had something in mind?”
The book Cassandra drops onto the table is heavy enough to rattle it on its legs. “I found a text on the Inquisition of old. I thought perhaps it may be useful for the members of the modern Inquisition to learn of their predecessors.” She smiles sheepishly as Jane lifts the dusty cover, “It is...dense, I know. The others seemed less than thrilled at the recommendation.”
So Leliana, Cullen, and Josephine turned their noses up at the idea already. She must not have been so disarming when she approached them, because Jane cannot find it in her to refuse. “It can’t be that bad. I’ll give it a look.”
“Good,” she nods, “I...look forward to your input.” Is that an attempted curtsey as she takes her leave? Jane holds a hand over her mouth, a gesture of silly young girls, she knows, but it’s disrespectful to smirk at the Right Hand of the Divine.
The book, which has no discernible title, is very dry reading indeed. Not to mention yellowed and caked with dust. But she trudges through because a morning spent with Cassandra is pleasant enough to make up for it. Neither has made significant progress upon their first meeting, so they spend the better part of their time discussing Tale of the Champion, since Cassandra has read it thoroughly and has quite a few opinions on Varric’s account. “He exaggerates, I am certain,” she comments. Or “Of course he conveniently omits his own involvement. He is careful not to incriminate himself.” She is just as enamored with Hawke as Jane is, however, and evidently has no issues with Varric’s characterization.
Jane smiles, at first out of politeness and occasionally covert amusement at Cassandra’s unabashed earnestness, but it’s more than she can say of the past weeks. By the time an hour has gone by, she laughs freely, forgets to mind her speaking volume, and finishes her breakfast without a second thought.
A messenger makes his way to their table, announcing that Leliana requests Cassandra’s presence.
“Tell her I will be just a moment,” she turns to Jane, “I am afraid we’ll have to continue another time.”
“Of course,” Jane waves her on. She wonders how much time has gone by since they sat down, a pang of disappointment at the abrupt parting. “We’ll do this again soon, I - I hope.”
Cassandra’s eyes widen momentarily. “I will make certain of it.”
A trek into the Hinterlands precludes their studies, as the book is far too heavy to be carried comfortably in a pack, but Tale of the Champion comes along and makes for lively camp discussion.
“I have to admit, I never imagined I’d hear two high-ranking Chantry members mooning over Hawke,” Varric laughs, “I wish she could see this.”
Jane protests that she isn’t exactly high-ranking, Cassandra that neither of them are on the best of terms with Chantry authority. Varric shrugs and says he takes what he can get.
“That is actually an interesting point,” Solas interjects, “Your work is enjoyed by Andrastian heretics.”
Though she knows it’s true, the epithet stings. She steals a few glances at Cassandra, wondering if she feels the same, but her features betray nothing of her thoughts, and soon enough they’ve moved on to Commander Cullen’s appearance in the story.
“He does seem...different now,” Jane says.
“You don’t know the half, Sister,” Varric mutters.
Cassandra says, “Yes, Jane, you should have seen his hair,” and they dissolve into laughter at the unexpected joke. Or rather, at the joke from an unexpected source. Cassandra folds her hands in her lap with a satisfied smile.
Jane isn’t so afraid anymore, not as long as Cassandra’s there. She leads the charge as they traverse the countryside, and Jane breathes a little easier in her shadow. Still, the air is thick and crackling with residual magic - some sinister heaviness, the green-tinged sky lower than usual. It’s impossible to forget how wrong it all is.
“So,” Varric falls into step with her, “Where’s a Chantry sister learn how to use a bow? Arming yourself for the perils of the archives?”
“I...study religious artifacts,” Jane replies cautiously. This is hardly the place for idle conversation. Plus, Varric’s way of casually asking insightful questions unsettles her, makes her feel under investigation. “It’s occasionally useful in the field, but I took it up when I was a girl.”
“Well, that’s intrepid. You ever have to use it?”
“Not until now,” Jane mutters.
Muffled shouting. Some places they hear the fighting before they see it. Smell it too. Blood soaking into the ground. She never knew it could smell so strongly. It doesn’t seem to phase the others, but it makes Jane’s skin prickle. An omen, a prophecy come true. She can still hear Sorley’s voice, low and unusually tremulous, “It’s too late now. We’ll be ankle-deep in blood before this is over.”
“On your guard!” Cassandra raises her shield, and Jane shakes herself as she readies her bow. It isn’t time to think about him now.
They approach carefully from high ground and fall into formation easily, just as Cassandra instructed. Jane can’t help but notice she’s a better shot under pressure - her instructor was right when he told her she’d do better to get out of her head. If only she could stay out once their adversaries are defeated. Templars strewn on the ground like litter, identical in their armor. Too familiar, too horrible, too much.
She staves off the pressure in her throat until she can curl into herself in her tent and scream silently.
By the Grace of the Maker you live, and by His Will I aim to slap the freckles off your beautiful face for not writing us sooner. Darling, you must forgive me for scolding you; we thought we buried two children at the Conclave, and are now in such a state to think of the months you have spent among ill-willed strangers, and in Ferelden of all places. As I write these words, your father is dispatching a modest delegation with orders to bring you back to us. I will spare you any further detail. We can discuss all we need once you have returned to Ostwick.
Rest assured, my child, there is no necessity of this so-called Inquisition or anyone else to keep you against the wishes of your family. Not when your family’s name is Trevelyan.
With love and utmost relief,
“I can understand why your mother might consider our intentions less than noble,” Cassandra says, setting the letter aside.
“That may be true, but she would have said the same of anyone,” Jane replies, “Even the Chantry. She tends to buck against anyone stopping me sitting at home behind armed guards.”
Cassandra nods and surveys her desk. Jane finds the orderliness of her little office comforting, even as they sit with knees nearly touching in what amounts to a broom closet.
“I know I can’t go with them,” Jane says at length, “and I don’t want to.”
Cassandra regards her curiously. “Forgive me for my bluntness, but how old are you, Lady Trevelyan?”
“Nearly twenty-five. And for the thousandth time, please call me Jane”
“My apologies,” Cassandra motions as if to shoo the formality from her tone, “I only ask for my own reference. I was twenty-one when I left my family’s estate. If it is of any help, I will tell them you are more than old enough to decide where you go or stay.”
“That and you sort of need me here. My hand, anyway.”
“Your hand as well as your knowledge and experience. Trust me, Leliana and I would not allow you to enter our confidence based on your Mark alone.”
“Thank you,” Jane flushes at this unexpected assurance, “I hope I continue to prove myself useful.”
Cassandra busies herself rereading the letter and then retrieving paper and a pen. “I am certain we can find a way to placate your family,” she says, “I will have Commander Cullen meet this delegation at the gate. In the meantime, I would suggest you write ahead to them with your intentions.”
“Of course,” Jane says. She stands and hovers a moment, unsure if she is being dismissed.
Cassandra looks up tentatively, “Your mother mentioned losing another child -”
Jane nods. “My brother, Sorley”
“I don’t mean to pry-”
“No, I thought you might ask,” Jane seats herself again, “He was a Templar. I was to meet him at the Conclave.”
“I see,” she pauses, long enough Jane wonders if that’s all she has to say. Finally, she says, “I appreciate your efforts for the Inquisition, especially considering the circumstances.”
“Thank you, Cassandra, but I don’t know what else I’d rather do under the circumstances.”
“I understand that more than you know. My condolences. May those we lost strengthen us from the Maker’s side.”
“Yes,” Jane rises, struggling for something else to say. “So shall it be. I’ll leave you to your work, then.”
“I am always pleased with the interruption. And I am pleased you intend to stay with us - Jane.”
A cold wind blows through Haven, and Cassandra pulls her coat tighter as she makes her way to the barracks. She sighs, squinting into the green-tinged distance. They’ve been set back. Weeks of letters to the Lord Seeker unanswered, and winter is fast approaching.
She sighs again as she recognizes a scout hurrying towards her, mouth half open already as if to chew up and swallow her attention.
“Yes, what is it?” she demands.
“Commander Cullen sent me. There’s a….well, Bann Trevelyan has sent his men to bring Her Ladyship back to Ostwick with them. He’s told them the situation, but they’re determined to follow their orders, and vow not to leave without her.”
“Ugh,” Cassandra sags. Of all the times for this problem to arise. The Inquisition needs all the noble backing it can manage, and Lady Trevelyan seems fairly daunted by the prospect of even confronting her family in letters. “Go on, take me to them.”
She follows the young man to where Cullen stands, his familiar overloaded form surrounded by men in armor. Two soldiers stand slightly taller than him, five or six more shuffling idly behind them.
“Ah,” Cullen looks worn, the corners of his eyes creased. He begins to introduce her, but the large young knight nearest him interrupts.
“You must be Seeker Pentaghast,” he draws himself up, offering no deference to Cassandra’s position. He is obstinate-looking and scarred with a long mane of straw-colored hair - the type of man Cassandra would be inclined to think handsome. “I don’t come here to quarrel with your - organization,” he smirks, “I’ve come for Lady Trevelyan, and once she’s been left with us, we’ll leave peacefully.”
“As I am certain Commander Cullen has expressed to you, Her Ladyship has proven instrumental to our purpose, and moreover she does not wish to leave. If there exists a more compelling reason for you to return without her, I do not know it.”
“I already told you, Lady Seeker, we aren’t going back without her.”
“That is a foolhardy position. As you can see, you and your men are far outmatched here.”
“For the moment. If you doubt the Bann would send an army to rescue his daughter from a bunch of heretics, you’re dreaming.”
Heretics. She nearly flinches at the word. But it’s true. She should have expected a family like the Trevelyans to side with the Chantry. She won’t be able to convince this sworn knight otherwise. And should this end in bloodshed, they’ll be at war with half the Free Marches.
“Oh Maker,” Cullen groans. Cassandra follows his gaze to a figure approaching. Jane. Striding towards them in a plain white chemise tucked into a pair of heavy leather trousers. With her fair hair tied back in a braid and her bow on her back, she looks more like a hunter than a nobleman’s daughter.
“Ser Bradley,” she inclines her head to the knight, who regards her incredulously, shaking his head.
“My lady, -”
Jane holds her left hand out, palm upward, and lets out a flash of green light. As she does, thunder cracks overhead, causing a few of the soldiers to start.
“I will not waste your time, Ser. I know your purpose here,” she says, “My father sent you to save me, but he doesn’t understand. I am needed here. I cannot go with you.”
She offers him her still-glowing hand. He recoils.
“Don’t be afraid. I know you are faithful. You saw the Breach as you approached, yes?”
“Yes,” he says, barely audible above the wind.
“Let me show you.”
She motions to the ruins, “Do you know what happened here?”
Ser Bradley nods, “yes.”
“So many lost their lives here. Everyone but me.”
He glances around, surveying the destruction. “So it’s true.”
“Everyone but me,” she repeats. She holds out her hands again, exposing her luminous veins. “A woman saved me, led me out. Andraste saved me. She spared me and left me with this Mark.”
He is shaking his head, “My Lady, what you’re saying…”
“I can use it to heal the veil. Once I have mastered it, I believe it can heal the Breach.”
“She has closed several rifts in the area,” Cullen breaks in, “I would not have believed it had I not seen it myself.”
“It’s true,” Jane says, “I don’t know why I was chosen, but I was. Please believe me, if only for Sorley’s sake. Andraste saved me and I am her Herald.”
Ser Bradley sighs, “You know it makes no difference if I believe you. Your father would have only my word.”
“Your word means more than you think. If he wants, he can come here and see.”
Cassandra moves down the path and finds Jane eyeing books on one of the new merchant’s tables.
“They’re mostly rubbish,” Cassandra says, “smutty fiction.”
“Better than nothing, I suppose,” Jane chuckles, “nice to get away from this story anyway.”
“You surprised me yesterday,” Cassandra falls into step with her as she moves to another table.
“I surprised me too.”
“Do you believe you are holy?”
Jane holds her gaze for a moment, then nods. “Yes, I think I do. I may be wrong, but it makes more sense than anything else. Do you?”
Cassandra regards the woman before her, slight but sturdy, intelligent and determined.
“Yes,” she says, “I think the Maker has placed you exactly where you need to be.”
Of course the Trevelyans want to throw a party the moment she arrives. All Jane wants to do is sleep, maybe lie out in the garden like she used to, but all these people she doesn’t know keep talking to her.
And Sorley, there he is sweating in his formal armor, pressed in by every noble this side of the Waking Sea. Of course he wasn’t really dead. Of course.
She pushes through to him, hip checks him, jiggles his sword in its scabbard. “Watch your weapon, Ser,” she teases, “crazies about.”
“You couldn’t lift it anyway,” he smirks.
He hasn’t asked her anything about the Inquisition yet. She keeps expecting him to, but probably he’s waiting. She’ll tell him once the party is over - they’ll talk all about it.
Father gathers the crowd around them, clears his throat.
“My two children have returned great warriors,”
Everyone cheers. Jane stays still, but wants to shake her head. She isn’t a warrior.
“The Mage-Templar War has been won. My daughter led us to victory and now that she’s returned, we look to a new and glorious destiny,”
Jane squints. The sun is too bright; everything looks flat.
“All of Thedas will fall to the Trevelyan name,”
How did she get here? Did she even say goodbye to anyone?
“With her power over the Veil, we will crush our enemies,”
“And unleash doom on the world.”
“No!” Jane draws her bow, backing away from the demons. Tears sting her eyes as her family’s faces distort with rage. Sorley grows to twice his size, shards of red crystals jut from his hands and face. This isn’t real. She’s still at the castle.
She runs for what feels like hours, through a maze tangled with gnarled vines that try to trip her. All the while faint voices call to her - Sorley begs her to come back, Cole urges her to keep moving up. She screams as she falls forward, and the sound follows her to her bed.
She remembers now. They returned to Haven a week ago.
She rises and pulls on her trousers and boots. The night is cool and the wind still for once. No one stirs except the patrol guards, who she gives a little wave. Her heart slows, and begins to ache instead.
The Chantry, though turned mostly to practical purpose, retains a little chapel. She sits on the cold bench, wondering vaguely if the boy from the castle will materialize and startle her half to death like he has done several times now. Strangely, prayer does not come easily since she became the Herald. She sits with blank spaces where her words should be.
The door creaks, causing her to jump, but it’s only Cassandra. She is in her nightclothes, illuminated by a single candle.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says, “I noticed the light and thought I should…”
“I needed to get some fresh air,” Jane says, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Cassandra shakes her head, “ You didn’t, trust me.”
“I suppose you never sleep,” Jane smiles and scoots over for Cassandra to join her, “too busy plotting our next blasphemy, I imagine.”
“I certainly don’t have time during the day, “ she snorts, “with every Templar in the place following me around like I am their mother.”
“That may be my fault, I’m afraid.”
“It is not,” Cassandra waves her off, “The circumstances were not ideal, but a decision needed to be made and you made it.”
Jane wraps her arms around herself, shielding against the cold. The ache in her chest pulses, pushes words out. “It was awful, what they did. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“The red lyrium, you mean.”
“They weren’t even human anymore. They gave it to those men knowing what it would do.”
“It is beyond comprehension,” Cassandra folds her hands in her lap. She looks remarkably soft without her armor, Jane thinks. “Not long ago, I thought the Order a steadfast institution. Perhaps I still do. But if corruption can make its way so thoroughly into the ranks…and Maker knows what has become of the rebel mages.”
“We still have no idea who is behind all of this? Who the Elder One could be?”
“No, but I expect he will reveal himself soon if we successfully close the Breach.”
Once Jane would have shrunk away from this, the prospect of facing the one who tore her life apart, who rended the fabric of the world. Not tonight. “Then we had better do it soon,” she plants her feet on the floor, “I have a few things I’d like to say to this Elder One.”
“When you do, I will be with you,” Cassandra says.
Something has changed since she came in here. The dull heaviness in Jane’s chest has changed to something electric, something that moves and crackles between them.
“You lost someone too, didn’t you?” Jane asks.
“Yes,” Cassandra answers right away, “several, but one I held very dear, yes.”
Jane places a hand over hers, feeling like they could shake the earth on its foundation if they so chose. “We’re going to put everything right,” she says, ”We’re going to win.”
Few people have weathered as many disasters as Cassandra Pentaghast. She stepped into Kirkwall as ash still choked the air; she saw the Knight Commander knelt in her final pose, a mass of lyrium in front of the Gallows. She’s ordered a dozen executions, half of them at the same Circle - carefully edited reports to the Chantry to avoid an Exalted March. She once hurled herself over a cliff to escape a cabal of blood mages. Nearly 20 years ago, she stood alone over her brother’s corpse, heaving with despair, crying to the Maker for vengeance.
Three months ago, she received notice of the destruction of the Conclave, with it her friend and mentor, the last vestige of hope for peace, the only man she’s ever loved. She worked through the day, putting her investigation into motion, before collapsing behind her closed door.
It occurs to her now as she watches a dragon spew fire over Haven, what if it’s all been a dream? An uncharacteristic idea for Cassandra - pragmatic Cassandra, uninterested in situations abstract or theoretical. As soon as the thought materializes, it dissolves. It doesn’t matter. Dreaming or no, her course of action is the same.
Jane wants to make her way around the entire town pulling people from the wreckage, but every corner they turn feels hotter. Cassandra tugs her back in the direction of the Chantry. They can’t afford to lose her.
The building is buckling from the heat and the cacophony of destruction outside; the walls and floors rippling unnaturally. Cullen and Jane are shouting above the roar, planning. Cassandra surveys the room, this place they’ve spent months building up. They had known an attack was a possibility; they had planned for ground troops, not an Archdemon. They had planned for a setback. This is a disaster.
She isn’t sure she has the strength for another disaster. Her stomach twists at the thought of more losses, more death. Jane pulls a helmet over her fair hair, slings her bow over her back. She looks every bit like a painting in the Chantry, a martyr.
“If it’s me this Elder One wants, then I’ll go out and speak with him,” she says, as if the creature that tore a hole in the Veil is some belligerent Orlesian noble.
“No,” the others turn in surprise; Cassandra hasn’t spoken since they entered, “That is a risk we cannot take.”
“If I don’t engage them, they’ll only follow us,” Jane says, “This will buy you time to lose them.”
“Then let me go.”
Jane takes Cassandra’s forearms, standing taller than usual but still looking up at her, “You can’t take my place. This is for me to face myself.”
The mage who knocked at the gate earlier speaks, “I hate to break up this touching scene, but if we don’t do something soon we’ll all be buried under a mountain.”
Jane nods, sweeping towards the door, “I’ll catch up, I promise.”
“We’ll wait as long as we can,” Cullen says. She takes his meaning. He wants to hold out hope as well.
The night darkens, and the weather worsens, icy winds ripping through their camp. The mage, who identifies himself as Dorian, did not come dressed for the mountains. He sits huddled by the fire in a borrowed cloak, shivering violently.
“So is this the plan,” he speaks from beneath his hood, all but his nose in shadow, “we come all the way out here and freeze to death out of spite?”
“We’ll go to the nearest settlement for supplies,” Cassandra answers, “but that will wait until the sun comes up.”
“That’s all?” he looks up, tugging the fabric from his face, “That isn’t good enough. You don’t even know where you’re going next? How could you have so little forethought as to-”
“-That is the leader of the Inquisition you’re scolding,” Cullen cuts him off, “and has it not occurred to you that your dramatic entrance does not entitle you to our inner workings?”
“It’s my own neck I’m risking for you lot isn’t it?” Dorian snaps.
“Right,” Iron Bull breaks in, “because some Vint tagging along right as we get flattened by Vints isn’t suspicious at all.”
“Are you stupid? If it weren’t for me, you’d have all died back there.”
“If you’ve finished flattering yourself, you’re welcome to go,” Cullen says, “Be sure to return my cloak.”
“This is useless,” Leliana pleads, “save your arguments for when we get back on our feet.”
Dorian sputters, “And when will that be? Your soldiers are over there dying, and you all-”
“Hey!” one of Leliana’s scouts interrupts, running, tumbling, down from her perch, “There she is! There she is!”
Cassandra’s heart lurches, “Who?”
“The Herald! It’s her!”
“Like a stream. Winding through the wood, running, rippling, never the same. You shape the stone without it knowing. Gentle.”
“Thank you, Cole,” Jane says, “Or - I mean, if that was a compliment.”
Cole shrugs and leans back in his chair, his ankles crossed atop a barstool, “It’s true. And yes.”
The tavern clatters and whirls with activity, kitchen crew moving tables and dragging casks onto the floor. Jane’s first official act as Inquisitor was to order construction on the place. She’d heard enough people say they needed a drink to know what would be useful. Her second act was to establish housing and study of the many artifacts they’d uncovered, which they’d actually finished well before the tavern. She’d had an easier time procuring an arcanist and a historian than supplies to fulfill a fortress’ alcoholic needs.
“Pardon me, Inquisitor,” Merchant, one of Leliana’s scouts approaches, “we’ve received this map from our team in Crestwood.”
“Thank you,” Jane accepts and quickly folds the map, slipping it into her bag.
“And they want to know where the wine should go,” he motions to the back room, where the cooks are stepping over barrels.
“Erm,” Jane hesitates, “Varric, where should we put the casks?”
Varric surveys the room, “Over there in the corner works,” he points, “Oughta post someone sober there so no one knocks the thing open and floods the place.”
Merchant nods and departs. “You’ve seen people break casks open before?” Jane asks, amused.
“I’ve seen one person in particular do that,” he shifts in his seat and glances up into the loft. They’ve stashed Hawke up there until she can be introduced with minimal notice.
“Must have missed that story in the book.”
“No kidding, she would’ve stabbed me. “Varric laughs, “Why do I always keep company with women who could easily murder me?”
“You like them,” Cole says, folding his arms behind his head.
Jane senses his tension. “Don’t worry about Cassandra,” she says, “I’ll talk to her.”
“At least there’ll be plenty of witnesses when she tears the walls down.”
Jane is sure she would have had a banquet anyway, in Hawke’s honor, but she did plan this one with a distraction in mind. Cassandra would surely be angry that Varric lied to her, but there was no harm done, and some wine and revelry should offset that a bit.
She herself is a little off balance. Things have been happening so quickly. It feels like ages ago they found this place, wandering in still singed from Haven. Another pile of rubble in her wake. She tries not to think about it. Her party is leaving for Crestwood with Hawke in a few days, something else she has not yet discussed with Cassandra.
“You all know any drinking songs?” Hawke yells to cheers from the crowd.
“We have our own!” Krem shouts back, jumping onto a chair with arms raised to lead the Chargers off.
One thing that’s certain: Varric and Hawke know how to throw a party. Jane laughs herself silly sitting over pints with the two of them; now they’ve gathered a rough band of stray musicians and made a dance floor. Soon the tavern is full to bursting with people stomping and drinking and singing.
Hawke pulls Sera onto the floor, twirling, spinning, lifting her off her feet for a moment. Sera screams with laughter and holds her skirt down. Dorian and Iron Bull are having a spirited-looking conversation a few tables over, though Jane can’t hear them. Barmaids cut through the throng, splashing mead and wine from their mugs.
“Nice place you’ve got,” Hawke settles in next to Jane, sliding her a drink.
“Thank you. I like it quite a lot.” Jane lifts her mug with some effort. She isn’t much of a drinker.
“You put good people in it too. Varric hardly had anything to complain about,” she smirks cheekily and nods toward Sera, “Where’d you find that one?”
“Val Royeaux, if you’d believe it. Actually sort of a funny story,” Jane tells her about the message attached to an arrow, the soldiers with no breeches.
Hawke laughs, smacks the table, “Sounds about right. She’s pretty. Too young, though, I suppose.”
Hawke shakes her head, “Nothing, never mind.”
Jane keeps having drinks shoved into her hands. She feels it when she rises from her table, wobbling slightly as she makes her way across the room.
“How’re we doing?” Hawke leans over. She’s a full head taller than Jane.
“A bit sloshing,” Jane replies. She feels her heart beat keenly, sending ripples through her arms and legs. She thinks she better not have any more.
“Good! Drink all you can before you’re dead, that’s what I always say.”
“You’ve never said that before,” Varric says, shaking his head.
“Well, I’m always thinking it. And we’re gonna have plenty of shit trying to kill us soon, aren’t we?”
Unsettled, Jane surveys the room. It keeps getting louder somehow. It’s hard to see through the crush of people. It’s hard to breathe a little, like water rushing in over her head.
Suddenly all she wants is to leave. As she turns, she catches a glimpse of Cassandra, the one person she wants to talk to, her straight-backed retreating figure punching the door nearly off its hinges on her way out.
She came back from the dead, everyone saw it. The Herald of Andraste, stumbling into their camp, a bit the worse for wear but alive. Cassandra held the moment close like she held Jane that night, carrying her towards the fire. She’d thought it was over, truly, but a little flicker of light lived on, stoked by the memory of her voice - the way she’d stood resolute and said she would catch up. And Cassandra had believed her.
Now Jane is on her third lap around the grounds, looking for her. Cassandra watches from the training ring where it’s too dark to see her. She tries closing her eyes and breathing through her nose, like Leliana tells her to do sometimes. “There is a tempest in you, child,” Justinia had said to her once. Cassandra feels it now, lapping at her edges, threatening to engulf her.
She knew Varric was a snake, only concerned with his own interest. But she’d trusted Jane, relinquished her control of the Inquisition to her. The image of her arm-in-arm with Hawke won’t leave her.
She watches Varric pass by the second-floor window of the tavern, moving up the steps. Without thinking she winds around the back and follows.
Cassandra isn’t quiet, but neither is Varric, tromping on the wood steps in his heavy boots. He sways a little when he reaches the top and finally hears her behind him. She lands a punch to his jaw right as he turns around, knocking him flat.
“What the fuck,” he wheezes, pushing himself back across the floor.
“You knew where she was,” she thunders, advancing. She isn’t planning on hitting him again but she doesn’t want to give him a chance to kick her down the stairs.
“Alright, yeah. I did,” he scrambles to his feet, fists raised defensively.
“This is not fiction, you little shit,” she roars, “We needed Hawke and you-”
“Cassandra stop!” Jane is pulling her back by her shoulder. Cassandra takes a step away, steadying herself. Jane looks a mess, her hair windswept, her face blotched and tear-stained.
“And you!” she rounds on her, “Sneaking behind my back. Of all the childish-”
“Leave her out of it,” Varric says, holding his jaw. “See?” he looks to Jane, “She fucking sucker punched me.”
Cassandra nearly clubs him again, but she restrains herself. Jane says, “I understand you’re upset-“
“You don’t understand. Clearly.” Silence sweeps the room, whispers of breath and muffled music from downstairs leak in. “Had Hawke been at the Conclave, we might never have been in this position. She was our last chance. She could have kept us from going to war. He knew that and chose to keep her away anyway.“
“Do you hear yourself?” Varric interrupts, “The damn thing blew up. What would she have done about that?”
“We will never know, Varric. Those people dead now will never know what might have been,” her voice booms within the walls of the little wooden room, as if they're in the hull of a ship. She can almost feel it rocking on the waves.
“Look, I’m sorry, Seeker,” Varric rubs the back of his neck, “Maybe I’m selfish but I couldn’t risk Hawke dying too. She’s here now. That’s all I can do.”
“Get out,” Cassandra points Varric to the stairway, “I’ll deal with you later.”
Varric glances warily at Jane before leaving, muttering under his breath.
“Repeat that,” Cassandra demands.
“I said you’re jealous,” he calls as he descends.
Cassandra calms a bit once he’s gone. The storm that ripped through her trickles to a light rain.
Jane is composing herself. She sniffs delicately, smoothing her wild hair. “Let me wrap up your hand,” she says.
Cassandra didn’t notice she’s been holding her right fist. Varric’s head must be especially hard. “I don’t need it,” she shakes it out and cringes.
“I don’t care, give it here,” she half-smiles, reaching out. Cassandra doesn’t stop her when she sits her down on a barrel, pulling a bandage from the pocket of her dress.
“This is my fault,” Cassandra says as Jane gently squeezes her fingers, checking for breaks, “I only ever want to do what’s right, but it always ends with my being wrong. How is that, I wonder?”
“I’ve never once seen you be wrong,” Jane says, “except maybe when you put me in charge.” She wipes her eye hurriedly with the back of her hand.
Jane avoids her gaze, crouching between Cassandra’s knees fussing with her wad of gauze. Cassandra sighs, tugged in opposing directions. “Why didn’t you come to me?”
“I don’t know. It sounds silly, but...I didn’t want to need to. I wanted to handle it. Without…”
“Without me,” Cassandra finishes.
“No, I just...I knew you’d be angry,” she releases Cassandra’s newly bandaged hand, “There, that ought to hold.”
Neither of them moves. Cassandra says, “You are free to make your own decisions, Jane. If I’ve been domineering-“
“No-“ she hesitates and starts again, “Everyone looks at me like they know what I am, what I’m doing. But I don’t know.”
She came back from the dead.
“Do I look at you that way?”
“I think I understand your meaning,” Cassandra says slowly, “I am sorry to have caused you that.”
Jane fixes on her, eyes the color of the ocean, “Is it so terrible that you have me here? Instead of Hawke?”
“Listen,” Cassandra finds her unbandaged hand on Jane’s bare, surprisingly warm, shoulder, “I responded...somewhat rashly. I don’t regret anything I’ve done regarding you. Truly, you have come so far that perhaps we all forget you are only human.”
Jane nods, arranging her skirt as she sits back on her heels. Cassandra has rarely seen her in a dress. It’s flattering on her and for some reason the sight causes a burning feeling in Cassandra’s throat.
“What was your impression?” she asks, breaking the silence.
“Of Hawke?” Jane smiles wryly, “She’s lovely. Bit wild. Very tall. Sort of reminds me of you, I suppose.”
“Of me?” blood rushes to her face, and she’s thankful for the dim light. “I don’t believe anyone has accused me of being wild.”
“Perhaps they just don’t know you well enough,” Jane says, straightening. Cassandra stands in turn. At once, Jane springs forward and plants a kiss on her cheek. Startled, Cassandra gasps and steps back.
“Uh, sorry,” Jane is a blur of motion, rushing away. “Goodnight!” she calls as she clatters down the steps and into the dark.
Jane has felt the fear before. She used to do a bit of fighting when she had to in the field - back when her most exciting tasks were dusting off old stained glass or examining yet another supposed vial of Andraste’s tears. Mostly only bandits ever bothered them, and would flee on discovering the Sisters were armed, but sometimes there were wolves and once a bear.
“Fear kills,” her instructor told her as she struggled with her stance even in the calmest conditions. “Fear snuffs your instincts.” She never quite understood why he spent so very much time talking about fear. She felt what she needed most was advice on where to hold her elbow. Now she wonders if she was meant to hear it.
She was afraid of the bear at first; it towered over she and her fellow Sisters as they exited a cave. But it was stupid, and it took them for an easy lunch. Aside from Petra’s sprained ankle, none of them got hurt. The bandits weren’t terribly frightening - they could be reasoned with. Most had some religious inclination and didn’t want trouble from the Chantry.
That was nothing like the fear now. The beings that wriggle from the rifts - slimy like newborn nightmares, their eyes gleaming with dark intelligence - cannot be reasoned with. They arrive with the sole intention of doing harm, and they won’t stop for anything but death. Some of them are hardly more than mist, all but untouchable by swords or arrows; some are unnervingly human-looking, raw meat wearing robes.
And now the dead are dragged from their resting places, naked and empty, filled with hateful magic. Jane knew the town of Crestwood was under attack, but nothing could prepare her for the cruelty, the indignity of it all. A few short weeks ago was the villagers’ annual spring festival and flowers still hang from some of their doors, petals beaten limp by the rain, next to bundles of garlic and black lotus - makeshift monster repellant.
“I don’t regret anything...”
Jane’s legs are tired; she hasn’t done this much running and climbing in a long time. A village militia joined to clear out the nearby fortress after Warden Blackwall convinced them. Jane made sure to watch out especially for them as they rushed the highwaymen, and instructed Varric to do the same. “Way ahead of you, Sister,” he said.
Even still, they lost one, a young man caught in the back with an arrow. One of the militiamen, an older woman with skin like leather, crouches next to him and determines he’s gone. She says she’ll tell his mother. Jane fights the gnawing feeling in her gut as they carry him out. She can’t afford to feel. Any break in concentration could bring the fear with it.
“You have a kind, courageous heart. I am proud to know you…”
“I’ve never stormed a keep before,” Hawke says, slinging her sword onto her back. “Do we get to name it?”
“You wanna call it Caer Hawke, huh?” Varric teases.
“It’s not like they’ll name anything after me in Kirkwall,” she shrugs.
Barely a pause before they continue underground beneath the newly drained lake. Dorian lights all the torches down their path simultaneously and says, “There, now it wasn’t a total waste bringing me along.” He’s groused the whole way about how she’s brought a necromancer to the last place one would be needed. Truthfully, Jane doesn’t know where an appropriate place for a necromancer is.
It doesn’t take long before the rift makes itself known, glowing and moving the stagnant air. Screeches and howls echo against the stone walls. “On your guard,” Blackwall warns, positioning his shield.
This is when the fear surfaces, if it does. It will freeze her lungs, turn her legs to wood if she gives it a chance. Absent her usual distraction, she watches Blackwall. He’s clearly led a company before, but he confirms his orders with her as he gives them. Hawke wades in while Blackwall hunkers down blocking the tunnel as best he can. The others fall behind them. Varric finds a rock formation and settles behind it. Dorian is at Jane’s side, casting barriers - in these close quarters to protect as much against friendly fire as demons.
The first wave goes down easily. Hawke slices off the remaining terror’s long arm at its hinge and sends a spray of black blood down her front. As it arches its back to retaliate, Blackwall knocks it with his shield, giving her an opportunity to finish if off. In the moment of silence that follows, he says, “It’s best not to hack off limbs if you can help it.” She nods, wiping the sludge from her helmet.
“...and I am flattered, truly, but…”
Jane moves underneath the still-pulsating rift and tries to seal it, but it spits out what looks like a wad of rough cloth that unfurls and drives a wall of ice at Jane, knocking her backwards. The torches go out, plunging them into darkness.
“Get down!” she shouts as the ice explodes into a rain of razor shards.
They’ve seen these before. They can cut people into ribbons, freeze organs solid. They are made of nearly nothing, and can dance from the reach of weapons seemingly endlessly. The Templars call them despair demons.
Jane tries to crawl away from the ice but finds herself caught, frozen to the ground. She can’t see anything but particles are flying through the air burning her face - icy wind like outside Haven. She hears muffled voices in the distance and tries to shout back, but her voice dies in her throat. The fear rises like bile, choking her.
“...I cannot be what you want.”
They need fire. She does. She can feel the flask at her hip. Twisting to remove it, she unscrews the cap and coats an arrow, fights against the awkward angle to line up her shot blindly. A moment of black and then it ignites, lighting the room.
A searing flash illuminates Hawke and Blackwall as they rush forward. Another arrow explodes from the shadows from wherever Varric is. Dorian palms two glowing orbs which he throws at the creature; its ashes snow onto their heads.
Jane’s hand sparks as she extends it over her head. It shakes her violently, hard enough to chatter her teeth, then drops her back onto the floor.
Dorian lights the torches again. Jane rolls onto her back and laughs.
“Oh wonderful, she’s gone mad,” Dorian says as he offers her a hand up.
“You’d go mad too if you landed a shot in the dark like that,” Hawke says.
Jane has a fortress now, another one. She wakes in one of its neglected rooms with spiders in her hair. The scout posted outside reports sightings of dangerous creatures, including a dragon. Hawke brings her Warden contact along with bad news.
“They’re going to...march demons in to fight the darkspawn? That has to be the worst plan I’ve ever heard,” Varric says.
“I want to ask if you’re serious,” Hawke says, “but you always are, aren’t you?”
Warden Stroud nods and folds his arms. “It is madness, driven by a power structure which silences dissent. None of the senior Wardens would have accepted this were they not in fear of imprisonment.”
He looks exhausted, sick, his face drawn. After he takes his leave, Hawke says,“I thought I was expecting the worst, but that was worse than I expected.”
“This all just keeps getting weirder,” Varric says.
“We’ll try and outmaneuver them, but…” Jane trails off as her attendant passes her line of vision. She calls him over with a wave, “Nathan, would you bring Warden Stroud a healer? And something to eat, please.”
“But?” Dorian props his head on his elbow.
“Well, it depends on if we can move fast enough,” she continues. Sounds like they’ve outpaced us.”
“And if we can’t?” he asks, sitting back.
“Then we’ll fight them,” Jane says. She plants her boots beneath her and leans into the table as if she might say something more, but she doesn’t.
“I take it you didn’t live through the Blight,” Hawke says.
“No,” Jane says, “but if I remember correctly, a few people mounted an army and fought it until they won.”
“Yes,” Hawke says, “Grey Wardens did. We might win in the moment, but I don’t like that Corypheus has got our only defense against the darkspawn by the balls.”
Jane only has room for one world-ending event at a time. “He hasn’t quite got Stroud, has he? Or Blackwall?”
Blackwall nods solemnly. He hasn’t spoken much since this all came to light.
“You weren’t there,” Jane says, “but we fought off a dragon at Haven. And we’ve only gotten stronger since then.”
“Irritating a dragon into leaving isn’t the same as defeating one,” Dorian says.
Jane gnaws her bottom lip, a thought swelling into an idea. “That’s true,” she says.
Please report to Crestwood at your earliest convenience. We’ve found a dragon and I need your assistance fighting it.