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These Particulars Are Not My Measure

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For everything that's lovely is

But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.

O never give the heart outright,

For they, for all smooth lips can say,

Have given their hearts up to the play.

And who could play it well enough If deaf and dumb and blind with love?

He that made this knows all the cost,

For he gave all his heart and lost.

-Never Give All the Heart, the Chieftains


"Did you have the dream again, lethallin?"

Aeron followed her brother Aled deeper in to the ruins, further than they'd ever gone before. As they ventured past, she recognized the passages twisted off to the right, like the roots of an ancient tree. They'd explored each thoroughly, sometimes with Andra and Aoife, sometimes just the two of them. When they did so she liked to tell Aled stories of werewolves, trapped here for an eternity, that would surely leap out and tear them to shreds at any moment. 

The fact that such a thing had already happened to their Clan might have made the tales cruel, but since that night the wolf had held a special power for them both. It was a creature that could destroy and a creature that could open new paths, the hulking shapes of the werewolves in the fire light offset by the white creature from their dreams. So often, the white wolf had come, leading her deeper and deeper in to this very structure. Here, it seemed to say, here is your salvation. 

"I did, lethallan," she returned the favor, picking her way over a toppled stone column, the dust puffing up around her in a cloud that smelled of ancient magics. At least Aled called her by the proper title, despite her body. Thinking about her form made misery come alive in her very skin, as if her own flesh were some alien thing improperly stitched to her bones, something that ached and bled without surcease. She stopped there in the main chamber, the same place where Witherfang and Zathrian had faced one another. Now the light from above spilled over one miserable girl instead of a pact that would change the destiny of her Clan forever. She clutched her shawl close as if she could hide her breasts beneath it and stood there, frozen.

Aled came over and touched her arm.

"Aeron..."

"I can't live this way, Aled. I can't."

"Creators willing, you won't have to. Neither of us will."

She looked up at him, studying his face. He had a stubborn look, his lip curled and his posture set. Normally he would have been against this, would have cautioned her not to take risks. But what she had seen had given them both courage, though daring to hope made her eyes sting with bitter tears. 

Could it truly free us? 

The thought made her want to scream. If it wasn't true, if it was just a dream, she didn't think she could bear it. She thought of all the times she'd held the knife blade to her body, knowing that all she had to do was let it slope downwards and she would be rid of at least some of her most hated parts...

"If this doesn't work I will go to Falon'din and let him carry me away," she whispered. "You have heard of the Conclave the shems are planning. The Keeper will send me, or you, or the both of us. Could you face the world in the wrong body? Could you? For even one day, with all their eyes on you?" 

"Don't think that way," Aled said, grabbing her and giving her a little shake. The ferocity the Keeper had always criticized her for flooded her then, and she lifted her head. Her emotions felt like distant faery lights over a bog at nighttime, glimpsed, perhaps, but always from afar. She could think then, the cold and calculating self that thought nothing of splitting shem heads when they dared come too close to camp, that took joy in the gurgle a dying man made when her dagger found his throat. 

"I will do this," she said, deliberately choosing the proper words for Aled, "sister. I swear to you, I will wrench power from the hands of Mythal herself if doing so would change us." 

"When you speak like that, I can't help but believe you, brother." His faith in her shimmered forth, transforming his face. She would do it for him--for her--for them both.

"Then follow me, and we will find this eluvian. I have seen it." She said, marching down the tunnel that lead in to the heart of the ruins. "I know the spell to open it. It will be done." 

***

The approach to Skyhold wore a cloak of snow, embroidered with hoarfrost. The bridge to the main gates seemed to go on forever, his footsteps covered over with new flurries before they’d had a chance to truly leave an imprint. Gabriel could feel eyes on him; the battlements hid what had to be a full compliment of guards, bows ready. 

He wondered if he would be shot down before he even made it to the gate. He couldn’t claim an impressive title or special circumstances, beyond the heavy, engraved Knight Enchanter’s blade slung across his back. He doubted wielding it would give the impression he hoped, though its presence filled him with more confidence than he would have had otherwise. Keeper Mairead's blessings went with him, even so far from home.  

Someone did come out to greet him in the end, but he didn’t yet feel any relief; the man looked as if he was always faintly put out by something, and at the moment that something was him. The man moved with an air of confidence, and by his plate armor and the blade at his hip he at the very least could call himself a soldier. 

“Gabriel Marlowe?”

By the Creators, they knew him? Could this be the Inquisitor himself? As soon as the thought came, he dismissed it. The stories said the Inquisitor belonged to a Dalish clan out of Brecilian Forest. He certainly couldn’t be called human, and Gabriel felt ashamed for making that assumption. 

“Sir,” Gabriel said by way of confirmation. 

The man’s manner eased, a rather endearing look softening his features. Crow’s feet crinkled at the edges of his amber eyes, his lips curving in a faint smile. The scar across his mouth hardly marred his appearance; if anything it added to it. 

“I am Commander Cullen. I lead the Inquisition forces. You’re welcome to come inside.”

As if on cue the gates slid open, and Gabriel marveled at the fact that the massive structure moved without so much as a creak. Some fine engineers and craftsmen at Skyhold, then. 

He could hardly believe he’d been welcomed so readily, and he said as much as Cullen lead him inside. He didn’t miss the men falling in behind him, perhaps in case he proved a danger, but nonetheless this had gone much better than he’d imagined. 

“You were expecting me?”

“We were. Knight Enchanters are rare, competent ones even moreso. I believe the Inquisitor would like to test whether or not you were truly Elf trained, as well.” 

Gabriel could hardly take in all of Skyhold at once. It was so much more than he had expected. A tavern carried the scent of dark ale out in to the practice ring, where even now soldiers sparred. He could smell an herb garden from here, royal elfroot, blood lotus, prophet’s laurel. The main hall pierced the grey sky, its warmly lit windows in contrast. Merchants in fancy Orlesian dress had their best blades, fabrics, and delicacies on display, their stands adding splashes of color and fragrance wherever they could fit. He could hear singing and the whinny of horses and harts. 

But above it all, his eyes were drawn as by magnet to the mage tower. It stood proud and festooned in banners, the symbol of the free mages picked out in gold and red. 

It’s true. There is no Circle here. 

Heart full, Gabriel heard the gate close behind him, sealing him in to his new home. 

 

Chapter Text

“Dragons and legends...It would have been difficult for any man not to want to fight beside a dragon.”

-Patricia Briggs, Dragon Blood


 Gabriel stood at the closed door of the quarters the Inquisition had been kind enough to give him, trying to visualize leaving his room and crossing the courtyard with confidence. Since he'd come here, he'd only managed such a feat two times out of five. He pushed forward, hand splayed on the weathered wood, but once again the door wouldn’t budge. 

You’re being ridiculous.

And he knew it. The Inquisition had welcomed him. The Commander himself had come to the gates to usher him in, expressing warm sentiments about extending shelter to yet another talented mage. Gabriel remembered looking up at the mage tower for the first time, its banners flying proudly in the winter air. Even now when he thought of it his chest tightened; the mages here weren’t caged. They weren’t even ashamed. 

He leaned against the door, his ear to the wood. From the practice area he heard shouts, but these weren’t the shouts of frustration that often split the air when new recruits sparred. Instead a female voice, high, clear, rose above the others. A laugh bubbled forth even as swords crashed and ground against each other. What woman was this, that she could laugh so joyously in the middle of a fight?

More than anything, curiosity drew him out of his den. He would have preferred that his own courage had been enough of a goad, but he’d take whatever came along. 

The sun poured forth in rivulets, the pale fingers of a fine lady stretched across the landscape as if to pluck a particularly lush flower. For a moment he couldn’t see beyond its dazzle. He wondered if the woman he’d heard would be as fine as the light, noble like him maybe? Her voice certainly made him think of that, a little doll-like creature in a flowing dress, sounds of battle notwithstanding.

When his eyes cleared he walked over to the practice ring. He saw several human soldiers gathered around a fight between two Qunari, hooting and hollering as if they were betting on the outcome. The male he knew of, if only because a creature such as he couldn't go unnoticed. He called himself Iron Bull, a massive hulking monster of a man with horns such that he could barely fit through the tavern door. The other was a female Qunari, almost as massive as Iron Bull, that he didn’t recognize. She had long auburn hair pinned up in two messy buns on the top of her head, a gentle wave to the skeins still free. She had skin as white as the snow that capped the mountains nearby, and her horns curved back in to two magnificent points, decorated in gold. Where the Iron Bull eschewed armor to leave his impressive chest bare the woman at least wore something to cover her breasts, though just barely. Wherever she could get away with showing skin, though, she did, muscles rippling under a soft layer of fat. She had a pair of green stylized wings tattooed on her back, left bare by the plunging backline of her silk shirt, and a profile smudged black and gold with vitaar.

Both Qunari hefted two-handed swords so heavy no other race could have hoped to wield them, glittering with enchantments. When they clashed, testing each other, it was like two dragons locked in a battle to the death. In fact, the smell that came off a dragon rampant pushed itself rudely in to his nostrils as the two combatants churned the ground under their feet. It was mating musk and fire, the dusty smell of scales and the primal electricity a mage felt whenever blood spattered on stone. 

When neither could best the other they finally wrenched themselves away, both having trouble coming back to themselves. Clearly some force had come over them both, a bloodrage that normally had to be sated before the fight could end. Gabriel had heard of Reavers though he’d never met one. Now he wondered if he had met two. 

“Good one, Bull,” the woman said, and Gabriel thought he’d misheard at first; a thick Orlesian accent came from her lips as naturally as the Amarinthine drawl came from his. “You bastard. We’ll do it again sometime soon.” It was especially odd considering she spoke in the broad, crude way he associated with Fereldan mercenaries.

“You got it, Vashoth bitch.”

She grinned at him, showing perfect teeth and sharp canines. 

“Heh. See you later.”

“You know it.” 

Iron Bull walked off, though Gabriel saw him stumble with weariness, a fact Bull did his best to hide. The woman turned towards him and he flushed; she had a beautiful face that shone despite the war paint. While he’d been completely wrong about her voice belonging to some tiny human woman, her features were doll-like and delicate. She had huge beaten-silver eyes and a full cupid’s bow mouth, now quirked in an inquiring smile. 

“Hey there.” She said to him, walking over as the spectators dispersed. His heart promptly threw itself off a cliff; she made some new desire stir within him. “Enjoy the show?”

Despite the fact that one good breath would have pushed her ample breasts out of her shirt he could detect nothing overtly flirtatious about her tone, just an appealing friendliness that set him at ease despite himself. Her skin sparkled, sheened with sweat, and he could smell the good clean scent of a battle hard done. 

“Oh, well. Yes. Are you a Reaver, my lady?”

She giggled behind her hand, an incongruous reaction for a woman three times as big as he was, a woman who had just fought like a demon-possessed bear.

“My lady? I could get used to being addressed like that. Most people just say “hey you” or “hey horn-head.” And yeah, I’m a Reaver. What about you, m'lord?”

“I am a Knight Enchanter.” The words felt odd in his mouth, shaped imperfectly for his tongue. Admitting outright that he was a mage felt dangerous, events in the world at large aside. His father had always thought highly of mages--no surprise, as he was one--and gone on and on about how Tevinter had the right idea. And yet they had always lived under the shadow of possible discovery, fearing that every time a stranger came to the manor door it would be a contingent of templars hellbent on imprisoning them. 

“What, with the glowy sword?"

"The same," he said, doing her the favor of drawing his blade so she could inspect it. "Though mine is not summoned by magic alone." She whistled low and reached for it before she thought better of it and pulled her hand back.

"Nice," she said, drawing the word out.

"The Qun makes blades specific to the wielder, don't they?" His was clearly personal, as attuned to him as it was possible to be. 

"Yeah except I've never lived under the Qun. My parents are Tal Vashoth. My father is a sarabaas. My mother rescued him and they fled together until the Qun gave up on recapturing them. Under the Qun mages are leashed and muzzled like rabid dogs. They do everything as their arvaarad bids them. My parents are free and they raised me to be free." She said, defiance giving her words a noticeable tang.

Purple energy crackled over the runes on his blade as he bid it.

"I was also raised to be free. I am an apostate and always have been. I learned what I know without bowing to templars."

"No Circle, huh? Well, maybe you'll spar with me sometime. See how a free mage does it." 

"Oh...ahem. Of course." 

He wondered if she'd break both his arms in the first five minutes or if she'd go easy on him and leave him with at least one working limb. 

"You're new, aren't you?" She asked, leaning forward with her arms crossed on the railing that described the border of the practice ring. He studied her face for any sign of guile, but could find nothing. He felt his spine stiffen and he sheathed his sword, his hands wringing together in front of him despite his efforts to the contrary. Friendliness...simple friendliness. How long had it been?

"Yes, I suppose I am."

"Well, hell. Let's go get a drink then and I'll show you around." 

"I...a drink? With you?"

She giggled, but Gabriel had to admit he could detect no edge of mockery in it.

"Sure, why not? Don't tell me you're afraid to be seen with an ox." 

"N..no!" He spluttered. "I would never..."

She laughed, straightened, and clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger sideways. 

"I'm just messing with you. What's your name?"

"I...ahem. It's Gabriel, my lady. If you don't mind me asking..." He searched for a way to phrase his question that wouldn't insult her. "Your accent..."

"I know, right." She said without a hint of offense. She opened the gate to the practice ring and came out, crossing over to him as she wiped at her brow with the back of her hand. "Born and raised in Val Royeaux; I never knew a life anywhere else. My parents are tailors. Oh, I'm Shandi by the way. I guess I should have said already." 

He fell in to step with her as she headed for the Herald's Rest as if he had always done so, as if going drinking with a massive Qunari Reaver had always been how he spent his afternoons. "Can you speak Orlesian, Shandi?"

"Better'n I speak Common, messere," she told him, shouldering the tavern door open. "You?"

"Some Elvish," he managed, though his mind whirled with all the new stimuli, especially when the music-ale-shouting hit him in one swirling mass, as if it were a tangible thing homing in on his solar plexus. 

"Really? Didn't think they taught that to shems," she said, voice still light but...there existed the slightest shadow, of a sudden. Gabriel could feel it, the way a Fereldan hound could sense the smallest of movements in the underbrush. 

"It is not a matter of course, no." He said, careful. Upsetting her could be dire, though he reminded himself not for the first time that this was not home, and that not everyone he met would emulate his brothers and their treatment of him. 

He took a seat at one of the biggest tables, a wide bench paired with it sturdy enough to support Shandi's weight. She called for ale and when the serving girl plunked a full, frosty tankard down in front of her, she lit up with joyful anticipation. After she'd put away two of them in as many minutes, Gabriel had sipped enough of his own drink that he felt brave enough to ask her about herself. 

"What brings you to Skyhold, my lady?"

"Well, m'lord...I figure it's time to make a name for myself. I'm going to ask the Inquisitor to test me on the battlefield. Have you seen Lady Pentaghast? I've been sparring with her. Great woman. She fights like a lioness. Not many humans could stand against a horn-head Reaver. Plus, I hear there's a High Dragon out there somewhere and I mean to hunt it. I've killed a dragon before but I've never stood against a High Dragon. Andrastae, just imagine it!" 

"I saw a dragon once from afar, out on the Storm Coast. It was magnificent. You've killed one before?"

"I had help, other Reavers who offered to break me. Slew the beast and had my first taste of dragon's blood."

"Then...you will ask the Inquisitor himself if he will take you adventuring?" The very thought of being so bold made him taste iron, nervousness sitting on his tongue as surely as the cheap ale. 

She shrugged, as if petitioning the leader of the free world for the right to fight at his side was no more challenging than a brisk walk through Skyhold's gardens. 

"You won't get anywhere if you never take risks, my friend. Worst thing he can do is say no. Don't know if some random Vashoth will make the cut but I'm not going to just sit around here on my ass and hope for better." 

"I...you are very brave. And not many have faced a dragon and lived." 

She snorted, setting her tankard down. The tavern girl filled it without being asked. 

"I just know my skills. And the Inquisitor has a lot of powerful friends, but they aren't all Reavers, and they can't all go with him on every mission."

 "Would you mind sometime if I...I mean to say, I am interested in your abilities and I'd welcome a demonstration..."

He realized how awkward he sounded and how suggestive besides, and stumbled to a stop.

"Uh huh. Just what kind of demonstration are you hoping for?" She asked, while Gabriel desperately tried to look anywhere but at her chest.

"I walked right in to that one, didn't I?"

"Yeah m'lord, face first."

"Well, I will just say I am not sure what kind of demonstration would be most appropriate. How is that?"

"If you spar with me sometime you'll see it soon enough. What about you? Why come here?"

It took him a moment to respond. Why had he come here? The ability to practice magic freely? To get out from under his brothers' thumbs?

"I suppose I want to be part of something good, something important."

"You'll get your wish! The people here make the whole world shake." Shandi said, straightening in her chair. Her eyes cleared and her lips quirked. Pride, Gabriel thought. She believes in the cause, in the Inquisitor. Even as he thought such, the bard launched in to a song about bravery and the swath the Inquisition was currently cutting through Corypheus' forces. 

"You should ask for the same." She continued. "Get out there and show your stuff."

"Ask the Inquisitor? To take me in to the field?"

"Why not? You're a Knight Enchanter. So is Madame de Fer, but I think m'lord Inquisitor would rather throw himself off the battlements than take her along."

He grimaced. He knew something of Lady Vivienne, and what he knew he most assuredly did not approve of. 

"She would see us all in cages, and the only key clasped in her fingers."

"Yeah, sure. That. And m'lord doesn't approve of anyone who wants to cage mages. So, see? You have plenty of things to recommend you. Like not being Vivienne." She chortled and Gabriel found himself smiling in response, gazing at her sparkling silver eyes, so full of good cheer. "You should come with me tomorrow."

"I...I don't know." The last fight he'd had with his sister came unbidden to his mind.

You're using the Inquisition as another excuse to run away from your problems. 

Defiance made him grit his teeth, and he jumped on the courage it afforded before it could squirm out of his grasp.

"All right, Shandi. I'll do it."

"That's the spirit! I'll meet you tomorrow and we'll go to Lady Montilyet's office together."

"Of course, my lady." He rose, not wanting to overstay his welcome. She waved at him.

"Don't be late, m'lord."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

He headed to the battlements. His heart felt too full to be confined; he wanted to be where the birds were. 

 

Chapter Text

As promised, Gabriel went looking for Shandi early the next morning. This time leaving his quarters proved to be less of an obstacle than before; perhaps her straightforward manner had helped bolster his confidence. He found her at the training dummies, and as he watched she hit one of them so hard the stuffing came out. She wore only knee length breeches and a scrap of cloth tied precariously to her limbs with the barest of strings, her body heaving and uncoiling as she swung that nigh-impossible broadsword of hers. 

A sight to behold, he thought, blushing for reasons he couldn't yet determine. Certainly one of the best warriors I've ever seen. 

His brother Spence had always fancied himself an expert with the blade, though in reality he could hardly be counted amongst the greenest rank and file. Not that Gabriel would have ever told him so; sparing himself some extra kicks and punches factored high on his list of priorities, or it had when he'd still lived at home. 

Creators willing, I will never set eyes on Marlowe Manor again. 

He came up to watch, though not close enough to trigger Shandi's combat reflexes. He knew better than to sneak up on a trained warrior. A woman stood nearby with her sword drawn, and by the Seeker symbol painted on her breastplate he assumed he'd just laid eyes on Cassandra Pentaghast. She held herself with the kind of gravitas one expected from a woman of her rank, her naked blade in hand as she waited to take her turn with the dummies. The blade had seen use, but the care lavished on it had kept it sharp and ready. 

"The Inquisitor will have to increase the training budget," she said, her thick Nevarran accent cementing her identity. 

Shandi laughed and dropped out of fighting stance, sheathing her sword in the baldric strapped to her back. 

"You wreck at least as many as I do."

Cassandra's face twitched as if she were trying to repress a smile. 

"Well, it would do no one any good if I held back." 

He cleared his throat, and Shandi turned to him. She brightened and waved, then came closer, bringing the fresh aroma of grass crushed underfoot with her. His heart felt more alive in his chest than usual, whirling and jumping. Seeker Pentaghast followed, which dampened his spirits somewhat; he didn't know her, and her narrowed eyes told him she felt suspicious of his presence. His hackles rose; would she try to exert some authority over him, try and force him to bow and scrape as mages had always been made to do? 

"Ready to go meet our lord Inquisitor?" Shandi asked. "Cass here has vouched for us."

"For you," Seeker Pentaghast corrected her. 

"Oh come on now Cass. You know we need a Knight Enchanter. Or do you want Vivienne to get her hooks in any deeper around here?"

Seeker Pentaghast's made a sound that communicated her disgust quite clearly.

A Seeker that disapproves of collaring and imprisoning mages?  That disapproves of Madame de Fer's methods?

Perhaps he'd been too quick to think of her as no better than a templar thug. 

"Well, I suppose it is up to the Inquisitor to decide." Seeker Pentaghast allowed. 

Gabriel bowed, trying to acknowledge her rarefied place at the Inquisitor's side.

"I will endeavor to be worthy, my lady. Thank you." 

"Come on," Shandi said, coming over to pat him on the chest. "Got to go by my room first. And you should go put on your best armor. Need to look the part!" 

They went their separate ways, and when they met again in the courtyard Shandi had strapped on her full battle kit. Golden dragon bone arched across her front, fearsome against the mithril plate and thick tanned leather that made up the rest of her outfit. She looked resplendent, horn caps shining as they picked up the light from her chestpiece. She carried herself with the utmost confidence and the armor impeded her not at all; he could see elaborate enchantments carved in to the metal. 

"My lady," he said as he drew close, "where did you acquire such a fine set of armor?"

"Lots of scrimping and saving. Used to be a merc," she told him, the smell of dragon hanging around her. Perhaps whenever she girded herself for battle, the bloodrage couldn't help but lift its head and test the air. "Before I came to Skyhold. Paid well, too. Lots of people want to hire a horn-head just for how we look. We scare people." 

"If you don't mind me saying so, I...don't find you intimidating." He coughed, blushing, suddenly unsure how he should hold himself or what he ought to do with his hands. "I...not that you aren't a fearsome warrior. I...oh dear." 

She smiled at him indulgently. He could sense something different in her demeanor but he couldn't place what it might be, only that--thankfully--it wasn't offense. 

"Well thank you, m'lord Gabriel. Nice coat, by the way."

"I feel like a pompous ass, truth be told, but it is the nicest thing I own as of coming here." The soft nugskin garment that Lily had given him for that last Satinalia together, before their parents had shipped her off to be married to some doddering fool for the sake of political power, had the air of the nobility about it. Surely nothing so fine would be found on a soldier's back, or a merc's, and he wondered whether the Inquisitor would take it amiss, think it an attempt at reinforcing Gabriel's authority. "Do you think the shirt is too much?"

Crafted from silk the color of the Waking Sea at early morning, it had cost an embarrassing amount of coin. He wondered now how many provisions that money could have been traded for, how much good it would have done the refugees even now huddling around campfires down at the Crossroads. 

"Nope." Shandi told him, shrugging. "You look great. Don't worry so much." 

He smoothed his clothing with trembling hands, and fell in behind her to head for Lady Montilyet's office. 


Lady Montilyet radiated sweetness and light, and when Shandi announced herself and referenced Seeker Pentaghast's sponsorship, the ambassador found it in her heart to let both of them request an audience with the Inquisitor instead of admitting Shandi only. The Inquisitor chose to meet them on the battlements and as he and Shandi climbed the steps, Gabriel felt very aware of the blade on his back. Would the Inquisitor approve? Would it matter to him that a Keeper had helped forge it? 

As they crested the stairway, he could see the Inquisitor clearly outlined against the grey sky. The elf stood with his hands clasped behind his back, hands as dark as a hunk of rich amber. He wore a coat more lovely than even Gabriel's own, buttery, chocolate-brown leather and deep teal velvet, cinched at the waist with a wrap of that same fine cloth. A dagger's handle could be seen there, sheathed against the small of the Inquisitor's back. 

Which means he has at least one other secreted on his person, Gabriel thought. The Inquisitor turned towards them, his face lovely but inscrutable, the way a falcon's countenance was inscrutable. Indeed, his strong, sharp nose only added to the comparison. His large amethyst eyes were narrowed much as Seeker Pentaghast's had been; the Inquisitor certainly didn't trust easily, or so that look said, and Gabriel knew he would have to fight to prove his worth to this man. Longish black hair obscured the base of his ears, hair darker than even Gabriel's own, but one couldn't mistake the pointed tips that rose up beyond. A scar had cut deeply in to his cheek and across his brow, though much like the Commander's scar it detracted not a whit from the man's appearance. 

Imagine the battles the Inquisitor has participated in, Gabriel thought, feeling rather silly at the fawning quality inherent in his own inner voice. Battles that shake the world, indeed. 

"You come to me with an Elvhen blade on your back, shemlen?"

The Inquisitor knew his weapons; all he'd needed was a glimpse of the hilt to correctly place the weapon's origins. He spoke with an accent Gabriel thought of as cultured, and instantly he felt shame for being surprised by it. 

"I do, hahren." The Inquisitor fixed him with a dark look. Gabriel pressed ahead, knowing that showing how flustered he was wouldn't do anything to impress a man such as this. "The Keeper of Clan Shallan bid me craft it."

"A Keeper helped you make one of our blades?"

The Inquisitor all but growled; this was a Dalish devoted to his culture. The golden tree of Mythal that arched over his lovingly sculpted brows, down his strong nose and across his high cheekbones said as much. Mythal the protector, Mythal the greatest of her kind. 

"She did, my lord. I promise you, I claim no special access to Dalish culture or Dalish artifacts. Her and her clan winter on my family's lands, and she was kind enough to take a curious child under her wing."

"We do not have artifacts, shemlen. We are a living people." 

Shandi hung back, frowning at the sudden hostility. Still, Gabriel felt gratitude that she had decided not to interfere; this was for him to resolve, if it could be resolved. It was not the Qunari who had ordered an Exalted March on the Dales, not the Qunari who even now strode the halls of Halimshiral with blood on their embroidered, bejeweled slippers. 

"I apologize, my lord." He said, bowing a little so the Inquisitor could see him in relative subservience. Creators, but the man's presence could be felt like a lowering storm, ready at any moment to spit forth lightning. The Mark crackled in response to the Inquisitor's emotions, and the sheer force within it prickled at Gabriel's nerve endings. "Of course."

"Why have you come to me?" The Inquisitor asked. This man had no time for nonsense or faffing about, and afforded little energy to pleasantries. His attitude made Gabriel cringe, though he tried not to show it. Would the Inquisitor go so far as to strike him? If it hadn't been for Spence and Landan perhaps he would find hostility coming from such a beautiful face incongruous, but he knew too well that even the most angelic countenance could hide a serpent's fangs.

"M'lord," Shandi interjected, "we want the opportunity to adventure with you." Gabriel sighed inwardly, relieved that she'd taken the thread of the conversation from him at the most useful time. 

The Inquisitor raised his eyebrows, brows that added to his heart-stopping loveliness, though that loveliness spoke more of a finely crafted knife than it did to gossamer and violets. Gabriel could well imagine those eyes in tender moments even so, soulful and depthless, fingers deft and clever...he stopped that line of thought before it could grow legs. 

"You realize I have many capable companions already, and I know nothing about either of you." 

Gabriel felt that same defiance he had earlier in the tavern. He would make something out of his time at Skyhold, his fears notwithstanding. He would not waste this opportunity. 

"My lord, I am a Knight Enchanter, and--"

"You mean you strive to be dirth'ena enasalin." The Inquisitor didn't snap like a bratty child or turn his voice in to a fiery lash. Rather he spoke with such authority and hardness that Gabriel could see how he had managed to create a force as powerful and far reaching as the Inquisition. "The way of the Arcane Warrior is ours, as so many things your people have stolen."

"I apologize for offending. I would never claim to be as proficient as the Dalish, or claim any rights above my station as a human."

That finally made some of the starch come out of the Inquisitor's posture. 

"If you say a Keeper approves of your actions then...perhaps I have been too hasty."

The relative softness made the gold flecks in the depths of his eyes glitter and gleam, and Gabriel swallowed hard. It felt sometimes that everyone at Skyhold could claim a special loveliness not afforded to those outside its walls. 

"I understand your hesitation," Gabriel said, feeling rather like an imposter himself after the Inquisitor had tested him so. He had expected it, but it still left him shaking in its wake. 

"As well you should," The Inquisitor told him. Gabriel wondered what it must be like to be so utterly unafraid of conflict, to have such force of character. "That said, it is true that I seek someone with your particular skills. And you?" He asked, shifting his attention to Shandi.

"I'm a Reaver, my lord," Shandi told him, puffing up with pride. "I know you have the Iron Bull at your beck and call but he can't go on every mission, right? I was a mercenary for a long time. I know my business and I can help you." 

"Hm. I understand Cassandra agrees." When modulated by thoughtfulness, his voice felt as velvety and rare as the clothing the Inquisitor had so carefully chosen to adorn himself with, likely fashioned by the finest Val Royeaux tailors. Who was this man, who at once could be so confronting and in the next breath admit to his own anger, and its tendency to boil over besides? 

"She does." Shandi said, squaring her shoulders. "We've been sparring together for awhile now. She thinks I'm ready." 

The Inquisitor paced in a tight circle for a moment, thinking, the tips of his ears twitching. His vallaslin underscored both rage and warmth as the Inquisitor showed them in turn, the rich color drawing an ale-dark glow from his skin and a hard, cut gemstone quality from his eyes. 

"All right," he said, and Gabriel knew then that the Inquisitor knowing nothing about either of them was a half truth at best. He never would have agreed without full reports from the Spymaster and the Ambassador, Gabriel felt sure of that. "I have heard rumors of red lyrium in the Western Approach. Accompany me there if you have the courage." 

"Thank you, my lord." Gabriel said, trying to communicate deference at every point possible. 

"It is Amjad," the Inquisitor said, "you might as well speak my name if we are to travel together." 

The Inquisitor's tone couldn't be called friendly, but at the least he had settled on neutral now. 

"I appreciate that," Gabriel told him, "when will we depart?"

"A few days time. Fortify yourself and ready your weapons and armor. The Western Approach is difficult country and lousy with Venatori and bandits, to say nothing of the wildlife." 

"Of course," Shandi said. As he and Shandi turned to go back down the stairs, her face split in the widest, brightest grin he'd yet seen from her. "I told you!" She crowed, as soon as they were out of earshot. 

The stress hit him then, the anxiety he'd ignored long enough to get through the meeting with Amjad. Then, the exhilaration swept in like a warm front, tangling up with the nervousness to form a typhoon of feeling. 

"You were right. I feel like I am going to be saying that a lot in the days to come."

Shandi laughed, and her expression of emotion came so effortlessly that it made his spirit soar. 

Fighting at the Inquisitor's side.

He thought again of his sister and their parting words, so harsh.

I will prove it to you, Lily, he promised, I will show you this isn't just a fine place to bury my head in the sand. 

Chapter Text

Gabriel crossed the threshold of the Herald's Rest.The tavern stood packed to the seams, moreso than he'd ever before witnessed. Tension knotted between his shoulders as surely as a buntline hitch, tightening with every step. Making an entrance wasn't his strong suit, even if most of the other patrons ignored him. . 

Outwardly, anyway.

Despite his noble status he'd never taken to the Game or any of its variants practiced in noble courts across Thedas, but he knew enough to realize that boredom and disinterest often served as confounds for darker motives. In moments like this--on high alert in a room full of strangers--he felt preternaturally aware of his every blink and gesture, the position of each finger and the way his hair laid across his brow; knowing he was being watched, no matter the outward behavior of those around him, often caused such a state to befall him. The awareness filled him with an awful doubt that undermined even the short, simple path he had to walk to keep the meeting he'd agreed to, the weight of those gazes he fancied he could feel making his gait clumsy and his mind slow. 

Isn't that ridiculous? You're the one who suggested this place. You've been coming here for a week. What will Shandi think if you can't even make your way through a full bar? 

He found Shandi at their usual table after what seemed like eons and took a seat, relieved to be near a familiar person. She'd set her sword down propped against the bench as if she'd just been out sparring or otherwise practicing, though as usual she hadn't bothered with armor or anything more modest than her green and gold jacket. She pushed a full tankard over to him and Gabriel inhaled the sweet, crisp scent of apples; fine cider from Honnleath. Her demeanor had taken on a new quality, different from the last couple of days when they'd made this meeting in to a little ritual, more wound up than she'd ever been in his presence. She had her arms folded on the tabletop and sat leaned in to them as if trying to keep herself from climbing over the furniture.

"Are you all right?" With Shandi he had the sense that these two aspects of her personality were not affectations or posturing, but rather a tendency that ran as inherent to her being as his own talent for magery. Rather than deciding whether to be sweet and friendly or frightening and imposing she flowed between each as if she could change shape on a whim, as if she were a babbling, sun-dappled river transforming in to a roaring waterfall. 

"Huh? Oh. I want to get out there and fight. When I know there's going to be a battle I get restless if I have to sit around too long. It's the dragon's blood." 

Indeed, she smelled the way she had in the courtyard that first day, like a rutting animal. He flushed, heat suffusing him. He tried to hide it by taking a drink of the cider, but it helped not a whit; its warmth rolled down his throat and in to his gut. At the least, though, it dampened his lingering anxiety. 

"I am sure it will be soon, my lady. Our lord Inquisitor doesn't seem like the type to indulge in unnecessary delays."

She grumbled, but nodded agreement. 

"Hey," she said after a moment of silence, fixing him with the kind of look that made him very aware of her power and greater physical ability. "Want to get out of here?"

"I...what?"

She had a hunger writ large across her face that had nothing to do with food, and he froze seeing such need directed at him. 

"I mean do you want to you know, come back to my room?"

"Are...are you propositioning me, my lady?"

"Sure trying to. What, never blown off steam before a big fight?" 

"I can't say that I've had the opportunity." 

He'd never been with a woman before, not that he was about to tell her so. Only men, and that only fleetingly. Amongst the nobility flings of that nature were tolerated but they could never become anything more. There had been Anders even so, but...he put the thought out of his mind.

"Well if you're not interested..."

"I am," he said, too quickly. Why not her? She had been nothing but kind to him and, now that the subject was out in the open, he had to admit he thought her very striking. 

"Great," she said, standing. She came over, took his hand, and practically hauled him to his feet. He gave an undignified squeak, but he didn't pull away. If anything it added to the thrill, and he gladly let her drag him across the courtyard to her quarters. He'd never had the chance to be truly dominated as he'd often wished for, and he wondered if maybe she would be the one to do it. 

His hand trembled in hers as she opened the door and brought him within. The room had an endearing clutter to it, tea cups on the sideboard, armor pieces stacked in the corner, the camphor and oranges smell of muscle liniment. Her bed stood unmade, quilts in the Fereldan style folded over from when she'd tossed them off that morning. A single mage light flickered over the fireplace. 

"You okay?" She asked him, holding him at arm's length for a moment. 

"I'm just nervous," he said, even then having trouble drawing a full breath. 

"I won't hurt you, if that's what you're worried about."

He wanted to laugh. Not at her, but at the notion that he wouldn't want to be hurt. 

"I know."

"All right well, if I'm going too quick you let me know." 

All he could do was nod, mute. She reached in to undo the buttons on his coat and shirt, and though he felt much diminished in front of her he couldn't mistake the approval in her expression when she first saw his bare torso. His heart leapt in to his throat; he'd never been wanted like that, not since Anders.

She backed him towards the bed, putting her arm around him such that he never worried about tripping over his own feet. She smiled at him and his heart fluttered; this was really happening. He felt intoxicated beyond what the cider could have done, hot and trembling, his heart soaring. She reached down to fondle him before nudging him on to the bed, and all he could do was gasp as he pitched over flat on his back. The dragon scent hung around him in a wreath and its primal nature made him aware of how hard his cock was, how much he wanted this woman where before he'd never had the inclination or the opportunity for such a coupling. 

Shandi stepped out of her breeches and crawled up to straddle his hips, careful not to put too much weight on him as she stripped her jacket and shirt off. He'd never seen a more impressive pair of breasts in his life and he froze, caught between desire and inexperience. 

"Give me your hand," she said, and he obeyed before he'd consciously made the decision to do so. She showed him how to touch her, flattening his palm over the swell of one breast before squeezing his fingers, urging him to grab her a little more ardently. He felt like an idiot, a bumbling virgin who didn't know the most basic of sexual skills, but he felt too wrapped up in her to give in to nerves that might have otherwise ruined the moment. 

"I...I'm sorry," he found himself saying anyway, "I'm not very practiced at this." 

"Never been with a woman?"

"No," he whispered, sure she would kick him out of bed for that. He wanted to crawl beneath the floorboards and hide for the rest of his natural life, and a deep blush made his cheeks hurt. 

"Well shit," she said, letting his hand go and sitting back to look at him, full mouth slightly parted in surprise, a pale worry line etched across her forehead. "I mean, are you sure you want it to be like this? You barely know me." 

The way she was pressed against him, he could feel the warmth between her legs against his tenderest spots and some urge within him as primal as the dragon blood flowing through Shandi's veins made him want to enter her right then and there, inexperience be damned. 

"I want it," he said, averting his gaze. Creators, it was embarrassing to speak to her like that, but at the same time he appreciated her concern. Not everyone would have focused so on his feelings or wants. "I think I could do much, much worse." he turned his attention to her again, those big silver eyes of hers full of worry despite her obvious urge to have him as soon as possible. "My lady," he added, shy but as earnest as he had ever been in his life. 

Thankfully, she took him at his word. Whatever she saw in his expression was good enough for her. She reached between them and guided his cock in to her as if she'd done it a hundred times before. He was grateful for that, that she knew what she was doing and could help him. She felt different from every man he'd ever been with, slick with juices. He could feel every inch of her as she clenched around him, and by her face she already enjoyed the kind of pleasure that preceded orgasm. 

Don't let me spend myself too quickly and ruin this, he prayed, his whole body tense with the effort to keep control. He'd never been with anyone as orgasmic as her, and he wondered if he'd even be able to stand by the time she felt satisfied. She seemed like the sort of woman who could keep this up for a long time and he prayed he might be up to the task, as it were. 

She dipped her head to kiss him and he dared to put his hands on her horns, the smooth texture of the unadorned places giving him yet another new sensation to savor. When he dropped his hands to her hips her body felt so vital, the bloodlust turned to a kind of lust that really wasn't so different, though the outcome...

"You can come," she told him, bracing herself on her hands so she could slowly sink down on him, taking his cock to the hilt. "I'm just going to work you up again anyway."

He'd never heard anything so erotic in his life, and he couldn't possibly hope to hold back after that. He spent himself inside her and the sensation made her draw a sharp breath as she rode him. She trembled on the edge of orgasm, and a moment later it broke over her, making her cry out and pulse around him such that he thought he might go mad from sheer pleasure. 

"You do that so quickly," he found himself saying.

"Mhm," she told him as she moved off of him, leaving him twitching in the aftermath of it all. "My clit's pierced."

"What?"

She giggled, stretching out beside him. She felt no need to hide her nakedness, as so many of the men he'd had sex with did. 

"Women have a little...I don't know what you would call it. Here..." she took his hand again and guided his fingers to the portion of her anatomy she was currently describing. He rolled the pad of his thumb carefully over it, feeling the ring she'd had placed there. She moaned softly, lifting her hips and arching her back. 

"Let me know when you're ready and I'll suck your cock," she told him, as conversationally as if she were asking him what type of fighting stance he preferred. He must have looked as gobsmacked as he felt, because she laughed. "What, if you don't say it plain then no one knows what's going on." 

"I...you have a point," he said, feeling faint. "Are...are you sure?"

"What, am I supposed to be weird about it?"

"No. It's just most men are. Well, in my experience. They don't want to...I don't know. Debase themselves that way." It had almost always been him on his knees instead of the other way around. 

She snorted.

"There's nothing shameful about it. Who cares who does what? I don't get you nobles." 

"Sometimes neither do I, believe me." 

"I mean, how the hell do you even get laid? Do you have to say like, code words? Excuse me, my lord, have you ever had a flowering staff planted in your moist garden? If you're looking for such a thing, I might have one...that kind of stuff?" 

He spluttered, protesting, but ultimately he had to admit that it did at least feel that way at times. She laughed as she had the first day he'd met her, an uncomplicated, unfettered sound that did his soul good to hear. 

"Sorry, m'lord, I'm no lady no matter what you might think."

He turned on his side, towards her, and let his fingertips brush her cheek in a tender gesture.

"You're the right sort of lady for me." 

By Mythal, that was silly. 

But Shandi smiled, the kind of smile she reserved for intimate moments; she hadn't shown her canines the way she had when trying to intimidate the Iron Bull. 

"You're sweet. I like that about you." She said, the soft glow from the mage light drawing a feminine loveliness from features that could already be described so even in the full glare of the harsh winter sun. "So, are you going to let me suck you, or....?"

"Please." 

 ----

 Please.

By the time he woke the next morning he felt he'd said that word a thousand times. Shandi had proved as insatiable as he imagined, leaving him wrung out and spent in a way he'd never felt before. She finally took pity on him in the small hours, leaving him with tears in his eyes; he'd never been made to experience that much pleasure for so long, and his emotions felt raw and open at the end. And that was besides being ravenously hungry and absolutely exhausted, as well. 

She did him the favor of letting him sleep in her bed, instead of showing him the door now that they'd taken their mutual enjoyment. He drifted off curled against the warmth of her, cuddled up to the curve of her belly. She slept like a rock when left undisturbed, though the slightest noise or movement would rouse her long enough to at least assess the possible threat. 

 A runner's approaching footsteps brought her up out of bed, her hand reaching out to grasp the sword leaning against the sideboard. She left it in the scabbard, but Gabriel could see the tension in her hand; any improper behavior on behalf of the person currently coming towards them and said stranger would leave one head lighter. 

"Shandi Adaar, the--" The messenger started in when she opened the door. He looked up at her scowling face, then at the blade, and paled. It wasn't often a naked Quanri holding a hefty two hander responded to his news, apparently. 

"Get on with it," she growled. Not much of a morning person, Gabriel thought.

"Ahem. Our lord Inquisitor would see you and Lord Marlowe at the tavern this morning."

"Ugh. Is he buying breakfast?" She groused, turning from the messenger to toss the sword on the mattress. Gabriel sat up, and only then did he realize how compromising a position they were in. 

"I...couldn't say," the messenger tried. 

"All right, I get the message. We'll be there soon."

Shandi told him, rummaging around as she looked for clothes. The messenger backed away slowly, still looking as if he'd been hit with a board as he faded from sight. 

"Well, let's go see what our fearless leader wants," she said once she'd found something to keep her at least moderately decent.  

"Let's," he said, daring to take her hand once more.

 

 

Chapter Text

 "You sure you want to be seen with me?" Shandi asked, digging her heels in just before the Herald's Rest. The raven perched on the open door cawed at them as if communicating the rules patrons were expected to follow. He didn't think the comment had to do with her skimpy clothing or anything to do with her manner. No, it ran deeper than that. 

"What?" Gabriel asked, incredulous. "My lord Inquisitor has already seen us together."

He looked up at her only to see her mouth drawn in a frown and her head tilted down and away. Over the course of their admittedly short friendship, this was the only time he'd seen her be anything less than bubbly and confident. 

"In front of whoever else we're going to meet, I mean. Bet you he has the rest of his team with him. We're going to have to fight together. Might as well be on a first name basis, right?"

"Of course I don't mind. If anything I worry you wouldn't want to be seen with a human." 

"I'm not under the Qun. I'm lesser in most people's eyes than even an apostate mage, sometimes even to other Qunari. If that big brute thinks I don't see the contempt on his face..."

She muttered the last part as if she had forgotten he could hear her. The rumors said that the Iron Bull still adhered to the tenets of the Qun despite his membership in the Inquisitor's inner circle, and he apparently wasn't shy about showing the general prejudice towards the Vashoth and Tal Vashoth no matter what he claimed to be himself. 

"I'm sorry."

"Hmph. He plays like he's Tal Vashoth, but I don't buy it. Well, if he thinks he's stealing a dragon kill out from under me, he's got another thing coming." 

Thankfully, Shandi let him lead her in to the tavern. He couldn't call himself an accomplished spirit healer compared to some, but what awareness he did possess rippled like a pond with a rock skipped artfully across its surface as soon as they entered. A Fade being dwelt here, somewhere. So subtle was the vibration that he hadn't detected it when the place stood full to bursting, but now in the relative quiet of the early morning he could. His instincts--they couldn't truly be called combat instincts, as untested as he was--shrilled, but he sensed no malice and resolved only to keep his wits about him. 

The Inquisitor sat at the biggest table available, right in the middle of the main space. Drawing attention, and purposefully? An attempt to reassure the soldiers, craftsman, and laborers that took their leisure here? A show of power intended to intimidate followers and spies alike? From what Gabriel had experienced during that first meeting, he guessed the Inquisitor's motives drew a little water from each of those potential wellsprings. 

Next to the Inquisitor sat an unfamiliar Elvhen woman. Her form caused a spindly white birch to flash across Gabriel's mind's eye, or perhaps a spider with long, clever legs. She and the Inquisitor were both thin, and tall for their race, though this woman especially so with her delicate wrists, huge, luminous eyes and ethereal bearing. 

Those eyes were the same color as the Inquisitor's, deep purple with gold flecks. As white as the Inquisitor was dark, she nonetheless had the same delicately chiseled features, the same sharp nose as if drawn forth by the lathe of a master. Where the Inquisitor once again had clothed himself in leather and velvet practically painted on to his whipcord and bone form, she had chosen traditional Elvhen robes in leaf green and magenta, and where the Inquisitor's black hair brushed his collar, she wore her red tresses braided to one side with the other shaved clean. 

His sister? A cousin? She's too young to be his mother.

So taken was he with this new face that he started when Shandi grabbed his arm. 

"The magister," she hissed, and he turned his attention to the man in question. His heart thudded in his chest at first glimpse; by the Creators, another gorgeous man. Broad and muscular, he wore the asymmetrical shirt collars and bold draping that Gabriel associated with Minrathous fashions, a snake motif picked out in black curling around his flawless body, buckles and gold fasteners as much an adornment as functional. When the magister noticed the two of them lingering at the tavern door, he turned huge, owl-grey eyes on them. Gabriel held tight to Shandi's hand then, breathless. While he'd never held with his father's tendency to idolize Tevinter and its Magisterium, seeing this magister made him admit--albeit grudgingly--that perhaps Father had a point. 

"Well, come over," the Inquisitor said, rising to his feet. "Surely we aren't so intimidating that you can't share bread and ale with us."

Still cool, the Inquisitor at least didn't evidence the overt hostility he had on the battlements.  It took Gabriel a couple of steps to realize how strange it was to see an Elf like the Inquisitor share his breakfast with anyone from Tevinter, let alone a magister, of all things. He expected barely restrained hatred between them, or simmering tension, but as he came in to their orbit he sensed neither. 

"I am Aislinn," the woman said, rising to clasp his free hand in both of hers. "of Clan Brangwen."

"My sister," the Inquisitor said as they all readjusted to let him and Shandi sit. "My mirror."

"Sweet of you to say, my shadow," Aislinn told him, sparing a fond look for him.

"And I am Dorian Pavus," the man said as if at any moment he would break out in to a dramatic sweeping gesture to underscore how taken he was with his own exceptionalism. "An altus from Tevinter. Don't worry, I won't be requiring a blood sacrifice today. Though, it does add a certain tang to the house red."

The Inquisitor sighed a long suffering sigh. "Ignore him. I always do." 

"Dorian," Aislinn scolded, though Gabriel could tell that her annoyance had no real side to it. Shandi, for her part, flagged down the serving wench and ordered a Qunari Reaver sized meal that made the table groan when it arrived. She went to work on a whole loaf of bread as Gabriel tried to make sense of all the relationships currently in play, the steam from within enveloping him in a puff of sweet wholesomeness. 

"Well," Dorian said, with an easy attitude to him that said he wasn't in the least bit sorry, "after awhile one must joke about it. It wouldn't do to waste all my precious time on anger. Plus, it would get me nowhere. I have my incredible and endless charm instead."

"And Southern heads are as dense as ironbark," Aislinn added, as if quoting. 

"My dear, we spend far too much time together," Dorian told her, affection rounding out his brash tone. 

Lovers, maybe? The Inquisitor's sister with an altus? 

Gabriel couldn't help but try and discern who held what power; the pressures of nobility had changed him whether he wanted them to or not. 

"Gabriel, Shandi," the Inquisitor started, "I thought it wise to introduce you to at least Dorian and Aislinn before we go to the Western Approach. You may not be aware, but an adventuring group can become quite close and familiar, if only because we are all enchanted and otherwise bespelled in a way that compliments one another."

"So I don't singe your perfect hair with an errant fireball, you mean," Dorian said, cheerful.

"If anyone is concerned about the state of their hair, it is you, you insufferable peacock."

Gabriel thought Amjad had the right of it, with how well cared for Dorian's mustache was. 

"The great altus admits to conjuring less than perfect fireballs?" Aislinn said, leaning forward to grin at him. "I never thought I would hear such a thing."

"Oh no, my dear. You see, it keeps my enemies off balance. When they underestimate me, that is for the best." Dorian told her, leaning back in his chair and smirking as if he'd just revealed a great and powerful secret. Gabriel tried to keep a neutral countenance, though he badly wanted to roll his eyes. 

"Ahem," he tried, as Shandi started in on a bowl of stew bigger than his head, "enchantments should be no problem. My blade and my robes are already bespelled. If...if you like, I could perhaps add some of them to your arms and armor as well, if that would help with magical synergy." 

Dorian lit up as if he'd promised Dorian a storehouse of gold and jewels, and for the next while their discussion on magery drove the conversation. Aislinn proved to be as competent as the both of them, interjecting with a number of astute observations. Slowly, Gabriel got the impression that she had yet held something back regarding her skills. The whisps that often cavorted about him whispered in dark, low tones, but would not reveal anything concrete, and he wasn't about to push a woman he'd just met.

"My lords, my lady Aislinn," he said when he'd divined a lull that seemed appropriate, "can you tell me anything about the spirit that dwells here?"

Shandi perked up at that, curious. She had all the magical talent of a brick, but Gabriel appreciated that her mind remained quite sharp and quick even about subjects that didn't directly pertain to her. 

"Ah," the Inquisitor said, "that would be Cole. He came to aid us in Haven, when Corypheus attacked."

"He was once a Compassion spirit," Aislinn added, taking a swig of her beer, "and now, he's...perhaps it would be best to say that he has a foot in each world, the Fade, and that of the mundane." 

"He's come through in to this world? Did he possess someone?" He knew that the Inquisition could boast all types of members, some more questionable than the last, but this he would have never imagined. 

"No. He is unique," Aislinn said, "you will understand when you meet him."

"He will surely put in an appearance when he feels compelled to," the Inquisitor said, nodding at the servants coming over to clear all the empty dishes and refill empty tankards. "Gabriel, I would see your blade."

Gabriel found himself blushing; from another noble that could be construed as a proposition. He doubted a Dalish would have the same intent in mind, though, and he took the sword from his back, unsheathed it, and laid it on the table. The Elvhen script down the blade glimmered at his touch. Aislinn and the Inquisitor looked at one another in a way that showed they were communicating quite a bit without even having to speak. 

"That is the blade of the Arcane Warrior," Aislinn said, "crafted with a Keeper's touch. You must be a unique man, to have been gifted such a thing."

"We shall see," Amjad interjected, that suspicion back, his eyes serpent-bright and as menacing. 

Gabriel felt the sudden and insistent urge to extricate himself from the situation, jangling nerves making sweat bead on his brow. 

"My lord, if it pleases you I will ready myself for travel," he said, rising to his feet. He hoped the Inquisitor couldn't see through him, but one look at the man's expression told him otherwise. Plainly confused, Shandi stood as well, a fact he could have kissed her for. 

"Yes, there is no sense in delaying further," the Inquisitor told him, though he and his companions stayed seated for the moment. "I will meet you at the stables in a half a candlemark." 

Once outside Gabriel took several full lungfuls of crisp, cold air. Shandi put her hand on his shoulder, and he shook his head; he couldn't look at her yet. 

"Come on," she said, "let's go get outfitted. You'll feel better when you have something to do." 

He had to concede her point, and once he'd gone back to his room for his gear the sense of purpose did blunt his panic some. Ser Pounce came out from under the bed, mewling and waving his fluffy tail. 

"Hello, Ser Pounce," he had to smile at that, anyway. He changed in to his finest mage robes, a light, white affair with silver embroidery and blue lining. A belt crafted from august ram's leather went on next, slung low on his hips, potions, a grimoire, and a knife appropriate for use in the wilderness supported by it. "I expect you to guard the place while I'm gone."

"Mrr," the cat told him as if complaining about his assigned duties, leaping up on to the bed and immediately shedding an impressive amount of buff colored fur all over the dark blue coverlet. 

"You've scored a hit on a Darkspawn but you can't guard one room in the safest place in Thedas? What kind of cat are you?" 

He could have sworn Pounce smirked at him. 

At least I got something good from Anders. 

He put the bitterness out of his mind as he turned to leave, adding a cloak the same color as the bedspread to his outfit. The enchantments would keep him appropriately cool in the desert, and clean besides. What harm was there in adding a bit of flair to his attire? Should he do any less he would be woefully underdressed relative to the rest of them. 

When he reached the stables he saw Shandi waiting there, once more encased in her dragon-bone armor, her broadsword on her back, a long knife at her hip, and vitaar once more painted under her eyes and across her cheeks. She'd darkened her lips nigh-black with the stuff, and the gold and black pattern on her face drew a fierce cast from her features, even features as feminine and delicate as hers. He approached, but before he could say anything a creature that shouldn't exist poked its head out of the nearest stall.

The thing--he hesitated to call it a halla--tossed its head and pawed at the ground, its broken horn and rent hide underscoring the fact that it was very, very dead, despite whatever questionable magic could be blamed for animating it. 

"What is that?" 

He sputtered. Shandi threw her head back and laughed, though the voice that answered didn't belong to her:

"That," the Inquisitor said as he walked up, Dorian and Aislinn in tow, "is Orala. She fell in battle and a friend of mine was kind enough to resurrect her for me." 

Gabriel tried to compose himself; it wouldn't do to disapprove of a gift the Inquisitor cherished so. 

"I see," Gabriel tried, straightening his clothes as if doing so could also straighten out his mind, "I mean no disrespect, Inquisitor." 

"Amjad," the Inquisitor corrected him, though the man portrayed such aloofness that switching over to his given name seemed an insurmountable challenge. 

"Amjad," he tried, for the sake of respecting the Inq--Amjad's --wishes. And those wishes were generous, a fact that Gabriel wouldn't let himself forget. "My lord," he continued as Amjad opened the stable and lead Orala out by her hackamore, "perhaps you will allow me to guard you when we are out in the field."

Amjad turned that suspicious gaze on him again.

Wondering if I'm a spy?

"Oh?" Amjad said, his voice neutral but nonetheless full of potential, for anger, for judgement, for rejection. 

"Of course Dorian and Aislinn are some of the most capable people in all of Thedas," he said in a rush, even as the people in question were leading their mounts from the stables and girding themselves for battle, "but surely you could use someone whose job it is to specifically guard you." 

"They are also two of the most protective people in all of Thedas," Amjad said, faint affection bringing life to his generous mouth and the tips of his ears. "But perhaps it would be wise to test you in such a fashion. Just know that if your motives are any less than pure, they will strike you down without hesitation." 

Gabriel bowed in acknowledgment. "Of course. I would expect no less."

Only then did he take in Amjad's armaments and the potions hanging from his belt. The usual healing potions were in evidence, but the rest of his flasks were full of iridescent liquids that swirled, thick, in their containers. The crystal vials had the soap-bubble quality that Gabriel often associated with enchantment. 

A Tempest! 

Dorian and Aislinn, their mounts readied, came over to lay further enchantments on them all, a process that made Shandi grumble and shift from foot to foot. As if reading his thoughts Amjad said, 

"These enchantments will help keep us all safe from friendly fire, but there are few spells that will protect you from a Tempest's flasks. Be on your guard and ready for chaos. I am no patient assassin or careful bow master." 

"I understand, my lo--Amjad." Gabriel said as Aislinn brought a horse over to him. A beautiful roan mare with a curly forelock and the shape of a star picked out in white hairs down her delicate face, he fell in love with her immediately, and she stood like a rock as he mounted. 

Once Amjad found his saddle, the others fell in behind him and that...thing. At least Aislinn and Dorian had chosen plain horses. The finest in all of Thedas, perhaps, but warm. Living. 

For the first time, as he watched Amjad pet Orala's neck lovingly, he realized that he may have gotten himself in deeper than he had first imagined. 

Chapter Text

Dorian waited until night had fallen over the camp to approach Amjad’s tent. The trek to the desert and finding a suitable place to camp had taken most of the light already, and Gabriel and Shandi had already retreated to their tents. Aislinn still sat by the banked fire, but her regard, he didn't fret over. Still, he paused every couple of steps, listening for the snores and groans of the others as they turned over in their sleep. Gabriel especially, he didn’t want to confront. Not when his goal was to spend quality time with the Inquisitor. He could only imagine how insufferable another noble would be, Southern or not, if Gabriel knew what was going on between him and the leader of the free world.

He found the tent opening, with no ties to bind it down. He released a held breath; he was never quite sure if Amjad would welcome him or not. He shrugged out of his coat and crawled inside, pulling the garment in after him; it wouldn’t do to leave it draped outside like a flag.

The gloom was such that he couldn’t see much of anything, but he could feel Amjad’s presence; the elf had a spark of magical talent, never fully realized, and his essence glimmered in Dorian’s mage-sight. The warm air inside was redolent of leather and herbs, a combination that aroused his senses in a way he found entirely primal. Maybe, he had to admit, it played in to what he expected elves to be like, wild and base.

He found Amjad in the darkness, lying on top of the bedroll still in his shirt and breeches. He was awake, but Dorian expected that; Amjad had spent so many hard scrabble years being his clan’s First (though Dorian had the impression that First often truly meant spy and assassin, in this case) that he could barely sleep through his halla snuffling at the ground outside. Dorian felt a selfish little burst of relief; every time Amjad dreamnt, that little spark of magery brought spirits and demons like a flock of starving jays, cawing and clawing. Sometimes it was all Dorian could do to brush them off before they found purchase, cracking through the oh so delicate shell around Amjad’s soul. Who had placed it there, Dorian would dearly love to know.

“Dorian.” His lover’s whisper came just as they pressed their bodies together, Amjad’s thin arms winding around his neck.

“Well, you left your door open like a savage.” It was a measure of their relationship that Amjad only laughed; he’d gotten offended for less before, and certainly everything a Tevinter noble had to say was fraught with danger when it was said to a proud Dalish elf.

“Aren’t you a savage for taking advantage of it?”

Amjad teased, shifting under him so that they were touching at every point possible. The little elf was well endowed and he could feel the truth of that quite easily, completely hard and pressed against him. Dorian had certainly been the object of desire before, but that desire had always seemed to burn hot and fast, intense for a few moments but ultimately short lived. Amjad wanted him every time they had a few moments to themselves, and they’d been around each other enough that surely contempt would have settled in by now if it was going to. Or so he told himself when he needed reassurance, which was also quite frequent.

Normally he would have been a bit more suave about it all, at least hard to get, but he didn’t have time for such games this time. He fumbled, not sure whether to go for his own clothes or what little Amjad had on first, until Amjad batted his hands away and found his belt buckle. Amjad’s hands in contrast were as deft as always and all the fastenings were undone before Dorian could blink. The rest of his outfit soon followed.

“Where…?”

Amjad seemed to grasp his meaning, though Amjad drew him down for a kiss before answering.

“In my belt pouch, over to the left. Don’t pick the wrong flask or you’ll burn your hands off.”

Dorian wished, not for the first time, that Amjad had picked something more…sedate than learning to be a Tempest. The deep scent of a cedar fire coiled up from the pile of clothes Amjad had indicated as he rifled through, the jacket still stiff with a thick coating of some potion or another. The remnants were now inert, thank the Maker. He was a very good mage but he’d lost control before, and he hated to think what a single errant flame could do if those concoctions were still live.

The soft perfume of blood lotus pulsed underneath the stronger scents, a gentle heartbeat that warmed the back of his throat and brought a pleasant blur to his vision. The jar of oil felt warm in his hand too, the glass reinforced with magic. It had the same amethyst light Amjad’s eyes did, a certain otherworldly sheen. He went back over to the bedroll, setting the jar to the side. He was past his initial nervousness, enough to crawl back up to straddle the little elf’s hips. Amjad grinned at him in the darkness, white teeth in a dark face, his golden vallaslin drawing the same color from the depths of the elf’s eyes. Normally Dorian would have been the first one to take charge, get things over with because he needed the release and he couldn’t stand locking his heart away for longer than was necessary; best to satisfy the physical and make a quick retreat before he could get too attached to whoever had deigned to couple with him. But he often felt silly and ineffective when Amjad was involved, though the mockery he expected never came. This time was no different, where he couldn’t quite decide what to do next, mesmerized by Amjad’s gaze. He’d been so terribly sure of himself that first time and then feelings had crept in, leaving him a bumbling idiot.

“You’re sweet.” Amjad’s voice always had a smooth, intoxicating quality, like a glass of good brandy. Embarrassment made Dorian’s cheeks flush hot.

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”

“It is.”

Amjad levered himself up on his elbows, reaching over for the jar of oil and unscrewing it with a confidence Dorian wished he felt. Amjad’s firm hand on him came as a shock though he could hardly startle; he was too frozen with sudden sensation for that. He looked down to see where hand met cock and saw Amjad working a thick coating of lube over his own with his free hand. He usually expected Dorian to be the one to take it, not that Dorian minded. He loved it, really, but he still couldn’t imagine putting forth his darkest desires. Their connection already felt so fragile, like if Dorian breathed wrong it would float away on the wind like autumn leaves.

“Come here and take me, emma lath.”

Of course he obeyed, craved such commands, shifting his weight on his knees so he could sit back on Amjad’s cock. He didn’t need much preparation to do it; he knew his body, knew how to relax and breathe so he could take it without hurting either of them. Amjad gasped and lifted his hips, the thick head of his cock pressing deep.

“Is it true?”

Dorian was too lost in what was happening to understand the words right away, trembling.

“Hm? You’re not going to ask me philosophical questions now are you? Whether or not the Maker is real? Whether the Black City was already black when Corypheus entered? Because I’m not sure I’m properly armed for a battle of wits at a moment like this.”

Amjad sighed a long suffering sigh.

“What Cole said.”

Amjad started to thrust and Dorian moved with him. Now that things were happening, he felt more confident and had less energy to spend on worrying about whether the others could hear. He took his time, savoring every moment, every inch of Amjad’s cock. It wasn’t often he got the chance to spend time on a lover like this. The last he’d had was back in Tevinter, in Alexius’ library, the only place besides the Pavus grounds he'd been allowed to go after that fiasco with his previous partner. Hiding back in the stacks with another young mage like common servants, their hands all over each other, mouths meeting with the kind of hunger only living out a lie could inspire.

“Hm? What did he say?”

“Oh, you know.” Amjad said, breathless himself. “Wondering and worrying, wild and wanting.” Amjad propped himself up on his elbows again so Dorian couldn’t avoid his gaze, serpent-bright in the darkness. “The Iron Bull would do it, he knew that, but that was a fruit he was no longer allowed to crave.”

Dorian went very still. When had this happened? Amjad continued, as merciless in this as he was in most things.

“Submission and sensation,” Amjad continued in a purr, his hands going to Dorian’s hips, urging Dorian back down on to him. Dorian was too shocked to resist, even if he had wanted to. “Silk cords and silky underthings…”

“I’ll…thank you to stop that.” He found his voice though unfortunately it came out more like an undignified squeak than a forceful command.

“Don’t you think it’s Cole that deserves your ire?”

Amjad wrapped his hand tight around Dorian’s cock, which had the unfortunate side effect of wiping all thoughts clean from Dorian’s head.

“Damnable demon,” Dorian growled, the little jolt of pleasure at least allowing him to focus on something other than his complete mortification.

“What’s wrong with it, emma lath?” Amjad could be absolutely ruthless and most of the time he was confident to the point of arrogance, but Dorian knew he was the one who got the biggest share of what tenderness and love Amjad had to give. It was evident now, his face transformed by affection. “I can give you all that.”

Part of him wanted to get up and walk out, leave Amjad there unsatisfied and unanswered. Instead he sat back, taking Amjad’s cock all the way to the base. His toes curled and he pressed in to Amjad’s grip, his own cock aching in Amjad’s sure fingers. Maybe it was the sex distracting him, but the idea was starting to lose its attendant embarrassment. He still had to fight to say the words, though, and when he did they came in a hushed whisper.

“You would do that?”

He was aware of how the subject had stripped him of his usual humor and brashness, knew how vulnerable he was, in a way that had nothing to do with being nude. Amjad reached up to touch his hair, the kind of touch meant to soothe and comfort. It affected him even though he wished it wouldn’t; it would be easier if he could just hold on to that exasperation instead.

“Of course I would.” Amjad smiled then, though Dorian had to admit that despite his fears to the contrary there was no mockery there. “Is that why you were looking at Bull like he was a full meal at the end of a forced march?” It was no secret that the Iron Bull had a penchant for the forbidden.

“I…I never…” Dorian spluttered, wondering if he was that terrible at hiding his motivations. No wonder he’d never fit in back home. He couldn’t play the Game with a set of one word instructions written in crayon.

“You did.” Amjad said, reaching up to wind his arms around Dorian’s neck. He stayed buried deep, until Dorian relaxed enough to take him without anxiety or discomfort. Dorian sighed, some tension draining away, finally. “Not that I blame you. All that…” Amjad trailed off as if he couldn’t decide which part of Bull to compliment first. Dorian tightened up on Amjad’s cock, taking a little control away when Amjad shivered and arched under him. Amjad had a way of undoing him, stripping him bare, but occasionally he won some pride back for himself.

“Yes, well. Hm.”

“So tell me what you want.” Amjad whispered. “Little silk ribbons? Sea farer’s twine?” He was back to stroking Dorian as he talked, the sex taking on a more primal, desperate quality as Dorian rolled his hips and gripped hard. Damn the cruel little elf, knowing how to embarrass and arouse at the same time. Amjad laughed, breathless. “The cart whip?”

Dorian felt like he ought to be the one who wanted to control things, shamed that even in this he couldn’t take the lead. But the conversation made his heart hammer in a way nothing else could, and he chased that bright flicker of desire, unwilling to let it sputter and go out. As long as they were already talking about it, well, why not continue?

“You’d see me done up like some fancy pony, I suppose.”

Dorian reached for his usual flippancy but he knew Amjad wasn’t buying it this time.

“Well, I…” Amjad’s breath caught and Dorian knew he wouldn’t last much longer. In a way he was pitifully glad for that impending release, because it meant Amjad might forget this conversation, or so Dorian hoped.

“Oh yes,” he breathed, watching Amjad’s face, to the point where he almost didn’t notice his own rising desire. Amjad was too fearless to look away, even at such a vulnerable moment, and Dorian saw his expression change from amusement to helpless pleasure in an instant. He could feel Amjad come inside him, and Amjad’s hand tightened on his cock to the point where he had no choice but to come himself. Amjad moaned and arched as the orgasm washed through him, lost in it in a way Dorian envied. He still felt lingering dismay, even shame, once the pleasure of orgasm had passed. Amjad had no such limitations.

Amjad made a dismayed noise when Dorian got off of him, always reluctant to part after sex. He sat up and found a rag that he normally used to polish his flasks, cleaning come from his chest and belly as matter of factly as someone completing a totally mundane task. Andraste’s pyre, Dorian envied that. His mixed feelings must have shown in his body language, because Amjad focused that strange gaze on him again. He set the rag aside, then reached for Dorian’s hand.

“Come here.” There was a softness to Amjad’s words that Dorian was sure only he and Aislinn had ever heard. It gentled him, enough that he settled on the bedroll next to Amjad, let Amjad cuddle and soothe him. “I love you. That was good.”

The simple reassurance did wonders, and Dorian finally unwound enough to lie down, drowsiness dragging at his limbs and eyelids. “And I’ll treat you like a pampered slave, if that’s what you want.” Amjad told him, a wicked tone to his whisper. Dorian’s heart fluttered, something between panic and need. “Yes.” He managed to say, before sleep took him.

Chapter Text

Gabriel hadn't slept well, too tormented by visions of all the mistakes he could yet make in the Inquisitor's presence. And Shandi's, for that matter, though whatever tendency for judgement she may have had lay dormant still. When he finally admitted he wouldn't be getting any more rest he wriggled in to his breeches and stumbled from the tent naked from the waist up, blinking against the morning light. With the enchantments binding their group together they needn't wait till nightfall to travel, as mundanes would have had to do. Their magics would keep them cool, and at least somewhat clean besides. 

Amjad stood by his tent, a brioche roll in one hand and a mug of tea in the other. He hadn't bothered with a shirt either, and Gabriel saw that the scars on his face weren't his only ones. Other than those old wounds, however, his skin was without blemish, his body hairless and adorned with the curling ends of his vallaslin. Gabriel realized he'd likely gazed on the Inquisitor for too long to be considered seemly, and he hurriedly looked up only to find Amjad outright appreciating him, in return. When their eyes met the elf smirked, not in the least bit ashamed. 

Before he could open his mouth and say something awkward Shandi crawled out of her tent, muttering. Bleary-eyed, she stomped over to the campfire and peered in to the pot suspended above it, apparently mollified by its contents. Aislinn ladled out one bowl of porridge for Shandi and one for herself, and the two women sat together in silence as they ate. 

"Where is Lord Pavus?" Gabriel asked. Amjad shrugged.

"Lounging around on his silken bedroll eating chilled grapes, no doubt. Once the peacock decides each one of his feathers is perfectly groomed, we'll head for the closest camp and get an idea of where to go next." Such words could have easily sounded contemptuous from a man such as Amjad but instead they sounded...familiar, at the very least. Gabriel hesitated to think of it as affectionate; he just couldn't wrap his mind around Amjad and Dorian being friends. "Go and have something to eat, why don't you?" 

Gabriel nodded, still blushing. He took a seat next to Shandi, his back to the tents, and at some point in the course of breakfast Dorian appeared. As predicted he looked immaculate, hair artfully mussed, mustache waxed and shaped with a precise and careful hand. Once they'd all mounted once more and were headed out in to the desert proper, Aislinn brought her mount beside Dorian's, the two pale horses looking quite fetching side by side. 

"Hello Aislinn. Staying close so you can see a master necromancer at work? You might learn a thing or two."

Shandi, astride her massive warhorse, shot a look of pure annoyance at Dorian's back. Perhaps she had taken Dorian's bluster for the whole of his personality; Gabriel thought it--in part, at least--an affectation. 

"I thought you might need a minder," Aislinn told him, her voice light and easy, "you know, to keep you from getting distracted by any shiny objects you can see your reflection in." 

Gabriel couldn't resist: "I'm sure I could learn something from you, Lord Pavus," he said, all but fluttering his eyelashes. 

"Ah," Dorian said, turning to look over his shoulder. Gabriel moved his little mare up to the other side of Dorian's silver gelding. "You wish to avail yourself of all this Tevinter majesty? I can't say I blame you." Gabriel could tell by the subtle aspects of Dorian's expression that Dorian was too savvy to fully accept his fawning facade, but he seemed wiling to play along to a certain degree. "You see, your Worship?" Dorian continued, speaking pointedly to Amjad's back, "some people here know how to show the proper respect!"

"I suppose you'd have me in chains if you had your way, hm?" Amjad said, not even bothering to glance back at them. "Yes master this, no master that?"

Gabriel tensed up and his horse sensed it, sidling somewhat in response. Dorian grinned unrepentantly at Amjad's back, and Gabriel could only sit stunned by such brazen familiarity. 

"Are they always like this, your Worship?" He found himself asking. 

"I am afraid so," Amjad told him as he lead the group down the winding cliffside between them and the Inquisition's forward camp. "You learn to roundly ignore them both."

Gabriel relaxed; by Amjad's tone he hadn't taken Dorian's jab to heart. Gabriel fell back and reached for Shandi's hand. She sat stiffly, her gaze fixed at some point ahead, her brow creased with determination. He marveled at the fact that he'd had an easier time of settling in with these people than she, but then again he wasn't a Qunari. He could only imagine what it must be like to bear the weight of all those stereotypes, though he could empathize to a certain degree. 

A Dwarven woman came out to meet them once they found the camp, a sturdy girl with braids piled neatly on her head, her pale skin dusted with freckles. She wore Inquisition scout's armor, and a raven perched on her shoulder, a messenger's tube attached to one leg. 

"Scout Harding," Amjad greeted her, dismounting and letting the soldiers take Orala over to the hitching post. 

"Your worship," she said, as the rest of them followed suit and handed their mounts off, "bad news."

"Is there any other kind?" 

"Well...it could be raining." Amjad just sighed. She continued, "there was a settlement in an arroyo southwest of here--"

"Was?" 

"My scouts can't get close enough to confirm the cause, because red lyrium dust is suddenly so thick in the air they can't protect themselves through normal means. It would take a skilled mage or some really rare potions and enchantments to bypass the danger. Hence...why you're here." 

"Red lyrium?" Gabriel said, baffled; he'd heard of it, of course, but he never would have imagined it all the way out in the desert. Dorian paled and Aislinn frowned; for a mage the thought of such a thing held a special terror. "How could it spread so quickly? It can't have appeared all across Thedas at once."

Creators, I hope not. 

"He seems to have an endless supply of corrupted templars," Amjad muttered, "I wish I knew where they were coming from. There were the forces at Therinfal Redoubt, but even then..."

"They press the common folk in to doing their dirty work, too, and often enslave the most vulnerable," Dorian said, a tight quality to the words; thinking of his countrymen and their propensity towards oppressing others, perhaps? "Alexius did manage to make time magic function for a time, as well; they could come from anywhere or any when, in theory." 

Time magic? 

Every moment spent with this group involved a new revelation, the kind that made Gabriel reassess everything he thought he knew about the world. 

"We've lost too many to their raids," Harding said, pressing her lips in to a thin line. "We try to counter them, but we don't have enough agents for standing about in farmer's fields in case there's an attack." 

Amjad made a cutting gesture with his hand and said, "enough of this. We will see what we can do in the here and now."

He spent a couple more minutes conferring with Harding, then turned to them once more.

"We leave the horses here from now on. We're going in to territory that I won't risk them in."

"Well, let's get out there," Shandi agreed, rolling her shoulders and cracking her neck, "if anything needs killing, I think we've got that part covered." 

Amjad spared a faint smile for her, then turned to lead them towards the village in question. As they ranged across the dunes it became clear that Amjad had a well developed sense of direction, though Gabriel wasn't surprised; it was simply one of the many skills a Dalish had to cultivate to survive. 

Gabriel's mind kept worrying at the problem of red lyrium and how it had spread so far so fast, which thankfully saved him from obsessing about any number of other trivial details and concerns. The dry air chapped his lips and whipped at his cheeks, taking the moisture from his tear ducts and nostrils, but even those annoyances couldn't distract him from such a bothersome problem.

"I would like to study this red lyrium, Amjad," he mused, coming up beside the Inquisitor as would be necessary if he were to be an effective bodyguard, "is there someone at Skyhold who keeps records on such things?"

"Dagna, our Arcanist," Amjad confirmed, "she is the only one who can safely handle it. I am no expert myself, but I could tell you what I know." 

"I would like that. Maybe I could come up with some sort of countermeasure."

"Red lyrium is corrupted by the Blight," Amjad told him, pausing to avoid a compliment of raiders, "or at least, that is what Varric tells me. Red templars use it to enhance their abilities just as normal templars do, but the red lyrium makes them...especially depraved." 

 "Speaking of samples," Dorian said, the words thrumming with tension, "you might get one in a moment."

At first Gabriel couldn't discern what Dorian was talking about, but as they followed the spiraling path down in to the arroyo it became clear just as darkness fell on them; red lyrium dust had thickened the air, making it sit heavy and wet in Gabriel's lungs. He took a length of bandage from his belt pouch and fixed it over his mouth and nose, the others doing the same. Shandi unsheathed her sword, her grip tight; even though she was no mage, she was as unsettled as all of them. Red lyrium infected indiscriminately and would take a warrior as readily as it would a mage. 

"A wellspring," Amjad whispered, only half visible as he slipped from shadow to shadow. "The inhabitants must have set up here for that reason." Dorian and Aislinn reached for each other's hands, their magic melding and sweeping over and around their little party. Gabriel could draw a full breath then without feeling as though he might drown, but he kept his makeshift mask on all the same. Amjad took a potion from his belt and they all drank a generous draught, passing the flask from trembling hand to trembling hand. Creators willing, its contents would keep them free of corruption for the next little while. 

The sight of the first body took Gabriel aback; certainly he'd seen a corpse before on his way to Skyhold, but this...it floated in the befouled spring, its fleshy parts swollen to grotesque proportions, while the rest of the body had been ravaged by jagged crystal formations as red as everything here. When the group turned the corner a ramshackle settlement of lean tos greeted them, the dry desert wind sighing through the bare windows and the doors, stood ajar. 

"Creators," Gabriel heard himself murmur, "the crystals..."

Shandi eased out of battle stance; with her honed instincts to guide her, she'd already determined that if anyone remained, they would be little threat to their band. Watching that, Gabriel allowed himself a moment of relative relaxation, though their surroundings would never permit him to truly drop his guard. 

"Imbibe enough red lyrium," Amjad said, voice as dark as the spring before them, "and it eventually eats you alive."

"And they desecrate the bodies further," Aislinn added, voice muffled by the cloth pressed against her nose and mouth, "mining them for yet more." 

"Spread out and search the shelters," Amjad said, his gaze following the river that fed the spring. It poured from the other side of the arroyo, smoothing the rock there over many years. Amjad didn't need to say it; the red lyrium hadn't originated here, but from wherever the mouth of the river could be found.

Gabriel turned his back on the floating body and stumbled over his feet on his way to the nearest--he hesitated to call it a home. He took the less than sturdy steps two at a time, though the stench from within made his gorge rise. He faltered, swallowing hard, wishing desperately for a lungful of sweet air. 

Inside an entire family lay dead, the child still clasped in its father's arms. He turned and braced himself against the wall with his arm, pillowing his forehead against it so that the cool silk of his robe could counteract the nausea making his brow bead with sweat. He shook it off as best he could a moment later when he thought he could trust his stomach, rifling through their meager belongings. 

Nothing.

The next shelter proved fruitless as well, but the third contained remnants of knowledge, the pages of the water-logged diary scattered across the floor. 

Emille came back from the Keep last night. There's something wrong with his eyes. I can't sleep for the singing. No one else seems to hear. 

Shandi came to the door and he said, "singing?" He brushed his fingers over the pages, lightly. 

"What?" She asked, blocking what little light there was with her bulk. 

"This entry. It says the writer could hear singing that no one else could."

"That's the lyrium talking. Varric said it sings to people."

"When did Varric tell you that?"

"When we were drinking in the Great Hall one night. Says that's how it starts. Then people go bloody mad." 

"We ought to find this Keep," he said, heading for the door. She stood aside to let him pass. When he came out in to the settlement proper, he saw Aislinn with her hands upraised, the unquiet spirits here gathered around her fingers like the softest yarn. As they flocked to her, their wailing ceased. Much like her brother's tendency towards cool, aloof behavior, her face remained inscrutable even as wisps mussed her hair and pulled at her robes. Dorian lifted his staff, gesturing in an elaborate manner Gabriel hadn't seen performed before in his own magery studies. The veil thinned, and the spirits departed. The unmistakeable glitter of necromancy sparked down his arms and described a faint sigil in the boggy earth underfoot. 

At least we can send them to the Fade, where they belong. 

Cold comfort, Gabriel thought. 

Amjad stood in a circle of corpses with their throats cut. Gabriel couldn't breathe for a moment; that mean Amjad had found living people, but too far gone to be rescued. 

"Gabriel," Amjad said, cleaning his daggers methodically with a rag taken from the pouch at his hip. "Did you find anything?"

"A diary. It mentions a man named Emille, and says he came from the Keep nearby. Perhaps it was he who poisoned the spring." 

"It must refer to Griffon Wing Keep." Amjad told him. "It is the source of this wellspring, or rather, the river running through its grounds is the source. We haven't tried retaking it yet."

"Then let's do it," Shandi said, a growly quality to her voice. "Maybe there will be something normal there to fight, like a giant or a dragon." 

Before Amjad could reply Aislinn and Dorian came over. Dorian's emotions were easier to read, a liquid quality to his gaze, a dismayed frown pulling at his mouth. 

"We've done what we can, my mirror," Aislinn said to Amjad. 

"Very well, my shadow. Let's head for the Keep." 

Gabriel fell in beside Amjad, dread gnawing at his guts. He didn't share Shandi's optimism. Whatever had set up residence in the Keep would surely test the very limits of their sanity, to say nothing of their battle prowess. 

Chapter Text

Amjad took point and lead them up and out of the makeshift village and, blessedly, away from its corrupted spring. Red lyrium dust had crept past Gabriel's makeshift mask, wrenching a cough from his chest and coating his hair. The damnable stuff threatened to suffocate him as he followed along in Amjad's footsteps. He discarded the bandage and wiped at his face, disgusted. 

Thank the Creators for that potion, he thought, though despite its protective effects he still felt a low level, constant panic, his skin crawling as if the dust had revealed itself to be a swarm of crawling, biting insects. And why not? It burrowed in to a person's soft places as readily as a swarm of maggots. Aislinn looked similarly afflicted; she walked as if fighting a stiff breeze, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, her head bent. Even Dorian had run out of things to say, any jokes he might have made or bluster he might have indulged in stolen by the grasping hands of the newly dead. 

The Keep loomed before them soon enough, closed up tight like a mausoleum. Indeed, Gabriel realized he couldn't hear anything as they drew closer, no animal calls, no rustling dust or gusting wind. He felt a certain pregnant malevolence emanating from within, so much so that he drew his sword. Shandi did the same, practically pawing at the earth like a bull about to charge. 

"I'm afraid the front door is the only way in," Amjad said, shimmering in to view at Gabriel's side. "All the other entrances have been filled in." 

"I can help with that," Shandi said.

"Let us soften up for you a touch, hm?" Dorian told her, "no sense breaking your horns." 

Amjad gave the go ahead. Dorian and Aislinn lifted their left hands in sync, staffs twirling effortlessly in their right; Aislinn didn't have as athletic a style as Dorian, but she had presence and grace, the bird of prey quality her brother had. Purple lightning met over their heads and arched towards the door, making the wood warp and groan in its frame. When they'd done all they could Shandi rushed it like a lion let free of its cage, her bulk and the strength behind it drawing a satisfying cracking sound from the abused wood as it buckled in its metal fastenings. 

No sooner had she forced it open then a river of demons poured forth over and around her. Even knowing Shandi as he did, Gabriel expected a cry of fear; her exultant shout reminded him that Reavers weren't just particularly strong warriors. They had dragon's blood in their veins, empowering their strikes and bolstering their souls. 

Shandi cut a brutal swath through the shades and rage demons, sparks of rent magic blinding Gabriel's eyes. Still, he knew the movements of his staff, the gestures for his spells, and he didn't need sight to make them function. With but a thought frost coated the ground as he bid. Even here in the desert it persisted, empowered by his will. Several shades froze solid, their claws raised to attack. It couldn't be said that Amjad danced between them, shattering them; his style of fighting had too much brutality, too much savagery for that. Yet, he moved from target to target effortlessly, in and out of sight, leaving only shards in his wake. It was if they had fought together for years, Amjad reacting to his spells without pausing. Dorian and Aislinn pushed forward, and Gabriel felt their joint barrier before he even noted its green shimmer, as warm as freshly drawn bathwater. Never had he felt such a strong, clean spell, drawn from the Veil itself and washing over him the way the spring they'd left behind should have washed over the villagers; it cleared his mind and banished the clammy horror that often came when demons haunted a place. 

Soon, the forces diminished. He lashed out with his sword, felling the last rage demon. Again, the eerie silence descended. 

"Well," Dorian said, his voice terribly loud in the sepulchral setting, "that's not a very auspicious beginning, is it?"

Amjad appeared, jacket stiff from whatever potion he'd broken over himself, the rough bloom of stewed rashvine and crushed prophet's laurel wafting from his hair and clothes. Gabriel opened his mouth to speak, but a thrill went through him as if someone had put an ice cube down the back of his shirt. But instead of a childish prank, this felt suddenly, deathly serious; wild magic. And a lot of it.

"Creators...you must feel that," he said, bracing himself by planting his sword point in the sand. Dorian and Aislinn glanced at one another, then at the path in to the Keep. Shandi grumbled, wariness tightening the skin around her blazing eyes and frowning mouth. She couldn't feel it directly, but in a heightened state as she was Gabriel imagined she could sense their moods quite readily, even without his words to cue her in.

"It's almost too powerful," Dorian said, rubbing at his arms as if he were cold, "....pure." 

"Could there be a lyrium deposit here?" Gabriel wondered. He could hardly imagine such a thing in the middle of this Creators-forsaken desert expanse, but certainly stranger things had happened. 

"If that is so, it isn't red," Aislinn said, "the song is different."

Amjad cut them off with a gesture of his hand. He nodded at Shandi, who took point. She still looked ready to come out of her skin; a pack of demons certainly wasn't enough to sate her.  Between the two of them they checked the stairs for traps, then took them slowly, anticipating threats. 

Yet, none came. As they crested the stairs and found themselves on the pathway towards the heart of the Keep, the stink of sun-baked human effluviam came strong enough to make Dorian gag, pressing his hand to his mouth. Aislinn paled and stepped back a pace as it were tangible. Amjad bared his teeth, the hand gripping his dagger going white around the knuckles. Shandi pushed ahead; she would react later, once the bloodrage had left her. 

The bodies down at the spring had been a sobering sight, surely, but this...corpses littered the halls, shoved in to nooks and crannies, draped over the walls. It was if they'd been indulging in some devilish orgy when their doom had descended upon them, ripping limps and spilling bowels. Some corpses still had erect members and wide, glazed eyes, bare breasts and swollen, spread open sexes. 

"Desire," Dorian choked, hacking as if he could spit out the taste.

Gabriel turned his attention to the Fade, hoping for some respite, but none came; instead vulgar power burst across his eyes, red as a burst open heart, as purple as a bone-deep wound. He staggered, then went to his knees, barely keeping his breakfast rations down. Shandi came over to touch his shoulder, then helped him up when he felt he could stand again. 

"If there is a demon present," Amjad said, head up as if he were a snake scenting the air, "then Shandi and I should scout ahead."

"Brother--" Aislinn said, already forming a protest. 

"No. You are mages. If there is pure lyrium here...."

Dorian squared his shoulders and his face twisted as if he wanted to argue, but one look at his face told Gabriel that he too comprehended what all three mages felt; pure lyrium would kill them all.  

Amjad took their silence for agreement, no matter how reluctant, and kept talking,

"I suspect we will find out one way or another in the main courtyard. Accompany us as long as it is safe for you, then fall back and wait."

What could they do but go along? Amjad was the Inquisitor, after all, and more than that, he had a point that couldn't be argued.

All too soon, they came to the passage that would lead them to the courtyard. Amjad and Shandi fell in beside each other without speaking, and headed out of sight. Gabriel took to inspecting the rest of the fortress in the meantime, desperate for an outlet for his worry. He'd never seen a defensible position as open to the sky as this, the sun beating down on him, though the griffon statues perched in the corners told him why that might be. Long dead as a species, their presence yet lingered; Gabriel could easily imagine their paws on the dusty stones, heads held high, wings as proud as unfurled sails.

A moan of pain shook him from his reverie, and after a moment's assessment he saw a woman sprawled on her back amidst a shaky oblong described in corpses. At first he thought she wore a red dress, but as he drew near he saw that it had been so stained with blood the original color had been lost. Aislinn and Dorian's presence at his back faded, leaving only concern for this poor woman. Even the sun seemed to lose some of its power.

"Please," she said, coughing up blood, "help me."

He knelt and took her hand.

"I will do my best, my lady. What is your name? How did you come to be here?"

"Cerise," she whispered, and Gabriel could readily see the knife wound that should have killed her, splitting her pale throat. It had gone wide, missing her jugular and leaving her vocal cords intact. "It is Cerise. I came to--"

She gurgled, a fresh welling up of blood stealing whatever answer she might have given him. The fear on her face made his heart ache; she had delicate, almost innocent features, like Shandi did. He set his weapon down, and he'd already forgotten it as soon as it touched the ground. Surely he could help this poor creature, summon up some spirits to save her. The thought gave him hope powerful enough that it shielded him from the merciless heat, filling him with the kind of well being that came after imbibing a good, strong ale.

"Let me help you," he said, as their eyes met. He'd never felt such a sense of safety, of rightness, and she gazed at him with something akin to hero worship evident on her face. He called up the spirits to tend to her, already half in love, yet they wouldn't come. Why now? Why would they refuse to answer now, when he could rescue her so easily, pluck something lush and living from this bloody, barren garden?

Dorian's hand on his shoulder felt like an iron clamp, the kind that immobilized a sword blade so it could be safely tempered.

"That's quite enough of that," Dorian said, his tone alive with false lightness, as if he were scolding a naughty pet. "Begone, demon. You'll find no easy victims here."

Demon?

Horror brought him crashing back to reality. He bolted to his feet, stumbling back. Only Dorian's hasty embrace kept him from falling. The corpse rose jerkily, its head lolling, hands moving in unnatural opposition to one another. Where before he'd seen a full life still poised on the edge of rescue, now he saw that this body had been as dead as long as the others. Its eyes were lambent with a sinister purple energy, and a moment later the demon emerged as if shedding a filthy overcoat worn too long. The body crumpled to the ground, its ruined head oozing grey matter.

He went for his blade, shame that he had so carelessly abandoned it like a lash across his shoulders. Before he could do more, Amjad came running full tilt from the direction of the courtyard. The demon laughed and disappeared before he could truly get its measure, though Gabriel knew from the heaviness in the air that she remained still. It reminded him of the coarse, oppressive aroma that brothels often emitted when packs of drunken soldiers came pouring out at two in the morning, cheap perfume, the rank of poorly, hastily wiped down flesh, spilled, musty ale.

"We have to leave," Amjad said, panic humanizing him, taking the aloof, cat-like quality from his features as surely as if some rude Orlesian noble had snatched a mask from his countenance in a fit of pique, "there's raw lyrium in the courtyard."

After what seemed like an eternity Gabriel put his hand on his blade's handle, the magic in it merging with the magic in his body. His mind cleared, though primal terror took the place of the malaise brought on by the demon's spells.

"Where's Shandi?" He said, straightening. She hadn't followed after Amjad.

"She was right behind me," Amjad said, frantic, clearly torn between trying to herd all the mages out and away immediately and going back for Shandi without hesitation.

"We have to help her," Aislinn said before Gabriel could say the same around the knot in his throat. Amjad nodded, cleaved to her opinion though it pained him to do so; Gabriel could see the worry in his very posture as if it were as obvious as a shout in an empty room.

"Come no closer than absolutely necessary," he gritted, giving them all a stern, serious look. "If you feel the lyrium about to overwhelm you, run and don't look back."

Dorian had a stubborn cast to him, as if he expected Amjad to demand he promise to do as bid. Amjad appeared to know better, though, and didn't demand a promise Dorian clearly wasn't about to agree to. Gabriel found himself striding ahead, blindly heading for the courtyard and Shandi. He knew something awful had happened. She would have done something, anything, otherwise. She would never have just waited around without acting in a situation as dire as this.

The courtyard opened up before him. The hunk of raw lyrium glimmered at the far end, and atop it the Desire demon languished as it it were her personal throne. Her black hair and horns shone in its light, the gleam picking strands of deepest purple out from the inky tresses spilling over her slim shoulders. It pulled sparks from the depths of her white, pupil-less eyes, and the bone she worried between her teeth seemed especially stark in her beclawed hand. All around her the dead lay, as if they'd fallen on one another unsure whether they would copulate or tear each other open; in the end, they had done both.

And before her, Shandi knelt, wrapped in chains crafted whole from infernal powers beyond Gabriel's ken.

 "You're not the one I hoped for," the demon purred, leaning in to gaze at Shandi, "but you'll do."

Shandi tested the bonds as if they were mundane chains she could break with physical prowess alone. "Coward," she spat, "come and fight me, demon."

Gabriel wanted nothing more than to sprint across the courtyard and bring his blade low and across, taking the demon's head neatly from its shoulders, but the raw lyrium precluded such actions. The helplessness made him feel small, as if he were about to feel his brother's fists raining down on his vulnerable head and neck. The sudden rage that followed made him shake, his sword blade sparking.

"I am not a demon," the creature said, smug, "you mortals think in such rigid ways. I gave these people what they wanted. They indulged in nothing they hadn't already thought of, in their secret hearts."

Gabriel caught a flicker out of the corner of his eye; Amjad, creeping up as close as he dared. Desperate to do something himself, he glanced at Dorian and Aislinn, each as helpless and as angry about that fact as he.

"A disruption field," he said, though he knew he was grasping at straws, "would that work on it? It might be enough to break Shandi's chains."

Dorian opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out. Aislinn turned in slow motion, her hair fanning out one strand at a time. Gabriel tried to call out but the scene changed before he could. No longer did he find himself in the courtyard, but in a small alpine village covered in snow. Though the cold felt as oppressive as the sun had only a moment before, the place bustled with people. As he moved forward, down the steps and past a row of houses, those people paused and oriented on him as though they were bespelled. They knelt as he walked through the place, his feet finding a path up to the Chantry on the hill as if he knew the way. Some part of him realized that he'd never seen this, any of this, before, but it felt small and quiet compared to the part of him that felt at home here.

Shandi waited there, in an intricate, ice-blue gown and a white fur cloak, face expertly painted with rich, pigmented cosmetics instead of the harsh lines and dotwork common to vitaar. He came and took her hand.

"What is happening here?"

"What, have you no memory of your accomplishments, Herald of Andrastae?"

"But...I'm not the Herald," he protested, even as people whispered of his heroic deeds as they went by, giving him and Shandi a respectful berth.

"But you could be," Shandi told him, and the look on her face was so full of belief that he felt himself swayed despite intentions otherwise. "Why not? I have seen your heart and I know you believe. Don't let the name Andrastae cloud your vision; it is the Creators that have chosen you."

Gabriel imagined the hand of Mythal reaching down to him from whatever airy realm she called hers, lifting him up and validating his worth, dispelling the suspicion the Elvhen often showed him. It invigorated him in a way little else had. Spence and Landan were wrong. Lily had been wrong about him, too. He'd proven himself. He deserved the regard of the Creators and deserved to lead the people (and The People, for that matter) to victory. Shandi smiled and his heart skipped a beat; she was so lovely, and she loved him so much. Why, with her at his side all seemed possible.

"You have no need to fear me or my gifts," she cooed, "the Circle creates such fear and distrust, and for what? All I want is to give you everything you've ever desired." It felt right. It was just what he wanted to hear. Too much so, his mind shrilled, but he stood frozen to the spot. "You see? I can be your greatest ally, spirit healer, if you but recognize my true nature."

I am not a demon. You mortals think in such rigid ways.

The words cut through his daze and he tore his hand from hers, spitting in her face.

"There is nothing for you here, Desire. I will fight for what I want. I am no pup to be bottle fed."

Desire revealed her true form, Shandi's borrowed one dispersing as a cloud of feathers on the wind would have.

"You will fight for it, when I am offering to give it to you? You will always stand in someone else's shadow, mage, without me to help you. You don't even know what I would ask in return. How do you know the arrangement would not please you?" 

"Any price you name is too high, monster. I'll not stand in your shadow either. Begone."

He gasped as reality fell in on him in a cacophony of sensory details, though the first thing that registered to his battered sense of sight was Shandi. She had managed to rise to her feet, but there the bindings held fast. Dorian marched forward, heedless, but Aislinn dragged him back before he could put himself in danger.

"Your name, creature!" Dorian demanded.

"Why don't you come to me, lover, and I'll whisper it to you," she teased, tossing the bone she'd been gnawing aside. She levitated above the raw lyrium, making a vulgar beckoning motion at him.

"Hrmph, some Desire demon you are," Dorian grumbled, contempt giving his words an acidic quality. "Could you have chosen a less effective form, I wonder?"

"You haven't seen even the least of my many selves. I could be anything or anyone you wished, and the price I would extract in return would be as nothing compared to the ecstasy I could bestow on you."

"The disruption field," Aislinn murmured, "we might be able to force it in to another form, a form we could fight. Rage or Pride could hardly resist coming to us."

Gabriel took her hand. "Use the sword. We can focus through it."

She grabbed Dorian's hand as well, and after only a moment's confusion he added his magic and skill to theirs. The blade flared with power and for the first time, Desire looked worried. She showed them a mouth full of fangs and turned as if to flee. Amjad came out of the shadows and a moment later his potion hit her directly in the chest, spectral fire that clung to its victim, burning all the while. She shrieked and stumbled, and in that moment they snapped the field in to place around her. The chains binding Shandi disappeared and Shandi surged forward, roaring, just as Desire became Pride.

The next few moments whirled past. Amjad burst the thing's eyes with expertly placed dagger strikes, one, two, three. Its spells burst against Shandi's breast plate, corrosive ichor splattering her face as her broadsword bit deep. The pain only enraged her further and she and it traded blows faster than Gabriel could keep up with. He and the other mages sealed off its escape as best they could, ringing it with nullification spells. Shandi brought it to its knees with a mighty blow that shook the ground beneath their feet. Pride dispersed, leaving Desire only. Its form flickered and Shandi pulled her arm back to land the killing strike. With the last of its power Desire froze Shandi in place and evaded certain doom, but she had surely been beaten.

"Your name, beast," Dorian demanded.

She hissed, but the command couldn't be ignored; she had been defeated, and a mage knew the importance of holding a demon's true name, knew that she would be compelled to reveal it.

"I am Decadence," it said, before slipping its chains and fleeing in to the Fade.

Gabriel watched the place she had last stood, dread piercing him through the heart. It would not be the last time he'd see her, her visage already imprinted on his nightmares.

 

Chapter Text

Gabriel knew better than to approach Shandi right away, the pain from the burns on her face rendering her as dangerous and unpredictable as a hungry wolverine. She still held her naked sword, the handle clutched tightly in her fist. Surely if the blade hadn't been enchanted, she might have left an imprint in the metal; such was her strength and anger. 

"Will you sheathe your blade that I might tend to you?"

He asked, giving her space even as he suggested that he might come and lay hands on her. She turned towards him like a bull about to charge, nostrils flaring, mouth set in a scowl. A moment later she let the weapon clatter to the stones, grunting; she didn't have the presence of mind to disarm herself any other way. He took it as agreement and edged a little closer, raising his hands to hover close to the wounds. He knew her vitaar was dry and wouldn't poison him if he touched it, but the cautious or even timid part of him resisting taking the chance even so. 

He coaxed spirits to him, gathering at the border between the Veil and the mundane world. They gamboled around him, as energetic and eager as spring fawns. With but a whisper, he directed them to smooth the injuries from Shandi's face and to bring vigor to her limbs. She softened and her stance eased, a look coming to her features akin to the one she had when she felt particularly sexually satiated. Battle wasn't so different, not for her. He went so far as to retrieve her sword, buffing it to a shine with a handkerchief plucked from his robe pocket. He'd already sacrificed his first to the red lyrium dust, he might as well consign its twin to the proverbial flames. He gave her the blade and she sheathed it, rolling her shoulders and popping her neck.

He could have sworn, as he turned, that he glimpsed Amjad brushing dust from Dorian's coat, Amjad's hand lingering on Dorian's chest just a few moments longer than necessary. He dismissed the moment almost as soon as he'd taken it in; surely it was nothing. He could hardly accept that they were friendly let alone...whatever that might have implied. Aislinn passed her fingers through her hair, trying to get it to lay flat. After conjuring so much lightning, however, it remained a fool's errand. Amjad put his hand on her shoulder, looking her over. Satisfied that she wasn't injured, he nodded, though his expression remained grim.

Amjad said nothing about how they would surely see Decadence again; they all knew the truth of the matter and voicing it would have been redundant. Once more, the group followed him, out of the Keep and back to the camp. As they gathered their mounts and rode back towards Skyhold, Gabriel heard the full throated howl of the Inquisition horns. Forces had moved in to hold Griffon Wing, and with luck it would once again be a bastion against the darkness. 

Somehow, even though they had defeated Decadence and taken her stronghold, Gabriel could feel only the kind of cold that forced him to contemplate the inevitability of the grave, no matter the health and youth he currently enjoyed.

--

Skyhold unfolded like a flower so fine Gabriel might have given it as a sign of his affection, bee pollen and grain mash winding him round like its attendant ribbon. He took a deep breath in to his belly, as if the very air here could brush aside the spider's web that had bound up his body and mind. He'd never been so glad to make it past the gates, not even on that very first day when he'd come alone, half convinced he'd receive a chest full of arrows for his trouble. 

Amjad left them almost immediately, though he had little choice; his men wanted to know the details of what they had discovered, no less a person than Commander Cullen himself listening intently to Amjad's report. By the sharp, tight way Amjad was gesturing, he hadn't gone unmarked by recent events and he wouldn't have Decadence catch him unawares if he had anything to say about it. Cullen's handsome face looked drawn and haggard, his gaze troubled. Though Gabriel sensed that he was a man who took a deep, personal interest in his office and in the soldiers he commanded, this seemed designed to bite deep. 

It seemed natural enough to head to the bar, falling in beside Shandi. He could hear her stomach growl and he knew she'd want at least one cold ale before bothering to strip off her armor, besides. It was a measure of how tired he was that he nearly walked right in to the boy that had appeared before him, blocking his path. Before he could barge past, a gust of Fade energy passed over him as strong as a winter wind. 

A spirit!

He studied the boy closer then, a pale face and blond hair partially obscured by the brim of a patched up hat. The mere fact that he stood there i in a human form shocked Gabriel to the soles of his feet, electrifying his mind that had thus far been sluggish and dark in the wake of all that had happened. Never in all his studying nor in any of his training had he ever heard of a spirit who could do such a thing. The spirits always in attendance around him--normal ones who would never dream of coming in to the mundane world--whispered to him the way a child would tell a secret, hands cupped around his ear: this was the being he'd sensed earlier, haunting the bar. Shandi had stopped too, plainly unsure of what to make of this new arrival. It was a measure of her weariness that she hadn't already fallen in to fighting stance, ready to square off against this potential threat. 

"Four children have gone before her, each with a name but no face," the boy said, looking up at Shandi, who had frozen in place as soon as he'd started speaking. "Dreams wither and wane in the womb. But this one, this one is different. This one will live."

"Wh...what?" Shandi spluttered, "how could you possibly know that?"

"Your mother's pain touches yours," he said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Something so odd happened then that Gabriel felt the world tilt; Shandi's eyes welled up with tears.

"Spirits sense things we cannot," Gabriel heard himself murmur, though his breath hitched in his chest. He ached for Shandi, his rib cage laboring to keep itself together as if he were being stretched on a rack. 

Aislinn came pushing her way between him and Shandi before either of them could muster a response.

"Cole," she said, folding her arms over her chest, "that is quite enough for right now, thank you."

Cole looked at Aislinn, considering, then turned to Shandi again. "I could make you forget. I'm sorry. I did it wrong."

"Don't come near me, demon," Shandi snarled, "you've done more than enough." 

Cole's expression crumbled; Shandi's response had scored a hit, that much was obvious. What kind if spirit was this, with emotions and responses as nuanced and as readable as a human's? Even as he wondered, Cole disappeared. Aislinn shook her head and uncrossed her arms, looking for a moment as lost and upset as Shandi. 

"I think we've all earned a drink,"  he said, hoping they would allow him to turn their energies towards something else, something more pleasant. Creators, his heart suffered for Shandi, but he didn't think showing it would win him any accolades. Aislinn stepped back. 

"No, but thank you. I should find my brother." 

He understood, too, that Aislinn was gracefully allowing him and Shandi some time alone, after a revelation like that. She disappeared almost as readily as Cole, slipping away in to the bustle that was the Skyhold courtyard. Shandi stumbled blindly in to the bar, making her way to their table by memory. He didn't dare take her hand, but he guided her by crooking his fingers under her belt, where it met her hip. 

She didn't speak, not even after three ales. Eventually Gabriel tried, though his stomach was roiling too much to accept any liquor himself. 

"Did you know?"

She shook her head and set her tankard down with such force the table shook.

"No," she said, her face screwed up in concentration as if the word were a particularly heavy stone she was trying to roll uphill. "I...they kept so much of their story from me. I know that they fled the Qun, that my mother was a tamassaren and my father a saarebas...his magic developed late. I always got the impression that she rescued him and they escaped together. That she knew him before they sewed his mouth shut."

Gabriel gulped against the sudden urge to vomit. The way the Qun treated their mages ranked high on his list of atrocities, just under Tranquility. 

"Shandi..."

"Ugh. Don't." She grimaced. "I'm sorry. I can't." She couldn't accept his sympathy. He understood, and said nothing. "Come back to my room with me, if you want. I'm sick of looking at this piss hole tavern." She stood all at once, nearly sending the bench over on its side. She left as if her emotions had described a trail of fire in her wake, but he stepped in to those flames without hesitating. 

--

 Later, Gabriel would find himself analyzing and re-analyzing where it all went wrong. He had spent the night helping Shandi work through all her desperate, pain fueled energy with another sex session designed to wring him dry and somewhere in there, looking in to her eyes, the declaration of love had crossed his lips. She happened to be in the middle of an orgasm when it happened, and he had to keep from laughing at her expression, somewhere between ecstasy and utter bafflement. Confusion, he understood. It wasn't the most proper time, after all.

But then he went from buried in her warmth to all but kicked out of bed, cold, naked, and utterly confused. He barely caught the bundle of his clothes when she tossed them at him as if they were one of Amjad's flasks.

"Get. Out." 

He had never seen her that angry. Even in battle, what she usually seemed to feel wasn't anger, but a kind of savage exultation. But as she knelt there on the bed, she looked as if at any moment her hair might catch fire from sheer rage. 

"What?" He sounded stupid in his own ears, and he clutched the ball of fabric to his chest as if it could protect him. 

"You heard me." she snapped, standing and tugging her tunic over her head. She stood amid the mess they'd made when they'd first arrived and tumbled in to bed, sweeping pillows and vials of urgent and the bits of leather Shandi had been working on repairing to the floor. It felt painfully incongruous now, with her mood so out of keeping with that initial, passionate embrace. "Leave." 

"Shandi..."

"Don't make me repeat myself." 

Suddenly, he was afraid of her. Never had she turned such rage on him, but now it beat down on him the way the desert sun had earlier. His hands shook as he pulled on his clothing, and he was painfully aware of how long it was taking him and how awkward he must appear. He felt as if he'd been locked in a cell with a weaving rattler, regarding hime balefully while it tried to decide whether to strike out his eyes. He made it out in to the courtyard with his shoes still off, tucked in the crook of his arm. He heard the lock fall in to place behind him, as if Shandi had wacked the board in to its holders with all of her might. 

What have you done, you stupid boy?

He wondered, and it was only blind luck that he found his own quarters through the tears that came, hot and full, the moment he found himself alone.

--

Gabriel heard Amjad and Dorian before he saw them, the pair coming in to the tavern already engaged in a friendly argument.

"Of course you would read de Fleur that way," Dorian was saying, with that tone of voice that let all and sundry know he was holding forth and enjoying it. 

"Can you blame me? The man had an Alienage purged and ordered it while bedecked with ribbons. His wig was so powdered he could hardly hold his neck up and yet he thought himself fit to decide the fate of a whole people." 

"My friend, I'm afraid if you curated your library by such standards, you would have very few Orlesian texts left."

"Hm, do you promise? That sounds like a lovely gift. I expect you to start work on that this afternoon." 

They rounded the corner, and Gabriel squinted so as to see them through the haze; he'd decided to put the old adage of drowning one's sorrows to the test. Sadly, they had turned out to be very gifted swimmers. 

Amjad had a little half smile on his face, a look that made Gabriel think of Ser Pounce when the damned animal was looking for something to destroy. Yet it wore endearingly nonetheless, and by Dorian's look he thought so, too. 

"Well..." Dorian began. "Oh. Oh dear."

So they'd seen him. He must look even worse than he'd imagined. 

"Gabriel," Amjad said, raising his eyebrows and coming closer. "By Mythal, what the hell happened to you?"

Gabriel groaned and pawed at his face, as if he could physically pluck the offending memory from his mind and crush it. Amjad and Dorian came over and took the seat across from him, glancing at one another, then back at him. 

"I...might have told Shandi...something I shouldn't have," he said, proud of himself for indulging in a minimum of drunken slurring. 

"Oh dear," Dorian said, leaning back a little and fixing Gabriel with a look as if he'd already sensed the particulars of what had happened. Gabriel felt tears clog his throat, not for the first time, and the mortification that came immediately after made him feel even lower than he had standing nude in front of a furious and implacable Shandi.  

"You didn't," Amjad said. Amjad peered at him in a way designed to force him to make eye contact, and in his current state he couldn't resist. Whatever Amjad read there made him curse under his breath. "Oh, Gabriel."

"I didn't mean to!" He protested, louder than was strictly necessary, he was sure. He gesticulated with his tankard, slopping ale on to the sleeve of his robe. "It just...the worst part is, I meant it." 

Amjad and Dorian sat in tense silence, frowning in a way that was almost identical despite the vast differences in their features. 

"And she...didn't take it well?" Dorian hazarded. At least Dorian hadn't questioned the sincerity of his feelings. Perversely, the conflict had only made him more sure of his love, not less. 

He swallowed around the lump in his throat, but despite his efforts when he spoke his voice sounded like a bald thread. "Threw me out. Didn't say she never wanted to see me again, but she might as well have."

He could hardly consider that, that she might not want to be around him at all anymore. He wouldn't be able to go adventuring with them, he'd have to leave Skyhold...

"Maybe she's not used to hearing such things," Dorian said. Something about his tone made Gabriel look up. Dorian's eyes were particularly beautiful at the moment, as full of empathy as they were. Quickly enough Gabriel had realized that Dorian was a man with no shortage of defenses; this was the most open, honest look he'd ever seen on Dorian's face. "Maybe she wasn't ready to hear it." 

Amjad had gone very still and silent, his face inscrutable again, as it so often was. 

"I...can hardly imagine that." When he thought of Shandi he thought of nothing but her beauty, her fearsome courage, her ready laugh. He struggled to imagine a world where Shandi hadn't charmed a legion of lovers in to swooning at her feet. 

"Gabriel, she's a Qunari. A Qunari mercenary. Do you really think she's had that many people profess love to her?" Dorian said gently, and though Gabriel had the sense that Dorian was trying to keep his advice theoretical, his tone was such that Gabriel knew there was some personal truth in the words. 

"But...to be so angry..."

Amjad looked down, his brows furrowed in thought. He studied his hands for a long moment, unwilling to speak if he were unsure of the point he wished to make. Gabriel found himself reading Amjad more readily now; being in combat together tended to have that effect. 

"You must speak with her again. There is...sometimes people can't return your love for reasons beyond you and what you have to offer."

Since they had come back to Skyhold the unspoken had hovered over them all like a storm cloud, bringing ill portents as if they were all lost at sea together. From Cullen's demeanor to Shandi's reaction, Gabriel felt beset by sharks, or torpor demons dimming the vital flame that might have lead them back to shore. He knew now that his initial relief on coming home had been a mirage.

"I...I don't know." He said, trying to cover his inadequacies with a drink of ale. "She made her feelings quite clear." 

"She might not be ready to return your love," Dorian said, and for the first time Gabriel heard the slightest note of uncertainty in proud Dorian's voice, "but I doubt she's ready to discard you." 

"Give her time," Amjad added, though even as he showed genuine empathy a certain tension had come over him, and he held himself apart from Dorian. "Then go and see her. Trust me." 

Gabriel felt himself give over. How could he do less? The Inquisitor of all people had taken the time to advise him on his foolish matters of the heart, and he wouldn't squander such a gift. He let Dorian and Amjad lead him back to his room, since after a sleepless night and far more ale than he should have had he wasn't in any shape to make it on his own. As he fell face first in to bed, he thought,

Tomorrow then, Shandi. Creators, I hope Amjad is right.

Chapter Text

Gabriel's ever present anxiety hadn't budged a bit when he woke that next morning, but his desire to make things right with Shandi spurred him to put on his clothes, wash his face, and otherwise attend to his needs. The infernal part of him that made him question his every decision gibbered about how it would be better to just stay in bed and ignore the outside world, but the same stubbornness he'd shown Decadence gave him the strength to overrule its objections. 

He'd spent the night in the room they'd first given him when he'd come to Skyhold, and while it had been an oasis of comfort for him at first it now seemed cold and unwelcoming compared to being tucked in to that big Qunari-sized bed with Shandi beside him. Even Pounce had taken his leave, no doubt exploring Skyhold's every nook and cranny and claiming everything he could rub against or piss on. By Sylaise's sweet bosom, what the hell would he do if Shandi rejected him a second time? It was foolish to love her so quickly, but...

You should guard your heart more carefully, brother, Lily had told him so several times, especially after Anders. Of course he'd thought it true love and Anders had thought it little more than a mutually enjoyable fling. Realizing how different their perspectives and expectations were had...stung. He snatched his coat from the peg by the door, face burning with shame and teeth clenched. 

Not now. 

For once, his mind obliged and he could put thoughts of his unrequited teenaged infatuation aside. He didn't know where he might find Shandi, but the training dummies would serve as a likely starting place. He marched across the courtyard, trying to muster up as much courage as possible, though he thought he probably looked like a right fool to anyone watching. 

Shandi was there, and so was Cass. Shandi had taken a seat on the stump near the dummies and she was bowed over, rubbing at her face as if exasperated. Cass was speaking to her, though Gabriel couldn't make out what she might be saying. Why did Cassandra of all people have to be in attendance? Surely this was difficult enough without the blasted Seeker of Truth shooting daggers at him. 

Cassandra noticed him first. She looked up to catch him with that hard gaze, and that made Shandi stand and turn. She dropped her gaze and for once, she didn't present herself with her head held high and her shoulders squared. She dug at the earth with the toe of her boot, rubbing at the back of her neck with an unsure hand. 

"Oh. Gabriel." She said, and Cass backed away, then turned to leave. 

Mythal bless you, Cassandra, he thought, her absence giving him the wherewithal to approach. 

"Look--" Shandi started, right as he said,

"Shandi--"

"I'm sorry--"

"No, it is I who should--"

They both dissolved in to giggles, and Gabriel felt a little seedling of hope put out its first leaves. 

"Look, Gabriel," Shandi tried again, and this time he let her speak. "I could have handled that better. A lot better, and I'm sorry. But I don't do love, okay? It's not...bloody hell. I just don't."

"I...don't understand." To him, love wasn't something one chose, it just happened, often when you weren't looking. She made a frustrated sound and shook her head. 

"What good is it?" She demanded, sudden heat in her voice. She looked defensive then, her back ramrod straight, her head up and her eyes defiant. "What's the blasted point? So you can take total leave of your fucking senses?"

He blinked and recoiled, taken aback by the sudden display of passion. 

"Is that all you think love is? Your parents..."

"And look how much they suffered!" She practically shouted, though her voice had a rough, shrill quality, in opposition to how she sounded when roaring on the battlefield. "Just to be together. Just to be free. They never recovered, Gabriel. They own one of the finest tailor's shops in all Val Royeaux and even then they barely scrap by because those goddamn cheese eaters don't want to buy from a pair of ox heads. They slink around their own home as if they have no right to it. I won't condemn myself to a life like that, a bond like that."

She shook her head, realizing, perhaps, how strong her feelings were and how loudly she was expressing them. She sat on the stump once more as if she were wearing her full battle kit after a long, pitched conflict, exhausted and heavy. She hid her face in her hands for a moment, and Gabriel could only stand there with his heart bound round with icy chains. 

Her pain touches yours.

Cole had certainly hit that particular nail on the head. The link between Shandi and her mother in particular seemed almost tangible, something he could see and touch. It pulsed in the space between them, perhaps even moreso now that Shandi knew she was the only child to live to adulthood. 

"Her name was Deirdre," Shandi said, without looking at him. Creators, but there was more. She sounded...broken, in a way he'd never discerned from her speech before. "She was a member of my merc company. An elf, with hair like a sheaf of wheat and eyes like spring grass. Had June's vallaslin but always joked she couldn't even craft her own weapons. It was a lie, of course. I saw her make knapped knives and fletched arrows all the time.  Fell for her hard in the way only a merc can, where you're facing death together every day and winning out over it. When your nights are all ale and songs and sex. She died in my arms. Poisoned arrow. And you know the worst part is, I don't even remember what job we were on. She died for nothing. There was no cause in what we did, and no one remembered her after she was gone. Except for me." 

"Oh Shandi...I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I didn't confess love to you because I wanted to hurt you." He understood now why he'd found her here, as part of the Inquisition. It was the biggest cause, with the biggest stakes. Something that would be remembered when they were all dead. 

"I know that. I just don't know if I can care for you the way you want me to." She looked up, her eyes red and bright with unshed tears. "Love is great right until it isn't. Then it's the worst thing in the whole blasted universe." 

He went to her and took her hands. She clung to him out of instinct, her expression one of extreme ambivalence. 

"I won't push you. I swear to you." He wanted to weep on her behalf, the agony piercing him deep. He didn't, knowing it would be self indulgent, but there was something about seeing a woman as powerful as Shandi brought so low, so vulnerable, that made him internalize all the anguish clinging to her like a miasma. "Just...know that I care for you, and I would be bereft without your presence in my life." 

"I can't promise you anything, Gabriel. I can't." 

"Do you want to be rid of me?" He asked softly. He could hardly blame her for an affirmative answer, given what he knew now. 

There was fear in her eyes when she answered: "No. I don't." 

Mythal, but he wanted her to return his feelings, but to see such quiet terror on her face made him question everything he thought he knew about love and its worth. 

"Come and have a drink with me, my lady. Surely you will allow me to, to...court you, if nothing else?"

A little light came back in to her at that and she smiled faintly. Whatever else Shandi was, she wanted to be treated like a lady, and Gabriel was all but falling all over himself to oblige her. 

"Courting a Qunari, nobleman?" She teased. 

"I am of the Inquisition. The Inquisition knows no such prejudices." 

She stood, looking down at him with a certain fondness. "All right, m'lord. Let's drink." 

It wasn't what he'd hoped for in his heart of hearts, but nonetheless he felt so happy as to be weightless as they headed for the Herald's Rest. 

 ---

The summons had come at an inopportune time, as Amjad's requests had a tendency to do. Gabriel had clambered out of bed and in to his clothes, leaving Shandi softly snoring, curled up on her side and wrapped in all the blankets she'd stolen from him in the middle of the night. He crossed the courtyard and then through the Great Hall, the doll-bright eyes of the Orlesian nobles as weighty and hot as a rage demon's talons, hooked in to the fabric of his collar as he passed.

He hesitated at Amjad's door. It felt like there should have been some special protocol, a ritualized way of calling upon the Inquisitor himself. When none was forthcoming, however, he pushed his way in through the heavy door. The unmistakable ripple of warding spells passed through his hair and down his back as readily as a lover's touch, though this contact could turn fatal if he but breathed wrong.

The room smelled of crisp mountain air and herbs, with a slight undertone of furs and hides expertly cured. He could well imagine halla musk and aravel oil over top, and a scene straight from his imagination caught him up, showed him what perhaps Amjad's childhood could have been like. The sound of laughing children, the feel of the sunlight through the trees...

So taken was he with his vision that it took him a moment to focus in on the man in question, and when he did it became quickly apparent that the Inquisitor was deeply troubled. Pacing in a tight circle, he came to a jerky halt when he caught sight of Gabriel. Gabriel tried not to focus overmuch on the huge erotic painting over the fireplace, depicting a licentious bisexual orgy taking place on rumpled silk, spilled wine jugs in the foreground. 

"Oh. You came."

"Did you expect otherwise?"

Amjad shook his head as if to clear it, annoyed with himself if his scowl was anything to go by. Despite having almost no fat on his frame, Amjad acted as if he couldn't feel the breeze; perhaps he was too preoccupied for such mundane concerns. 

"No no, of course not. I need your help. It's important. More important than usual."

"You need but ask it of me." Gabriel said, finding even as the words left his tongue that it was so. Amjad had a way of drawing people into his orbit, and he was no exception. He wanted to be near this man, absorb his presence, protect him in the field. And...whatever else Amjad might require of him. 

His statement made Amjad let out a long-held breath, a flicker of relief evident before that cool mask dropped into place once more.

"When Aislinn and I were young, the Tevinter slaver caravans came to our forest. They captured several of us, but Aislinn and I managed to free ourselves before they could take us far. We tried to save the others...we couldn't."

"Surely the Clan..."

Amjad bared his teeth.

"No. Keeper Lenaya wouldn't spare anyone. Said that after...after what had befallen us, we couldn't take the risk."

He said the word Keeper so grudgingly, were it food it would be nothing more than a handful of crumbs. He wanted to ask how in all the hells Amjad and Dorian had ended up friends after a life event such as that, but he kept his curiosity to himself.

"And now?"

"Gabriel," Amjad said, breathless with agonizing, fearful hope, "I think I found my clan mate. He's been a Magister's slave these past years. He's the only one left that I could find. We must rescue him. I should have rescued him long ago."

"I have never heard a task so pure. It will be done. When and where?"

Amjad regarded him and Gabriel saw surprise, then relief, then grudging respect. It made him stand up straighter, hold himself with a little more pride. Having the Inquisitor's approval was a heady thing, to be sure. 

"The Hissing Wastes. It is a hard country, shrouded in perpetual darkness and littered with the broken glories of a past age. Perfect for a pack of rabid Venatori animals." 

"Another bloody desert, hm?"

"Your choice of words is more apt than you know," Amjad told him, voice a dry grumble. "Wait a moment, did you speak to Shandi?"

Gabriel was so touched his eyes stung with unshed tears; all of this and the Inquisitor--the Inquisitor--had thought to ask him about his silly romantic mishap. 

"I did. I think we've made up. Though I don't know what exactly we are." 

Amjad nodded as if he were familiar with the feeling. 

"I pray that your love will flourish and grow. You are not afflicted as we of Clan Brangwen are afflicted, and have nothing to fear. Relatively speaking."

"What do you refer to?"

"The story of Clan Brangwen. Our origin tale. It says we are all cursed to experience love and madness as the same emotion; we are the product of a spirit and an elf that fell in love even across the Veil. Some versions say they both died consumed by the insanity they wrought in one another. Regardless, there is no one of Clan Brangwen that takes a mate casually. We would die for those our beloveds. Even commit...questionable deeds for their sake. It is a curse, a heavy one. An all encompassing one." 

"That is a terrible burden." Gabriel's first instinct was to deny the reality of such a thing, but then in the span of a moment, he could feel the lowering power of the geas in the room, its tendrils clinging to him like seaweed. The expansive space felt close and electric then, the ancient magic boiling the blood in his veins. Amjad had fixed him with that stare, the one that made him think of a hunting cat, unblinking. 

"You feel it." Amjad said. "You are not Elvhen, but you understand us enough, perhaps. Your spirit healing also makes you a rarity, gives you a certain sensitivity."

Amjad said the word rarity almost reverently, and Gabriel's heart jumped into his throat; not only could he feel the geas but the heat of simply being near such a beautiful, intense person as Amjad was. He remembered the way Amjad had been so shamelessly appreciating him in camp that morning in the Western Approach and he blushed hot enough that he knew it would not go unseen. 

Whatever Amjad saw there made him raise his eyebrows, his full lips curving in a slight smirk. He stepped back, and Gabriel felt as if he could breathe again. 

"I thank you for aiding me with this task. Go back to your lady. I will call on you when it is time."

Gabriel all but fled, though had Amjad but asked him he would have stayed forever. 

Chapter Text

Aislinn willed herself in to the Fade as if she were stepping through a silken curtain and in to a grand ballroom, though instead of bowing attendants demons lined her path. Decadence hadn't joined their ranks, though Aislinn almost wished it were so. She would show the proud, smirking whore who ruled here, if not now then soon.

She walked between the damned with her head up, knowing that they couldn't touch her. She never made deals she couldn't manipulate in her favor. As she made her way down the winding path and through the snow, blood welled up in her footprints. 

Soon enough she found the wolf tracks. Solas had been teasing her the past little while, taking elaborate forms and calling on his knowledge of the Fade's ins and outs to try and hide himself. She always discovered him, and preferred to think it had more to do with her skill than Solas desiring to be caught after all. With but a thought she burst apart in to a murder of crows, flying in ragged formation, harsh cries scraping the grey sky. 

You may do anything your heart desires, provided your will is equal to your whim. 

Solas had advised her such, when they had first begun this little game. There! With her borrowed bird's eyes she spotted him, a snake in the long grass. The setting changed as quickly as they changed forms, the snow bank becoming a forest as he became a flash of light and she a halla. She cantered through the undergrowth, clever, milk-white legs sending her bounding over fallen branches and through the rich loam. The fox's skin let her leap and burrow through obstacles and warrens, though Solas was quick and didn't shy away from becoming a rat or an insect. When they were finally satisfied by their little adventure, they made love as they would have in old Arlathan, their forms twisting, changing, laughter and bird calls and the musk of wolf fur. 

They came back to their given flesh, she laying against him amid a field of flowers. He gave her a look of adoration and her heart nigh-stopped; so few had seen such openness from Solas, a man most felt free to dismiss as an apostate not worth speaking to. 

"You are a skilled sorceress," Solas told her, his voice hushed so that it brushed against her skin as velvety and soft as an ermine pelt. "In old Arlathan, spells were of such intricacy and beauty that their construction could span the ages. When death holds no power, what is there but pushing the bounds of creation?" 

"And I wouldn't be exiled for my blood magic?" Aislinn asked, though she had asked him before. She still loved to hear the answer.

"A Dalish superstition only, vhenan. Those with access to history know that some things require blood." 

"I think I would have liked Arlathan, then," Aislinn told him, touching their foreheads together before pressing a kiss to his lips. 

He would have said more, she thought, but a tremble in the Fade's pattern caught her attention. Aislinn stood, sorry to leave Solas and his warmth. She looked at the horizon as she would have in the real world, as if waiting to glimpse a ship or a dragon on the wing. The shell around her brother's potential for magic was easily divined, still intact. But then beside him, Gabriel's signature. She walked towards it, the words she managed to snatch from the void jerking her awake: I think I've found my clanmate. 


This time, their task required a full compliment of skilled interceptors, warriors, and archers, such that Gabriel stood amidst a swirling eddy of preparations at the stable yard. No less a personage than the Lady Seeker herself had been chosen to accompany them, with Varric at her side. Now that he thought of it, Varric often installed himself thusly, though he couldn't say that Cassandra appreciated it, per se. Gabriel had noted her nod of acknowledgment when she passed by, a small thing but sorely appreciated nonetheless. If he wanted to impress Shandi, making a good impression on Cassandra couldn't hurt. He could hear Shandi even now, annoying Cassandra with puns. 

Meeting Sera had been...a singular event. He couldn't understand half of what she had to say, and so just nodded dumbly until she seemed satisfied. When Amjad arrived, Sera headed over as if she and Amjad had some kind of magnetic properties; another odd friendship. He supposed without the ability to forge odd friendships, the Inquisition would have been much less impressive. 

Dorian walked up, adjusting his resplendent cloak. Before he could open his mouth Aislinn came running up at speed, practically in to Gabriel's arms. If the Fade were a garment, she wore it bundled tight against her flesh; what lost hallways and eldritch swamps had she explored just mere hours ago? 

"Is it so? You've found Calledan?" She clung to his forearms, and not for the first time he felt how slight of frame she was. 

"It would seem that way, my lady," he told her, grappling with the urge to pull her in to an embrace. She made up his mind for him, hugging him tightly for a fleeting moment. 

"You don't know what this means," she said, her voice thick with tears. "After so long..."

"Don't fret my dove," Dorian said to her in a quiet tone, "if it is even the slightest bit possible, we will free him." 

"I know, I know," Aislinn said, turning to Dorian. Dorian drew her against his chest and smoothed her hair, as if he'd somehow charmed a wild swan and was even now stroking its feathers. For a man who blustered so, his expression could hardly have been easier to read if he'd provided a synopsis and a cartographer's compass; the fact that his countrymen would behave such deeply shamed him, and moreso thanks to knowing these scions of Clan Brangwen as personally as he did. Gabriel had the thought that his eyes were particularly lovely when he felt sorrow, though Creators knew he would never wish suffering on the man. 

"Will you join us, my lady?" Gabriel wanted to know. Amjad came loping over then, a ground eating stride he'd certainly picked up swiftly in the woodland environment of his youth. Aislinn turned to face him and the both of them fell silent, a certain tension coming over the scene, the source of which Gabriel could not place.

"I would have you at my side, my shadow," Amjad told her. 

"Then so it shall be, my mirror." Aislinn told him, though the pinched look hadn't left her face. "I will outfit myself for battle. Excuse me."

As she turned, Gabriel caught sight of the cord around her neck. Even though it was tucked beneath her shirt, he knew its origin.

Solas' jawbone necklace. Curious. 

He half expected Solas to accompany her when she returned, but she returned alone, one more in her Elvhen raiment. Amjad, now seated atop Orala, lead their party out of Skyhold and down the mountains. He knew every twist and turn, every hidden shortcut and every switchback trail. Their mounts could keep up, too, truly the finest horses (and other) in all of Thedas. Gabriel found himself once again glad of Star and her sure feet, picking her way through brush and rock alike with equal grace. 


Their journey lasted roughly five days, in which time they handily dealt with several rifts. With such an august company as they were, only the largest, most robust rifts could test them. One such had Shandi all smiles after it was finally closed, with even the Lady Seeker breaking in to a grin as she cut down the last terror. It died with Varric's quarrels describing a neat dinner plate shape in its face, one of Sera's arrows lodged fletching-deep in its chest. They all fought in a manner striking to behold, like a well-oiled mechanism. 

I will never get used to so much mastery in one place. 

Gabriel thought as he checked himself for injuries. Thankfully, there were none, and any cuts and scrapes the others had managed to receive were easily cleared up with a mere flicker of spirit magic. The group's high mood immediately dampened, however, when they crossed the border in to the Hissing Wastes. A smothering blanket of darkness pressed down on them, extinguishing the sun and leaving only bare starlight to navigate by. The first Inquisition camp was a blessing, and from his covert looks at his traveling companions, they were all happy to see lamps burning. 

"Harding," Amjad said by way of greeting. Harding's sharp gaze took them all in, and she smiled. The expression was meant to buoy their spirits, Gabriel thought, but it held little mirth. "Give me your report."

"Twelve wagons," Harding said, and every member of their band leaned in, listening intently. All knew the value of a scout as skilled as she. "Couldn't tell you which hold slaves and which hold 'vints, though. Can't get close enough for that."

"Barriers?" Amjad hazarded. 

"Like you wouldn't believe," Harding said, "and they've got blood magic on their side."

Aislinn made a little sound. Amjad glanced back at her, then looked at Harding once more. 

"We have enough magical talent to deal with them, I'm sure." Amjad conferred with Harding a moment more, then turned to the party. "I'll go in and mark which caravans hold slaves, and which the masters. That said, there will certainly be some who prefer to keep their slaves close, so mind the unmarked wagons."

"Then what?" Sera asked, sighting down her knocked arrow as if she could hardly wait to let it fly. 

"Kill the Venatori before they get desperate and murder their slaves for the extra power," Amjad said matter of factly. "Make it a slaughter worthy of the Inquisition." 

"Oh one more thing," Harding said, as a scout handed her what was presumably a report. "They have a...rock...thing. Guarding the caravan." 

"A rock thing?" Amjad said, incredulous. The planes of his face, highlighted by ambient light, made him appear otherworldly. It were as if Harding were trying to brief a basilisk or a sphinx. 

"Yeah. Rocks, red lyrium, and a real nasty attitude. Hell if I know what it is." 

"Thank you, Harding." 

Gabriel tapped Shandi on the wrist; he couldn't reach her shoulder without standing on his tip toes. "That sounds like it has your name on it, mon sucre." The term of endearment was out before he could consider otherwise, but luckily she didn't seem to mind. She looked down at him, brimming over with life force and good cheer as she generally did when she'd been promised a big fight. 

"Bet on it, my lord." 

It took an eternity of creeping over the dunes before they found the caravan. The Venatori had hit a point in the path where they were forced in to single file, making their way through a dried up river bed just below the ridge they were all positioned on, bellies to the ground.

"Wankers," Sera whispered, a frown on her generous mouth. They had a fair compliment of sell swords protecting them, and her contempt furrowed her brows and hardened her gaze. No one here had any love for slavers, but mercenaries willing to work for them was insult to injury. Gabriel would have put money on everyone here feeling the same as Sera, on this at the very least. 

"You have your arrows ready?" Amjad asked her, looking at Varric to encompass him in the question.

"Aye, you'll have a big mess of 'vints trying to put out their fancy robes as soon as you say. You got the bees, high n'mighty?" Sera said. 

Amjad patted his belt pouch, which jumped and emitted a faint buzzing sound.

"I wouldn't dream of forgetting them. Not at a time like this."

"You have a means of getting past the barriers?" Gabriel wanted to know, curious what Amjad had up his sleeve this time. 

"My daggers are enchanted. It should be enough."

"You'll have to move quickly," Gabriel said, fretting, "the second they feel the barrier come down..."

"I know. Wait for the red mark and then loose your arrows." And with that, Amjad disappeared. Gabriel could barely draw breath as it was, fretting as he did over Amjad without a bodyguard, but when the rock wraith came in to view the sight all but deflated his lungs. A massive beast from some abhorrent Deep Roads fissure, it moved in a cloud of red lyrium dust. It had a facsimile of a naked skull affixed to the front of its body as if its creator had tired of trying to make it appear humanoid, limbs of hewn stone sending vibrations through the ground with every step. 

What horrors will the Venatori conjure next? Pet darkspawn?

There, the first flask shattered, a lurid red plume staining the white wagon covering. Then another, and another. Gabriel could already feel the faint stain of blood magic, and he could only hope that none of the slaves had met their end at the point of a Venatori's knife. Sera and Varric reared to their feet, arrows blazing to life in their deft hands. The scent of pitch and kindling flame clung to Gabriel as he ran for the path that would take him down to the caravan, Aislinn and Dorian on his heels. The air crackled as the fire found its target, the wagons going up with such sudden ferocity that he realized Amjad had brewed his dyes to not only indicate who was in which wagon, but to catch fire even more readily than plain canvas would have on its own. 

Shandi and the Lady Seeker had chosen the opposite path, and even as Gabriel skidded to a stop in the dirt they were engaging the rock wraith in combat. People came boiling out of the wagons in a tangle; they had no choice, lest they burnt to death. The ragged threads of a rent barrier slapped Gabriel in the face; he'd have to ask Amjad about how he'd crafted those daggers. A man in smoldering Venatori robes came stumbling towards him, screaming and trying to put out the flames with his hands, but before Gabriel could act an arrow went straight through the man's head. Not content to merely cause chaos, Sera and Varric picked off the less powerful stragglers with incomparable accuracy. 

The more skilled mages found themselves locked in to combat with Dorian, all three of them doing their level best to kill him. As much as Gabriel wanted to join in, the Magister had yet to make an appearance and someone would have to stand against him. This wasn't just about killing Venatori; if they didn't rescue Calledan, all their efforts were for naught. 

Gabriel made his way through the chaos--noting at least one group fleeing from the cloud of angry bees gathered about their heads--snapping up a barrier to spare him from the spell runoff lighting up the night. The rock wraith was stretching the Lady Seeker and Shandi to their limits, difficult to get a handle on since it was half in and half out of the Fade as it willed. He saw Amjad in brief flashes, reveling in the madness he was causing thanks to his flasks and Sera's grenades. Several wagons stood torn open like the bellies of fresh caught fish, scattering drinking cups and grimoire pages and fine linens everywhere. Dead Venatori and their hired thugs littered the area, but several of them--too many of them--were still up and fighting. 

Where...?

Blood magic bit in to him, as surely as an enraged Mabari going for the jugular. It pooled at the base of his spine like an impending orgasm, but this brought no such simple pleasure; it made him think of--feel--all the things he could do, the greatness he could yet work, if he but gave in and drew upon it. It's bouquet filled his nostrils with a reek like funeral flowers left too long in their vases, the urge to use its pulsing power like the urge to reach out and touch a bloated corpse despite knowing the horror that waited there.

The Magister stepped in to view, not even glancing downward at the bodies of his fellows. Behind him, Gabriel could hear the pitched battle between Dorian and the three lesser mages, Dorian's necromancy a cold hand on his back; at least Dorian hadn't fallen. A cry, then a gurgle; Amjad's daggers ensured Dorian faced only two opponents now. He could hear it all, sense it all, the vital force from so much blood and combat giving him preternatural awareness he normally didn't enjoy. When he raised his hand, intent on ripping through the barrier obscuring the Magister's features, he felt as if he could see every micro gesture, each individual spell thread as he wove them painstakingly together. 

It was the slave's scream that woke him from his reverie. Slight and starved, the boy was on his knees next to the Magister, a chain around his neck. The blood had come from his arm, flayed open and gushing. Now Gabriel could see the foul maleficar's features; a blur made up of red hair, deep set golden eyes, and a sickening, self-satisfied smirk behind a veil of reddish-green magic. Normally, Gabriel would have tried to draw his enemy out, maybe make the other mage underestimate him before striking. But the sight of that helpless child on the end of a lead like a common cur made him rush the Magister, bringing his sword up to carve through the barrier. The Magister stepped back in shock, and Gabriel froze the chain so that when the slave pitched forward in to the sand, it snapped. 

Unfortunately that was all the headway his enemy was going to allow. They battled over the churned earth, staff meeting blade in a shower of sparks. Never had Gabriel cast so fiercely, or so quickly, the rage at the crimes this man had committed making his sword flare up like a beacon. He could see Dorian now, the pitched conflict having brought them around such that he could view the other side of the battlefield. He could hear the fight with the rock wraith, and feel it in the soles of his feet; each time it clashed with Shandi and the Lady Seeker, the whole area shook fit to knock him off balance. He knew then that as long as the Magister drew breath, the rock wraith would continue to fight. 

He saw Dorian down and exhausted, having killed the last enemy mage. The razor sharp tip of the Magister's staff came at his eyes, forcing him to throw up his arm to block it. Mythal, but he saw the Tempest come out of the shadows, flask up, dagger poised, and Dorian helpless. He whipped his sword around out of desperation, felt the pommel connect with the Magister's temple--he still had time, he could still do something--but the truth was he had nothing, no time, no energy...

Amjad came out of the darkness like a lightning bolt, hatred distorting his features, bristling with daggers. He and the other Tempest met in a flurry of blades so fast it was a blur, flasks ripped from their holsters and shattered with such speed that it put Gabriel's battle with the Magister to shame. The Magister in question reeled back, not expecting such a crude, physical blow, and Gabriel cut his throat with one fluid motion. Dorian, desperate to do something, levered himself on to his hands and knees. Yet there he remained, utterly spent, his hair dripping sweat, chest heaving as he fought to breathe. The utter savagery of two Tempests trying to kill each other rooted Gabriel to the spot as they traded blows, visible one second, obscured the next. Amjad cried out--he's hurt, oh Falon'din pass him over--and then the death rattle, but not from him; his foe fell to the sand with a dagger buried through his eye and in to his brain. 

Silence echoed; the rock wraith had dissipated with the Magister's death. Inquisition soldiers rushed to aid Amjad, down on the ground with his hands pressed to his belly. 

"No! See to Calledan! If he dies I swear I'll make every one of you sorry!" 

The shout, so full of fury and agony, jolted Gabriel back to action. He went to the boy, still face down in the sand. He was certain Calledan--if this was indeed him--was dead, but when he put his hand on Calledan's neck, the boy coughed. Before he could think further Gabriel knelt, drawing Calledan in to his arms. The boy mewled in terror and tried to pull away, but Gabriel could ill afford to let go; the gash that had so empowered the Magister was still pumping blood. He was too tired himself to do much spirit healing, but he sacrificed one of his most powerful potions to close the wound. 

"Dammit, elfy-welfy! If you don't drink this friggin' potion I'll make yer arse look like a pincushion!" Sera said, her finger in Amjad's face. He bared his teeth at her, but he apparently--thankfully--didn't have the energy to fight her. He took the vial, pulled the cork with his teeth, and downed the contents. "That's right, just like sucking Andrastae's tit, all touched Lord Herald." He sputtered in response, apparently amused, but panic just as quickly took the mirth from him. 

"Dorian..." He looked around frantically, and seeing Dorian once more laid out in the sand clearly didn't do much for his state of mind. He tried to get up and Sera pushed him over without a thought, as if he weren't the leader of the free world. 

"Goddamn it, sparkles-out-of-his-arsehole is fine. Takes a little more than a fight like that to singe his tail feathers."

"All right, Sera," Amjad said, not bothering to pick himself up again. "All right." 

"Amjad," Gabriel tried, "I've got Calledan and for the moment, he's alive. But he needs more help than I can give him here." 

"Bring him," Amjad said, cajoling Sera in to helping him sit up, which she did with bad grace. Stiff with fear, Calledan was difficult to carry. He had a drawn, pale face, scrunched up in discomfort so that it was hard to know what he might look like under normal circumstances. He had long delicate ears and flaxen, straight hair, messily braided. He had no vallaslin and he wore mere scraps. His arms were crossed with raised, ugly scars from past bleedings. Gabriel laid him down gently, near enough to see Amjad if he decided to open his eyes.

"You're hurt..." Gabriel tried. 

"I'm fine." Amjad snapped, though Gabriel knew it was a lie; he'd taken a knife to the guts and a couple of healing potions weren't enough to address it. Still, Calledan was Amjad's priority and Gabriel knew better than to push it. The potions would give him a couple of hours at least, before he needed more intense healing. "Calledan," Amjad asked, slipping in to Elvish, "it's me, your clanmate. Do you remember the names Aled and Aeron?"

Gabriel of course could understand the conversation. The names of Calledan's parents, perhaps? Whatever they referenced it had the intended effect; Calledan's eyes flew open and he sat up. Gabriel waved the other hangers on away, sensing this was about to become rather personal. He took over from Sera, helping Amjad stay seated. When Amjad spoke next, he wouldn't look at any of them. Not Gabriel, not Dorian, now being helped up by Inquisition forces. Out of the corner of his eye Gabriel could see the Lady Seeker, partially blocking his view of Shandi, but they were both clearly alive. The relief made him feel faint, but he pushed it aside. He couldn't fall flat on his face too. 

"Aled?" Calledan said, leaf-green eyes huge and disbelieving. Amjad tensed, but didn't comment on the name. 

"Oh Cal, I'm sorry I couldn't free you earlier." Amjad told him, choked up and faint from pain. 

"This..." when the boy spoke his voice was rusty with disuse. Gabriel doubted the Venatori cared for the opinions of slaves. "This is a dream." The Elvish came slow and unsure, as well it might after hearing only Tevene for so long. "How did you...?"

"I am real and so are you," Amjad told him, dismay writ large on his features; it must be difficult to see the ravages the Venatori had visited on his friend. "Have you heard of the Inquisition?"

"You're with them?" Calledan asked, his gaze laser focused on Amjad's eyes; they were so distinctive that he must have thought either this was indeed real, or it was at the least a very accurate dream. 

"I'm the Inquisitor."

"You're not." Cal protested, and by his expression he clearly still thought this was likely a product of wishful thinking. Aislinn came up on silent feet and Gabriel realized that he hadn't seen her throughout the entire battle. Suspicion plucked at his nerves, but now was clearly not the time. 

"Cal? Oh, Cal," she said, dropping to her knees and bursting in to tears. Calledan flung himself in to her arms, clinging to her as hard as she clung to him. 

"Aeron, oh Aeron. I thought...I thought..."

"Shh, it's all right now," Aislinn told him, and all Gabriel could do was sit back in silence, despite the fact that he had a thousand questions for all of them. "We'll explain everything. Let's take you back to camp, all right?" 

"Take me away from here," Cal said, shaking. The horror could be easily heard when he spoke. 

"We will," Amjad said, firm. "You will never again be bound and leashed. I swear it to you." 

Calledan looked as if he might faint and Gabriel rushed to help. This time Calledan didn't protest when Gabriel took him in his arms, and only then did he see the rough impression of the collar against his skin. Horror and anger gave him the strength to carry the boy back to the camp. 

I hope we can help you, poor little lostling. 

 

Chapter Text

The field medics took Calledan from Gabriel as soon as he'd crested the bluff; the boy had passed out, his limp little body as fragile as if he were just a bundle of dry kindling tied haphazardly together. Only then did Gabriel allow himself to indulge his own weariness, stumbling half blind to the tent the soldiers had erected for him. The image of the Magister smirking behind his barrier, a starving, beaten slave on the end of that cruel chain as if he were worth nothing, would not leave him. He knew nothing about Calledan in specific, but he did know that Calledan had once enjoyed freedom, that he'd run through Brecilian forest with his fellows, maybe learned to wield a bow and skin a rabbit and tend to an aravel. He deserved better. Mythal willing, they'd be able to offer him some kind of life at Skyhold.

He found Shandi past the door flap, lying on a pile of pillows. He noted her eyes first, shining in the lamp light. Though, some of that sheen came from drugs; freshly stewed elfroot made the interior humid . Only then did he realize that her arm was braced and wrapped in bandages, stretched out stiffly at her side. She wore only a light chemise, and he could see that the cotton dressing wrapped around her chest and opposite shoulder; how badly injured was she? 

"Fenedhis, Shandi," he exclaimed, dropping to his knees. "You're hurt." Panic whirled through him, and in mere moments he'd already imagined the worst, Shandi getting some awful infection he couldn't treat, losing her fingers or full range of motion, something that would keep her from wielding her sword. And where would Shandi be without that? He had trouble imagining Shandi retiring with grace. 

"Gabriel," she said. She hadn't snapped at him, but her voice held a power, a commanding edge, that made him freeze. "I'm all right. I promise. The rock wraith tried to take my arm off, but it's going to heal up fine. And don't you dare offer to use magic on me. You're about to fall on your face as it is." 

To his extreme mortification he burst in to tears, weeping in to his hands. Shandi coaxed him in to joining her amidst all the pillows, where he curled up at her side like a beaten dog. Worse than that as was his wont when upset, sexual desire gripped him, winding around him as if he'd run afoul of a bramble patch. He balled up even tighter, hoping to hide it from Shandi. Surely she would be repulsed, or offended; she'd been badly hurt! How could he think of anything but the seriousness of such a situation, let alone...that. 

"You're the only guy I know who could have a hard cock at a time like this," she said, and at first he felt as if his chest might cave in. A moment later, though, and he realized he'd heard nothing but gentle affection in her voice, a voice made low and silken by the painkillers she's surely been liberally plyed with. 

"It...I...it just happens sometimes when I'm frightened or upset." He mumbled, embarrassed even if she hadn't yet shown signs of disgust. "I apologize, my lady. You are wounded. I should be thinking of that only."

She snorted. "You're not a merc so I'll let you in on a little secret: I've had sex covered in gore more times than I can count. When you win a good fight, damn....the rush! You want all good things, food, drink, fucking. I'm just mad I didn't strike the killing blow." She gave him a look, thoughtfulness bringing a slight downturn to her mouth. "I guess you did. It went down when you killed the Magister." 

It was a singular experience to hear Shandi swear so openly in such a thick Orlesian accent, an experience Gabirel found himself cherishing. 

"It...doesn't bother you? My...my arousal, I mean."

"No. Do you want to? Fuck?." She waved her hand, affecting an expansive arrogance as if she were a princess on an ornate litter that at any moment would be hosted aloft by a compliment of muscle bound men. "You'll have to do most of the work, you know." 

"Will you allow it?" He wondered, since usually she was on him like a starving leopard on a lame ram. Not that he was complaining, mind, but he liked the thought of taking his time. He hadn't really explored her and her body to the degree he might have preferred, especially considering he had little experience in these matters. There was, after all, only one way to learn. 

"Sure," she told him, curiosity making her tilt her head. In the low light, her horns glittered like a king's hoard, and her gaze held his. Despite her overall cheery agreement, he could sense a little trepidation; the sex they'd had up until this point...maybe she could dismiss it as mutual enjoyment only. Allowing him access to her in this manner, though...It was different, and by the little furrow to her brows and the slight tension in her shoulders, she knew it as well as he did. 

Before he realized he'd chosen to act his hands were up under her shift and on her bare skin, skin that was smooth except for the raised scar puckered just under her left breast and down to the swell of her hip. He knew he was mistaken a moment later as he found several more scars; his hand traveled over the length of her body, marking out the healed over claw marks on her belly and the old axe blows that had left deep hack marks in her upper back, thankfully missing her spine. He'd seen them before of course, but never had he dared touch them on purpose. He was careful not to jostle her wounded arm, though she gasped and arched up in to his touch when he dared pinch her nipple between his fingertips. If it pained her, she didn't show it.

Under the elfroot and the lavender soap the healers had washed her off with he caught the scent of amber and honey, an olfactory caress only afforded him when he pressed his lips to the curve of her neck. 

Perfume. 

She would never cease to surprise him, velvet and steel. 

He pushed her chemise up, exposing her breasts and the soft pad of fat rounding out her muscular belly and thighs. She squirmed out of the garment the rest of the way, though they both had to work to get it over her shoulder and down her arm without causing undue pain. She was laughing at the awkwardness when it was finally off, her head thrown back, hair messy against the pillows, eyes closed. He thought that mirth looked especially fetching on her girlish mouth, a mouth he couldn't resist kissing.  She held him to her and raked her nails up his back, drawing a helpless moan from him. If she only knew what pain could do to him...though now he felt a little more confident about telling her, someday. 

Her name was on his lips, a soft, reverent whisper as if he were some Chantry idiot murmuring prayers to Andrastae. Perhaps if the Chantry hadn't twisted Her, made her bloodless and filed down her eyeteeth, he might have spent his coppers in the tithe bowl. 

"You suck dick, don't you?" Shandi asked him, and though their eye contact had become intense, intimate, she didn't break it. His breath wound up tight in his throat, threatening to choke him, but he nodded. He'd been on his knees more often than not, truth be told. "How do you feel about eating pussy?" She added, when he answered in the affirmative. 

"I...can't say I've ever had the opportunity, my lady, but if it's anything like what I've already done I'm hopeful I won't completely embarrass myself in the attempt." 

She flashed a grin and chuckled. "I'll help you. How's that?"

"Anything you desire," he told her, and he found himself wanting to fulfill every last one of her wishes and needs, sexual and otherwise. "If you don't mind me going slowly." As much as he wanted to start in on the task she had named, he wanted still more of her. He worked his way down when she agreed, trying to find and tease all of her secret, tender spots. He found one on the sensitive skin stretched over her elegant, finely carved collarbone, another under the scar on her hip. She made little sounds of satisfaction whenever he found his mark, and the encouragement emboldened him enough that he felt comfortable appreciating the place between her legs. She drew her knees apart to let him in that much easier, and he found himself hungry for the task at hand. Her warmth, the musk of arousal, how wet she already was...despite having never done any of this before, he felt none of his usual nervousness. His anticipation was too all encompassing for that. 

She gave her consent in a whimper of anticipation, her fingers tangling in his hair as he dared to use his mouth on her. She was so wet, and had so many hidden, soft places; he thought it entirely different from servicing a cock until he found her clit, hard and suckable just as he was used to. She cried out loud enough that he wondered in the back of his mind whether they could be heard out in the camp, though he cared not a whit. She murmured directions to him, and he knew he'd followed them properly when the muscles in her thighs were all clenched and tight and her juices were all over his face. A moment later and she nigh screamed through her first orgasm fit to wake the neighbors. The drugs had loosened her tongue, he thought, making her even less concerned about showing her appreciation than usual. He wasn't about to stop savoring this new delight-already he knew there must be a hundred ways to bring her pleasure in this way-but she dragged him up to eye level by his hair. 

"Put your cock in me," she growled, reaching down to wrap her hand around the body part in question. It was then he realized he was rock hard, and he thrust involuntarily in to her grip. She guided him inside and he groaned as she let him go so he could bury himself in her those last couple of inches, her warm, willing body opening for him as readily as a river accepting moonlight. Mindful of her injured arm, he reached up to touch her horns. He asked without speaking, and she agreed the same way. He tightened his grip, using her horns to brace himself as he thrust in to her again and again. She moved with him, all those hard won muscles reminding him that she could break him in half if she so wished. Luckily she had much more pleasant things on her mind, and instead of using all that physical prowess to wield a weapon or grapple an enemy, she turned it to their mutual pleasure instead. 

He found himself on the edge of orgasm all too soon thereby, and when she arched up to capture his mouth in a kiss it was too much to resist. The fact that she didn't shy away from tasting herself on his lips made him give in, hips twitching as he came, groaning in something akin to pain as he buried himself in her to the hilt. 

He thought she might keep him there, locking him in place until he could manage another erection despite the agony he'd have to endure, but she took pity on him. He hated to pull out, but he did so if only because he couldn't manage the strength to stay in proper position. She was panting by the end, satisfied if her flushed cheeks and sweat sheened form were anything to go by. 

"Feel better?" She asked, teasing him. He could accept teasing from her, since he knew it hid no icy malice the way it had when his brothers had started in on him. 

"I feel I have missed out on many years of pleasure," he told her, flopping down beside her on the pillow pile. "I didn't know being with a woman could be so...so powerful. Though," he said, turning on his side to look at her, "the fact that it is you I am learning this with...that matters." He reached out to take her good hand, kissing her fingers. 

"You're too kind, m'lord," she told him, her laugh weary but pleased. He got up to use the washbasin, then came back with some damp cloths to gently wash Shandi off with. "I could get used to this," she said, though he thought it was half a lie. She didn't enjoy being laid up like an invalid, not one bit, though he liked to think his care made it a little more bearable. 

He brought her watered down wine and a couple of potions, fretting over whether she had everything she needed. 

"Come and lie down, nurse Marlowe," she told him once she'd downed the medicines, affixing him with a sweet look. Satisfied that she had everything, he curled up against her once more. Soon enough, he dozed off. His dreams were blessedly mundane. 

 


When he woke, Calledan knew immediately he wasn't in Magister Regulus' caravan. Though he had at times woken up in the tent of a favored underling (often, his body had been offered up as a reward for those who pleased the master), this felt different. Things smelled wrong; he couldn't detect the spiced wine Regulus preferred, the wine he'd been made to pour for Regulus' allies, nude and in chains. Gone was the creak of canvas and the sound of horse's hooves struggling through the sand. He lay on a plush bed, a feeling unfamiliar after years spent sleeping on the floor with little more than a single threadbare blanket. The voices nearby were unfamiliar and spoke Common, not Tevene. Even so he was too cagey to feel relief, despite realizing his master's hold had been broken. Whoever had taken him could have motivations as depraved. Assuming this wasn't some cruel dream.

Seeing Aled's face a moment later didn't settle the dream or reality debate. How many times had he fantasized about this very thing? Aeron and Aled finally coming for him? And then he and Aeron would become bondmates as the Clan had always thought they would. They would one day guide the Clan as Keeper and lead hunter, and whatever strange curse had fallen on Aeron would be cured and no longer would she want to die. He imagined taking the blade from her, cajoling her out of her miserable posture as she clutched at the dagger as if it had the power to cut away her torment. He'd found her like that several times, angry, red furrows marring her skin; once he had only barely talked her out of cutting her own throat. Now, he would tell her how important she was, how beautiful, how the clan needed her, and she would be free, as if he had the power to break whatever foul magic had taken her with the power of his love. It was a good fantasy, warm and full in a way nothing else in his existence was. 

"Cal?" Aled peered at him, worry making his features look drawn, even more sharp than they usually were. 

"Go away," he managed, coughing. He couldn't remember the last time he'd spoken of his own accord. If this were a stupid delusion about being rescued, there was no point indulging in it. Fantasizing was one thing. An outright hallucination was just cruel. 

"Cal, this is real. I promise you." 

Aeron came up beside Aled, her pale fists scrunched tight in her skirts. That made him struggle to sit up, and he reached for her hands. He worried that at his touch she would disappear, but no. He felt her cool skin on his, like the pages of a much loved book. Appropriate, as he could remember her poring over such precious knowledge as First. Kaffas, how long had it been since he'd even let himself think about home? 

"Aeron? Aeron, you came for me?"

"Cal...yes, we've rescued you. Your master and all of his lackeys are dead on the ground outside."

He hugged her so tight he heard the breath leave her lungs in one heavy pulse, but he couldn't let go, wouldn't ever let go. 

Aled gently pried him free after a long moment, then sat on the side of the bed. He was a vision, wearing shem clothes that had to have come at a price that could have bought and sold the Magister Regulus' entire caravan. He knew then that Aled wasn't lying about being the Inquisitor; the Anchor's magic felt like a fourth person in their little space, pushing its way in between them as they looked at each other, really looked at each other, for the first time in years. It made hot pins and needles dig in to Cal's hands and feet, and he wondered at the thing's power even when it wasn't actively being used. Magister Regulus had spoken of it, of course, but being right next to it was a different thing from hearing. 

"Cal, I'm going to try to keep this simple for right now because you're in shock. Aled and I...we switched bodies."

A laugh clawed free of his throat, an ugly thing like a hyena chewing through carrion.

"I knew it. This can't be real."

"It is," Aeron told him. Or was she Aled? Or...?

"We found a great power," Aled? told him. "That power allowed us to take the other's form. You...you remember the way things were for us."

He did. How could he forget? Aeron had been the most obvious in her misery, but Aled had suffered no less, though private, nervous Aled would never let Cal see the extent of his pain.

"And now? Who are you now?" His head spun, and it wasn't all from the shock.

"I was once Aeron," the person wearing Aled's face told him, "and now I am Amjad. The Inquisitor, by some cruel twist of fate."

"And I was once Aled," the person wearing Aeron's face added, "now I am Aislinn. And I am free. I have the right body. I needn't obsess over ancient rituals and forgotten magics to change us anymore; we found what we needed."

 "Then...what will happen to me?" Would this new person, this Amjad, care for him? Would he have Aeron's qualities and personality, even wearing Aled's skin?

"Oh Cal, we will take you back to our stronghold and care for you, of course," Aislinn told him. He studied every inch of her, those long slender fingers, her lambent amethyst eyes with the gold flecks that would always pick out a child of Riona. Now that he had found himself in friendly hands, memories of the clan bubbled up inside him whether he wanted them or not. Riona, with her thick, black hair, her clever hands, her musical voice that could effortlessly tell even the most obscure of their clan stories. Riona, a werewolf, dead on the ground filled with arrows. He with the other children hiding under the aravel, Aeron with her little herb knife out ready to defend them, even though she had been only eight winters old then. 

"I'm so sorry we didn't come for you sooner, ma vhenan," Amjad told him, and he felt Amjad's soothing hand on his forehead. "But we never forgot you. I promise you that." 

The sobs came then, even uglier than his laugh. Amjad and Aislinn crawled in to the bed with him, pressing their bodies against his, wrapping their arms around him, and he wept until he had nothing left. Sleep took him then, Aislinn's lullaby soft in his ear. 

Chapter Text

They bore Cal through the gates on a stretcher snatched from the last Inquisition camp they'd passed on their way back to the fortress--Skyhold, as he'd heard them say as they spoke over his prone body--and the mountain air cleared his nose and lungs of that foul desert smell. The chill air coiled around him; If he never again felt the merciless heat roll over those endless dunes, it would be too soon. 

A healer bent over him as soon as they stepped inside--he knew by the way she smelled, as if Sylaise's hand had reached down from the heavens to bless her--a woman with pale skin and a thick black braid. Riona? No, that name belonged in the past, like a toppled cairn made illegible by winter weather. Regina, that was it. He heard Aer--Amjad say it, Amjad's voice tight with concern as he gave Regina the bare details of what they knew about the abuses Magister Regulus had considered a matter of course. They'd forced Amjad on to the other stretcher, or more accurately the human mage in the fancy robe had made hound dog eyes at him until Amjad had given up and laid down. 

Out of the noxious soup that was people's words, and smells, and bustling around, he got the idea that they were going to take him somewhere for treatment. He had little strength but he used what he did have to sit up. 

"No! Don't take me away!"

He couldn't stand the idea of being alone with all these shems, not without Amjad or Aislinn to protect him. Aislinn came to his side a moment later, taking his hand. 

"It's all right, da'len," she said, "lie back down and I'll come with you."

At first he thought she had Aeron's voice (what other voice would it be?), but with her controlling the body her tone had changed. She spoke to him in a soothing stream of soft Elvish, her statements laden with emotion even when her words were simple. She held herself differently too. When Amjad had controlled the body, he'd often raised his head in defiance, his back as straight and unbreakable as a Keeper's staff, gaze blazing. Aislinn instead glided across the courtyard, her gestures fairy-like, light yet with a strange, otherworldly quality. She was the rabbit to Amjad's wolf, the halla to his hawk. 

"What are they going to do to me?"

He gritted, sick with suspicion even though Aislinn had kept her promise, keeping pace with his stretcher as they entered the place of healing. Though it smelled passingly familiar thanks to some of the herbs they were using, nothing else seemed right. To go in to some covered over, cramped shem building instead of lying in a healing circle with the clan dancing around him felt wrong, and he doubted that he would recover here. How could he without the clan spirits to help him? (He hardly thought the crude attention Magister Regulus had given him after bleeding him counted, either). Maybe these people would take what they wanted from him as soon as Amjad and Aislinn weren't looking. He glanced over; Amjad looked in no shape to intervene, curled up on one of the beds, hugging himself tightly.The other healers, people he guessed were under Regina, were trying to get him to relax enough that they could figure out how bad things were. He'd been hurt in the fight, Cal knew that much. Over the several days and nights it had taken to travel back to Skyhold, at least a couple of mages had done little else but heal. He wondered who in all the hells the shem mage primarily responsible was; tall and thin, he had a certain grace to the way he moved, but Cal didn't miss the tightness to his slightly rounded shoulders or the troubled look in his big sea-green eyes. He had a dark beauty to him, pale skin and true-black hair. That very beauty made Cal shy away; magisters were often beautiful. Nor did he miss the way the man stayed practically glued to Amjad's side, wringing his delicate hands, his mussed hair against his wan skin making him look even more tired and anxious than he likely was. 

Which is saying something. He's slinking around like a beaten animal. 

"Help you," Aislinn said firmly. "This isn't like..." She made a small, guttural noise, as if forcing her statements past a stone lodged against her vocal cords, "we're different from the Magister and his lackeys. I promise you. No one here will harm even a single hair on your head." 

He considered that and found he could accept it, for now. Amjad would never let that kind of violation stand, gut wound or no gut wound; he should never have doubted. Still, he couldn't calm down and he was so stiff from fear when they tried to shift him from the stretcher the attendants just grabbed his limbs and set him on the bed like a starfish. 

Regina bent over him and he found himself turning to her, praying that she would be kind. 

"Hello, Calledan. You're in a bad way, my dear."

Her voice held no guile, but then again Magister Regulus could also make himself seem harmless when it suited him. He thought he could hear angry Tevene in the background, but he dismissed it as little more than a left over torment, visited on him by his already taxed mind. He chose to focus on this agent of Sylaise instead, hoping she would anchor him to what was real. Whatever that was. 

"Water?" He asked, just now realizing how dry he was. They brought it to him, and he couldn't detect any drugs in it. He took the risk and drank it. Kaffas, how long had it been since he'd had a full, cool drink of water, water with no sedatives, water with no tricks in it? 

The relief the water afforded him also made him aware of how utterly exhausted he was. That and he'd long left mere hunger behind and had entered the realm of starvation, where he no longer felt the simple urge to eat. Instead he felt a kind of dangerous euphoria, the kind that could kill. At a certain point the only thing an abused body could do in response was try to make the process of enduring and perhaps dying a little less awful. He feared he'd crossed that threshold some time ago. 

"I'd like to give you some elixirs," Regina said, and he scuttled away from her and balled up near the head of the cot. Not her too! 

"No! No potions." He'd spent so much time drugged with Magister Regulus. It was only luck that he wasn't a mage; mages weren't just drugged, but turned in to mindless pets. Aislinn knelt beside the bed, showing her palms as if to reassure him that she wasn't hiding anything from him. 

"Please, Cal. You're sick. I'll stay right beside you." 

He heard, but he couldn't accept it. He wept through the process, too weary to protest, the taste of the brew at least palatable. That familiar lassitude came in to his limbs and he uncurled some, his head too heavy to hold up. Aislinn crawled in to the cot with him, and huddled against her he found enough peace that he could drift off to something resembling sleep. 


When he woke, he found Amjad at his bedside. Aislinn had gone, probably trading off with her brother so that he needn't go without a familiar face. He found it difficult to focus on Amjad, what with the Mark so close. Body switching aside, it was all that old, wild magic that made understanding what had become of his friend so hard. 

"Cal, you're awake. How do you feel? Do you need anything?" 

"I'm fine, lethallin." His voice still came out in a croak half the time, and when he devolved in to a coughing fit Amjad supplied him with more water until it passed. He let Amjad convince him to drink some hearty broth, too. The potions had done something to ease his hunger, but he knew he needed real food. 

"Fine, he says." Amjad snorted. 

"What about you? You took a blade in the guts." 

"I'll be all right. Gabriel's healing plus a flight of some of the best brewed potions available have done wonders." An awkward silence stretched between them, and Cal wasn't about to break it. It was Amjad that spoke first, finally: "I...da'len, I'm so sorry we didn't come for you sooner. The Keeper wouldn't spare the hunters for it. I raged at her, Creators, the things I said. She would not be moved. Andra and the others, we wanted to find you anyway. But the Keeper declared that our aravels were to move on that night. It was agree or be left behind."  

"You escaped." Cal could remember it now, the way he was starting to remember many things from his life before now that he found himself in Amjad and Aislinn's care. "I remember, Al--Aislinn had a rope around h--her neck, and you cut her free."

"As the slaver was dragging her away. I remember it. Indeed, I think I shall never forget it. To this day I am sorry my dagger missed that shem bastard's eye."  Amjad's face twisted up in a scowl; how odd seeing Aeron's expression on what had been Aled's face. 

"They...they..." Cal said, trying to explain to Amjad what he had experienced being tied and subdued, loaded in to a slaver's wagon, blindfolded, gagged. He couldn't, as if he had a geas preventing him from speaking. Amjad took his hand. Amjad had knife calluses that rubbed against Cal's skin, and the Mark prickled along his nerve endings. But still, Cal's heart fluttered at that touch, and the gorge that had risen along with the memories eased. 

"It's all right, Cal. You don't have to explain it. If at some point you wish to speak on it I will listen, but you don't owe it to me. Just know that we will keep you safe here." 

"I still can't believe it," he whispered, studying the featureless ceiling. He felt glad it wasn't the wagon, but he wished for an aravel. "And you the Inquisitor. They spoke of you. The Magister and his underlings."

"I hope I strike abject terror in to their black hearts," Amjad snarled, his face like a rabid wolf's, all teeth and deadly promise. 

"You did. You do. No one would ever say as much, but...I knew. I learned to hear their joys, their slightest annoyances. Their fear." All could mean danger for him, if he reacted incorrectly. Survival had made him cagey, if nothing else could be said for him.  

Amjad's fingers were in his hair then, gently combing it back from his face. Cal felt an unfamiliar expression cross his lips, looking up at his clanmate; a smile. 

"When I am done, all of Tevinter, every slaver from here to the Waking Sea and beyond, will fear me and mine." Amjad said. Amjad had a way of speaking where it was impossible to disagree when he felt strongly about something. When truly serious, his voice lowered and intensity made him still and quiet. If anyone knew the dangers of such conviction, it was Cal. Of course Magister Regulus had his angry moments--shouting, the little table tipping and sending rumpled scrolls in to every corner, a cruel hand on his neck--but worse were the times that began in cold silence. 

"I believe you." He whispered. He found himself distracted by Amjad's presence, maybe because he was trying to find some spark of Aeron's still alive and burning in there somewhere. "I...I missed you."

Amjad winced. That wasn't the reaction Cal expected and definitely not what he hoped for. 

"I...of course I missed you, Cal." Amjad said, and the carefulness in his tone made Cal want to lash out in a sudden fit of jealousy and rage at what had been taken from him. He knew right then, Amjad had given his heart to someone else, or had at the very least outgrown their old life, outgrown him. For a moment, he felt hatred; Amjad and Aislinn hadn't spent the years they'd all been apart as worthless slaves, good only for blood and as a warm place to spend one's lust. How dare they move on? 

The Mark leapt under his palm and the anger evaporated. To bear such a thing...he wouldn't wish it on anyone. He knew it gave Amjad terrible power, even the power to slash open the Veil to hear the Magister talk, but the burden? Knowing only he could save Thedas? And, if he knew Amjad, caring little for Thedas to being with. What after all had Thedas ever done for the Elvhen? 

"Are you scared?" He found himself asking, turning Amjad's hand up to study the borders of the Anchor. It whirled like a sandstorm, kicked up by who knew what. Amjad met his eyes, and though Amjad's gaze was level he said,

"I'm terrified." Amjad told him, turning to stare at nothing. He looked his nineteen winters then, an Elvhen youth tossed amidst all of these fool shems with no guidance and little support. Again, the silence stretched between them but this time it was Cal that broke it:

"Is it Gabriel?"

Amjad turned to look at him, surprise in his expression.

"What?"

"Your new love," Cal whispered, chest seizing. It hurt even to say, and an answering pain echoed in Amjad's dismayed face. 

"Cal...no it's not Gabriel, though Gabriel has been good to me since he arrived at Skyhold. Let us...let us leave this conversation for when you are well. Suffice to say I didn't choose another lightly." He paused, clearly struggling. "I could never have done it before, been with you, the way I was. You remember."

He did, he found, when he turned his mind to it and dragged memories free of the black ocean his past had become. They'd been young then, kaffas, how long had he been in Magister Regulus' chains? At least two winters. He would have counted by summers, thanks to the desert climate, but summer there had no obvious end. 

They'd been out in the woods alone, and their hunt had soon turned to awkward kissing, hares and deer forgotten. He could still remember the thrill that had gone through him when he'd dared to reach under her robe, his fingers on the bare skin of her thighs. It had gone no further; she'd pushed him away, disappeared in to the forest to hide. 

"You weren't happy," he tried. He understood the power of whatever curse it was that had befallen Aeron and Aled, but he couldn't know its ins and outs the way they did. 

"That is a massive understatement, ma falon." Amjad said, hands clasped in front of him, back bent. "It wasn't because of you. I loved you. I still love you, even if it's a different love. I was never going to be a good bondmate. I was never going to settle down with you or any other hunter, never going to make strong Elvhen babies and be the blasted Keeper. I'm sorry," Amjad said, sighing a heavy sigh. "It wasn't my destiny, I suppose." 

Cal took Amjad's hand this time, ignoring the mark as much as he could. 

"I just hope whoever..." he choked up, the emotions still powerful. "Whoever you're with, that they appreciate you."

"You wouldn't approve, but...yes. I would say they do." He wouldn't approve? He didn't like the sound of that but he didn't press; he didn't really want to know. "Regardless," Amjad added, "you are our clanmate and we will make sure you never want for anything. More than that..."

The shadows around the fire came to life in his mind, hulking werewolf shapes that loomed over what light the clan had cultivated to keep them safe through the night. Hiding under the aravel as the halla screamed and arrows blackened the sky. He could still see the bodies, heads severed, split open and gore everywhere. He, Aeron, Aled, and the rest of the children hiding, Aeron with her little blade in hand as if she could kill even a werewolf with it. Beyond clanmates, the bond that had been forged then bound them even tighter than being clan Brangwen.

 "I know, lethallin." 

"I wish I could stay at your side day and night, but my station doesn't allow for such niceties," Amjad grumbled, maybe trying to put the memory out of his head,  "but Aislinn and I will try and spend as much time with you as we can. You can trust Regina, even though she's a shem. When you're feeling better, you might go and speak to Commander Cullen. I...from what I know of him, he might be able to relate." 

"Commander Cullen?" He said, incredulous. A human, probably, and with a fancy title besides. 

"He was involved in the Kirkwall rebellion and not always on the right side. You should ask him about it. But I have judged him to be a good man, and he has proved indispensable for the Inquisition's efforts." 

Amjad always spoke like a First, with fancy words and a measured voice, and Cal had to concentrate to keep up. 

"Maybe," he allowed, though he couldn't imagine going to find some big important shem on his own. 

"Try to sleep, ma vhenan. I will return to you as soon as I can."

Amjad went so far as to kiss his fingers, and he tried to ignore the feelings it conjured up. Eventually, exhaustion took him.


"Kaffas, Amjad," Dorian said as Amjad emerged from the infirmary. Amjad stumbled and caught himself on the door jamb, clammy and pale. "You aren't well enough to be up and about." He went over to help keep Amjad on his feet, putting his arm around Amjad's shoulders. He thought he could safely explain that away later if anyone asked, though what he dearly wanted to do was pick Amjad up bodily and carry him all the way back to his quarters. 

"Well, what was I going to do? Have you there with me?"

"Yes, well. I can imagine how that might have turned out. Evil Tevinter Magister and all that rot." 

"Just so. Now help me back to my room, will you? If you can stand to."

There was a barb on Amjad's tongue, one that he certainly deserved. 

"I will." He said, short. There was nothing to be gained by returning that bitterness in kind, but he wasn't so evolved as to do otherwise. 

"Dorian." Amjad's tone made him look down, to find the elf watching him with unblinking eyes. They were alone, Dorian realized, a rare moment of privacy. Dorian felt rooted to the spot as Amjad's arms wound gently around his neck, so aware of their closeness, Amjad's warmth despite the wound sapping the vitality from Amjad's body. Kaffas, when things like this happened, his wits went right out the window. All he could do was hold Amjad tight in return, his cheeks flushing as he realized his arousal was a little more ardent than was acceptable in polite company. The kiss was inevitable, soft, yet hot enough to burn. 

"You shouldn't have done it," Dorian whispered when they parted.

"Emma lath, you would have died. You know that I must protect you." 

Amjad let him go and Dorian turned his attention once again to helping Amjad back to the room. They made it through the courtyard without being accosted--Dorian was doing his best arrogant Tevinter noble impression, which tended to put people off in a variety of hilarious ways (he particularly enjoyed it when Mother Giselle made that face as if she'd just tasted gone off milk)--and then in to the Great Hall. Varric looked as if he would come over to them, his lips pursed in a sour look. He thought better of it, apparently, and let them go without comment. Merciful Andrastae, but Dorian didn't want to speak to anyone at a time like this. 

The blast of winter air that hit him in the face when they made it past the door and in to the room proper helped clear his thoughts; Maker, but Amjad could have died. Died, while he was face down in the blasted sand without a drop of mana to his name. The sense of helplessness made his guts tie up in a pert little bow of misery and anger. He wrangled Amjad on to the bed; the walk had taken most of Amjad's energy. He looked grey under his dark skin, ashy with pain and weariness. 

"Let me see it," Dorian said, crawling up on to the bed with him. He started to take Amjad's clothes off with shaking hands. Amjad laughed, but there was little sexual motivation in it. He wanted to see the wound, reassure himself that Amjad was going to be all right. Amjad obliged and wriggled out of what little he had on. Dorian ran his fingers over the white bandage, red at its edges. Damn, still bleeding. He could scarcely think through the panic. Him, a battle mage of incomparable skill (if he did say so himself) and here he was on the verge of blubbering like a child. 

He started when Amjad took his hand, drawing it away from the wound.

"I will be all right. Some bleeding is normal. Regina said so."

"You...I thought...for a moment. Kaffas!" He couldn't speak, blast it all. 

"I know." Amjad reached up to caress the line of his jaw, those hands so rough from killing over and over again, the dagger hilt wielded in such a sure grip it was an extension of Amjad's arm. "I'm sorry for worrying you."

Dorian frowned. "You enjoyed it, didn't you?" He accused, seeing that subtle quality to Amjad's expression that reminded him of a young mage who had just mastered a difficult spell. 

"Well, not the blade in the guts, no. But it's rare to find another Tempest as skilled as I am. The chance to match wits, technique...Mythal, so thrilling! And I won. That dirty bastard is hyena food and I'm here to fight another day. To love you another day."

Dorian just shook his head. Trying to control Amjad would be as foolish as trying to tame a wyvern, he knew that, but sometimes he wished Amjad had chosen something else. A bow, maybe. (While he knew how to use one he never did in combat). At least then he wouldn't be in the thick of it, breaking flasks and going hand to hand with the enemy.

Amjad pulled him down to lie on the bed. 

"Dorian, stop it. Here, help me change the dressing." 

That, he could do. He followed Amjad's directions, dipping in to the bag of supplies Regina had sent. He shied away from the sight of the open wound. It was his little secret; gore made him light headed. Still, he worked through it, though he was sure he looked like he was about to pass out, much to his chagrin. First, the poultice, an herb paste that stained his fingers green-black, the smell permeating everything; he doubted Amjad would ever get the medicinal scent out of his bedclothes. Then, the bandage, clean, fresh. It did him good to see that unmarred white. He taped it down, careful not to put undue pressure on Amjad's already taxed body. 

"There. You did well." Amjad told him, giving his hand a squeeze. Dorian went to the washbasin to clean off, still shivering. He came back and was about to crawl in to bed when Amjad said, "take those clothes off, emma lath. You won't want to sleep in them."

He did as told, shucking his clothing and leaving it draped over the nearest chair. He'd never quite broken the habit; his whole life, servants would have swept in silently to fold his clothing within moments. He stretched out next to Amjad, his hand resting oh so lightly on the bandage, a reminder that Amjad would heal. Amjad couldn't move much, but his hands still worked and he used them readily, one in Dorian's hair, the other trailing over the flat plane of his belly. 

"Really, amatus?" 

"What? I can't fuck you but I can still bring you some pleasure, if you want it." A moment where he couldn't manage a response, Amjad laughing. Amjad's laughter never hurt. It had joy in it, and love. Gentle teasing. Perversely, it made Dorian calm down, lose some of his shame about such an act when his amatus was badly hurt. "You look so scandalized," Amjad finished. 

"I don't know if I will ever get used to your loose tongue." Happiness suffused him, blunting the shock, the little stinger of shame that pierced his soft emotions. Amjad's touch, when he reached Dorian's cock, was gentle. 

"Do you want it, emma lath?" Amjad asked him, eyes lambent with emotion. Amjad could be a cold blooded killer, but whenever they were together he was sweet, the picture of compassion. Those eyes that could hold so much cold hatred were always warm, when fixed on him. He felt himself grow hard in Amjad's grip; how could he do otherwise? Here, locked away in Amjad's quarters, he could forget his fears and worries, and his body responded in kind. 

"Always," Dorian told him, gazing back at him like some lovestruck idiot. It was hard to keep the smile off of his face, a thing his father certainly would have scolded him for; being too expressive was a problem in Tevinter. The kind of problem that could end with your death if you expressed your feelings to the wrong person. Soon Amjad was stroking him, all but demanding an orgasm from him. He was so good with his hands it was a crime, and he knew all the ins and outs of Dorian's desires. Again the thought of what Cole had said came unbidden, Amjad promising him he would fulfill his darkest wants. The very idea was enough to undo him and in no time he was crying out and thrusting in to Amjad's fist, the orgasm taking him over. 

When it was done Amjad looked as satisfied as if he'd had an orgasm too. Offering pleasure made Amjad as happy as if he were receiving, and Dorian felt as if all his troubles had been smoothed away by something as simple as this had been. Amjad had that effect on him. 

"I'm sorry I can't reciprocate, amatus." He murmured, tired already. The stress of the day and then a good orgasm were more than enough to lull him in to a doze. 

"Oh, don't worry. I doubt I'd enjoy it much anyway, emma lath. Go to sleep." 

And sleep he did, content. Before he'd thought his quick couplings and his first romance, aborted by his father's sellswords, were the best he could aspire to. He had learned to expect only the rush of forbidden sex. Contentment? That was new. Rare. And now that he knew it was possible, he would fight to keep the memory close to his heart. 

Chapter Text

Though falling asleep had been pleasant--well rather more than pleasant, thanks to Amjad's quick fingers--his dream was markedly less so. A moment's confusion only and then as certain as the moon at night: the Fade. Dorian knew it well, despite never having to endure something as backward and cruel as a Harrowing. He'd never been taught to fear the Fade, only to master it. Thanks to that mastery, he felt the familiar weight of his staff in his hand, and the surge of mana within him. His very aura repelled those lesser spirits that might have otherwise tried to beguile or bedevil him, and his barrier took care of yet more. 

Slowly, Skyhold's reflection came in to being the same way blown glass took shape, molten, featureless mana gathered up and forced outward by his will. He was no somniari, not truly--if he were a mere thought would have reshaped the Fade completely. His Skyhold wasn't a perfect replica, therefore; other things in the Fade, and even the Fade itself, still held sway over certain aspects of his perception. He found himself in the courtyard, though the grass had become brittle, jagged and bright like a child's drawing. It burst apart under his feet, motes of crystal dust dancing before his eyes. A quick scan told him that none of the other mages had found themselves here alongside him; why not? Were all Southern mages so frightened of that which lay beyond?

Surely Vivienne at least wouldn't eschew the Fade. Not for those reasons. 

Then again, for those who were not somniari or those who hadn't bothered with the Fade other than to avoid it, they would have little incentive to come here. For all of Madame de Fer's strengths she had a black and white view of magery, and perhaps would have considered it simple good sense to sleep restfully like a normal person. 

Which you would also benefit from, you idiot. 

He made his way towards the Great Hall, though its windows irised in and out, throwing kaleidoscope shapes and patterns on to the steps below. Within, he found the wraith-like impressions of the souls that dwelt here during waking hours. The vast majority of those that lived within these walls were not mages and could never be anything but passive, receiving dreams and nightmares in turn and able to do little but endure. 

Chilly uncertainty settled in his belly. Where was Cole? If nothing else, the spirit should be here. Why, the boy was literally carved from Fade stuff; nothing should have kept him from coming over to say hello. And yet...no, only impressions, bare echoes of laughter or weeping, moving stiffly and enacting the habits of their daytime selves as if ordered to do then again ad again by an overbearing choreographer. 

He picked up the pace, heading for Amjad's quarters. Here, branches erupted from the floor and trellised around the entrance, greenery carpeting the stones beneath his feet. He put his hand on the latch, and only then did he realize that there was a wolf's image burned in to the wood. Its jaws hung open, the teeth glittering. He came up the stairs, the delicate shell around Amjad's magery whirling in the back of his mind. He could see it, too, here in the Fade. So artfully constructed! Far beyond the skill of any Dalish Keeper, he thought, though of course he'd never voiced such an opinion to Amjad or Aislinn. Yet it was delicate, as if time had slowly peeled back its layers like a Minrathous dancer shimmying out of her veils. Inside, he could perceive all that imprisoned mana, swirling with possibility. One day, it would crack open. He could only hope he would be there when it did. 

Could it be? Is that why I'm here? 

What had compelled him to enter the Fade? 

Amjad rose from the bed when he entered the room proper, and his questions suddenly seemed less important. Some part of him still wondered at seeing Amjad so fully realized; it wasn't impossible, but usually untrained sensitives couldn't control their Fade selves this well. His breath caught at the way the sheet slipped from Amjad's form, leaving him nude. No matter all the times they'd made love, just the sight stole Dorian's remaining senses. Well, not all of them. 

He brought his staff to bear in front of him, his other hand outstretched. A spell waited there, and a moment later he cast it as easily as if he'd merely opened his hand and let a feather drift to the floor. 

"Show your true nature, if you are other than you seem." It was a good invocation, a powerful one, and it had kept him from being possessed more than once. Amjad only smiled at him, an indulgent look. 

"And who else would I be, in the middle of Skyhold?" 

His amatus had a point. Every mage could feel the power inherent in the very foundation of the place, old conjurings atop still older. He came a little closer, entranced not only by Amjad himself but by his surroundings, as if Amjad were one of those erotic paintings found in the drawing rooms of naughty old dowagers. He'd always quite liked those--he'd helped Amjad choose the one over the fireplace--passing his interest off as the usual nattering about art styles and ahem brush strokes one often devolved in to at boring parties. 

 "You have an uncommon Fade self, you know."

Amjad looked down at himself, then held Dorian's gaze, grinning fit to show his canines. Dorian rolled his eyes, but he had meant to include all of Amjad's attributes. 

Amjad crossed the distance between them, arms winding gently around Dorian's neck as was his wont. He had to stand on his toes to do it, and the position inherently involved their bodies pressed together. Dorian shifted his position, putting his arms around Amjad--staff forgotten--and tightening his embrace such that he almost took the little elf off his feet. It was beastly difficult to resist Amjad on a regular basis, but here in the Fade even moreso. Yet he hesitated, too well trained to completely throw caution to the wind. 

"Worried I'm a demon?" Amjad teased, murmuring in to his ear. It sounded preposterous put like that, and the warm words aroused more than just his feelings. 

"Can you blame me?" He kept his words light; if Amjad was indeed a demon, provoking it would do no good. Amjad's fingers tangled up in his hair, and the kiss just behind and under his ear made him shiver. A demon who knew him very well, then. 

"No, of course not." Amjad said, stepping back and taking his hands. "What sort of trials would you have me complete? Questions you'd like to know the answers to? I'm afraid I don't know what a mage does to prove the presence of a demon." 

Hm. Amjad did know the basics, though granted he wasn't as informed as he might have been had he taken up the official title of First, his talent for magery fully developed. The Dalish didn't obsess about and fret over demons the way humans often did, either. 

Amjad led him towards the bed while he was still sorting through his thoughts, and he found himself allowing it out of long habit. Surely, if there was a threat here, it would have made itself known by now? What was the point of stringing him along like this? His higher mind whispered to him about desire demons striking at the height of orgasm, or after fully convincing a victim that their lover had rejected them (or any number of other cruelties), but the situation was too tempting, Amjad was too tempting. They'd never taken full advantage of the Fade before, and he couldn't help but wonder what lovemaking might be like here. 

He wondered when he'd stopped referring to it as mere sex. 

In the end, it was all too easy to give in. 


Cullen looked up from the mess of scrolls on his desk, half unfurled and tossed about as if his office were a ship on the high seas. He had no one to blame for the clutter but himself, however, and once again he resolved to deal with it once he was better rested. If better rested never came to be, well, he needn't answer to anyone about the state of his quarters. It wasn't as if he was sharing them with anyone else. 

His day had slowly turned to night with no respite. He had finally taken a moment for himself, standing up to relieve a cramp in his neck when the side door opened, hard enough to send a dusting of loose plaster down from the hole in the ceiling.

"Maker, what is the meaning of--"

Sergeant Riley stood there mouth agape, hand outstretched. A moment later, Cullen saw the elf child in the midst of jerking away from Riley's grip, only to discover he'd been forced deeper in to the office due to his efforts to escape. He had no vallaslin and his features were obscured by a rat's nest of flaxen hair, yet it wasn't difficult to guess who this might be: Calledan, recently liberated from some Maker forsaken slave caravan. The report had come across his desk just that morning. 

"Commander! I--"

"Dismissed, Riley." 

"But--"

"Now." 

At least Riley had the sense to close the door quietly; he thought that at any moment the poor thing before him would dive under his desk like a feral cat, hissing and spitting all the while. Calledan turned a pair of wide eyes on him; he was so terrified Cullen couldn't make out their color. He stammered something in a language Cullen couldn't understand, though by his posture Cullen guessed it was an apology.

"It is quite all right," he said, coming around to the front of his desk slowly, holding his hands out, palm up. "You must be frightened, being so newly rescued. No one will hurt you here." 

Calledan looked here and there, assessing possible avenues of escape no doubt. Riley had closed the door and the main entrance stood barred. Apparently the elf wasn't willing to chance the ladder, either. Likely he would have been rather disappointed to find a bed, a table, and not much else, if he had. 

"You're Cullen." The voice made him readjust Calledan's age. Despite his size, Calledan had to be at least sixteen. Cullen could well remember his own bumbling efforts to live up to manhood, his voice breaking and cracking the most whenever he'd been called upon to handle roll call or public prayers. Branson used to tell him he had all the grace of a newborn foal, especially after that incident where he'd tripped over the horn cleat on the family dock and ended up in the lake instead of in the boat. Cal had left those awkward strivings behind not only because of mere age, however; he had a certain steely, survivor quality about his thin frame and the cast of his face, even as upset as he was. 

"I am. And you must be Calledan. The Inquisitor's clanmate."

"Amjad told me about you." Calledan said, poised on his toes as if he might need to flee at a moment's notice. 

"Did he? Good things, I hope." 

Calledan gave him a plainly hostile look instead of answering. Clearly some defiance had survived, despite years of suffering under a Magister's yoke. Cullen leant against his desk, trying to convey an easy manner. Showing tension would be a mistake, as a slave might well interpret any such cues as the precursor to...well. It didn't bear considering. 

"Why are you out and about at these hours?" Cullen tried, "are you troubled?" A stupid question, really; of course he would be. Still he didn't have much to work with, and he only hoped he could keep Calledan from bolting out in to the night. 

"Can't sleep. What about you?" He asked pointedly. 

"Sleep can be...elusive, when you have my duties. Josephine would say I have "poor work-life balance." Partly a lie; nightmares had as much to do with it as work did. 

He wondered if he should offer Cal some of the candy from the bowl at his elbow. He worried it might come across as a test of some kind, though when Calledan's stomach rumbled audibly he did so anyway. Calledan fixed him with a mistrustful stare, and now that the initial panic had worn off he could see that Calledan had eyes the color of a drake's scales, foiled, gleaming green. 

Calledan grunted, looking between him and the bowl as if trying to decide if he could make off with the contents before a punishment came down on his head. A moment longer and he scuttled forward like a spider--hesitating for a moment only at the shock of soft carpet on his bare feet--cramming candy in to his mouth with both hands. 

"You'll make yourself sick," Cullen told him, his spirits dampened by such obvious need. When was the last time Calledan had eaten a full meal? Disgust at Venatori barbarism made him suppress the urge to gag; he could imagine all those hungry nights with nothing but dust in his mouth. Calledan paused and backed away as if he'd been given an order, and there was a wary quality to his hunched posture. "Look, I was just about to go to the kitchens. Why don't you come with me?"

"You...you can just go and get food? Whenever you want it?" Calledan said, so incredulous it was as if he were being deliberately lied to. 

"In Skyhold, everyone eats their fill. Including you, if you'd like." 

"...this isn't a trick?"

"No," Cullen said, trying not to show how the words had hollowed out his insides. "I think you'll find Skyhold to be overall a safe place." 

Calledan considered him for a long moment and Cullen stood solid under the scrutiny; he figured he owed Calledan that much. Calledan nodded then, apparently deciding he liked whatever he had divined. Cullen came forward to open the main door, throwing the bar and hauling on the knob; the door liked to stick in the frame every time the weather changed. He walked out in to the night air, and thankfully Calledan followed without protest. 

"You write?" Calledan said as they negotiated the staircase. 

"What?" He asked, then realized Cal must have seen the missives littering his workspace. "Oh, I do. The Chantry teaches its templars letters and numbers, at least the basics. And you?"

"No. Why would I?"

"I apologize. I wasn't sure..."

"I wasn't that kind of slave," Cal said, his voice hard. "They didn't care for anything but my blood and my body." 

Something about the phrasing made Cullen stumble, then come to a shaky halt. Sweet Andrastae, not now. He could hardly let himself panic in front of Calledan of all people, so newly freed. Certainly Calledan hadn't enjoyed all the benefits he had, time to heal, a new role he could be proud of....a shudder went through him and he blinked, looking around as if just now realizing they were on their way to the kitchens. He felt Calledan's gaze on him, was too aware of it, in fact. Could those keen Elvhen eyes see the tremble in his hands, the harsh flush to his cheeks? Certainly he didn't look equal to his title; he couldn't have. 

"Amjad told me to talk to you," Calledan said, a repeat of what he'd offered by way of explanation back in the office. But this was different, the tone was different, as if Calledan was just now understanding the why

"I'm sure he did," Cullen heard himself say, lifting his hand to wipe at his brow. "I...don't know what it is to be a slave, but I...empathize. Let us leave it at that for now."

He set his feet on the path again and blessedly Calledan followed without question. He'd already intended to spend his night tucked up beside the ovens, letting the warmth sink in to his joints, joints that were more and more stiff, more and more painful, with every passing day, with every swallow of lyrium. Why not let Calledan enjoy it too? He wasn't so private as to exclude someone in need from his little rituals. With the lightest of hands, he guided Calledan through the Great Hall and down the passageway to the baker's station.

 

Chapter Text

There was no greater pleasure than Solas buried to the hilt inside her, reminding her that every inch of her new body could feel, that it belonged to her and only her. Aislinn arched under him, those uncommon eyes --the color of the rain-slick cliffs of the Storm Coast--gazing in to hers, her finger describing the curve of his delicate ear. She loved to make studious, reserved Solas lose control, and she knew all of his tender places, all of his fantasies, needs, wants. She drew her knees up so that every thrust pierced her deep enough to ache, Solas drawing an audible breath; he always preferred to take her as if they were mating animals rutting together, once she'd stripped away his defenses and offered herself up so utterly that he couldn't help but give in to her, claim her. 

They'd all but tumbled in to bed as soon as they'd reached her little room in the mage tower, the drowsiness that had overcome them while studying together in the rotunda--her fingers still stained with ink--quickly fading as if it had never been. Her little bed, covered in the lovingly crafted Dalish blanket she'd taken from home, barely accommodated them. Yet they found space, limbs intertwined, curled in to each other as if they were one being like they sometimes were in the Fade. She all but purred as an orgasm built within her, clenching tight around Solas' cock such that she could tell he had little control left, too. 

"Aislinn...vhenan..." 

"Don't hold back," she whispered, trying to communicate so much in just one silly understatement of an expression; the expressions available to her all seemed paltry and sketchy, banal and superficial compared to the depths of her love for him. At times in their relationship, at moments of great intimacy, Solas had retreated, his gaze shuttering over, his posture subtly conveying distance. She tried to hold him to this moment, doing whatever she could to keep him with her. "Stay with me."

"I am sorry, for ever making you doubt," he murmured, and a moment later he filled her with come, arching his back and thrusting into her with a silent growl on his lips. Creators, but it felt like life, no matter the precautions she'd taken, as if he were filling her up with light. 

So close to her own release...unbidden, sudden horror burst open in her brain like a cluster headache, making her scream for an entirely different reason than the one of only a moment before. To her disgust the orgasm happened anyway but the cold magic writhing inside her made it a thing she didn't want, wrenched from her unwilling body by a force she couldn't yet understand. Solas pulled away, pulled out, and she sobbed at what felt like a blade pulled from her guts. She shot bolt upright in bed, vision obscured by the Fade, pouring over her in a flood. She sensed Solas' hand on hers, the only anchor to sanity. He grabbed, pulled, and through the Veil they went, like being born.


Aislinn came through in to the Fade howling, half in her body, half in every form she'd ever taken in lighter moments. She felt her muzzle elongate, her hands crimp in to paws. Only being a Dreamer kept her from transforming completely; with a swelling of pure will, she fought down all the things she could have become. 

She stood, using the groundswell of resolve to bring her staff to her hand. She leant in to it, panting. She wore only a simple dress the color of bruised blackberries, though the lack of armor did not concern her; having no blade did. A moment later and one rested in its sheath on her hip, close to her hand. She drew it, the halla horn handle sending a vital thrum through her wrist and arm. She looked around for Solas and a moment later he appeared beside her, equally wary, pursing his lips in disapproval.

Aislinn could sense her brother here, his caged magery gleaming. She reached for it, for him, and a black web of foul magic tried to catch and consume her. She knew then. 

Decadence. 

The knife sunk in to her forearm. She had labored under a similar restriction as Amjad, until blood had split it open and her magery had surged in to her. It was of such strength she had raised an army of skeletons from the forest loam without a thought, the bones from hundreds of conflicts between the Elvhen and the shems. They had turned towards her, blank and ready for whatever command she might have given. But what could she do? They were useless. They had come too late. 

If only...

She thought often about that moment, knowing that a fighting force such as that could have easily stood against Zathrian's folly. Why, only after so much had passed? No, fenedhis. She thought instead of what she had made possible; how many things had she accomplished with blood? Taking control of her own abilities, no small feat in itself, cracking and prying at that strange, old shell around her magic until it had disintegrated in a cloud of dust as old and as faded as Arlathan. 

And even then, it couldn't change you. Either of you.

She shoved the thought aside. Now was not the time. Instead she let that twinge of remembered helplessness enrage her, enough to apply her will to the featureless Fade. She gave what she had felt context, surrounded it with shape and bound it with resolve. Solas raised his hands to his line of sight as if he held a tangible object, supporting her magic. The Fade was almost as biddable in his hands as hers, Veilfire unfolding the way his sketches took shape under his pen.  

Her Skyhold lay blanketed in snow, imprisoned in ice as if this were a storybook tale about a castle frozen in time. Blood dripped from her fingertips, staining the virgin white under her feet. Solas came with her, silent; he knew as well as she that their new adversary had come for them again. As she climbed the steps to the Great Hall, he finally spoke:

"This...should not be possible. The magic here is old, powerful, the likes of which I have not seen even deep in the Fade. No demon should be able to overcome it, no matter her powers." His voice struck like flint against steel, iron bark arrowhead against bone. 

"I will drive the worthless bitch from our stronghold, ma vhenan." Aislinn snarled, drawing the blade across her chest, parting the cloth, letting the edge sink in to the tender skin of her breast. She split the nipple, gasping at the pure red agony, trembling so badly so suddenly that she almost let the blade clatter to the landing. The more pain, the worse the suffering, the stronger her spells. Her body rebelled even here, the torment punching her in the gut. Yet the sigils that described her magery came to life around her, blood magic clinging to her hair, running down her belly in rivulets of primal secrets only one willing to cut off pieces of themselves could know. 

The Great Hall yawned open before them, a black maw. Shadow obscured the details here, and her battle with Decadence began in earnest before they had even glimpsed one another, each of them struggling to control and form the Fade. She ripped at her own flesh without concern, the raw power rising, her necromancy calling up ghosts from the very stones. How many had lived and died at Skyhold, hopes, dreams, fears? At her command, they crashed through Decadence's barrier, rending the protections she had erected. Decadence's answering spell poured forth like a river of ichor, thick, choking power meant to ensnare. Solas yanked her away, and with but a wave of his hand the dire substance retreated.

"Go!" He told her, and she sprinted for the door to her brother's quarters. Surely he needed her; Decadence had motives too evil to consider. 

She hit the door shoulder first, shoving it open as if she had twice the strength she normally enjoyed. She came in to the room in a burst of mana, Solas' barrier as intimate as his attentions earlier in the evening, hot against her skin. Decadence had made herself comfortable on Amjad's bed, lounging between Dorian and Amjad's still forms. Decadence held the shield around Amjad's magery, made a solid thing in the Fade. It glittered harshly against her birch-white hand, so fragile that if she but breathed on it, it would shatter. 

Falon'Din, make your home in another's house, she thought, looking at two of the most important people in the world to her, so lifeless. 

"Silly little blood mage," Decadence hissed, her face set in malevolent lines, made harsh by the glow from the orb. "Do you think mere suffering will drive me from this place? I have feasted my fill on suffering you could only imagine."

Aislinn found and held the foul creature's gaze. She drew the knife point down her face, splitting her cheek. She didn't move, or flinch. She wouldn't give Decadence the satisfaction. The power welled up within her and with a deft flick of her hand, she drew the orb from Decadence's grip. The demon stared at her, mouth agape in shock at such spellwork. She hid the orb in a pocket of Fade stuff, away from Decadence's touch. 

"Whore," Decadence spit, "you only have so much blood." 

The words made her realize the truth, and only Solas' energy, shared with her, kept her on her feet. 

"You do not belong here," Solas intoned, and to Aislinn's surprise the demon recoiled. "Tell me, how did you manage to haunt this stronghold? No mere insect should find purchase in this place." 

Decadence hissed at the insult, then turned her attention to Dorian and Amjad. They lay as if they had been embracing before Decadence had interfered, slithering between them as if she were a third lover come to join the orgy. Aislinn could see the perverse enjoyment she took at touching them, knowing they were in no position to resist, and she thought of the orgasm Decadence had stolen from her, imagined the grotesque demon consuming it like a pig eager for slop. Decadence pressed full length against Amjad, her visage mere inches from his face. Of course, what prize greater than possessing the Inquisitor? With no more thought than that Aislinn vaulted over the side of the bed and slammed in to her, staff and blade both forgotten. She and her adversary went over the far side of the bed in a heap, claws raking at her back and shoulders. Bespelled, Amjad and Dorian didn't stir even at such a commotion, but Solas acted so quickly it could scarcely be believed. The Fade itself rippled, heaved, and a battering ram of pure energy drove Decadence off of her and away. Aislinn scrambled to her feet--fenedhis, she had forgotten the knife, she needed to banish Decadence now--she raked her fingernails down her face as hard as she could. Blood magic leapt towards Decadence as if it were a sentient force, and Aislinn lifted her hand, pushing the spell, forcing the demon to flee. 

When the Fade sealed at Decadence's departure, leaving them in silence, she collapsed in to Solas' waiting arms. 

Chapter Text

Thankfully, Calledan hadn't protested, even when navigating such a cramped passageway down to what could have easily been a dungeon. Maker, but how long had the poor boy spent locked up? Kept in a cage, or collared, struggling along at the end of a leash? Still, Calledan went ahead of him, even so. Wary, yes, but no more than that. Perhaps it had something to do with the aroma wafting up from the basement, currants dotted throughout a bread made fragrant with generous pinches of the finest saffron.

Cullen came in to the bakery and shucked his heavy coat, crafted from green Avaar wool. Recently Josephine had finally worn him down on the subject of his wardrobe, and he'd taken to wearing the expensive (far too expensive for a former templar from Honnleath, not that she would listen to such a protest), admittedly very flattering pieces she'd ordered for him instead of always strapping himself in to plate armor at the start of each day. As the lyrium took more and more of his strength, regular clothing relieved some pressure off of his swollen joints, too. 

The head baker turned towards him; at this hour she worked alone, her assistants having scurried off to bed. A squat dwarf woman, Jalsi never complained about having to use human sized ovens. Instead, she had constructed a system of step stools and empty beer kegs that allowed her to reach whatever she needed, and despite her appearance she moved and jumped between those platforms with all the agility and confidence of a mountain goat. Her red braids, piled atop her head, blended in with the color of the fire behind her and brought a glitter to her soil-brown eyes. Somehow, she had kept her white apron immaculate, though she had a light dusting of flour on her hair and a streak of chocolate on her cheek. 

"Cullen. Come to do my job for me?" Calledan said nothing, lurking in the shadows. Jalsi spotted him immediately however, and her gaze flickered from Calledan to Cullen. "And who is this?" 

Calledan fixed her with that flat, hostile look, out of keeping with the cheery scent of croissants fresh from the oven. The steamy warmth down here always helped Cullen relax, but it wasn't yet enough for Calledan. 

"This is Calledan, Jalsi. I thought he might enjoy doing some baking." 

Jalsi nodded as if that were the most normal thing in the world, but by the fine lines at her temples and around her mouth she had noted Calledan's odd behavior and found herself puzzled by it. Cullen could have hugged her for her efforts, trying to appear normal even though teaching a newly escaped slave to bake sounded like the punchline to a particularly insensitive joke. 

"As long as you finish this batch of rolls," Jalsi told him, "don't let the damn things catch. They're worth more than I am, with all that saffron."

"Jalsi," Cullen said, trying to sound wounded. "When have I ever ruined one of your creations?"

"Oh, well, there was the time you feel asleep and let my nut loaves burn." She said, counting on her stubby fingers. "Then there was the time you were trying to bake pies for the last feast and used salt instead of sugar. Or the time where you made a Fereldan Mess pudding and put meat in with the whipped cream because the recipe book had stuck together pages..."

"All right, all right. You're right. But I swear I won't let these go for too long." 

Jalsi wiped her hands off with the towel stuck through her belt, seemingly satisfied by his assurances. 

"Good. Now I am going to the tavern. I've earned a beer." Jalsi hung her apron on the peg near the door and headed upstairs, grumbling about her aching feet. Cullen took one of the chairs nearest the oven and beckoned Calledan to take the other seat. Calledan obeyed, grudgingly. 

"It's not an order, Calledan. I just want you to be comfortable."

Calledan's expression took on a sharp quality, perhaps he was surprised that his feelings were so obvious. 

"You're a big important shem aren't you?" Calledan wanted to know, leaning forward as if he might pounce. "Give a lot of orders, right?"

"Not those kind of orders," Cullen protested, stung. "I promise you, there are no slaves here." 

Calledan crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. "Maybe so." Then he said, "there sure are a lot of mages." Cullen reached for the tray of croissants, hoping he could at the very least charm Calledan with food. 

"And that upsets you?" Cullen wondered, feeling then as if he'd swallowed a stone. 

"Mages are dangerous," Calledan hissed, "they talk so pretty about magic not ruling over man in Tevinter, or whatever that Andrastian shit is, but then all of them--and I mean all of them--are fucking maleficars when no one is looking." 

Cullen swallowed hard, looking at the pastry in his trembling hands. He handed the croissant to Calledan, buying himself a moment to sort through his response. For so long he had believed exactly as Calledan believed now, having seen so much horror at the hands of blood mages. Not only had Kinloch Hold left indelible marks on his soul, but Kirkwall had done little to soothe him. No, it had whipped his terror and paranoia into a lather, and with every possession, every murder at the hands of a maleficar, his purpose had been all but assured. By Andrastae, he could still remember the way Wilmod's face had contorted just before the demon within him had burst free of his flesh, smile stretching unnaturally wide, eyes cold and malicious, bulging in their sockets before coming apart like squashed, rotten fruit. Why would he question Meredith? She had been right, or so he had thought. Around every corner, a blood mage waited. Even Hawke, a proud apostate, had been forced to admit that he'd uncovered at least three maleficar himself, one of whom had gone so far as to murder his wife in full view of the Alienage. 

He came back to himself if only because Calledan was staring at him. 

"I think that is probably true, if you're with the Venatori." He said carefully, trying to keep his voice from wavering. Things were different now. He knew better than to assume every mage would one day give in to their inherently sinful nature as some in the Templar Order had taught. "Why avoid blood magic if you are mandated to accumulate as much power as possible?" He paused, seeing that Calledan hadn't made a move to eat. "You can eat that. It's not poisoned." 

Calledan looked at the croissant, clearly starving, then back at Cullen. Slowly, he tore of a piece and put it in his mouth. He made a little sound and his eyes fell closed; the pleasure of a luxury food such a surprise that he couldn't keep up his hostile mask. 

"It's good, isn't it?" Cullen said. He found himself smiling; it did his heart good to see Calledan enjoy something. They had just met, but he couldn't help but be concerned, protective. What could possibly arouse more sympathy than this fellow plucked from the edge of an existence marked only by violations and misery?

"I...I've never had anything like it," Calledan said, and instead of shoving it in to his mouth as he had with the candy earlier, he savored every bite. Clearly, he didn't want the pleasure to end. 

"Would you like to learn how to make something that good?" 

Calledan looked at him, incredulity making Cullen hastily swallow a laugh. "What? How can you make something that good without magic?"

"It's easy."

Calledan cocked an eyebrow and his mouth became a tight line. 

"Jalsi said you mess up desserts." Ouch. Calledan was nothing if not direct. 

"Just trust me." Cullen said, rising from his chair and looking around for what ingredients were closest to hand. He took a moment to rescue Jalsi's rolls from the oven, just in time. "Do you know what a poundcake is?" Calledan shook his head, no. "It's delicious. Full of butter and white sugar." He took those very things down from the shelf, arranging them on the bench next to the oven. 

"White sugar?" Calledan asked, and when he looked back at the elf he saw that Calledan's mouth was agape, his whole body tense. But instead of the nervousness he'd witnessed back in the office, this was more like anticipation, desire. "We've never had white sugar. Not the slaves. Once Magister Regulus was so pleased with me he let me lick up cake crumbs from the floor after a feast, but..." Calledan blinked, and for a moment he looked as lost as he must have felt. "For me? You'll give me some?" 

"I will." Cullen assured him, having to push his sadness over Cal's interrupted life down deep. Calledan wouldn't thank him for showing it, he was sure of that much. "Will you come here? I can teach you." 

Calledan came over like a skittish cat, his ears flattened back adding to the comparison. He clambered up on Jalsi's step stool, gaze sweeping over the floury surface of the baker's bench. Cullen reached for the salt and a juicy orange coaxed to full sweetness in a hothouse somewhere. It cost a fortune too, he was sure; the Inquisitor spared no expense. Calledan drew a sharp breath; the scent of the fruit hadn't gone unnoticed. It must have been quite the surprise after so long in the Hissing Wastes. 

"What do I do first?" Calledan wanted to know, gaze roving over the pillowy block of fresh cream butter, taking in the bag full to the brim with sugar as if it were a cascade of tiny diamonds. 

"Measure," Cullen told him, placing one of the smaller scales in front of him. "Do you know any numbers?"

"Only a little," Calledan said, eyeing the ingredients and the tools as if he couldn't imagine how they might go together, "the Dalish don't measure the same way, and Magister Regulus saw little need for me to learn much of anything. But I can count to ten."

"That is all you need." Cullen found a mixing bowl and set it next to the scale. "All right. One pound each of butter, sugar, and flour. And I'll worry about the eggs." Jalsi always had a huge basket of them, so many that she often bemoaned the fact that Skyhold's chickens were so productive she could barely keep up with the bounty. He cracked a full pound of them, cradling them in his palm. Thankfully his hands only shook a little as he worked, not enough to spoil his task. When he snuck a look at Calledan, he found the elf intently studying each ingredient, the tip of his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth as he thought, apparently deeply. "Are you all right?" 

"I...if I were to touch something this rare..." Calledan said. Cullen could guess the rest. 

"What if I were to give you permission?" He asked, trying to keep his words gentle, soft and inviting. Calledan looked up at him, shock making the tips of his ears twitch. 

"You would?" Calledan looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time, all of its riches surely impossible to miss. Whole nutmeg pods sat in neat containers, right beside sultanas usually reserved for the Queen of Fereldan's tea cakes. Vanilla pods hung in bunches from the ceiling, alongside a type of red chili hand gathered from Rivani rainforests.  "You are the Commander..." 

"You may use those ingredients," Cullen said, setting the bowl of freshly cracked eggs on the baker's bench. "You are free now. Go on." 

Calledan huffed, threw his shoulders back, and reached for the butter. So defiant was he that he left perfect finger grooves in its surface. After that, though, he needed no more prompting. When his ingredients were ready, Cullen combined them and added the eggs. He handed Calledan the rasp and the orange. 

"Take the skin off. Here--in small movements--use the rasp like this and turn it...very good." 

Calledan tapped the rasp over the bowl, fine zest dusted over the batter, so bright it brought to mind the parrots down in the Basin. Cullen folded it in, Calledan's interest making him look more like a curious young man and less like a newly rescued slave. 

"It will make the whole thing taste of orange?" Calledan wondered. 

"Yes. Here..." He took the rasp and held it up for Calledan to smell. 

"Creators, so...ah, I don't have the words." 

 Cullen chuckled. "Sometimes words aren't quite enough, are they? Would you like to put this in the oven? It will take some time to bake." 

Calledan turned that same intent determination to this new task, pouring the batter in to its pan and sliding it, ever so carefully, over the fire. That done, he scuttled back to his seat. Cullen took his as well, though changing positions had recently become more than a little difficult. 

"You're in pain," Calledan said. Maker, the elf held little back once he judged himself safe enough. 

"I am. The consequences of my role, I'm afraid." He found himself enjoying Calledan's company, but he was in no way ready to reveal his struggles with lyrium. That was a story for another day, far in the future, if ever. 

"I always used to be in pain." Calledan said, as direct and flat about this as about anything. "I didn't really think about it until I came here and they gave me all those medicines. I'm sorry. Why can't they do anything for you?"

"It is a more complicated case. They're doing what they can." Calledan accepted that, if his silence were any indication. "I assume you haven't had much chance to explore Skyhold," he tried, never quite sure how to bridge the gap with Calledan whenever silence came upon them. 

"No," Calledan said, keeping close to the oven's warmth. Maker knew he was too thin. "I saw the tower and the big room over the Great Hall, but from afar." 

"I...would avoid the library if I were you."

"I don't know that word," Calledan said in a clipped tone, not quite scowling. Already he had anticipated that whatever he heard next, he wouldn't like in the least. 

"A place where scrolls and books are kept. And grimoires now, I expect." A curious thing, even now in the new world order. No Circles, no apostates. No need to hide grimoires, or write them in code. Still everything the Inquisitor had done in that regard left him dizzy. 

"And I should avoid it because?" 

"We...there is a mage from Tevinter here, as part of the Inquisition." 

"You have a Magister here? And you allow it?" Calledan demanded, voice rising. He got to his feet too, almost as if he hadn't meant to stand. Fury and terror made him look wild, as if at any moment he might trade out his elf skin for a wolf pelt. 

"He's not a Magister, but yes. He has proven useful to the Inquisition and is an exile from his homeland in any case."

The last bit surprised Calledan enough that he sat down again, wringing his hands. "An exile?"

"He doesn't agree with the Magisterium's methods, to put it lightly." Dorian had the passion of a true believer, a trait that Cullen no longer saw as a purely positive quality. More than once he had become so taken up with emotion during Wicked Grace that he'd thumped the board hard enough to spill the pieces in to a meaningless jumble on the cobblestones. Of course he'd still had the gall to declare himself the winner, slurring his 'victory' with red wine on his breath. 

"I don't want to see him. I don't care what he thinks."

"And you won't have to. But, Calledan...even if he were a blood thirsty ravening monster, my men and I would keep him from you." 

"Why? You don't even know me." Unlike before, this time Calledan's demeanor and voice suggested...sadness. And a true, guileless confusion. 

"Do I need to, to know that you deserve protection?" The aroma of cake slowly browning calmed his heart, which he only now realized had started racing in response to Calledan's upset. "I won't insult you by claiming you need it. You're strong. You must be, to have survived what you did. I won't treat you like a child, or like you're a stray animal that needs to be coddled. But you do deserve protection, when you need it. Everyone needs it, at some point." 

"I'm just an elf. A slave. A nobody. I don't understand why you would bother." He meant everything he'd said about Calledan's resilience, but he knew also that Calledan would need support to find his self-worth again. He felt it; Maker knew he'd needed it after Kinloch Hold. He'd never received the kind of help that might have altered his course for the better, and the resentment still bit in to his chest, crushing his ribs. 

"I know you have little reason to expect anything from me. I am not blind to what has been done to your people, or to what you have endured. Even if I was once, the Inquisitor has...changed my perspective. Some might say he never lets me forget it." 

"You shouldn't," Calledan all but snapped, and Cullen wondered at how similar his expression was then to the Inquisitor's own. Calledan and Amjad weren't related by blood, but Clan Brangwen needn't rely on those ties to call themselves family. "You shouldn't forget it." 

"I promise you I won't."

Before Calledan could respond the sound of boots thunking on stone interrupted their conversation, and a moment later Riley raced in to the room. 

"Commander! It's urgent. The Inquisitor requires your counsel." 

"Bloody--" he barely stopped himself from cursing further, "all right. I'll be there shortly. Riley!" He called before Riley could disappear again. "Will you please escort Calledan to his room when he's ready to go?" He looked over. "If you'll allow it, Calledan." 

"You trust him?" 

"I do."

"Then I'll go. But don't touch me, shem."  

Riley frowned at his back as he got up, but Cullen ignored it. When he entered the Great Hall he could readily sense what had likely caused the disturbance; though he no longer called himself a templar, his old abilities were as strong as ever. He could smell lyrium and demon spoor, thick on the ground and in the air. He went towards the Inquisitor's quarters, pausing only to furnish himself with a sword at one of the nearby weapon racks.

Chapter Text

Shandi's broad sword crashed through his barrier and Gabriel thought for sure he was a dead man; the fact that they sparred only saved him. A true battle, and he'd have aught left but a bony stump in place of his skull. He managed to keep his feet, but he stumbled and spun, driving the point of his sword in to the dirt to prevent a graceless tumble. He'd lost, clearly. She stepped back, in good spirits yes but kind enough not to mock him. He straightened, primly straightening his tunic. 

"Well, I demand a rematch." He said when he'd managed to catch his breath. The injury the rock wraith had dealt her had left her with no lasting ill effects, perhaps unfortunately for him just at the moment.  

"You shall have it, m'lord." She said, laughing. She stood squared up, her top stretched tight across her ample chest. It consisted of little more than two triangles of material struggling to contain her assets, and thick braided cord offering some much needed support. Her posture as always conveyed easy confidence; she knew where her skills lay and it showed. She sheathed her weapon, turning her head towards her task. The shimmering disk of the early morning sun came in to being as an Orlesian lady unfolding a fan, or Andrastae bearing the living sunburst in Her hands over a gently rolling hill. The light caught Shandi's horns, transforming them in to a crown of fire. His heart caught in his throat. Surely he had seen sights as beautiful, but at the moment he could not recall them. 

"My Lord Marlowe?"

The page at his elbow sounded rather concerned, and it took him a moment to realize that it was the third time he'd been thusly hailed. 

"Yes, my good man, what is it?" 

"The Inquisitor requires your presence, and that of um..."

The boy turned to Shandi, blushing straight to his hairline. The poor callow youth had hardly seen thirteen summers, though Gabriel could wager the sight of a muscular, curvaceous  Qunari woman in little more than scraps of taut silk was single handedly helping him onwards toward manhood. He could nigh hear the boy's balls drop as Shandi straightened and faced them, rippling muscle shifting under the cord criss crossing her back and knotted around her neck. 

"The lady Shandi Adaar," Gabriel finished for him, pointedly. Shandi grinned, unrepentant. She cared not a whit if men found her pleasing to look at. She dressed as she did for herself, not for the idle gaze of males with more urges than sense. 

"Of...of course!" The page squeaked. "In...the war room! Quickly! If it pleases you?"

He bowed. Too low; Gabriel had to snag him by the collar to keep him from falling on his face. As quickly as he could, he ran for it.

"You do that on purpose," Gabriel said.

"I do not. I like to dress this way. It's not my fault he's thinking with his cock. The men practice with their chests bare always and no one says a word. I am at least covered." Shandi pointed out, chuckling. She left her sword locked up in the special armory where those with enchanted and otherwise unique weapons kept their battle kit, then went to fetch the rest of her clothing. The wings tattooed on her back undulated and jumped as she shrugged into her jacket, the deep forest green and gold velvet affair she loved so. Truly it could not be matched for loveliness, though it did nothing much for modesty as it buttoned too low on her torso to cover that impressive cleavage of hers. "And it's not my fault if I think it's funny, either. Ha, idiots." 

Gabriel tried to keep back the laugh, but snorted on it instead. 

"I wonder what sort of trouble we're getting in to this time," Gabriel said as they headed towards the Great Hall, and he found that even though a summons from the Inquisitor could only mean something serious had taken place, his spirits were yet light. 

"Something worth doing, mon sucre," Shandi told him, outlined in a pale glow as they ambled up the stairs. She wore the sunlight like a veil of gossamer, only to have it gone on the breeze as readily as dandelion fluff, blown away by the gloom of the Great Hall. Gabriel followed her shadow in to the War Room only to find Amjad poring over the maps, Dorian at his left, Morrigan at his right. Cullen stood in his usual position at the far end of the War Table, but his usual easy, confident stance was nowhere in evidence; he stood ramrod straight, gaze faraway, pupils dilated, grip too tight on his sword handle. Even his coat of Avvar wool couldn't bring warmth to his complexion. 

"My Lord Inquisitor," Gabriel said, a bracing concern taking the lighthearted intoxication brought on by the morning's events from him. Amjad looked up, his features drawn and inscrutable. The hammered gold shade of the scarf loosely tied around his neck brought out the cool undertones in his dark skin, and his eyes appeared as those belonging to a funeral mask befitting a Nevarran king. 

"Gabriel. Shandi. I welcome your presence. I'm afraid we have a serious situation on our hands." 

He hardly need say it; the mood in the room felt sepulchral at best. 

Only then did Gabriel realize that the entire inner circle was in attendance, minus Aislinn. 

Creators, is she...? No. Certainly not. Amjad would hardly be so composed if...

He scanned the crowd, trying to ascertain some clue as to what had transpired to warrant such a meeting. Cole stood near Lady Vivienne--she as perfectly put together as always, in a silver gown and a white fur cloak--hugging himself tightly and rubbing at his upper arms. His muttering could barely be heard, though once discerned its panicked quality couldn't be missed: "pinned and pinioned, helpless and horrified...I will twist and turn you, little spirit..." 

"No matter the issue, Shandi and I are at your disposal." 

"Aye," Shandi agreed. Gabriel had come to know her well enough to recognize her less obvious cues; she subtly shifted her weight, one foot went slightly back, one shoulder jerked a bit higher than the other. She twitched as if she wanted to cross her arms, and she tilted her head ever so slightly. She felt uncomfortable here, in front of such exalted personages as these were. Still, beyond body language only he and perhaps Lady Vivienne might read, she would hardly show it. 

"Last night," Amjad said, looking up from the map and sweeping his gaze across those gathered, "a demon gained access to Skyhold. And not just any demon."

"Oh no," Gabriel blurted.

"Decadence," Amjad finished. 

Gabriel felt himself drawn to Solas then, perhaps because of the uncharacteristic rage on the man's face. Normally Solas tried to cultivate a calm, almost sage-like demeanor that honestly grated on Gabriel's nerves the few brief times they'd encountered one another, but now he looked carved from stone by an artist with a particularly harsh hand, even his ears chiseled precisely as if every movement of the sculptor's tool had been chosen to convey spite. 

"This should not be possible," he said, "this fortress is nigh impenetrable." 

He's taking this awfully personally.

"No fortress is impenetrable," Morrigan said, a subtle bouquet of contempt to her words, like the notes in an expensive wine. "Those who hunt you will always find a way to violate even your dearest sanctuary. And you must be prepared for it."

"This is Corypheus' doing," Leiliana said, her upper lip curling in a little snarl of distaste, "if he cannot destroy you with fear, he will send desire."

"Well," Amjad interjected, "she's doing a poor job seducing me."

"And yet she entered your bed chamber, over powered you, and did the same to Dorian when he came to your aid," Leliana pointed out, "no seduction needed. She is no lesser desire demon come to tempt you with silks and frozen grapes. She has such things in her arsenal as to turn your hair white, or so I imagine."

 "A vile creature," Lady Vivienne agreed, her cultured tone curdled with disgust, "and you must agree that to penetrate Skyhold's defenses, she needs a connection to someone or something here. It is obvious, my dear," she said, addressing Amjad directly. "Something personal. Every mage in Skyhold can feel the magics in this keep, layers upon layers of defenses and wards over thousands of years. Yes, she is powerful. More powerful even than the Fear demon the Inquisitor faced in the Fade. But to penetrate the very heart of Skyhold? No. She has some special knowledge. A key. But what?" She asked, the question encompassing everyone in attendance. 

"I...cannot say," Amjad admitted, though by his expression he hated to do it. "The only connection I have to a demon is Fear, and Fear lies dead in the Fade." 

Shandi shook her head. "Only the rock wraith, and it dissipated after we killed the Magister." 

"There were demons at Kinloch Hold," Cullen said. His voice had no color or strength, and he wouldn't look at any of them. "But they were all destroyed." 

Lady Vivienne held up her hand. "It is not necessarily a connection to just any random demon. It could well be a connection to a desire, a want, a deal made. It could be a connection to Decadence herself, in another guise. Perhaps one amongst us encountered her before and unknowingly gave of ourselves, creating a vulnerability."

Iron Bull shuddered, and Gabriel found himself silently agreeing; the idea of a demon such as Decadence being so cunning and so powerful as to disguise herself so was a sobering thought to say the least. By Blackwall's frown and Josephine's furrowed brows, they agreed. 

"Well, get her to show herself and I'll fill 'er arse full of arrows. That'll fix 'er," Sera said. One didn't have to have Lady Vivienne's skill at the Game to tell that Sera felt fear; her usual bravado had fled to the same place as Cullen's confidence and Iron Bull's easy manner. No one would leave this meeting completely sure of themselves. 

"I certainly hope the solution to this matter will be that simple." Amjad said, managing a little smile for his friend. He turned his attention again to Lady Vivienne. "We will think on what this key might be," He said, planting his hands on the table and leveling his gaze at his three advisors. "In the meantime we will have the mages do what they can to strengthen the Veil here."

"There are Elvhen artifacts that can do such things," Solas said, "perhaps you can retrieve some of them." 

"Some ancient Qaranis scholars were known to study the Veil," Dorian added, rubbing his chin as he mused, "I will see about acquiring the relevant tomes. Not from this library, obviously..." 

Amjad shot him an exasperated look. 

"I'll take a group out to look for these artifacts," Amjad continued, "Solas, you'd be valuable in the field, but stay with Aislinn while she recovers."

Solas gave a little bow of acknowledgment. 

"I am grateful, Inquisitor." 

"Dismissed," Amjad said, "Oh Solas, look after Cole, please. I take it Vivienne rescued him from Decadence."

"She'd locked him away in the Fade," Vivienne said, "some silly little prison. I take it she intended to come back later to consume him at her leisure." 

"Helpless, caught and captured, compassion, so tender, soft and delicious..." 

"Come here, Cole," Solas said, gathering the trembling spirit to his side. "I will aid you; I know of a Rivaini amulet that might help protect you against such attacks in the future." 

Amjad turned. "Gabriel, Shandi, Cassandra, Varric. Dorian. Let us prepare." 

"I'll put in the order for the sources I'll need and then I'll join you," Dorian said, heading for the library. The rest of them followed Amjad out of the War Room and down to the courtyard. Another day, another adventure. Gabriel wished he could approach it with Shandi's unfailing optimism, but he couldn't shake the feeling that, with Decadence involved, the worse was yet to come. 

Chapter Text

"Aislinn."

A wolf can act but like a wolf, lethalin. 

The old proverb fell, stern, from Keeper Zathrian's lips, but the words became tangible things, flowers, then gems. She bent down to retrieve a glittering sapphire nestled amongst the leaves on the forest floor, only to have it transform in to a striking snake. 

"Aislinn!" 

She jerked awake, right in to Amjad's grip. Instead of the serpent's countenance she saw her brother's face, his eyes boring in to hers. He'd crawled into her narrow bed with her, doubtless to try and shake her out of her foul dream. Her bed. The tower. She smelt the fresh ink in the pot on her desk, the vellum sheets stacked neatly beside. She put her hands out to brace herself, and the worn embroidery of her cradle blanket rubbed against her palms. 

Ah, Falon'din. You have seen fit to spare me. 

"Oh, brother. I..."

"Shh, you are safe," he soothed, laying her with the utmost gentleness against her pillows. He stood and found another quilt to cover her with. The shuffle and murmur of mages at their task above helped her breathe easier. This felt real. "Your wounds are healing quickly, thanks to Regina. Do you feel any pain?" 

She took a moment to assess her physical state, the remnants of the dream making it difficult; Creators, but the shock yet lingered. 

"Only a dull ache. It is nothing. Surely I have felt worse during my moon cycles." 

"Heh. A thing I do not miss." He came to sit on the edge of her bed, his deft fingers combing through her hair. Those hands that had killed so many, now so gentle, tender for her. His profile revealed his secrets, as if drawn with the quill pen. A stroke here, long and thin. Pensive. A quick swipe, up and tight, the line bold. Tightly controlled anger. Around the eyes, the artist had come in close, subtle, carefully indicating frustration and worry for those who knew to look. 

"Brother, why have you come?" 

"Other than my love for you?"

"Exactly so."

"Decadence has breeched our stronghold as you well know, and to do so..."

In that moment, it needn't even be said. 

A key. Of course she would need some weakness, some way to open the door. 

"Fenedhis." She whispered. 

"I'm afraid so." Amjad confirmed. "In a candlemark's time, I will lead a party out in to the wilderness in the hopes of finding an artifact that will strengthen the Veil here all the more. Hopefully it will keep her out for awhile. You and Solas dealt her a serious blow as well; she'll lick her wounds for some time." 

"She won't attack mindlessly. She might not think the way you or I do, but she's cunning if nothing else. She will wait and watch for what she considers to be a worthwhile opening and then she will strike, and only then."

"She'll make our lives a living hell is what she'll do," Amjad muttered, gritting his teeth. "if Corypheus can't attack us directly here, he'll send minions such as she is. There are things much worse than a direct assault and we must be prepared." He fell silent for a long moment. Aislinn waited without filling the space between them. By his hunched, tense shoulders and stormy expression, he needed the time to wrestle with his thoughts. If she interrupted, he would retreat into himself and never reveal what was on his mind. "But...I am not sure it's possible to prepare for something like this, sister. And they all look to me to protect them. Their sanctuary has been violated, and they are terrified. Even Cullen, the commander of my forces. He is my stalwart shield, my unbreakable sword. I've never seen him like that. And it is I who must restore him. And not just him. Everyone in Skyhold. Everyone in the inner circle."

She put her hand on his wrist. He turned to look at her and she met his gaze. 

"My brave brother," she said softly, "with the whole world on his shoulders. They trust you, and with good reason. Look to Mythal to guide you, the best of Her kind. If Decadence should challenge you, become as terrible as she; remember the story of Mythal and Andruil." Sometimes she truly did think Amjad so powerful he could mimic the tale; an insane Andruil subdued by Mythal in serpent form, Andruil finally defeated after three days and nights of unceasing battle. 

"If she goes mad, become a serpent and fight her?" Amjad laughed. It did Aislinn's heart good to hear something so simple and good as a laugh from him. Creators, but it felt like a rare thing in such trying times as these. 

"Aye, if it pleases you. You are the Inquisitor, who holds mastery over the Fade itself. Who knows the limits of your powers?" 

"Still curious?" He said. They never spoke about it directly -- well, only under very specific circumstances, in the witching hours, if they'd had enough to drink, if they were mimicking childhood, hidden away in a blanket fort or cuddled up in bed together -- but they needn't. They knew.

"Always." She wondered if she should tell him about the Fade, how easy it was to take the wolf's form there. Did it mean something? Did it speak to some quality deep within her, a curled up wolf-self dormant yet like a pup waiting to be born? Or was it simply a superficial affinity because of what had happened to the clan? 

"A question for another day," he said, shaking off the gloom and lowering magic that often came along with the subject at hand. "I must go. Bless my path, sister."

She reached up to embrace him. 

"Oh, Mythal. Born of the ocean, glittering in the moonlight like a jewel, beneath the shadow of death. Look towards Amjad Brangwen, oh dragon-headed, on this side of the sea. Mythal'enaste." 

He sighed, and clasped her tightly to him for a moment. 

"Thank you. Sylaise heal you quickly." 

Then he was gone, only the soft whisper of his scent to remind her that he'd been there at all. 

She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. She wore only a light shift, and she could see the outline of her legs and stomach through it. She could recall the thick scars on her thighs as she moved and the fabric shifted, reminders of all the failed spells she'd tried, desperate to change herself and escape her old body, Aled's prison. The demons she'd encountered in the course of so much forbidden magic whirled past her mind's eye, the beautiful ones the most terrible of all. 

Creators, what if I'm the key? 

Chapter Text

Gabriel came up beside Amjad as their mounts crested the hill just beyond the first Inquisition camp they'd come across, the Storm Coast spiraling out before them in the valley below like the ridges on a snail shell. Treacherous terrain funneled down towards the battered coastline, the Waking Sea that so often aroused his imagination --what lost treasure might lay in its depths? what creatures, never before seen?--high on the shore at this hour. Amjad spared him a glance, but only that; since leaving Skyhold he'd kept his counsel even closer than was usual.

Dorian's silver mare picked her way up the trail just then, bringing him up on Amjad's other side. The look he got from the necromancer was confusing at best; he wondered what he'd possibly done to offend Dorian so. His stomach instantly balled in to a fist at the thought of having displeased, especially someone so trusted, so close to the Inquisitor who, after all, Gabriel had sworn to protect. 

Amjad, about to speak, found himself cut off by the cry of a great beast. The three of them lifted their heads as one and looked out as far as they could, spotting the dragon at the same time. Gabriel's anxiety subsided if only because such an arresting sight left little room for anything else. The creature dipped and rolled, battling a giant big even for its kind. It brought a little smile to Amjad's face; Gabriel could guess that Amjad appreciated such displays of primal nature. He wondered if this was the same dragon he'd once glimpsed, when an ill plotted route had taken him through the hidden hills and caves native to the area, those that had bedeviled many a traveler before him. Pure luck had kept him from withering away in to a skeleton in one of those caverns, lost and forgotten. He'd found more than one such unfortunate adventurer. The flowers he'd left hardly seemed enough. 

"A dragon, m'lord!" Shandi said, her warhorse struggling with the terrain. Larger and more cumbersome than the mounts the humans and elves rode (and one rather loquacious dwarf, spinning story after story), the proud stallion nonetheless fought hard to rise to the challenge. "Are we going hunting?"

"I hate to disappoint you, Shandi," Amjad said, his voice warm as if he were charmed by her eagerness, "but we do have a mission to focus on."

"Oh, oh. Of course." Shandi said. She coughed self consciously and straightened up in her saddle, trying to school her features in to something more professional. "Serious business."

"Well, not too serious," Varric said cheerfully from the back, his little pony making quick work of the pitfalls inherent to this region and looking proud of it, no less, its nostrils flared, its mane blowing in the breeze. "Or Shandi might come apart at the seams trying."

"Nothing with you is ever serious, dwarf," Cassandra grumbled. 

"Hey that's not fair," Varric protested, holding his hands up as if to say see, I'm harmless. A big grin bloomed as if he were about to launch in to another one of his tales. At the very least ]he stood poised on the edge of another quip, but instead his expression softened and he said, "I take some things very  seriously indeed."

Gabriel turned just in time to catch Cassandra blushing right up to her hair. It took everything in him to not gape in shock. He never thought he would see the Lady Seeker so readily undone, but then no one could claim true immunity to Varric's charms. Amjad cleared his throat and Gabriel could see him hiding an amused smile behind his hand. Shandi beamed outright, but-probably wisely-said nothing. 

"Let's find a place to make camp," Amjad suggested, and Cassandra sighed softly. Relieved, or so Gabriel thought. 

Amjad lead them through the twists and turns, the only major path through the mountains a treacherous, switch backed thing. Amjad clung to Orala like a burr on a sheep, she without any of the fear that might have hobbled a living creature. Gabriel felt gratitude once they found a level clearing, the smell of crushed grass tickling his nose as the mounts filed in. A few ramshackle buildings remained, though clearly they had gone without owners or upkeep for some time. They lay defenseless before the elements, doors and even walls having succumbed to the weather. 

They elected to make camp in the lee of one of the houses; what remained of the interior felt too much like a grave. Amjad helped set up the tents, and he was fast at it too. No wonder, with how often the Dalish changed location. Each new spot of temporary respite would require work such as this. Even Dorian pitched in, though he did so gingerly so as to not ruin his polished nails. For a mage Dorian enjoyed a sturdy, muscular body and he had physical strength to augment his magic; never had Gabriel seen someone as athletic with staff forms as Dorian. He prayed whatever had upset the man would pass; he respected Dorian such that he would never want to offend him, especially after watching him take on three enemy mages and prevail. 

If only we had an aravel, Gabriel thought, gathering stones for a firepit. Shandi took the axe from their bags of supplies and went to find wood, coming back a little while later with a huge log balanced effortlessly on her shoulder. Her armor impeded her not at all. Though it functioned as plate, the enchantments on it made it move like cloth. She set the log down and split it in to manageable pieces, all without breaking a sweat, and a mere flick of Dorian's wrist ensured that they had a healthy fire once she'd finished. Shandi set up the cooking pot, then went off to gather ingredients; she'd made such an ersatz stew many times as a mercenary. When she came back, her helm full of herbs and mushrooms, a brace of rabbits dangling from her other hand, he had to admit that the result tasted good no matter its method of transportation. 

Amjad sat near the fire and pulled a map from his pack, smoothing it out on his knees. 

"This artifact is either in Red templar hands, or is likely hidden away in one of the caves, forgotten," he said, his finger describing the route as he spoke. "There are no Dalish here just now, and certainly no one of the People who would take the time to seek out such a thing as a matter of course, if they even knew of its existence at all." 

Sadly so many Dalish had been forced to think only of survival; many would have forsaken such a relic if transporting it would have burdened them overmuch. 

"There's a red lyrium smuggling ring set up here," Varric said, peering over at the map. He jabbed his finger down at the spot in question as if personally offended. Perhaps the thought of corrupted lyrium sent a special fear through a dwarf's heart, as it did a mage's. "We should go there and see. Even if they don't have the artifact, they need to be cleaned out."

"True," Amjad agreed, frowning at the place Varric had indicated. Dorian added, "one of my former associates is overseeing red lyrium smuggling." His usual bluster was nowhere to be seen. He sat stiffly, jaw tight. The cut of his silver-green coat made him look imposing instead of affable, an unexpected change. "If he is here...I would take pleasure in relieving him of his duties." 

"Aye, and maybe they'll have a behemoth for me to fight!" Shandi said, as animated as if it were her birthday and she'd just been presented with one of those grand Orlesian cakes in the shape of a swan. Shandi never approached a battle with fear in her, and Gabriel wondered if the dragon blood had something to do with it. The few tales he'd heard about Reavers surely presented them as hungry, even ravening, with fighting their only food. 

Cassandra-when had he started thinking of her as Cassandra, instead of the Lady Seeker?-compressed her lips in to a thin line, thinking over possible strategies, no doubt. She had a certain reputation for being brash, but in battle she became more cerebral than she perhaps realized. She had both mind and body on her side, when she willed it. 

"It will take us the better part of a day to reach the cave," Cassandra said. "We can head out at dawn." 

Amjad nodded. "Very well." He paused for a moment, then a rather wicked look brought life to his features, his outfit of golden scale mail and deep hyacinth leather underscoring the light in his gaze. "Cassandra, do you happen to have any books with you?"

Cassandra blushed for the second time that day. What miraculous air had settled around them, such that Cassandra evinced emotions other than steely confidence and the occasional snort of disgust? For the first time, Gabriel realized that perhaps Cassandra was in her own way uncomfortable with being around this group in particular; Gabriel himself might as well count as a stranger still. Dorian had the dubious honor of being affiliated with Tevinter. She must enjoy Varric's company, but then again any hint of their relationship whilst anyone else loitered in hearing distance seemed to discomfit her greatly. Only Shandi remained, and indeed it was Shandi's exclamation that made Cassandra relent:

"Are you going to teach me to read, Cass?" She asked, setting her now empty bowl aside. In her thick Orlesian accent, the words sent a shiver down Gabriel's spine. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortable in mixed company; Shandi's voice could do things to him that certainly weren't appropriate for casual viewing. 

"I could," Cassandra allowed. "I have been fortunate; letters were part of my training as a Seeker. And it wouldn't do to have a Hand of the Divine be illiterate." 

"What about Swords and Shields?" Varric suggested. Cassandra opened one of her saddle bags and Gabriel saw several books tucked neatly inside. One caught his eye the way a gem would stand out in a pile of plain rocks; it had a homemade cover, with a handwritten title, Varric's full name described along the bottom in lazy calligraphy. A personal story then? One he'd written especially for his love? 

"Does it have any dirty parts?" Shandi wanted to know, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. 

"Really Goldie?" Varric teased, pretending to be rather put out by the question. "I warn you, they aren't the best thing I've ever written." 

Cassandra handing Shandi the copy of Swords and Shields, and she opened it on her knees. She followed the sentences with her fingertip, no doubt trying to find any familiar words. She couldn't read or write anything complex, but Gabriel figured she must know enough to understand orders and missives. 

"The guard captain..." Shandi said haltingly. Of course she would recognize ranks, but directly after she fell silent, brows furrowed. Cassandra leaned in to see where Shandi was. Between the two of them they deciphered the next sentence. "...had r...rippling muscles--oh I like her already," Shandi declared before going back to the book. "And had a b..bosom so...huge!" Shandi threw her head back and crowed with laughter. "Varric! What kind of book is this?"

Varric grimaced. "Well, I did warn you. Hardly made any money." 

"Are you kidding? I love it." Shandi told him, wiping at her eyes. "So...so huge, that she had to have special armor made. Her hair...was...was..."

"A halo of fire," Cassandra supplied. 

"A halo of fire," Shandi repeated. "As beautiful...as the..." She sounded out the rest and settled on, "as beautiful as a griffon in flight under a red sun." 

Gabriel couldn't help but laugh at that. Never had he heard anything so purple as this. Varric looked rather mortified, a little self deprecating half grin on his face. 

"Cass," Shandi said looking up. "What's the dirtiest page in this book?"

"Page 176, paragraph two," Cassandra admitted, pointedly looking at the scenery instead of at any of her companions. Shandi flipped to the page indicated. 

"His...his flowering rod? Flowering rod! Was tu-me-scent... What does that mean?" 

"It, well," Gabriel tried, "it means he's ready for love making."

"His cock is hard?" Shandi clarified, peering at the page incredulously. "Why doesn't he just say that then?"

"Hey I was trying to be romantic," Varric said, protesting. 

"As...as hard as the gift she'd given him," Shandi said, Cass having gone back to helping her. "a metal plate depicting golden magnolias. What he's as hard as the picture? Is he as hard as arithmetic? I was never good at numbers."

"Shandi," Gabriel said, and now it was his turn to blush. "My goodness." 

"He entered..." Shandi continued, "he entered her flowering cavern...I hope there's no roses in there, he might get thorns in his dick." She grinned. "I've never met a pussy that smelled like violets."  

Cassandra snatched the book away as Shandi laughed, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. 

 ---

Dorian stayed close to the fire as the evening sun descended. Blazing rays of orange and pink unfurled across a rapidly darkening sky, and the scent of the ocean came to his nostrils, muted like a perfume worn on pulse points. Shandi had gotten Cassandra to laugh along with her--for awhile, anyway, until the embarrassment became too much--as she did her best to read the bawdiest passages of Varric's romance novel, nigh squealing in delight whenever she found a particularly flowery passage describing some sex act or another. After awhile they all blurred together so that all Dorian could imagine was a knot of sweating bodies squirming and writhing, the men with engorged staves of alabaster instead of cocks, the women with hidden grottos stuffed full of jewels instead of...well, it didn't bear thinking about. 

But it wasn't some sort of offense that made him leave the warmth, both the emotional kind generated by his august company and by the fire he'd easily kept crackling and dancing for hours with but a wisp of mana. No, Amjad had left the camp, and Dorian felt the pull to follow after. 

He found Amjad on the very edge of the cliff, legs dangling over the side as if Amjad felt little to no fear of falling to his death. Amjad heard him approach long before he reached the spot in question; despite not following the vir'tanadhal much as a youth, Amjad's survival instincts made him an adroit tracker and hunter anyway. He stood, brushing grass from his clothes. His eyes were lambent in the gloom, the violet, gold flecked light also illuminating in some small part the Anchor, wisps of Fade energy emanating from it. Dorian's heart seized; with such power at their disposal perhaps they would be able to clear out the Venatori here. And more importantly, to him at least, the possible presence of one Marius Octavious. The mere thought of the man made him well up with bile, the memory of clashing swords and a door being kicked in took up residence in his mind whether he had invited it or not. 

"Amatus, what in the world are you doing?" Dorian knew well enough that trying to keep Amjad from doing risky things was an impossible task, yet fear gripped his heart the same whether Amjad performed a risky task once or a hundred times. Losing another lover...he didn't think he could survive it. And yet he loved the Inquisitor, a man who had to fight life or death battles almost daily, a man so certain of himself that even petty dangers such as where he'd chosen to sit worried him not at all. 

Amjad came over to him on soundless feet. A little smile curved his full mouth, and the light in his eyes could not be completely explained by Elvhen physiology. The touch of Amjad's hands on his chest made his cup overflow with complex emotions, fear, love, want. He covered Amjad's hands with his own, wondering if Amjad could feel him trembling.

"Something troubles you, emma lath," Amjad said, in that gentle, velvety tone he reserved for Dorian alone. Well, there was his answer. 

"This red lyrium smuggling ring...I think we might find one of the Venatori we are hunting. Blasted fools; every one of them used to answer to the Black Divine instead of...of this." 

He wouldn't admit, not even to Amjad, but the thought of red lyrium took the strength from him so great was his fear. He had encountered it before, once at the spring they'd investigated in the Western Approach, and many times in battle as corrupted creatures surrounded them. 

Amjad's brow creased, a sure sign of his concern. 

"This is personal, isn't it? That list of names...it's not just Tevinter pride that motivates you to end their lives." 

"Amjad," he started, trying to explain what had happened, why the potential to find Octavious mattered so. Amjad looked up at him, his expression a study in sympathy before Dorian had even begun the tale. "When I still lived in Tevinter, in my old life, I found something with another man. I hesitate to call it love--what do those with my preferences know of love in such a place?--but it was...it was important."

It felt as if he were under a compulsion, heart whirling in his chest, a bloody awful tremor in his hands. He swayed and for a moment, he actually thought he might collapse. Amjad hugged him tightly, and it kept him on his feet. 

"Tell me more," Amjad prompted softly, his head against Dorian's chest as if were trying to hear Dorian's heartbeat. 

Dorian felt hot tears sting the back of his eyes, and the accompanying rage made him grind his teeth. 

"My father sent thugs to recover me, as if I was a lost bauble to put on his shelf and admire from afar. As if I were a fine piece of furniture or a carriage pillow, to be collected from its maker." And without information, passed to Halward through the whisperings of a little bird named Octavious? 

His throat closed and he didn't know how in all the hells he could finish the story. The scent of blood and incense filled his nostrils, a memory that went deeper than anything he could only picture. 

"Emma lath, I wish dearly that I had been there to protect you." Amjad's tone hit the ear in a level, almost placid purr, but Dorian could hear the unspoken. 

"Is that why you're out here by yourself?" 

Amjad pulled back enough to turn his gaze to Dorian's face, his own so very solemn. 

"I...I couldn't protect you, Dorian." He stepped back, wrapping his arms around himself as if he could ward off the shame he so clearly felt. Well, it was clear to Dorian, anyway. 

"What? From Decadence?"

"She came in to my quarters," Amjad practically shouted, a sudden burst of fury that spoke to how violated he felt. "in to my home. And nearly possessed us both. And I could do nothing to aid you."

"I don't need you to protect me," Dorian protested, though he remembered how he would be dead, his corpse littering the Hissing Wastes, if it hadn't been for Amjad's quick blades. "Surely you don't think my magery as poor as that practiced in the South," he said, with an artful little sniff of half-meant disdain. 

"Don't," Amjad growled. "Don't you dare try to wriggle out of this through making light of it. I won't abide it."

"What would you have me do?" Dorian said, his own voice a little fire that could readily burn hotter. Amjad couldn't know it, but he felt stretched thin, the pull of his memories and the anxiety about whether they would find Octavious like two dragons battling within him. And as much as Amjad had been torturing himself over not protecting Dorian, Amjad hadn't realized how much that same torment lived in Dorian's heart and mind. Taken in so readily by a demon! By temptation. 

"You know full well that I have nothing but respect for you and your magery," Amjad said, some of the anger draining out of him. Dorian thought that was a bad sign; normally Amjad's rages, no matter how strange, at the very least imparted some passion and energy. Now? He seemed diminished somehow, small and thin. When had Amjad gotten so thin? Maker, had he forgotten to care for himself in the midst of so much? Dorian felt like an ass for not realizing before now, and him the one that loved Amjad the most. "And you also well know that it is not the point. It is my charge to protect you, to love you, to hold you in the highest esteem. And she took that from me."

Dorian found himself about to protest again, a haughty quip dancing on his lips, but then he felt his memory more than mere seeing.

The Abrexis estate lay quiet, the scion, his wife, and a generous compliment of servants having taken their leave just that morning. The heavy ceremonial incense they'd burned in Andrastae's name that morning hung thick still, even creeping in under Quintus' bedroom door. Dorian rather fancied it; it gave their coupling an appealing forbidden quality, as if they were doing so in the middle of some long forgotten barbarian temple. Maker, but he had rarely felt so involved in--was it lovemaking?--his world narrowing down to Quintus' shining silver eyes, the way a skein of rich sable hair described a loose comma on Quintus' forehead. Yes of course their bodies had come together, too, while they both laughed easily, without mockery. Only moments later such mirth had been replaced by moans and cries--what point was there to hiding their enjoyment, with everyone having left or retreated to servant's quarters?--never had Dorian experienced such freedom.

Their involvement in one another made the scent of fresh blood come slowly to his nostrils, far too slowly...

"What is it?" Amjad asked, appearing suddenly as terrified as Dorian felt. Amjad had an uncanny ability to experience his emotions right alongside him; if Amjad were cold to others, it was only in part because so much of his warmth he made available for Dorian's comfort. Amjad approached him slowly, as if trying to keep an injured animal from lashing out with hoof or claw. Part of him wanted to push Amjad away and run, run as he'd fled the blasted Quaranis estate and the imprisonment it represented. And yet he felt bound to the earth, as surely as if an entanglement spell had wound furtively around his ankles. "Please, Dorian--"

The door shuddered, then gave way. He separated from Quintus, a spell ready. He barely felt the magebane dart. 

He found himself on his knees, the shock of wet grass through his breeches not enough to wrest him fully free of the past. Amjad knelt and caught him up in an embrace so hard it made his ribs creak. All he could do was cling to his amatus --Maker! If Amjad felt as if he couldn't protect Dorian, then how much greater in return...! 

The sell swords were on him then as the flames sputtered and died in his hands. A scream--and then his own cry: Quintus! The man gripping his wrist--too hard, too hard--told him to shut up as he struggled, managing to dislodge one or two would be jailers through pure physical strength. The rag went over his face and he took two heaving breaths, struggling even as the smell of the ether clogged his throat. As if he were drowning, he passed out. 

It was Amjad's hands in his hair that brought him back, slowly, as if each lessening of that awful memory represented a turn of the earth, sunlight in to nighttime and back once more. He had wept hot tears in to the collar of Amjad's shirt, and he trembled as if he were the smaller out of the two of them. He pulled back far enough to search Amjad's expression, hoping for some kind of anchor point. Amjad had fixed him with that utterly solemn look Amjad got sometimes, where whatever he was about to say would be intoned like an oath.

"I swear to you, I will find this Venatori and make him pay for whatever he has done to you," Amjad said, that killer's light back in his eyes such that he looked strange, as if he were a darker version of himself most appropriate to how full the night had become over the course of this sad little mess. "You needn't speak of it to me if you don't want to, emma lath. Just know you will see this deed done." Amjad's look softened and he said, "and one day, I will slay that dragon out near the ocean, and I'll present you its hide. I'll be the best hunter my clan has ever seen. And then I will ask you to be my bondmate forever." 

"What, only one dragon?" He said, managing a grin as it surfaced, pulled free by Amjad's words. Amjad laughed, one of those lovely unfettered laughs.

"You are an ass," Amjad declared, but any mock annoyance he might have felt lost out to a soft warmth that Dorian knew was love, though it had taken him a solid year to fully believe it. "Luckily I know how to put up with you. Now come back to the camp and dry off. If you're ready." 

"All right," Dorian agreed, and when he stood he kept his feet. "Did Shandi finish her book?" 

"I think she skipped right to the dirtiest parts," Amjad said, only just remembering not to reach for his hand. It made Dorian ill with guilt and defiant too; he wanted to announce their relationship to everyone, or at least part of him did. But then? The danger would follow, and he knew it. The fact was that loving Dorian Pavus was a dangerous thing to do indeed, and he wouldn't subject Amjad to its consequences if he had anything to say about it. 

"I knew I liked her for a reason," Dorian said, letting his more confident, irreverent side come forth. No need to worry Amjad more than he already had.

Chapter Text

Cal crept down the stairs to the bakery as if he'd been assigned a task suitable for an assassin. He paused each time a stair creaked under his weight, as if the slightest transgression would draw a group of sell swords down on his head. 

This is ridiculous. You're just going to pick up a cake. A cake you helped bake!

He'd chosen one of the rare times the place stood empty, and he slipped inside on silent feet. All the loaves, rolls, pies and Creators knew what else were baked and either safely stored away for the evening meal or scattered haphazardly across tavern tables for hungry soldiers and laborers to cram in their mouths. Never had he seen so much food or of so fine a quality -- available even to common folk! -- when he had occasion to observe Magister Regulus' feasts it had been only for the most elite. No mere laetan would ever be seen at such a table, unless the evening ended with a poisoned blade for some transgression or another. Magister Regulus liked to combine his pleasures, indulging in violence as easily and as readily as he ate berry scones, always with a coffee at his elbow. Two doses of sugar, two of cream, a drink Cal had occasion to prepare when slaves more suited had been at some other task. He'd always wondered at the taste, one he would never dare ask for. All those delicacies, just out of his reach...

Before he realized it he'd crammed a handful of sultanas in his mouth, the kind reserved for visiting dignitaries. The container clattered to the floor, spilling the rest. He looked around the bakery wildly, half expecting Magister Regulus to descend from above, floating by way of dirty magic, ready to make him pay.

Nothing.

Persimmions came next, cracked open with trembling fingers, sections on his tongue with the peel still attached. Then butter, the big, soft blocks ready for the baking done in the small hours. He dug furrows in it, licking what he took away. Andruil, it was no halla milk, but it tasted pure and grassy to his underused palette, like tasting a sunlit meadow. He clambered up on one of Jalsi's barrels and found a tray of rolls, the soft, sweet ones served at dinner in the Great Hall. Servants would carry dozens to the head table where Amjad would gorge himself on them in between mouthfuls of roast duck, when Amjad could be coaxed in to such an affair at all. The thought of that feast food made ravenous hunger claw at his belly, as if he hadn't already filled it with everything he could find. The choux pastry for eclairs --he'd seen such delights when Magister Regulus had been wooing one of his many women -- and in under a minute he'd torn through three of them. What was this? Ah, hidden away behind the neat rows of spice jars, a little packet of figs. Flesh and seeds exploded on his tongue, sweet but also dark, secret, a thing one might forage for and steal for one's self before taking the rest back to camp. 

Maybe it was the little scones that finally did him in. One lemon, one with bergamot and what he thought might be tea. His stomach rolled and flipped, and before he knew what was happening he was sick in to the rubbish bin. He stayed there on his knees until he'd vomited up every last luxury, grateful at least that it hadn't made him shit himself too. 

Worth it. So worth it. He thought, as he lay twitching on the cool stones. 

When he finally picked himself up off the floor he washed his mouth out in the water basin, marveling at the plumbing that carried away the evidence of his transgressions. He washed his hands thoroughly, too; it wouldn't do to bring Cullen a cake clutched in filthy fingers. Satisfied that he wouldn't make anyone gag as he walked past he looked around for the dessert, praying it hadn't been forgotten and allowed to burn. When he found it he wrapped it gently in layers and layers of parchment paper, as if it would break apart like a fine china plate if he jostled it. The scent of oranges, mellowed by the oven, rose up even so. Creators, he would never take that aroma for granted. 

Being ignored by the guards as he emerged from the basement rankled but at the same time, he recognized it as an advantage. With a parcel in hand he looked like just another knife ear errand boy. He entertained himself with fantasies of revenge until he came to Cullen's office. He paused; he found the tower intimidating, especially shrouded in twilight as it was, and didn't know how to approach getting access to it. The stars took his attention, as bright as the stars in the desert and yet...pure somehow. He turned his face up as if they could offer him the same light and warmth as the sun, but he craved softness instead of that punishing burn. And though he had experienced too much chill to truly crave it, at least here the breeze came with a frigid snap, snow and ice instead of endless unbroken cold that settled in to the bones. 

"Hullo Calledan." Cal startled and ducked low as if to scurry away, but a moment later he recognized Riley coming his way. The man had a smile on his face, and for the first time Cal allowed himself to study Riley's features. Cullen's right hand man looked like a Fereldan farmer's son, broad, expressive features, a dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose; that was exactly what he was. Ginger colored hair peaked out from under his helm, and his hazel eyes -- more green than brown -- had kindness in them. Suspicious as he was, he had to admit that Riley seemed utterly without guile, the same way the big, sad mage in the fancy coat did. 

Gabriel, he reminded himself. A pang of jealousy made his lips curl up in a snarl, and Riley stepped back. Belatedly Cal realized the man must have taken the response as meant for him. 

"No, I was thinking of something else," he managed, trying to firm up his tone in front of this shem. Friendly or no, he was still a human. Even the nicest humans could justify throwing Elvhen lives away under the right circumstances. 

"Understood," Riley said, shrugging as if it had already ceased to bother him. "Wondering if the Commander is in?" 

"Yeah," Cal said, stopping himself from toeing the stones. "Is he busy?"

"Well, he's always got something to do, but between me and you he could use a break." 

Cal had already identified Cullen as someone who could easily drive himself in to the ground, if allowed. Cullen had a certain intensity about him despite his gentle manner, and though his strength and warmth were real as far as Cal could tell, a brittle quality could be detected. Maybe the clues lay in the scrolls spread across his desk, the candle stubs burnt down to nothing, fastened to the bookshelves and desk by night after night of dripping wax. 

Something to prove. 

Riley knocked and hailed Cullen. The affirmative came back and Riley shouldered the door open, grunting as it stuck in the frame. "You've got a visitor, Commander."

"Is it Lord and Lady Dubois again? You may tell them I've had quite enough of their whittling on," Cullen said, voice tense with annoyance. Cal stepped around Riley, feeling silly then. He didn't even know Cullen, not really. But before he could start fretting about being turned away, Cullen brightened and rose from his desk.

"Oh, Cal. I'm relieved to see you. I can't take any more Orlesians today." He said while rubbing at a crick in his neck, a small sigh of discomfort escaping as he did so. 

Orlesian nobles were thick on the ground at Skyhold. Their riches and snobby manner made Cal sick to his stomach, and even despite all that blessed fortune they still found something to complain about and still played their stupid Game. They took pleasure in flaunting it, prancing around like they owned the place. For a moment the rage swelled in his belly. Even here, with an elf leading the best hope for a future, those squawking vultures pushed and shoved to be the first to claim they were the true power behind the throne. 

He edged in to the office and Riley took his leave after a crisp salute. 

"I, um." Cal said, kicking himself at his own cleverness. "I brought you a cake." 

"Truly? The one we made? I was worried it had been left to burn." He came around the desk, a little smile on his mouth and a light in his eyes. "Come on, let's go and sit in the garden while we eat far too much of it." 

Cal's heart leapt and he nodded, mute. He had been a slave until what, a couple of weeks ago? And now he found himself free in every way, even free to go and waste idle time in a garden so lovely Sylaise herself would weep over it, if the aroma was anything to go by. Free to eat cake and maybe make a friend. 

He didn't speak as they made their way through the courtyard, having to remind himself not to squash the cake in nervous fingers. The path to the garden was confusing and long, requiring them to go through unused parts of Skyhold piled high with rubble. He wove through it without hesitation; his Elvhen instincts had never fully faded. Cullen held doors for him, a kindness that he'd only seen afforded to those with the highest status. So shocked was he that he stumbled in to the garden, tripping over his own feet.

So much for Elvhen grace. 

He stepped on to the grass, as plush as the carpet in a well paid courtesan's chamber. For a moment, he couldn't move, he could only take in the entirety of the garden laid out before him. The ornamental flowers didn't catch his eye the way the herbs did, pots of...Creators, he couldn't remember their proper name. 

Feledara. 

For a moment, he thought he might start crying, ugly racking sobs. Instead he drifted away from Cullen as if in a dream, towards the...the...

Galidahlis

Gahlidahlis, growing wild from soil so rich he'd only seen it's like deep in Brecillian forest. The shems spoke of Brecillian as if it were filled with horrors, the galidahlis supposedly giving off an aura of magic and darkness. He sank to his knees to smell them. They had power to them, but the kind only the Elvhen could understand. The Chantry made people meek and afraid. The Elvhen had stayed free, walking the lonely road. 

Aeron ran ahead of him, laughing so hard that she might have fallen on the uneven path if she weren't so nimble, amused by his efforts to outpace her. He raced after, as if she were a hart he could catch with a single well placed arrow, their voices heard only by the living forest. She stopped at the edge of a clearing, and Cal realized as he came to stand beside her that they'd gone deeper in to the trees than ever before. He lifted his head as if he could scent the air the way a beast could. A beast...were they near that cursed place, the ruins? Aeron raised her hand to silence him, then turned around, smiling. She lowered her hand and took his, leading him in to the clearing. Galidahlis flowers filled it, growing thick and lush around them. Their scent cleared his lungs, and dusted the cobwebs from his mind. He dared to kiss her, and this time she didn't push him away. 

Before he knew it he'd doubled over like someone had landed a punch to his gut, sobbing his eyes out like he'd been worried about doing just minutes before. The herbalist closest to him jumped back, startled, but he only noticed because of his survival instincts; the rest of him had given over to the sorrow. Not just that; the knowledge that he wasn't a slave anymore brought a joy like he'd never felt, and yet he felt bereft, having to come back in to a world so changed and unfamiliar. 

He recognized Cullen's arm around his shoulders and while normally he would have cursed and spit at any shem trying to touch him, he couldn't find the strength or, even, the desire. He turned in to the embrace, weeping against the thick, well-carded wool of Cullen's coat. Even through it, Cal could feel a feverish warmth. While Cullen's hold had strength to it, when Cal slipped his hand past the closures on that lovingly crafted coat he swore he could feel how swollen Cullen's joints were, his fingers jerking awkwardly over the curve of Cullen's shoulder and collarbone. He froze; it had been an accident, and he felt sure Cullen would pull away at something so forward, unintentionally or not. Instead Cullen practically bore him in those strong arms back to the shade, to a table set with a chessboard. Settled in the stuffed velvet chair, Cal sagged against the cushions. 

"Will you be all right there?" Cullen asked, and even though he could barely think he didn't miss the slight limp that hampered Cullen's steps. 

"I'm okay," he managed, grateful he hadn't started blubbering again. Like magic the cake appeared before them on the table; it was only his keen eye that spotted the servant responsible. 

"Here," Cullen said, cutting a slice with his belt knife. "I think you'll feel better after some of this."

His heartache mellowed, the garden suffusing him with its warm, simple aura. The taste of what Cullen had given him burst over his tongue, creamy butter and plump, ripe oranges. 

 

Chapter Text

The wretched cold woke Gabriel from a fitful slumber, bringing with it an oppressive wet quality that seeped in to his skin despite the fur blankets they'd brought along. It made getting up feel like an impossible task, and he turned on his side with the intention of snuggling up to Shandi's slumbering-dragon heat.

Except, she wasn't there.

Alarm made him throw the bedclothes aside, searching for his raiment in the gloom. His teeth chattered and he trembled such that he had to make three attempts at putting his boots on before he managed to shove his feet in. The laces felt as though they would take an eternity to properly tie, slipping through his numb fingertips. Of course Shandi could more than handle herself if danger came their way, but trying to soothe himself by way of that line of thought never seemed to offer him much calm. Even a Reaver could be overcome.

When he emerged in to the velvety pre-dawn the camp lay safe and silent, tent openings done up tight against the chill. Only Cassandra had stirred, on watch with her sword across her knees and steel in her eyes. She gave him a nod of acknowledgment, and a little warm front swept some of the ice from his fretting heart.

"Your lady has gone over the ridge," Cassandra said, pointing up towards the ramshackle houses on the hill. "For what purpose, I can't say."

"Thank you, Seeker," he said, bowing with his hand over his heart. "I will go to her." 

He found Shandi on the highest point, overlooking a steep drop down to the water. She knelt there in the grass, a handful of crystal grace blossoms in her hands. An aura of uncharacteristic seriousness hung around her, as if she wore a heavy cloak of vulture feathers. 

"Shandi?" He ventured, as quiet as possible so as to avoid alarming her. She stood up and had her blade half drawn in mere seconds even so, but when she recognized him she sighed and relaxed. Well, it was more that she went limp, as if exhausted after a long fight where she had come out the loser. 

"Gabriel. What are you doing awake?" 

"The blasted chill," he said, something about the scene stealing the power from his voice, so that he spoke in a funerary whisper. She grunted and nodded, then turned away. She held herself stiffly then, tense, her shoulders pinned back and her neck twisted at an uncomfortable angle. "What are you doing out here?"

She didn't answer him at first. She went back to the little bouquet of flowers she'd accumulated, getting back on her knees and bowing her head. 

"There's death in this place," she said. The hairs on the back of Gabriel's neck stood up; normally Shandi didn't deal in metaphysical feelings and impressions, but as she spoke he could feel the truth of what even she had sensed. Necromancy had been absorbed in to the stones, and he felt as though each scattered skeleton left here to weather away in the rain had become visible to his third eye. 

"Yes," he agreed, daring to come closer. When Shandi looked up at him, her cheeks were stained with tears. 

"I...wanted to do something. For Dierdre." Shandi said, sitting back on her haunches and gazing at the grey sky. "It's stupid. She's dead. She doesn't care if I bring her flowers. I tried to pray but..." 

"You don't think she can hear you?"

Shandi snorted. "What am I, Andrastian? No. It's better to think she's gone forever. Not believe in the kind of stories you tell a pup." 

Yet she sounded almost as wistful as she did bitter, and though Gabriel had no love for the Maker or the Chantry himself, he did believe in some kind of afterlife if pressed. He wanted Shandi to have that kind of peace, a certainty that Dierdre's spirit hadn't met with uncaring oblivion. 

"Then do it for you," he said, sitting beside her heedless of the damp. "You should remember her."

"Can't forget her," Shandi said. It was as if she had to push each word out with all her strength, each a burden such that a lesser person than she would have buckled under the first one. "And I think sometimes I should." 

Gabriel felt the kind of sadness that coiled around one's soul the way the bight of a rope could suddenly pull taut around a sailor's ankle, dragging the unfortunate out to the Waking Sea's indifferent depths.

"Creators, Shandi. Why?"

"She's never coming back." Shandi gritted, staring at the middle distance as if that could keep her from weeping. "And when I think of her it just hurts. I can't think about the good times. There's a stinger in it, because I already know how our story ends." 

He felt impelled to move, despite knowing that intense emotion could trigger Shandi's bloodrage. But the character of her sadness felt different, a void that swallowed not only light but will. He took her hand, and he knew he'd guessed right when she barely twitched, her fingers entwining with his out of habit. 

He looked out over the waves below. A scarlet mist had risen from somewhere near their destination, clothing the sun in a smothering veil. 

Chapter Text

Shadows settle on the place, that you left
Our minds are troubled by the emptiness
Destroy the middle, it's a waste of time
From the perfect start to the finish line

Youth, Daughter


 

It took Dorian awhile to wake, as was his habit when his worries offered him some respite; he treated the restful hours as if they were a resource he could stockpile like firewood against a Hinterlands winter. He knew there would be nights -- had been nights-- too many to count, where he'd be up time and again to assure himself that all the locks and windows were tight in their tumblers and firmly in their sills. That he and Amjad roomed at the highest point in Skyhold (whenever he could slip in under cover of darkness) did little to calm his fears, the damnable smell of incense and blood goading him from bed, making him frantic as he described shaky circles around the room with his constant checking and rechecking. But this night Amjad had curled tightly around him, those dexterous fingers in his hair. How such a slight elf could take up so much space, he couldn't say, how Amjad could make him feel watched over despite being so much smaller than him. And Amjad's embrace to go along with it, hard and protective and warm even as Amjad slept. Easy for a man to stay firmly in one's bedroll then. 

Still, the sound of someone stirring outside made him open his eyes. He found Amjad already awake as well, only his focused gaze to give him away. Unlike him Amjad woke all at once, and enjoyed immediate sense and reason.

"How long have you been awake? How in all the hells do you do that?" Dorian demanded in a whisper. 

"I am Dalish," Amjad said, as if that explained everything. To Dorian Amjad felt less Dalish and more wild animal, a dozing mountain cat that for the moment had indulged in deceptive quiescence. "You should leave."

They frowned at each other in the dark. The words had come out harsh, dismissive. Yet the anger Dorian felt quickly gave way to shame; his unwillingness to be open about their relationship stood between them, a wall he both hated and reinforced, brick by brick, every day when he had to creep from Amjad's tent as if he didn't want to be seen visiting a whore. 

"You're right," Dorian said stiffly, unwinding from his lover and turning away. The warmth he'd so enjoyed moments before dissipated and he shivered as he pulled on his shirt and breeches. Even his heavy coat couldn't replace that tender comfort. When he crept from the tent at the proper moment to avoid detection, the snake embroidered on it felt like the real thing, a heavy, constricting coil that squeezed the air from his chest. 

Gabriel looked about as miserable as Dorian felt, that hangdog look Gabriel often wore such that he could have easily been accused of some crime by those who didn't know better; Gabriel sometimes took on guilt he had no stake in, as if his very existence were a sin at worst and an annoyance at best. Dorian's reaction often vacillated from disgust to empathy and back again, as if perhaps spending time with Gabriel could have infected him, reveling all of his shame by association. 

Still, he tried to be if not friendly, kind enough. 

"Good morning, Gabriel. Has someone died in the night?" He asked in an arch tone. Gabriel recoiled. Shit.

Well done, Dorian. Where is all your vaunted charm? That was as clumsy as Iron Bull lumbering about after a whole flight of rotgut. 

"Well, you look so morose..." He tried. He added in a smile, showing off his white, straight teeth. As a child he'd often been told that his smile was his best feature, out of a face full of best features, if he did say so himself. 

"No, thank you," Gabriel said stiffly, unmoved. The silvery color of his tunic made his gaze all the more hard, diamond-bright. "And I'll hope the same can be said about today." 

Maybe he looked more like a wolf showing its fangs; Maker willing, they'd smoke Octavious out of whatever foul nest he had built for himself. Even Dorian couldn't keep all his inner turmoil bottled up, with that thought driving its thorns in to his brain. Would Octavious even remember him? What would be more insulting, being mocked, his past laid out bare before his friends? Or the cold indifference that only truly cruel people could cultivate? How many more innocent pairings had been violently ended by the blades at Octavious' command?

He realized he'd stood there silent too long when Gabriel's expression changed, from put off, to shocked, to sad. 

"Dorian," Gabriel said, words soft now instead of stiff. "Why don't you sit beside me and share my breakfast?"

Dorian obliged. Honestly, he craved the company. He thought of Octavious again, out there in the middle distance somewhere. Then, he remembered Amjad's hurt, so evident in Amjad's expression as Dorian once more went through his elaborate rituals, all designed to hide one of the best things to ever happen to him. When Gabriel passed him a bowl of porridge, he gripped the spoon so hard it stamped its outline in to his flesh. 

Shandi's warm bulk became apparent a moment later; sensing his hurt, maybe, she had moved over as if on instinct to offer him comfort. He turned grateful eyes on her, only to see her own drawn, raw countenance. What had this trip invoked for Shandi, then? He felt the entire venture hang around them like noxious mist, the kind that accompanied an ancient grave opening under a master necromancer's command. And oh Maker, had he thought of that more than once, that his magic could part funeral soil and command Quintus stand up from within like a sapling pushing at the sky, imbued with new life. So much power lived in the stones here that he couldn't help but consider it all over again, an idea that was sometimes cherished fantasy, at other times intrusive terror. Either way, his fingerprints were all over it, as indelible as blood on stone.

He did his best to eat, but unbidden the image of Felix rose up to steal away his appetite. Not Felix as he had been in life, no. Felix from the dark future, a putrid shell that could do little more than blink and twitch. And yet the true horror wasn't what had become of his friend. It was that he could understand Alexius, the kind of love that might make a man sign over his very soul for the barest hope. 

Amjad appeared across the camp, a dark and troubled spirit in a group already full of them. Dorian realized that even Varric had remained silent, and though his lady hardly needed protecting he stayed close, crossbow ready. She did the same for him, her gaze darting from shadow to shadow, her sword still unsheathed across her knees. 

So. Like Skyhold, old magics yet glittered away in the loam here. Except here, necromancy reigned. 

With but a movement of his hand, Amjad commanded them to rise, break camp, and follow. 


Amjad and Varric took point, with Gabriel following close behind. Cassandra and Shandi brought up the rear, scanning the area again and then again for even the slightest threat. They'd left the mounts, untethered so that if by some awful stroke of misfortune their riders didn't return they could find their way back to the Inquisition camp up on the ridge. While Dorian didn't relish dragging the hems of his coat and breeches in the mud (inevitable when struggling along on foot), secretly he approved. He'd grown fond of his mare, and didn't want to risk her.  

Dorian watched as Varric stopped, tilting his head. Varric cupped his hand around his ear, as though he hoped to catch a sound just below hearing. Dorian and Varric had shared several drinks together over their time in Skyhold; more than once Varric, deep in his cups, had scoffed at the idea of having any Stone sense, when asked by parties eager to learn all they could about the author of Tale of the Champion. He'd never even set foot in Orzammar. But Dorian knew the tales from Kirkwall, and wondered if Varric had developed another sense all together. One that might let him perceive and decode the insanity-inducing song emanating from red lyrium, one that could even now be describing pathways under Varric's feet. 

The thought made sudden rage bloom in Dorian's chest, a plume of dragon's fire. Red lyrium. Could Octavious stoop any lower? The faces of the lost in Emprise Du Lion swam before him, their broken corpses scattered around makeshift slave transports better suited to housing farm animals on their way to slaughter. Some had stretched their arms through the bars, perhaps to plead with their captors. Others were curled up in the corners, trying to escape if not their masters, then the cold, which killed even more capriciously than red templars. And Octavious dealt in it as casually as if he were peddling potion reagents or hawking stuffed rolls. 

"I've ordered the tunnel opened." Amjad's voice brought Dorian out of his thoughts, somewhat. A sea breeze played over his face as if he'd drawn a ribbon from his hair, a rustle like finest silk reminding him of his surroundings. The softness of the moment deceived, as right afterwards a heavy wind dragged its hands down his back and plucked at the fringe of his coat. "We shouldn't have trouble with that aspect. Cullen told me there was a red templar force there, but it seemed suspiciously bare bones and was easily dispatched. The real resistance will be found deep within, under the waters." 

Maker, did their tunnels reach so that they could exist even under the Waking Sea? He knew under his skin, in the seams of his skull and in the vital organs caged in his chest, that lives had been thrown away to create such a fantastical thing. Often he had criticized the cavalier way the Magisterium dealt in sacrifices, but the Venatori had no need to follow social norms and had sunk in to a depravity that often left him breathless at its cruelty. 

The group paused high on the bluff, and Amjad crouched low with a hand shading his eyes. He had the eyesight of an eagle, and his irises glowed even in the daylight as he peered down at the area in question. Their destination loomed large, a jagged formation of slick rock that rose from the sea just beyond the shore.

Gabriel and Varric came up to flank Amjad.  Shandi and Cassandra fanned out, protecting the group and ranging far enough away to catch any movement or other threatening stimuli. Dorian leaned on his staff. He had the physical prowess of any warrior --the way he wielded his staff had always been athletic, not to mention quite lovely to look at -- but the emotion twisting his stomach and penetrating in to his heart exhausted him. 

"They'll be dug in," Shandi said as she came back over. "That's how Venatori do things. Build a nest and try to protect their leaders with traps and foot soldiers. And most groups are working on some kind of experimental magic for Coryphytit, so we'll have to be twice again as cautious." 

Dorian looked over at her, rather impressed. Too easy to think of her as stupid, thanks to her size and profession, but she watched and analyzed and responded as readily as a scholar. Her books and papers just happened to be swords and battle strategies, instead. 

"Yes," Dorian found himself agreeing. "When we first cleared the Hinterlands, the mages and templars chose a similar course of action. Of course the mages in particular couldn't stand against us." He said, lifting his head in a haughty manner and brushing invisible dirt from his front. Normally his bluster could make his friends at the very least smile, but this time Shandi fixed him with a flat look that told him in no uncertain terms that his preening was unwelcome. 

This day is going poorly, he thought, inner voice as dry as a riverbed in the Western Approach. It wasn't often he couldn't charm those around him, and he decided he disliked it immensely. 

"Careful you don't cause a rockslide," Amjad said, before leaping down to the path below. The path could hardly be called such, a furrowed, tiny thing only appropriate for mountain goats. Of course Amjad had no trouble with it and annoyance made Dorian scowl. All well and good when you happen to be an elf! 

Through some miracle they all made it down without tragedy, though at one point Shandi had to rescue Varric from a fall by grabbing the collar of his coat at the last second. 

"Thanks," Varric said once he had his footing again. "An act like that, you deserve a title!"

"A title?" Shandi asked, negotiating a particularly steep part of the trail. She sounded incredulous. No surprise there. 

"Sure. When I write about you in All This Shit is Weird, I have to capture your best traits. Goldie the Great? Goldie the Lionhearted?" 

Finally they made it to the beach. Shandi looked out across the water, then turned to Varric with her face scrunched up.

"Really?" 

Varric shrugged and grinned an unrepentant grin. 

"What do you call Amjad?" Shandi wondered. At the mention of his name Amjad turned to look at the group. Dorian's gaze magnetized to Amjad, as it often did. The elf's expression was inscrutable, remote. 

"I don't have a nickname for our fearless leader," Varric said. "All I can think of is Stabby or Wolfy, neither of which I think he would appreciate," he added, wincing.

Amjad smiled, showing his teeth in a way that made it look more like a grimace. 

"I approve," Amjad said. He turned away again, watching the waves break on the shore. "Let's get moving. There may be a rift inside. Stay alert." 

Indeed a rift waited for them, and a strong one at that. The first round of Rage demons existed as an honor guard for the Pride demon in their midst, a scion Cassandra blunted her sword on so tough its hide. Shandi's quick actions saved Cassandra's sword arm, as she snarled and roared and shoved the demon back with all her strength. Amjad dispatched what Rage demons he could, setting up the rest for either his and Gabriel's spells or Varric's quarrels. 

They were an accomplished adventuring party, full to the brim with the kind of greatness that made bards swoon, but even so they were already worse for the wear when the second wave of infernal beasts issued forth to test them. Cassandra stood strong against Despair in a way Dorian had never seen anyone else manage; feeling sorrow only made her more determined. The fact that she kept Despair from him he felt pitifully grateful for; he didn't think he could have withstood the onslaught. Another Pride demon scored a hit with its energy whip, the scream torn from his throat before he even realized it. Gabriel's barrier washed over him as if he were being enveloped in a particularly indulgent tub of hot bathwater, dried flower petals scattered on top and fine oils teasing his nostrils with fine fragrance. Amjad's flask hit the ground at Pride's feet and shattered, thick flaming oil coating the demon's craggy hide. It bellowed and stumbled, its skeleton showing where the substance had scored direct hits. 

He managed to fell it with a burst of lightning, so primal that it arced through the antechamber and did unspeakable things to everyone's hair. Thankfully they weren't in the habit of bringing a talekeeper on their journeys, and he doubted Varric would want to capture such an inglorious event...he hoped. At least their embarrassment wouldn't be captured for posterity. 

"Dorian," Gabriel said, grinning. "This isn't how I would have liked to meet the Venatori." 

Varric laughed, and even though the Venatori surely knew they were here and the confrontation with Octavious drew ever closer, Dorian couldn't help but laugh along. He waited for the sting of being laughed at, but it never came. Even Amjad spared a chuckle, and Cassandra managed to crack a smirk. Shandi still seemed too downtrodden to express anything approaching mirth, and it made his mood dampen again. 

As they crept further in the scent of seawater swept over them. They came upon a tiny dock within the stone, a boat still lashed to it, bobbing in the waves. Even without spying the red dust coating the inside, Dorian would have known it had been used to smuggle blighted lyrium. The substance added a discordant, electric note to the area. Varric could feel it too; his face had turned ashen and grim, and his trigger finger twitched across Bianca's lovingly polished body. 

"Here," Amjad said, crouching down and swiping dust away from the spot that had caught his attention. A trapdoor. So, it was true. Tunnels that extended even beneath the sea. Varric went over to check it for traps, spending several long minutes disarming several particularly nasty discouragements. Varric beckoned him over to deal with the magical protection glyphs, and with him and Gabriel working together they managed to unravel the set spells without --hopefully -- tripping any alarms. 

The tunnels themselves made a deep seated anxiety set in. Being so close to a red lyrium vein did that to a person. Shandi moved with her naked sword blade in her hand, her face set in a permanent scowl. Cassandra mirrored her, her Seeker abilities surely communicating danger to her in no uncertain terms. When he sensed a trap, Varric would bid everyone stop while he worked away at it, tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth when he happened to be fiddling with a very intricate piece of whatever killing apparatus the Venatori had thought to set. 

 A patrol of guards comprised their first encounter with the Venatori themselves. Once the majority were dispatched Amjad hauled the only man whose life they had spared up by his shirt. The man had sustained significant injury and couldn't or wouldn't stand, but Amjad made the guard look him in the face. 

"Where is your leader?" Amjad growled. "Speak, or I will make your death a torment even your descendants will feel." 

"You want Octavious?" The guard spat. "You can bloody well have him. He makes his home in the center of our stronghold."

"What is he working on? For Corypheus?" Amjad demanded. 

"I'm not --" the guard began coughing up blood, his mask torn aside, hood rumpled and soiled. Amjad did him the courtesy of baring his head, so he could vomit. "I'm not sure," he continued when he was done. "I'm no mage. But I figure it has something to do with mind control. Making slaves who obey without question." 

"Thank you. I'll kill you quickly. Without my knife to free you, it will take you a long time to bleed out." Amjad told him matter of factly, letting go and letting him slump back to the ground. His knife flashed before the guard could react to Amjad's words, and a gush of blood from the guard's throat served as evidence of a quick demise. 

Dorian wanted to make a quip about the guard's livery and Venatori ideas of style, but he remembered his earlier attempts at humor and kept his mouth shut. 

The man had been truthful. As they went deeper they found the bodies of slaves scattered everywhere, pale and drained of life. Some had cracked skulls, but it didn't indicate the messy business of a bludgeoning. Instead it had an almost surgical feel, the holes semi-uniform as if they were made on purpose, to gain access to the brain. Some of the corpses didn't even have recognizable brains anymore. Instead their skulls housed a green-black sludge that stunk of chemicals. He thought of the Tranquil who had died to make all of those ocularum, and shuddered. 

"What the hell are they doing to these people?" Varric said in a hushed, horrified whisper. Amjad crouched down to peer at one of the bodies.

"Experiments?" Amjad hazarded. "Look at the brain. An attempt to change their behavior? It seems our friend back there spoke true." 

"Likely," Cassandra added in a growl. "The Venatori will stop at nothing to secure victory for their lord. This atrocity matters not at all to them." 

"Even animals don't shit where they eat," Varric added, pointedly looking at a bare spot on the wall. 

Shandi didn't speak, but dragon scent started to pour off of her; her bloodrage aroused by the crimes committed in these Maker forsaken tunnels. 

"Perhaps we'll join their ranks," Dorian found himself saying. "Do you think the holes they'll drill in my skull will muss my hair?"

"You mean you don't magic it in to place?" Shandi grunted as she looked around, nervous. Her fingers twitched, skittering over her sword handle.

"Dorian," Amjad said before he could retort. "Can you raise them?"

He quailed for a moment, considering further desecrating these corpses. But he saw the truth of it. There were at least ten bodies here, and likely more ahead. If he could raise and control them, they would have a decent fighting force and would breach Octavious' protections with much less risk to life and limb. 

He let his staff go, commanding it to hover in mid air. The jewels suspended in the branches at the top glittered and spun, the length curled round with tendrils of magic the color of spilled wine. Necromancy rose around them like the first winds of winter, murmuring secrets. Dorian could smell the anointing oil that blessed the newly dead, the hard, bright whiff of obol coins. Ashes...had they burned Quintus? He could never bring himself to verify it. What was worse, blazing away to nothing on a pyre, or interned in the suffocating earth?

No, dammit. Focus. 

The corpses left forgotten rattled, and the inhalation of breath where before there had been none echoed as loud as a royal decree read from a mountain top. Coagulated blood and brain matter oozed and dripped to the dust as a few of the walking dead stood, shambling aimlessly until Dorian's fine control drew them in and forced them to obey. Cassandra couldn't keep her expression of quiet horror from her face --she had never appreciated the necropoli of her homeland -- and it made Dorian lift his head with pride; Southern Chantry guard dogs couldn't truly appreciate magical mastery. The prejudice rankled even as the grisly evidence of his countrymen's crimes stared him, quite literally, in the face. 

Amjad's expression turned to one of regard, a small smile, his intent gaze. 

"Impressive," he murmured, and Dorian couldn't help but preen.  

"I am, aren't I?" He said, selling it quite well, he thought. Amjad had to keep from laughing; he could never quite fool Amjad completely. His own amusement always came through and ruined the whole effect. 

He caught sight of Gabriel's face, and his mood tumbled from its lofty perch. Gabriel had turned as pale as a fresh sheet of parchment, and his hands were tightly fisted around his staff. 

"I apologize..." Dorian felt compelled to say.

"No no," Gabriel said, "it's just that the last time I saw a walking corpse, the outcome was...not favorable." 

Amjad looked at Gabriel and frowned, troubled if Dorian had to guess. 

"They won't be in our company long," Amjad said, and as if the Venatori had been waiting for just such a comment to make a grand entrance, a fighting force swept in bent on killing them all. 

The tunnel both afforded advantages and snatched them away. He and the rest of the party fell back to a narrow place a few steps behind, forcing the Ventatori to come at them only two or three at a time. The downside being that spells fired in to such a constrictive space became especially deadly; the power had nowhere to go but in to their soft flesh. 

Gabriel bid the veil open and a rush of healing spirits poured in, blinding Dorian with their light. He didn't need his eyes to cast, however, knowing where the enemy mages were through their presence in the Fade. Smoke filled the room beyond as Amjad threw his flasks, rewarded with the shouts of confused sell swords and the mages the leadership felt they could risk in a pitched battle. With but a thought his complement of corpse soldiers lurched in to fight, tearing and biting. 

The last scream cut the air as Cassandra brought her sword down. Shandi stood nearby, her blade thick with black gore, but she had yet to unleash true dragon's fury. Perhaps she was saving it for Octavious. 

Good. 

They pressed on, and if it weren't for Amjad's tracking skills they surely would have become hopelessly lost. Dorian felt little tendrils of magic spreading over the walls and ceiling, and he thought perhaps that one of the spells here had been designed to mislead any unfamiliar persons who happened to get this far. Red lyrium pulsed in his consciousness, blackening his mage-sight with corruption. The deeper they went the more the stuff grew out of the walls and coated the ground in killing dust. He and Gabriel had to be feeling the same dread, but it was Varric who struggled most. Shandi walked beside him, murmuring to him from time to time. Cassandra stood on his other side, keeping pace with him. It eased Dorian's worries a little; Varric couldn't ask for a better guard detail. 

The corpses that remained shuffled along beside him, caring not a whit for red lyrium, Venatori, or the ghastly business ahead. He preferred corpses to real people at times. Corpses did not judge. 

Torches burned as they went still deeper, Veil fire. Amjad took one without hesitating, holding it high. The blaze revealed runes used to protect the inner sanctum. Dorian and Gabriel spent several minutes studying them, and then several more rendering them useless. It occured to Dorian that perhaps Octavious was even now making his escape. The Venatori were cowards, after all. He rose, smoothing his clothing with hands that, thankfully, didn't tremble. 

A few more paces and Amjad broke in to a run. He must have sensed something, something terribly important or he wouldn't have risked traps, runes, and sell swords like that. Shandi barreled after and everyone else followed. 

The door to Octavious' foul nest stood ajar, and by the smell he knew it would be full of broken bodies. Amjad disappeared, likely going through undetected. Shandi hit the door at a run and tore it from its hinges as if it weighed nothing. Dorian pushed past Varric and Cassandra --battle strategy be damned -- just in time to see Octavious and several of his idiot knuckle breakers trying to escape through a back passage. 

Before he could react, Amjad had summarily murdered all of Octavious' men. Octavious turned white and stumbled, just enough for Shandi to grab him by the collar of his robe. She picked him bodily off the ground, his hands scrabbling at the point where the fabric cut in to his skin. 

"What would you have me do with him?" Shandi asked Amjad, giving Octavious a little shake. In his position he couldn't cast, and Dorian felt spiteful laughter bubble up from somewhere within him. Amjad turned to look at him, eyebrows artfully raised. 

"That is for Dorian to decide," he said. Dorian could feel Cassandra and Varric behind him, and without even having to look he could feel the crossbow quarrel aimed at Octavious' heart, the naked steel in Cassandra's hand. Shandi put Octavious on his feet but kept her hold. With her free hand she snatched his hood from his head, forcing Octavious to look at them. Octavious had pale skin for a person born in Tevinter, and hair closer to red than brown. He, like most Venatori, had attractive features. At the moment those features happened to be pinched with mockery; as soon as Octavious laid eyes on him an unholy glee had been evident in his expression. 

"Octavious." He said, trying to sound just the right side of arrogant. "A pity we must meet like this."

"Is it, discinctus?" He said, and Dorian couldn't keep a scowl from twisting his mouth. 

"Do you think insults are going to work in your favor at the moment?" He asked. Amjad stood to the side of Shandi and her prize, and Dorian knew that if he didn't do it Amjad would surely murder Octavious for that alone. 

"Hm. I see you've brought a pet ox-head to subdue me," Octavious spat. He raised his hands to cast, but the flame he called flickered and died before it could become a blaze. Then and only then did Octavious look afraid. 

Amjad held up his dagger, and Dorian understood by the sheen on the blade; magebane. Amjad must have used it to drive Octavious in to Shandi's grip. 

Octavious realized he had no hope of struggling free of Shandi's hold, and turned his head so he wouldn't have to see those who would most probably take his life. Amjad stepped up and hissed, 

"Look at him, or I'll cut your fingers off one by one and feed them to you."

Octavious did as told. 

"Lord Pavus, I had to do it." He babbled. Maker, it felt good to watch Octavious' terror. "It was nothing personal. You understand. You've played the Game yourself!"

"The Game! The bloody Game?" He heard himself shout. "You expect to sway me by referencing that fucking abomination? Oh no offense Dorian, I know I killed the only man who has ever loved you, but you should understand because it's just business?" 

Damn it all to hell. Fuck the fact that the rest of his party could hear him. Shit on it all. 

"Your father..." Octavious tried, but Shandi in her anger had twisted the hem of his robe so tightly around his neck that he couldn't speak. He gave her a look and she grudgingly loosened her hold. "Your father," Octavious tried again after a coughing fit, "he demanded it. I am subservient to him; he is the better mage. And he enjoys a seat in the Magisterium. I could never hope to achieve that status."

Suddenly, Dorian understood why Corypheus enjoyed so many willing converts. Power. Blood magic. All the slaves a person could want. No pesky ethics to get in the way of their depraved experiments. 

"You disgust me," he whispered, looking at Octavious the way he'd look at a blighted cadaver wriggling and jumping, so ravenous and numerous were the maggots inside. 

"If you kill me, there will be consequences," Octavious said. "The Venatori will make you pay for my life." 

"Do you think you're really so important?" Amjad said between clenched teeth. "The Venatori care little for their members. If you cease to be useful they won't even remember your name." 

"Strike me down and see," Octavious said. 

"Gladly," Dorian said. "Shandi, let him go." 

Shandi did as he asked and Octavious ran for it, stumbling over the evidence of his own experiments, broken bodies, spilled potions. Dorian called forth a great pillar of pure necromancy, and the animated dead still at his beck and call rushed forward. 

It took them a long time to finish eating Octavious. He screamed, even missing all his limbs. He screamed even when the walking dead tore in to his belly and started eating the soft parts inside. Only when they tore his head from his body, did he stop. 

The sudden need to be violently ill possessed Dorian. He made it to the hallway before he vomited. 


Later, when they had climbed free of that wretched little nest, Dorian finally felt as though he could take a full breath. Varric and Amjad had set the tunnels ablaze, and the warmth settled against his back like a cloak of phoenix feathers. Maker, what had he done? Octavious deserved that death, but...

"Come on," Shandi said, putting her huge hand on his shoulder. Despite her great strength, the touch was gentle, kind. "Let's get back to camp." 

"Going to make more of that stew, Goldie?" Varric asked, his voice jovial enough though by his ashen face he hadn't forgotten red lyrium's song. 

"Yeah, sure. I'll go get us some rabbits or something. Maybe a deer, if we're lucky." 

The day mellowed in to twilight. Shandi made stew. Cassandra read. Amjad...lurked, still on guard, Dorian thought, after that messy business from before. 

At first, he didn't notice that Shandi had left camp. Truth be told he was exhausted, having channeled and refined so much power in such a short span of time. But, just as earlier he had been compelled to follow Amjad, he found himself rising and going after her. 

She knelt at the spot Amjad had chosen to sit earlier, looking out over the Waking Sea as the sun went down. It burned a shade he'd never seen before, a molten orb of scarlet and gold. A bouquet of crystal grace lay beside her, glowing in the gloom.

"Shandi?" 

She didn't even turn her head.

"Dorian," she said, and her voice pitched so low and quiet made her sound like a funerary priest. "Come and sit if you've a mind to." 

He did. His clothes were already disgusting. What was a little dew? Why not some grass stains to round it all out?

For a long time they sat in silence. The Waking Sea swallowed the sun, and stars came. The cries of birds gave way to a cricket symphony. Finally, he spoke.

"Who was he?"

She looked at him then. 

"What do you mean?"

"Who was it that you lost?" 

"How can you...?" She said, lips parted and brows furrowed in surprise. 

"How can I tell?" He asked. "I know what loss is. Since we came here, all losses are closer to the surface. Aren't they? The necromancy is in the land, the sea, the sky." 

Shandi was silent for a long moment.

"She," she admitted. "She. Her name was Deirdre. A Dalish elf who left her clan and became a mercenary. In my company. Fate maybe. That sounds stupid." 

"It doesn't." Dorian offered. He had trouble breathing just then; Shandi had been with someone who shared her gender, too. "Some things must be preordained, hm?"

"What about you?" She said, and it had a note of demand in it; she had shared. She expected the same from him.

"His name was Quintus. The son of a minor noble. We...fell in love, the way naive young people do. My father sent hired thugs to...recover me, from the estate. In the course of doing so, Quintus was murdered. I am sure for some political end. It was a convenient excuse to eliminate him. I don't know why and I don't care to know. Petty striving. The bloody Game. I don't want to know."

"I think I understand," Shandi said, speaking slowly as if she had thought carefully about each word before expressing it. "One of the things I couldn't bear about Deirdre's death was that it didn't matter. Not to anyone but me, and her friends in the company. We buried her, and then everyone felt it was over and done. But I couldn't put it down. I still can't." 

"It's a shame when people become disposable," he said, and something about the dark ocean out there at the edge of the world made him wonder whether Quintus' soul had found some kind of respite beyond the veil. 

Again, the silence stretched until Shandi reached to her left and plucked a bloom from her careful collection of flowers. She handed it to him.

"For Quintus," she told him, and in the span it took to blink he choked up to the point where he couldn't speak. 

"For Deirdre," he finally said, voice hoarse. 

"For Deirdre," she agreed, and when he leaned against her it felt natural and right. She put her arm around him, and some raw place within him drank in the simple, platonic affection like a draught made by the hands of a master. 

Maker willing, their spirits were at rest.   

Chapter Text

Great bear dog bull flying fish
Scorpion peacock make your wish

Case/Lang/Veirs, Georgia Stars


 “So,” Shandi said over breakfast the next morning, “where in the bloody hell is this artifact, if we couldn’t find it in the tunnels?” Dorian blinked, trying to clear the cobwebs from his thoughts. It had been awhile since he’d had such a rough waking, the kind that left his mouth stuffed full of cotton, his vision washed out, head pounding. What cruel world had he found himself in where the Maker had seen fit to punish him with a hangover when for once not a drop of alcohol had passed his lips? Oh, woe.

Amjad looked up from his food, using a healing potion to wash it down. His gut wound had mostly healed, but Regina had impressed upon him the importance of staying as hale as possible lest it burst open again. “I am wondering that myself. I still think they were the likely owners at one time, but perhaps another took it from them. The Venatori are not the only people to stake their claim to the Storm Coast.”

“I’ve got an idea about that,” Varric said. “Let me see a map.”

Shandi obliged, getting up to rifle through their piled up belongings. She found the map roll and uncapped it, drawing forth a map done in Cullen’s neat pen. Cullen was no master cartographer, but he knew enough thanks to his duties regarding troop deployment.

Varric took the map from Shandi, opening it on his knees. Cassandra leaned over to peer at it.

“The dock we found? It’s part of a thaig. But the tunnels we explored weren’t part of its original structure,” he said. “They were made by magic, blood magic, as an extension. Maybe Octavious did it as a show of power, or he might have had no choice, considering there are probably Darkspawn lurking just past his nest.”

“You think they knew it was there, but couldn’t get to it?” Shandi asked.

“Yeah. The artifact, and Maker knows what else. They were probably holed up there trying to get inside,” Varric said, “if I remember rightly the thaig used to be a trading post between Orzammar and Tevinter. Hell, there could be a thousand pieces of treasure inside, for all I know.”

“Something the Venatori couldn’t resist,” Dorian added. So, he could safely add greed to the list of sins the Venatori were so ardently courting. Andrastae’s sword, he wanted to wipe all traces of them and their dark works from the face of the earth. If he could look impossibly handsome at the same time, all the better. One for the history books, indeed. He could only hope that any artists attempting to capture their journeys would depict his good side, preferably in ultramarine and soft ochre garments that brought out his eyes.

“Darkspawn, huh?” Shandi grunted, sword hand twitching. “Haven’t had much chance to face them.”

Varric paled. “I have, Goldie. Not something I want to repeat.”

“I’m sorry, Varric.” Amjad said, in a tone that said he felt so sincerely. “If you wish to return to Skyhold, it would be no blight on your character.”

“Oh very well and good,” Dorian said, “Varric, go off home. But you Dorian, you stay. Since you love mud and rain and Darkspawn so much.”

“If you’re worried about your mustache turning frizzy you may make your way home as well,” Amjad told him in a tone that could have stripped paint from the walls at a hundred paces. Sometimes Amjad’s patience for his brand of humor ran dry, and quickly. “But I will recover this artifact, with or without you.”

“Hmph. I’ll stay. Someone has to be the devastatingly charming one.”

“Then who’s the comic relief?” Shandi asked, grinning a broad grin as she lounged back on her elbows. She looked pointedly at Varric.

“It’s certainly not me,” Gabriel added, looking vaguely affronted.

“Hey don’t look at me,” Varric protested, lifting his hands. “I am a respectable story teller. I’m published, you know.”

Cassandra snorted.

“Anyway Varric, don’t worry about it,” Shandi said, “if it bleeds, it can die. Even Darkspawn.”

“You’re actually excited, aren’t you?” Varric shook his head in consternation.

“Yeah!” Shandi sat up and started strapping on her armor. “Don’t you get bored fighting demons and bears and stuff? I’m a Reaver. I want to test myself. Wasn’t that rock wraith from the Deep Roads? That was a good fight.”

Dorian felt sorry for poor Gabriel; it was obvious how much anxiety Shandi’s attitude caused him, though Gabriel wisely kept his mouth shut. He could empathize; he’d thought they were free of skulking around underground. Or undersea, as the case may be.

They all got up to follow Shandi’s example. At least he could exchange his base layer for a clean set, even if his precious coat wasn’t about to receive the starch laundering it deserved any time soon. Bathing with nothing but a soft cloth and a little pot of water was quite far from ideal, but he supposed it did do something for his hygiene. The delicate aroma of rose water rose from the rag and settled in to his skin. A small comfort only, but one he wouldn’t take for granted.

The others, having washed and changed, came together in a huddle.

“We’ll be okay,” Shandi said. Her optimism certainly hadn’t flagged a whit.

“Let’s make a great story,” Varric said.

They filed out and down, walking the path they’d already used before. Dorian felt his stomach twist and catch. It felt like a pouch of his most treasured belongings had caught on a length of barbed wire and ripped open, spilling its contents in to the mire.

What would they find within?


Gabriel despaired of even finding an alternate entrance to the thaig, but he shouldn’t have doubted; Varric located another tunnel as if he’d been here before. That red lyrium idol must have done something to him, furnished him with a kind of Stone sense before being passed off and driving Meredith mad. Well, moreso than she already was.

The thought made a discordant shiver go up his spine, but he ignored it as best he could. Varric’s instincts were helping them now, no matter their origin.

He stayed close to Amjad as Shandi and Cassandra tried to open the huge double doors impeding their passage. They grunted and groaned, boots scraping the earth as if they were a pair of druffalo fording a river whipped in to a froth by a gale wind. Eventually it shifted, and Shandi was able to lean in to to her half of the door and shove it open the rest of the way.

Gabriel expected a puff of dust as they disturbed halls that hadn’t known the gait of a living being for years. Instead a faint whisper of ozone came to him, and when he stepped on the polished stone floor, something akin to an electric shock arched through his boots and in to his skin.

“What in — “ He gasped. Amjad turned to him, and he knew that somehow Amjad had felt it too, though he felt sure it had a magical origin.

“Not surprising, for a trading house with Tevinter,” Amjad pointed out, already scanning the area with his keen eyes. “I suspect the magic here will make more than a single appearance. Stay alert.”

Gabriel vacillated over whether to pull his sword; perhaps the magic tempered in to the blade would react badly with whatever yet lingered here. But then again, being caught flat footed when an attack came sounded even less pleasant.

He drew the blade. He could feel Shandi and Cassandra behind him and to each side, a certain tension telling him that they were already checking and rechecking the area for threats. Luckily his weapon did not do anything harmful, though it lit up with an intense silver light. The runes sparked and crackled before settling in to a steady, pulsing glow.

The thaig oriented around this great hall they had found themselves in, storage rooms and sprawling meeting spaces spiraling away in to the stone. Some of those doors stood open, as if at any moment a brace of traders would issue forth, arguing prices.

A half eaten wheel of cheese and a loaf of bread sat on the sideboard inside the room Gabriel walked past next, the pie lifter half dug in to the forgotten vittles as if someone had left mid-serve.

Shandi sucked in a sharp breath. He turned, worried, but it wasn’t an expression of concern on her part; she’d caught sight of a pile of treasure in one of the storehouses. It looked like a dragon’s horde, so fantastical Gabriel wondered if he were imagining it. Gold sovereigns lay scattered on the floor as if someone so wealthy it mattered not had let them fall where they may. Pieces of jewelry glittered; there too, a broach in the shape of a spider clutching a ruby the size of his thumb, next to a necklace formed from strand after strand of spun silverite, and each strand with dawnstone chips that caught the light from his sword.

“Look at that!” Shandi exclaimed, taking a couple of steps towards it before realizing what she was doing and coming to a jerky halt.

“We’ll take it with us, if it’s not cursed,” Amjad said. His tone had a distant quality, as if he stood a greater distance away from them than he actually did. Often he walked as if he had a purpose to urgently attend to, or with the ground eating lope of a wolf or a mountain cat. Now, he…wandered, with little rhyme or reason Gabriel could discern. Amjad’s hands, usually tense and ready to pull both dagger and flask, hung limp at his sides.

Gabriel felt a pang of fear. Something seemed off, yet he could perceive nothing that would fully explain such an instinct. Perhaps it could be chalked up to the eerie feeling of entering a place caught at a particular moment in time; he still expected the owners of the thaig to appear somehow, so indelible was their presence. It wasn’t like opening a tomb, not really. It felt as though everyone had simply left in the middle of dinner. And the Darkspawn? Nowhere to be found. He’d been prepared for hordes of ravening genlocks, not such pregnant silence as this.

Dorian came up beside him. Dorian’s lovely face had a dark cast, as if dread had poured its inky essence in to the shadows here, deepening them far beyond the natural. They all itched to fight whatever lingered, yet there was nothing they could put to the sword.

Shandi found an old, withered torch still in its sconce. She took it, and Dorian lit it with but a thought. It pushed the gloom back some, but only so they stood in a narrow oval of light. The air had a thick quality, sticking in Gabriel’s throat and shrouding his gaze.

He could barely see Amjad and something in him made him split from the group and break in to a run.

“Amjad!” Dorian shouted. “Stop. You don’t know what you might trip over.”

For a long, heart-stopping moment, only silence greeted Dorian’s words. But then Amjad said, slurring as if he were drunk, “can’t you see it?”

They rounded the corner. The floor gave way before them, cracked down to the bedrock. Amjad dropped out of sight.


Dorian lurched forward, barely feeling Shandi twisting his arm, trying to keep him from leaping in to the crevasse himself. He’d gone wild in that moment, somehow, a fear overtaking him such that it felt like standing on the gallows with a rope around his neck. Instead of the kind of despair that plunged its sufferer in to catatonia it galvanized him, made him fight Shandi as if he had any hope of shaking her off. She growled his name struggling, no doubt, to restrain him without breaking his arm.

He could perceive the others talking, trying to figure out what to do, maybe. He couldn’t have said for sure; it might as well have been a swarm of bees for all the sense it made.

“Dorian!” It was Cassandra, yelling at him like he was a Seeker recruit. “Get ahold of yourself!” He thought she might actually slap him, and it brought him some measure of clarity. Still…nothing from Amjad. Nothing more than a gasp, and a grunt as he hit the ground. That certainly wasn’t normal. The drop was at least the height of Skyhold’s scaffolding, enough to easily break the limbs of whoever tumbled over the side.

And it explains the lack of Darkspawn. Did the traders do this to protect themselves?

“Dorian,” Gabriel said, and the way he tendered the name felt much different from Cassandra. “I think I have found a way to climb down. But only you and I should go.” Gabriel looked at Cassandra and Varric, then Shandi. “Too heavy a person and it might crumble. Even though your armor is enchanted, Shandi.” He said anticipating her protest before she could get the words out. “I might be able to hold the path together with magic, but it takes more fine control than you might imagine.”

“Yes, fine,” he snapped, “blasted hells, woman, let me go!” Shandi let her hand fall away without comment. “Vishantae kaffas, could we get on with it?”

Gabriel didn’t flinch. The other mage simply turned away and started clambering over the jagged edge of what had once been solid ground.

As soon as he touched the craggy stone teeth jutting up from the remnants of the hallway, he knew for sure that it had been done with magic. It might have been a last measure against the Darkspawn as he’d thought before, though he doubted it went deep enough to keep them back. Darkspawn didn't need to eat, drink, or sleep, and perhaps could have climbed the divide since they had no consideration for any injuries they might incur. An accident then, perhaps, someone meddling with an incantation they had no business reading aloud. Could that explain the state of the thaig? Had this possible mishap had other, less obvious effects, no less serious for their subtlety? Something that had commanded the inhabitants to leave?

Amjad’s anguished howl, though belated, sounded no less serious for all that it had come late. It scrambled his brains and it was only through the Maker’s intervention that he didn’t tumble to the earth himself trying to get to his amatus, clearly in trouble. When they did find their footing at the bottom, he smacked face first in to a wall of magic.

He fell hard, his ribs creaking. Breath became a distant memory in a single instant and he struggled to force air in to his lungs for what seemed an eternity. Gabriel’s hands were cool on his brow then, and the spirit healer’s power washed away his pains.

“I won’t go back,” he heard Amjad snarl. He sat up and could barely perceive Amjad through the haze of whatever noxious spell they’d tripped over. Amjad sat with one leg out in front of him at an unnatural angle. That was worry enough but Amjad had his head bowed; a slave’s pose. Amjad bowed his head to no one. Sickness born of fear stirred his stomach like a roiling pot of maleficar’s potion ingredients, overflowing with acid.  “I’ll die first.”

“A demon,” Dorian said, and he knew then the truth of the matter. Somehow, he knew.

“I see nothing,” Gabriel said, though certainly any mage could perceive the forcefield.

Dorian forced himself to stand. The scent of fresh blood hit him; Amjad had to be gravely hurt. He found himself with his hands up against the barrier as if he could push it out of the way. He knew he had to unravel it, needed to delve in to whatever had made it and pick it apart, but Maker, it was hard to think.

Amjad made a high-pitched, inhuman sound and Dorian saw: he was doing it to himself, one of his blades clenched in his hand, biting into his opposite wrist with a desperation that made Dorian break out in a cold sweat. It was as if he were trying to remove the anchor, but why? Dorian saw it then, albeit only in flashes: it was a demon. He could hardly perceive it, but because of influences he didn’t yet understand he could find its outline while Gabriel couldn’t. Even that outline…changed in a grotesque fashion, the same revulsion filling him as if he’d seen a neck slowly twisted until it broke.

“Step back,” Gabriel commanded and Dorian obeyed as if in a nightmare; he could barely control his body, as if he’d become a spirit floating above it instead of its rightful master. Gabriel raised his blade high overhead and brought it crashing down on the barrier. It exploded in a shower of shimmering magic, a demonic shriek barely heard as it ripped in two and suffocated his senses.

“Amjad!” Dorian called, hoping it would at least distract him from trying to sever his own hand. Amjad paused, the blade seated deep in his flesh. Dorian practically fell on him, grabbing for the knife. Amjad’s face was a rictus of suffering of such power and tenor that Dorian could compare it to nothing he’d ever encountered before, and Amjad fought with a strength and desperation beyond all ken. “Let go!”

Amjad babbled incoherently, but after a moment he could make out some of the words: “no no no, you can’t make me, I’ll cut my own throat before you can have me!”

Eventually Dorian won out. He was bigger, if nothing else. He tore the dagger from Amjad’s grip and threw it in to the furthest corner he could manage. He gripped Amjad’s wrist, trying somehow to stop the bleeding despite having nothing to aid him. He cursed himself for being such a poor spirit healer.

“Gabriel! Fasta vass, I need your help!”

“Kill me, please,” Amjad looked at him with such an imploring plea that had the request been anything else he would have fulfilled it without question. “I can’t…she’ll turn me — “

Rage burned through Dorian next, like a brush fire. Like the fires he’d seen and even set himself during war, the kind that consumed both the living and the dead without prejudice.

“Into what? What could be so awful that you — “

He looked up. Gabriel stood there, staring straight ahead as if he could finally see the demon responsible for this mess. Gabriel appeared as if he’d been caught in a trance, back straight, shoulders back, gaze with a laser focus. Gabriel hadn’t heard his call, and Dorian tore the scarf from his throat and wrapped it tight around Amjad’s wrist. The everknit wool turned from a delicate ivory to deep burgundy, the blood soon overflowing and staining Dorian’s hands.

“Take off your guise,” Gabriel said, his voice grave, “I know your true name.”

Dorian freed a healing potion from his belt in a couple of awkward motions and poured it directly over the wounds, the scarf forgotten as soon as it had failed to help. His fingers sunk into the cuts no matter what he did, so deep and extensive were they. He knew in a distant fashion that he was weeping. Amjad too, keening as if he’d been utterly undone.

Amjad couldn’t resist him anymore. Energy wasn’t infinite, not even for someone trained and healthy. He lay lengthwise against Amjad, Amjad’s chest heaving as he fought to breathe through the tears and whatever awful emotion had gripped him. Andrastae’s ass, what sort of thing could make someone maim themselves like this?

Decadence stepped out of the demon’s skin as if she were taking off a grand fur lined cloak. An image of her at Halimshiral filled him; she thought herself as grand as an Empress. Such loathing pooled in Dorian’s head that he felt like one of the shambling corpses from the tunnel, instead of the necromancer that had commanded them. He focused on Amjad, shielding him from Decadence, with his body if he had to.

Amatus,” he murmured in Amjad’s ear, “it’s me. Please, emma lath,” he said, tripping over the Elvhen as he always did.

“What’s happening?” He heard Shandi’s panicked shriek from above, but for all he cared she was a world away.

“You will never be free of me,” Decadence said. He could see the conflict at least a little from where he and Amjad lay. The demon’s face looked harsh in the light from Gabriel’s blade, picking out purple highlights in her hair and eyes such that Dorian could readily call forth the memory of her reclining on a throne of pure lyirum in the Western Approach, gorging herself on human flesh. Her bone-white face looked gaunt, and her teeth were wicked little fangs. “I can take the form of any demon I choose. What will you do against me? You can’t predict me, or cage me, or destroy me. I will harry you even in Skyhold. Your measures against me mean nothing.”

Amjad whimpered, the abject terror on his face evident. Dorian steeled himself; he would to protect Amjad, and to do that he had to be ready for anything Decadence might visit on them next. Mana came in to him from the soles of his feet and the tips of his fingers, coiling around his ribs like a creeping vine before sending its tendrils to entrap his heart as well. It burned in a way it never had; he’d called it with the wrong emotions, and it bit in to him with all the venomous ferocity of a bereskarn’s jaws.

He felt the ground shake as Shandi’s boots hit the earth. Somehow she’d made it down and the path be damned. Gabriel raised his weapon just as Shandi charged past. Decadence roared and Shandi screamed; the demon’s claws had carved right through her armor, leaving huge, red wounds on her chest and belly. The scream was one of savagery, however, and Shandi leapt like a tiger, sword forgotten. It caught Decadence off guard and the two struggled against each other like the pythons sometimes glimpsed in the Par Vollen rainforest, serpents big enough to devour a man whole.

Shandi roared, her armor in tatters. Her gauntleted fingers sunk in to Decadence’s throat, drawing a welter of black ichor that burned and smoked where it hit. Shandi had…transformed, claws instead of fingertips, her legs bent the wrong way as she became something entirely other.

Shandi’s usual manner had fled the scene, along with his sanity and Amjad’s sense of self. No laughter and no joy at being able to test her skills, no. She had given over completely to the bloodrage, in a way he’d never seen before. Not even the corrosive nature of Decadence’s blood could stop her; she bore the pitted, smoking wounds with no sign of disengaging from the bloodbath.  Her spine ridged up and swelled, as if a dragon’s spines would burst forth at any moment. She raked her claws down Decadence’s chest, no hesitation as she tried to shatter bone and rend cartilage. If she got to the heart, Dorian truly thought she would eat it, still beating.

Decadence reached up to pluck Shandi’s eye from its socket and only a last minute turn of Shandi’s head saved it; still blinded by the gush of blood, she lunged, biting and chewing at the demon’s throat. Her teeth had changed, too, a mouthful of fangs that would surely have spelled death for any mortal thing that found itself between them. Decadence’s talons in turn had punctured Shandi’s chest so deeply, a spurt of fresh blood colored Decadence’s face cardinal red.

He found himself cowering, curling up around Amjad. He turned his back to Shandi and Decadence, the oppressive heat of spilled blood and dragon rage pressed up against his face like the ether-dipped cloth Halward’s sell swords had visited upon him. He would have welcomed the blackness this time, and therefore, it did not come.

Gabriel took advantage and struck, but perhaps the blood from Shandi’s wounds had empowered Decadence; she disappeared in a flash of lightning, leaving Shandi crouched on all fours, breath heaving in and out of her, blood spurting out of her chest wound, her skin sizzling where the ichor had splattered her bare flesh. Glittering scales rimmed her eyes and described the path of her neck, dipping down past the ripped neckline of her base layer. Her claws flexed in to the earth, the line of her body coiled up as if she would charge at the slightest provocation. Her armor lay in tatters, only rent remnants clinging to her form.

Faintly he realized Decadence had hit an artery; Shandi’s blood came out of her in violent pulses, staining the earth.

“Shandi,” Gabriel said, voice as heavy and desolate as a murdered body concealed in the ocean, its limbs weighted, “Creators. Let me help you.”

Dorian closed his eyes tight. He knew Shandi would kill Gabriel if Gabriel was fool enough to approach.

The carnage didn’t come. He felt a healing spell of such strength that the wisps covered him and Amjad as if a caring soul had tenderly tucked the both of them in under a favorite quilt; the warmth nearly undid him. A thing mothers did in stories, a thing his mother would have never so lowered herself to do.

Amjad sobbed uncontrollably as if all the joys in his life had been extinguished before his eyes, one by one. Dorian whispered whatever he could think of that might be calming, trying to impress his caring and love even through their closeness, the way their bodies felt pressed together.

Shandi came over, crouching down. Healed, at least. Gabriel too, and Gabriel’s calming, warm-seawater magic washed over them and closed the rest of Amjad’s wounds.

“Give him to me,” Shandi said, sounding barely coherent. She looked a fright, her face still caught in a grimace that made him think about how she’d tried to tear Decadence’s throat out with her teeth.

Every fiber within him wanted to tell her to…well, it didn’t bear thinking about. To be parted from Amjad at a time like this…! To give Amjad to a brute. But he was not big enough or strong enough to bear Amjad out of this Maker-forsaken hole.

“His leg is going to need attention,” Dorian managed, forcing himself to sit up. If it had been healed along with the cuts he feared the agony Amjad would have to bear to truly fix it.

At least Amjad had gone limp and quiescent at the touch of magic, and Shandi slung him over her shoulder without incident. Dorian did his best to hold the path, such as it was, together with magic. It was all he could think to do, though it had become an even more difficult task thanks to Shandi scrabbling over it to get to them.

Cassandra and Varric waited at the edge and pulled them up by limbs and shirt collars and whatever else they could grab. Gabriel all but fainted when he was once again on solid ground, exhausted from all the magery, yes, but the situation…not something that eased their blasted hearts., now was it?

Dorian took his coat off and spread it on the floor. Shandi laid Amjad down on it where he promptly passed out, covered in his own blood. Dorian felt a little burst of mana from Gabriel; something to keep Amjad sleeping. The anchor whirled drunkenly, as if it knew it had come within moments of being severed from its host.

“What happened?” Cassandra demanded, her voice rising. She stood fast at the sight of Shandi, but her hand went to her sword’s pommel nonetheless.

“Not sure,” Shandi grunted, taking deep breaths as if she could purge the bloodrage that way. She felt uncomfortable to stand next to, her body smoldering with dragon’s ferocity. She smelled like electricity and the punishing sun reflected off of snake scales, felt like standing next to a pillar of fire.“Met that fucking…”

She went off on a little tirade that could have withered forests by the acre and warped steel on the blacksmith’s anvil. She crouched down, hanging her head and rubbing her fingers through her hair.

“I’m sorry,” she said, heat bleeding from her voice as the bloodrage eased.

“Will we never be free of her?” Cassandra spat. “I truly hope our artifact can be found —“ Just then, she spared a look for Amjad. “Inquisitor…”

Gabriel bit his lower lip as if to keep from crying, himself. He had his shoulders hunched in that way that made him look like a beaten cur.

“He’ll be all right,” Gabriel forced out, his voice hoarse and barely there. “Physically, anyway.”

“Why could I see her, but you couldn’t?” Dorian wondered, troubled. He had to be vigilant against demons at every moment; their promises were all too easy to give in to. Decadence had already deceived him once, as well, a stupid apprentice’s mistake.

“I couldn’t say,” Gabriel offered. “It might have been a guise that doesn’t pertain to me. If it were an embodiment of an emotion or situation I’ve never encountered or experienced.”

Dorian knew that, of course, but he didn’t snap at Gabriel for stating the obvious. The man couldn’t have borne his ire in such a state.

“But what would bring out that urge in Amjad so strongly?” Dorian asked. If he could dissect it, study it, all to the good. Anything to keep him from feeling it.

Before anyone could answer, Shandi collapsed. Gabriel went to her, fearless. Dorian winced, hoping she wouldn’t come to life and twist Gabriel’s arms off. Instead Gabriel touched her face with such tenderness, it broke something open in Dorian such that tears started to track down his face again.

Varric knelt at Amjad’s side, peering down at him as if he could read the why of everything that had happened in Amjad’s face.

“Damn, Wolfy,” Varric muttered, taking Amjad’s hand. His thumb rubbed over the underside of Amjad’s wrist; an ugly mark yet remained. “Why?”

“A curse, perhaps,” Cassandra said, terse. “This is a demon far beyond the mindless things that issue forth from rifts.”

Thankfully she didn’t continue in to the inevitable speech about mages being inherently dangerous, though Dorian felt so uncharitable that he could readily imagine that the implication had the same power as if it had been voiced.

Varric sighed.

“This isn’t the story I was hoping for.”

Dorian watched Gabriel as he dug in his pack for a rag — a small miracle that he still had a clean one — the water he’d brought along to sustain him while they were in the thaig, and the multi-purpose cleaning potion that could do everything from cleanse skin to keep a saddle supple. Not all miracles of advancement involved grand towers and intricate spells.

“Dorian,” Cassandra said. Her voice took a long while to reach him, and when he turned his head he felt as if it might come free of his neck and roll lazily down the hall. “You are in shock.”

“That is ridiculous, my lady Seeker,” he said, as if he’d had just enough wine. “I’m hardly running around screaming.”

He had the faint sense that he would have liked to do just that, but damned if he would tell Cassandra so. He caught Gabriel painstakingly cleansing the dirt and gore from Shandi’s horns and hair. He twitched; he wanted, needed to tend to Amjad the same way, but he found moving his body quite impossible.

“She’s right, Sparkler,” Varric told him, folding Amjad’s hand carefully before standing to come over to him. It sent a chill through him; it made it look as if Amjad were lying in state, fingers threaded together over his heart. “Look, you won’t do anyone any good — “

Dorian scowled.

“I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself,” he snapped. He knew under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have been particularly in love with himself just then, but he couldn’t feel…well much of anything, frankly. Everyone had the strangest quality to them, an indistinct nature that made them look like figures through a thick pane of glass, moving as amorphous as dream-forms. He didn’t see why he should take the advice of mere phantoms.

Cassandra opened her mouth to dress him down, surely, but Gabriel cut her off.

“Here,” he said, his hand empty one moment, a vial in it the next. “Drink this and you’ll be able to help me with Amjad.”

He was no fool. The emotional manipulation stung. And yet…

“Fine,” he gritted, feeling then as if he could understand Shandi’s fury, the kind that made a perfectly normal person take complete leave of their senses.

The potion tasted of felendaris, and for one insane moment he thought Gabriel might be trying to poison him, before the Arbor Blessing and Elfroot pirouetted across his tongue, mellowing and taming the negative qualities that would have otherwise put him in danger.

“We’ll have to stay here,” Gabriel said.

Dorian’s head started to swim, but at least the wicked brew had brought some life and movement back into him, impetus he used to go over to where Amjad lay. Out of a room full of shades, Amjad shone through. Amjad’s hair felt real when he touched it, as if he’d passed his hand over a raven’s feathers, freshly preened. The hollow of Amjad’s throat drew his eye, as if he could see Amjad’s pulse. Though Amjad’s armor was splattered with blood, the gold scale shirt had a radiance that dazzled his eyes. He touched it, too, so addled he thought it might burn. Instead he could sense each of Amjad’s breaths as if he had taken them himself.

He’d quite forgotten the others, as if an elf lost in his own mind could yet bewitch from beyond the line that separated sleep and waking.

It is a curse, emma lath.

He heard it as if Amjad had spoken it aloud, words from when they’d first started thinking of what was between them as more than a mutually agreeable sexual arrangement. Could the Brangwen curse affect him, too? It surely felt like it, just then.

Suddenly he couldn’t bear the sight of all that blood. He looked around wildly, trying to make sense of what was taking place around him, hoping to somehow get help from all the faded spirits here.

“Here,” a ghost said, and it took him an eternity to remember that the ghost’s name was Gabriel. The rough texture of the rag pressed in to his grip brought him around a little, and Gabriel’s outline firmed up. Gabriel squeezed his shoulder and met his eyes, and with a sharp inhale the world crashed in on him. Only the potion he’d drunk before kept him from panicking as the gravity of the situation broke over him. “Dorian, listen. It’s all right. Amjad’s all right. I promise you.”

“All that blood,” he heard himself whisper, cursing himself for weakness. He was well used to blood. He’d spilled plenty of it himself, and seen horrors even beyond it, corpses digging free of their maggot-lined coffins at his command. Some of that conflict must have been apparent because Gabriel said,

“We’ve seen our share. But it’s different when someone does it to themselves.” Maker, Gabriel could be so gentle. Shandi was lucky. “Let’s see if we can clean him up a little. We’ll have to camp here, at least until Amjad and Shandi wake up.”

Shandi! Bloody hells.

“Is she —?”

“She’s fine,” Gabriel told him. He had the impression he was wandering around witless, as if old age had taken his memory, but Gabriel repeated it all to him with unfailing patience. “The bloodrage took its toll. She’s exhausted.”

Dorian sat back on his haunches and gazed up at Gabriel, searching Gabriel’s expression. Gabriel met his eyes and it felt like a lifeline; he wouldn’t question it, when he was in such danger of being lost at sea.

“We don’t have much,” Cassandra said. “Not enough for a proper camp.”

“Well, let’s go and search for something to help us,” Varric suggested. “Dorian and Gabriel can come and keep me from being incinerated by any magical traps. Cassandra, will you stay and guard our illustrious leader and our good friend the…dragon…monster?”

Cassandra grunted in acknowledgment, though the tight vein in her neck showed she wasn’t particularly happy about it. Dorian could relate; he didn’t want to split up the group, and he certainly didn’t want to leave Amjad. But whatever tension there sometimes was between him and the Lady Seeker, he trusted her with not just his life, but his love’s life as well.

Dorian made himself stand, brushing at his shirt as if it would have any effect on the gore and grime.

“Let’s start with the treasure room,” he suggested. “The one Shandi saw.”

“Fine,” Varric said, but his tone didn’t match his posture. “As long as we’re sure nothing in there is cursed.” He hefted Bianca, sighting down her length with a hard eye, narrowed as if he’d already picked a target.

“We shall find out,” Gabriel said, firm. Dorian retrieved his staff, foolishly left behind when he’d jumped in to the rift. He had to lean on it as he, Gabriel, and Varric walked back down the hallway. In shock, and exhausted besides. He hated it when Cassandra won out.

Gabriel paused just outside of the treasure room. He lifted his hand, and tendrils of mana described a symbol suspended in the air. Dorian could read it as quickly and as well as Ancient Tevene, in which he’d been the most proficient all through his days in the Circle. An ice glyph, designed to kill whoever walked over it, unless that person had the proper spell-marker on them.

Normally dispelling such glyphs were a moment’s work for any skilled mage, but this had an intricacy uncommon to the world above. Between him and Gabriel, however, it came apart and fell away. His style and Gabriel’s had major differences — some of which he attributed to the fact that Gabriel hadn’t had as much formal training as he — but they’d been adventuring together long enough that complimenting one another’s strengths came easily enough.

A tingle of Elvhen magic began at the base of his neck and wrapped around like a collar of filigree and vines. A leftover tremor of Gabriel’s signature, so much like the character of Aislinn’s magic that he would have thought Gabriel an elf himself if he didn’t know better.

Gabriel called up a protective shield as they entered the treasure room, rendering the sigils on the floor useless. The piles of gold, artifacts, and jewelry yet had a certain thrum below hearing, the way lyrium did, but it was no wonder considering how much magic everything here must have been exposed to over the years.

“Well,” Varric said, glancing up at Gabriel. “you’re the Elvhen expert, with Amjad down for the count.”

Gabriel’s mouth compressed into a thin line, but he nodded.

“Take what you like,” he said, clambering over the piles of gold. “It shouldn’t pose you any difficulties now.”

Maker, where to begin? He had the faint notion of finding some lover’s token for Amjad, and he started rifling through the riches nearest him. Glittering sovereigns slipped through his fingers, as plentiful as texts in the Minrathous Circle archive. If they could send Inquisition soldiers in here to collect all this, the Inquisition could run itself for years yet.

There, gleaming even amongst other things crafted from light, he found it. A pendant, a jade leaf lovingly chipped and carved in a bezel setting, wrapped in golden wire worth a fortune by itself, let alone the chain and the gem. He clasped it in his hand, and only then did he notice how badly he was trembling. He pressed it to his lips for a moment, closing his eyes, then slipped it into one of his pockets for safe keeping. He also plucked the spider brooch he'd seen earlier from its place, and nestled it next to the pendant. It would look handsome on Aislinn's mage robes, a gift for his swan, the halla-woman he'd come to regard as a sister. Maker, at least she was safe, home behind Skyhold's walls. 

“Dorian,” Varric said. He looked over, only to see Varric staring at the corner of the room as if he were staring into the Black City itself. Dread bid him stand, as if he were compelled to join Varric there whether he wanted to or not. “Look.”

At first he couldn’t see it behind a little hill of treasure. When he saw it, he dropped like a sack of rocks. The sovereigns cut in to his knees. Varric shook uncontrollably, as if he’d seen Cassandra’s lifelesss body there.

A magrallen. Well, no. The massive focus stone that functioned as an essential component. The blood that had been shed over it shouted in his ears and made him dizzy and weak with disgust and fear.

Gabriel joined them, and while he could surely sense the power by the heavy cast to his brows he didn’t recognize it for what it was.

“What is that?” He said, with an audible swallow to punctuate his sentence.

“It is a magrallen, Dorian heard himself say. “A Tevinter invention of great power. It has been used before, empowered by blood. Another fool trying to restore Tevinter, bring back a past that is better left there.”

“I’ve seen one,” Varric said. “Maker. I’ve seen what it can do. Don’t touch it. Hell, don’t even look at it. And definitely don’t bring it with us.”

“It’s not complete,” Dorian said, picking himself up.

Think about this logically, Dorian. Don’t lose your head again.

“Dagna could study it for us,” he pressed on. He also knew Amjad would want them to take it back to Skyhold, if only so they could figure out exactly what it could do and whether they needed to be ready for it to make an appearance in the battle against Corypheus.

“Are you kidding?” Varric said, as if Dorian were about to betray him to Venatori forces. “After you let her study the Fade? She hasn’t been right since! And now this…thing? It’s blood magic, Dorian. It’s too powerful and too damn corrupt.”

Gabriel stayed silent, though Dorian knew him well enough to know that his mind had to be going at a swift sprint.

“Yes and if we leave it here, what do you think are the odds Corypheus will eventually find it?” Dorian said, though he couldn’t quite believe he was arguing in favor of the blasted thing.

Varric cursed him and turned away. Gabriel perked up and scrabbled over a particularly rich pile of relics.

“Here! The artifact Solas bid us find,” he called, pushing aside other items to uncover a green orb that wasn’t all that dissimilar from the red orb that helped make up the margallen, not that he would mention that aloud. The artifact felt dormant for the moment, but he felt sure if nothing else Solas and Dagna could bring it whirring back to life.

“Choose something for your lady Gabriel, Varric,” Dorian suggested, “and then I’ll ward this room until our forces can come and clear it out.”

His wards would be vastly superior to the ones they had undone, of course.

As he worked on his glyphs, Gabriel found an elaborate bracelet in the shape of a dragon, its eyes emeralds that could have easily bought a stable, its body silver and gold patterned, the cuff itself of white gold. Varric took longer to choose; Cassandra didn’t like to flaunt her not-so-secret love of fripperies. Eventually he found a heavy gold necklace in the Antivan link style, the stylized pattern dusted with tiny, perfect diamonds. It made quite a statement, yes, but with armor on no one would see it. It could sit flush against Cassandra’s skin without causing discomfort, and whether she chose to expose it or not she could feel its weight and know that Varric had found it especially for her.

Spells finished, Dorian turned for the door.

“Can we get out of here?” He said. No dammit, that wouldn’t do. He had to appear at least somewhat together. “I find myself terribly excited by the thought of moldy cheese for dinner.”

Varric spared a chuckle and filed out along with him and Gabriel. They quickly ransacked the living spaces, scraping together enough blankets and hardtack to weather the night. Andrastae willing they wouldn’t have to spend any longer than that.

Chapter Text

In her dreams, Aislinn found herself stumbling through the forest, a baby bundled into her arms. Somehow she understood that the child lingered near death, she its only hope. Unlike the forest she knew so well, this version existed to torment her. Branches whipped at her face, and the thick undergrowth deceived her feet, causing her to trip and turn her ankles every few steps. She had to keep upright if she wanted to save the baby, and she fought to pick her way through the obstacles in her path.

She could feel the heartbeat through the thin swaddling, thready and irregular.

The sounds of a Dalish camp filled her with hope. Surely their Keeper could intervene, could snatch the infant back from the jaws of Falon'din.

But when she found her way to the aravels, no one would speak to her no matter how piteously she begged. Won't anyone help the child? It's an innocent! There is life in it still. Why won't you help? Even the halla turned their heads. 

Finally, one of the elves turned and pointed. She looked down. The child was no child at all, but a giant wasp that stared at her with its beady, incomprehensible eyes.

She screamed.

It struggled free of its wrappings, and the stinger sunk in to her arm. She shot bolt upright in bed, chest heaving.


The urge to puke silenced anything she might have said to her bedmate, and she emptied her stomach in to a nearby basin one, twice, then dry heaved for an eternity. Normally she wasn't so tender about her belly. She'd cut deeply in to her own flesh too often to have so little mastery of her reactions; nausea often came along with the pain. But this...!

Solas' deft fingers, gently combing through her hair, drawing it back as she retched. 

"Thank you," she muttered once her episode had finally ended. She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, and trembled through the aftershocks. 

"You must see the healer, vhenan," he said, his voice a pool of pure, undisturbed water that she longed to sink into. "Again," he added, his tone a tease. She had been risking herself lately, more than usual. But Creators, what else could she do? She had to stand against Decadence, keep the demon from using whatever weakness sat deep within her, whatever trap the foul beast had constructed. She couldn't even think of when and how it might have happened, and that thought caused her such frustration sometimes her skin broke out in angry hives that tormented her no matter what she did to try and relieve them. 

She stood on unsteady legs and realized that the chill had seeped in through her thin nightdress. As if Solas could sense her needs he padded over to the bed and retrieved her fur cloak, settling it around her shoulders. A grand thing, heavy black velvet trimmed with the fur of a silver alpha wolf, a king's ransom. At the moment she felt so weak it taxed her to even bear the weight of the garment, beloved though it was. Her wounds had healed over, certainly, but she still felt the ache, and it taxed her more than she liked to admit.

"I...would prefer to commune with the Creators first," she said. The moonlight coming in through the window of her tower room told her she and Solas had awoken at the witching hour, a perfect time to speak to her gods. 

"Aislinn..." Solas said, tone conveying a protest before he'd even spoken the words. She turned to look at him and, for one horrifying moment, she saw the wasp's eyes where his should have been. 

"I swear to you, I will go to the healer afterward," she managed. It was as though she had reached the bank of an ocean and, diving deep, had encountered some eldritch horror at the bottom. "But...my soul is tilting on its axis. I need Falon'din's guidance." 

Solas gave a little bow. "I will respect your wishes. However, if you become ill again..."

"There are always people in the gardens," she pointed out, wrapping her cloak a little tighter. Of a sudden, she didn't want him to look at her body, so vulnerable in just a flimsy nightgown. "They would not hesitate to call for help, if it became necessary." 

Solas sighed, but to his credit she could see him try to stifle it, to avoid burdening her with his concerns. 

"Ar lath ma. Be safe." 

She nodded, then turned and let herself out into the crisp nighttime. 


The leaves and flowers on display in the herb garden shone with the pallid glow afforded by the moon. Aislinn slipped off her shoes and let her toes curl in the plush grass, so sensitive she could distinguish individual blades, the crunch of a dandelion folded over and buried. She reached down and plucked some mint to chew; the sour taste in her mouth unbearable. She found a seat on the stone bench, the one under the oak tree near the center of the garden. She might as well have been alone, so few souls had found their way here as she had, but she felt her center again and her worry ebbed. The dream became something done in watercolors, hazy and indistinct. 

"Ah. So another finds their way to the oak tree, when there is much on their mind." 

Morrigan's voice didn't make her jump. Somehow it seemed appropriate, fitting in neatly with this lush nighttime paradise. 

"You have the right of it, witch," Aislinn said, the word tendered kindly enough. Morrigan took a seat beside her. Morrigan smelled of the herbs here, and under it a scent like the fur of a wandering cat. Her magic felt the way ozone did, after a lightning storm. "And what thoughts bring you here, this night?"

"Shall I demand you speak first?" She said, and Aislinn could readily picture her arch expression without having to look. Something unwound in Aislinn's chest, and the words came as readily as a spring rain.

"I had an...unsettling dream. And then I was sick. I spent much to chase Decadence away."

"And you are worried you are the key, are you not?" 

"How--?"

"Oh come, tis apparent. Surely you jest that it is otherwise." 

Aislinn fisted her hands tight in the fluttering fabric of her skirt, her cloak whispering open like a set of curtains drawn in a quiet reading room. She let the night embrace her, caring not about shielding herself now. 

"It...is so," she said, bowing her head. 

"And why would Decadence be drawn to you, I wonder?"

"Spare me your games," Aislinn gritted. "You know perfectly well that I am a blood mage." 

She could hide it readily from those who had no mana within them, and even from lesser mages. Morrigan, however, was neither of those things. 

"Aye, tis true. But I care not for the prejudices of templars and nobles," Morrigan said, firm. Support? From the Witch of the Wilds? Aislinn accepted it with little protest; despite having Solas nearby, she felt alone. 

"I fear I may have given too much of myself, trying to keep her back. Perhaps...perhaps my spells, all the blood I've spilled...what if it gave her a weakness to exploit, and me all unknowing?" She curled her toes in the grass again, hoping it would anchor her to the earth, to sanity.

"You cannot know the true machinations of demons," Morrigan pointed out. She hadn't shifted her weight at all; perhaps she truly didn't feel even the slightest discomfort around a maleficar. "You are clever, and a talented sorceress, so you have avoided the consequences visited on so many of our kind. But you cannot divine everything. That is the price you pay when you draw on blood." 

"You are correct," she allowed, not voicing the bitter of course that she would have liked to append to her statement. 

"Mayhap we could come up with a plan, instead of sitting around waiting for this hellish bitch to attack us," Morrigan said, her words as bold as a war banner. "Seek out her nest, and destroy her where she least expects it." 

"When my brother returns, we should speak to him about it. Decadence is haunting him even when she's not present, haunting all of them."

"They are not the only ones. You carry the weight of all this on your shoulders. Wings may allow you to fly, but feathers sit heavy."

Images of her mother welled up in her mind's eye, her pale face, her black braid and black eyes. Riona the Crow Woman, a shapeshifter. Like Morrigan. She wished she had more than just fragments, feelings, spare images. The hole in her heart pulsed with want, yawning open. 

Something sunk leaden into her belly as she fidgeted with the embroidered edges of her sleeve. 

"I..." She had not the words, to describe the unease she'd felt as of late. She knew Amjad had never fully trusted Solas, but until recently she had always fully believed whatever he'd told her. She'd believed in him. Could this confusion be Decadence's work? An attempt to muddle her thoughts, weaken her, so the demon could creep in and possess her? The wasp from her dream appeared unbidden, sinking its stinger into her arm all over again. Solas, standing there with its eyes like holes bored into the abyss. Where had the Solas from even a scant few days ago gone, the one who could undo her utterly, the one who was her stability, her calm center?

She must have given away her feelings in some way, because she felt Morrigan put a steady hand on her shoulder. 

"Breathe," Morrigan whispered. Aislinn obeyed, drawing in long, deep lungfuls of honeysuckle and prophet's laurel. 

"Is it something to do with your love, Aislinn?" She looked at Morrigan as if Morrigan were the one stinging her. 

"How...?"

Morrigan snorted, her yellow beast's eyes shimmering. 

"It is easily deduced," she said, lifting her head as haughty as a queen. If Aislinn were in a less vulnerable state, she might have stood up and walked away without another word. As it was, she saw the behavior for what it was, a defense. Not so unlike the pride her brother cultivated and wore like a garland, forced to be as unyielding as the oak she and Morrigan sat under; a Dalish could never be truly free, if they chose to be polite. Shems, the kind that called for Exalted Marches and Alienage purges, only understood violence. The Inquisitor must in every way conduct himself as rightful king, ready to wield the executioner's sword. Perhaps Morrigan felt the same, in her own peculiar way. 

"He...I am not sure if he is my beloved," she said in a rush. She clapped a hand to her mouth as if she could stop the words from coming out, as horrified as if hissing serpents had dropped from her lips instead. The memory of Decadence stealing that orgasm from her when she'd lain with Solas, what felt like an Age ago...was that the source of all this anxious idiocy that had so overtaken her? 

"Ah. The Brangwen curse." Morrigan said, unruffled. "The Inquisitor has mentioned it, in my hearing." Whether or not Morrigan had eavesdropped, she conveniently failed to mention. 

"Aye." Creators, was it true? Did she doubt so? Again she wondered about Decadence and the influence the demon could wield from afar. 

"Is it truly a geas? I know of such things." Morrigan told her. Aislinn looked over at the witch again, noting that even though Morrigan had chosen to dress in rather skimpy clothing, she did not shiver despite the chill in the air. She had her raven's feather-hair twisted up in a bun, pinned with a long, sharp pin that glittered when she turned her head. She looked nigh on too thin, her shoulders and wrists delicate; was she not eating? What kept Morrigan up at night? 

"It is. Many clans believe that when they are formed, certain traits are imparted. Usually, we are named after our progenitor, and the story of that progenitor shapes us. It can guide us, or drive us mad. The Brangwen curse...does both." 

"A curse, and yet you are concerned that you are not under its thumb?" Morrigan scoffed. Aislinn studied Morrigan's face and saw a depth of emotion that surprised her. The conversation must have touched on something personal; it wasn't just shem prejudice that made Morrigan push back against the notion.

Still, how could she explain such a thing to an outsider? Shemlen thought in such black and white ways, even witches. The geas was the Brangwens to bear. And, it imparted more than just insanity and sorrow. Look at how Amjad felt about Dorian, the way Amjad would do nigh anything to protect his beloved. How happy they could be, in the rare moments when they had no pressing concerns. The certainty that someone out there in the world was meant for you, that even the slim possibility of finding your beloved could impart such strength, such faith. 

"It...there is more to it than that," she said, lamely enough. 

"I think you should revel in your freedom," Morrigan told her in no uncertain terms.

"What?"

"If Solas is not your beloved, then you are free. You may do as you like with him, and the universe may mind its own business."

"It is not so simple. If he is not, it means I don't love him."

"Not all love is a grand ball. Some loves are hearth fires that you may rest beside for a time, or humble parties held at the village green."

"And you would know this because...?" She couldn't keep all the venom from her voice, but Morrigan appeared unmoved. 

"At one time I cared little for others and even less for their feelings. But...having traveled the world, I...think differently. I have seen many loves and lovers, those that end in tragedy. In joy. And perhaps worst of all, in mediocrity. Cherish your freedom, while you have it." The silence stretched between them for a moment, a lady unfurling a silken sail. Morrigan gestured at the ground before them, and for the first time Aislinn noticed the wild violets there. "Do you see those flowers?" She asked, her breath filling that sail with a robust tailwind. They grew as they preferred, without tending. Yet they are as beautiful as some carefully manicured patch of earth. Perhaps moerso, when viewed with the proper eyes." 

Aislinn knew a little about Morrigan. Like all of them, Sister Nightengale had screened her as much as possible and was Morrigan's old traveling companion, besides. She knew that Morrigan was fleeing some power greater than herself, and for the first time she wondered at what Morrigan must have felt, being stalked in such a manner, over the surface of the earth and even through the ephemera of the Fade. 

"Thank you," she said as she stood. "I should return to my bed." 

"As you will," Morrigan said, with a wave of her hand. 

Aislinn retreated, and only afterwards did she realize she'd left her shoes behind. 

Freedom. Yet it feels empty. What I would give, to be shackled. 

Chapter Text

The gloom in the thaig kept the party from truly knowing when night had fallen, but Gabriel guessed it anyway; somehow the shadows here seemed even longer, the heavy nigh-sentience in the darkness beyond their camp pressing close like the weight of a thousand eyes gazing at them. He found himself polishing and re-polishing Shandi's horns, until they shone like a shooting star. Still, she did not stir, though she breathed heavy and low like a sleeping lion. It was a good sound, a soft rumble that began deep in her chest, and it brought him a peace he otherwise would have had no hope of courting. 

"Really, amatus," he heard Dorian whisper, the mage trying to affect an arch tone though the tremble in his voice gave away his true feelings, "you won't wake up even for a poem as terrible as that? You always did hate that one the most." 

Gabriel had missed the verse, but he smiled in spite of himself. Amjad and Dorian enjoyed arguing about literature, at least if what he'd heard an Age ago in the tavern was any indication. Though, he still had trouble trying to adjust to this new Dorian, who had apparently dropped all pretense after what had befallen Amjad. Gabriel could tell, too, that Cassandra and Varric had always known the depth of the romance taking place just under his wholly unobservant nose, a fact that made him feel terribly wool-headed. 

His heart ached, watching Dorian practically plead with Amjad for any sign, anything to reassure them all that he'd be all right, that he'd wake, that after some healing would be up and about leading them all once more. 

"Dorian," he spoke quietly, not wanting to disturb Cassandra and Varric, who, similarly, had dispensed with propriety and lay curled tightly around one another in sleep. "Dorian," he said again, the other man so focused on Amjad that Gabriel didn't think he'd even heard the first time. Dorian startled and whipped around, hand up, mana crackling at the tips of his fingers. Luckily he calmed down nearly as quickly, and Gabriel was spared the horror of having to defend himself against someone he'd come to think of as a friend. 

"Share a drink with me," Gabriel suggested, guessing that little else would coax Dorian over to him. He did have a little flask of spirits with him, secreted in his pack, and he figured no time like the present; they all could stand to blunt the edges of their misery, with liquor as the tool. Dorian, predictably, looked deeply conflicted, glancing from Amjad to him and back again. "He won't wake for awhile yet. It's best for him if he's allowed some time to recover, without having to think or fret." 

Dorian snorted. 

"wouldn't mind that either, to be honest," the mage said, words as bracing as the astringent taste of chokeberries, shoved inelegantly into a hungry mouth. 

"Well, drink enough of this -- " Gabriel said, fishing out the flask and sloshing it about for emphasis -- "and maybe you'll get your wish." 

Dorian surely knew what the real purpose of this was, but allowed himself to be seduced anyway. Moving away from Amjad looked as though it caused the mage physical hurt, his brows creasing and the corners of his mouth turning down. He chose a seat at enough of a distance that told Gabriel he still felt wary, but close enough that they could pass the drink back and forth easily enough. 

Dorian took a healthy swallow, holding on the flask a moment longer than could be considered proper. Gabriel could guess he just wanted to down the whole thing in a gulp or two, but felt beholden enough to politeness that he handed it back. Silence stretched between them, a tense sort that made Gabriel squirm in his seat. 

"Well, go on then." Dorian said. He had a tight cast to his features as he tried to control his voice, and perversely it only emphasized the kind of little inflections and cadences Gabriel had grown adept at sensing. "Clearly you have something to say." 

"I..." He had been about to protest, to say of course he didn't, but he found otherwise halfway through forming the sentence. "I didn't realize."

"Whatever do you mean, dear boy?" Dorian told him, raising his eyebrow. Though Dorian had fallen back on his usual attempts to make light, the hard set of his jaw and the chipped stone quality to his gaze spoke louder than his actual words. 

"Peace, please. Dorian...I'm not trying to mock you."

"Perhaps not. It is a lucky thing that you still have disdain, misplaced concern, and faint disgust to fall back on then, isn't it?"

Seeing Dorian of all people lash out like a cornered rat made his heart rap a staccato, rhythm-less beat against his ribcage. 

"No! I don't, I don't feel any of those things." 

Slowly, Dorian's hackles smoothed flat again. Those silver-grey eyes bored into his, as if searching for even the slightest sign of guile. Gabriel did his best to meet the scrutiny, willing Dorian to see the truth. Eventually, it must have been enough, since Dorian broke the contact and bowed his head. 

"It's what I always worried about most," Dorian said, defeated. "I couldn't stop what happened. I don't even know why...Maker, I've never seen..."

"Decadence has ways of finding our deepest hurts," Gabriel said, his grip on the flask turning white. He looked up, scanning the suffocating darkness that, since he'd last looked, seemed to have crept in even closer around their camp. 

"There's so much about him I still don't know," Dorian admitted, sounding rather forlorn as he studied the pattern inlaid into the stone beneath their boots. "I couldn't say what she showed him. The night the werewolves came, maybe. But that...I've never seen him react to that with anything but defiance and rage, outwardly turned." 

Of course Gabriel knew of Zathrian's curse. Keeper Mairead had spoken to him of it, on late nights when the night crept too close, like this one. But the reality, the blood, the death, and how it might have impacted Amjad hadn't fully come home to him until now, until he heard Dorian say it. 

"What else do you know of him?" Gabriel found himself saying. He felt it a very bold question, but nonetheless he'd felt a gnawing concern since facing down Decadence, some puzzle piece he knew he'd missed. 

"Amjad was a hunter, until nascent magery made him a candidate for First. Keeper Lenaya chose him over Aislinn, though they both had the talent. Only when they neared their adulthood ceremonies did it become apparent that some outside force had locked their powers away. Of such skill were the locks made that it hadn't been obvious earlier. Amjad and the Keeper have never gotten on anyway, in part because the Keeper wouldn't give leave for Amjad, Aislinn, and their friends to go after Calledan when he was taken by slavers. I got the impression that the Keeper sent Amjad to the Conclave to get rid of him, at least for a time. The fact that he never developed into a mage surely made things all the more bitter between them." 

A fair enough summary, but Gabriel knew well how much information could hide in a story like that. He'd told such a summarized version of his own tale enough times to understand that the demon--as it were--was in the details. 

"Is that all?"

"Well, he is only nineteen," Dorian pointed out. "That is rather a lot for nineteen Wintersends, isn't it?"

Only a couple of calendar turns from his vallaslin ceremony, then. He knew Amjad was hardly middle aged, but his true years had Gabriel reeling. Though his own family had considered him a man earlier than that, he couldn't help but feel it had come too soon in both of their cases. 

Creators, I can’t just casually mention it, can I? Excuse me Dorian, I noticed that you and the Inquisitor…

Then again he could see so much pain in Dorian that it nigh weighed the man down like a pack mule’s burden. If he said nothing, wouldn’t he just reinforce the notion that Dorian was alone? That he couldn't reach out for help and support? No matter how kind one's friends, telling them a preference such as he thought Dorian had would always feel fraught with danger. 

“Dorian, I…I mean to say…”

Dorian fixed him with a stare that made the hairs on Gabriel’s arms and the nape of his neck stand up. He read it clearly, in Dorian’s full mouth thinned into a venomous line, the big beautiful eyes at once hard and so full of pain it made Gabriel think of the tumult of the sea at high tide, a cruel wind whipping across the surface; don’t speak unless you are willing to accept the answer, accept Dorian, accept Dorian and Amjad.

Gabriel swallowed, cleared his throat, and tried again.

“It’s all right to love him, you know,” he said, and even as the words issued from his lips he drew himself up, defiant. His own sexuality hadn’t been entirely appreciated, either, as a matter of course. The Inquisition had given him the freedom to be who he truly was. He only hoped that Dorian could feel the same comfort in time.

Dorian laughed, a humorless bark like a hammer against the anvil that was the creeping darkness trying to steal the vitality from their limbs and the heart from their breasts. 

“Oh well, thank you very much,” Dorian snapped, and Gabriel felt the words like crossbow quarrels. Dorian could be so spiteful when roused. “I’m sure your approval will handily dispatch all obstacles.”

“Dorian,” Gabriel said, trying to face up to the sizzle and snap in Dorian’s manner, “please. You needn’t strike at me. I am your ally. And -or so I hope- your friend.” 

Dorian deflated as if Gabriel had punctured his lungs. Dorian hid his face in his hands, and while he likely couldn’t unbend enough to weep in front of someone else, Gabriel saw his shoulders tremble with the effort of holding back his tears.

“In Amaranthine, I…it was always spoken about with derision. I knew my dalliances with men could never become anything more, no matter how I yearned for it.” Gabriel tried. He pulled his snowy nugskin coat tighter over his chest, as if he could use tangible armor against an intangible hurt. 

Dorian looked up at him, shock written all over that expressive face. Without his outerwear he looked fragile, despite his burly frame. 

“Shandi told me she’d been with women,” Dorian said slowly, as if it had never really occurred to him that those around him might have similar proclivities to his own. 

Perhaps it hasn’t. And why should it, when everyone in Tevinter is trying to maintain an acceptable image?

“Yes. She cares little what —ahem—parts, someone has. Nor do I. Care about that, I mean to say.”

“It’s not the same, Gabriel,” Dorian all but whispered. “Amaranthine is one thing. Tevinter is entirely another.”

“I’m not trying to compare them so closely. But, I know a little of how it must feel. I can imagine how seriously you take your relationship. How much you must love each other. It’s so apparent to me now that I am embarrassed I didn’t notice before.”

“Well, why would you? A proud Dalish and the Tevinter altus? It doesn’t exactly fit, does it? You’d think he’d be more likely to stick me full of arrows than anything. Surely you wouldn’t imagine anything…kinder between us.”

Gabriel allowed himself a chuckle at that.

“You will have to tell me that story, as I admit…I am surprised.”

“It started with us arguing fit to bring the Great Hall down on everyone’s heads,” Dorian said, and finally his gaze shone with something a whit more positive. “About slavery, at first. I admit…my eyes weren’t always so open to the depths of such depravity.”

Gabriel tried to keep from grinning. He could easily imagine Amjad demanding that Dorian see the reality, thumping his finger into Dorian’s chest, blazing eyes meeting Dorian’s without flinching, mouth twisted up in a wolf's snarl. He tried not to think about the here and now, Amjad so still and quiet.

“Then,” Dorian continued, “we fought about literature, and its relative merit. Those arguments drove Solas nearly mad; his room is below the library, and we were not secretive about our differing opinions.” The corner of Dorian's mouth quirked, and Gabriel wondered if he took some special pleasure in annoying Aislinn’s love. “He’s quite well read, our Inquisitor. He came to Haven literate, though he’d had limited access to written works. Once Josephine got her hands on him, he became voracious; devoured every text in Skyhold.”

“I can well imagine that,” Gabriel said, charmed. No wonder, he thought. Amjad had demanded in no uncertain terms to be treated as an equal, and to Dorian’s credit, Dorian had risen to the occasion.

“Eventually, I…suppose he softened towards me,” Dorian said, unable to keep the fondness out of his countenance. “And he made little secret of finding me — at least — pleasing to the eye.” Dorian paused for a long moment, until Gabriel wondered if he’d become lost in some mental quagmire. Then he said, “did you know my father came to Redcliffe? Trying to somehow make up for our poor relationship, as if such a thing were possible.”

Gabriel hardly dared shift in his seat, lest he keep Dorian from finishing this new part of the tale. He well knew that poor relationship didn't even begin to cover it. He didn't know the details of Dorian's story, but he well remembered his brother's fists raining down on his unprotected head, their looming forms presaging another beating, another round of how worthless he was, how he shouldn't believe even the faintest praise, how they'd all be better off if he were dead. Yet if he were asked? Surely he would say the same. A poor relationship, the emotional equivalent of breaking a tea cup, forgotten after the shards were swept to the side. 

“Oh, of course the great and mighty Magister Halward could never apologize,” Dorian continued, voice both haughty and burning with vitriol. “How Amjad raged at him! I’ve never seen anyone speak to Father that way. The grand Magister Pavus, told exactly where he could go by an elf. So satisfying! How could I do anything but love him after that? And we’ve traveled all over Thedas, saved each other too many times to count. Once in the Fallow Mire I was terribly injured. I kept fading in and out. I was so tired. Every few steps, I would go to my knees in that foul water. I could hear skeletons, and demons from the nearest Rift. But it all seemed so very inconsequential. I was dying, and I knew it. All I wanted to do was swoon into the arms of the afterlife. Amjad dragged me out by my shirt collar, shouting and cursing me the whole way, cajoling, shaking me, anything to get me out of there. I still see the Anchor sometimes in dreams, Amjad with his hand out, demanding the Rift close. So much power, so much passion.”

Gabriel’s amusement gave way to wonder. The Brangwen geas could be a terrible burden, he felt sure, but it also seemed a blessing just then, hearing Dorian’s words pour out of him in such a sweet torrent.

“And why then should I judge a love that one day a bard will surely sing about?” If they haven’t already, Gabriel thought, though he imagined Dorian’s need for privacy had kept a lid on that.

“Oh dear,” Dorian actually laughed, and paired with Shandi’s steady breathing it helped sweep the cobwebs from Gabriel’s heart and mind. “I am sure the songs will be positively dreadful.”

“One can only hope. The more famous you become, the worse the songs.”

“And the titles! Andraste’s sword, the titles.”

“Enjoy the florid rewards of your service, my friend,” Gabriel said, finally allowing himself a full, broad smile. Dorian made for a good friend. Amjad had made a grand choice. “Now come. Let us wake Cassandra and Varric and get some sleep.”


Getting out of the thaig presented its own problems, but once Shandi woke things became much easier thanks to her strength; she could bear the artifact out into the light, albeit one piece at a time. She looked like her usual self now, the changes the bloodrage had afforded having melted away like snow under the first pale rays of a spring sun. Still, she spoke hardly at all, and a faint mortified expression clung to her face like an Orlesian mask.

Gabriel resolved to speak to her about it, but he knew she wouldn’t welcome such an advance while working. She’d fastened the relic to her warhorse’s saddle, and Gabriel couldn't help but thank the Creators for a beast big and strong enough to bear a Qunari of Shandi’s stature. Otherwise, they would have had to leave it for their soldiers to retrieve, as they would the magrallen focus stone. That, even the warhorse couldn't bear.

"Come on, Amande," Shandi said, slapping her horse's neck in a companionable fashion. "You can do it, yes?" The beast snorted and stamped his massive feather-feet, as if agreeing. "Good horse." 

Everyone took their mounts, Gabriel handing Amjad up to Dorian. The Inquisitor still slept, a blessing, and Dorian held him in place in the saddle with a firm yet gentle touch. Dorian's clever silver mare picked her way through the terrain with all the grace of an accomplished ballet dancer, gliding fit to bring to mind a boat on a sea of glass. Gabriel's spirits lifted the closer they came to the Inquisition camp on the bluff; soon, they would be home, and even if Skyhold no longer represented the safety it had before Decadence, he couldn't wait to be within its walls once more.  

Chapter Text

The sound of hoofbeats woke Calledan from his doze. He'd found his way to Aislinn's little tower room the night before, and, thankfully, she'd been working alone. When he'd entered, a fat sheaf of vellum had sat in a neat pile next to her elbow, her curly, effortlessly ornamental handwriting in neat rows across its surface. For a moment he'd felt like an intruder, but she'd happily put her task aside for his sake. Nightmares had a harder time tormenting him when he could curl up with a clanmate and slip into sleep, as black as a moonless night. He had the sense that the narrow bed she had would be considered spare by humans who had never known the utterly bereft lives slaves lived, but to him it was fit for an Empress. 

Aislinn was more queen to him than any shem, anyway. 

He rose and smoothed out his tunic, as tawny as a lion's pelt. Next came the trousers that went with it, the color of the dainty chocolate cakes he'd seen lined up in the bakery in neat rows, waiting for fondant and frosting. He wrapped his belt, gold and green, tight against his belly, made flat by starvation, and stepped into the sturdy leather boots he'd set near the door. He'd been gifted several sets of clothes; Amjad seemed to have enough to outfit a whole army, and in finery besides. Some of the nicer things he hadn't yet found the courage to wear. This relatively simple livery he could manage, though it still represented more coin than he'd ever seen, let alone earned.

The tunic had the Inquisition insignia picked out in embroidery over his heart, the flames surrounding the sword intertwined with climbing vines. A Dalish symbol.

Clever. 

He left Aislinn sleeping, slipping away on silent feet.

In a few moments, he'd reached a vantage whereby he could see the main gate. Shandi's massive warhorse cleared the portal first, its shaggy head tossing, its feather-feet eating ground; although he and Shandi hadn't properly met, he'd seen the animal in passing and it had been patently obvious that only a Qunari could handle such a beast. Shandi rode astride with an easy confidence Cal ached to feel, though what remained of her armor hung off of her in strips. The flesh beneath looked newly scarred, deep furrows still an angry red. Her auburn hair smoldered under the sun's touch, bright like a signal fire, her horns shining like a wick newly caught. Gabriel stuck near her as if a spell bound them, his horse as close beside as either it or Shandi would tolerate. Varric came through next, then Cassandra. Cassandra rode tall, that overcast sky-gaze missing nothing. He expected that from the Seeker. But Varric? The first discordant note thrummed through his body. Varric had a hard cast to his eyes, his jaw set tight like a tripwire. 

Something was wrong. 

He raced across the courtyard. Dorian came inside last. He'd never seen the 'Vint scum in person, but who could mistake him? Everything about him filled Cal with poisonous hatred, down to his fancy silver mare and the arrogant cant of his dark head. 

That hate blinded him for a moment, but when he truly looked --

"Amjad!" He shouted, flinging himself at Dorian. What had the 'Vint bastard done to his friend? His clanmate? Amjad wasn't moving, and his eyes were closed, face slack, tipped over in Dorian's arms like a doll. Creators, was he dead? 

Cal realized he had no weapon, but to hells with it. He'd strangle the mage with his bare hands. He'd do it and enjoy it. Dorian's beauty only made him angrier, those big storm-grey eyes registering him, shock slashing down like lightning bolts. Just a few steps --

The hand on his collar pulled him round so that he would have lost his footing if it weren't for the hold. He hissed and spat like a badger in a trap. By all the spirits and gods, he would murder whoever had dared --

"Calledan."

The voice hit him like a dive into a freezing river. Cullen. He went limp, still panting with rage. 

"What did they do to him? Cullen, Cullen...you have to help me! Don't let this worthless --"

"Calledan." Cullen said a second time, the way he'd let the name roll from his tongue different than the first. Trying to communicate stability and calm, Cal thought. "He's all right. He's just had a sleeping draught. He was hurt on the mission, but it's not serious. Fixed easily enough."

Cal found himself facing Cullen then, Cullen's pale forehead lined with worry, mouth thinly pressed into a tight horizon of concern as if someone had sliced into his face with the edge of a ritual dagger. 

"What happened?" He had the strangest desire to fall weeping into Cullen's arms, a foolish and stupid thing one only read in one of Varric's books. 

"We're not entirely sure yet," Cullen told him, gripping his forearms gently in those broad hands, stained with ink from drawing maps and writing orders. "Regina will have more to say after we give her time to work." 

Cal looked over his shoulder. Dorian had wrapped his embrace all the tighter around Amjad, as if to shelter Amjad from whatever Cal might do next. What absolute fool had given such a responsibility to the 'Vint bastard? Before anything else could pass between them, Gabriel took the silver mare's hackamore in hand and lead the animal towards the infirmary. Cal's hands balled up into fists; being forced to stand here and do nothing as some dirty maleficar slaver left with his clanmate made him want to rage as much as any werewolf. 

"Come on," Cullen suggested, and he let himself be towed along towards Cullen's tower. He could feel Shandi's eyes on him, and wondered as to her thoughts.

"He's all right?" He said when he felt sure no one would overhear, faintly aware that he'd started to babble hysterically like a child. "You're sure?" Shapes crept around the edges of his vision, shapes that threatened to sprout claws and fangs. He started to tremble, and found he couldn't stop.

Cullen shouldered the door open. Cal went inside, glad of the relative gloom. He could breathe then. Darkness offered safety. Comfort, for those who knew its secrets. It could conceal horrors, yes--he knew that all too well--but very few things had but a single side or aspect. Cullen guided him to one of the only chairs, and he thumped into it, numb. 

"I didn't get the whole story out of Varric --Maker, who thought I'd ever say that sentence? -- but from what I did glean, they went after the artifact in the thaig, the one out by the Waking Sea? They found it, and more, but Decadence didn't seem to appreciate them digging around down there." 

Cal beat his fist against his thigh. 

"I can't stand her one more moment," he snarled, a tangled knot of fury and helplessness. "The day I tear her head from her shoulders..."

"You mean to be the one to do it?" Cullen asked him. He looked up. Cullen leaned against the desk, a casual pose. Or it would have been, without the tremor Cal could read the way he had once read the barest of trails whilst hunting. Cullen wasn't looking at him, either. His gaze had the faraway look that told Cal it was fixed on some point in the past.

"Creators, I want to. Who knows what else she's done? What she's responsible for?" He gulped as nausea rose; he knew she'd orchestrated and schemed even more than they could yet see. Cullen turned pale, his already tired features drawing in all the more until his profile became something sharp and world-weary.

"I...have seen the depredations of demons," he said, voice deceptively mild. "I can understand your desire."

Cal had the oddest urge to apologize. The subject had wakened something in Cullen, something that had to be writhing around in his guts as if he'd swallowed a live animal, a live animal trying its damnedest to rip its way free. Cal shivered. He knew something of demons himself. The sound of the rock wraith stomping along next to the caravan stopped up his ears. The depredations of demons, indeed.

Cullen's touch once again oriented him to the here and now. He looked up only to find Cullen gazing down at him, that worry line etched on his pale forehead.

"Will you help me with something?" Cullen asked.

"What?" He didn't know what he thought Cullen might say, but probably not that. Cullen moved away and went to his desk, leaving Cal feeling curiously cold without that big hand on his shoulder. After a moment Cal got up and followed. Cullen sat and unrolled a map, weighting down its edges with a handful of mismatched items, a candle stub here, an ugly bronze paperweight in the shape of an anchor there. The map itself dazzled Cal; a very good cartographer must have made it. The names stood out in bold black, the water, described in glossy blue. He reached out to touch a spot where the artist had bothered to draw a spray of intricate flowers, ringing the base of an oak tree. The name caught his eye, simple enough that even he could read it: the Emerald Graves.

"You were a hunter," Cullen said, as Cal pulled the chair over so he could sit and still look at what Cullen felt like showing him. "And I am sure that skill did not fade away entirely, even when you were enslaved."

He liked that about Cullen, how Cullen would just plainly say words like slave. What was the point of avoiding it? Calling it something else didn't make it something else.

"Don't think so."

"Then maybe you can help me plot some routes through the Western Approach. I admit, the country there is...very odd, in places."

"The big doors."

"Yes, and other strange happenings. There are places there so befouled we've had a beastly time trying to explore them."

"I can help." Cal heard himself say it as if the words had come from someone else. "I know what you're doing," he added after a few moments.

"And what might that be?" Cullen asked him, all soft innocence.

 "Trying to distract me from being upset," he said, even as he let his finger describe a new path across the surface of Cullen's map.

"Well...is it working?" Cullen's eyes gleamed when Cal glanced over, the candlelight drawing amber brilliance from their depths.

"Yeah," Cal grumbled, trying to affect annoyance and returning his attention to the task at hand.

"Good."

They spent who knew how long on the project, with Cal talking Cullen through all the little paths he'd learned, all the Venatori markings etched into metal and stone, and even a trail that, while dangerous, could lead someone up and past one of the big doors that blocked passage in the middle of the endless desert. Whenever Cal did so, Cullen marked it down in ink, without hesitating. By the time they were developing cricks in their necks, Cal stretched, finding that his stomach had calmed and the knots in his shoulders had untangled.

"Thank you," Cal said, though it was still hard to say thank you to a shem, even if that shem was Cullen. "I guess that really did work."

Cullen smiled. The smile was as nice as always, but Cal couldn't help but notice how Cullen's features hovered near gaunt, his cheeks drawn in, creases brought on by weariness around his mouth and faintly describing the length of his forehead. While Cullen had no magical powers as such, lately Cal could feel something akin to mana around him; the electricity-and-ozone snap of lyrium.

He was a Templar. They say eventually lyrium kills you, if you're lucky.

Otherwise, you went mad first.

"You're welcome. I'm sorry for hauling you away like that."

The words made Cal remember the 'Vint bastard, and his lips curled back in a snarl. "You should have let me kill him," he muttered.

"The Inquisition is...a challenge sometimes. Sometimes victim and victimizer are asked to work shoulder to shoulder, for the sake of Thedas. I can empathize with how you must feel, but I can't know. Still, I hope you realize that our Lord Inquisitor has his reasons for allowing Dorian to remain among us."

Cal's heart thudded painfully in his chest. His reasons? Could it be...?

The conversation he'd had with Amjad after being rescued rose up in his memory.

You wouldn't approve.

Cal tried to stem the tide of horror threatening to wash over him.

No. Amjad wouldn't betray us like that. Would he?

Cullen frowned.

"Cal...would you like to stay here tonight?" Cullen must have realized how that sounded, since he lifted his hands in a warding gesture and blushed. "I...mean, you seem upset and I wouldn't mind giving you my bed, if it would help."

"Usually I sleep in Aislinn's room," Cal said slowly, shocked by the offer. Yet, he had to admit that it sounded comforting, staying in Cullen's room. He felt fairly sure Cullen wouldn't try to rape him, and if anything went amiss, he thought Cullen would even stand against it for him.

"Ahem. I think Solas might be visiting her?"

Ah. Cullen must have seen them together before, when Amjad had been taken to the infirmary.

"All right, then," Cal found himself agreeing. "I...have nightmares sometimes."

"Well, so do I. I have some medicines brewed that help, if you'd like some."

Regina had given him those types of treatments, but he hadn't exactly stuck to taking them. Maybe he couldn't accept it from a shem he barely knew. Could he accept them from Cullen?

"Maybe," he said. Cullen glanced at the candle clock in its wood-and-horn encasement, though when Cal looked up it was easy enough to see the night sky through the hole in the ceiling.

"Come up, then," Cullen offered, gesturing to the ladder. "Would you prefer to go first...?"

He hesitated. Going first, with a big shem following close behind? Or last, where he couldn't see Cullen or Cullen's intentions until he'd breached the opening that lead to Cullen's room?

"I'll go," he decided. He'd rather have Cullen follow him than accept the extra vulnerability that came with having to climb up into an unfamiliar place, with someone waiting for him.

He scrambled up the ladder, not wanting to draw out the experience. A chill swept in and tapped him on the cheeks the way a doddering old elder would have done, enough to bring a little pink flush to his skin but not enough to be a reprimand. He turned slowly as Cullen made his way up, taking in the room. Creators, it was almost austere, though the plush comforter on the generously sized bed blurred the edges a little.

"Don't you own anything?" He asked, as Cullen entered and shrugged out of his coat. A wry mood curled Cullen's lip.

"Very little. Perhaps I am too used to living in a barracks." He felt Cullen might have added, or a Circle, had he been more comfortable. The unspoken hung there as sure as smoke, but Cal didn't press. "Though Josephine is trying to drown me in clothing."

Cal shrugged.

"No one can wear armor all the time." An awkward heaviness weighted down his shoulders. How had he ended up in this shem's bedroom? Still, that luxurious blanket called to him. He ached for comfort, for cozy and gentle things, as if he were a child again.

Cullen sat at the little rickety table off to the side, stifling a sigh of relief. Cal dared to go over to the bed and sit on the edge, studying the slope of Cullen's shoulders, the way he held his head just a little bit to the side, as if he had a pinched nerve that wouldn't stop bothering him.

"You're hurting."

Cullen sighed audibly then, and propped his chin in his hand. He didn't turn towards Cal, but Cal didn't need to see his face to understand the truth.

"It...is the lyrium, I am afraid," he said. He sounded so resigned. Cal repressed a shudder. He knew what lyrium addiction could do, had seen more than one of Regulus' mage pets hollowed out into a pathetic mewling husk, willing to do anything and everything for one drop more.

"Cullen..." The horror of it hit him then, making his heart gulp and thrash like a rabbit caught in a wire. Cullen waved his free hand, as if trying to stave off the truth of the matter.

"It is nothing. The consequences of my choices. Others have suffered far worse."

Cal was no fool. He could feel the unspoken, like the pulse of the earth beneath bare feet, communicating secrets that only an elf could interpret. Amjad had told him that Cullen's past had been...checkered, also, and Cal wondered what Cullen had done that would cause the guilt he could clearly hear.

Before he could muster up the nerve to ask, Cullen rose and went to the chest in the corner, tucked away under the rack of clothes Josephine had sent. Kneeling made a little huff of discomfort come from Cullen's lips, but otherwise he didn't complain. He stood with his hands full of potion vials; the medicines he'd talked of before, surely.

"Here,' Cullen said, setting the vials on the bedside table, near the half-shuttered lantern. "If you decide to take them, they are here for you."

Cal looked up at him, wordlessly. He couldn't think of a single thing to say, with Cullen so close. What in all the hells was wrong with him?

Thankfully, Cullen moved away before he could make a fool of himself.

"You're sure about this?" Cal asked, as Cullen took some spare blankets and fashioned a makeshift bed on the floor. All he could think about were Cullen's aching joints.

"I've slept in much worse places," Cullen told him, smiling such that his eyes lit up with humor. Cullen didn't hesitate to strip in front of him; he supposed being a Templar was a little like being an elf, in the sense that modesty was usually quickly dispensed with. Why be shy, when you were constantly surrounded by clanmates anyway?

Cal wasn't above watching him do it, either, though he quickly found something else to focus his attention on when Cullen turned towards him.

Cullen got as comfortable as he could on the floor, and Cal took that as a cue to do the same with the bed, leaving his clothes scattered around just as he could see Cullen also loved to do. Thank goodness they were both slobs, or so he could readily hear Amjad calling him. Amjad, with his obsessively neat quarters, all his clothes arranged by color and material. His weapons meticulously kept and ordered, bedding always freshly laundered and made. Though, Cal thought, mouth quirking in an affectionate half-smile, he knew one of Amjad's vices was to nick rolls from the kitchen and get crumbs all over himself while eating them. 

"Good night, Calledan," Cullen said, and it prompted Cal to blow out the lantern.

"Good night. I hope you don't dream."

"And the same to you," Cullen returned, and Cal could almost hear the fond look on Cullen's face.

He thought it would have taken him ages to fall asleep in a strange room, but he fell asleep almost immediately.

His dreams circled at the borders of his understanding, howling, snapping entities that did their best to breach his defenses, but none of them could penetrate.

--

Dorian paced. He swore he'd just about worn a track in the floor near the fireplace, a quirk he shared with Amjad. Amjad, who still lay unconscious in the bed, dwarfed by it. At least Regina had let him take Amjad back to the tower room, a much more welcome sight than the inside of the infirmary.

Hours had slipped by, silk through one's fingers, a dress pooling on the floor and leaving its owner shamefully nude. He'd promised himself he wouldn't beg and plead anymore, that he wouldn't behave like some hired mourner draping themselves over a body in state and wailing. Instead he forced himself to approach the bed, though Maker...Amjad looked dead. Enough to make Dorian smell that rank ceremonial incense, the fresh blood spattered on the expensive Rivaini travertine.

Andrastae's ass, you can't do this every time he's injured. You'll go mad.

It wouldn't be the last time. He understood that. But he didn't have to like it.

"A copper for your thoughts."

The voice nearly made Dorian yelp in surprise, though thankfully he kept it back for dignity's sake.

"You're awake. Thank the Maker," Dorian said, rubbing his hands over his face as if the gesture might order his thoughts.

"Is everyone all right? I...Shandi?" Amjad's words came slowly; still drugged to the gills, Dorian assumed.

"Yes. Everyone returned safely to Skyhold. Well." Dorian said, close to snapping. "Safely might be a bit generous."

He met Amjad's eyes then, the elf's gaze burning in an ashen face.

"I'm sorry, Dorian. I promise you, I don't do this on purpose."

Retorts rushed through Dorian's mind, a veritable stampede of bitterness and fear. He wasn't sure what he would say when he opened his mouth, but what issued forth was:

"What in all the hells happened down there?" He didn't add, you owe me an explanation. Telling Amjad he owed something wouldn't get Dorian much beyond his lovers ire, which he couldn't truly bear at the moment. But an explanation would at the very least be most appreciated.

Amjad turned his head and closed his eyes, but it wasn't a dismissal. What...? Only then did Dorian realize Amjad was trying not to cry. Usually, Amjad's tears were as rare as a Southern cleric's silence.

"I...haven't been honest with you, Dorian." Amjad said, moving to sit up. He didn't realize his leg was braced and bandaged at first, and Dorian reached out to help him automatically. Amjad settled against the pile of pillows set against the headboard, embroidered gold and purple. Dorian's stomach felt like a catacomb, riddled with bones.

"Why, whatever do you mean?" Dorian muttered, folding his arms over his chest. Any number of scenarios tormented him. Another lover? An admission that this relationship couldn't last, that ultimately he'd once more been nothing but a port in someone else's storm? Amjad regarded him with a direct, heavy regard, and as he watched the light from the elf's eyes refract, he thought Amjad looked so very young in their glow.

"I...I'm not..." Amjad twisted his hands together in his lap. Stuttering? Stumbling over words? What had happened to his amatus? Just then he realized he might--just might--be acting like an ass. Maybe this secret wasn't about him at all.

He reached for Amjad's hands, patiently, gently unweaving Amjad's fingers. The expression he wore, so unsure, so pained. Why? It was so easy to forget that Amjad was only nineteen, that he'd been no one special a few short years ago. All he'd had to learn, all the burdens he'd been forced to carry, all that imposed on some poor Elvhen youth fresh out of the forest.

"What is it, amatus?" Dorian said, as soft as down. "There is very little you could tell me that would make me judge even a single hair on that pretty head," he teased, the silly tone making Amjad at the least smile for a moment.

"irnusilathe. It is Elvhen. Do you know it?"

He'd picked up some of the language, of course. How could it pass him by, with Amjad and Aislinn as his companions? But this word...

"I don't recognize it."

Amjad bowed his head, as if he'd been struck by a sudden wave of disgust and discomposure.

"It is a curse. No, not like the Brangwen curse. It is a suffering I could not ever fully explain, not in words. So primal is its origin, I think of it as more animal than Elvhen, the way it must feel to be caught in a trap, half dead. It is so excessive a pain, that it weighs down your tongue, lives under your skin. Even the beds of your teeth ache. Decadence...reminded me of it. It...comes from being misborn."

Amjad looked up at him, that gaze, heavy as lead, that he'd shown since he'd awakened.

"What...are you saying?"

"Dorian. I was born female. I'm like Krem. Born wrong."

Amjad pushed away from him, as much as he could manage with one useless leg. Through the utter stupefaction the revelation had called down upon him, that penetrated. He caught Amjad's hand again, and when he spoke it came out more growl than clear statement.

"There is nothing wrong with you," he hissed, and Amjad stared at him as if he were the werewolf, just beginning to shift forms. "The accident of your birth is of no consequence."

"Dorian..." Amjad managed, a hoarse whisper. "It...afflicted Aislinn, too. We were so miserable. We tried everything. Magics that you..." Amjad stumbled to a stop for a moment, hindered by a rough sob clawing its way to freedom from somewhere deep in his chest. "You...wouldn't approve of."

Blood magic.

He knew that Aislinn had dabbled in such things, but this implied so much more. Perhaps instead of an over eager apprentice, she'd achieved a mastery she'd kept hidden even from him. He thought of the dark plans Halward had put in motion, to ensnare him, to turn him inside out with the hope that the other side of the cloth might be cleaner.

"And if you hadn't delved into those magics?"

"It was the few moments before the sun dies. That was what Decadence showed me, made me believe. That I was back there, with no escape but death." Amjad answered, the misery caught up in the telling making him seem more skeleton than man, animated by a careless necromancer. "It was all I had left to me. We risked everything, and on so little. A dream, come to Aislinn at the witching hour. A white wolf. A mirror. A pool. It was all we had."

"Then it wasn't blood that helped you?" Dorian said, trying to keep up through the twister of emotion blowing reckless through his being like a storm howling down a wind tunnel.

"No, though Aislinn nigh on carved herself into pieces trying. Sometimes...I think it was Fen'harel." He said, voice pitched so low Dorian almost missed it. He could just imagine a Keeper's response to a statement like that. "It was a white wolf. It taught Aislinn the key to open eluvians. Fen'harel enansal. The Dread Wolf's blessing. When we went through, a Well waited for us, a Well of Truth. We used it and it switched us, traded our bodies, made us what we really were. Are." He paused, gulping for air as if some invisible force were squeezing his ribs. "I...would understand if you felt differently about me, if you thought I was less of a--" Amjad started, and Dorian squeezed Amjad's hands hard enough to hurt. Yes, the news had hit hard. Yes, he would want, need more details in the future. But leaving? Never.

"Don't be daft, you bloody fool," Dorian snarled. "If you think you can be rid of me that easily..."

"I wouldn't dare presume," Amjad said, casting him a sideways look that could almost be called shy. It made Dorian laugh, and a weight lifted from his heart. Amjad must have felt the same, because he turned his head to gaze directly into Dorian's eyes.

"Of course, if you need more convincing..." Dorian said, underscoring his suggestive tone with an artfully arched eyebrow.

"Well, I can hardly get up and leave, now can I?"

"Oh, is that the only reason you put up with my trying company?"

Amjad smirked. "Let me consider your argument, then," he said, and after that first meeting of lips, little else was said.

Chapter Text

Gabriel hovered near Shandi as they stabled their animals. Shandi, despite her injuries so recently healed, would not tend to herself before tending to her horse. Amande had nearly worked himself into a lather thanks to all the excitement and the extra burden he'd had to carry, but he held his broad head high. Though the beast couldn't hide his weariness, he seemed to know that he had performed admirably. Orala in the stable nearby looked as she always did, a creature frozen in time, but she watched the goings on as if interested in the physical limitations of fleshy beings.

"Shandi," he tried, as she fit the buckets for food and water on the door of Amande's stall, her hands still stained with blood. The discoloration remained no matter the ardent scrubbing she'd given herself once they'd gone back to camp, and her skin had little pockmarks where the ichor had splattered and eaten into her flesh. She grunted noncommittally as the horse dove for the sustenance so enticingly placed under his nose, and stood stubbornly turned away from him. "What is it?"

She glanced back at him, her eyes unreadable, then faced him. She leaned against the hitching post, trying to hide how tired she was, he thought, with a casual pose. Her cuirass barely held, though through some miracle the ailette remained, the Inquisition's sigil still crisp.

"I...guess I didn't know what to do next."

"What do you mean?" Gabriel studied her, the slump of her broad shoulders, the newly healed over claw marks on her chest. The latter his work, the spirits called from the Fade stitching together his beloved's body as he commanded. For a moment, the emotion it called up made his heart stutter to a stop.

"You know. What happened back there. What I did."

"I don't follow you. You saved Amjad and nearly killed Decadence. What could you possibly--"

"I turned into a monster, Gabriel. In front of you. I mean, I knew what was happening. I knew it could, when I drank the dragon's blood that first time; every Reaver gets some kind of power. I'm not ashamed of it. But plenty of other people are."

He felt like an idiot for not figuring out what had raveled up her mood sooner. He stepped forward, fragrant grass bending under his boots, and took her hands. She had to be as weary as her horse; for once her grip didn't make his bones creak.

"Shandi...no. Of course I'm...I don't feel that way. Look at the company you keep. Do you think of Amjad's bloodthirsty nature as somehow less frightening than your own? Dorian? He may cut a handsome figure, but you've seen him raise a hoard of ravening undead, seen him murder as many of of our foes as you."

The image of Dorian besting three Venatori mages at once rose up in his mind's eye, and for a moment the stable's fresh, sweet smells gave way to hot sand and a searing wind, one redolent with viper nests and Darkspawn stink.

"You're not sleeping with any of them," Shandi grumbled. "Amjad slits someone's throat, you don't have to wake up next to him in the morning."

"Shandi," he said, guiding her out of the stable. Luckily, she didn't protest. "I promise, nothing about my feelings for you have changed."

The soft sunlight pouring down on the courtyard lifted his spirits; finding one's self inside Skyhold's walls once again always imparted a certain amount of comfort.

"Guess I shouldn't find that a relief," she said, making him wonder until he put two and two together and realized she meant her discomfort about love. "But...I do. It is. Thanks."

"Come on, mon tresor. Let's go to bed. We've earned it."


Gabriel didn't hear the knock at first. He'd spent long enough curled against Shandi that he'd been lulled into a deep sleep, and, if he dreamnt, he had the faint sense that those dreams had been pleasant; Shandi in a fine dress, the dove-grey skirts swirling as she moved. He and Shandi sitting in the parlor of a fine home -their home- the fire in the fireplace casting a warm glow on the scene. He had the faint notion that they had children, their laughter striking his ears like the tinkling of a wind chime.

He dragged himself out of bed at the second knock, if only so Shandi wouldn't be woken by the insistent summons. He found himself too proper even gathering wool as he was to answer the door naked as she might have. He plucked his navy dressing robe from the foot of the bed, wrapping it hastily around his quickly cooling flesh. Ser Pounce mewled in annoyance; he'd claimed one generous corner of the garment to sleep on and didn't appreciate being disturbed.

"What is--oh," he said as he opened the door, whatever rant he might have launched into cut short by the man's livery; he knew it to be one of Amjad's personal runners even before he presented the sigil: a wolf, a blade, a briar. "What is it?" Fear squeezed and twisted his ribs. "Is it--"

The runner, an elf of indeterminate gender, raised their head and took back their hood enough so that Gabriel could see a curl of blond hair and clear blue eyes.

"Peace, Gabriel Marlowe. Nothing has befallen those you care for. The Inquisitor does strongly request your presence at your earliest convenience, however."

"Would he prefer both Shandi and I, or is the summons only for me?"

"The Inquisitor would never protest Adaar's presence, but if you would prefer to let your lady rest you may come alone."

He heard Shandi snoring and shook his head. He doubted he could wake her even if he wanted to.

"I will head to the Inquisitor's quarters as soon as I am properly attired," he said, the messenger backing away and then disappearing into the courtyard, apparently satisfied with his answer.

Gabriel went to the clothing chest in the corner. He carefully sorted through all the silk and velvet; somehow he'd managed to accumulate enough clothes here that he could spend a week in Shandi's room without ever wearing the same outfit twice. The little sachet tucked between garments, a lavender purse tied closed with a cerise ribbon, made the scent of black opium powder rise up thick in his nostrils as he considered his options.

Finally, after fussing for a solid minute, he chose a tailored undershirt in pale sea-green, belted with a tooled leather belt. Some artist had lovingly crafted it, drawing hunting scenes out of the material with a practiced hand. A leaping stag, a hound, an arrow.

He kept his dark trousers and boots simple, and drew on a greatcoat of Dales wool of such a deep purple hue it looked nigh on black, unless struck by sunlight or the soft glow of a well-fed lamp. He pinned the Inquisition medallions to his lapels, and strapped his blade to his back. Thus armored, he left, stepping out into the night.


Gabriel found Amjad in his quarters, the elf leaning against the fireplace such that it showed off the line of his lean body. Apparently Skyhold's spirit healers had put his leg back together quickly and well, though Amjad had chosen a casual outfit of supple leather and soft velvet; perhaps his injuries still pained him, even after tending. He had a letter in one hand, and by his knitted brows its contents were causing him some form of consternation.

Gabriel's stomach dropped into his boots. When he received letters, they were usually venomous screeds from his mother.

"A copper for your thoughts."

Amjad looked up and frowned.

"Gabriel. Thank you for coming --" As if just realizing the hour, Amjad whipped his head around to look at the marked candle on his desk. "Bugger it. I'm sorry. I must have roused you out of bed."

"Ah well. You do pay for my room and board, so I suppose I can find it in my heart to forgive you."

Amjad grinned, showing his white teeth for a moment in wolfish amusement. Gabriel swallowed hard; that smile did things to him that weren't appropriate, surely.

Amjad waved the letter about.

"This letter? It's from Hawke."

"What? Hawke? The Champion of Kirkwall?"

"The same," Amjad said, already starting to pace. His bare feet on the flagstones had to be freezing cold, but he showed no signs of being bothered by it.

"Put some shoes on!" Gabriel blurted, then immediately realized his error when he saw Amjad staring at him. "I mean...ahem. Just a suggestion, m'lord."

Gabriel had no idea how Amjad would react, and when his friend burst out laughing he had to admit that  had been low on his list of probable responses.

"If it will quiet you, mother hen," Amjad acquiesced, walking over to the bed to find his slippers. "Better?" He asked, once he'd put them on.

"Much. Now...Hawke? Why?"

Jealousy and an entirely unreasonable dislike turned Gabriel's stomach. Hawke. Anders' lover. For a moment, he thought he might cough up bile.

"Oh, you'll love this. You know, let me read it to you. That will be easier."

Inquisitor,

Forgive me for writing you such a bold letter as this will be, but needs must as the devil drives. When we met before at Adamant, the situation afforded few opportunities for us to moan and complain about politics at one another, so I take this opportunity: I defended and continue to defend the rights of all mages to be free of our jailers. Not only that; I am blessed to have a stalwart companion at my side in this conflict: Anders. Before I continue, you should understand that I support his actions regarding the Kirkwall Chantry, and if that is objectionable to you I will continue my search for aid elsewhere. Should you and I see eye to eye, however, I shall detail the favor I am seeking.

Anders, as you may know, took on the spirit of Justice several years ago. Anders is what the fools and psychopaths running the Chantry would call an abomination. Again, as might be apparent from the rest of this letter, I do not find fault with him for that. Justice has at times been as valuable a companion as Anders himself, and it is a part of Anders I have always accepted.

Until recently.

At first, Justice lived up to his name. Without him, many innocent mages would have gone to much worse fates. Without him, we would not have been able to bring such prosperity and safety to Kirkwall as we did. Contrary to popular belief, we did not simply leave the innocents caught in the conflict with Meredith to fend for themselves.

But...I fear that my friend Justice is no more, that he has changed his nature into something far more sinister. No, I don't blame the Chantry incident on this; I would have placed the explosives myself, if given the opportunity, with no spirit to drive me. When the oppressor will not listen to reason, when they cannot empathize, when they continue to deal in blood and violations, the only thing they understand is the their primary language: violence. But now, Justice lashes out against our kind, the very mages Anders and I once set out to protect and empower. Any mage he deems as weak, or failing to meet his standards of what a good mage is, becomes just as much of a target as a Templar or a Mother.

This I can't abide. And as Justice has become a twisted mockery of what he once was, so he eats into Anders more and more, like a rot. I love him, Inquisitor. Watching him waste away like this...he is my beloved. I do not have the words to impart to you the...please understand.

Please. Your mages are some of the most talented in all of Thedas, free to perfect their talents and seek whatever knowledge they wish. I stood upon the battlement at my last visit, gazing up at the banner of the free mages, flying so proudly overhead. Surely, there must be some way to yet fix this tragedy in the making. I implore you, help us and I will repay you in whatever way you desire. I will take up the Inquisition's arms and armor, train your mages...I can be very useful to you.

-Mikael Hawke


Gabriel didn't realize he'd nearly collapsed until he registered Amjad at his side, supporting him as if Amjad didn't have a care in the world for his own hurts.

"Gabriel, by the Creators. Come on," Amjad said, helping him to the bed so he could sit down instead of fall down. He looked up, right into Amjad's wide, worried eyes. "What's the matter?"

Gabriel swallowed hard, his gaze locked on Amjad's.

"I was there. When Anders and Justice...fused. I think Justice thought I was supporting the decision...really, I just thought Anders needed to stop focusing on mere survival. I should have known Anders would choose the most extreme avenue, but..."

"Blood and fire, Gabriel," Amjad swore, still close enough that Gabriel could smell the soft, enchanting scent of amber musk and vetiver arising from his clothes, the subtle herbs-and-ripe peaches aroma of his newly washed hair. "You've...never told me the whole story," Amjad prompted gently, though Gabriel felt as if he couldn't manage a single coherent sentence.

Amjad sat beside him, and for a long, tense moment, he wondered if Amjad would reach for his hand.

Oh no.

Gabriel swallowed hard, trying to find the narrative thread of what he'd said last. Of course he'd always respected Amjad, and had eventually come to like him. But...

"I suppose there's not much to tell, beyond the fact that Anders made the decision to fuse with Justice. The other parts are...just the laughable hopes of a young man who didn't know any better."

"You have a good heart, my friend," Amjad said quietly, with the kind of gentle sweetness Gabriel felt sure hardly anyone but the Inner Circle ever perceived, or cared to perceive. "That is an admirable quality, though I am sure the hurt it can bring..."

This time, Amjad did take his hand. Gabriel looked over, a spark racing down his arm as if he'd touched a mana vein. He couldn't detect anything suggestive in Amjad's manner, though that didn't make it any easier to keep his emotions in check. He almost laughed; the conversation seemed darkly hilarious given the sudden and totally ill advised affection.

"It will get easier," Amjad said, and Gabriel felt as though his feelings were bundles of cut flowers so abundant he could barely keep them clasped to his chest. Surely, Amjad could see it? Amjad, he sometimes thought, saw everything. "You have Shandi," Amjad continued. "And perhaps this meeting will be a chance to resolve things, one way or another."

Creators.

Amjad was so close...and utterly, completely out of his reach. Untouchable, in a way that had nothing to do with their clasped hands.

"In your clan...did you ever...I mean to say, were there partnerships, marriages, comprised of more than just two people?"

So greedy, Gabriel.

Yes, part of him wanted to know simply because he'd often yearned to have as many romantic entanglements as he wished, and the conversation had summoned up one of the more painful rejections from his past. Of course he wanted to fantasize about some other world where no one's feelings were ever one sided. Another part...?

Amjad blinked, maybe confused by what seemed to be a change in topic. Even before he answered, Gabriel already knew the answer, If not for Elvhen culture in general, for Amjad. Strangely it was not some declaration of adoration made to Dorian in a tender moment that came to his imagination. Instead, he found himself transported back to the Venatori tunnels under the sea, Octavious once more daring to insult Dorian in Amjad's hearing.

I'll cut your fingers off one by one and feed them to you.

Before finding himself in Shandi's company, Gabriel had never had anyone defend him. Not like that, and not for mere words, surely. Yet he'd known then and knew it now, Amjad wouldn't have hesitated to carve Octavious into pieces for that alone. Amjad, such a study in contrasts, a man who thought nothing of comforting him, taking his hand, speaking to him sweetly, and also a killer, one who wasn't above torture if he felt the victim had truly earned it.

His magery saw fit to underscore the point; now that he knew what to look for, he saw Dorian's magical signature woven through and around Amjad in a thousand tiny yet terribly intricate ways.

"Oh, at times." Amjad stood and walked over to the kettle, plucking it from the flames and making up a cup of tea as he talked. "Considered more honorable than.." He sighed, losing some of his presence, like a mighty owl transformed into a bedraggled shadow of itself by an unrelenting rainstorm . "What Aislinn and I did. Because at least if there were many lovers together, there was more chance of Elvhen offspring."

Amjad brought him the tea cup, fragrant with white peony and chamomile. Gabriel clutched it, thankful that he'd managed to keep his hands from shaking.

"Well," he said, trying desperately to fill the silence with something...normal, something that wouldn't betray any feelings he had beyond the expected, beyond what was appropriate. "What is it you intend to do, as far as Hawke's request?"

Amjad took the chair by the fire, resting his elbows on his knees and passing his hands through his hair.

"I intend to do whatever it is we can possibly do to make Hawke's hopes a reality, of course."

"Oh yes?"

"It is his beloved, Gabriel. He said so himself."

Ah. No surprise there.

"Of course." He echoed, knowing that there would be no way to talk Amjad out of this once the path was set. His beloved, His beloved. The words branded themselves on his mind, a mind that suddenly felt addled as if he'd managed to catch a fever. And then the shame, the guilt. Wasn't Shandi enough? Why would he disrespect her so, this woman who had managed to care for him despite all of his flaws? He wasn't a bloody child, to pine after Anders, so many years hence. To develop a ridiculous schoolchild crush on the Inquisitor, as if he could have possibly chosen a person more out of reach.

"I should return to my quarters," he said abruptly, banging the teacup against the saucer more forcibly than he meant. "Forgive me. I am...rather tired. If you don't mind, m'lord."

By Amjad's puzzled countenance, he'd readily detected the shift in mood. Gabriel could only hope he hadn't divined why it had occurred.

"No, no. Go and take your rest. I'm only sorry to have roused you at this godawful hour."

With that, Gabriel fled into the early dawn hours, praying that when he reached his bed he'd fall directly into another pleasant sleep.

Chapter Text

You silly little
girl, you think you’ve survived so long that survival
shouldn’t hurt anymore. You keep trying to turn your
body bullet proof. You keep trying to turn your heart
bomb shelter. You silly thing. You are soft and alive.
You bruise and heal. Cherish it. It is what you were born
to do.

-- Clementine von Radics

When Gabriel returned to Shandi's room, he found her sitting up in bed with a book open on her lap. She hadn't bothered to take her horncaps off yet, and her hair hung loose in mussed skeins that glimmered when she moved her head. She had on a dove-grey nightdress, with one strap having slipped from her shoulder. The color took him back to his ill-defined dream, Shandi in a ballgown, and, he thought, dancing with him at the palace in Halimshiral.

Her pale brow had a little furrow in it, and a slight pensive frown curved her generous lips. As she studied each line, she took the dry biscuits often served at breakfast from the plate at her side and dunked them in the cup of coffee sat on the nightstand, bringing them to her mouth absent mindedly in between sounding out words. The dragon bracelet he'd given her, taken from the Deep Roads horde, sparked in the lamp light as she gestured.

He leaned against the doorjamb for a moment, watching her. He rarely got the chance, with how alert Shandi always was; only such an arduous task as trying to read would have claimed her attention so, that he could come upon her unawares. 

"Shandi," he said, though he hated to break the spell. The shock made her reach for her sword automatically, the blade leaned up against the bed as she often left it.

"Gabriel!" She exclaimed, relaxing again into the pile of mismatched pillows at the headboard. "You scared me."

"I'm sorry, mon tresor." He crossed the room and came towards her as if he were stepping on holy ground, his hands out in a gesture of trust, his head bowed as if he were about to kneel before a statue of Andraste. He cared little for the Maker or the Chantry, but Andraste? Like Shandi, he found it difficult to dismiss Her out of hand. "You're reading?"

"Well...I thought maybe I could," she offered, uncharacteristically diffident. "Varric said if I learned to read, there'd be a lot of stories about adventures and dragons and stuff that I might like." She picked up the book and waved it at him. The cover featured a brawny woman in plate armor, her pose heroic, her ginger hair streaming behind her like a conquerer's flag. He recognized it as the book she'd been reading back at the camp. "This is Cass's favorite. She lent it to me."

He came over to sit on the edge of the bed. Ser Pounce crept out from under it, meowing a hello. He reached down to scritch behind the animal's ears, the undercoat Ser Pounce had grown since coming to Skyhold like a puff of harvest-ready cotton.

"Well, you're very smart. You will learn how quickly enough."

Shandi snorted and looked away.

"I'm not smart, Gabriel. Ox-head, remember?"

As if sensing Shandi's waning mood, Ser Pounce crowded into her lap, shoving the book aside and putting his paws on her shoulders as if he were trying to imitate a hug. 

"Shandi," he said, reaching out to touch her hand. His fingertips brushed over the still healing scars there, the oppressive darkness of the thaig binding up his throat, its inky tentacles slithering deep into his chest. "I know you can learn this. You already know some things," he pointed out when he could speak again.

"Yeah, if you send me a note asking me and my company to take out a threat, I can read that. But not much else. And I can barely write my name."

At least petting the cat seemed to help, though it only made Ser Pounce shed even more than usual.

Without him having to ask, she passed him the coffee cup and he sipped at it; usually she drank half and he drank the other, a little ritual they'd developed without ever discussing it.

"You know who you should ask for help? Dorian."

"Not a chance in hell," she said immediately, looking at him as if he'd gone from quietly resting to the dance of the seven veils in an instant. Halfway through, too, where he only had two or three veils left. "He's so smart."

He knew what she meant: while Dorian would never look down on her for her lack of ability, it would still be anxiety inducing to try and perform in front of him. Back at the camp she'd hidden her insecurities behind humor; he knew her well enough to divine that. Trying to seriously pick up the skill in front of Dorian? Mortifying. Still, who better to teach letters?

She sighed and set the book aside.

"What did the Inquisitor want?" She asked, and he respected her attempt to change the subject.

"Hawke wants to bring Anders here," he blurted, cursing himself for his artless delivery. The concern creasing Shandi's features made his insides feel hollow, pinned like a dried out insect in an alchemist's collection.

"The Anders? The one who took out the Kirkwall Chantry?"

"The same," he muttered, already miserable. "I...knew him. Back when he'd escaped from the Circle for the last time. I thought I was in love with him, as a matter of fact."

He looked at Ser Pounce, still curled up in Shandi's lap.

At least you can't speak. No one needs to know exactly how stupid I was. 

"Oh, Gabriel," Shandi said, as if finally grasping why he seemed so broken up. "I guess he didn't feel the same way?"

"No." Unshed tears pricked the back of his eyes, and he fought against shedding them with bitterness and anger as his sword and shield. "Just a fling, to him."

"I'm sorry," she said, reaching for his hand. Relief flooded him for a moment like a healing draught, easing some of his suffering. He hadn't been sure how Shandi might react to the tale. But, he had to admit that every time he had shared a part of himself he felt shame about, Shandi had simply shrugged and accepted it.

"There's more, more than just that." He punctuated his words with mouthfuls of coffee, the drink swiftly growing cold. "I...was there, when he took on Justice. Our family allows a Dalish clan to winter on our grounds...the Hero of Felerdan's clan. I wasn't supposed to help, but how could I turn down the opportuity? They needed a spirit healer." He paused, a tremor going through him. "Anders is an abomination, Shandi. I didn't mean to, but I think I influenced his choice."

Apathy, he heard, as if Justice were right next to him again, is a weakness.

He could well remember his many arguments with Anders, arguments about the virtue of selflessness, about helping others and trying to improve their lot as mages. Back then, Anders had deflected most everything serious; he had an incomprable wit, and the sardonic nature of a creature that had been hunted to the many corners of the earth. But eventually, Anders had decided to stop running. A pity that now even such a noble notion had become tangled and murky, perverted.

"I heard he's suppsoed to be some kind of abomination, yeah. I just thought the templars were making that shit up, you know, trying to make mages look bad."

"No, not this time anyway. It's true, and recently his bond with Justice has started to sour. I don't know if Anders warped the spirit, or if it's some outside influene, but regardless he's wasting away and Hawke wants Amjad's help."

"Do you think Justice made him do the Chantry thing?" Shandi asked, one eyebrow cocked, the corner of her mouth a little pulled stitch.

"No. Not in the way you mean. In his place, I would have done the same. Hawke's letter...I got the distinct impression that he's not asking for this because he disapproves of Anders' position on the matter. We are all in agreement that the Chantry would never listen to arguments from the mouths of mages, no matter how cogent. When someone finds themselves in power, they rarely if ever give it up voluntarily."

He thought of his father, dressed in the reductive raiment of a person who worshiped the idea of Tevinter while knowing little about its actual workings and culture. His father, who liked to lord it over their dinner table as if he enjoyed a seat in the Magisterium, who held forth at every opportunity with little to no care for the listener or the listerner's interest. If a minor noble could become such an insufferable sort, then all the moreso those souls belonging to a massive organization like the Chantry. If his father was a mere lightning storm, the Chantry was a typhoon.

"Yeah, the Chantry sure has a bunch of bastards in their ranks," Shandi said, distaste making her scrunch up her nose in a way that made her look like a child forced to eat steamed broccoli. "Do you have any idea how you could even separate them?"

He took the hairbrush sitting on the sideboard and came back to bed, untangling Shandi's hair and brushing it until it became a veil of rich amber silk. A faint vanilla and golden amber scent arose from the strands, distracting him from a timely answer. When he did speak, he found himself reluctant to do so.

"Well, I have a thought on that, yes. But Creators, Shandi..."

"What?"

"We could make him Tranquil," he said, vomiting the words as if he'd eaten something poisonous and his life depended on bringing it back up. Tranquility, the fear every mage carried in their secret hearts. "But what kind of life would that be?"

Creators, who amongst us could even bear to wield the brand?

He braided Shandi's hair into several plaits, tight to her head and gathered at the back, the way she liked it when she bothered to do something elabroate with her appearance. 

"You can't reverse being Tranquil, right?"

"Not that I know of. And...then there's blood magic. That is one way I can see to draw up enough power; I think the seperation is going to take a ruinous amount of lyrium, skill, and magic."

"Hm." She said, reaching up to take off her horncaps. "Seems risky. But then again, no matter what we choose to do it will be risky."

He could have kissed her for the way she included herself without question, supporting whatever choice he thought might be best. 

"True enough. I suppose we didn't join the Inqusition just to have quiet lives."

"Aye," she agreed. She still seemed disinclined to get out of bed, and she drew him back under the covers. She curled around him like a hibernating bear protecting its mate, and all the emotion he'd been trying to hold back made him shiver in her arms like a timoroous coursing hound left out in the snow. "I'm sorry it's making you sad."

"I feel so foolish when so many far more important things are happening." He confessed, relaxing into the little sanctuary she'd made for him.

"Well, hell. It's not like you're swanning around demanding everyone pay attention to your heartache. It's okay, Gabriel. Really."

"I...Shandi." He stumbled to a halt, as awkward as a boy trying for his first kiss. "I felt...drawn to Amjad earlier," he admitted, sure he'd brought the fires of hell down on his head. He braced himself, thinking he would surely get kicked out of bed the way he had so many calendar marks ago, after another clumsy confession.

"Yeah?" She said, as if confused about why he would hesitate to tell her such a thing. "You like him. No shit. He's been eyeing you, too. And...I mean, you like half of Skyhold."

"Is it so obvious?" He muttered, terribly exposed; could everyone see how unwise his wandering heart was?

"Well, it is to me," she said. "Do you want to be with him, too?"

"Oh, I hadn't really...I mean, I...bloody hell." He fought to clear his head. Shandi deserved a clear answer. "I think he only truly has eyes for Dorian. I don't anticipate it becoming something real. But I wanted you to know. I don't want you to feel like I am not happy with you, or that...I am hiding anything." He cursed himself vociferously; he ought to conduct himself better than this!

"Gabriel," Shandi said, in that way that could knock him right out of an anxiety attack. "It doesn't bother me. Okay? It will only fuck me off if you lie to me, or don't let me have an opinion on what or who you want to do."

Suddenly, he felt completely and totally in the moment. Anxiety fell away. The affairs of others were a distant and indistinct dream. He turned in her arms, his body fitting against hers such that he felt like a storm-tossed cormorant finally finding its way back to its nest.

"Shandi?" He said, looking up at her, those depthless silver eyes gazing back at him. "I love you."

It wasn't how he meant to say it, it wasn't the time he'd envisioned. But there it was, even so. 

"Gabriel? I love you too."

The kiss that followed tasted sweeter than the finest cordial. and their lovemaking an oasis of comfort in a world gone mad.

Chapter Text

This time, the summons didn't surprise Gabriel in the slightest. By the cryptic message given by Amjad's personal runner, he could well guess the topic at hand: what to do for Anders, if anything could still be done.

Still he found himself fussing over whether he'd made the bed perfectly, until Shandi gently drew him away. Next, he worried so over his clothing that eventually, Shandi had picked an outfit for him and nudged him out the door once he was reasonably decent. A sense of dread and a discordant anxious note had taken roost within him, and hung over him the way a bare tree thick with vultures cast long shadows. The moment where he would once again see Anders played over and over in his mind, each scenario more catastrophic than the last.

This time, Shandi accompanied him. He found himself pitifully grateful for her hand to hold, but a practical reason for her presence had presented itself: as many eyes on the problem as they could get would be invaluable. Who knew what a mage might miss, that a warrior would notice?

Perhaps that is how we will against Corypheus.

He thought, stepping into the relative quiet of a Frostback evening. A former Tevinter magister, hobbled by his cultural biases, might eschew a resource or a person that the Inquisition wasn't too proud to include. More minds, more perspectives, more approaches meant more possible solutions, even to seemingly insurmountable problems like the Breach.

They met Aislinn and Dorian in the Great Hall. The pair were sat before the fire, drinking red wine and talking freely.  The flames made them both look even more striking than usual, smoothing away the few imperfections they had and enhancing features that were already attractive. Aislinn kicked her feet like a child as she listened to Dorian speak; by her little smile, he was deep into regaling her about something rather amusing. Dorian's golden rings sparkled in the low light as he gestured, and his gaze did too, enhanced, luminous, almost as if the lyrium in his veins had altered him in a thousand little ways. 

Gabriel hated to spoil their gay mood, but nonetheless, he went over and told them that the summons encompassed them, as well.

"We know," Aislinn said, giving him a fond look that made her eyes velvety and deepened their unique hue. "We are just putting off our responsibilities to the last moment." Her little conspiratorial giggle rung against his eardrum as pleasantly as a china dish finding its home in its saucer, and made him think of the mad games of hide and seek he and his sister would play before adult responsibilities took away their fun.

"Yes," Dorian agreed right away in a voice too loud for the occasion, as if he might start pontificating at the slightest provocation. He stood up, wavering as he tried to find his feet. Gabriel wondered if the bottle on the table was their first bottle, or if he'd interrupted them in the middle of a second or -Creators preserve us -a third.

Dorian and Aislinn went along in front of him and Shandi, arms interlocked. He thought Dorian at least might launch into some terrible Tevinter drinking song, but thankfully they reached Amjad's door before Dorian could get started.

Amjad's quarters had that familiar crisp winter snap, that chill that only emphasized the lovely warmth of the fireplace. A healthy blaze crackled away in the grate, reaching long, mellow fingers of light across the floor. It made Gabriel think of holidays, and for a moment that cheered him. When he remembered the reason they were all here, it made him shudder instead.

Amjad had sat himself in front of that fire, a weighty tome open on his lap. He rose when they entered, however, closing the book and tucking it under his arm. Solas had already arrived, also. He stood out on the balcony as if it weren't cold enough to chill the bones, though he turned when their group walked in. He went to Aislinn, smoothing her hair away from her face and inquiring in a murmur about whether she felt well enough to participate in whatever Amjad had planned.

"Well, come and sit with me," Amjad offered, and Gabriel and Dorian brought chairs over next to Amjad's, and then two more for Solas and Aislinn, with Shandi choosing to sit on the floor rather than stuff herself into a too small seat. Only then did Gabriel see that the side table was laden with food, water, and wine, the latter in the earthenware pitchers he found so endearing. Cracked open pomegranates sat vivid against the delicate bone-white glaze of their serving dish, spilling their king's ransom, right beside a small, perfect mango cut in sections. It practically glowed in the firelight, and certainly cost a fortune. And that beside an array of cheeses that Gabriel didn't even have names for. But as enchanted as he was by the spread, the reason for it sat heavy; Amjad was expecting a long night, and when he glanced over at his friend, Amjad looked truly grave.

"Aislinn," Amjad prompted, pressing a glass of mulled cider into her hand, the scent of Honnleath apples wreathing her face in fragrant steam as she bent to take a drink. She let out a little huff of breath, as if whatever she had to say weghed on her.

"There is no easy way to say this," she said slowly, studying her slender, moon-pale hands clasped in her lap. "I am a blood mage."

Gabriel felt a strange numb state come over him, as all the clues from his time fighting at her side came back and fit together like the lines of a mage glyph. He glanced around and noted that very few of the people in the room seemed taken aback, except for Shandi, who frowned. Her shoulders and sword arm were suddenly tense, though thankfully she didn't pull a weapon. Her beaten-silver eyes were hard, gone from the sea at mid morning to unforgiving glacial ice.

"I do not blame you for your feelings," Aislinn said directly to Shandi, holding Shandi's gaze yet without it amounting to a challenge. "The idea of blood magic makes most people uncomfortable, at best. But when I learned the skill, I was utterly desperate. And then, I had no choice but to master it, lest it eat me alive."

Dorian looked more serious than usual, but not surprised by the revelation either. Surely he and Aislinn must have had many talks about this subject before this moment. Perhaps because of his necromamcy, he felt less disgust than the average person would have.

"And now, it may well aid us," Solas pointed out. His tone was that measured, scholarly one that made Gabriel want to hit him, but Gabriel had to at least grudgingly admire his attempt to support his beloved.

"One of the ways we might address Anders' corrupted bond is through blood magery," Amjad said, standing near the fire and punctating his words with sips of cordial. "If nothing else can be said about it, it is very powerful. It can take the wielder beyond regular spellcraft...I don't think any rote invocations will address the problem."

"And the other way?" Gabriel growled, though he knew the answer already, knew it in the pit of his guts and in the secret chambers of his mind.

"The brand," Dorian said. The horror of it frayed his voice until it was nothing but a feather listing aimlessly on the breeze; it sounded the way Gabriel's heart felt.

"Creators, no," Gabriel said involuntarily, doubling over as if he were about to vomit. Honestly, for a moment, he thought he might.

"Peace, Gabriel," Amjad said gently, taking his seat again and tapping the book he had set once more in his lap. "This is a meeting devoted to revelations; there is a way to reverse the condition."

"What?" He felt the urge to jump up out of sheer shock, but he found himself rooted in place. He watched Amjad take a drink of cordial and felt dizzy at something so normal taking place in the midst of...of this.  "I...I never dared dream of such a thing. Reverse Tranquility?"

"Cassandra told me." Amjad confirmed. Only then did Gabriel realize that Cassandra and Varric were not in attendance. Probably for the best, considering the discussion of blood magery. "The Seekers of Truth have known for years," he added, a little curl of disgust on his lips.

Aislinn looked as if she might shake apart, weep, or both. Gabriel could read the barely contained fury easily; he felt the same anger of a sudden, as if he might spontaneously combust. Even Shandi looked upset, though she couldn't know the horror of Tranquility the way mages did. Dorian reached for a fresh bottle of wine, uncorked it, and drank from it without bothering with a glass.

They've known for years? And yet they keep us all in bondage! Perfect, mindless creatures used as decoration for their throne rooms and fortresses!

"So you could make him Tranquil, sever the bond, and then...fix him? Cure the Tranquility?" Shandi interjected, though she had a tense expression as if certain the mages would condescend to her as an outsider. Gabriel struggled to listen, the rage like nothing he'd ever felt roaring in his ears.

"Exactly correct," Amjad said, affording her the same weighty gaze he'd fixed on the mages as they spoke. "Though, the cure has its drawbacks. It can cause emotional instability, for one."

"Hardly much of a concern," Dorian said, "considering his current predicament."

"Yes," Amjad agreed. "But we don't want to free him only to give him a list of new problems. If there is anything there to save."

"If we chose blood, will Hawke accept that?" Aislinn said. Gabriel could see her trying to soothe herself, regulating her breathnig, relaxing the muscles in her fingers and neck one by one.

"Hawke also happens to be a blood mage," Amjad said, "and a spirit healer for that matter. I saw him use both talents at Adamant."

"And where will the blood come from?" Dorian asked, voice like a sword crunching against plate armor. "You realize rituals such as you are proposing require lives."

Gabriel blinked. Dorian might be Aislinn's closest friend, but that apparently didn't mean he truly approved of her magics. Something heated his tone as surely as a fire iron left in a torturer's brazier.

Something personal?

It made Gabriel re-evaluate their conversation in the Deep Roads. Why had Amjad felt the need to rail so against Halward, anyway?

Solas pursed his lips, pensive, though he chose not to speak. Gabriel thought of a deepstalker lurking in the pitch black mouth of a cave, waiting to kill and maim whatever dared enter.

"I am sure Hawke would die for it," Amjad said quietly, empathy bowing his shoulders for a moment. He looked...haunted. That quality told Gabriel that Amjad had thought of scenarios like this before, and Gabriel felt sure if Amjad were in Hawke's role and Dorian in Anders', Amjad would have happily bled out in some cold ritual circle for Dorian's benefit. "Though if we can think of a way to prevent that, all to the good."

"You know Decadence will be attracted to a ritual like that, like a fly on shit," Dorian spat. "How do you expect us to hold at the least two fronts at once? Complete the ritual, while fending her off?"

"Not to mention Aislinn could be the key," Shandi grunted. Aislinn's reassurances had not restored her usual cheerful demeanor, not even a little. "And would be extra vulnerable, if she is."

Gabriel felt the mood in the room pull taut, and he could sense that things would devolve into arguing sooner rather than later. He wished he could think of a way to stop it, but Amjad beat him to it.

"I have a possible solution to that, as well," he said, evidencing a kind of cold patience that made everyone ruffle up and re-evaluate their attitudes.

"I presume you are referring to the magrallen," Solas asked, though it was more statement than question.

"Indeed I am."

"Then you are also aware that it requires the blood of the great dragons? Of which there are precious few," Solas said.

Dragon blood? What can they -

"Will it work if I do it?" Shandi said.

"Shandi, no -" Was all Gabriel managed before both Solas and Amjad looked over in shock.

"It must be the blood of a great dragon," Solas repeated, though his words this time came slow and thoughtful. "We may be able to change the magrallen's purpose, however, for the sake of the ritual, such that it would accept the blood of a lesser dragon. It is likely that doing so would reduce the magrallen to meaningless shards as soon as magic stopped flowing through it; we would have one chance, and one chance only."

"How can you even suggest that as a possiblity?" Dorian asked, drawing himself up in the way he tended to when he was about to be arrogant about something. "Besides the risk to Shandi, a device from the ancient days of the Imperium? You might as well speak of moving mountains with nothing more than a dinner spoon!"

Amjad opened his mouth to answer, but a knock on the door stole his attention. He rose and padded down the stairs.

"Mon tresor, you can't," Gabriel found himself saying. Shandi's expression still had a hard, wintry quality he didn't like.

"And what if it were us? What would you do?" She growled.

He shut up then, knowing he had nothing to truly argue with. Amjad returned before he could dredge up something, anything, that might keep Shandi from offering anyway. He felt sure she never would have, if it hadn't been for him and his influence, his opinions on love and devotion, his stupid storybook notions.

The guilt kept him from noticing Dagna, at first.

"I think I can help," she said, a light in the mental swamp he'd found hismelf in, a torch of veilfire in a mire. "I think I can do what you're asking." She rubbed at her forehead as if suddenly dizzy. "Ever since I ran those experiments on red lyrium, I...can see magic but feel it too, like when you get pins and needles, but also through time...I..."

"Dagna," Amjad said, not unkindly, "come back to Thedas, please."

"I'm sorry, Inquisitor," she said as he waved her to a chair. "I mean to say, I can do it! I think. One use only."

"And I can use that power," Aislinn added, her hands on her knees. Gabriel realized that she'd dug her fingernails into the flesh beneath. "Especially if Hawke also gives his blood. Refine it and wield it."

"As for that loathsome creature we know as Decadence," Solas continued, "I may be able to close the Veil such that we can keep her away for a time. Long enough to complete the ritual, surely. It is also possible that Vengance manifesting in the world will bring such energy through the Veil that no other creature will be able to travel through until he is dealt with."

Gabriel reeled at that, and suspicion grew like black marsh-thorns in his belly. Close the Veil? What was Solas, really? A Dreamer, at least. He had to be. But beyond that there still lay an undiscovered land that Gabriel could barely even guess at.

"Fine," Amjad said. "Shandi, please don't feel obligated. If you change your mind at any time, we have other options to explore."

Shandi shrugged in acknowledgment but didn't say anything else. Gabriel knew she likely didn't trust her voice; she hadn't offered because she wanted to do it, but to spare him the horror of making another mage Tranquil. He wanted to throw himself on her, as if he could keep her from doing this by pinning her and never letting her go. Nevermind she could have broken him in half with barely any effort, the urge was so strong he was half out of his chair before he realized what he was doing.

"Outside of this room," Amjad continued, his voice knocking some sense into Gabriel such that he sank back into his seat, "we do not speak of this. Not to Cal, not to Cullen. Not to Cass and Varric. Not to anyone. Should this go wrong, there is no need to blacken anyone else's soul."

Gabriel whipped his head around to study Amjad's hollow gaze.

He knows some terrible price is going to come of this. Creators. Please watch over us all.

"If you have any unfinished business that can be handled in a fortnight," he added, "now is the time to make your peace."

The others followed out without speaking. Dorian went out to the balcony, turning his back on them. Shandi stayed nearby to wait for him. His half formed idea firmed up when he thought of her, making his dogged determination greater than his fear.

"Amjad," he said, standing straight as if he were trying to impress his father, "I have a request."

"My friend," the little elf said in an even smaller voice, "whatever it is, I will see your needs fufilled."

Gabriel had the sudden urge to fall to his knees and take Amjad's hands, so great the relief that flooded his poor, chaotic brain, fighting with itself.

"I wish to return to the Marlowe estate," he said, biting off each word and spitting it out, "it is time I took control of my holdings, my title. I have...I have lived in their shadow for too long."

He was dimly aware of Shandi staring at him in shock, but he didn't turn to her. He knew if he did, he would break down and start sobbing.

"It is granted," Amjad told him without hesitation, and just then he realized how exhausted his poor friend seemed. "I will send you with a full complement of Inquisition soldiers and aides. You deserve nothing less."

"My lord," he said, reverent, bowing low out of some noble instinct he'd likely never rid himself of. "You honor me. But I must ask...will you accompany me? You and Dorian?"

He wanted his friends with him, yes, but he also knew the power of arriving not only with the Inquisitor but with one of the Tevinter mages his father worshipped so.

"What about me?" Shandi demanded, her hands balled up into fists and propped on her hips in a way that showed Gabriel he'd better come up with a good answer, and fast.

He went to her, barely managing to keep his tears away.

"Shandi, my dearest love. I would not subject you to these people. They will not understand."

"I'm supposed to protect you," she said, and the heartbroken look on her face, instead of her usual sunny expression, nearly took the heart from him. "Your family? They are nothing but cruel to you. How can I let you walk into that, without me?"

"Shandi, this is for you," he said, gazing up at her and trying desperately to show his feelings as their eyes met. "If I don't do this the right way, then..." He had to stop and collect himself, remembering what had happened the first time he'd told her his feelings. "I want to marry you someday, you know. And if I don't have my holdings and title, then not only will our union be very difficult to make official, there will be far less protections for us if I am a commoner in all but name. Please, trust me."

"I will go with him," Amjad said, before Shandi could reply. "And so will Dorian, I am sure of it. I will protect him with my life. I swear it to you."

Shandi set the line of her jaw, clearly unhappy, but whenever Amjad swore he would do something, it was done.

"All right," she said, though her voice was little but a whisper. "But you had better come back. Don't make promises you can't keep."

He tried to keep from smiling like a fool, but failed miserably. He knew what she meant, that she had just in essence said yes to his marriage plans. He didn't want to speak on it directly and spook her, but he stood on his tiptoes, took her horns in his hands, and tugged her down for a kiss.

"Go," Amjad said, "enjoy each other while I plan our journey. I will see you in two days time; we don't have long before Hawke will arrive."

Gabriel turned to go, Shandi beside him. Thankfully, Shandi and thoughts of their possible future kept him from thinking about the price of blood, for a time.


 

 "Dorian." His name, tendered with such emotion, made him turn around despite himself. He wanted to be spiteful and withhold, to lash out and make Amjad deal with all the venom within him at that moment. But one look at Amjad's expression drained the hatefulness out of him and left him with only shuddersome emptiness.

"What is it, amatus?" He said, coming back into the room out of a pure desire to be closer to his love.

"I am sorry to invove you in this, Dorian." Amjad whispered, hanging his head as if he were weary beyond words. "I know your feelings on blood magery. You needn't participate. I...would spare you anything that reminds you of such pain."

"Amjad, are you seriously suggesting I let you do this kind of ritual without me? Kaffas, don't even think of such a thing. Besides that, you will need as many skilled mages as you can muster. I won't leave Aislinn to do this work without help, my help."

Amjad took his hand, running his fingertips over the lines in his palm.

"Then grant me one thing," he said, voice wavering.

"Anything," Dorian said, passing his hand gently over Amjad's hair. His heart echoed the word, anything, anything, anything.

"The Brangwen Clan has taken up residence in Wycome," Amjad started, struggling uncharacteristically with his words. "including my closest friends, those children who lived through the werewolf attack. Please, come and meet them. I don't know what will happen during the ritual and Creators, I pray we all live relatively unscathed. But..."

Amjad's family, Dorian knew. The head of the Clan might think little of Amjad and Aislinn, but Amjad's fellows? They had bonded, come to love each other, when the Keeper wouldn't.

"Of course I will," he agreed, even as the idea of submitting himself to the judgment of those closest to his amatus made him light headed with nerves. 

Amjad smiled at him, and his heart quite forget its purpose for a moment, stuttering to a stop in his chest.

"Stay here tonight," Amjad said, and Dorian could do aught else but agree to that, too.

Chapter Text

The idea had come to him in the time between dream and waking, the frigid mountain air slithering through the hole in his roof and wrapping around his neck and wrists, brushing at his bare throat. Had he been dreaming? How odd, he had thought. Most nights nightmares plauged him, memories of Kinloch Hold, or viisons of how evil he could have become as Meredith's apprentice had Hawke not put an end to her. 

Regardless, he found that Cal was the first subject he considered when he'd opened his eyes, and not just on the morn where he'd first considered the idea of an appropriate gift. This morning hadn't differed from the pattern, but he shook off the sensation and got up, shivering.

His bed had felt strangely...empty, though surely he had never shared it with anyone.

He went to the trunk that contained his ever-growing clothing collection. Soon, the pieces would outgrow their container, and he imagined finery piled so high that he would have to give up his tower room entirely.

If Josephine has her way, it's not so silly a thought.

He chose his clothing by what he thought Josephine would have approved of, a fur-lined greatcoat in moss green, a shirt of soft, well-carded wool of such a deep brown it was almost black, and trousers in a neutral, washed out blue. He heard Josephine as sure as if she were beside him whispering advice; pair earth colors! Wear pieces that bring out your best features! Honestly, Cullen, I might as well be trying to dress an Avvar auger or a Hinterlands bear! 

The trip down the ladder took time, more than he wanted to admit. His joints clicked and scraped in their sockets, and half of his fingers went numb. Still, he made it without incident and headed out onto the battlements. He enjoyed being outside, yes, but also if he took the roundabout way he could avoid Jalsi trying to stuff him full of sugared fish pie. Good for the balance of humors? Maybe. But food, it was not.

He took his time heading to the forge. The gift wouldn't be spoiled for the want of a few more moments, and it gave his body time to adjust to being upright. He could hear the cawing of Leiliana's crows as they took wing from the tower window though he tried not to let it concern him; superstitions ran deep, and he was no exception.

Nods and murmurings of his title greeted him when he entered the Great Hall. He bypassed Varric quickly since the incorrigble taleteller had already managed to get into his cups if the ridiculousness of his current story were any indicator, holding forth from his spot by the fire. Glancing away, he saw the impressive mosaic Gatsi had assembled; truly, the Inquistion had touched every corner of the world.

Despite the forge being open to the elements, it always managed to be warm in spite of the endless winter. Harrit grunted as he walked in, but otherwise the blacksmith kept his attention on the sword he was in the process of tempering. Dagna, however, waved excitedly as soon as she saw him.

"Comnander! Oh, Commander! Come over here. I'm all done with the thing you asked me to do."

Cullen smiled. Dagna had a charm that could melt far harder hearts than his.  

He joined her as bid at one of her workstations. The bow sat there in all its glory, one of the finest examples of craftsmanship he'd ever seen. And his eyes were not unaccustomed to masterworks.

"Dagna," he said, unable to tear his gaze away from it, "you are a wonder."

She giggled and shook her head, bouncing on the balls of her feet and flapping her hands.

"Go ahead! Try it."

He did as asked, taking the bow in hand and drawing the string. Light for him, but perfect for an elf recently freed. Perhaps it would have to be altered as Cal grew stronger, but Cullen knew enough about the Dalish to realize that Cal's sense of self wouldn't fully heal without attention paid to what his clan role would have been. And could be again, or so Cullen ferverently hoped.

"An arrow shot from that thing will ruin any mage's day," Dagna said, grinning ear to ear. Clearly she felt pride for her accomplishment. Well-deserved pride, at that. "It weakens wards and cracks through shields."

"Perfect." Cullen felt sure Cal would think so, too. "The next time you want to study something that makes Cassandra climb the walls, I'll be sure you get your way."

"Oh commander," Dagna said, fluttering her eyelashes. "I would never ask for such a thing."

"Of course, of course. We are the picture of discretion," he agreed, unstringing the bow and sliding it into its oiled leather cover. He made a mental note to use his connections to find something useful to Dagna the next time he sent a compliment of soldiers out into the world. He certainly had patrols everywhere, and they were bound to come up with something good.

"I am serious, though, Dagna. This is amazing work."

Dagna blushed.

"Thank you! You just tell me how he likes it, okay?"

"I will."

Now he was the one to blush, and he turned quickly and headed for the stairs.


Cal sat perched on a tree stump near the practice ring, watching The Iron Bull and Cassandra duel. Regina had told him getting some sunlight and fresh air would do him some good, and he duitifully did as told. She might be a shem, but she had the touch of Sylaise and Cal still had the instinct to respect the Vir'Atish'an. Though, he felt lonely in a way that such things as belonged to Her couldn't fix.

He heard footsteps long before whoever they belonged to spoke. It sounded as if the owner was trying to make noise. Good, likely not a threat, though he carried a long knife in his boot that would help things go his way if he had to fight.

"Cal." He turned at the summons, his heart thudding in his chest. Cullen.

"No armor today?" Cal asked, taking in Cullen's outfit.

"I am endeavoring to please Josephine, yes," Cullen said, frowning, though Cal thought at least part of his exasperated mood was a facade. "Is she behind your clothing too?"

Cal looked down at his belted tunic and fitted trousers. Nice enough to look like they came from Advisor Montilyet herself, yes. Amjad had good taste and an almost vulgar amount of wealth to spend on those he held dear. The fact that Cal now had several outfits of such quality still threw him for a loop regularly. A slave whose only possession was a threadbare blanket, now a free Dalish with wealth beyond counting.

"These? They are Amjad's doing," he said. His cheeks felt hot, and he could only hope Cullen would atribute that to the crisp air.

"Well surely I can't compete with gifts from the Inquisitor himself,"  Cullen said, a cagey look on his face that reminded Cal of a cunning stoat peeking out of its burrow. "But I think I have something that you'll like, anyway."

"You brought me something?" Cal stood, though suddenly he felt lightheaded. Did Cullen know what offering him a gift could mean? The scenery and even the clash of swords faded, his world narrowing down to what was happening right in front of him. Cullen couldn't know. He was a shem, after all. But...

"I did." Cullen unlimbered whatever he was carrying on his back, a detail Cal hadn't noticed before. Skyhold made him too comfortable at times, slow to pick up on details.

The bow shone as Cullen drew it out of its case, and not just because it's surface caught the afternoon light. Runes had been worked into the wood itself, a feat he felt sure only Dagna could have managed. It had a Dalish look to it, and the sheer thoughtfulness struck him dumb.

He stepped closer to touch the gift as if it might disappear if he so much as breathed too hard. It felt alive under his touch, the way ironbark did, and for a moment it was as if everything inside him had shifted such that he found himself once more fighting back tears.

"You did this?" He heard himself whisper. "You asked this to be made, for me?"

"I don't pretend to know much about the Dalish," Cullen said, "but I know of the Vir'Tanadhal. I thought you might appreciate something to set you on that path again, if you wish it."

He practically flung himself into Cullen's arms, hugging him so tightly he heard the breath rush out of Cullen's lungs. For a moment he felt mortified and thought about drawing away, but then Cullen was returning the embrace and any thoughts of fleeing turned into quite the opposite. Cullen's hand between his shoulder blades felt like a brand, and he forced himself to step back before he could do or say anything truly embarrassing.

"Er. I mean. Thank you. I can't tell you what this means to me."

Cullen looked down at him fondly, and Cal's heart stuttered and skipped.

"You're welcome," Cullen said, shrugging the quiver strap off and handing that to him as well. The arrowheads gleamed; enchanted, just like the bow.

Before awkward silence could descend, Cal firmed up his courage and said,

"Maybe you'll come with me, when I test it."

Cullen brightened and Cal thought he actually looked flattered.

"I will," he said simply. "I should return to my duties. There are targets over to the left, if you have a mind to practice."

And then he was gone, striding away through the grass with purpose. Cal looked down at the bow in one hand, the quiver in the other, and nearly jumped out of his skin when Iron Bull came up behind him. A huge hand descended and practically engulfed one of his shoulders.

"Guess Curly is pretty fond of you, huh? Come on, I want to see that thing in action."

A monent later and he found himself sighting down an arrow-length, peering at the brightly colored target. He let fly, not at all sure where his arrow might fall but hoping some of his old skill might come back.

"Bang!" Iron Bull shouted, almost as excited as Cal and twice as loud about it. "Bullseye, haha get it? Way to go for the heart, kid."

Indeed, Cal thought, twirling his next arrow between his fingers.

Chapter Text

Preparations for the trip took several days. The more he had to wait the more Gabriel fretted, but he agreed with Amjad’s point that a full entourage would put some fear and respect into his parents and their household. Anything that would give them an edge, they should do.

I won't let you ride through those gates as anything less than a friend to the greatest nation in Thedas.

Amjad's voice echoed in his ears and he did his best to internalize it, to believe in himself the way his friends believed in him.

Would it be enough? Creators knew his brothers would probably devalue anything he’d chosen to align himself with, purely out of spite if nothing else. Even as he packed his finest clothing, he despaired of ever presenting himself in a way that demanded respect. And what would Amjad and Dorian think, watching him, a grown man, cower like a child?

“It’s going to be okay, mon sucre,” Shandi said, startling him out of his darkest thoughts. Their room reaffirmed itself around him, and the sensation of silk and velvet against his fingers grounded him all the more. He looked up from the trunk he was stowing his things away in.

“I dearly hope you are right, mon tresor,” he said, though he couldn’t speak in anything but a whisper. She knelt beside him, white skirts pooling around her, breasts straining against the lacing on the bodice that she'd deliberately manipulated so she could show as much skin as possible. She reached out to cradle his face in gentle hands, calloused from sword work but so tender for him. Her auburn hair hung loose in soft waves, and her silver eyes sparkled in the relative twilight of their shared quarters. The sight of her, so goddess-like, stunned him into awed silence.

"I know I am," she said, leaning in to kiss him. The touch of their lips centered his heart, uplifting it from the dust and installing it on its rightful throne. When they parted he simply gazed at his love for a long moment, her face so open and sweet, like a tulip at the height of a joyous spring.

This is for her. It's all for her.

He let her take his hand and draw him to his feet. He felt as if Mythal Herself had come to walk the earth; he reveled in Shandi's touch as if it were Hers.

"Now," Shandi said, and he listened drunk on her words. "Hold your head up high, and go show them that you're not a child anymore. And if your brothers try to lay into you, break their fucking fingers." 

That got a laugh out of him, and he suddenly felt so light he looked down, half-sure he'd see his feet leaving the ground. Ser Pounce emerged from under the bed and meowed his gurgly meow, as if in agreement with Shandi.

"I should just bring you with me," Gabriel said to the cat as if Ser Pounce could understand him perfectly. "You've faced a Darkspawn. My family would be nothing in comparison."

A knock at the door cut off any further talk, and when Gabriel answered a resplendent Dorian waited there. He wore a silk tunic in iridescent sky blue, a white peacock done in meticulous handcraft curving over his shoulder, its wing wrapped against his side. He'd done the inky kohl ringing his huge grey eyes perfectly, and the glittering gold rings on his long, aristocratic fingers drew attention to the flawless polish on his nails. He wore a gold chain around his neck, too, the pendant Amjad's personal sigil, gems and stones wrapped expertly in gold wire.

Shandi wolf-whistled at him shamelessly, making Dorian smile a real, open smile.

"I take it you approve?" He said, with all that Tevinter poise, though there was a pink blush staining his cheeks and a shy look in those beautiful eyes.

"Damn," Shandi confirmed, hands on her hips at a sassy angle, a wide grin on her face.

"Why thank you," Dorian said, bowing. When he straightened up, he was grinning, too.

"Well," Gabriel said, looking down at his own slate-grey tunic. "Don't I feel positively plain."

"Never," Dorian said, the grin turning to a smirk. "I'm sure your lady will agree?"

"C'mon Gabriel, you always look fancy as hell." She said, laughing. Gabriel felt a pang as the claw of anxiety around his heart eased, opening for a few precious moments. "Here, m'lord," she added, snagging his coat from the end of the bed. It looked like it had been chosen to coordinate with Dorian and Amjad; knowing his friends as he did, it definitely had. The silver lining, deep teal shell, and midnight blue outer layer stood out against leather accents the color of a good cup of Rivani coffee. Two Inquisition symbols in white and rose gold, one for each lapel, made his breath catch in his throat. They had to cost a fortune.

And yet Amjad gives them to me without a second thought.

"There," Shandi said, bringing him out of his thoughts for the second time. He found her looking down at him, her gaze bright and soft. "Now you look like a proper posh noble." She touched his cheek, another tender gesture from those strong fingers. "Be careful. Please." 

He took her hands, pressing kisses to her palms.

"I swear I will be. And when I ride back through those gates, I will be a lord in my own right."

He said it though his voice quavered, as if asking the Creators to hear his statement and make it true.

"I know you will." She said, letting him go only reluctantly as Dorian bid him come along. His boots crunched into the frost-covered grass, the frigid breeze ruffling his hair. They turned down the path to head for the stables, but soon enough Gabriel could hardly see the way due to all the commotion. Amjad had promised him a full entourage and indeed it seemed the Inquisitor had made good on that; everywhere he looked, an Inquisition soldier or porter in full livery was working away, balancing burdens on their shoulders, fitting a whole herd of riding beasts with the best tack Dennet had to offer.

Soldiers piled weapons on a purloined merchant's table, checked, rechecked, sharpened, sheathed. And in the middle of it all, Amjad in his meticulously styled velvet and leather, as imperious as any towering human despite his relatively short stature. He barked orders without being a tyrant, patting people's arms in thanks as they scurried by, a kind word here and there between the shouting necessary to control the chaos.

A stablehand lead Dorian's silver mare from her stall, tossing her head and prancing; she, like her rider, knew exactly how beautiful she was. Dorian went over to take her hackamore and Gabriel forgot to breathe; they looked like something out of a romantic tale, some farce about magical horses and uncomplicated heroes who always chose the light no matter the temptation otherwise.

His attention was taken up then with his own sweet Star being lead towards him by a strapping young man with sable hair, and he thought if a horse could smile she would be doing just that; though she had a calm temperament compared to Dorian's mount, she enjoyed stretching her legs and proving her strength just as much.

"Hello, pretty lady. You won't tell Shandi I said that will you?" He teased, though he could hardly imagine Shandi jealous. Star tossed her head and snorted as if agreeing. Star had two bulging saddle bags, likely full fo trail food and other little essentials, from potions to sewing kits to spell reagents. Enough to live on for a day or two, if things should come to that.

"Ah, Gabriel." Amjad's voice hit his ear the way wildflower honey hit his tongue when he had the chance to indulge in such rarities. He turned towards such sweetness as if he were one of those summer bees, seeking a willing flower. "I am glad you accepted the coat."

Amjad stepped in to fix his lapels, patting his chest when satisfied.

"You are most generous, my lord."

Amjad snorted derisively.

"What good is all this blasted wealth if I can't lavish it on my friends and companions? We are the hardest working group in Thedas. We deserve our finery, our indulgences."

Admittedly, Gabriel thought, he likely would have gone barking mad by now without those comforts.

"Well," Dorian said, approaching them with his mare now properly dressed in decorative barding. The champagne-gold ribbons and white leather were as well coordinated as their little group was. Even the horses had been made beautiful. "Are we ready? The porters told me all we need is loaded and ready."

Indeed, a caravan had been organized, with the Inquisitor's carriage in the center lest an attack should occur. Guards, horse tenders, porters, and Creators knew who else had formed up in a tight line, waiting only for the command to proceed.

"My lord, I don't mean to overstep, but surely Corypheus will know our path," Gabriel said, frowning.

"Indeed," Amjad said, a sly look on his face. "And he daren't attack us directly after so many losses as I have served him. That said, he will likely interpret it as a chance to continue his more subtle operations, like acquiring slaves for his red lyrium mines. But my men will be waiting for him. Let him come. We will answer."

His quailing heart steadied for the nonce, he pulled himself into Star's saddle. She answered with a spirited little prance, dashing another shadow from his heart. He rode up to join Dorian and Amjad. Amjad had chosen a less...confronting mount than Orala, a young, milk-white halla with golden eyes. She had no saddle; embroidered blankets made by the People were strapped to her back instead. Astride her, Amjad looked the very picture of Dalish pride and power, as he had certainly intended.

"Come. Let us help our friend take what is his," Amjad said to Dorian, who sat up a little straighter in the saddle. Gabriel took his place between Amjad and Dorian as Amjad demanded, though he felt like an imposter in such a rarefied position, a nobody hardly deserving of such favor.

"They must see you riding ahead," Dorian told him when he voiced his concerns. "Not second best, not even to the Inquisitor."

Amjad bid the caravan move before Gabriel could reply, riding out of the gate and around the mountain switchbacks taking his attention and the attention of his companions. Soon, however, Star's hooves found the path to Amaranthine, albeit the beginning of a journey that would take a long while.

Creators, give me strength.

Chapter Text

Burn the scorecards, balance out the scales
We are one wind distracted by our different sails
Underneath what's detectable with eyes
Every particle's vibrating with the same life

One, Birdtalker


 

“Remind me of what you’ve told them,” Gabriel said, lulled into a certain limited calm by Star’s smooth gait. He’d asked this same question five times in as many hours, and he cringed to think on it; surely his friends were sick of his childish mewling. Amjad glanced at him and smiled, the halla Amjad sat astride tossing her elegant horns. Though they’d ridden for hours, she still lifted her hooves and flicked her tail as if she’d spent little energy, eager to make the most of every moment that wasn’t spent in a stable.

“That you have requested your library be made available so its contents can be added to the Inquisition’s collection.” Amjad said. His friend looked every inch the young lord, his posture upright, eyes glowing softly, hand easy but masterful on the halla’s neck. It heartened Gabriel, enough that some of the anxiety-fog wrapping him round disappeared, clouds like spun sugar melting before the sun. “Surely they will know there is more to it, but it will behoove them to play along for a time.”

Dorian turned towards him for a moment, clad in a coat of such heart-stopping sky blue that Gabriel’s tongue caught, anything else he might have said gone thanks to such a lovely sight as Dorian was. Dorian more than looked his part, too, a decadent, rebellious scion on self-imposed exile to the South. He’d had his hair tended to before they left, the sides of his head freshly shaved, his mustache curled and combed. He still smelt faintly of beeswax, a sweet scent that nonetheless had a subtle, primal depth. His clothing had been brushed, steamed, ironed, and Gabriel felt sure that no less than three attendants had helped him into it. His mare’s mane and tail had been brushed until the fine hair glimmered, a shining veil of stars.

“If your father is as obsessed with Tevinter as you say,” Dorian said, scanning the grey-gold skyline, “surely I can at least keep him busy for awhile.”

“Oh, he is.” Gabriel muttered, the anxiety-fog returning to bedevil him once more. He hunched his shoulders, sure that at any time a blow would land on something tender, ear, neck, eye. “It’s almost understandable, given what they do to mages here. But its made him barking mad as he’s gotten older. It used to just be lectures about how we had a gift, the Maker wanted us to use it, and so on. And on. Now he’s calling himself Tacitus Aurelius and swanning around in a knock off robe some swindler sold him in Val Royeaux.”

Amjad laughed, a good, pure sound that made Gabriel see the humor in the situation, too. Soon they were crowing, Gabriel wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.

“Oh yes, well I am glad you’re having fun,” Dorian said, but Gabriel knew him well enough to know it was nothing more than decorative annoyance; Dorian wasn’t truly offended. “Meanwhile Tacitus is — “

“Come now,” Amjad said, still breaking into giggles every couple of moments, “you just love an opportunity to grouse.”

Dorian scoffed, but he didn’t say anything else. Amjad had the right of it and clearly Dorian knew he’d never mount a good enough case against his lover, who likely knew him better than any other being in Thedas.

Gabriel watched the scenery pass in an effort to distract himself, but trees and mountains held little interest when compared to his pounding heart and fuzzy brain. It helped to have some of his closest friends at his side, but he’d never revealed the extent of Spence and Landan’s abuse, either. What would Dorian and Amjad think, seeing those two behave as they did? They loomed large in his memory, set so far above him that all he could imagine doing was groveling at their feet.

“Here,” Amjad said, bidding the caravan to halt. Gabriel came out of his daze enough to note what Amjad had spotted: the trail head that lead to the Pilgrim’s Path. A new kind of worry knotted his guts; parts of that grand highway were infested with Darkspawn, others with bandits. Still, he reminded himself, he, Dorian, and Amjad had faced far worse. So had many with the caravan, soldiers with blades tempered in blood. Even the pages and porters knew enough to hold their own.

Amjad reached over and took his hand for a moment, making Gabriel jump; he never expected anything of the kind from the Inquisitor of all people, and he blushed right up to his hair.

“This is it, my friend. Two, two and half days and we will arrive.”

Before Gabriel could say anything, Dorian flipped open his belt pouch to reveal the sloshing flask inside.
“Don’t worry, Gabriel. Liquid courage. A fine remedy when facing families such as ours.”

That Dorian and Amjad could empathize made Gabriel sit up straight in defiance, determined to be as brave as they were.

“Let’s go,” he said, and they road on towards whatever destiny awaited Gabriel in the old, sprawling mansion he’d once been forced to call home.

They camped that night in a copse of trees, spreading out to take advantage of hidey holes and underbrush, the carriages arranged at their backs. If any bandits spotted something to attract them, they’d be met with a forest full of knives and a sky full of arrows.

Making camp by the wagons, he, Amjad, and Dorian found themselves well stocked, with huge tents to rest in - Gabriel’s shocked glance had already taken in cots covered in furs, and tables thick with food and drink - and above all blessed privacy. Of course they were still being guarded, but Amjad’s orders, pitched low, demanded discretion.

“You know,” Gabriel said as they settled around the stew pot to eat, “I never thought I’d miss Shandi’s soup.”

“Excuse me, given the ingredients she has to work with it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” Amjad said, laughing. “You try making something edible out of things you gathered up in your helm and see how well you do.”

“Mm. Amjad does have a point,” Dorian added, eating his meal as if they were all gathered around a Minrathous feast table instead of sitting in the dirt. “I have tasted delicacies that would make your eyes pop out of your skull, Gabriel, but there are times when all I want is the rough-shaped loaf Aislinn makes over a campfire, or that wretched pepper-and-honey cocktail Cassandra makes every time someone falls ill.”

Gabriel found himself laughing again, a dim voice in the back of his mind wondering at that. Gabriel felt pitifully grateful for it, anyway.

“It does work,” Amjad said, flashing a grin that made his gaze brighten, sparking gold like a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil. “You have to admit that. Remember when you had that terrible cough, when we were tracking down that snowy Wyvern for Vivienne?”

“I hate to admit it, but…” Dorian allowed, though he grimaced as if he’d been forced to remember an atrocity.

Amjad smiled and cocked his head, looking at Dorian mischievously.

“Your eyeliner is crooked, beloved.”

“Scandalous lies!” Dorian said, his hand going to his breast as if a quarrel had struck true. He rolled his eyes back like he might faint from shock. “Such betrayal!”

“You ridiculous peacock,” Amjad said, though the affection in it turned the words into a spring breeze, redolent with newly opened blooms. “Here. Come here, and I’ll fix it for you.”

Dorian stood and walked over to Amjad, grumbling all the while. He sat down, primly flaring the back vent of his coat to keep his hems from getting dirty, as much as that was possible out here. Amjad reached into Dorian’s belt pouch, not bothering to hide the sauciness of such a move. He came up with a little mirror and an eyeliner pen of deepest kohl; Gabriel found himself fascinated, having never truly encountered such fashionable accoutrements before.

Amjad set the mirror to the side and uncapped the kohl, sharpening its edges by rubbing them against his finger. With his free hand he steadied Dorian’s head, grip soft and even sensual on Dorian’s chin and jaw. Apparently Dorian thought so, too, since his usually ebullient friend went still and quiet.

Gabriel watched them enraptured as they gazed at one another, so that even he as a bystander forgot to breathe. Dorian let his eyes fall closed and only then did Gabriel really comprehend what a vulnerable position it was. Amjad moved slowly, tenderly, those deft hands of his drawing a perfect line of unbroken black across Dorian’s lids, winging it out a little in service to current Quaranis fashion.

When he had finished, Amjad pressed a kiss to Dorian’s lips. Dorian opened his eyes, pleased as a cat fat from the hunt as he and Amjad sat back from one another. Gabriel only then realized his heart had started an impressive cacophony in his chest; he loved watching them be so sweet and devoted. Even if he himself yearned for Amjad in some way he could hardly imagine being jealous, no matter their bond.

Dorian made a show of studying himself in the mirror, though he gave up the pretense soon enough with one of the brightest grins Gabriel had ever seen his friend allow himself.

“We musn’t let Gabriel go without,” Dorian said, twirling the kohl pen in his deft fingers. “To show up at the family estate like a peasant? It just won’t do!”

“Well, come here then, my friend,” Amjad said, turning to smile at him. Gabriel couldn’t help but smile in return, and he happily got up and took a seat near his friends so they could line his eyes.

“I admit,” he said, trying not to move as Dorian wielded the kohl with a master’s touch, “I rather like the idea of showing up this way. Hells, my father might even appreciate it.”

“There,” Dorian said, sitting back and eyeing his handiwork. “A little less like a Fereldan sheep herder.”

“Oh, be quiet,” Amjad scolded without any real heat. Dorian flashed another grin, having been caught out as joking. It did Gabriel’s heart good to see such easy pleasure on his friend’s face.

When they broke camp, he barely noticed his first steps on the Pilgrim’s Path. His brothers might try to cow him, but he didn’t have to submit.

Let them. I’d like to see them try.


The sea breeze told Gabriel they were close, and while he still felt that deep-seated fear of what was to come he opened his lungs and filled them tightly packed with that beloved scent. Waves of nostalgia and longing washed over him, a thousand little emotions from his life learning at the water’s edge. He could see the heather-grey fog describing the borders of the shore, and for a moment he let himself get lost in the beauty of the natural world. The fields surrounding his family’s lands added a subtle sweetness to the ride, even though at the moment the majority of them were lying fallow.

Keeper Mairead, he thought, only then realizing the impact his actions over the next few days might have on the Dalish clan wintering on his family’s lands. He was the one who had pressed for that and with the bonds he was about to break, who knew whether his parents would retaliate by doing something to hurt the Shallan people?

Amjad’s hand on his arm startled him out of his daze. He didn’t even need to ask his friend what had come to mind; once he focused straight ahead he saw the manor house looming in the distanc. The sight wiped any thought of talking to Amjad about Keeper Mairead from his mind.

To the eye of a stranger, perhaps the sprawling mansion and it’s out buildings still retained some of its old glory. The place had a timeless style, neutral colored brick, gables and cornices jutting out like warriors to meet the ever-present rain head on with their shields at the ready.

But to Gabriel, it looked pathetic. He saw the way the cramped, gridded windows had fused to their casements, no longer able to be opened. A mansion like theirs should have had a panorama of bay windows to take in the beautiful -albeit stormy - grey-blue scenery. Instead, the main house stood with all its curtains drawn over the arch-glass. The brick stood weathered, and to the trained gaze it seemed obvious that it hadn’t been tended to in years. The grounds were manicured to some standard still, yes, but he could noted every weed and bramble.

“Remember,” Dorian murmured at his left, “ride up like a lord. You have the Inquisition at your back.”

Gabriel drew a steadying breath, firmed up his spine, and placed his hands just so on Star’s reins. He heard the myriad sounds of the caravan coming to a halt behind him; Dorian was right. He was a lord in his own right and he’d only come to ask for what belonged to him.

“Better,” Amjad said. “Shall we?”

He and his friends rode at a sedate pace up the path, Dorian and Amjad both astride as if they were divine kings who had deigned to walk amongst mortals for the day. Gabriel tried not to look at the bushes and flowers lining their approach, their brown spots, their withered leaves. He wondered if his friends had noticed, too.

When they made it to the main door, a single servant waited there. An Elvhen boy, not yet fifteen summers, clad in Marlowe blue and grey. His tousled red hair drew attention to his pale silver eyes, glowing softly. No vallaslin.

Not one of Mairead’s then.

“The House of Marlowe welcomes - “ Amjad stopped him short with naught but an upraised hand. Amjad had that kind of presence, that could stop grown men in their tracks, let alone children.

“And where are the lord and lady of the manor?” Amjad said, voice even. Gabriel knew him well enough to realize he was actually furious. Gabriel couldn’t yet feel rage; the shame and embarrassment were too great. To be so bold as to not greet him directly, and to send an Elvhen servant in their place? They knew his connections to the Shallans; the blade he  carried had been made under Keeper Mairead’s guidance.

“They beg your pardon, m’lord, and - “

“Oh no, that just won’t do,” Dorian added. Amjad nodded, his eyes narrowing the way a hunting hawk’s would when scanning the ground for prey.

“Unless they would like to make an enemy of the Inquisition, da’len, they will make an appearance and do so quickly.” Amjad said, in a tone that brooked no argument. The boy bowed and scurried away, disappearing into the manor. Amjad muttered under his breath; nothing flattering. It gave Gabriel some courage, that his friends wouldn’t let his family undermine him without a fight.

To Gabriel’s surprise, Lord and Lady Marlowe emerged from the dusk inside the house after a short wait. His father looked as ridiculous as ever, his black, loosely curled hair greased with a heavy hand; if Dorian’s personal grooming was reminiscent of a master’s painting, his father looked like a child’s drawing. He had that ridiculous robe on; could he truly not see how shoddily sewn it was?

“Ah, my son and heir!” Lord Marlowe all but bellowed. Amjad had that blank look that meant he was trying desperately not to roll his eyes, and Dorian had a fixed smile on his face that perhaps only the very observant would have noticed was uncomfortable.

Gabriel tried to keep from sighing in annoyance, if only because his mother had arrived like a storm cloud and she would have no issue reading even the slightest of his signals. A tall, raw-boned woman with a certain wounded dignity emanating from her at all times, Lady Marlowe looked more like her husband’s minder than his wife (if a rather rich minder). She wore a fog-grey silk dress in an off the shoulder style, revealing a landscape of skin in that Amaranthine white, the kind that came from living next to a tossing sea under perpetual gloom. Her layered black hair had been so expertly windblown it surely had taken the attention of servants to get such perfection. A silver streak near her eye lent her a calculated vulnerability, something he knew she would have thought of. She’d thought of everything, as always.

“Father,” Gabriel said, somewhat belatedly. “Mother. May I present to you the Inquisitor. savior of Thedas and leader of the free world.”

He felt a shot of poisonous pleasure as his parents turned their attention to Amjad. They couldn’t show him the disdain they surely felt, not and keep face. His mother curtseyed, though she didn’t spare a millimeter and her face stayed blank. His father said something in Tevene butchered so cruelly had it been an animal he would have promptly lost his position at the abattoir.

“And Dorian Pavus, altus of the Tevinter Imperium,” Gabriel continued, reminding himself to sit up straight in the saddle, He copied Amjad’s pose as best he could, wishing he could present himself so effortlessly. At least Spence and Landan hadn’t shown their faces yet. Perhaps they meant it as a slight —knowing them they definitely did — but it just brought him relief instead.

He found himself distracted from his father’s ridiculous gushing over Dorian, but it didn’t make him happy; he sensed something terrible was coming. A moment later his fears were confirmed as a brace of Elvhen servants appeared to take their mounts and get all the people making up the caravan sorted. Gabriel’s heart felt as if he’d caught an enemy mage’s lightning bolt to the chest, the beat turning into a stutter.

Another insult?

Certainly his parents had some awareness that it would annoy him (at best) to see such a thing happen, but the worse thought was that they hadn’t meant it as an insult at all: it was so normal to them to rely on servants that they hadn’t given it more than a passing consideration. Still, he handed over Star’s reins (and the blade she carried, strapped and padded under her saddle's cinch) when prompted; what else could he do?

“An awful production for a few books and scrolls,” his mother said as he, Amjad, and Dorian followed her into the mansion proper. “Don’t you think?” She added, with all the warmth of a spitting cobra. Gabriel wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Perhaps their ruse was enough to fool his doddering father, but his mother? Those cold falcon’s eyes missed nothing.

“Gabriel is an indispensable part of the Inquisition, Lady Marlowe,” Amjad interjected as smooth as fresh-churned farmhouse butter. Gabriel tried to feel at least a little sorry for his mother who now couldn’t directly disparage him in front of his companions lest she offend the Inquisitor himself, but her frustration made his lips twitch in a satisfied smirk instead.

“I’m sure he is,” she said, in a tone that suggested he was anything but. Gabriel could only shake his head; all of his visits were like this.

“You’ll join us for dinner, of course,” he heard his father say to Dorian, who was exercising enviable patience as Lord Marlowe talked his ears off, one after the other without a pause.

“I wouldn’t dream of missing it,” Dorian said, holding forth in a way designed to echo Lord Marlowe’s tendency to blare even the slightest of statements. They even looked like a coordinated set, Dorian prancing about in a fortune’s worth of green everknit wool, embroidered with flashing snakes in thread-of-gold.

They emerged into the mansion proper, the sitting room immaculate in design and decor. Yet, Gabriel zeroed in on all the little ways his mother had arranged things to hide age spots and watermarks, discolorations on that pale rose colored carpet, nicks and scratches on Orlesian vases, their designs long faded and their worth with them. He wasn’t sure whether to feel pity or disgust.

No sign of Spence or Landan. What in all the hells are those two planning?

His blood felt like black sludge in his veins at the thought. Amjad must have noticed, since he dropped back a pace. Amjad’s steadying hand on his arm gave him the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“Lord Marlowe,” Amjad said, and at the very least Dorian turning his attention to the summons made his father shut his mouth and pay attention, too. “We would be happy to join you this evening. However, my companions and I wouldn’t want to insult your generosity by appearing in your feast hall with traveling dust still on our coat hems — “

“Oh yes, how silly of me!” Gabriel winced as his father shouted. “Of course, I will ask a servant to see you to your rooms!”

Gabriel winced again, for a different reason this time. No doubt, that servant would be Elvhen too, like all the others.

His fears were confirmed when the boy from earlier met them and lead them away. Gabriel resolutely did not look at Amjad; he couldn’t stand the expression he was sure was on his friend’s face. Hundreds of protestations welled up in his chest (you know I don't agree with this, don't you, I promise I would never ever...), reaching towards his traitorous lips for their freedom. He kept them down, knowing that whatever he said would only make the situation worse.

He found himself alone in his childhood room, staring at the flames in the fireplace. That same half-worn dolphin design on the mantle’s molding, the threadbare rug where his favorite dog had enjoyed sleeping all the years of her long life. It all filled him with dread. What was it like for other people, when they went home to visit? He had always imagined warm scenes where people laughed and shared food, the kind of people one could confess things to and find gentle acceptance no matter the topic, presents at Wintersday that were just presents with no hidden meanings or strings attached.

When Amjad and Dorian walked in, he barely reacted. He felt leaden in his chair, as if he’d been cursed to sit there for an eternity while brambles grew over him.

“Oh, my friend,” Amjad said, coming over to take his hands. In an instant, the curse had been lifted and he found himself sobbing uncontrollably in Amjad’s embrace. He felt shame twist in his belly as if he had swallowed nails. Letting Amjad comfort him? But he didn’t have the heart to push Amjad away, to protest and to say that if anything their roles should be reversed.

Eventually, he ran out of tears. Or more accurately, he couldn’t spare the energy to make more. Amjad and Dorian got him out of his fancy coat and into bed, bundling him up there with such tenderness that he almost revised his opinion on whether he could manage another cry.

Dorian sat beside him, occasionally petting his hair; he’d known Dorian to be a tender soul, but to be the recipient of it was almost awe-inspiring.

A knock at the door made him tense up; could it be his brothers?

“Identify yourself,” Amjad called, walking over to put his hand on the knob. He waited for the answer before opening up:

“Bailey, my lord.” The servant boy again.

Bailey. A dog’s name.

Amjad stepped back and the child came in, his livery washing him out so that he looked like a wisp but for his bright red hair. He bowed low and Gabriel all but hid under his blankets.

“M’lord…” The boy said, a tight quality to his voice as if he were gathering his will. “Hahren,” he ammended.

“Do you have an Elvhen name?” Amjad asked in one of the kindest tones Gabriel had ever heard him use. He felt Dorian’s mood shift and realized both he and Dorian were all but holding their breath; they were mere bystanders at the moment and worse than tha, they were symbols of all that had been taken from the People.

“Dinlaselan,” the boy whispered, casting his furtive gaze into the shadowy corners of the room. Gabriel knew why, had heard Keeper Mairead say it: there are always shemlen watching, listening. Be cautious.

“One who refuses,” Amjad said. “Defiant. Who is your mother, to give you such a name?”

“They call her Sophie. She lives here as well, oversees all of the servants of House Marlowe.” He puffed up a little, still proud of his mother’s accomplishments even if they were in relation to serving shemlen, or so Gabriel thought from watching him. “Elgadira, m’lord.”

“It is Amjad. You will not bow before me as shemlen do. Come and sit.”

“I - I’m sorry, m’l—Amjad,” the boy stuttered as he took the chair before the fire. “I do not know my clan name. I am a flat ear, as far as anyone is concerned. My mother has tried to keep our ways, but —

“Peace, da’len,” Amjad said, raising his hand in a warding gesture. Gabriel watched, fascinated. He’d never quite heard that tone from his friend, one he surely reserved for the People. Especially, perhaps, one in such a precarious position as this poor child. “What you have is sacred. That you managed to keep anything is a miracle. I would have you bring your mother here, when we have finished speaking.”

Gabriel saw it in the boy’s shimmering blue eyes already: hero worship, plain and simple.

“I will!” Bailey said, eager to do anything he could for Amjad. “She’ll be so excited to meet you. A Dalish Inquisitor? Hahren, what it means to us…”

“I know,” Amjad said. He’d gone grave now, terribly serious. “I am doing my best for the People, I promise you. Go on and bring her, all right?”

Bailey nodded fit to send his head rolling and ran out of the room. Amjad looked over at them with haunted eyes, and Gabriel’s throat went dry; he felt such an odd, powerful combination of things that they defied being separated out and named.

“I suppose you’re wondering if I hold all of this against you,” Amjad said, with both he and Dorian afraid to so much as shiver under that gaze. “I don’t. But don’t forget this, Gabriel. Dorian. Mayhap you don’t see it, but I do. I see every ill-treated servant, every “knife-ear” errand boy. The Inquisition has servants, but all too often among shemlen servant is just a kind word for slave. Remember that there is no way to treat a slave well, but to free him.”

Bailey and Sophie returned then, saving Gabriel from having to come up with an answer to that.

“Elgadira,” Amjad said by way of greeting. He bowed for her, much deeper than anything the Lord and Lady of the manor had offered him on their arrival. A woman who looked like a faded, inverted color copy of his mother came in, her long red hair pinned up and braided. Her pale green eyes glimmered, milky jade kissed by sunlight.

“Has my boy been troubling you, hahren?”

“Hardly,” Amjad assured her. “I asked him to bring you, alhemah-un. Tell me, how did you come to be here at House Marlowe?”

“I don’t rightly know the whole story", Sophie said, wiping her hands nervously on the cloth stuck through the sash nipping her plain muslin dress in at the waist. “My mother’s clan was killed by templars, and those that were left starved. Except for my mother. She made it to a village somewhere in the Bannorn, and had me there. And my siblings, bless them, though none of them made it past five winters.”

“May Falon’Din see them to their rest, my lady,” Amjad said, and Gabriel fancied he could all but see as well as hear Amjad’s losses in those words, like intricate, dark threads in a tapestry.

“You honor me, hahren,” she said, wiping at her eyes with a shaking hand. “But I am no Dalish. I…”

“I care not for this flat ear nonsense,” Amjad told her, coming over to lead her over and offer her his chair. She reacted as if a king had deigned to offer her his very throne, which in a way Gabriel supposed Amjad had done just that. “You are of the People, to me.”

“I wish I could repay you.” she said, bitterness and all those long years of defeat easily heard. “All I could offer you are the two coppers in my pocket.”

Two coppers? Creators, aren't they at least paying these people?

Gabriel thought, the shock almost distracting him from the next part of the conversation.

“No, I think there is something else. Tell me, do Lord and Lady Marlowe call for you and your son to attend them often?”

“My boy, not as much yet seeing as he is still young and learning. But myself, yes. I help m’lady into her dresses every morning and keep her chamber in order.”

“I see. And if milady were to confide in you…?”

Sophie gaped at him, plainly taken aback. But then a pensive look stole over her vulpine features instead, her long ears perking up.

“For the good of the People?” She asked. Amjad smiled. He knew he already had her in that moment, though Gabriel could tell that Sophie had missed the nuance.

“Aye, always. I mean to see us restored to our rightful position, in all ways.”

“Then..for you, m’lord, of course. Did you know we stand on the same earth that birthed the Warden? An elf. Perhaos it is a sign, that so many Elvhen emerge from the fog to become hahren.”

“I believe you are correct,” Amjad told her, the fire at his back making him look like an avatar of Elgar’nan, ashine with celestial gold. “It is time we threw off our chains, as Shartan bid. If there is still breath in my body, I swear to you I will see it done.”

“Then may the gods forgive me my treachery,” Sophie said, gazing at him as if she’d just fallen in love. “For it is in service to the cause that matters most, to every Elvhen wandering a hostile world.”

Amjad touched her hair for a moment, a wise one blessing a clanmate.

“Go then and listen to her every word the way you would listen to the spirits,” he said, and she rose only to curtsey so low Gabriel almost worried she’d fall on her face. But no, she stood with all the dignity of a great lady. He wondered if that quality ever annoyed his mother, the reminder that she hadn’t managed to squeeze the elf out of her pretty little maid.

“Yes, m’lord,” she said, straightening to her full height. “It will be as you say.”

“Oh, and tell Lord and Lady Marlowe that we send our apologies, but Dorian has taken ill from traveling and we hope to join them for dinner tomorrow.”

Sophie nodded in acknowledgment and left the room, Bailey trailing after her like a goose with only one storm-tossed gosling. Amjad came back over to his bedside, crawled up, and all but collapsed beside him. He looked weary down to his bones, as well as he might after everything they’d been through.

“Why me?” Dorian wondered, taking a spot in the bed on his other side. Gabriel was hardly about to protest his strange bedfellows, grateful for the care and protection. How often had his brothers come into this very room under cover of night, to hit and kick him until he had no will left to struggle? The thought of what might happen to them if they tried that with Dorian and Amjad here did his heart good.

“Because Tacitus will be falling all over himself to cater to your every whim, so if it is you who is ill surely he will just assume you’ve overexerted your aristocratic system with such a lowly thing as road travel,” Amjad mumbled, already half asleep.

“You say that as if it is an untruth,” Dorian said, needling a little just for the fun of it. As if to say he was ignoring such attempts at humor Amjad said nothing, having dozed off in an instant.

“I believe you, Dorian,” Gabriel said, faux-consoling.

“Quiet, you. Go to sleep, for Maker’s sake.”

Gabriel laughed. So odd, to do something as light as laugh in his parents’ house. Yet he found himself doing as Dorian bid with an ease he hadn’t known since he was very little indeed.

Chapter Text

Cullen pinched his brow between weary fingers, rubbing at the pale line that signified his struggles. The map unfurled on his desk before him became unintelligible, a tension headache pounding behind his eyes. The map's lines and images balled up into meaningless black. For one insane moment, he felt sure it would resolve into Decadence’s face, and he pushed back from the desk so suddenly his chair toppled.

He whirled away, squeezing his eyes tight closed. He put his arm up on the bookcase and pressed his head to it as if the wool of his sleeve could absorb his emotions as readily as it absorbed his tears. Of course lyrium withdrawal would take this moment to make itself known, this time cursing him with deep muscle pain as if he’d tangled with a behemoth, barely surviving behind a cracked and battered shield as bone-shaking blows rained down on his head.

It was a measure of how badly his nerves were suffering that he didn’t notice his door opening at first. When he did he turned, balancing on the balls of his feet in case he had to make a quick move for his sword, resting on its rack.

Two steps to the right, pivot and take the blade --

“Cal?” he heard himself say. Even though Cal was a not uncommon visitor, it wasn’t what he’d imagined would happen next. He relaxed a little, his shoulders unknotting and his posture at rest instead of poised against attack. Of all the things he felt about Cal, fear and conflict were not among them.

Cal stood frozen in the doorway, his hand still on the latch. He looked like a young buck with fuzz still on his antlers, ready to bound away at the slightest provocation. Cullen wasn't the only one ready to act at the slightest sign of something being out of order.

“It’s all right,” Cullen said, as he forced his heart back into his chest, where it mewled and coughed in its bony cage. “You startled me, that’s all. Come in.”

He righted his chair and sat in it once more, pressing the palm of his hand to his left eye, the spot where a hot poker of pain had impaled him. He blinked as the low light in the room haloed out and then turned into a golden haze. His stomach flipped; it reminded him of the onset of a migraine.

Cal's hand on his shoulder made him look up.

"You're sick," Cal said, the soft, concerned tone of his voice enough to ground Cullen and keep him more or less together. He found himself gazing at Cal in return, struck dumb for a moment. Cal's features seemed even more lovely in the lantern's radiance.

"It's nothing." The lie came to his lips with an ease that made him feel a kind of cold resignation, dread a black shape wound around the roots of his soul like an accursed serpent. He shuddered, realizing dimly that he'd given the truth away with that single movement; Cal rarely missed anything.

Cal frowned. Cullen silently prayed that Cal would leave it be for now. He didn't think he even had the energy to form all the words he would need to tackle the subject. Cal shook his head and stepped away, making his way around the desk again. His fine blond hair shone in the crescent of illumination thrown by the lamp atop the bookcase, those green cut-gemstone eyes shining with a faint otherworldly light.

"What can I do for you, Cal?" Cullen asked, and only then did he realize that Cal had the bow and quiver Cullen had so recently gifted him, the leather strap tight against his chest, the tooled design prominent. For one crazy moment, Cullen was sure Cal had come to give it back, to reject the gesture wholeheartedly.

"You gave me such a lovely present," Cal started, rolling his shoulder a little to indicate the bow and quiver. "I thought you might like to come along on my first hunt, where I can put it through its paces."

Cullen's heart felt a pang like the alarm he'd experienced earlier when Cal had all but snuck up on him, but this...was for a different sort of reason.

"I...feel honored to be asked. Truly." For a moment he thought to protest, to say something about all the work he had left to do. It was certainly the truth, he thought as he glanced at the jumble of scrolls and missives on his long-suffering desk. But watching Cal outlined by the mellow fire from the grate made him quite readily forget his duties as commander. "When?" 

"Is now all right?" Cal asked. Cullen studied him, the way he stood straight and tall; he'd left cowering behind. Skyhold's kitchens, Cullen knew, had taken a special interest in Cal and Cullen could see the effect of all those rich and nourishing vittles. Cal looked less like a lonely shade and more like a vibrant young man full of boundless energy. The way it should be.

Cullen pursed his lips as he studied all the documents laid out before him. Rylen was still on orders to oversee Gryphon Wing keep. Riley had gone to the rotunda to copy down orders, the sort carried by Leiliana's ravens. He had troops on maneuvers in several places, most notably Emprise du Lion. He shivered as if he'd found himself transported there in an instant. He couldn't decide if his unease had to do with the punishing cold, or with red lyrium.

"I suppose I could," Cullen allowed. "The work is never over, but I do find myself in the position of having to wait for reports from my men. Do you have a place in mind?"

"Just out in the Frostbacks," Cal said, pacing in an unconscious imitation of the Lord Inquisitor that Cullen found rather endearing.

"In the snow?" Cullen asked. He couldn't imagine finding much game there. He stood to get his coat, grumbling as getting his arms into it caused a beastly spike of agony.

"I can do it," Cal said, that stubborn undertone in his voice that showed he wouldn't budge. "We will find something. I asked Sylaise to help us gather food for well...the clan. It's almost its own clan here, isn't it?"

Cullen thought of all of the Inquisitor's efforts to further the position of the Dalish people, his tendency to find lostlings and bring them under the massive wing that was the Inquisition. The way he would never let anyone, from commoner to noble, disparage the Elvhen.

"I dare say you may be right," Cullen said carefully, watching a smile transform Cal's already striking face into something wholly beautiful.  He covered his dumbfounded reaction by fiddling with the closures on his coat, then with fastening his sword belt. It wouldn't do to go unarmed, regardless of the sum of he and Cal's abilities.

Cal lead the way, all but banging the door open as if challenging the world to come and fight him. Cullen trailed in his wake, trying not to limp. His joints had started to swell last night, and the cold made everything so much worse. He paused to tell a runner the basic details of what he and Cal were going out to do; it wouldn't be proper for his men to find an empty office and no explanation as to his whereabouts.

"The men respect you," Cal said as they left Skyhold and started on the switchback path cut into the mountain. It wasn't a question, and Cullen felt a curious mix of emotion: thrilled that maybe the men did indeed respect his leadership, and shame...he hadn't always been the best version of himself, to say the least. He felt glad of those two years he'd spent in Kirkwall after the bad times, fixing streets, building homes, collecting trash and whatever else needed doing. It felt appropriate to pay those reparations, and he'd done them without a second thought.

"I do what I can," he said quietly, negotiating one of the half-buried bridges without stumbling too badly, thank the Maker.

"I know a good place," Cal said, and Cullen caught the layers in the word good, the way many Dalish said it: good for hunting, good for the soul, good for rest. He lead them up, though thankfully Cullen only had to contend with one ladder; even the one in his office had been giving him trouble lately. When he reached the top, Cal touched his hand and looked up at him, clearly concerned.

"Are you all right?"

"I am," Cullen said, managing to keep any gruffness from his tone. Cal accepted that, though Cullen knew he would have to explain it all at some point. It felt wrong to burden Cal, who had lost so much, with his story. In his estimation, it was only what he deserved.

Much to his surprise, he found that Cal had led them into a clearing atop a mountain peak. Evergreens stood clustered together like silent guardians. The snow was ubiquitous, but some of the rock beneath pushed through, leaving some sitting spots that were brushed clean easily enough. The mountain air smelt fragrant, a slight mineral tang clearing his airway. The pain eased, and he sighed in relief.

"You're right," Cullen said, folding himself stiffly into a sitting position. "This is a perfect place. Though I don't know if there will be much to hunt, in this weather?"

Ultimately he would hate it if Cal couldn't catch anything; it was easy to imagine how devastated he would likely be if that turned out to be the case, his first hunt as a free man leaving him empty handed.

"Oh, I will find something. Don't worry on that score." Cal said, straightening to his full height. Cullen saw another thing that heartened him: pride. Cal's masters had never truly broken him, Cullen understood then. "And I'm glad you like it," Cal said, and at once Cullen was aware of him in a way he'd never fully entertained before. Yet instead of anxiety or stress coming in the wake of that, he felt at ease in a way he usually didn't.

"What are you hoping to catch?" He asked Cal while gazing out over the misty bluff, wreathed in ice. Cal sat beside him, the faint clatter of arrows in their quiver accompanying the elf's movement. Cullen glanced over, fretting over the barely-there shoes Cal had on.

Cal caught him looking and smiled a cheeky smile.

"I'm Elvhen," Cal said, as if that explained everything. "I have to feel the earth. How else can you hunt? And I don't know. Andruil will provide, I hope. Maybe something for us to eat, at least."

"This was a good idea," Cullen said, watching Cal's face light up at the words. "I...have come to enjoy spending time with you."

"Well," Cal said, a slight tremor in his voice, "I thought you needed it. You do too much."

"I wish that were easy to change.. But every moment, Corypheus plots something that simply can't go unanswered." 

Cal frowned for the second time that day, upset, perhaps, at the mention of such an evil creature.

"Then it's all the more important to take these moments when we can," he concluded, shrugging. "I'll go and get us some snow hare to roast, all right?"

Cullen nodded, struck mute by the whole exchange. What was this sudden energy between them? It was as if a flame had kindled inside him in a moment's time, pushing back the winter cold all around him. He even fancied that his body was moving with an ease he hadn't enjoyed in months, joints as they had been before he'd thrown his lyrium philter across the room at a horrified Cassandra.

He watched Cal disappear into the trees, then stood up himself. He had the notion of foraging something to complement whatever Cal returned with. Some winterberries or some of the hardy mushrooms that cared little for freezing temperatures, maybe. He at least knew enough to tell the edible ones from the poisonous ones.

The landscape brought echoes of Emprise du Lion to his mind once more, a mind already stretched thin by his duties as well as the constant night fits that had plagued him as of late. But ultimately, the terrain showed its secrets, the things that made the land its own entity. Instead of diseased crystals erupting from the very earth to whisper unholy things in his ear, here ivy brushed with frost curled up out of the drifts of snow, and instead of the heavy tracks left by slave wagons, the paws of an arctic fox remained, stamped into the powder long after the creature had gone on its way. 

It took Cullen awhile to track down what he wanted. He'd found a fallen log, rotting into the wet. It wasn't the sort of rot that made his heart quail though, but rather the kind that would bring new life when the cold released its grip and those first few spring days glowed on the horizon. He found the mushrooms he wanted just under the thickest part of the bole, nigh-shimmering with their golden caps gathered together like a group of old Honnleath elders spinning yarns.

He gathered his prize into the pockets of his coat, and, when he straightened, he caught sight of something even better: a flower. He went over to where he'd seen the flash of color, with the half-formed thought of giving the bloom to Cal -- now where had that thought come from?  But it wasn't what he'd hoped for. Instead, the crimson that had grabbed the corner of his vision was a spattering of fresh blood.

Instantly, his body tensed and readied him to defend against an attack. He felt naked with only his sword, a sword he drew from its sheath as quietly as was possible. Certainly, the blood could have come from normal animal predation, but somehow he didn't think that was the case this time. The air...hummed, a sensation he associated with the way illicit magic seared itself into his senses, alighting his soul with veilfire.

He waited, hardly daring to move. He sensed the eyes on him before anything appeared to give his paranoia a shape, and he realized that whatever had decided to creep up on him had him surrounded. He could only offer a fervent prayer to the Maker that nothing had befallen Cal that Cal couldn't handle.

The appearance of a white wolf across the clearing should have filled him with relief; ah, just an animal. But no. It was far too big, over twice the size of a normal wolf. And the mere fact that a wolf would approach him instead of running away was odd. Its lips peeled back to reveal a mouthful of dripping fangs.

Demon ichor.

Its eyes confirmed it, blazing orbs of unholy spellcraft. He swallowed hard; could Decadence be behind this, too? The demons that had tormented him at Kinloch Hold had all been dispatched, but he couldn't help imagining them all with her face.

He shuddered, and as a consequence, he realized too late that the other wolves in the pack had crept out of the trees to surround him. Each of them looked twisted, unnatural in their size, a ravenous demeanor to them that had little to do with sustenance and everything to do with killing. The frigid breeze brought a whiff of decay and demon-stink.

His battle sense told him he could likely take out one or two of them, without a shield or armor. But as he glanced around, he saw a pack eight strong coming towards him from all fronts. When the wolves opened their mouths, their throats burned with fel power.

He lifted his sword, falling into the appropriate stance as the leader came towards him.

At least I'll be able to kill the leader. It might be enough to free the others.

An arrow whistled through the crisp air, neatly splitting the pack leader's skull. The arrowhead sparkled -- enchantments -- and he dimly felt relief that he'd thought to have Dagna enhance the properties of both bow and arrows. The beast barely managed a cry of pain before it fell over dead. As he had hoped, the bond with whatever had created this monsters snapped, and the remaining wolves ran as they whined and cried like pups.

Cal climbed down from the tree he'd used as a hunting stand, a big grin on his face. Cullen let his sword dangle from nerveless fingers; Maker, his arm shouldn't feel so taxed after something so basic and quick as what had just happened. Though he knew Cal capable, the idea that he was perhaps too impaired to offer Cal adequate protection out here with just the two of them rankled. 

"Well, that's a much better prize than rabbits," Cal said, though he carried a brace of freshly killed hares anyway, tied together by their feet and slung over his shoulder. He practically vibrated he was so excited about his kill. Cal knelt and drew his hunting knife, clearly intending to keep the pack leader's skin. The pure white fur glimmered, a cloak of stars, a frozen over waterfall.

"Do you want any help?" Cullen asked, sheathing his blade once more.

Cal shook his head. Some of his very fine hair had slipped out of its braid, softening the line of his jaw as he bent his head to his task. The knife blade ran along the wolf's hind legs, with the kind of precision Cullen expected from skilled healers but hadn't imagined Cal possessed. The hope nearly smothered him, so strong it was; Cal had been a slave, but he was still Dalish. He still had a chance to become what he always should have been, a Brangwen hunter. Cullen wanted that so badly for him that it stole his breath and made his heart pound.

"Here," he said when he could trust his voice again. "Give me the hares and I'll cook one or two for us."

Cal paused long enough to hand him the carcasses, and he went back out to the clearing, pausing here and there to pick up some fallen branches for kindling. He found some that would support the weight of the hares, and he went about creating a makeshift firepit. It was the kind of skill Templars were expected to have, yet Cullen rarely found himself in a situation where it was actually necessary. Now, he felt grateful for the lessons.

The scent of roasting meat brought Cal out of the trees. Cullen thought of a cat coming instantly to the sound of a food bag opening and stifled a chuckle. Cal had the wolf pelt in both hands, dragging it; Cal had filled out quickly once he'd started eating Skyhold's plentiful and varied foodstuffs, but the hide had such heft it still presented a challenge.

Cullen thought better of offering help again, realizing that this hunt all amounted to things Cal had to do for himself. He watched as Cal staked out the hide so it would cure. 

"I found honey," Cal said, pacing over like an inquisitive stag full of summer energy.

"Oh yes? May I use it? I know a way to cook these hares that will have your mouth watering," Cullen promised, already imagining the sweet honey, earthy mushrooms, and tender rabbit.

"Aye. Here you go," Cal said, fishing the jar out of his pack. A bundle of thyme and rosemary came next, and Cullen stood so he could baste the rabbits in honey and dot them with herbs, each leaf carefully plucked between thumb and forefinger.

By the time the hares came off the fire he and Cal were both all but salivating, the scent of seared meat filling the clearing with a most agreeable perfume.

"I hope you don't mind me asking, Cal," Cullen said between bites, "but does this mean you will be pledged to Andruil, when your vallaslin ceremony comes about?"

Cal fixed him with an intense stare, and for a moment Cullen felt sure he had offended somehow.

"I belong to Ghilan'nain," Cal said slowly, the words coming into being like steam rising from teacups; captivating, subtle, but full of complex herbs and flowers for those who knew to pay attention.

"Would you tell me her story?" Cullen asked, quietly marveling at how natural this all felt, at how trouble-free he was. Even knowing he would have to return to Skyhold couldn't dampen his good spirits, though it felt as though Skyhold had been closing in on him more and more as of late. Some days, he could barely breathe.

Cal gave him a sharp look, an involuntary response, perhaps, to a shem asking for an Elvhen story. Before Cullen could apologize, Cal said,

"Ghilan'nain didn't start out as a goddess," Cal mused, swigging the mountain stream water he'd collected in his waterskin on the way back to camp; Cullen could smell its ozone-like edge. "She caught Andruil's eye, and was raised up and granted the gift of godhood."

"Were they lovers?" Cullen wanted to know, poking at the kindling so the fire would consume every available surface.

"I think they were," Cal said, gazing at the dancing flames. "A hunter killed a hawk sacred to Andruil, so Ghila'nain cursed him to never kill another living thing. He got his revenge by blinding Her and leaving her to die. But She didn't die, even after everything she had to endure. That's why I belong to Her."

He paused and Cullen held still, not wanting to startle Cal out of storytelling mode.

"Andruil found Her and turned Her into a halla, uplifting Her to become a goddess Herself," He finished, his face contemplative and blurred beyond the plume of smoke, smoke redolent with cooking aromas that awakened true hunger in Cullen even after many weeks of barely managing oat porridge, and cordial to settle his belly.

"Perhaps I should learn to love Andruil," Cullen said, finding that his gaze locked onto Cal's as if they had always shared such intimacy. "She sounds like the sort that fills those who annoy Her with a liberal amount of arrows. I could get used to that strategy."

He hadn't really noticed Cal moving closer until Cal was practically at his elbow, though he found himself glad of the elf's near proximity.

"Cullen?" Cal said, leaning in to put a hand on his arm. "When you gave me this bow and the arrows, what...what were your intentions?"

"Cal," he started, flustered. Just the way he said the name told him the truth, though. Cal could hear it too evidently, because in the next instant Cal leaned in to kiss him. The hot, rendered fat from the rabbits still sat subtle on his lips, a deeper taste of honey as the kiss became something far from chaste.

When they parted Cullen had gathered Cal into his lap at some point, trying not to embrace him with too much fervor; Cal was still small and fragile, relatively speaking. He looked at Cal with a new lens, the permission to consider him in a romantic way going right to his head like the glasses of champagne he'd downed at the Winter Palace.

"Your braid is coming loose again," he teased, finally allowing himself to study Cal's features the way he wanted to, without having to hide his regard. He brushed his thumb over the line of Cal's jaw as he spoke, trembling a little already as he did so.

Cal had flushed pink at their close contact, and it took him a moment to reply.

"I can't get it to stay," he said, "and neither can Aislinn."

"Here," Cullen said, deftly taking the tie from Cal's hair, "let me."

He undid the rest of the plait with careful fingers, combing through the silky strands in a leisurely fashion. He had little desire to rush anything, especially when Cal kissed him again as he worked. Cullen could feel himself blush this time; it was probably very apparent to Cal how much he was enjoying himself. 

Somehow he managed the braid, though after he tied it off he all but fell on Cal as if he'd taken on the spirit of that magnificent white wolf, seeking out the pulse in Cal's throat with sharp teeth and a tender tongue. At that moment it didn't matter a whit that he had gone all but untouched for all his thirty years, save for a few encounters that never went further than caresses and kisses wholly inappropriate for a Templar recruit such as he had been. His need far outstripped his lack of experience just now though, thank the Maker for small favors.

He became aware, slowly, through the sound of his own heart racing, that Cal's fingers were crooked into the heavy wool of his coat, as if he desperately wanted to remove it but didn't quite dare. Heedless of the cold Cullen shrugged out of the garment, all too happy to leave it in the snow. Cal's hands slipped down his chest, resting, bold, on his thighs as Cal returned the favor and nipped at his neck.

He felt as if he could have devoured Cal right here and now, fumbling at it perhaps but sheer arousal outdid his embarrassment. Never had he felt anything like it, a kind of inexplicable force that drove away any attempt at coherent thought. He had a half-formed notion of losing yet more clothing between them, but the chill reminded him that they were on a frigid mountain peak surrounded by snow.

"Somewhere warmer?" He managed to say, though it took all of his willpower to call any kind of halt to what was happening between them. Cal made a little sound of frustration, but pulled away.

"You're right," he said, disappointed. Cullen raised his eyebrows and fixed Cal with a level look.

"As far as I am concerned you've had a standing invitation to my office since we met," Cullen pointed out. "Surely you have a standing invitation to my private quarters as well...if you would like to take advantage of it."

Cal smiled that wicked smile, and it was enough to keep Cullen warm all the way back to Skyhold.

Chapter Text

Aislinn stole out into the night like a thief. once more wearing her fur-lined cloak as if it would protect her as her ritualist’s magic-infused raiment would have. Though, the spider brooch Dorian had gifted her glittered over her breast,, a massive ruby cabochon grasped in its forelegs. It couldn't be called ensorcelled, per se, but the fact that her closest friend had given it to her gave it a different kind of power.

She left Solas behind, slumbering deeply, though she could not have articulated why she didn't trust him with what was on her mind. She couldn't shake that wretched dream, the agony of that wasp stinger in her arm. What message could be read there? At times when she lay awake past Solas slipping into slumber, she studied his face down to the most minute details. And yet all it left her with was a comforting feeling of banality. She was an accomplished enough mage to find such lulling emotions frightening. Something was trying to imprint itself on her mind, to beguile her into seeing only the mundane whilst taking it for the whole truth. 

The tenor of her thoughts made the familiar features of Skyhold proper into something eerie, as if glimpsed through the cloudy shards of a shattered eluvian. She felt a chill in the air as she went past the practice ring. Of course she often did, here in the Frostbacks, even now that spring was about to be more than an earnest wintertime wish. But this carried a smell and had a biting character that spoke of a deep, bitter cold, as if warmth would never come again. It matched the character of her heart, not least of which because of what she had set out to do.

She found Morrigan on the battlements this time. Morrigan had a gown on instead of her usual garb, an eye catching aquatic blue that had a subtle iridescent quality when the skirt moved like fat, leaping salmon in a silver river. It left her back bare in a V shape, plunging to a daring length just above her tailbone. She had crystals woven into her hair, and Aislinn could see the clasp of a heavy necklace at the nape of the witch's neck.

"You look quite lovely," she said as she walked up to take a spot beside Morrigan, folding her arms on the railing and leaning out to study the mountain peaks in the distance. Morrigan scoffed without looking at her. As if she were expected, as if her presence had been no surprise.

"Tis an unfortunate reality that some will not take a lady seriously unless she is arrayed and coiffed in the expected manner," Morrigan spat. She straightened, though there was a slight dip to her shoulders, and a painful, rigid quality to her spine. Aislinn caught Morrigan's gaze as the witch turned to look at her after all. "Though...I suppose if you find it compelling, it has not been a total waste."

Aislinn's heart fluttered, so unexpected she almost clapped her hand to her chest as if to contain a homing dove roused by the first promise of spring.

"I..." She started, clearing her throat in an effort to find herself again.

"What brings you here at this hour, Aislinn?" Morrigan asked, her voice soft though her eyes, so lambent she could be mistaken for an elf, narrowed.

"I find myself worrying over the problem of Decadence," she admitted.

And I could no longer bear to lie beside Solas .

She thought, though she did not dare speak it aloud.

Morrigan's mouth snarled into an expression of utter contempt and Aislinn thought how even the most careful tending hadn't taken the panther-hide quality from Morrigan's hair, skeins of it having come loose from the bun it had been so painstakingly fashioned into.

"Indeed. A worthy train of thought. And what has come to you as a result of your musings?"

"Most demons have a nest," Aislinn said, drumming her fingers on the railing as she spoke. "A place to re-energize, to feast on the emotions and lives they've stolen."

"Aye, in the Fade there are endless hiding places," Morrigan agreed. Though her posture had retained some of that formal poise she'd gained at the Winter Palace, Aislinn noted that the cant of her unblemished, white-eiderdown shoulders had started to lose some of their starched tension. "Tis a thought I have had myself. Finding it is another matter. I have rarely encountered a creature so powerful as Decadence is."

"Clever of Corypheus to set her on us," Aislinn admitted, hearing the grudging growl in her own voice. Corypheus, who could send such death and torment at them with the mere lift of a finger as he sat like a gluttonous spider, gorging himself on power he needn't even dirty his own hands to obtain.

"Indeed. One must respect his cunning, if nothing else."

"Amjad could do it," Aislinn blurted. "He's already torn one hole in the Fade."

"And your gods must bless you out of all keeping, for you to have returned intact." Morrigan pointed out, a strange type of offense playing around her tight eyes and in the way her hands curled into claws.

"Returning intact is not my priority," Aislinn whispered, having not known she would say the words until they were already out. Morrigan's hand was suddenly on her wrist, clenched so tight she whimpered at the ache.

"Do not be so quick to cast yourself into the pit," Morrigan hissed. At that moment Aislinn could feel all the beasts stalking beneath Morrigan's skin, the clever spider, the psychopomp raven, a coiled up cat with eyes that never closed.

She is right, you know that.

"Have things become so strained with Solas that you find it easier to venture into the raw Fade? Hmph."

"And just because you haven't known such pain?" Aislinn snapped, shame at her temper rising up which perversely only made her angrier. She glared at Morrigan as if to do so was to force the witch to see and validate her pain.

"Oh, do you find that to be the case? How perceptive of you," Morrigan said, with all her haughty rage on display. "Or do you think I had the ability to form Keiran from the ether itself?"

Aislinn bowed her head.

"I'm sorry," she felt herself say, and of a sudden she wobbled on her feet, the gorge she'd lived with for the past weeks rising. Morrigan caught her before she could fall, lowering her to the cold stones. She pressed her forehead to them, pitifully grateful for the bracing chill when only minutes before she had been cursing it. 

“Aislinn,” Morrigan said, kneeling to touch the back of her neck. Aislinn could feel the pulse of power, a midnight storm lowering against her shivering body.  “Do you know that you are with child?”


Aislinn blinked, trying to dispel the damnable bleariness from her vision. A shape resolved itself into Healer Regina’s concerned face, her sapphire eyes sparking bright. For a moment Aislinn thought of those old dreams, gemstones falling from her lips as she spoke. Except now she felt certain if she were to open her mouth, only venomous adders would issue forth. 

"The witch has the right of it," Regina said. Aislinn smelt crisp linen and the lanolin soap they tended to use in the healer's area, and it helped her dash away some of the cobwebs that had wrapped up her thoughts. "You're with child. Early days yet." 

Base terror pulsed acid into her belly and to her horror she burst into tears, wishing then for the confusion she'd been so eager to disperse only moments before. Creators, the dream was coming true! A hand was on hers but instead of gripping hard enough to bruise, this time Morrigan's touch felt different, their fingers interlaced like the finest weaving. She turned and tried to sit up, practically falling into Morrigan's arms instead. 

"There was a time," she said, while Morrigan rubbed her back in hesitant circles. "There was a time I would have killed to be with child." 

Creators, how many moments filled with utter misery, knowing that she could never be as other women, that she would be trapped in her man's shell forever, withering away for want of a child. A child she carried, not taken from some other so much more fortunate than her, from a real woman. The old agony speared into her heart and she blubbered like a fool, such that she barely heard Healer Regina's retreating feet. 

"Yet you weep as if you'd lost something dear, instead of gained it," Morrigan said. Aislinn looked up at her, feeling that damnable tight feeling in her face that happened whenever she cried. Oft times it warned of the migraine to come, and she could only pray she would be spared that much. Morrigan looked baffled, but beyond that there was recognition in her gaze. Surely Morrigan must have struggled with similar fears, alone, hiding, trying to keep her son safe.

"I don't know," Aislinn whispered. "I...it is foolish, but...I dreamt of a child. A child that had fallen ill, that no one would help me save. Except when I looked, it...it was..."

"You needn't say it," Morrigan told her. Only then did she realize that Morrigan hadn't moved to untangle herself from the desperate embrace they'd found themselves in, and all Aislinn could do was feel pitifully grateful as if she were a child herself. 

"It was a wasp," Aislinn said anyway.  "A huge wasp. It stung me." 

 


Aislinn slipped in and out of consciousness as she lay in the infirmary through the night hours. She couldn't have said for how long, but she knew that eventually, Solas would come. She had half-formed thoughts of hiding the pregnancy from him. Were she at her full strength she might have been able to do such a thing, to call a spirit or a demon who could misdirect his interest. But every time she started an invocation, she passed out before she could complete it. 

The sound of Solas' steps across the oft-scrubbed floor woke her from one such daze. She knew it to be him before she'd even glimpsed his face, a face so beloved and yet she now couldn't help but search for the wasp's eyes whenever she saw it. This time, blessedly, he looked like nothing more than her dearest love. 

He came through the curtain separating her bed from the others, a whimsical piece of printed fabric with cavorting cats on it. She stared at it, almost angry at such a simple, pleasant scene taking place over and over when she felt abandoned by feelings so lofty as joy. Solas sat beside her without speaking, the low candlelight shimmering behind him and picking out all the signs of concern and care in his expression. He smoothed her hair back from her forehead and she welled up with tears. 

"Solas," she whispered, hating how broken she sounded. "Solas..." A perverse part of her wanted to apologize, even though she had kept up with her potions faithfully and even though it took more than just one person to conceive a child. 

"Regina did not tell me what has befallen you," he said, but she thought he must know already and was just waiting for her verbal confirmation. She tried to fight her tears, but a couple escaped down her cheeks anyway. The infirmary slumbered around them; the nurses went out of their way to make the place comfortable. Yet she felt such turmoil that even the peace and quiet upset her instead of soothing her. 

"I am with child, Solas," she managed, and a rush of unexpected maternal instinct filled her such that she wrapped her arms around her middle as if to stop an arrow or a blade. She would have this child, no matter what anyone said. "I don't know how this happened. I have taken my potions. I..."

She realized Solas had gone ashen at the news. For once, he looked completely and utterly caught out, as if he'd thought a battle hard-won only to be faced with another brace of soldiers fresh and ready to fight on. It wasn't the response she wanted, to say the least. 

"No," he said, voice shaking. "No, of course not. I know you would not make such a decision without involving me."

He looked terrified, then, beyond what a new father surprised by the news would normally feel. She took his hand.

"It will be all right, ma vhenan. Maybe it is too early to expect it, but surely...surely you are pleased?" 

Solas flinched as if the words had been, at best, a surprise. But he smiled. Aislinn tried to ignore the little signs that it was forced. 

"Of course. Of course I am, emma lath."

It should have calmed her, or at the very least mollified her. Instead, she felt as she had when she'd first left their room, wandering in a cold landscape cruelly imitating the real world.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until Gabriel had stepped into his trousers and laced up his boots that he realized that he’d forgotten the holiday. The wreath over the hearth stared down at him accusingly; several of its flowers were dried and desiccated, and a little pile of fallen petals had clumped up beneath it. The shabby dolphins on the mantle stared, their empty, chipped eyes following him as he moved. He groaned, dread making him sweat like a speared whale about to be hauled out of the ocean and slaughtered. 

Dorian awoke first, curled around Amjad as if to protect him. Amjad looked almost child-like in sleep, albeit troubled. Gabriel’s heart twisted into a knot and he resisted the urge to vomit, his fingers falling away, nerveless, from his shirt buttons. It was one thing to walk into the scorpion’s nest himself. He was used to the unspoken hatred and barbed comments that always accompanied family gatherings. He could take it. But subjecting Amjad and Dorian to it made him feel like he’d been convicted of a crime and was awaiting imminent execution. 

“Don’t worry, ma falon,” Amjad told him once Amjad had risen to clothe himself. “I won’t have it, should they try to hurt you.”

Difficult to believe, even though he trusted Amajd implicitly. His logical mind realized he’d attributed too much power to his family, his brothers especially, but the frightened youth still living within him fueled all his worst nightmares. 

“What’s the holiday?” Dorian asked from where he sat on the bed, peering into his pocket mirror and smoothing his mustache. 

Gabriel heaved a resigned breath, shrugging into the finest coat he had with him. Thus arrayed in ocean-blue silks, he felt a little more sure of himself. Adding the Inquisition broaches to his lapels helped all the more, but they couldn’t do away with the squirming in his guts. It made him think of those old wood cuts in history books that detailed the most brutal of torture methods; he certainly felt as if a heat-crazed rat had chewed its way into his intensities. 

“It is to celebrate the coming spring,” Gabriel said. “Because Amaranthine is so cold, it’s hard to fish and make a living during the winter. We pray for abundant nets and that the sea will be kind blah blah the Maker etcetera etcetera.” Gabriel rubbed at the bridge of his nose, the skin around his eyes and mouth likewise tight with tension. “We sit around and eat cakes shaped like tulips and drink too much mulled wine. And then we fight and at least one person leaves in tears. Usually me.”

“This has been going on for awhile,” Amjad said, his voice soft and warm with concern. Amjad put a gentle hand on his arm. Gabriel wondered if Amjad could really grasp how poisonous things could be in shem families. For all that had happened between Amjad and the Clan, Gabriel doubted even Keeper Lenaya would have officially repudiated Amjad and Aislinn. He prayed otherwise, anyway. No one deserved such a thing. 

Except me. 

“My whole life, more or less. Family nonsense, and we happen to have a Dalish clan that winters on our lands. They are the ones who all but took me in, and taught me how to forge and wield my blade. In the spring, they leave, and I’m alone. I suppose it imparts more dread than usual to this celebration.” 

“Remember you do have the Inquisitor on your side this time,” Dorian pointed out. He’d chosen another spectacular outfit, a black velvety tunic and matching trousers, belted with a heavy gold belt and topped with a sheer, inky robe, the hems done in bright saffron scrollwork. He looked so magnificent that Gabriel’s mouth went dry with desire and admiration. 

“You’ll have to tell me more about this clan afterwards. For now we might as well get this over with,” Amjad said, now fully clad in his casual clothes. He looked as lovely as Dorian, in a knee length great coat in a cream-in-your-coffee color. An intricate carmine design decorated the top, fading into black on the skirt of the garment. Gabriel could well imagine the team of embroiderers needed to create all the detailed whorls and dagger-sharp edges. His trousers were black, of the finest leather, and a deep red tunic with a golden collar could be glimpsed here and there as he moved. He’d let his hair go longer than usual, and it framed his face in subtle waves. 

Amjad had a steely look under his easy demeanor, however, and fear sunk leaden into Gabriel’s belly. Amjad wouldn’t put up with a shem talking down to him or flinging insults and Creators knew his mother especially would try to get in as many jabs as she could. Not to mention that Spence and Landan would certainly make an appearance, a fact that weighed down Gabriel’s feet as he and his companions made their way down the drafty hallways towards the sitting room.


When they entered, his mother had already installed herself in one of the elegant wingback chairs that had sat before the hearth since Gabriel was a small child. She had a glass of wine in her hand, her thin, grasping fingers cradling the bowl such that her hematite rings flashed. She had a long silver dress on that did little to soften her rawboned appearance and a faint sour expression on her face as she often did, the face that said she was on the hunt for something to poke and pull at until the recipient of her attention broke down and started yelling or sobbing.

“Kind of you to join us,” she said. Gabriel winced. She had her fangs out already, as if he and his companions had wandered into a tiger’s territory. He felt Amjad tense almost imperceptibly, that tension that meant Amjad was already studying the situation and everyone in it for any weaknesses. With how this was going, perhaps they would need such information. 

“Of course my dear lady Hera,” Dorian said, as if he hadn’t noticed her caustic attitude. Gabriel knew that of course Dorian had noticed, but perhaps it was more amusing to Dorian to annoy her in such a fashion. “Surely the rest of the family will be joining us?”

As if on cue, Spence and Landan meandered in like they owned the place, despite him being the designated heir. Gabriel stopped himself from shaking his head in disgust; his brothers always took every opportunity to undermine him. This day would be no different. 

I almost envy Lily. She’s safely married off and away from all this. 

Spence drew Gabriel’s eye first, the way he always did. The tallest among them, Spence’s silky black hair and flinty eyes often got him a lot of attention, attention he relished. He’d chosen white today as well to underscore those qualities, tailored trousers and tunic hugging a body made toned and powerful by sword work. Landan by contrast looked bird-like in his aubergine librarian’s robes, his long dark hair partly hiding his sallow face and those amber eyes that never truly lost their cruel quality. 

“So,” Spence started in, “the favored son returns.” 

Gabriel felt every blow his brothers had ever rained down upon his head then, as if the words had been a spell forcing him to relive the abuse over and over. He couldn’t have said anything in that moment if he’d wanted to. 

Amjad, having taken a chair near the fire, fixed Spence and Landan with that look of utter contempt that nonetheless merely looked impassive to most that found themselves under such scrutiny, but Gabriel knew that it meant. It gave Gabriel a little boost of courage. He wasn’t alone this time, just as Dorian said. If nothing else, Amjad and Dorian believed him, about the abuse, about how his family really behaved under their polished facades. 

“Well,” he said, cocking an eyebrow, “I am the heir, Spence. If anyone should be welcome here, it is I.” 

The reminder that he had the inheritance that Spence felt should have belonged to him made both him and Landan scowl. Gabriel couldn’t help but look smug, turning to take a glass from the sideboard. When he came back he filled it from the cauldron of mulled wine on the hearth. Someone had put too much raw cinnamon in the brew; the scent that should have been comforting burned instead. As he turned back to the family gathering, he saw an empty wine bottle by his mother’s chair. 

Wonderful. She’s already drunk. 

Spence had that flat stare that told Gabriel he’d be getting a beating later, with Landan egging him on most likely. He quailed, though he did his best not to show it. 

I’m not a child anymore. I’m not a child. I am a noble in my own right, and a friend to the Inquisitor himself. 

Before anyone could speak further, Father swept into the room as though he had a whole entourage behind him. 

“How pleasant to see you all,” he bellowed, loud enough that Dorian winced and Amjad frowned. 

“Lord Tacitus,” Amjad said by way of greeting, staying seated. Amjad’s patience for shems didn’t often extend to expressions of relative powerlessness; he wouldn’t hop to like a servant. Father’s gaze skittered over Amjad as if Amjad were an insignificant annoyance and fixed on Dorian instead. A knot of rage and helplessness pulsed between Gabriel’s shoulders. He knew his family’s opinion of elves even if they never outright voiced it, and he knew that Amjad hadn’t missed the insult. 

Dorian rose to clasp Father’s forearm. 

“Lord Tacitus! So good to see you well,” Dorian said. He took his seat once more while Father beamed such that Gabriel wanted to sink through the floor to escape the sheer obsequious posturing. A servant -thankfully not Sophie - came with a tray of little cakes and a tea set complete with delicate sugar spoons, and everyone settled into their seats as if they weren’t a group of people that loathed one another. 

“I see my Gabriel has become close to you, Inquisitor. You do him a great favor,” Mother said. Gabriel gritted his teeth, covering his annoyance by taking a drink of that over-simmered wine. Her judgmental gaze locked onto him and Gabriel withdrew, pressing back into the chair. He remembered so many childhood incidents where that look had proceeded her berating him, sometimes verbally, sometimes beating him wildly with whatever she had to hand. The fact that he found it difficult to look directly at someone who was dressing him down only made things worse. 

Look at me, Gabriel. Don’t you dare avoid me. You deserve this. 

Amjad drew himself up, that imperious look that said he knew quite well that for all intents and purposes he’d been crowned king of one of the most powerful institutions in Thedas. 

“You are mistaken, m’lady,” Amjad said, with faux mildness that managed to awe Gabriel; he was telling Mother to go to hell, but in a way that it would make her enjoy the trip. “It is Gabriel that does myself and the Inquisition a favor. You must be very proud.”

Mother isn’t the only one with claws. 

“Oh yes,” Mother said, the sarcasm so strong Gabriel was amazed it didn’t curdle her drink. Suddenly he felt exhausted, resigned to whatever was coming next. What was the point in constantly pushing back against his family? They outnumbered him, and had much more practice at being cruel.

It’s not as if I asked to be born a mage, sired by another mage so desperate for acceptance he would even go so far as to choose against the codes of inheritance. 

“I’m glad to hear it,” Amjad said. They were like two cobras with their hoods flared and their mouths open in warning, weaving around each other, wondering who would strike first. The mutual loathing was so thick Gabriel could have cut it into slices and served it for dessert. Gabriel caught Dorian watching out of the corner of his eye even as he and Father debated the finer points of magical theory. Gabriel felt then that he sat amidst a sea of glyphs set by a particularly devious mage; too far to the left, one would burn to death. Too far to the right, and they’d be chipping your corpse out of a glacier thousands of years later. 

Mother looked down her nose at Amjad and blatantly so. She must have been desperate to denounce him but couldn’t find a straightforward, politically expedient way to do so. Surely that would only make her more sour and right then Gabriel felt piteously relieved that he hadn’t brought Shandi into this mess. He grabbed a cake just to have something to do with his hands, but it tasted of nothing when it hit his tongue. 

Someone has to take Gabriel in hand,” she continued. 

Creators spare me. 

He looked to the floorboards as if a rift would open up under him and swallow him, but no such relief existed. 

“Yes,” Landan said, his eyes narrowed with malice. “Considering he is the heir, after all.” 

“That’s right,” Gabriel snapped, surprised at his own venom. “I am. A fact you prefer to ignore, at best. This is my birth right. Not yours. I’ve only come to take what is mine.” 

The room went deathly silent. Amjad sat poised like a hunting panther and Dorian went still, the slight sheen of lyrium over his eyes making them all but glow; they were both ready to fight if needed. Mother’s face had transformed into a mask of cold fury. 

“Yes,” Father said, as if he hadn’t picked up on any of it. “My heir! My only mage son.”

Some of the tension drained out of the room, but the words didn’t make Gabriel feel any better. Father might have been glad of a mage child who could inherit, but that was as far as it ever went. Not for the first time he longed for the closeness he’d seen amongst the elves who had all but raised him, envious of their songs and stories and how much bound them one to the other. 

“You can’t just come in here and make demands,” Mother spat. “You may be the heir —against my express wishes — but you must prove your worthiness before we simply hand over our lands, our wealth.” 

“Madam,” Dorian said stiffly, “Gabriel appears in your home accompanied by the Inquisitor himself, yet you say he must still prove his worth to you?” 

Father, of course, said nothing. He never did, at moments like this where Gabriel could have used his help most. Gabriel felt bitterness scrape his soul, like dead tree branches against a windowpane. 

Fine to make me the heir, but Creators forbid he ever say anything in defense of me. 

To his horror, he heard Landan mutter the word rabbit under his breath. Gabriel rubbed at his face, groaning. What could he say? He thought of the bruises and broken bones and sat, silent, loathing himself for fearing his own brothers so. 

Amjad had heard it too, and he looked positively murderous. 

“A rabbit I may be,” Amjad said, controlled rage making his voice as hard and sharp as the edge of a newly tempered blade, “but I am still the Inquisitor, and the only one who can heal the sky, who can stitch up the rifts threatening all of Thedas. It would truly be a shame if I became too consumed with other tasks to care for Amaranthine. A real pity.” 

“Children,” Father finally said, irritated. “This is not how we should spend a holiday, and it is not how we should speak to the Inquisitor of all people. Stop embarrassing me, Landan.” 

A look that was an exact mirror of Mother’s came over Landan’s face, but he didn’t speak. Spence’s cheeks were likewise red with embarrassment, though he didn’t dare raise his voice either. Gabriel felt the most curious mix of anxiety and spite; surely his brothers would find a way to make him pay for this later, but right now he reveled in watching them squirm. 

“Now,” Father continued, still stern. “It’s time to cast our offerings into the sea. And I don’t want to hear a word from the three of you.” 

Gabriel ground his teeth. As if he’d caused the problem? 

The traipse out to the dock went off without incident, at least, though he could tell how Landan and Spence boiled with indignation at having a ‘rabbit’ accompany them, an elf who wouldn’t slink around them like a beaten dog. An elf who wasn’t a servant or a slave, whose holdings dwarfed theirs by several orders of magnitude. The Inquisition soldiers at their back surely hadn’t gone unnoticed, either; they wouldn’t allow the Inquisitor to move about unguarded.

The fact that the Hero of Ferelden was an elf -and a Dalish elf at that - must have added insult to injury; she still technically lorded over most of Amaranthine, though she’d since disappeared to only the Creators knew where. Gabriel had been ashamed of how shabby his family’s holdings were, how trapped in the past his family was, but it was truly how shoddily made their souls were that filled him with antipathy. 

When they had finally chawed their way through a joyless dinner, Gabriel, Amjad, and Dorian were free to return to their chambers. His mother wouldn’t let them leave without a final jab, however:

“We shall speak of this more later, Gabriel. No matter your delusions of grandeur, I won’t simply surrender your part of our holdings merely because you think now is the proper time. And that includes ‘your’ library.” 

She marched off with Spence and Landan behind her. At least they were leaving, Gabriel thought. 

“Son,” Father added, “your mother is right. I made you my heir for a reason, but it is unseemly to come and make demands. You haven’t done enough to prove yourself. Don’t get above your station.” 

Having made Gabriel feel just about as bad as it was possible to feel, Father swanned off down the hallway and turned the corner. 

He, Dorian, and Amjad ended up in his room again, and the moment the door closed behind them Gabriel felt suffocated by unshed tears. He used to pray to Andraste for just one tolerable interaction with his family, back before he’d discovered the Creators. She’d never granted him even a day’s respite. 

Amjad walked towards him and through the blur of emotion Gabriel though his friend might be coming over to comfort him. Instead Amjad’s finger thunked into his chest, and it startled him so much he forgot about crying. Amjad’s eyes were blazing like the cracked, sparking surface of the anchor embedded in his palm, hissing and spitting as it whirled in its prison. 

“Gabriel,” Amjad hissed. “What are you, a sniveling, whipped cur? A slave in your own home?” That incandescent gaze caught and held him through his utter shock; Gabriel couldn’t look away, as surely as if he’d been bespelled. Amjad practically had him pressed to the door, his palm digging into Gabriel’s sternum. If he wasn’t so shocked, he would have found it intensely erotic. “Afraid of those worms?”

Gabriel tried to reply, caught Dorian in the corner of his eye, though Dorian didn’t come forward to free him. His mouth worked, but no sound came out other than a barely intelligible stutter. 

“This is your home. You were born on this soil and the spirits here recognize you,” Amjad continued. Gabriel’s mind was still fighting to right its course, but it occurred to him that Amjad had to be truly furious if he was inciting an uprising against Mother. Who your father was mattered in the Brangwen clan, but everything from names to roles to magic came through your mother. “Act like it.” 

Amjad turned his back and walked away. 

In between two beats of his heart Gabriel’s world went grey, then white. One of the few people Gabriel trusted to never abandon him, leaving him…! But that rage from earlier erupted in him again, the courage that had allowed him to tell off his brothers for maybe the first time ever. More than that, he hadn’t defended Amjad when Amjad needed it. His learned helplessness and his complacency had let that slur hit its target without opposition. 

Before he knew what he was doing he turned and left, stalking through the halls with singular purpose. He knew his parents’ habits, and when he reached the smaller private dining room they often retired to he strong armed the door open with such force the knob punched a hole in the plaster. His parents looked up from their tea, his father shocked, his mother still roiling with anger. She half-rose from her seat as if to attack him, but before she could he closed the distance between them and knocked her teacup out of her hand hard enough that she sat back down with an audible thump as it shattered. 

“You will give me my holdings, and my library, and all the other things afforded me as the heir of this household, and you will sign it over to me now, with your seal. Am I clear?” 

He drank in the look on Mother’s face, the look that said she knew he couldn’t cow him the same as she could when he was still a child or a youth. The Inquisition seals on his lapels sat heavy like that treasure cache he and his friends had found in the Deep Roads, drawing his parent’s gaze. Good. Let them look, and remind themselves from wence he came. 

“The Inquisition was supposed to make you behave,” Mother groused. She had that detestable wet look on her face she often did when she’d been in her cups for hours; sometimes Gabriel thought she’d never die, considering how pickled her insides must be by now. “Supposed to bring you up to standard.” 

The words stung as if she’d struck him across the face, but this time he didn’t back down or cower. 

“I no longer care what you imagined for me, Mother,” he growled. The look on Father’s face made him feel a dagger point of guilt, but he pressed on anyway. “Why the farce?” he demanded, gesturing expansively as if to encompass everything he’d been made to endure in this wretched house. “Why behave as if I’m your heir one moment, then tear me to pieces the next?”

He was ravenous for some kind of explanation that, if he couldn’t forgive, could at least make him understand. Surely they owed him that much. 

“Do you have any idea what your father’s ridiculous obsession with mages and mage supremacy has done to this family?” Mother shouted. “The hiding, the pretending. Staying poor, putting our heads down because to be too exceptional would be to draw the attention of those who would destroy you?”

“Now, Hera — “ Father tried, only for her to tell him to be silent. 

“That is not my fault, Mother!” Gabriel said, finding that he too had started shouting. “Blaming a child for a birthright I never asked for? While your precious ‘normal’ sons wreck havoc, torment me, beat me, and Creators know what they did to Lily! I am not interested in your pathetic woes. Do you expect me to feel sorry for you because your bloody sitting room is a little drafty?”

“As if you could ever feel sorry for me, you ungrateful wretch.” Mother’s dress had an unyielding quality to it in this light, the color making her reminiscent of a marble sculpture. Yet she looked so apoplectic with rage it almost made her vulnerable, too. She had started to lean in as if she needed to exert herself to get her words to come out with all the force she felt they deserved. “You come to take a third of our holdings when already we have so little? When you’re that rabbit’s right hand? Don’t you have enough?”

Incredible. They live in a manor house with servants to attend to their every whim, and she thinks they’re poor. 

He didn’t bother pointing out that as they fought he stood on a floor of marble, whilst Lord and Lady Marlowe sipped their imported tea from porcelain cups. At least, until he’d interrupted. How much exotic wood had been carried from Creators knew where, on the backs of slaves, to panel this abhorrent place? 

Can they truly not see that? 

“Yes, why now Gabriel?” Father said, finally managing to get a word in edgewise. 

“I’ve found the woman I will marry,” he said immediately, wielding the words like a whip, in total leave of his senses. “And in the name of the Inquisition, you will not obstruct that. She will be a Marlowe and have her due as a noble lady.”

Nothing would bring him more pleasure than to use his wealth to keep Shandi in the manner to which she had never been accustomed, plying her with luxuries she had never dared imagine. 

“Who is she?” Mother said, with all the warmth of a moray eel. “Some Elvhen tart you found in a tavern somewhere?” 

“Now Gabriel, this isn’t how things are done!” Father protested, looking particularly pompous and puffed up installed as he was at the polished mahogany table where he and mother took their tea.. “You have to find a mage to be sure — “

Gabriel thought about how little magical talent Shandi had and laughed in his father’s face. 

“She’s a Qunari,” he said, taking in their shock and horror like a patch of wildflowers taking in a spring shower. “A Qunari mercenary, with all the magical awareness of my steed.” 

“A horn-head?” Mother shrieked, all but rising from her chair once more as if goaded by the sheer force of her incandescent upset. 

“I expect a signed and sealed document before the end of the day,” he said. He turned on his heel and marched out again. 

His victory turned out to be very short lived: Spence and Landan were waiting for him on the way back to his room. 

Spence leant against the wall in that ‘casual’ way of his, a pose he’d rehearsed so he’d look as striking as possible to anyone passing by. He’d affected a similar attitude as well, as if they’d all just happened to find one another here by chance. But Landan gave the purpose away, staring at him with those cold bilge rat eyes. 

As he tried to pass, Spence shoved him back. The heel of Spence’s hand jammed hard into his chest, driving the breath from his lungs, He stumbled, struggling to draw breath, and Landan all but tripped him; he only managed to avoid an undignified fall by inches. 

“Lording it over us, hm?” Spence asked, with that buttery smooth malice that came from his lips as readily as prayers came to the lips of a Chantry sister. Spence’s fist followed a second later, though Gabriel’s combat instincts had been well honed during his time at Skyhold; he managed to twist away so that the blow could only be called glancing, though it stung abominably. 

Earlier he’d wished for a rift to open up and swallow him, but now that the yawning endless abyss of helplessness was very much beneath his feet he felt only terror. He heard his own labored breath as he fought for air, fought to stay standing. If he let himself go down they’d be on him like a pack of starving desert dogs and this time they had such evil intent he might never get up again.  

Gabriel only partly recognized that Spence had raised his fist again, and though he’d done his best to fight it he felt that powerless malaise, the one that whispered how pointless it was to defy his brothers. He never even thought to use his magic, as if they’d sapped it out of him with their barbarism. 

Yet, the blow never landed. A scream of agony cut through his pain and fear, and it afforded him a moment to draw himself up and take a full breath. Energy and air surged back into him and he felt remarkably revitalized. 

Until he saw two of Spence’s fingers on the ground, coiled up like caterpillars. 

“Shut your mouth, shem,” Amjad snarled in Spence’s face. He’d come out of the shadows like a comet, and once Gabriel got over the urge to be sick he saw one of Amjad’s daggers through Spence’s palm, pinning his hand to the wall. The other hand had two fingers missing. “If you ever touch him again I’ll take off all your fingers one by one until you learn your lesson.” 

Spence managed to swallow a second scream. Maybe Amjad’s dagger  at his throat convinced him that he’d better fight to stay quiet unless he wanted to die here. 

As Gabriel stared, Landan came at him. Normally he would have cowered and just let whatever cruelty Landan had planned happen. But watching Amjad reduce Spence to such a lowly position changed him from one moment to the next, and instead of accepting the abuse he grabbed Landan and bodily shoved him back. 

“Back off, Landan, or I’ll see you meet the same fate as Spence.”

“You’ve crippled him,” Landan hissed, clutching his stomach as if trying to contain the urge to be sick. “He’s a sword master. That’s — “

Amjad pulled his dagger out of Spence’s hand. Spence slid to the floor, whimpering piteously. 

“Your father’s a mage, is he not?” Amjad said without a trace of sympathy. “Have him heal your precious brother, for all I care. Come, Gabriel. Let’s away.” 

Gabriel followed him back to the bedroom, his head swimming with adrenaline. Amjad cleaned both blades and sheathed them, hidden under his coat. 

“You followed me,” Gabriel said as they made their way back to the bedroom. “Hidden.”

“I did,” Amjad said testily, as though he were expecting an argument. 

“Why?” 

“Gabriel, I may have knocked some sense into you, but I will never abandon you, Certainly not to these ravening hyenas.” 

Gabriel’s heart felt so full then that he couldn’t get words out, but Amjad didn’t seem to require them.

When they reached their destination Dorian stood there already, plainly worried about what was taking him and Amjad so long. He had a wild look of concern on his face, and the wine glass in his hand trembled as he shook with anxiety. Gabriel got the impression they’d come upon him right when he was about to leave the room to look for them. 

“We need to leave,” Gabriel said in a rush. “We —“

A knock at the door cut him off and Amjad went to answer it, standing to the side in case an attack was forthcoming. Instead, Sophie walked in. She had a thick packet of vellum in her hands. Amjad closed the door behind her, locking it tight. 

“Lord Marlowe,” she said, curtseying. He shied away from such an act of submission from one of the Elvhen. 

Never again shall we submit. Ugh. 

“Soph — Elgadira, No need to submit yourself before me,” he said, only then realizing he’d still been thinking of her as Sophie, even after learning her Elvhen name. “What brings you to my chambers?” 

She handed him the papers. He turned it around, the new, crisp parchment sharp against his hands. It took him a moment to truly realize that the packet had a wax seal on it, the seal of House Marlowe. 

“Your birthright, my lord,” Elgadira said. She had her eyes downcast and Gabriel wondered if she were thinking about how once the land had belonged to her people, now to be traded from shem hand to shem hand as if it could be truly owned by anyone in the first place. 

“Thank you,” Gabriel said softly, coming over to take her hand and kiss it in gratitude. She snapped her head up, looking at him in shock. 

“Y-You do me a great kindness.” She stammered. 

“No, my lady. It is truly the opposite. Stay out of my parent’s way as much as you can for the next little while. They will surely be looking for easy targets for their pettiness.”

“Unless you wish to come to Skyhold.” Amjad said. “We are a haven for the People, and you and your son would be welcome.”

“Thank you, Lord Inquisitor. I am tempted, but I will be of more use to you as a spy here. Though if things become too inhospitable, I will surely take you up on your offer.”

“As you will it,” Amjad said, though the regret could be easily read in the hard angles of his expression. “The offer has no expiration date.” 

“That aside, the pages are gathering your books and scrolls as we speak, Gabriel,” Dorian interjected. “Let’s get our things and make a hasty escape.” 

They did just that, heading out onto the grounds to meet up with the entourage. 

“We need to stop on our way out,” Gabriel said as he hastily put Star’s tack on. “I must tell Keeper Mairead about this. It’s more than possible that my parents will vent their bitterness on the Dalish without me to bully.” 

“It will be done,” Amjad said as the entourage fell in behind them, a line of flashing gold and deep forest green. The sun, though weak, caught and sparked against sword hilts, glossy fletching, and rich livery, making them look like the finest wild hunt to ever march across the earth. With Amjad and Dorian at the head of the line on their magnificent steeds, truly they looked like emperors come to change the world. 

Gabriel turned Star to join them and she kicked up her hooves, ready to be out eating terrain with that graceful canter of hers. A rough edged kind of joy and validation filled him as he looked back at Marlowe manor. He had thought turning his back on his family would be agonizing, but as he did that very thing he finally felt free. 

Chapter Text

The moment the door to Cullen’s office closed behind them, he and Cal were on each other again. The walk home had been torturous waiting for this moment, and once they had sent the wolf pelt off to be further treated and were back in the warm embrace of the candlelit warmth it became all the easier to be in one another’s embrace as well. Cal was no less insatiable, with an energy that Cullen recognized as defiance; it burned in his veins also, as much as lyrium once had. 

“Upstairs?” Cal gasped in between kisses. It felt beastly difficult to part from Cal even for a moment, but Cullen made himself step back and nod. He waited for Cal to lead the way as he had the other night, though this time even the energy in the air felt considerably less chaste. He felt a kind of trepidation with each step on the ladder; how far was this going to go, exactly? 

Cal had stopped in the middle of the room, standing there with one shoulder slumped, rubbing his arm with a touch that stuttered and trembled: as if he couldn’t decide what to do next. Cullen came over and took Cal’s hands. For a moment he forgot to speak, looking down at Cal’s face that had become so dear to him so quickly. 

“We don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable,” he said softly, reclaiming one of his hands so he could smooth Cal’s hair. Cal drew a deep breath, his head down and angled away. “All right?”

“Cullen,” Cal said, clinging hard such that Cullen saw his own fingers go white,”were you ever raped?”

The question hit him like a spiked shield bashed into his chest, that awful feeling where he knew he had left himself open to attack; staggering under the blow, trying desperately to get his bearings before someone slid a blade in between his ribs. He drew Cal over to the bed, getting them both settled on the edge. 

“I was,” he said, grateful that the Maker had seen fit to spare him the anxiety the subject usually engendered within him. “In Kinloch Hold, when the blood mages took the templars captive. My fellows were tortured to death in front of me, and then the tormentors turned to me. They kept me alive for days, just to…play with me. They had summoned all manner of horrors; rape was part of that.” 

“Demons?” Cal asked, finally looking him full in the face.

“Demons —Desire, Sloth — blood mages, abominations…of course I went into lyrium withdrawal and they made me do unspeakable things to earn a few drops.” 

His eyes stung with unshed tears, but he didn’t look away. It felt insincere to do so, to both hide his pain and avoid seeing from Cal’s. 

“Regulus kept me on a leash and chain,” Cal mumbled, sagging against him as if exhausted and desperately praying that Cullen would help take care of him. He hugged Cal tightly, though not so much that it felt restrictive. “Naked, even in the cold. He took out his rage on me as much as his lust. Sometimes if an underling had pleased him, I was the reward.” 

Cal had filled out and healed quite a bit since being rescued, but just then he felt bird-thin and as nervous, pulse racing such that Cullen could feel it just from where their bodies were touching. Right then, he felt as fiercely protective as a mother bear. 

“Cal,” he said, and something in the tone made Cal look up again, those emerald eyes huge and shining with tears. He didn’t need Cole to tell him that Cal was praying to any god that would listen that he would turn out to be trustworthy. “I promise you, I will never hurt you. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” 

Cal took in the words and just when Cullen had convinced himself he’d made some fatal error, Cal leaned up and placed a tender, trembling kiss to his lips. 


Cal found himself trembling as the kiss ended, as terrified as a hare in a wire but also as needy as the protagonist in a bard’s starry overwrought tale. He had no idea what to do next to try to satisfy all that, but being in Cullen’s arms was the most natural thing he’d ever felt, as if the Creators had made him and Cullen for one another. 

“What would you normally do right now?” Cullen asked, those arresting amber eyes catching and holding his. It felt as pleasant as rolling around on one of Regulus’ embroidered rugs. 

“I’d have Regulus’s cock shoved down my throat, or in my ass. I’d sometimes have to pretend to like it —or he would force me to like it — and other times he wanted to know I was suffering. Mostly, I’d have to please a long line of underlings too. It’s how the Venatori treat their slaves.” 

He’d never had much chance to speak to other slaves, but he’d seen a few and they had been in even worse shape than he. Maybe because Regulus had also bled him for spells, he’d received slightly better treatment when sick or hurt. Somehow, the idea that Regulus had ever shown him any kindness felt worse than accepting all the abuse. 

Cal had never spoken so directly to anyone about what had happened. He didn’t think he could bear even the slightest sign of horror —he felt himself tensing up as if he were about to flee, if he did see it — but to Cullen’s credit Cullen didn’t even raise an eyebrow. 

“I understand,” Cullen said. Empathy had made his features as soft as the delectable flesh of a ripe peach. Unspeakable things for lyrium, Cullen had said…Cal could guess, though such atrocities felt far removed from this tower room they’d managed to make cozy despite the hole in the roof. For the moment, at least. “We’ll take it as slow as we like. I’ve never been with anyone I wanted to be with so…I am sure I’ll make a fool of myself at some point.” 

“I haven’t either,” Cal said, shrugging. “Can I get in your bed?” 

“You have a standing invitation to get into my bed,” Cullen said, smiling that little smile that Cal had noticed would come to his face when he felt delighted with something. Cal kicked off his boots and shucked his coat. He hesitated to strip out of anything else, but he wasn’t about to get into Cullen’s bed with his trouser hems still wet from the snow. 

“Do you want something else to wear?” Cullen asked. He’d also taken off his coat and without it, he looked downright inviting. Not that he didn’t in full armor with his ruff on, but this gave him such a vulnerable, human quality that Cal froze. 

Am I really staring like a virgin hoping for a green dress? 

“No,” he managed to whisper. Cullen leant in a little in acknowledgment, and slowly took off his own clothing, unceremoniously tossing each piece to the floor or over the back of the one nearby chair. Cal didn’t think it was an effort to be seductive so much as Cullen was stripping down for his benefit, trying to show that it was okay to be that exposed. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Cullen, his trim, muscular chest and broad shoulders, pale skin marred by scars; he could pick out the ones from spells, a spray of acid marks, a burn mark here and there, a spot where some maleficar had commanded his flesh to split open. 

He felt dry mouthed with lust in a way no ritual or command had ever been able to draw out of him, and yet…he looked up, met Cullen's eyes again. The realization that he just might be in love washed over him, as warm as freshly drawn halla milk. 

“Can I help you with your clothes?” Cullen asked, and Cal let himself be drawn into that addictive embrace again. Between him and Cullen’s efforts, he got out of his belt and tunic in no time. He felt the smallest spike of worry about whether a big shem like Cullen would find him attractive once the clothes came off, but the way Cullen touched him dashed that fear before it could grow feathers. He wished he had his vallaslin, could show that he was a man and not a child, but he contented himself with the knowledge that Cullen had already seen him hunt. 

“Are you all right?” Cullen whispered, in the tiny space between kisses. Cullen’s hands dropped to his hips and only then did Cal realize he was straddling Cullen’s lap, his arms wound around Cullen’s neck; a position of power. Regulus never would have held him like this. His instinct was still to slide to the floor and suck Cullen’s dick as Regulus would have commanded him to do, but he sensed that Cullen wouldn’t want that from him. Not like that. 

“I know we aren’t going to fuck right now,” he said, trying to gather his thoughts and answer the question. “But…can I see the rest of you?” 

Creators it was hard to say, as if he’d never been made to repeat the worst filth Regulus could come up with regularly. This had emotions in it, and that had transformed the entire experience into something he barely recognized. Suddenly he found himself tripping over the most basic words, as bumbling and confused as a child drawing their first bowstring. 

“You could ask me for much more than that and I would surely give you whatever you desired,” Cullen said. The emotion gathered up in Cal’s throat kept him from speaking. It was nothing like Regulus, or any of his flunkies for that matter. “Go on and get under the covers and I’ll take the rest of this off.”

Cal moved over and wriggled out of his trousers, then slipped under Cullen’s decadent down comforter. The way it whispered over his skin made him groan in pleasure; he could hardly wrap his head around finding himself in one of those fancy shem beds. Cullen toed off his boots, then stood to take off everything else. 

“Well?” Cullen said, his hands on his hips, arms cocked. By the gleam in his eye, he meant it as a self-aware tease. Cal sat up, letting himself admit how much he wanted to take in the sight of Cullen like this. A little trail of hair lead down from Cullen’s navel to his half-hard cock, and looking at a dick like that made Cal reconsider whether he wanted to fuck; he had never expected to feel such intense desire, to want someone to treat him that way after Regulus had perverted it. 

“Nice,” he mumbled, so embarrassed that he could feel even the tips of his ears flush. Cullen laughed, though by its tone Cullen felt pleased by the answer instead of insulted. He came over and Cal moved away out of instinct, an instinct he’d never fully lost no matter how many times he’d been punished for it. Cullen stopped at the edge of the bed.

“Do you mind if I join you?” 

That was new. Instead of doing whatever he wanted, Cullen had actually stopped as soon as he’d seen hesitance. Cal stopped too, in the middle of the bed, hugging his knees to his chest. He felt the need for closeness warring with the terrible fear scraping at his insides and stinging the place where his head met his neck. 

“You can,” he whispered. Cullen got into bed and stretched out, but didn’t immediately get into his space. He realized he couldn’t sit there forever and stretched out too, trembling again he felt so beset by nerves. He was still expecting to be raped, even though his logical side kept trying to convince him otherwise to the point where he felt frustrated at his own trauma. 

“Nothing we don’t want,” Cullen said, reaching for his hand. That, he could do; he willingly laced his fingers with Cullen’s. “All right? I promise you.” Even though Cullen outweighed him, had more power than him, mistrusting Cullen in that moment felt impossible. Everything about him showed sincerity, so that it either reflected his true emotions or Cullen was an evil soul even above Regulus if he could pretend otherwise so flawlessly. 

Cal let himself go into Cullen’s arms. He felt as desperate for a haven as a half-frozen bird blown far off course and alone, ending up in a country entirely unfamiliar. All he could do was silently plead that Cullen would be the person who could be that for him. 

“There,” Cullen said in a low voice that revealed both arousal and affection. Cullen tangled his fingers gently in his hair, and though he hadn’t fully relaxed yet Cal found himself drinking in all the warmth between him and this shem he’d been terrified of so many moons ago. Silly to think that, now. “Not so bad, is it?” 

“No,” he mumbled, tucking his head under Cullen’s chin and curling up tight against Cullen’s side. “I like it.”

“So do I,” Cullen said, and that was sweeter even than the kisses they’d shared before. “Just stay and sleep here with me. That will be more than enough.” For once, sleep stole upon him like a hunter on noiseless feet and before he knew it he’d fallen prey to deep, dreamless nothingness. 


Cullen fumbled through the pitch black, half awake and goaded by the faint sense of surreality dogging his steps. He couldn’t puzzle out whether he had awoken, or if he still dreamed. He had the vague notion that he had to get to his chest of belongings and the potions inside to calm him and to help the world reassert itself, but it felt as though the distance between him and it were endless. 

He could feel the way the floor bit into his knees as he crawled, though his mind —and his eyes, for that matter —remained shrouded. Maker, what was happening to him? He could smell Kinloch Hold, effluvium, piss, ozone and charred wood. The awful, intoxicating musk that proceeded Desire whenever she had appeared before him. 

He did have the faint knowledge that he was still in his room in Skyhold, but the raging ghosts of the past pressed close against his bare back. He found the chest and nearly sobbed in relief, fumbling with the catches until finally banging open the lid. The potions within rattled as his grasp skittered and clutched across their surfaces. 

The one he wanted almost jumped into his hold once he touched the glass, the way the liquid within sloshed familiar enough that he knew it without having to look. Regardless he sat back and held the vial up to try and confirm the contents. Visual details came to him slowly; the potion itself looked dark, too dark, and alarm lanced his heart. 

But that was ridiculous. Of course it was dark; everything in here was. He’d had the misfortune of waking during the small hours, that was all. 

He pulled the cork with his teeth and gulped down the medicine that would ease his lyrium withdrawal symptoms and calm his anxiety. As soon as it hit his tongue, he forgot about whatever terrible nightmare had drawn him from his bed. Kinloch Hold faded, then came apart like a summer cloud. By the time he returned to his bed, he had no memory of his frantic journey, dragging himself across the room by his fingertips. 

Chapter Text

Gabriel and Star cantered down the shoreline, ocean air whipping at his face and tangling his hair.  The crying of gulls wheeling in the grey sky plucked at his nerves, and Star’s labored breaths made his own all the more obvious. He knew his parents couldn’t have done anything ruinous to the clan yet, but he still feared that somehow they’d bent space and time to make it possible. 

The Shallan camp came into view, the diaphanous carmine fins of the aravels arcing towards the lowering storm clouds. Gabriel guided Star with just the pressure of his legs, having become a skilled enough rider over the many months adventuring with Amjad that he had no need to tug on her head or touch her with his heels. They turned as one and her delicate, clever hooves found the path down into the cove. 

Amjad and Dorian came behind him, their mounts equally capable, even Dorian’s spoiled fancy mare in her decorative barding. As the ground turned to packed sand, a phalanx of hunters appeared from various hiding places, a bristling forest of arrowheads all but jammed into Gabriel’s chest as he came up hard. 

“Peace, hunters.” He said, holding as still as he could manage. “Andaran atish’an.”

“That’s Gabriel Marlowe,” one of them called from high up on one of the cove’s rock walls. “He belongs here by decree of the Keeper.” 

The hunters stood down, and Gabriel let out a relieved breath. He still felt rattled by having to defend himself from friends; though he recognized several faces, he realized he’d never ridden in on the best mare human breeders could create, dripping in priceless fabrics and decorated in a king’s ransom. He supposed had the roles been reversed, he wouldn’t have recognized himself either. 

“Follower of the Vir’Tandahl,” Amjad called, with the kind of imperious tone that made him sound like a Keeper unto himself. “What plagues you so, that you are guarding your camp so closely?” 

Amjad was right, Gabriel realized as he glanced about. It was a lot of guards, even for a Dalish camp, and the faces of the hunters were carved deep by tension and worry. The question hung in the air for a moment, until the hunters before him parted and out walked Keeper Mairead.

“I daresay it is because of me, Inquisitor.” She said. Gabriel’s delight at seeing her - that veil of hair the color of sea foam, her burnished golden eyes, Sylaise’s vallaslin underscoring the sweet plains and valleys of her features —that he missed for a moment that she was heavily pregnant. 

“Oh Raedy,” he breathed, as Amjad’s face went from shocked to horrified to paranoid, looking around again and again for anything that might try to hurt her, this treasure of the Dalish people. Before Gabriel could say anything else Amjad dismounted and came over to her, reaching for her hands which she gladly let him take. 

“My lady Keeper,” he said, in the most subservient tone Gabriel had ever heard him use. No matter the conflict with his own Clan, he was still Dalish through and through. “Are you well?”

“Ah, da’len,” she said, and Amjad drew a sharp breath. Gabriel knew him well enough that he thought Amjad might be fighting tears. “Chosen of Mythal,” she added, studying his vallaslin, “I am well, though the child has told me it will come soon.” 

She looked from Amjad to Dorian, to himself once more. 

“Though, if a group such as yours has come to my camp at speed, I gather we are no longer safe here.” 

“Is it Vanrahel’s, Raedy?” Gabriel asked. Her expression shuttered over like castle windows standing against a bitter winter. She bowed her head, that mane of hers falling to obscure her face. In that moment, the nearby sea seemed an ominous thing, as if the waves were greedy hands reaching to pull them all under. 

“It is. I…the sea took him, da’len. I didn’t know how to write you and tell you. It didn’t seem right.” 

Before he knew it, he had crossed the space between them and enveloped his old friend and mentor in a tight hug. How heavily pregnant she was truly hit him then, as they pressed their bodies together. Not only a pregnant Keeper and therefore priceless, but someone who had sheltered him, taught him, gifted him so much. Right then, he would have gladly died to protect her. 

“Keeper,” Amjad said gently, while Dorian looked on still astride his mare. “I would offer you and your clan the sanctuary of Skyhold. But we must away quickly.”

Mairead stepped back to regard Amjad once more.

“You’ve done something to upset the Lord and Lady, I take it?”

“I took my birthright, Raedy,” Gabriel told her. “Took everything that belongs to me. You can imagine what happened for that to be possible.” 

She didn’t quite smile. The expression was too wry and rueful for that. But she put her delicate hand on his face and spoke to him with a level of warmth that left him trembling: “da’len, I am so proud of you. I have prayed to the Creators for this day.” 

He covered her hand with his own, and for a moment all the old feelings and lessons and desire came back to him in a rush. 

“Without you, I never would have done this,” Gabriel whispered, utterly enchanted by her swan-white skin and that vallaslin that marked her Sylaise’s chosen.

“Quickly,” Amjad spoke to the hunters, and they broke off to pack up the camp. Amjad fell to as well, breaking down tents, clearing the halla pen, and loading the aravels without complaint and without faltering. Dorian hung back, but not out of laziness; by the look on his face, he knew he and his help would likely not be welcomed. 

Gabriel followed Mairead back to her tent, a cozy place with silvery wolf furs on the floor, a bed of fresh, fragrant straw, and a small cooking pot in the middle with a strong tea brewing. By the smell, he knew it to be a remedy for the ailments that came with pregnancy. 

Vanrahel. 

The knowledge that Vanrahel would never see his own child grow up made Gabriel swipe tears from his eyes and insist on getting Mairead settled in the biggest aravel waiting outside, and he personally bundled up all of her belongings himself and put them in with her. The hunters hitched the halla, and the others —crafts people, hearth tenders, and more — fell in line to protect their Keeper. 

“Ride with me, Gabriel,” Mairead said, reaching for him. He looked back at Dorian, who got the point and tied Star on a lead to his saddle so that the two mares would walk in tandem together. Amjad mounted his halla again, and naturally fell into the lead spot as they and the Shallan clan followed him out of the cove and away from Marlowe Manor for good.


“You’re Calledan, aren’t you?”

Cal had spent much of the morning perched on the practice ring railing, watching those who chose to spend their free hours doing drills. Granted, he hadn’t been paying much attention. Never had he daydreamed so much or so often, and he scolded himself not for the first time at letting his attention wander. Specifically, wandering to Cullen’s tower room, and…

Stop it. A whole Venatori patrol could be at your back and you wouldn’t even know it. 

He whipped his head around, searching for the voice that had startled him so.

Shandi stood leaning against the railing post, her arms folded in front of her. She had a big, easy smile on her girlish face, and her auburn hair, pinned to her head in a messy bun, had a crown-like quality in the clear morning light. When she turned her head in a curious gesture, her horns gleamed, just like her fancy dragon bracelet did when she moved her hand. 

“Yeah,” Cal muttered. “I mean, I’m sorry. Yes, I’m Calledan, You can call me Cal.”

“I’m Shandi,” she said, straightening up and walking over to offer her hand for a shake. He hopped down from his seat and took it, though he just about felt he had to stretch to do so and he definitely had a crick in his neck from trying to meet her eyes. She didn’t have much on, either -just a greige silk dress that clung to her in a way that was almost pornographic and a pair of gold gladiator sandals that held for dear life to her long and shapely legs -and his eyes widened at the sight of her. “Or Goldie, if you’re Varric.” 

“Uh,” Cal said, stalling; he couldn’t remember exactly what you were supposed to say when you met a new person. He settled on:  “Er. It’s nice to meet you.” And hoped for the best. 

“Thanks,” she said. grinning. “I’ve seen you at the archery range. You’re good.” 

“Thanks to you too then,” he said.  “You’re that mage’s woman, right?”

He felt a jolt of suspicion, but as quickly it died. He could hardly imagine sweet, submissive Gabriel acting like a maleficar. Shandi’s lips quirked; an amused expression, half suppressed. 

“Hells, if anything, he’s my man,” she snorted, laughing. A great sound, he decided, and he re-evaluated: her man might be a mage, but she wasn’t, plus she was huge and could probably keep them all safe against plenty. He thought about her words again and picturing Gabriel’s hang dog expression, he couldn’t keep the giggles back. Soon, they were howling with laughter together, and he felt like he’d known her since birth. 

“Come on, Cal,” she said, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. “You want to go play cards or something? I bet Varric’s around, and he always wants to gamble.”

“I don’t have anything to bet,” he said, shrugging. Unless they wanted the clothes off his back, he didn’t really own much. 

“Pfft. You can use shiny rocks if you want. What it is isn’t the point.” She came over and clapped him on the back, such that he staggered a couple of steps. “It’ll be fun!”

“Okay okay,” he said, following her towards the Great Hall. 

What life is this that has love and friends and laughter in it?


“And then the Viscount says, sir you’re making a scene,” Varric said, flipping a gold sovereign onto the table, “so Hawke says, oh I’m sorry, I’ve been terribly rude. Is it whomvs’t? Whomvs’t the fuck do you think you are?”

Cassandra had joined them in the Great Hall, and she’d had enough to drink that she laughed outright along with them. She looked a lot younger in her cups, Cal decided, with her rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes. Shandi dug a couple of lint balls, a capped sewing needle, and a bit of leather lacing out of her jacket pocket and set them on the table as her bet, with absolutely no shame about putting it all against more money than Cal had ever seen in his life. 

“Damn Goldie, a little rich for my blood,” Varric teased, though as Cal studied him he could see a pinched look to the bridge of the dwarf’s nose. A little thrill of alarm made his ears twitch, but when he thought on it he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. It was as if the tavern bard had struck a sour note, and the barest ghost of it had shivered through the air to his hearing.

“Well you know, I play to win,” Shandi said, grinning fit to show her sharp canines. No wonder she and Varric had become fast friends; they had the same cheeky smile. 

Another sound came to Cal then, but this one started in the earth, the soles of his feet, the caw of the ravens and gulls overhead. Before he realized what was happening he’d risen from the table. Could it be…? 

He rushed out to the courtyard, Shandi, Varric, and Cassandra close behind. Cal’s heart beat wildly in his chest, and he thought he might actually take to the air like a hunting falcon. 

“Don’t you hear it?” He shouted, sure he sounded quite mad to his newfound friends. “A clan! A Dalish clan!” 

Before he could make it to the gates they burst open, and in poured a wild hunt processional with Amjad, Gabriel, and Dorian at the head. Never had he heard such a joyous song in all his years, the full throated paean to a healthy clan. The hunters rattled their short spears and arrows, the gatherers beat their hide drums, the halla stamped their feet. Above it he heard one voice lifted in song, as pure as a hawk’s cry: the voice of a Keeper. 

He parsed the Elvish as he stood there in awe: The Shallan Clan has come to Skyhold, the Shallan Clan comes to join the Inquisition, Sylaise comes to rest within these walls. Let the spirits hear and remember. 

Amjad’s gaze swept over the courtyard and finally rested on him, and Cal’s heart stuttered to a stop: Amjad was beaming, in a way he’d never seen since they’d been reunited. He couldn’t help but smile back, and when he saw Cullen descend from his tower to see what all the commotion was about, he went over to his love on feet that barely touched the ground.


 

Gabriel practically leapt from Star’s back and into Shandi’s arms, the two of them laughing and kissing and twirling each other around the courtyard like idiots. He saw she had chosen a dress the color she often wore in his dreams, and for the first time in a long time everything felt completely right, as if ordered by some benevolent divine force. 

“You did it, mon sucre?” Shandi asked him, and he felt so enamored of her beloved face that he almost didn’t answer. 

“Yes,” he told her, leaning up to kiss her. “Yes, I’m truly Lord Marlowe now, m’lady.” If it hadn’t been tucked safely in his saddlebag, he would have waved the sheaf of papers proving it like a war flag. Shandi cupped his face in her hands and all but covered him in kisses. 

“I knew you could,” she said, and he thought his heart might burst spontaneously free of his chest, so full with brightness was it. “Come on, let’s go celebrate,”

An idea clicked into place in his mind and he said, “go to the Rest and I’ll meet you there once I’m done tending to Star.”

“Aye m’lord. See you there!”

She glided towards the tavern and Gabriel couldn’t help but watch for a long moment before pushing his way through the crowd to Amjad. He needed his friend’s help, and fast. 


 

He managed to swim through the crowds to Amjad’s side; thankfully at least some people moved aside when they recognized him as a member of the inner circle. At his urging. Amjad dismounted and clasped his forearm, gazing straight at him in that way that was guaranteed to fill his stomach to the brim with spring-mad butterflies. 

“What is it, ma falon?”

“I want to propose to Shandi, but I don’t have a ring….”

Before he could even form his ask, Amjad lit up like a lightning strike and started dragging him towards the Great Hall. 

“Come, we shall search the Inquisition’s hoard for a ring worthy of Shandi,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. Once inside the Great Hall, Amjad lead him down into the dungeons, but before they could enter the door that lead to the cells, Amjad took the rightmost path down a winding stone staircase. 

The descent required them to walk through a deep gloom, Amjad’s eyes lambent against the darkness. So taken was Gabriel with the mystery of it all that he nearly missed the door. Amjad came to a halt before it, placing his hand into a carved panel that lit up with blue magery. A click, and the door opened. 

The piles of gold sovereigns made Gabriel stare like a fool, their brightness pushing back the shadows. They were mounded so high it was almost impossible to accept the sheer wealth they represented, let alone the pieces of treasure that someone had made a half-hearted attempt at organizing. Silver goblets inset with rubies sat beside halla statues carved from alabaster as had been the fashion in Halimshiral. Necklaces and circlets dripping with gems and crafted with a master’s hand had their own display boxes on the far wall, beside a set of invaluable collectible coins. 

Amjad strolled into the midst of it all as if it were an everyday occurrence to dwell amongst enough treasure to buy and sell several small countries. He looked dragon-like standing there, as if he were about to curl up atop the piles of riches and sleep with smoke coming out of his nostrils. 

“Look here,” Amjad said, and Gabriel stepped hesitantly into the room as bid. When he crossed the space to where his friend stood, he saw several velvet lined boxes full of rings stacked one atop the other in the corner. Amjad knelt and opened them one at a time, as if presenting them to Gabriel the way someone trying to curry favor with a lord might do. He set each one on the floor, the gems and gold inside twinkling and sparking. 

Gabriel knelt as well, hardly daring to touch the rings on offer they were so expensive and beautiful. 

“I knew the Inquisition was wealthy, but…”

“Yes, we needn’t worry about the resources necessary to run what has essentially become its own country,” Amjad said, the excited look still on his face. “Now, choose something. Surely there will be the perfect ring in such an esteemed collection.” 

The realization that he was about to ask Shandi to marry him hit hard then as he looked over the king’s ransom before him, and a delicious sort of anxiety made his fingers tingle and the pulse in his throat race. He discarded the rings that were too delicate, their settings too small. Shandi was very feminine in her way, but on her those smaller jewels would get all but lost. 

Amjad looked through the other boxes, frowning as he did his best to find the right thing. 

“Here,” he said after a few minutes. He reached out his hand, and in his palm lay a thick gold band with a diamond inlay in a wave pattern. “I think — “

“That’s the one,” Gabriel blurted. “I could kiss you,” he added as he took the jewelry from Amjad. 

“And if I planned to collect on that?” Amjad teased, rising from the floor and fixing him with an amused stare. Gabriel’s heart fluttered and for a moment he could hardly bring himself to stand himself. And what if he did? Shandi certainly wouldn’t mind, though he thought of the look Dorian got whenever he felt jealous of his amatus. 

Amjad stepped into his space and placed a soft, chaste kiss to his lips. Gabriel felt suddenly aflame, every nerve in his body vibrating like plucked strings. It was just a tease amongst friends and he knew it, but he reacted as if they were about to tumble into bed together. 

Amjad stepped back and laughed at his pop eyed expression. Gabriel did his best to keep the majority of his blood in his brain instead of…

“Go, your lady is waiting,” Amjad pointed out, and they raced out of the treasury like two children in a foot race.


 

The Herald’s Rest was sweet chaos, Dalish elves mingling with the Chargers, those laborers who had free time, Orlesians that dared to slum it in a tavern with the common folk. Maryden’s impassioned lute playing gave the scene a grounding line that bestowed upon Gabriel the strength to keep going. Shandi, Cal, Cassandra, and Varric were in the dead middle of everything, and as he watched Cullen appeared with his arms full of sloshing ale tankards and started passing them around. 

Amjad nudged him, and he broke out of his daze enough to start towards his lady love. 

The scene faded the closer he got to Shandi. She took up the space the way nothing and no one else could, her beautiful body in that revealing dress, the joyous look on her perfect face, her gleaming silver eyes, so alive with good cheer. It was so easy to imagine her dressed for a wedding, where he could finally give her absolutely everything, including nobility and a name that they could reclaim together. Marlowe didn’t have to mean miserly, abusive relics rotting away in a decaying mansion, clutching at scraps. 

“Shandi,” he whispered. She heard him even over the din and turned that sun-bright look on him, letting him guide her towards the middle of the room.

“What is it, mon sucre?” 

He took a steadying breath, so full of nerves and love and hope that he felt light headed. He looked down, studying their clasped hands. 

“Shandi,” he repeated, savoring the feel of her name on his tongue. “You know you are everything to me.” He glanced up at her, and the soft adoration and appreciation on her face erased his anxieties as if the had never been. “Your love has been the most precious gift I’ve ever been given, and you have granted me strength when, alone, I would have surely faltered. And I can no longer imagine my life without you in it.” 

She hadn’t fully grasped what he was on about yet, he saw. Shandi would never have assumed anyone would do what he was about to, though she had come to trust him and trust in his love for her. 

He knelt as if he were about to be knighted, and it truly did feel that way as he registered the shock reordering her expression. A roar of approval he was only dimly aware of made the tavern all but shake, and both he and Shandi started laughing so hard he could barely get the words out. 

“Marry me,” he said, presenting the ring to her in his open palm, and in that moment absolutely nothing else mattered. He’d never felt more present in his entire life even down to how the floorboards felt under his knee. His life had often required him to hide away in the twisting halls and rooms of his mind just to get a little respite, but now he emerged from such a place triumphant. Shandi’s eyes were luminous with tears; she had to be thinking of Deirdre, of the path her life had taken to bring her to this moment. And, he hoped, how much she wanted to stay with him forever. 

“Of course I will, m’lord,” she said in a wavering voice, and for once in his life he didn’t feel a single pang of anxiety. He’d known she would say yes, absolutely convinced of it the way a true believer had unshakeable faith in the Maker or the Creators. He rose as the entire tavern erupted in cheering and shouting, taking her hand and slipping the ring on. 

“A drink for Lady Marlowe!” Amjad shouted. Gabriel looked back towards the door to see Amjad standing there, his arm around Sera’s shoulders, her arm around his waist. They were both grinning like mad, and as Gabriel stepped into Shandi’s embrace he caught sight of Iron Bull, up out of his chair and cheering, the Chargers and the Dalish hunters rattling their weapons and crying ululating cries of approval. 

Cullen came and pressed a tankard of ale into Shandi’s hand. Gabriel stepped back and then he and Shandi went towards the bar together. What was the harm in celebrating? At that moment Anders, the blood ritual, the Venatori…it all felt as if it belonged to another time, another life that had already been resolved, leaving him free to celebrate. 

Chapter Text

That night, Amjad stole into the library at an hour when only Dorian’s single lamp still sat flickering in its little alcove, just enough light to read by. Even the Tranquil had retired to their beds, affording him a few moments of precious, scholarly privacy nestled into the cushion of his wingback chair.  Only Solas’ light snoring from below disturbed the scene, and then only just. 

His amatus looked particularly animated, burning with energy as if he’d come to tell Dorian a particularly delicious bit of gossip. He resembled a stalking panther in the haze, yet soft as if he’d retracted his claws and had come hoping for a good stroking. 

“Amatus. What — “ He asked, his book already forgotten.

Amjad came over and took his hands, as if Amjad were a lord coming to ask a lady he fancied for a dance. Shades of the Winter Palace came to life in Dorian’s mind, though instead of the bloody conclusion to their last fete, he thought of the masterfully made masks, the sound of slippers on travertine, that devilishly addictive sparkling white they loved to serve in cut crystal flutes. 

“Come with me,” Amjad said, and what could Dorian do but obey?


Skyhold lay slumbering under a hand-stitched quilt of glimmering stars, the spring warmth making the walk a pleasure stroll instead of something to huddle into one’s cloak about. A yellow moon hung fat and low, lighting the parapets and the flags flying from the mage tower with an otherworldly radiance. So taken was Dorian with the beauty around him that it surprised him when they arrived at the stables. Most of the beasts dozed in their stalls, and even Blackwall had retreated from his workbench to rest in the hayloft. 

“What’s going on, emma lath?” Dorian whispered, leaning in to speak against the elegant arc of Amjad’s ear. Amjad turned his head a little, towards Dorian’s voice as if he were listening to a lovely song; Amjad didn’t answer, though, until they were at the halla pen. Three halla had made their home within, immaculate white against the darkness. Amjad turned, stood on his tiptoes, and captured Dorian’s mouth in a kiss.

“Come with me to Wycome,” Amjad murmured against his lips. Amjad hugged him close, and Dorian sighed in contentment when Amjad moved to tuck his head under Dorian’s chin. In that moment, all of his concerns and worries and hesitations dissolved in a freshwater eddy. 

“So eager to go right back to Amaranthine?” Dorian said in an arch tone, and even the sour memory of what had happened at Marlowe Manor felt a million Ages ago then. He would have followed Amjad into the Black City itself. Wycome was nothing in comparison, that ugly business with Gabriel’s family notwithstanding. 

“Just the two of us, it will be a much shorter journey. The Inquisition need not even know we have left.” He felt Amjad actually hesitate, drawing a deep breath in a way that made him seem very much the lovestruck adolescent for one delicious moment. “Meet the clan, Dorian. Or…at least my friends.”

“You would have me do that?” Dorian asked, breathing deep of the sweet hay scent all around them. Blackwall had made good progress on his carving, also, and that unique cedar perfume deepened and accentuated those indicators of well kept mounts. Amjad raised his head, a terribly shy look able to be discerned beneath the veil of his long lashes. 

“Dorian,” Amjad said, resting his hand on Dorian’s chest, over Dorian’s heart the way Dorian always found so arresting. “You are my life, my heart. You are my beloved. Aside from you, these people mean the most to me in all of Thedas. You should be a part of that.”

“Knowing you, I am guessing you already have all of this planned,” Dorian teased, a much needed warmth suffusing him; he knew he could count on Amjad’s fore-thinking, that he needn’t rely only on himself. So different from how he had fled Tevinter a lifetime ago, utterly alone for the first time in his life, barely managing to avoid any number of nightmare scenarios. The truth was, the spoiled young scion he’d been then had struggled mightily without a compliment of servants to attend him and without a purse heavy with gold sovereigns. 

“Down to the rented house in Wycome,” Amjad said with cheeky cheerfulness. “And I have another surprise for you.”

Amjad stepped back and turned to the halla pen once more. Dorian came up beside him as the animals fixed curious looks on them. One in particular, a doe with six-point pearlescent antlers, came right over and nosed Dorian’s hand. 

“Talk to her,” Amjad prompted as Dorian stood there in shock. He never would have imagined an animal so associated with the Dalish to have shown him any interest. 

“What?” Dorian asked, nonplussed, as the halla’s lusturous sunlight-eyes looked right into him as if waiting for him to do just that. 

“You cannot tame a halla,” Amjad said, slipping his arm around Dorian’s waist. They were the only two beings awake in this little corner, other than the animals. So why not? “You must become her friend.” 

“My lady,” Dorian tried, feeling like a complete and utter buffoon. The halla tossed her head and Dorian could have sworn he heard her laugh, as if a bespelled young girl lived within that pristine hide. He had her attention, at least. “I wonder if you would accept me as your rider for this journey.” 

Blast it, what’s the word for — ah!

“Sathan, ma falon?” 

He tried not to preen too much under Amjad’s stunned gaze. He understood some Elvish, more or less, but he rarely spoke it for fear of mangling it beyond recognition. But for a private trip with Amjad, where they needn’t constantly remember the myriad eyes of the Inquisition, he would have done far more than speak a few words to a halla. 

“Can you hear her name, emma lath?” Amajd asked, giving his hand a squeeze. He opened his mouth to say something about that being ridiculous, but before he could a name revealed itself in his consciousness as if he’d finished a difficult translation in a dead language. 

Aideen.  

“Ai…Aideen?” He said without deciding to, leaning in and staring at Aideen as if he could untangle and study the magical knot that had allowed him to understand her. 

“Dorian,” Amjad whispered. “You heard her.”

He didn’t say more, but Dorian felt as if some threshold between them had been crossed, and to the good. He opened the pen and Aideen pranced out, seemingly as pleased with herself as Dorian was with his efforts. He approached her, holding his hands out for her to inspect. She shoved her muzzle into them, demanding another nose rub which he gladly gave her. 

Amjad went to Orala’s stall and likewise freed her, letting her stroll out as if she had all the time in the world. Which, really, she did. He rarely used much tack, with this being no different; he strapped a Dalish blanket to Orala’s back, the hems finished with gold knotwork that identified it as a Brangwen creation. He chose a simple snaffle bit which Orala accepted without protest, though surely she would have hardly felt even the cruelest shank. He came up with some saddle bags he’d hidden in the straw and attached it to the cinch strap; he really had thought of everything. 

Amjad mounted and turned Orala towards him and Aideen. Orala’s milky eyes regarded them, yet Dorian couldn’t read their expression. Despite having raised her via necromancy, her inner life remained a mystery even to him. Dorian frowned, thinking. 

“My lady Aideen, what tack do you prefer?” 

He asked, clasping his hands behind his back and offering her a little bow. The answer rose up in his hindbrain and he went to retrieve what she had asked for, a fine set of white tack chased with gold not unlike what he tended to put on his mare. Once he had fastened it in place properly, he mounted. Riding a halla felt instantly different from a horse, even his beautiful girl with a gate as smooth as a bottle of expensive Qaranis red. Aideen had a light step that could have easily carried him through the most treacherous parts of Brecilian Forest without hesitation. He dared to reach out and pat her neck. 

“Does anyone know we’re leaving?” He asked, watching Amjad shroud himself under the hood of a humble cloak without ornamentation; it wouldn’t do to ride out as the Inquisitor would have been expected to do. Dorian followed suit, taking off his rings and secreting them in his pockets. They would have given him away too readily; the Orlesian nobles paid close attention to such things. 

“Gabriel, Shandi, Leiliana,” Amjad said, leading the way into the mountains and their treacherous switchback paths. “If they have need and must tell some others, I trust their judgement.” 

“Fair enough,” Dorian agreed, the puffs of snow kicked up by Aideen’s gay hooves enveloping him in a clean scent like the one so evident in one of those ridiculous spa baths all the rage in Nevarra, a room full of hot rocks finished off by a dip in a freezing lake. 

They rode in companionable silence, and Dorian watched the nightbirds stoop and swirl on the updrafts, giant’s breath issuing forth from the cracked earth. He realized as they descended into the basin that Amjad had chosen a route that let them avoid most major rifts. The two of them were very capable, yes, but even so only two against a strong rift would have been pushing it. 

The snow gave way to temperate rainforest some candlemarks later. Dorian saw a serpent slither by Aideen’s leg, something that would have surely spooked a horse. She simply stepped over it daintily and kept going, the brilliant coral and onyx scales disappearing into the loam. 

They could have made it halfway to Wycome in a day with such a light load and with only the two of them, but Amjad stopped them in the small hours. Why ride for broke? This was a pleasure trip, not one of their hard journeys into a war zone. How often had he dreamed of this? Those dear, impossible fantasies of riding out along the coast of Minrathous in the gentle season with Quintus at his side? 

Amjad had chosen a spot where the forest met the rocky earth that presaged the banks of the Waking Sea. This time, Dorian took it in with new eyes. He didn’t have a dreaded family reunion at the end of this to cloud his vision, though the idea of meeting the Brangwen Clan filled him with nerves that pinwheeled between terror and sweet anticipation every few moments. 

He watched Amjad set up the campsite and tend to the mounts — his offers of help had been gently rebuffed — and the reality of being alone with his amatus, even such that they were far from Skyhold, swaddled his heart in a warm quilt. He came over once Amjad had finished and took Amjad’s hands, kissing his fingers, pledging fealty to a king.

Amjad studied their clasped hands for a moment, then turned a look of soft adoration on him that made his heart flutter as if he were a young man spotting Relenus in the library for the first time. 

The two of them headed to the sea and after an entirely indulgent wash in the surf, a second wind lifted Dorian’s sails such that he was laughing as if drunk when they were done. Amjad all but giggled, leaning into him as they went back to camp. A moment to fetch a cauldron of water to place over their campfire, and they were free to do as they pleased. 

Amjad drew him over to the fire and the blanket laid out there, the night warm enough to make lying out under the stars pleasant for a time. He paused long enough to set wards around their camp, though thank the Maker Amjad gently interrupted what could have easily turned into a tightly wound pacing session of checking and rechecking his spells. 

“What are they like, emma lath? Your clanmates?” Dorian asked, Amjad’s head pillowed on his chest, Amjad’s damp hair curling around his fingers as he combed through it. 

“They are brilliant, every one of them a hero,” Amjad said, his tone dreamy in a way that further eased the knot of bad feeling that often sat heavy in Dorian’s chest. “Andra looks the most like Cal, pale white skin, flaxen hair. June’s vallslin, in purple the way Aislinn’s marks for Falon’Din were done.  She plays the fiddle. They say if you are in the right frame of mine, and if you dance with enough abandon, you may see the faeries that live in the deep woods.”

“Faeries?” Dorian asked, curious. Amjad tended to dole out the myths he’d grown up with in a way that was almost stingy. Or would have been, to those who couldn’t understand what the Dalish had been through, what they lived with every moment of every day. Their stories were, at times, all that bound them to their history and weren’t meant for outsiders. 

“Aye. There are many different and contradictory stories about them. Some that say they are the children of dragons. Others, that they are impossibly tall, sinister creatures that resemble us, but never perfectly. That they try to lure the young, unsuspecting Dalish into their palaces, where time has no meaning and a thousand years pass in an eyeblink.” 

“That…sounds like a demon’s work,” Dorian ventured, hoping he wouldn’t offend Amjad and ruin the moment. 

“That is your shem nature talking,” Amjad teased, though Dorian knew his amatus was more than half serious. “Not everything can be explained through angels and demons.” 

“I suppose not,” Dorian said. He had heard enough truths from Amjad that his once arrogant opinions had changed and mellowed. “Who else?”

“There is Eli, Sylaise’s favored son, who ventures far into hidden places and brings back natural remedies and elixirs for our benefit. Light skin, dark hair, and a quiet nature. The spirits of herbs, flowers, and trees whisper to him, perhaps because he knows to never talk over them. Long ago, we made pacts with those spirits, that we the elves and they as nature guardians would nurture and respect one another. They give us medicine, so long as we observe this.” 

Dorian felt that medicine had a deeper meaning than just the obvious, another Dalish word like clan or wild that had three or four layers. Amjad had told him once that Elvish built upon itself, a word taking on new meanings, spiraling outwards and expanding as a storyteller spoke. 

“Eijaz was only a baby when the werewolves came,” Amjad continued, and though his voice was as dark as the night closing in around them, he still managed to sound like a First. “She is as black as a raven’s wing, with pure white hair. She looks much like the Warden Commander, from what I understand, a fact she will never let you forget. Some say she bears the clan’s joy, reminding us of it when night falls long. At times when we have met other elves she pretends to fit her Elgar’nan vallaslin, until she can get close enough to prank them.” 

The affection in Amjad’s voice made Dorian wonder as to all of those childhood bonds and experiences, quietly craving every little detail about this scion of the Elven who had against all odds chosen to love him.  He’d never had the freedom to be as romantic as he would have liked, before, but he looked up at the stars as Amjad spoke and picked out the Lovers high above. 

“Yashae is a great seer,” Amjad continued, “sometimes she has dreams that tell us of fortune or disaster to come. She makes songs of these, that warn or hearten in turn. She is a gentle soul, but one should not underestimate her. Keeper Mairead reminds me of her, a little. The elders murmured that her silver eyes marked her as special, apart. It is she that calls and coaxes the ravens of Dirthmahen.”

“And you were all together when the werewolves came?” Dorian asked without thinking, though the only indicator that the subject had gotten to Amjad was how still he went at the question. 

“Yes. Well…I gathered us, with Andra and Aislinn’s help. We hid under one of the aravel. I was terrified that Eijaz would start wailing, would alert the beasts to where we were. The night had a terrible chill as well, and she had only Aislinn’s cloak as a blanket. But she remained as silent as the grave, as if she knew even then what was happening.” 

A moment of silence descended, but it didn’t draw out so much as it suspended them in time. Dorian sensed Amjad had more to say, and held as quiet as he could. 

“I saw my mother return,” Amjad continued. “I knew it was her, though she had taken the werewolf shape. I had seen her take many shapes, during my life. She and the hunters had gone out…I can no longer remember why. To hunt Zathrian? Did they know then, what he had done? For a simple gathering of food and water? Regardless, they left as Elven and returned as monsters. She cut down my father before the others who had stayed at camp filled her full of arrows. What could we do? We were children. We hid, and waited. Eventually, many lay dead. But it had at least come to an end.” 

“I’m sorry,” Dorian offered, wishing he could think of a better way to express what it was to be entrusted with such a story. 

“No,” Amjad said quietly, sighing. “The world sometimes balances itself. I made steadfast friends that night. And regardless of whatever else is between me and Keeper Lenaya, not everyone can claim such a circle of comrades. So. It is what it is. One empty hand, one grasping a golden ring.” 

Dorian did Amjad the respect of thinking on that before speaking. 

“I…think that everything in my life has lead me to you,” he said, immediately cringing at how bloody genuine and lovestruck it sounded. Like something Gabriel would have said. Amjad looked up at him, first in surprise, then in a kind of wicked delight. 

“Why, I think that is one of the most romantic things you have ever said to me,” Amjad told him, flashing a grin. Before he knew it Amjad had pressed full length against him, studying his expression closely. His own countenance eased for a moment, became something sweet. “And of words like that, I will never tire.” 

As always where Amjad’s close proximity was concerned, Dorian’s cock had no trouble betraying him and communicating quite clearly his interest and appreciation. It had taken years to not pull away automatically when such a thing happened, and being so utterly alone out here had handily taken care of the rest of his hesitance and shame. He could only imagine what he and Amjad looked like, writhing around on a borrowed blanket as if a man had bought a rough fuck with a whore. 

At least I make a pretty one. 

“Is this how you like it, emma lath?” Amjad asked, snaking his hand between their bodies. Dorian shivered at the touch; if Amjad knew anything, it was how he liked his cock stroked. Amjad went for his balls next, and by the way Amjad tensed his wrist Dorian realized he had something else in mind. 

He’d never been so aware of his balls in his life, how fragile and sensitive they were. He knew the damage Amjad could do to him, not just because of those anatomical realities but because he’d seen Amjad do horrifying things to people with those hands.

Then again, ‘horrible’ was far closer to what he wanted than ‘pleasant’ was. 

“Harder,” Dorian said, quite horrified at himself. Of course he’d half-convinced himself Amjad had forgotten that conversation with Cole, the damnable little spirit spilling Dorian’s most carefully hidden secrets as readily as a child playing with their mother’s jewelry. 

Amjad smiled, smug. The bastard knew, knew he would like it. All right, knew he would love it

“Oh, don’t look so upset,” Amjad said. “As if I don’t know all your secrets.”

Normally such banter would have caused Dorian to reply with something equally affected and laden with venom he didn’t actually mean, but the promise of that which he’d craved for so long had wiped his mind clean.

“Let me hurt you,” Amjad murmured, and the words alone almost undid him right there. He couldn’t make any words come out of his mouth, but he didn’t have to. He could tell his expression was full of far more slavish agreement than he would have liked to show. 

Amjad studied him a moment, tugged as hard as Dorian could have wanted, then twisted. Agony burst behind his eyes, and stabbed mercilessly into his deepest places. Even the miserable sickness in his guts was everything he’d ever hoped, his cock so hard he felt lightheaded. Pain lanced into him first, prolonged by Amjad’s cruel fingers pinching, fondling and manipulating his poor suffering balls in their sack.

Amjad’s treatment of him had scrambled all of his senses, fragments of stimuli scattered through his body like shattered glass. He was aware of having arched up off the ground, his heels dug into the sand, teeth gritted so hard it made his jaw creak. He felt sure he’d cried out, shouted, something. Tears welled up and tracked out of the corners of his screwed-closed eyes. 

Amjad’s nails scraped against the especially sensitive spot between his balls and asshole, and he came instantly and without warning. His balls tried to draw up tight to his body as they usually did when he orgasmed, but Amjad didn’t let go; he felt the pleasure draw out and splinter apart into pain again. 

He was still gasping when he felt Amjad grip his cock for the second time, the torture of having his hypersensitive flesh thus tormented guaranteeing that his erection didn’t flag a bit. He had known he enjoyed pain, yes, but this? Not only did he crave it with everything in him, but the rest of him felt more alive than ever, and every part of him wanted more, more…it wasn’t just pain, was it? It was torture that he wanted, needed. 

He looked up, studying Amjad’s beloved face. He thought he could see that glowing coal of banked cruelty behind his amatus’ eyes. Maker, he hoped he could. 

“You know,” Amjad whispered to him, giving the head of his cock a rough squeeze, “I’ve read about all this, quite thoroughly. Suffice to say, there is so much more I could do to you.” 

“Will you?” Dorian said, feeling in that moment that he would have liked to give Amjad every last bit of himself, every secret, every desire, every weakness. His whole life he’d had slaves attending to his every need, only to discover that he was the slave. Amjad leaned in to kiss him, a soft thing made sharp in the last moment by Amjad’s teeth nipping at his vulnerable lower lip. 

“It would bring me the greatest pleasure to fufill your every fantasy,” Amjad told him, drawing a truly shameful moan from him at the mere thought, “but…we will need to speak on it, first.” 

The tender places in him screamed in protest, wanting that delicious, ruthless hurt to last forever. But, he had to concede Amjad had a point. He tried to untangle his thoughts enough to at least ask to be fucked, but Amjad was two steps ahead of him, kind enough to push into him dry and rough. One hand worked his poor cock, the other reaching up to pinch his nipples so hard he was sure they’d be purple afterwards. 

He slipped his fingers into Amjad’s hair, needing some kind of touchstone through all the torment. His lover’s cock fit fully into him, and he lifted his hips to take every last inch. He dared to scrape his nails against Amjad’s scalp, dug them into Amjad’s back, the small little bit of returned pain making Amjad pound into him hard enough that he felt completely and utterly open; he could feel the come pooling out of his abused asshole only a few moments later, Amjad panting warm breaths against his neck. A kind of lazy, warm pride suffused him, that he could undo Amjad as much as Amjad could do it to him. 

Dorian felt only faintly aware of their uncoupling, the warm water and soft cloth Amjad brought to carefully, lovingly clean him up as he lay there utterly defenseless and twitching. He forced himself to get up once sleep felt as though it were stalking him; Amjad wasn’t strong enough to do it for him. It was more an undignified crawl into their tent than anything, and he was dead to the world the moment his head hit his pillow. 

Chapter Text

They reached Wycome that evening, by design. It wasn’t just Amjad’s friends who had made their home there, but the entire clan. And though each member meant something dear to his amatus, it made sense that Amjad would rather avoid Keeper Lenaya at the very least. The later he and Amjad arrived, the better the chance that she would have already gone to take her rest.

By the time they arrived at the home Amjad had rented for them - a mansion, though a humble one by Dorian’s standards - Amjad was practically vibrating with barely contained excitement. He stabled the animals, never one to forget them, but even the Anchor spiraled and crackled with its master’s anticipation, lighting Amjad’s features now and then with spectral fire. Dorian shamelessly stole kisses from him in those moments, letting the magic inherent in the mark sizzle along his nerves. 

Again they chose humble outfits out of linen and wool, eschewing their shared flair for the dramatic in the hopes that they would go unnoticed. Amjad made one concession to his rich tastes, pulling on dark leather gloves that had cost a small fortune to hide the Anchor. Just before they left, Amjad reached up and ruffled his hair, setting it to rights with a couple of gentle pats. 

They walked hand and hand down the main stroll, a truly notable number of taverns having a truly notable number of raucous parties. Many of these fine establishments could barely contain their clientele, drunk people, laughing, shouting, pouring out of the wide open doors. He’d heard before that Wycome was the city of revelry, but seeing it was a different thing, the clouds of vapor carrying the scents of Antivan grapes, folk who had plainly just met kissing messily on the main path through town. 

Strolling along together at a leisurely pace, they navigated around groups of revelers in various stages of intoxication and undress, smiles and laughs all around as they greeted one another in passing.  Amjad looked as though he were walking on a cloud, his face full of life such that Dorian wanted to bask in it like a sunflower desperate for the first spring rays to break through the clouds. 

Amjad looked his years then, but not in the desolate way Dorian had glimpsed when dire moments were upon them. His smile came easily instead, life brightened his eyes beyond their natural lambent state. Dorian let Amjad tow him down the path, to the last tavern on the main way. He could already hear fiddle playing, the beat resonating in his chest. 

He realized as they approached that the whole place was taken up by an absolute riot of sound, everyone pounding their fists on tables, stomping their feet against the floorboards. It was as Amjad had said, Andra - for it must be her - playing fit to bewitch. They lingered for a moment in the relative silence outside, Dorian never so aware of their hands clasped together. Even with everything they’d done just hours before, that simple contact could still free and uplift his heart. He fully realized then how completely lost he was in this man; he would have gone anywhere at the mere crook of Amjad’s finger. 

“Are you ready, emma lath?” Amjad said, turning to look at him. Amjad frequently masked his expressions when they were in Skyhold or out in the field, sometimes several of those masks carefully fitted one atop the other. But here, he’d slipped them from his countenance, showing his most earnest expression like a rare and priceless gift. Dorian watched, disbelieving, as Amjad took his hand and kissed it, his heart fluttering at such a gesture as if he were some lovelorn fool in a ten penny drama. 

“I…do they know I am from Tevinter?” Dorian asked, his heart picking up for a different reason as the immediacy of the situation plucked at his nerves. 

“They do. Do not concern yourself. I have been writing to them for years. Whatever grudges they held, they have dispensed with. Though they will still demand you dance,” Amjad added, laughing. 

The anxiety that called up kept him so occupied for a moment that he barely noticed Amjad leading him inside. He felt boggled by the interior; the Herald’s Rest could certainly throw a decent party and hold a decent crowd, but it admittedly had restrictions placed upon it by the dimensional realities of Skyhold. This place by contrast could fit half a Dalish clan, a full compliment of soldiers, a swirl of laborers and peasants in their work clothes, and a motley assortment of mercenaries, merchants, and travelers. Here and there he saw Qunari horns rising above crowd level. It made it feel a bit more like home, and he realized he rather missed Shandi.  

The entire scene came to a halt when Andra turned and noticed them, or, it was safe to assume it was her since she had a fiddle in hand, flaxen hair braided back from her face, and pale white skin. She handed the instrument off and ran straight at Amjad, all but shrieking with joy. They caught one another up in a hard embrace, laughing their heads off all the while. They started all but babbling in Elven, and Dorian caught every third word, enough to know that they were as close as siblings and eager to know every detail of one another’s lives since they’d been forced apart by the whims of the universe. 

Dorian took in the room, partly out of his instinct to strategize if things were to go wrong, and partly to see if he could recognize those elves that had not come forward yet. He spotted Eli, based on Amjad’s description, rising from a table in the corner. He looked like a solemn young man, his white skin ever so slightly ruddy, his sable hair combed just so. He was clean, despite his humble gardener’s clothes, clean the point where Dorian guessed him to be on the meticulous side about such things, the way Amjad was.

Yashae was next to join the embrace, both Amjad and Andra reaching out automatically to draw her in while she wept and told them how she’d had visions of being reunited. Dorian could see a raven tattooed in white on her bare, dark-skinned shoulder, her blouse having slipped at some point during the party. She wore a vivid blood-red wise woman’s skirt that brushed the floor, a belt of arrowheads and carved wolf teeth slung low on her hips. Her silver eyes flashed as she bowed her head, joining the circle so tightly it seemed like the three of them were one entity as they all tried to practically crawl into one another’s skin. 

The embrace only ended because Eijaz and Eli appeared, shouts of delight on Eijaz’s lips, a light in Eli’s glowing blue eyes and a twitch of pleasure to his long, aristocratic ears. Eijaz, even darker skinned than Yashae, had on a long viridian dress and a draped indigo coat atop that, both pieces embroidered in knotwork displaying scenes Dorian only half-understood, depictions of ancient ghosts and ancestor voices that only those who had dared make Brecilian Forest their home would understand. Her feet were bare, and her fingers and toes gleamed with ironwood rings inset with shells. When she smiled, her prominent front teeth gave her a gay appearance, and her pale golden eyes twinkled with mischief. 

The tavern patrons tolerated the pause in entertainment, falling to talking and drinking. It made Dorian feel a little less like an oafish rube next to the elves. For once, he wouldn’t have relished being the center of attention. 

“Is it true?” Eijaz said, cradling Amjad’s face while she wept tears of happiness. “You found Calledan?”

“It’s true, da’len,” Amjad said, reaching up to take gentle hold of her wrists. “You can imagine what happened to him, but nothing will tear that sapling from its roots. He’s already had a fine first hunt. He took a white wolf’s skin.” 

“I have prayed for this day,” Eijaz said, plainly overjoyed. “To the spirits, to the wraiths roaming the deep woods. To the ancestors, and the spring wind that presages hunting season. Anything that would listen. Yashae helped me…we tried to see the future, and now it has become the present.” 

“She did,” Eli said, his expression, a mirror of Eijaz’s, making him look a thousand times more dynamic and handsome than was first apparent. “As many offerings as she could burn or leave out. The medicine dances, the chants. I think Keeper Lenaya almost made her First.” 

Surely from anyone else mention of Keeper Lenaya would have ruined Amjad’s good mood, but from Eli he took it in stride. He kissed Eijaz on the cheek. 

“How far you have come, little sister,” Amjad said, and Eijaz looked as if she might transform into a summer-addled dove, rising on a badly needed updraft. 

“Is this your beloved, Amjad?” Yashae asked, coming over to pat the front of Dorian’s coat and in so doing immediately undoing any relief he might have felt only a moment before. “My, you’re handsome, aren’t you?”

Dorian stood there, all too aware of his own pop-eyed expression. He felt as if her gaze were a gleaming skewer, and him right on the points of it. All of his many years of navigating Tevinter high society felt cut from his mind, leaving a frustrating void as he tried to decide how to react. More than that, none of that would have applied. He was as out of his depth as a slave thrust into a Magisterium seat. 

“Yashae,” Eli said, shaking his head, “don’t tease the poor man.” 

“Oh, he’s a ‘Vint. He can take me poking a little fun,” she looked back up at him. He sensed she was both joking and serious at the same time, not intending to wound him personally but also not concerned with coddling him. Dorian’s blood froze in his veins as he thought of Amjad’s tale about the Tevinter slavers who had taken Cal from the clan, and nearly Aislinn as well, for that matter. “Though I meant the part about you being handsome.” 

“Hands off our brother’s merchandise,” Andra said, retrieving her fiddle’s bow and tapping at Yashae’s arm with it while Amjad stood by and rolled his eyes. 

“Oh all right, fine,” Yashae said, giggling as she let her serious demeanor drop. “What do you drink, Dorian?” 

He managed to tell her the names of the Antivan wines he’d had before and enjoyed in the fashion of what was popular in Wycome, an order one of the serving people quickly filled. Maker, he needed a drink. He felt knotted up with nervousness, especially between his protesting shoulder blades. 

Amjad took off his cloak and sat with his friends at one of the long tables. Dorian joined him when Amjad prompted him to do so, trying not to revert to nervous tics he had overcome long ago like drumming his fingers or tapping his foot. Alexius had always scolded him for that, told him even the slightest variation in a spell could change it completely and not often for the better. Habits arrogance had let him believe were of no consequence. 

“I hear you’re really important now, Mr. High and Mighty,” Andra said, fiddling with the toothpick she had in her mouth. Her eyes were just like Calledan’s, snakescale green. Dorian understood Amjad’s friendship with Sera a little more, then, watching the two of them interact. 

“And don’t you forget it,” Amjad said, unrepentant and grinning. “You’re welcome for the nice new home in Wycome, by the way.” 

“It is nice,” Eijaz agreed, cheerful, sitting on the table’s edge instead of on the bench. She filled Eli’s wine glass, and Eli nodded his thanks. “Especially after the Duke cashed in his chips,” she added, taking a set of dice from her tunic pocket and letting them rattle out onto the table. Dorian perked up. He wasn’t bad at a round of dice, largely thanks to Varric. Maker, at least it gave him something to do with his hands. 

“Amjad tells me you are a necromancer,” Yashae said as she dug in her pockets for something to wager. The booze arrived and Dorian quaffed a smooth Antivan red gratefully, taking some silvers from his belt pouch so he could be counted into the game. 

“I am,” Dorian said, realizing quickly that he was likely to get interrogated by Amjad’s friends. He could only pray his answers would be satisfactory. “in Tevinter, magery is accepted and we have the great good fortune to hone our talents in the open. Including necromancy.” 

He, Eli, and Yashae fell to speaking about magery, and the drinks were never allowed to dry up, and the dice rolled and rolled and things finally felt some semblance of normal as people hooted about their wins and groaned at their losses. Dorian found himself halfway through his third glass of wine, getting rather misty eyed; these people had every reason to hate him and everything he represented, yet they had treated him with more generosity than even his own family ever had. 

“Andra, play us something,” Amjad suggested. His posture was open, confident, utterly comfortable around these dear people. Dorian caught sight of him and found another way to fall in love with him all over again; there was a part of his amatus that couldn’t be discerned without the context of these others, though he was sure they all felt Aislinn and Calledan’s absence. 

“Aye, I will,” Andra said, popping up out of her seat to grab her fiddle and bow. “What shall we have? A reel? A round dance?” 

“The round dance,” Amjad said into the lull as the tavern’s attention turned to the clan, and the others smiled and nodded their agreement. Dorian listened intently, assuming he’d be sitting on the side lines. Amjad turned to look at him. “It is a friendship dance, emma lath. A circle dance, that reminds us that everything we do, is done in a spiral. All things are a journey to the heart.” 

“It is most appropriate for your visit,” Eli said. “We are glad to welcome you.”

Again, Dorian thought he might cry. He didn’t deserve a thimbleful of grace from any Dalish elf, let alone the Brangwen Clan. Yet these friends who had every reason to hate him opened their arms and welcomed him instead. Though he knew the round dance wasn’t considered sacred as such and could be performed in front of and with outsiders, it still felt like a rare and precious gift. 

“I’m honored,” Dorian whispered. 

“I will sing the wild hunt,” Yashae said, rising and joining the forming circle. Eijaz jumped up, energized and ready. She and Yashae glanced at one another, and began the hunting cries, a piercing call and response that certainly stirred up one’s blood. A moment later, Andra came in on the fiddle, the notes all but snapping and sizzling in the air. Instantly, everyone in the place was on their feet, picking up the cries from the women until they echoed and reverberated, stomping their feet and clapping their hands in time. Others linked arms and spiraled in and out, a feverish, joyous dance that made even Eli sing. 

“Oh no, Dorian,” Eijaz called once her part of the song was over, “you must dance!” 

“I….” Fear seized his heart, the fear of appearing clumsy and uneducated in front of Amjad’s closest friends. He tried to protest, but Eijaz started a chant of “Dorian must dance!” until the whole place was saying it. He stood up, his cheeks aflame, and Eijaz and Eli came over to claim him and bring him into the spiral. He saw Amjad in a blur, laughing and dancing as if he hadn’t a care in the world. The weight lifted from Dorian’s shoulders, and by the time the dance whirled to a halt he felt as free and high spirited as he ever had. He and Amjad practically fell into each other’s arms, laughing, covering each other in kisses. 

“Ah, the young ruler returns.”

The voice, so cold and sharp, cut cleanly through the atmosphere, and the mood split into two pieces and fluttered away. 

Dorian turned. Amjad was at his side, hands balled into fists, eyes burning with fury, body trembling with the effort of keeping that fury contained. The others had all but lined up at his back, as if they were all about to get a good scolding. And, by the look of the woman in the doorway, perhaps they were.

Keeper Lenaya. 

It had to be. An Elven woman in a Keeper’s robe like one of those painted in an illuminated manuscript, though this was the real thing and not some idealized facsimile created in the mind of some monk or scholar who likely had never even seen an actual elf. Her blond hair might have signaled her as some relative of Cal and Andra’s, but hers was ash-colored and wavy. Likewise, her eyes were green, yet they were pale, washed out. She had the countenance and unbent back of a young woman, but the world-weary quality of an elder who has seen too many hungry springs. 

“That is what they call you now isn’t it, Aeron? A ruler?”

The air wrung out of Dorian’s lungs, and one look at Amjad told him that no matter the sympathy pain he felt nothing could compare to the agony one single name could do to his amatus. He was furious on Amjad’s behalf in that second, grinding his teeth until they felt like a mouthful of pyre dust. He could practically smell the thaig, Decadence appearing to torture Amjad with what he used to be, to the point where Amjad had done his level best to cut away the misery even at the cost of his own life. 

Kill me, please. I can’t, she’ll turn me…

“You know full well that I have cast that name aside,” Amjad said, biting off each word as Keeper Lenaya paced towards them, steps heavy. Strangely, Dorian saw an answering hurt in her though she had been the one to wield the weapon, this young woman carrying the clan on her shoulders. Regret had pierced her eyes like blown darts, darkening them as she took in him and Amjad standing there together like prodigal sons.

“A wolf can act but like a wolf,” Lenaya intoned. Suddenly she was upon them, and though she was half again as short as Dorian he felt like a lamb before a fox and had to fight the urge to shy away from her. “And with a piece of Tevinter trash at your side.” 

“Take those words from your mouth,” Amjad snarled. The rage, Dorian had seen on more than occasion. With it, he was familiar. With the utter, tearing agony vibrating through every inch of Amjad’s body, the body Amjad had done so much to get, he was not. “And shall I remind you further that after Zathrian’s fall, we did not cast you out? That even though you came to us as a slave who had never known her ancestors, we raised you up as Keeper? Should we have done otherwise, assuming that you could do aught but act like a wolf?” 

For a moment, Dorian felt sure Lenaya would strike Amjad for his cheek. Or perhaps that he would strike her, considering how they were all but stepping into one another’s space like two pugilists about to start a match. 

“It is not the same,” Lenaya hissed, that raw, wounded quality still in her voice. “You were to have made a difference to our people that no one else could have made.” 

“Why?” Amjad shouted, throwing up in his hands in a gesture of exasperation. “Look around you! Our clan is blessed with young ones. Or do these children standing behind me mean nothing to you?” 

“And not one of them a mage,” Keeper Lenaya said, though her tone softened; Dorian thought she did care for them, but that also that caring wasn’t the point. “Not one of them, besides you and Aled.” 

“You toss them aside so readily,” Amjad said, gesturing as if he were protecting his friends from Lenaya’s wrath, “Eijaz is only just fourteen winters; who are you to know what she will become? And magery is not what connects us to the Forest, or our ancestors, or our people.” 

“You meddled with the laws of nature.” Lenaya spat the words into Amjad’s face like a mouthful of venom, and this time she did go so far as to thump her finger into Amjad’s chest. “We follow the ways, the old medicine pacts, because that is how one moves in accord with those forces that keep us fed and warm. It is how our hunters keep their swift feet, and how the forest gives us sweet grasses for our halla. You followed the deceiver’s way instead, you and Aled. And now you speak with Fen’Harel’s tongue.” 

A gasp. When Dorian glanced back, Eijaz had her hand balled up and pressed against her mouth. 

“And if I had not?” The Anchor glowed through the leather of Amjad’s glove, making his point for him more eloquently than even he could have done with words alone. Keeper Lenaya saw it too, looking down at it, then up again, mute. “Correct,” Amjad added, snatching off his glove, seeing she’d grasped the point. “Do you think the Breach will spare you? It is only this deceiver’s son that stands between you and annihilation.” 

The silence fell heavy and final like a shroud. Amjad took his hand, and where their flesh met the Anchor leapt and energy shot into Dorian’s arm. He held Amjad’s hand all the tighter for it. 

“Enjoy your cozy existence in Wycome, Keeper,” Amjad said, marching out of the tavern as if he and Dorian were at the head of a full compliment of troops. 

Chapter Text

Dorian followed as Amjad strode out into the night, the elf stalking on his long legs like the wolf that had haunted his dreams for most of his life. As they went, though, he started to wilt as the rage drained away, to crumple under the weight of everything that had just happened. It was a yoke Dorian knew well. He had a moment of odd existential perspective; it was like watching his own past, an observer’s view as he walked out of the Pavus estate for good. 

It was that familiarity that made him leave Amjad alone once they reached their rented home, and indeed Amjad disappeared up the rickety stairs without a word as soon as he was able. Dorian came inside at a slower pace, taking in the humble interior. 

He had to concede that the house could be called charming, if ramshackle; it had a driftwood and gingham aesthetic that Dorian found enchanting in a certain common way. He could at the very least make himself comfortable in one of the mauve armchairs in the sitting room until Amjad felt ready for company, though all he wanted was to take Amjad into his arms and somehow soothe away everything and anything that had ever dared hurt his beloved. 

He had to settle for reading instead, though eventually the waiting drove him mad and even if Amjad rebuffed him, he felt he should try and offer some sort of understanding and comfort. He couldn’t even focus on the page before him, a problem he usually never had to contend with. He might as well have been reading upside down and backwards. 

He found Amjad standing alone in the dark, out on the widow’s walk. He had his hands tight on the railing and his gaze was locked on the sea, the waves softly rustling like a closet full of taffeta gowns. Yet by the hunched quality of Amjad’s posture such a fantastical image hadn’t brought Amjad any comfort, had it occurred to the elf at all. 

Instead, the pallid rays from the lighthouse, distant on the peninsula, lit Amjad’s face in a way that made Dorian think of the wraiths that gathered at the Veil whenever he called on his necromancy. Any further fairer analogies that might have come to his mind thought better of it as he joined his amatus in the faint illumination. 

“Amjad,” Dorian said, though Amjad had probably heard him the moment he’d stood up downstairs. The home hadn’t seen tenants for some time with everything that had happened with Duke Antoine being exposed as a traitor, and though its whiskey-dark floors were still polished to a lovely high sheen they creaked like mad at the slightest weight. 

“Dorian,” Amjad responded, and though Amjad’s voice sounded thick with unshed tears that he’d said anything at all Dorian chose to interpret as a good sign. Dorian also took it as an invitation to approach, closing the last few steps between them and draping his arm around Amjad’s shoulders. 

“I’m sorry.” Amjad put his head in his hands at the words, shaking as he fought to keep ahold of himself. It made Dorian think quite uncharitable thoughts about Keeper Lenaya, like exactly where she could go and exactly where she could stick it. Perhaps a few clever spells, like one to fill her bedroll with lice. 

“So am I,” Amjad managed, trying valiantly to straighten up again. Instead, Dorian gently turned Amjad toward him, and drew his amatus into an embrace. It wasn’t often that Amjad broke down, even in front of him, but this was one of those times and Dorian vowed to be that oasis of strength and calm Amjad so clearly needed. 

“Is it odd that I don’t hate her?” Amjad mumbled against his shirt-front. “I feel that I should, that I have the right to. But I don’t. I can’t.” 

“No, of course not. I should hate Lord Halward, but I don’t. Even after everything.” 

Amjad looked up, his face streaked with silent tears. His ears were slicked back like a wet cat’s, and his big uncommonly hued eyes were dim. Dorian felt Amjad’s grip on his shirt slip to his forearms and dig in, just a little. Maybe it was that, that made him speak. Even the slightest pressure could awaken long hidden desires, and now alone here with Amjad he had no reason to suppress them. 

“I can think of a way to burn off such dire energy,” he offered, trembling at the very suggestion. Amjad’s ears perked up, and his eyes widened. “Or would that only burden you further?” 

He had the sense that doing such things wasn’t just exhausting for those experiencing the cruelty, but for the one showing mastery also; being so utterly responsible for another person and their well being had to be difficult at best. But he knew that just as he’d experienced a kind of catharsis the second Amjad had laid a masterful hand on him back on the beach, he suspected Amjad must have felt some kind of analogous relief also. 

“You would have me strike you out of sorrow? In anger, emma lath?” Amjad said, voice now impossibly soft like rolling around on a bolt of Val Royeaux spider silk. Something about the suggestion had focused Amjad’s attention. It hadn’t erased the sorrow or fixed those hurts both old and new. But it had, perhaps, given Amjad a point on the horizon to study instead. 

“Would it truly be anger?” Dorian said, though the possibility of what might come next made his tongue feel numb, made his pulse rush in his ears until he worried whether he would even hear Amjad’s response. To be poised thusly on the edge of getting everything he’d ever fantasized about in his darkest moments made his skin prickle and his heart hammer fit to drive him mad. 

Amjad’s gaze brightened with adoration, and a terrible, powerful pang of relief lanced through the middle of Dorian’s chest. No, it wouldn’t be anger. Was it possible to strike someone out of love? Maker, he wanted to find out. 

“No,” Amjad whispered. “All I ever want to do is worship you.” Dorian shivered. Amjad caressed his cheek. “Your watch-word.” Amjad’s gaze had not faltered, taking Dorian in as if something he already cherished had just revealed another layer of its true worth, as if he’d turned an Orlesian jewelry box over in his hands only to find a secret compartment beneath the velvet lining, bulging with gems. “What will yours be?

“Hyacinth,” Dorian said after a moment’s consideration, as he remembered a flock of blue parrots he’d spied down in the basin. 

“A richly layered watch-word, for a man who is the same,” Amjad told him, such poetry welling up with little to no effort, a unique blend of Keeper training and Josephine’s influence. That he inspired such talk never failed to make Dorian’s heart flutter, at times much to his consternation. “What would you will of me?” 

“What can you give?” Dorian said, his voice a whisper. A whisper was all he could conjure, his chest seizing, breath hitching. 

“Pain. Control. Dominance.”  Amjad touched his hair, an act that made him feel as content as a petted cat. It made him feel as if his insides were once again properly ordered, his heart charmed back in to its gilded cage. “If I know you at all,” Amjad continued in that maddeningly attractive silk-velvet voice, “you’re not asking for kindness.” 

“No,” Dorian said, though he felt sure his manner had already given him away. No sweet silk scarves and feathers for him. 

“Then kneel, oh son of Tevinter,” Amjad teased, a little flame of unholy glee already evident in his expression. Who could blame him? What elf wouldn’t like to have him in such a compromising position? Dorian’s pride made him want to protest, but he found himself on his knees anyway. So much for his vaunted altus arrogance. 

“I’m going to hit you, all right?” Amjad asked. Dorian nodded in agreement; that earned him Amjad’s hand across his face. By the Old Ones, it hurt. He felt the scrape of the floor against his elbow as he fell heavily against it, the point of the bone grinding even through the padding of his undershirt. A hot flush rose up on his cheek where the blow had landed. 

He had the hazy sense that perhaps he should have thought this through more, asking a man who killed others nigh daily to treat him in this manner. Amjad knew too much about how a body worked, or more to the point, how it didn’t work. A moment later the arousal came, consuming him like Zazikel’s fire. 

No, he thought as he looked up at Amjad, half in shock, mostly in adoration. The fire was Andoral’s. 

“More, Maker please,” he found himself saying, as if he were caught up in religious ecstasy, a rapture that absolved him of his transgressions. Where had this come from, this Dorian that craved such things? This Dorian that was willing to beg for them? He remembered how often he’d encountered demons who had offered him all this and more, and shuddered. 

Amjad pinned him, crawling up to straddle his hips as if he weren’t twice Amjad’s size. Amjad’s presence felt like a living thing all its own; he had the insane thought that he was about to be mounted by some beast, a varghest or a dire wolf that would surely tear him apart when it had sated itself.  Whatever last vestiges of defiance he might have felt seemed very far away indeed, ship’s lights off the coast of Qarinus disappearing into midnight. 

Amjad’s sharp little fist ground in to the sensitive spot between his floating ribs, drawing a strangled cry from him even as he fought to keep it back. He felt Amjad’s fingers close around his throat a moment later and he whimpered. Whimpered! Like some Mabari bitch in heat. So undignified. 

The second punch hit him in the gut, the air driven from his lungs, chest seizing as he fought to breathe. He grunted, writhing as Amjad slapped his face again. He couldn’t so much as gasp, the grip on his throat hard and merciless. He had the faint notion that he should fight, that no matter how much he wanted this it would behoove him to struggle. His survival instincts screamed at him to do something, anything, the sheer need for air making him act. 

He wormed out of Amjad’s grip, the elf’s nails leaving long red welts on his neck that burned abominably. He drew in a hard-won breath that scraped his esophagus raw; he felt he might never get air properly again. Amjad growled and came after him, a rough grip closing on his tunic and ripping it open without hesitating. The buttons went flying and the arms of the garment jerked down and bound him further, getting tighter the more he thrashed. 

That’s good Tevinter wool, you —

Amjad’s fingers digging into the tendon in his arm -the big, tender one near his elbow- made him realize that he’d never had a real chance of escaping, that Amjad had only allowed him to resist in the first place in order to break him further. Fear at his own helplessness pulsed through him, and he thought he might cry, vomit, or both. The agony was indescribable, shearing through his arm and setting fiery claws into his chest.  

The watch-word trembled on his lips and he felt Amjad pause, waiting for it.

He swallowed it instead. The word tasted of musk, of the dark, unrefined sugar enjoyed in Rivain, the bitter bite of the dregs at the bottom of a wineglass. 

Amjad’s cruel hand found his hair and jerked his head back, the other hand going around his throat again and squeezing with such cruel purpose that he went rigid out of instinct, then started scrabbling for some kind of purchase. He felt his heel scrape uselessly against the floor, the sensation in his hip and shoulder fading in and out in long pulses. Amjad’s knee went between his legs and pressed hard against his balls as he gagged at the pain. 

“You have a beautiful body,” Amjad murmured in his ear, a hot purr he felt as much as heard. “You’re beautiful.” 

Dorian had often been complimented on his body, a fact that brought him some measure of pride. After all, he did work on it, sculpt it, make it both athletic and attractive. Able to wield a staff like a gymnast, the praise his spells had received as much for his dynamic physical style as it was for his raw magical talent. Even men he’d only bedded for one night had told him that same thing. You’re beautiful, that was new. Or rare. Hadn’t Quintus…?

Having his arm twisted killed the thought and he could have wept he was so thankful for the respite. He found himself on his knees, pain shooting through his shoulder, his cheek pressed to the cold floorboards. Amjad tugged his trousers down as if he had a mind to mount him right there as if they were a pair of wolves in the spring. Air rushed back into his chest, and rather than being a relief it hurt, too. 

He was so far past using his watch-word that he meekly accepted being taken like a halla in heat, welcoming the merciless intrusion as he had on the beach. 

Amjad’s assets weren’t insubstantial and every inch hurt. It felt like being taken against one’s will, the brutal frankness of someone doing what they wanted without regard for his feelings or desires. He squirmed, his hips jerking forward as if his body were trying to escape the abuse whether Dorian willed it or not. Amjad might be smaller than him but he was beastly strong, strong enough to control him; Amjad went for his other arm, wrenching them both back and up, his grip as heavy and unbreakable as a set of rough hewn prison manacles. 

In that moment a great knot of emotion revealed itself in his chest, a thing that only suffering in this way could expose. His sorrow he perceived like cords hopelessly tangled up in his chest and belly, but with every trauma Amjad visited on him one of those awful knots caught and pulled free. He’d come in to the South as a raveled, snarled project on an abandoned loom, but the pain, the control, straightened out all his rough places, ordered and coalesced all of his disparate threads. 

He started to laugh a hysterical, mad laugh, the agony breaking open the awful vial of emotion he’d rudely jammed a stopper in to somewhere back when they’d entered the Storm Coast. Back when the fact that they were looking for Octavious had become real, as real as the sea breeze and the greenery underfoot and the dragon screeching its battle cry. For the first time since they’d started that Maker forsaken journey he could breathe, in a way that had nothing to do with his embattled lungs. 

“Who knew you were so —ah! — cruel,” he gasped, a combination of mirth and adrenaline making short work of his higher thoughts as Amjad pressed into him deep. That very barbarism swept the lingering dread from his being, uplifted him from the shadowy world he’d been lost in. It re-introduced him to himself so that a dizzying euphoria had taken the place of his anguish. 

“It hurts me too, you know,” Amjad said with mock annoyance, though that hurt certainly didn’t keep him from being rough; each thrust forced Dorian open, making him snivel and whine in a quite inglorious manner. Being fucked like this burned, it ached, first just his poor abused asshole but soon enough that ache had wound its way through his whole being. “I like fucking on expensive sheets,” Amjad added, “but this is even better.” 

“How very Elven of you,” Dorian managed to rasp between grunts. He drew his knees up and apart, giving Amjad even better access, participating in his own torment in a way that sent a sizzling thrill through him. "I'm surprised you haven't trussed me up and dragged me back to your clan so I can live a life of quiet servitude.”

“Don’t give me any ideas,” Amjad said. Dorian could hear how breathless he was; he felt a kind of pride at being able to do that to his lover. “Perhaps I should have walked you into the tavern nude and in shackles, then. Or I could chain you up next to the halla.”

“Well,” Dorian panted, “you’re already riding me like one.”

His arms hurt, rotated in their sockets such that bone rubbed on bone. Any further and they’d surely dislocate, but he never felt Amjad lose control. Amjad could push him right to the edge in myriad ways, and whether or not he fell over, he entrusted to Amjad’s care. 

“No,” Amjad said, laughing himself now, “I wouldn’t treat my halla this roughly. And how much do you think the passerby would pay for a ride on a mount as fine as you?” 

“Oh, I’ll remember that the next time you ask me for something,” Dorian could hardly make the words come out; the first surge of orgasmic pleasure shot through him. Maker, could he come without a single touch to his cock? “A gold piece, at least.” 

Amjad let one of his arms free and he used it to brace himself, which he sorely needed a moment later when he felt Amjad’s hand cup his balls and squeeze. He heard his own sharp cry as if another had made it. Even his cock hurt then, as hard as it could possibly get. He feared the release as much as he craved it, an unholy mix of pain and pleasure. 

“Savage,” he managed to choke out, not willing to let Amjad get the last word. Another merciless squeeze to his balls and the orgasm roared through him, his world a meaningless shambles of color and light, his heart and head full of jagged glass. Amjad spent himself not a moment later. Amjad’s fingers had found their way into his hair again, a brutal tug drawing another piteous cry from his throat, a throat hoarse from laugher and shouting and weeping. 

The oppressive scent of blood and incense had left him, leaving seawater and sweat behind. Clean scents. 

Amjad let him go and helped him sit up, chafing his wrists gently. Amjad had left bruises,  of course, already turning purple. 

“Did I hurt you?” He said, and Dorian had another urge to laugh. He knew what Amjad really meant, though, and said, “no,” instead. 

“Here, can you stand? Let’s head to the bedroom and I’ll see what I have for aches and pains.”

By then he would have done just about anything Amjad asked, so it was no chore at all to obey such a simple request, though his body’s impulses were so out of order that it took him a moment to get to his knees. Amjad helped him upstairs, as much as he could what with being smaller and lighter. 

“You seem like you’re ready to brush my hair and bring me a glass of warm milk,” Dorian teased when he’d stretched out on the bed in the master suite, limp and exhausted. He didn’t even have the strength to crawl under the coverlet, a gloriously hideous piece of bedding covered in embroidered cabbage roses. 

Amjad looked up from studying the bruise he must surely have on his cheek to his eyes. A little smile played around the corners of Amjad’s mouth and Dorian found himself smiling in return.

“Oh, I would. I’d be happy to, if I had any such things to give. Ah, one moment,” Amjad said, getting up to retrieve his belt pouch. He came back and sat nearby again, rummaging through the contents. He came up with a little sealed packet, full of dried herbs and flower buds. Tea, the kind that Clan Brangwen preferred, that could only be made under the summer sun and even then only when a lucky hunter found themselves in a particular clearing deep in the forest. 

“Amjad, I…” Maker, did Amjad even have another packet after this had been spent? One last little taste of home, and no hope of getting more? 

“There’s a story behind this, you know,” Amjad told him, calmly gathering the things he would need to spark a fire in the fireplace. “But most of it is difficult to translate to the common tongue. Suffice to say it’s meant to bring languor and surcease to the weary and lost.” 

“And you’ve never used it?”

Amjad took his meaning and smirked, shrugging. 

“I suppose given my responsibilities that’s rather surprising,” he said, coaxing a flame as readily as if he were a mage and could do it with but a thought. “I…would rather give it to you.” 

“Thank you,” Dorian managed, emotion making his tongue clumsy. “You’re too kind.” 

“Don’t say it so loud. I have a reputation to uphold.” 

The fire built and the kettle safely placed, Amjad came over to him and climbed up into bed, though like a grubby child he didn’t even bother taking his boots off as he lounged atop the coverlet. Only then did Dorian realize Amjad was probably as exhausted as he was; weariness wasn’t only the purview of those who suffered.

Amjad reached out, and took Dorian’s tender wrist in hand. This time, he was terribly gentle. He took some liniment from the bedside table and started to rub it in. The numbing sensation made a little gasp of pleasure come to Dorian’s lips; Amjad stole it with a soft kiss. 

All of his marks and twinges thus taken care of, Dorian only realized he’d dozed off when the clink of the tea set roused him. The few articles of clothing he’d managed to retain downstairs had been peeled away, and the merry blaze in the grate had suffused his abused body with delicious warmth. For the moment, he felt completely and utterly cared for, and every one of his needs addressed. The warm tea redolent of frost-touched flowers made contentment transform into bliss. 

He felt guilty for experiencing such surcease after what had happened with the Keeper, or he would have, had he not turned at that moment and caught sight of Amjad. Plainly, Amjad hadn’t expected to be observed; his expression was one of quiet admiration and endless devotion, with little else to mar it. It might have scared someone else, someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t match Amjad’s intensity. But for Dorian’s raw heart and soul? He could have absorbed it all, left a more regular person wrung out, a bitter shade as he craved more and still more. With Amjad, there was no fear of any such thing, that he would fall to temptation and try to take all of Amjad’s vital fire. 

“Ah, you’ve caught me staring,” Amjad said, his features further enhanced by the flickering, dancing lights climbing the walls. For a moment, Dorian let himself entertain the idea of the two of them just…never going back home, pretending to be simple people in Wycome, or even better, disappearing for good. He’d even don Dalish embroidery and hide in the forest, if it was with Amjad. Even the Magisterium felt very far away then, the problems of his countrymen belonging to some other world he was no longer sure he wanted to be a part of. 

A different sort of desire awoke within Dorian then, under that gaze; every nerve in his body felt quietly, fully alive, and he felt absolutely no need to defend himself or his tender places. Amjad read his mood in an instant and closed the small distance between them. The kiss that followed lingered, and when Amjad touched him the touch was delicate instead of masterful. 

Yet when he felt Amjad’s mouth trailing down his body, lapping at bruises and nipping at his sensitive spots, he realized that mastery wasn’t only the purview of pain and suffering. He went rigid as his cock disappeared down Amjad’s open, warm throat; oh no, pleasure could undo him just as readily as torment. 

Amjad gave him nowhere to hide, no moments of boredom, no time for his mind to wander. In one instant Amjad would take his whole length without any effort despite the fact that he wasn’t exactly small enough for it to be done so easily. The next, the relative cool air would hit his skin as Amjad licked and mouthed at the big vein that stood out most when he found himself so desperately aroused. 

They were alone here in their mansion and Dorian needed no more encouragement to be as vocal as he wanted, clutching at the bedclothes and arching his back at every touch. The way Amjad was tending to every single inch of him was more than enough to undo him utterly, but besides the physical pleasure the worshipful attending soothed his battered heart. That was what was truly irresistible about it, and he no more could have repudiated it than he could have stood against a flood. 

The orgasm - and more to the point the greedy way Amjad swallowed every drop of come - rendered the world into blurs of impressionist colors, leaving him in a floaty state of half-consciousness where he was only aware of vague things like the taste of tea as Amjad brought him a cup, the rustle of the sheets and their silky texture as Amjad tucked him in as tenderly as anyone could want. The last thing he was aware of was Amjad rescuing the now empty tea cup from his nerveless fingers before sleep claimed him so utterly he doubted even Corypheus’ forces on the march could have awoken him.


 

That morning, they talked very little. Dorian knew why; they had to go back to Skyhold at some point, and it meant the end of their adventure. Back to Skyhold, where they were the Inquisitor and the altus instead of just Amjad and Dorian. As they passed one another in the hall as they were gathering their things, they reached for one another and brushed fingertips. It was enough to communicate that they were both thinking the same thing. 

Ready to go, he noted that Amjad had been stood at the front door for far longer than needed. Normally Amjad would be out with the halla already, preparing them for travel, making sure everything was just so and in its place. 

“Amatus?” He asked, resting a kind hand between Amjad’s bent shoulders. 

“I don’t want to go out there,” Amjad whispered, looking just about as dejected as Dorian had ever seen him. He turned Amjad gently to face him, and saw he was right; only the conflict with Keeper Lenaya had drawn a more desolate expression from his love. “If we do,” Amjad continued, voicing the not so hidden thoughts they’d both had just moments before, “this…all this is over. You and I, walking through the streets hand in hand. Nobodies, that no one need remember.” 

It hit Dorian then. Amjad had never wanted to be Inquisitor, and upon finding out it had been a cosmic accident he’d laughed a bitter laugh and called it fitting. He hadn’t wanted to save a world that had done nothing but take from the Elven, those people who still looked at him askance even when he was covered in grime and demon shit after having just closed a rift in the middle of their fields. 

 But there was more. He knew it, as surely as if it had been branded into his flesh. 

"I’m sorry,” he blurted, before he was entirely sure he would say anything. It was the least he could do, knowing that the rest was his fault. Amjad had already started to voice a denial, but Dorian held up a warding hand and Amjad fell silent. “No, don’t. Don’t reassure me and tell me it’s all right. It’s not.”

For a heart chilling moment, he thought he wouldn’t be able to say the rest. That all the shame and worry and self-loathing would keep him from grabbing this chance with both hands. He couldn’t stand to see that light fade from Amjad’s eyes.

“I adore you,” he said in a rush, surprise registering  as clear as a  winter morning across Amjad’s fine features, “I love you. I…don’t say that nearly as often as I should.”

Damn it all, damn his father, damn Tevinter, damn his fear of temptation. If this was temptation, he wanted to give in to it, more than anything he’d ever wanted in his entire life. Amjad smiled, enough to stop the heart, and stood on his tiptoes to give Dorian a sweet kiss. Dorian knew, as the contact ended and Amjad stepped back, that Amjad would accept that single deceleration of affection and never push for more; Dorian felt fury at himself for teaching his lover to expect only crumbs.

Incredibly Amjad looked near tears, a state Dorian had only seen him in once, when the Keeper had repudiated him the night before.

“Vishantae kaffas,” he said, roundly cursing himself, “I haven’t been good to you.” 

Amjad grasped his wrists in needy fingers.

“I would give you anything you asked. Carved halla horns from the golden halla herself. Tanned hides and furs from the finest beasts you could imagine. I would hunt even a dragon if it meant I was the one you always dreamnt of. Don’t ever doubt it.” 

“I’ve been a coward and a fool. I’ve put you through too much,“ Dorian said, humbled by such emotion, “everyone should know. About us.” 

He could hear Amjad’s breath hitch and then stop for a long moment.

“Do you mean it?” The naked hope twisted in his chest as surely as a Knight Enchanter’s blade. Dorian felt another pang of guilt at what he’d done to his lover. Amjad always seemed so impossible to ruffle, so aloof and even arrogant. It was easy to forget how much emotion really swelled underneath the mask he wore for the others. 

“Yes. And House Pavus will just have to deal with it.” Amjad hugged him so hard he thought he felt his ribs creak. “I’m only sorry I’ve been an idiot for so long. Just…let me think about the right way to do it, yes?”

“After the ritual, maybe,” Amjad said, trembling but trying valiantly not to show it. “We will free Anders, and then we will have double the reason to celebrate.”

“Hmm, I suppose I shall have to do it in the tavern. One mustn’t break with tradition.” Dorian teased, thinking of Gabriel’s proposal only a couple of weeks before and how it had quickly turned into one of the best parties Dorian had ever been to, not least of which because he could trust no one was poisoning the houer d’oeuvres. 

Amjad looked so shocked at the implication that Dorian almost laughed. 

“Well,” he said primly, taking in Amjad’s rather delightful expression of disbelief, “did you think I wouldn’t make a giant official spectacle out of all of this? Besides, Gabriel is marrying a Qunari. Give the terminally bored Orlesians enough time and it will be the next fashion, and no one shall blink an eye at us.” 

Amjad chose to show his appreciation with the kinds of kisses that almost made the two of them delay their trip another day, when a hard rapping at the door made them almost jump straight out of their skins. Amjad whirled, furious, and flung the door wide, clearly poised on the verge of dressing down whatever idiot had thought to bother them.

“So,” Andra said, the others clustered at her back like ducklings, “when are we going to Skyhold?” 

Chapter Text

It took Cal far longer than normal to wake. Cullen’s fancy shem bed had proved too comfortable when it came to quick reaction times, but once more he tried to reassure himself that such awareness wasn’t much use in Skyhold, the safest place he’d ever been in his short life. He’d spent every night of the past week here since that first time, and nothing had happened to shatter that sense of security. 

But something had made him stir on this night. He sat up and looked around, taking in much more of the dark room than a non-elf could have. The armor stand in the corner, the table, the chest holding Cullen’s still meager belongings. All where they should have been. He put his ears back, tilting his head a little this way and that. Nothing unusual. He couldn’t detect the breaths of anyone lying in wait, or the creak of armor and leather. 

It was Cullen that was missing, he realized. He crept out of bed as if an ambush were about to trigger despite his knowing better, but all of those silly worries were forgotten when he saw Cullen laying on the floor as if someone had felled him in battle. 

He was near the ladder as if he’d meant to go down it, stretched out to his full length and as stiff as a necromancer’s experiment waiting to be animated. Cullen’s eyes were open but entirely unseeing, glassy, pinpoint pupils focused at some point far beyond the horizon. For one moment time came to a crashing halt; he truly believed in those fleeting seconds that Cullen had died of some complication of his terrible ailment, the lyrium withdrawal that dogged his every step. 

But no. He could see Cullen’s belly lift and descend with each breath, though he could barely hear them, as if Cullen were taking in only the minimum air required to keep his body functioning. He moved over slowly, carefully, not wanting to trip any unintended reactions. Who knew what a trained templar could do, if startled out of a night terror? 

Cullen didn’t even twitch. Somehow, that chilled him more than flailing and shouting would have. After the Venatori robbed their mage pets of their minds, they were often equally blank and motionless, waiting for orders, their past selves erased as if they had never been. 

He touched the pulse in Cullen’s neck. Despite his love’s - beloved’s? - state, his pulse felt like a raging lion fighting being captured by poachers. What foul nightmare had stolen Cullen’s mind? Prone to them himself, Cal gulped; he hated to think of someone so dear to him suffering so. 

“Cullen,” he tried. brushing Cullen’s mussed hair back from Cullen’s clammy brow, “wake up, emma lath. You’re dreaming.” 

He studied Cullen’s body, hoping to see some sign that Cullen could hear him. Every muscle had gone into something approaching rigor, and Cullen’s cock was quite obviously hard. He knew what Cullen must be dreaming of then; the horrible things that he’d suffered in Kinloch Hold. Spells to make a person sexually ready were the least of what maleficars and desire demons could do. Was this how it had been? Petrified by magic, reactions forced from him by spells? Unable to lift so much as a finger to stop his own torment? 

Cal could practically smell the fresh blood, the stink of desire. 

He took a risk, stretching out next to Cullen and cuddling close. 

“It’s me, Cullen,” he said, murmuring into Cullen’s ear. “Cal. You’re in Skyhold.” 

Cullen’s eyelids fluttered and Cal’s heart did the same: at least something he was doing was having an effect. He slipped his hand under Cullen’s shirt - it had been too cold to sleep nude - then down to the waistband of the loose trousers Cullen had barely managed to keep on during the trip from the bed to the floor. He hesitated to touch Cullen’s cock, knowing it was a high risk move that could either drive him further into the nightmare, or coax him free of it. 

He took Cullen’s hand with his free one. 

“Can I touch you?” He whispered, praying Cullen could hear him in the midst of everything he was experiencing. For the first time in his life, he wished he had the powers Solas had, to walk in dreams, to alter them and even build them from whole cloth. He wouldn’t have hesitated to go in after Cullen, no matter what he might face within.

Cullen squeezed his hand. It was all he could manage, but it was enough. Cal let his fingers slip past the waistband of Cullen’s trousers, gently taking his hard cock in hand. The sensation of it in his grip afflicted him with the same condition, such that he couldn’t help thrusting shamelessly against Cullen as he started to stroke Cullen with long, easy strokes. 

Mercifully, Cullen opened his eyes. Cal thought he might have said something if a moan of pleasure hadn’t scattered his thoughts to the wind. Cal yearned to capture such a beautiful sound, and shifted to kiss Cullen’s mouth until he had that private, slutty look Cal could never really get enough of. So ardent were they both that Cullen had to get his request out in pieces between kisses: 

“Bring me my potion, sweetheart, or I’ll be stuck on the floor all day.” 

Cal had to forcefully pull back, panting with desire like he’d never felt for anyone or anything. 

“You heard me,” he said, pausing. Somehow, his words had made it in through the veil woven by nightmare. 

“I did.” 

He crawled to the chest in the corner, fishing through the bottles and vials. He found the one he needed, struck by how even in the dark room it looked darker still. It looked like blood, in fact, a comparison that made him shiver despite the full body blush he could feel all down his torso and limbs. 

He came back and helped Cullen sit up as best he could, being much more slight than Cullen was. Cullen gulped the potion down in two swallows, and almost instantly Cullen’s skin felt nigh-feverish to the touch. Cal thought he detected the faintest red gleam in Cullen’s eyes, but when he looked again, of course Cullen looked as he always had. 

“Let’s get back into bed,” Cullen said, and Cal was all too eager to do just that. Once they were warm again, cuddled up in each other’s arms, Cullen said:

“Do you remember what you told me? About Regulus?” 

“Which part?” 

“About the things he would make you do.”

“Mhm,” Cal said, not bothered in the slightest by the topic. At least, not in these circumstances. He found himself almost hoping that Cullen was building up to asking him to do those same things. He thought he would very much like to. With Cullen it wouldn’t be the same. It would be something he chose. “Fucking my ass, making me suck his cock…”

“That last one,” Cullen said, “has anyone ever done it for you?” 

That, he had not in any way anticipated. 

“No,” he said, “even when I would be rewarded, it was never something I would have just…enjoyed.” He’d thought his one threadbare blanket had been a reward to put all of Amjad’s wealth to shame at the time. That had been the finest thing he’d ever earned, in his old life. “In Tevinter, if you take it, they treat you worse than a dog. But if you’re the one putting your dick in someone, that’s just natural. It’s a right, in their minds.” 

“Would you…could I?” Cullen asked, looking at him with such affection that his brain could hardly process it. Cullen looked so shy it made his heart all but grow wings and flit around the room. “You would…you would have to tell me how…” 

“I can do that,” Cal said. “Um. Normally you’d kneel in front of the person you are trying to please, but…”

He couldn’t help but worry about Cullen’s knees, which had to be tightly strung with tendons that had all but caught afire. 

“I’m all right,” Cullen said, smiling. “I want to.” 

“Okay.” Cal managed, sounding just as shy as Cullen all of a sudden. He was no stranger to sex…no. Rape. That was why this was so nerve wracking. It wasn’t rape. Cullen maybe even loved him, of all things. “I’ll sit on the edge of the bed then, if that’s all right. It’s not difficult to do, just don’t put your teeth into it and use your tongue. Careful of your gag reflex.” 

Or you’ll get punished, he wanted to add, but of course no such punishment would be forthcoming. This was something they both wanted to do. 

“Valuable advice,” Cullen teased lightly, though Cal could discern actual gratitude in his lover’s expression. Everything he’d endured…at least some of what he had learned could be used to bring them both pleasure, on their terms. 

Cullen had to put forth extra effort to kneel, just as Cal feared. Cal could tell how stiff all his joints were, especially lately, as if they’d started to turn to stone one bone-shard at a time. He opened his mouth to protest again, to tell Cullen maybe they shouldn’t do this after all, but the pads of Cullen’s thumbs pressing into the sensitive skin of his inner thighs stole his voice. 

Cal watched the crown of Cullen’s golden hair, his hands with the knotted knuckles from work and from lyrium, the way that even though Cullen didn’t know what he was doing, he clearly intended to put as much time and effort as possible into this. Something still felt odd; Cal had become so used to being Magister Regulus’ play thing that anything else felt like a trick. But Cullen’s soft mouth on his dick dashed all other thoughts and emotions from his mind, including any memory of the torture he’d lived through before the Creators had seen fit to grant him freedom. 

He could feel every agonizingly slow second of Cullen swallowing his cock, the hesitance that came with being unsure of one’s skill. The pleasure was immediate, and far stronger than he had imagined. A delicious tension started in his belly, his balls tight against his body. He crooked his fingers into the blanket he was sitting on, trying to anchor himself, especially with Cullen so determined to draw the full length down his throat. The effort made him all but whimper, sensation so powerful it drew tears from his eyes. 

Cullen pulled back for a moment, and Cal felt that plush tongue swirl around the head of his cock. He all but whined, then moaned; never in his life had anything felt as good as that, and he understood why he’d been forced to his knees so often in his former life as a slave. Except now, it was Cullen on his knees. In that moment, he would have given Cullen everything if Cullen had asked. 

Instead, Cullen took his cock again, swallowing it more expertly the second time. It was too much to bear, and he found himself digging his fingers into Cullen’s shoulder in some attempt at a warning; he came in an instant, groaning helplessly as Cullen choked and then swallowed. He all but blacked out, coming to hunched over Cullen and still gripping his shoulder much too hard.

“Oh Creators, I’m sorry,” he said, withdrawing his hand and wincing at the bruises he’d certainly caused poor Cullen, who was already hurting. “Sorry, sorry.” 

Cullen smiled and only then did Cal realize how absolutely decadent he looked having just sucked cock, his pale cheeks rosy, his hair endearingly mussed. His lips were slightly swollen and the point of his tongue traced them for the last drops of come. It was enough to get Cal hard all over again, if he’d had the physical ability to be so. 

Cullen’s heavy-lidded gaze had turned a burnished color that caught Cal as surely as a salmon in a net and he found himself saying,

“Anything, anything you want.” 

Cullen dared to lean up and kiss him, and he found himself twining his fingers in Cullen’s curls, returning the gesture with such abandon Cullen made a soft sound of appreciation into the contact. He felt absolutely breathless when the kiss ended, the faint taste of his own come in his mouth. 

“Nothing,” Cullen said, but Cal could feel that hungry gaze roving over his body as sure as a touch. “Everything.” 

He took the meaning. He owed Cullen nothing. But that wasn’t to say he wasn’t desired, and fiercely so. He awoke under that look in a way that all of Regulus’ pawing could never have done, aware of himself and his desires for the first time since he’d chased Amjad into the woods so long ago. Whatever needs he might have had in the normal course of his life he’d locked away as best he could, trying to bear up under the rapes, the humiliation. The pain. But those needs weren’t dead. 

Before he could fully realize it he’d gone into Cullen’s arms, clinging as if Cullen would come apart into the glittering dust one found over fae mounds if he let go even for a moment, as if he himself would go whirling back through time and find himself in the slave’s caravan again, the chain around his neck and a dagger at his wrist. Cullen all but bore him into bed, laying him down like this was some shem wedding night. Creators, he knew then, as he watched Cullen in quiet awe. 

Cullen got into bed with him, his leanly muscled warrior’s body easing down beside. Those callused fingers caressed his cheek, and when he turned his head to look as bidden he saw Cullen regarding him with those gleaming amber eyes. 

“I love you,” Cullen said, as easily as if he were describing the morning tides or the position of the sun in the sky, “do you know that?” 

He did. When he thought on it, he wondered at what point the geas had stolen around his neck like a collar, when its silvery wires had plunged into his heart. He knew that he’d been taken in as easily as a babe, the Brangwen curse, the legacy of who they were as a people coiling around him. Yet he didn’t resent the weight of those chains. 

“Beloved,” he said, soft as feather-down. “Emma lath.” 

That bloody sheen came to Cullen’s eyes again. Only for a moment, so brief Cal thought perhaps he had imagined it. He returned the sweet touch and it went away completely, as if it had never been. He knew he could have asked anything of Cullen just then and by Andruil, he wanted to. But he had the strangest fear that somehow, the experience might be stolen from them if they were to give into their desires now. 

“Let’s take our rest,” Cullen suggested, seeing perhaps his conflicted emotions writ on his face. As usual Cullen responded with uncommon sensitivity and care; truly, there was nothing to fret over. He studied Cullen’s features again for a long moment, yet saw nothing abnormal other than how terribly pale Cullen looked. He felt then as if lyrium were an evil slaver, standing over Cullen and whipping him mercilessly long past Cullen’s ability to bear up under the punishment. 

He longed to stick his dagger deep into such a tormentor, but of course no such corporeal representation existed. He simply cuddled up to Cullen and pressed in close, as if he could protect Cullen as a wolf protects its mate from hunters. 


Aislinn sat propped up in her bed, every pillow she could commandeer at her back. She would have enjoyed a few moments to sit quietly, a quilt over her lap, if her body hadn’t decided it had very different notions of how to spend its time than she did. Most notably, she hadn’t stopped throwing up for days now, and if she moved even a little blood trickled from between her legs more often than not. Her whole body felt wracked with pain, and hot knives stabbed deep into her middle on an erratic, crazy-making schedule. 

Though she privately thought often of the wasp from her dreams - especially so thanks to her struggles with carrying - some primal part of her felt terror at the thought of losing the child. No matter the signs and portents warning her to be cautious, it was hers. She was no heartless shem, leaving unwanted babies on the Chantry stairs. She would not allow any child of hers to have its fate dictated by the remote, cold stars. Let dreams warn her as they may. She would not be swayed. 

At least she was in her bed, propped up as comfortably as was possible. She was still all but swaddled in blankets, and a little brazier crackled nearby to push back the chilly day. As long as she had her hands free to write, she didn’t care how many things they piled on her. 

She stacked and reshuffled the packet of vellum on her lap, nervous. Her company - Morrigan and Solas - did nothing for her anxiety. They’d chosen to sit as far apart from one another as possible, though that was all relative in her modestly sized room. Their instant dislike for one another soured the air, though thankfully neither of them seemed inclined to mention it outright. 

“So,” she started, her own voice awkward in her ears. She fiddled with the quill pen in her hand, swearing under her breath when ink spattered on her skin. “The ritual. We should plan how it will function, and whether we can draw Decadence out into a fight.” 

“We seek to free Anders from his shackles,” Morrigan said, still ever so slightly uncomfortable sitting in a chair, by the way she crooked her elbow over the armrest, and how she had one leg all but tucked under her. “And to do that, we will need the blood of dragons.”

“Yes,” Aislinn started, a bit befuddled. “Shandi already agreed — “

“And being bent over a magrallen and bled isn’t going to leave her in much of a state to fight,” Morrigan pointed out, “and she is your only heavy combatant.” 

Obviously, none of them were keen to tell Cassandra or Blackwall about their clandestine activities. 

“I can create armor for her,” Solas said with false serenity, as if Morrigan were a slow and truculent adolescent. He stood up and went over to put together a sachet of tea, that he then began to brew over the fire. “Barriers are quite simple to produce, and I happen to be rather skilled at them.” 

Morrigan scoffed. 

“And you are also the one meant to manipulate the Veil. So you propose to keep Shandi safe, and to also close the veil against Decadence should she appear?”

Solas shrugged as the scent of ginger and lemon filled the room. She’d asked him once why so much ginger - she could hardly taste anything else in the blend because of it - but he’d just assured her it would address her morning sickness. Grateful for any help with such a miserable ailment and unfamiliar with the ingredient, she had accepted his answer and the tea.  

“Thank you,” she said when he brought her the cup, steadying her hands in his until he was sure she had a good grip. She spared him a wan smile. 

“It is not as though I will be the only mage there,” Solas said with cool composure. “Dorian and Aislinn are more than capable of aiding me, if needed. And Gabriel is quite practiced at barriers, besides.” 

Morrigan frowned, making her already strange face look positively thunderous. 

“Your lady love is pregnant, and ill besides. Do you really think — “

“Enough,” Aislinn said in her best Keeper voice. It must have worked, since they both whipped around to look at her with guilt in their eyes. “This is not helpful and I have little patience, and little energy besides. Return to the problem at hand and do not deviate, for my sake.” 

“My apologies,” Solas said, clasping his hands behind his back and giving her a contrite bow. She glared at him nonetheless, but his swift show of humility took the starch out of her annoyance. 

Morrigan grumbled, perhaps the closest she could come to an apology herself. Aislinn rubbed her inky fingers against the bridge of her nose, trying to ease the tension headache rapidly taking form behind her eyes. How by all the stars and the moon herself was she supposed to participate in this ritual at all? But of course she had to. She was the key to Decadence’s powers over them, and therefore she was also the bait. 

Anything to put an end to this nightmare. 

Chapter Text

“Is today the day, mon sucre?” Shandi asked. She still lay abed, curled up on her side like a dozing tiger, a pillow jammed under her head and the blankets caught up around her legs and waist. Her hair hung loose and her eyes were still only half open. Never had Gabriel seen a more beautiful sight, though it couldn’t keep him from pacing the room, a bad habit he’d picked up from Amjad. 

“It is. Hawke and Anders approach with haste, and…”

“Come back to bed, m’lord,” Shandi said, so sweetly that he found himself doing as she bid without resisting, clambering back in to cuddle against her warmth. She sighed, and it took some of the dire feeling from his overtaxed mind. Her hand described the line of his back, as if he were a frightened child. “We will face it together. Don’t be afraid. Remember, he is coming here so we can help him.”

“You’re right,” he mumbled, “of course you’re right.” 

And yet, nothing could have dislodged the anxiety, like a starving wolf gnawing at the half-rotten intestines of a scavenged kill. lt wasn’t only for the state Anders was sure to be in; he did not want to face Hawke, the man who was so clearly better than him. What sort had it taken to win Anders’ heart, and why didn’t he possess whatever quality had made the difference? 

“Will you go and see him when he arrives?” Shandi asked, stifling a yawn. 

“I must,” he answered, sounding glum at best even in his own ears. “If things have become so dire that Hawke feels only the Inquisitor could possibly help…I have to face it. Maybe it will help, knowing for sure why we are taking this immense risk.” 

Shandi opened her eyes enough to give him a somber look. 

“Aye, you should. As long as you don’t warn Justice about what’s to come.”

“I think Hawke has managed to put Justice at ease.” He paused for a long moment, wrestling with his thoughts. “Though it’s not Justice anymore, is it? If it were, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Shandi said, drawing him in all the closer so that their bodies were touching at every point possible. “It’s Vengeance now, or maybe something darker still. Those Circle fuckers deserve to burn…it feels odd to think about separating them when Anders is in the right.” 

“They do. But he’s started to turn on other mages, if they aren’t up to his standards. He almost killed someone, just for being afraid, for acting as was logical for someone who had been a captive since birth. Imagine how horrified Anders must have been afterwards. Though I must admit I share your reservations. Justice is a person, and he and Anders have had a partnership for a long time. It wouldn’t surprise me if he isn’t exactly grateful at the end.”

As was his wont he felt his cock harden, as it often did when he was feeling negative or conflicting emotions. Before he could apologize to Shandi, she’d reached between them, taken his cock in hand, and guided it into herself. Whatever Gabriel was going to say next dashed upon the rocks, Shandi moved her hips with a lazy kind of need, drawing his full length deep. He wrapped his arm around her neck, moving with her almost instantly, comforted and aroused in equal measure by the swell of her generous breasts against his chest. 

Shandi’s hand slipped into his hair, and she made a soft sound as if she’d just eaten a slice of the best chocolate cake the world had to offer. He knew what that meant; a bare second later she tightened around him, a little cry coming to her lips as she came. He shivered, hardly able to stave off his own pleasure. Not that he had to, but he needed the little spike of suffering, of denial, to feel centered. 

Encouraged by Shandi’s plainly felt enjoyment he let himself fuck her harder, returning her touch and tangling his hand in her hair albeit harder than she had done to him. She gasped, her grip tightening in response, drawing an appreciative groan from him. He would have accepted so much more pain from her than that, but even the sharp bite of something so simple drove him wild and he didn’t last long after that. 

Shandi opened her eyes fully when he came inside her, as if the act had caused her surprise no matter how often they’d made love in just such a way after first admitting their feelings for one another. At first, even through his haze of pleasure, he thought she was upset with him. But that wasn’t it, he realized as she searched his expression. She looked…vulnerable, wondering over something she couldn’t answer on her own. 

“Are you all right?” He asked, caressing her beloved face. She looked even more beautiful than she had earlier, still half asleep. Now her silver eyes practically glowed like an elf’s, and her hair lit up like a life-giving campfire as the sun seeped in through the window blind to stroke it with fingers of golden light. 

“Yeah. That just…felt different. Than usual.” 

“Bad?” He wanted to know, worried that he’d somehow brought pain to his love instead of pleasure. 

“Oh, no! Of course not. I’m sorry I made you wonder.” She smiled at him reassuringly and he chose to accept that, feeling his anxiety ebb away. Right up until he remembered what the rest of the day would entail, that is, but at least that feeling of dread had nothing to do with Shandi and whether her mood had soured against him. Apparently she’d read the train of his thoughts, since she followed up with, “go, m’lord. See him and get it over with. Then you won’t have to wonder, for good or ill. Do you want me to go with you?”

He considered that, reluctantly separating from her and standing up. He immediately missed the comfort of being abed with his…soon to be wife, he realized with enough force that he stumbled on his way to the chest of belongings in the corner. 

“No,” he said, though a large part of him wanted to agree. “I…should see him alone, at first.”

“I understand,” Shandi said, snuggling up under the blankets once more. “But if you need me after all, I’ll be here.” 

He took her support in as a suffocating man draws in a clean breath of air, bestowing a second chance moments before death. Still, he agonized over his grooming and clothing, eventually choosing the cloud-grey mage robes instead of the navy blue, embroidered in glimmering silver with clasps and buttons in white gold. He pulled on his deep-violet overcoat, making sure his sleeves and lapels were just so before belting the whole affair with a dark indigo sash. 

He stood to step into his boots only for Shandi to wolf-whistle her approval. He blushed, and for a moment he quite forgot Anders, Justice, and the blood ritual. At least Shandi would always be waiting, would always be there to give him a home. His soft place to fall. He gave her a final kiss and walked outside.

The hour had grown late, but that was no true bother. Hawke and Anders would be arriving under cover of twilight, the better to hide their true natures and purpose. For a little while, anyway. Thanks to Tale of the Champion, Hawke at least was fairly recognizable and it was only a matter of time before the gossips and politickers at Skyhold knew about his presence. 

The Herald’s Rest stood open to the evening air, and he let the raucous celebrating and singing emanating from inside cheer him for a moment as he walked towards the far rampart. 

He climbed to the furthest parapet walk, knowing that if they hadn’t gone directly to their rooms Hawke at least would be waiting. For Amjad, if nothing else. He didn’t have long to wait; as he crested the stairs, Mikael Hawke strode towards him out of the mist, materializing like a spirit crossing the Veil. Gabriel's heart froze in his chest; Hawke was one of the most strikingly beautiful people he'd ever seen. 

Long, straight hair in a rich scarlet, pulled back in a tail to reveal a strong jawline and high cheekbones, a deftly carved nose and grey-blue hawk's eyes that stood out starkly against his snow-and-roses complexion. He stood tall, with an effortless confidence Gabriel envied. He wore mage robes in soft ermine dyed a dusty blue, and silver velvet glittering to rival the night with its cloak of stars. The ash-wood staff slung over his back glittered with enchantments. 

Two serpents twined up the length of that staff. One had been done in lapis lazuli, with a scattering of golden scales winking with light as Hawke moved, its one yellow-topaz eye peering over Hawke’s head. The other snake looked as though it had been taken from the heart of a burnt tree, still glowing with red fire. No Tevinter symbols these; Gabriel could feel that the blue animal represented spirit healing, while the other…

The staff had a wicked blade topping its business end, just above the heads of his protector spirits; this man was no slouch in a fight, and Gabriel wondered how many throats he'd opened with that weapon. He certainly had the bulk for it. No stereotypical waif in a robe, was Hawke. 

He could already see why Anders would have fallen for such a man, and jealousy prickled his skin like nettles.

“Gabriel,” Hawke said as he drew close. He smelled faintly of lavender and green herbs. From making potions perhaps? Gabriel decided he found Hawke irritatingly perfect, and he didn’t do a wonderful job at suppressing the frown it brought to his face. “I'm glad to meet you. The Inquisitor spoke of you in his letter.” 

His voice had a buttery quality, made smooth by his accent. 

“As am I,” Gabriel said, though his heart wasn't in it. Hawke looked amused, as If he could see right through the act.

“Really? Because I sense a little tension.” 

Nothing little about it.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Why do you look like you want to claw my eyes out?” Gabriel couldn't think of a reasonable response, so he stared back in silence. “Is it because you used to know Anders? I promise you, I didn't encourage him in this path.” 

Gabriel felt like an ass for being so rude to a man he'd never even met, but the hurt from long ago still pulsed in the back of his thoughts. 

Hawke must have seen something on his face, because recognition flashed across Hawke's features.

“Did you and Anders...?”

“Have something? I thought we did.” Stupid, to show his hand so readily. Yet the misery like a whirling vortex inside of him didn’t lend itself to silence. 

“Maker,” Hawke breathed, his brows drawing together in consternation, “no wonder you hate me so.”

“I don't hate you--!”

“Peace, Gabriel. Tell me what happened between you.” 

Gabriel walked down the stairs to the courtyard, supported precariously on shaky legs. Hawke followed, falling in to step with him with the kind of friendly ease that probably made people like him right away. The way Gabriel would have felt about him if it weren't for this ridiculous thing between them.

“We...were in Amaranthine and he and I...”

Gabriel blushed so hotly he thought it would draw sweat from his brow. Hawke paused before the tavern entrance. Hawke put his hands on Gabriel's shoulders, gazing in to Gabriel's eyes from his superior height. Gabriel felt a sharp pang of arousal, just studying that perfectly made face. He noted that Hawke had lost at least one tavern brawl, but the little imperfection of his once-broken nose only added to Hawke’s charm. 

“Was he your first?”

Gabriel could only nod.

“Damn. Anders is an idiot.” Hawke backed away from him a few paces and Gabriel felt relief and disappointment in equal measure. “I'm sorry he was such a careless lout. I'll speak to him about it.” 

Gabriel wanted to protest to save himself the embarrassment, but part of him thought having Anders taken to task over his broken heart was a good idea.

“You love him don't you?” Gabriel asked without thinking. Hawke looked heart-struck, and his broad, proudly set shoulders sagged a little.

“More than I could express to you in any language. And yet, every day that man slips away and Vengeance takes his place.” 

Gabriel felt so small for envying Hawke's life then. He hadn't thought about the torment, the endless running and hiding, Hawke's feelings as he watched his lover go through what must seem a slow death. A death of personality, which in his estimation was more cruel than the kind of death brought about by blade or arrow. 

“Hawke...”

“Save it.” Hawke said, curt. Most of the time Gabriel had the perception that Hawke was as smooth as a still lake, but every so often something aggressive and hard breached the surface. 

“I just--”

“I'm sorry. That was unkind.” Hawke rubbed at his temples, and for the first time Gabriel could see how close the man was to breaking apart. The laughter and cheers from the tavern seemed almost cruel, when Hawke was suffering so. 

“Have things become that bad?”

“That bad? How inadequate.” Hawke scoffed, glancing up at the stars now appearing as if they might yet hold some wisdom. “He’s in our rooms, and you are welcome to see for yourself. As long as you can keep our true purpose a secret.”

“What have you told him about your journey here?” 

“Justice is insatiable when it comes to knowledge that might help the cause of the free mages,” Hawke said. “It wasn’t too difficult, once he realized how extensive Skyhold’s library is, and that you harbor apostates besides.” 

“There are no apostates anymore,” Gabriel said reflexively.

“No, of course. You’re right. I have become too used to everyone trying to put a chain around my neck. Kirkwall will do that to you.” Hawke said, sagging against the tavern wall. The celebration inside could surely be felt vibrating in the boards, but it didn’t seem to cheer Hawke any. “Besides, my favorite parts of Kirkwall are already here, like Varric and Fenris…I doubt I shall miss it much.”

“Fenris?” He’d only ever managed to read Tale of the Champion in fits and starts, and didn’t immediately recognize the name. 

An ambiguous set of emotions twisted Hawke’s expression into something both wry and rueful. Even then, Gabriel found himself captivated. Sometimes it felt like he had yet to meet a single plain person since arriving in Skyhold. Even people like Riley and Regina were striking. Hawke certainly wasn’t here to break the streak. 

“A friend of mine,” Hawke said, in a way that made it immediately apparent that such a moniker was the least of whatever was between Hawke and this Fenris. “Needless to say, he’s protective and wouldn’t have accepted me leaving at home, especially without warning.” 

“Wait…the one who hates slavers?” Some of the bare details from Tale of the Champion finally tripped his wires. “He used to be a slave in Tevinter?” 

“That’s him,” Hawk said, the topic apparently cheering him up some. Whoever Fenris was to him, Fenris enjoyed a special class that only Fenris occupied. 

“You know we have a Tevinter altus amongst our number,” Gabriel said, wary again. If conflict arose between Hawke and Amjad on behalf of their respective…beloveds? Did Hawke have two? - things could get unworkable very fast. 

“I do. Don’t worry. No one has to fall in love with each other. Just…stay civil long enough for this ritual to work.” Hawke frowned, and his eyes widened. He reached out and clasped Gabriel’s shoulder, making Gabriel all but jump in surprise. “Gabriel….thank you. I know how much of a risk this is. I…not many people in our lives have truly wanted to help.”

The last of Gabriel’s jealousy drained away. Hawke seemed so capable, a lead from the front irreverent charmer. But whenever he acknowledged what was happening to Anders, the sheer emotional weariness bent his back and turned his face into a raw wound. 

“You’re more than welcome,” Gabriel said. Most of us here feel true love is worth the cost. Those who are close to the Inquisitor, anyway.” 

Hawke smiled and his gaze lit up with the barest flame of hope. Gabriel’s heart skipped a beat, and he tried to stop from blushing. 

“I appreciate that,” Hawke said. “Do you want to have a drink before we go and see Anders?”

“I suppose we had better,” he agreed. He didn’t like idea of facing Justice - or perhaps Vengeance, now - sober. 

Hawke steered him into the tavern, and he tried not to think beyond the next stein of ale. 


No matter how many times Gabriel had rehearsed seeing Anders again in his head, he couldn’t have prepared himself for the reality. Before Hawke could open the door to their rooms, Anders all but cracked it against the opposite wall. Gabriel jumped back, surprised, his veins filling with poisonous adrenaline. 

“Anders…” Hawke started, but he trailed off. Gabriel refocused, wondering what would have made Hawke end his sentence early. Anders stood there in his feathered robes, black now as opposed to the grey and blue he often wore back when Gabriel had last seen him. He swam in it; he’d become as thin as a reed bent and brown under the merciless summer sun. 

But that wasn’t the truly shocking detail: cracks riddled Anders face and neck, through which wild blue mana bled. The crackles and crevices wrapped around his left arm, and crept down his chest and stomach until he looked more spirit than man. Careful not to warn Justice, Gabriel studied the situation with his spirit healer talents. 

It was true. Anders was being slowly unwound, like yarn from a yarn ball. But instead of being knitted into something more, these threads broke apart into meaningless light that dispersed into nothingness. 

He had to employ all his willpower to keep his countenance neutral, especially when he felt Anders - Justice? Vengeance? - looking at him. On instinct he met Anders’ eyes, and shivered when he saw they were orbs of burning mage-fire. 

Gabriel. 

He almost jumped out of his skin, but managed to stay solid. Everything rode on him keeping up the illusion. Justice couldn’t sense even the slightest hint of their ulterior motives, or all of their planning would be for nothing. 

“Justice,” Gabriel returned, proud he’d kept his tone even. “I’m pleased to see you again.”

As am I. You encouraged Anders to bond with me, to take up the cause of the free mages. I…appreciate that.

His first thought was a protest: he had done no such thing. He’d only tried to convince Anders to stop being selfish, to do something more with his intellect and survivalist’s spirit. He couldn’t have imagined that Anders would respond to that advice by becoming an abomination. Creators, he hated to use the word, but looking at this ugly bond between human and spirit nothing else seemed to fit. 

“I can see that you have inspired him to greatness,” he said, careful. Then, a bizarre sort of guilt settled over him. As far as Justice was capable, Justice had placed trust in him. Perhaps was even a little bit fond of him. And had no idea that his murderer was standing in his doorway with a smile on his face. 

Yes. Though there is much work to do still. 

He cut his gaze furtively to Ander’s right side; Anders twitched and trembled as Justice spoke. Perhaps it had come to the point that Justice fronting had started having deleterious effects on the body he and Anders shared. 

At no time had Anders made an attempt - or at least a successful one - to take back his body and front. That felt wrong too; before it had been the other way around. Anders had been in control most of the time, with only the occasional visit from Justice. Now? Was Anders still in there?

Was there anything left to save? 

“I understand you are here to take advantage of our extensive libraries. Indeed, the Inquisitor was so kind as to aid me in bringing my own collection here to Skyhold. Surely, there will be something to help your cause.” 

I thank you. Hawke and I will visit at our earliest opportunity. 

Gabriel took the dismissal for what it was, bowing to show his respect before backing away and turning to go back to his rooms. Once the door shut behind him he leant against the nearest wall, gasping for breath. He’d done his work well. He’d passed the test, and Justice, as far as he could tell, suspected nothing. 

Still, he bent forward, sure he would retch. A new, horrible thought kept him from doing so, as it enlivened him with a different kind of anxiety: he would have to be certain no Tranquil were present when Justice went to go look through their tomes and scrolls. Creators only knew what would happen if Justice saw those who had been robbed of their very senses of self, just for being mages. 

He got up and ran for the library.   

Chapter Text

Amjad had come home after another triumph, bringing his clanmates with him in a celebration perhaps even more raucous than that the Shallan Clan had brought when they’d come singing through the gates of Skyhold. The sound of a fiddle certainly added to that, rising loud and jovial over the gathered assemblage.  

Yet, Gabriel thought as he and Shandi went out to witness them, there were so few. It wasn’t the whole of Brangwen Clan. It couldn’t be, not even with the thinning that had come with losing half their number to the werewolves. His eyes snapped to Amjad and Dorian, once again at the head of the group on their steeds. They were laughing, and even Amjad’s oft-grim gaze warmed Gabriel from the inside out. 

Still. He clung to Shandi’s hand as the crowd opened to let them through, his touch slipping over the scales of her dragon bracelet as he went to intertwine his fingers with hers. She had a diaphanous gossamer dress on, and she’d come out in her bare feet now that the grass had started to thaw. 

Gabriel felt like a vassal escorting a faerie queen, and he could think of nowhere he would rather be as they went through the crowd. Orlesians in pastel dress added to the analogy, drifting about like rose petals on a spring wind, the kind that couldn’t be felt at Skyhold no matter the season. 

His mood wasn’t without its thorns, however. There was the slightest hollow quality about Amjad’s eyes, and Dorian had more fine stress lines, subtle but there for the observant to study. Dorian's silver-grey eyes darted from one spot to the next, and he’d positioned his halla so that anyone trying an attack on Amjad’s flank would have to come through him first. 

So. They had achieved at least some of what they hoped (in this case something as simple as meeting old friends), but not without a price. 

He wanted to spit in frustration. Couldn’t his greatest friend, his benefactor, his lord, have five minutes to himself to go on a much overdo holiday? 

Before he could think anything else, Shandi went stiff at his side. He looked at her, startled, as she let go of his hand and stumbled back a pace. She looked colorless, her eyes and skin washing out into a sickly grey. Her bright hair cast her ill expression in sharp relief. He’d never seen her quite this way, and it filled his heart with fear. 

“Shandi? What is it?” 

He asked. She had her hands clenched into fists at her sides, and her mouth had become a snarled thread. He followed her gaze and lit upon a young Elven woman. A young Elven woman with blond hair and green eyes. A young Elven woman with June’s vallaslin, purple ink giving shape to her pale, freckled skin, the generous grin on her mouth making her light up like a festival lantern. 

Oh no.

Shandi broke and ran. 


 

The young woman’s name was Andra; Gabriel heard one of her contemporaries call to her over the happy din. The elf doing the calling was Amjad’s clanmate, yes, but perhaps more importantly she was one of the children who had hidden from the werewolves that terrible night where the Brangwen Clan had lost all but everything. 

It was not a difficult guess that all those who had come to Skyhold with Amjad were in that category; he knew he was looking at the children who had huddled together under an aravel while their parents and Clan were ripped apart by a curse the children had done nothing to earn. Moreover, they had no Keeper with them. Not even a First. 

Gabriel knew better than to go after Shandi just yet, so he approached Amjad’s rightmost stirrup instead. Dorian also looked pale, just as Shandi had, and sat trembling. He must realize what Shandi had seen. 

“Gabriel,” Amjad said, obviously pleased to see him but having picked up on the tension in an instant. “What has happened?” 

He glanced around as the Shallan Clan came to greet the Brangwen rebels, a complex thing of greetings, songs, invitations to share, and so forth that thankfully granted them some relative privacy as they made their way further into Skyhold. It also scared away a good measure of the Orlesians and/or Andrastians, a fact he was overjoyed by in a way that tasted of bitter melon. 

Gabriel fell in at Amjad’s side, Dorian watching. 

“Shandi…”

“She looks just like Dierdre,” Dorian muttered, when Gabriel foundered on where to begin. “Andra, I mean. Shandi lost someone…”

He was uncharacteristically taciturn and Gabriel noted it for what it was: a hesitance to tell the story of a dear friend that wasn’t his to tell. 

Gabriel’s twisted up heart nonetheless warmed for Dorian just then, seeing Dorian care so for his fiancé. Amjad’s face fell and Gabriel wanted to soothe that away; Amjad didn’t deserve to feel so, just like he would take the agony and grief from Shandi if he could. 

“Shall we have mourning rites for her? For Dierdre?” Amjad wanted to know, looking quite concerned. He twisted in his saddle to cover Dorian’s hand with his for just a moment. “And Quintus, if you will it.” 

Dorian blanched another shade, but his gratitude was so plain to read Gabriel felt it in his own chest. Amjad wasn’t just offering funeral rites. He was offering Elven ones. 

“I don’t know,” Gabriel said in a hoarse whisper, all but staggering under the weight of such a gift. “I’m not even sure where Dierdre is buried.” 

Amjad nodded, and his eyes were kind. Gabriel felt Amjad’s hand drop to his shoulder and give it a steadying squeeze. 

“We will speak on it at a later time,” Amjad promised. “We will make it as right as we can make it.” 


Gabriel found Shandi in a complete state, throwing up into one of Amande’s feed buckets. The horse in question stamped his feet and sidled, reaching down to mouth at Shandi’s hair. If a horse could ever be said to fret because someone it loved was in distress, this one certainly was. The beast looked up as it sensed his approach, and Gabriel could have sworn it wore an expression that said, well, do something

Gabriel came up carefully, considering the massive draught horse could have easily killed him with one well placed hoof. Only Shandi could enter his stall without any fear. 

Luckily the animal let him by this time, and he leaned it to gather Shandi’s hair back while she gagged. She sat back, apparently done for the moment. Gabriel raked the errant strands back into place, slipping his hands under the sheaf of her tresses and letting them fall composed down her back.

“Creators, Shandi,” he said, flailing for something else to add. He’d never even seen Shandi so much as under the weather, unless it were due to battle injuries. But he could well imagine all the times in his own life he’d cried or vomited or screamed because of overwhelming emotion, and even the sturdiest warriors weren’t immune to nervous breakdowns. 

“Sorry Gabriel,” she whispered, reaching for the waterskin she’d thought to grab at some point on her journey to the stables. She washed her mouth out, not, he suspected, daring to look at him. “Wasn’t ready. To see her, I mean.”

“I didn’t know, mon sucre. I’m sorry.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” she said, resting her head in her hands as if she’d just been graced with a splitting headache. “Can you ask Aislinn for some of that tea? Not the ginger stuff, the headache kind?” 

He leapt to his feet, glad of something to do. He did as asked, returning apace with a heavy mug of steaming tea. Shandi was where he’d left her. Amande had his head bowed and she was hugging his neck. She looked like a little girl then, leaning her head against her horse’s warm coat, her fingers tangled in his coarse mane. She’d cleaned up, but she still seemed pitiful in the way fevers made even the toughest people. 

“Mon tresor,” he tried, still at the hitching post some steps away from Amande’s stall. Sneaking up on Shandi never lead to anything good. “I’ve brought the tea.” 

She let Amande go, patting him in gratitude. She got to her feet and came out of the stall. Gabriel was caught between telling her to stay seated, and feeling relief that she could stand at all. He passed her the mug and she sipped from it, fragrant steam coiling around her horns. 

“Looks just like her, just like Dierdre,” Shandi said, leaning on the hitching post, mug clenched in both hands, her head down. “Same fucking vallaslin. I just wish…I wish I could be over it, somehow. I mean, I know that’s impossible, really. But for reminders to hit softer. That’s all I ask.” 

“I know,” Gabriel soothed, rubbing sweetly at the beloved, well-traveled trail that was her spine. Energy still radiated from her, dragon’s heat, but the most subdued he’d ever felt it. She felt like a guttering candle, and Gabriel tried not to dwell on it though as per usual he was only partly successful. 

After a long moment of silence, Shandi huffed and pushed herself up. 

“Let’s go,” she said, taking a moment to wash her hands and smooth out her dress. “About time to meet with Amjad.”

Gabriel groaned. It was the last thing he wanted to do, because it meant they could no longer delay the blood ritual. He felt so dire then that his mood seemed to dim the very sun, and he clung to Shandi as they headed for the great hall. 


After much discussion in Amjad’s quarters (and no small amount of ale and whiskey), Aislinn had offered up the tower in the Western Approach where Amjad had first confronted Livius Erimond. Already stained with blood, it would provide the mages with enough power to do what needed doing. 

Gabriel leaned forward in his chair, his hand over his face. This was really happening. No longer an amorphous thing that would take place in the future, but something right now. Still, he couldn’t argue with Aislinn’s point. The more power, profane though it was, the better. 

She’s so ill, and so is Shandi. Creators, this is a terrible idea. 

Amjad expressed as much, to Gabriel’s relief. Dorian and Hawke agreed, and though Fenris didn't speak his stony expression showed his opinion well enough. Dorian had a wan, drawn look, and he hovered nervously by Amjad; perhaps the notion of what they were going to do had made him even more protective than usual. He watched as Amjad caught one of Dorian’s hands, pressing it lightly between his palms. 

Of course, both women protested. They would see this through, and that was that. 

Frantically, Gabriel prayed in his head until he ran out of verses then started over again without a hitch. 

“So how are we going to get my blood?” Shandi said, bluntly giving voice to something they were all thinking. “For the magrallen?” 

Hawke, leaning against the fireplace, said:

“Normally I could do it with a blade, without leaving any permanent damage. But I’m afraid I’ll be otherwise occupied myself.”

Hawke had already told them that he intended to bleed for this chance, to death if needed. No one had the stomach to argue with him. Who else in this room would do less for their loves? No one. 

Hawke didn’t look right so serious, though. Without his insouciant little smirk and bright eyes, he already looked more dead than alive. The snakes on his staff stared, foreboding glints to be found there in their carved eyes. Gabriel couldn’t help but notice Hawke had chosen a black robe with red stitching, and it made his red hair blaze with bloody undertones. 

Gabriel suppressed a shiver, poorly. Shandi set her jaw, looking around at everyone with that no nonsense expression that felt like coming up hard on a massive stone wall. 

“Well, what about a whip, then?” She offered. Gabriel startled and looked at her in shock. She met his eyes and shrugged. Practical to the end. 

“That would certainly work,” Solas said, standing back from the gathering, hands clasped behind his back. “Is anyone willing to wield such a weapon against a friend?” 

“I’ll do it,” Gabriel forced out, his throat rough with emotion. Gods, he didn’t want to do it. Not this way. No matter how much he fantasized about things just like it, doing it for the blood ritual twisted and distorted it like the pieces of a shattered mirror trying to reflect a face. “If that’s all right, Shandi.”

“Of course it is, mon tresor.” She said, her voice as soft as the ridiculously expensive sheets on Amjad’s bed.  “I’ve been through much worse.”

“When it is done, we shall keep a barrier on you at all times so you may fight,” Solas told her, a little smile playing around the corners of his otherwise severe mouth. 

“Ah, and I have a gift for you,” Amjad interjected, his stein of ale nestled in his lap. He rose to his feet, a little unsteady from drink, and knelt to pull a box from underneath his bed. Shandi craned her neck to see what might be inside it as he popped the fastenings and opened the lid.

Inside, nestled in pink silk, lay a new sword and a chain. Gabriel recognized the chain instantly: a weapon-breaker, meant to bind an opponent’s blade. And even shear it in two, should the wielder have enough power. Shandi, who wielded two handed swords with one hand, surely had power enough to spare. 

Amjad lifted the blade from its encasement. It glowed, reminding Gabriel of his Knight-Enchanter’s sword. Yet this bore little resemblance beyond its glitter; the energy in it roiled red. It was for killing, moreso than even his weapon. It had sigils of such complexity they made his trained mage’s mind swim; Dagna’s work. It could slice through armor, or dragon hide for that matter. It would have taken an act of the Creators to break it. 

Shandi rose, and Gabriel watched her pale skirts settle into place like a waterfall. She crossed the room to Amjad, who now stood with the blade crosswise in his open hands.  

“Shandi,” he said, voice grave. “It’s not just the sword. I would make you a knight of the Inquisition, if you have the inclination to accept.” 

“My lord,” she gasped, clearly not expecting anything of the sort. She made to kneel but Amjad’s shake of the head forestalled her. 

“You needn’t kneel for me. Or for anyone else. It is I, perhaps, who should kneel before you.” He offered the blade from where he was on his knees, extending it towards her. “Take it, Ser. Fight dirty. Behave kindly to those beneath you. Defend them from evil, even as you enact bloody vengeance on our enemies. Take up the cause of the Elven. Will you, Lady Marlowe?”

“I swear it for all the days of my life,” Shandi said, smirking a little; Amjad had changed the usual vows from fight fairly to fight dirty. He knew Shandi better than most. She took the blade from Amjad, holding it aloft to inspect it in the flickering firelight. It threw refracted crimson light around the room, playing over Hawke’s face, Aislinn’s white, pale hands. 

Amjad picked up the chain and proffered it to her as well. She took it, wrapping it tightly around her free arm. It blazed up red for a moment to match the sword, then took on the color of a banked fire. 

“If anything may destroy Vengeance, it will be these gifts,” Amjad said. He clasped her free hand in his before rising. “There are no words to say how grateful I am to you.” 

He looked around, took them all in with his hand over his heart. Gabriel found himself transfixed both by the scene unfolding before him, and by Amjad’s piercing eyes. “To all of you. May the Creators watch over our endeavors, as we try to put right what has been tainted and twisted. No matter the outcome, I could never have asked for a better group of friends and comrades. We've made a Clan here, at Skyhold, and I am blessed to have you all in it.”  

Ah, Gabriel thought, glancing furtively at the others to see that they all had focused on Amjad the way he had, with focused attention and respect. And that is why he is the Inquisitor. 

Such a genuine display had lifted Gabriel’s spirits, and he could tell all of them, even Solas, shared his opinion. 

“Ready yourselves, my friends. Tomorrow night, we begin. Creators watch over you.”

They all made to leave, except for Dorian and Aislinn. Once he and Shandi were in the corridor, he took her hand and squeezed. 

“I’m so proud of you, mon tresor,” he said, mood light despite the approaching ritual. Walking out into the crisp air beside his love cradled and then lulled his anxious heart to sleep. 

Chapter Text

You want to know what it was like?

It was like my whole life had a fever.

Whole acres of me were on fire.

The sun talked dirty in my ear all night.

I couldn’t drive past a wheatfield without doing it violence.

I couldn’t even look at a bridge.

I used to go out in the brush sometimes,

So far out there no one could hear me,

And just burn.

I felt all right then.

I couldn’t hurt anyone else.

I was just a pillar of fire.

It wasn’t the burning so much as the loneliness.

It wasn’t the loneliness so much as the fear of being alone.

Christ look at you pouring from the rocks.

You’re so cold you’re boiling over.

You’ve got stars in your hair.

I don’t want to be around you.

I don’t want to drink you in.

I want to walk into the heart of you

And never walk back out.

Tim Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls


Gabriel, Amjad, and the rest of their friends had gone out adventuring so often it was little effort to put together what they would need, even under cover of night . They chose only their calmest, most well-trained steeds. Creators only knew what could spook them once the magic started to rise. Star, Amande, Orala, and Dennet’s best for those who didn’t have a regular mount, or had a mount unsuited to their task. Plus the two draught horses needed to drag the magrallen focus stone.

Gabriel, however , packed one unfamiliar item: a heavy, custom-braided bullwhip. He shook as he attached it to Star’s saddle. He had the shackles they would have to use on Shandi, too, or she’d rage too fast. He expected her to break free eventually , even from bindings inscribed with magery such as these were, but that was all part of the plan . It had to wait until they’d separated Anders and Justice, if they could do it at all.

He turned to Amjad, who looked somber in hunter green and black. He had belted his tunic with a deep umber leather. His cloak, fitted close to his body, had embroidery of the same color. The only thing that enlivened it were the little sparks of gold there at the hems, hidden in the elaborate stitching .

“Amjad,” Gabriel said, as Amjad inspected his quiver full of arrows. He put the strap over his head, arranging the position until it cut across his body. The arrows rode low enough for him to grab them in rapid succession. The Brangwen Clan had a particular way of handling a bow that allowed them to fire off arrows so fast it seemed a trick of the eye .

Amjad turned to him, his gaze dark.

“My friend,” Amjad said, coming over to clasp Gabriel’s hand. “What may I do for you?”

“I…” Gabriel started, his brains as scrambled as the eggs they served in the Great Hall. Amjad’s touch, no matter how chaste, was enough for Gabriel’s duplicitous imagination to hit the ground running . “I'm wondering if I might stitch some sigils of protection into your clothing.”

“As you like,” Amjad agreed, smiling now.

Gabriel took the thread of silver from his pocket, then the needle. Amjad held his arm out as steady as an old-growth tree root. Gabriel took care with the task. He bent his head as he worked and tried to visualize each spell the Shallan Clan had gifted him with.

“There we are,” he said when he’d finished, straightening up again.

Amjad inspected his sleeves. His ears swiveled forward and the tips stood up like a carefully manicured bonsai.

“Very good,” Amjad decided.

“They should help you avoid injury from the basic elements at least,” Gabriel said, sheepish. Amjad stood on his tip toes and kissed him on the cheek. Gabriel immediately went scarlet, unable to believe such a gesture. It was chaste, he knew that, but still…

Amjad turned to Orala and finished attaching the rest of his things to her side. Gabriel stumbled away and fell against Star when he reached her, hiding his burning face in her mane.

Hawke turned up as they were making to leave. He stepped out of the shadows, difficult to focus on as magic blurred his shape. He was still in his black robe, an unconscious Anders in his arms. A little thrill raced down Gabriel’s spine; magic indeed. Blood magic. He supposed Hawke had to conceal himself somehow.

“I wasn’t sure the tea would work,” Hawke muttered. Another one of Solas’ teas? If it were, it meant Solas knew how to brew a tea powerful enough to knock out a competent mage with a spirit inside him. A chill wound its tendrils around Gabriel’s heart.

Hawke stood there uncertain, Anders wrapped in a sheet as if he were already a corpse. Gabriel twigged to the problem a moment later. Hawke couldn’t bear the thought of strapping his love to a horse’s saddle like he was mere cargo.

Shandi stepped forward and put her steadying hand on Hawke’s shoulder. He looked up at her, startled. She hadn’t bothered with armor. It wouldn’t do her any good, since she’d have to take it all off at the ritual tower anyway. She still wore her silk dress. It floated around her like the enchanted, glowing tendrils of a jellyfish.

“I’ll help you,” she said. Before Hawke could reply, Fenris stepped into their circle. He had a grim expression on his handsome face - only accented by his black and silver clothing - and wore a broadsword on his back as long as he was tall . Gabriel recognized it; a Blade of Mercy. Fenris bore the weapon without bowing his proud shoulders; size and strength didn’t always match . His perfect skin had a tiger’s eye hue that drew Gabriel’s gaze all the more.

“As will I,” he said, and his accent made goosebumps rise on Gabriel’s flesh, so attractive did he find it. Hawke turned.

“Fenris,” he said, breathy with surprise. Gabriel noted that Fenris had what he thought were vallaslin for a bare moment. The light coming from within and the snap of thrumming lyrium disabused him of that notion.

“As if I would let you do this without me,” Fenris said, not even trying to make the words sound light. Fenris took in the sight of Shandi, his eyes roving upwards until he had to lean back to see all of her. “Shandi, is it? Let’s…”

He gestured at Anders, so still in Hawke’s arms, enshrouded. Shandi took Anders into her arms, cradling him to her chest.

“He can come with me and Amande,” Shandi said, pausing on her way to her horse. “If that’s okay.”

Gabriel’s heart swelled with affection. Shandi would take care of Anders to her last breath, or she wouldn’t have bothered to offer.

“Please,” Hawke agreed, his voice thick and unsteady. She nodded and crossed over to Amande who, as always, stood as sure and still as a mountain peak. Only his banner-like tail moved, stirred by the breeze.

“Where in the hell are you going?”

Cal’s voice. Oh dear.

Cal marched up to Amjad and all but waggled his finger in Amjad’s face.

“What is it this time?” Cal asked, his voice pitched low but with a tight quality, like a hissing snake.

“Cal,” Amjad said in a reasonable tone that probably only served to upset Cal further, “I leave all the time. Rifts? Cults? Dragons? I have a lot of reasons to venture outside of Skyhold.”

Gabriel watched Shandi lay Anders over the saddle, and Fenris come over to bind him down.

Eyes stinging, Gabriel turned back to Star and triple checked everything he’d packed. He kept his ears open, however , to the conflict between Amjad and Cal. He was the only one close enough to catch on.

“You tell me that when you’re carrying a corpse?” Cal gritted, having noted Anders all wrapped up as if in mummification bandages.

“We’re going to try and help him, Cal.” Amjad said, nodding at Anders now in place like the most precious, fragile rarity. “And it’s only the Western Approach. If company such as mine can’t do this, then it’s impossible. Calm your heart, clanmate. All will be well.”

“You’re going to use blood magic, aren’t you?” Cal said in a flat tone. Gabriel turned towards the two elves, ready to intervene if things got out of hand.

“If we need to use such a thing, it will not be the burden of the unwilling. And I have no intention of leaving anyone behind to die. Please, Cal. Peace. Go back to your bondmate and take joy in him. We will return before Elgar’nan brings the dawn.”

“I don’t like it, Amjad,” Cal snapped as he turned away and walked off to do as bid.

Amjad had no reply for Cal, willing to let the last word go unspoken. He lead Orala over, and Dorian came next on his silver mare.

“You know, Dorian,” Gabriel said, just for something to occupy him. “I don’t think I have ever learned your horse’s name.”

Dorian smiled a broad smile at him from where he sat in the saddle. He looked, as always, like a decadent prince in his grey and green attire. Brooches with the Inquisition symbol sparkled on his lapels just as they did on Gabriel’s jacket. The snake picked out in gold on Dorian’s overcoat undulated, wrapping around his shoulders, dropping across his chest, and circling his hips .

“It is Apparition,” he said, and Gabriel laughed.

“A proper name for a necromancer’s mount, isn’t it?” Gabriel said, mild, jamming his foot in Star’s stirrup and throwing his leg over Star’s back. He settled in, and Star lifted her front feet in an excited prance. He wished he could share her enthusiasm.

Aislinn came next, her halla all but leaping at being free from its stable. Aislinn still rode it as easy as anything, liquid as she and the halla flowed and moved together.

She had a red robe on, belted with gold filigree. She had eschewed earrings and had braided her hair back. No need to let an enemy get a grab on her if she could prevent it, Gabriel supposed. The spider broach, a huge ruby caught between its forelegs, rode on her left shoulder. A bag of mage’s tools hung heavy at her slender hip, the strap tooled, as was Brangwen custom, with stories told in pictograms . This one had to do with Crow Woman. Gabriel couldn’t say it was surprising this ritual might have brought up memories of her and Amjad’s mother.

It took him a moment to notice the raven on Aislinn’s shoulder. It was massive even for a raven, and had wings that sported a slash of pure-white feathers right through the center .

“A messenger,” Aislinn said, following his train of thought. “In case everything goes wrong. The Inquisition will come for us, if this raven flies.”

It was cold comfort.

Solas sat beside her on a fawn-colored gelding, his face inscrutable except for that little smirk that got on Gabriel’s nerves so . Mistrust throttled his stomach into submission and the beginnings of a splitting headache started behind his eyes .

Amjad, sure everyone had mounted, signaled them all to follow with an upraised hand. They went out the front gate with subtle magery blurring their forms. Nothing to see here, the spell said. Go about your business. In no way are we dragging a bloody magrallen with us.

Some of his fear must have shown on his face, since Amjad reached over to take his hand. Amjad gave it a reassuring squeeze before withdrawing, and Gabriel took a deep breath.

Now or never. 


As was their way, Dorian and Aislinn kept cheerful as long as they could. Even Hawke, as wan and depressed as he was, smiled now and again at their tales and memories. When they sang, everyone joined. It buoyed their spirits for a time. Yet as they got closer and closer to the ritual tower the mood dipped and no one, not even those two, had the power to prevent it .

All at once, the enormity of what they were here to do lay atop them. It was like being a child smothered by a heavy counterpane, fruitlessly fighting a far superior aggressor until death inevitably came to collect.

Amjad brought Orala over beside Star, so close he and Amjad’s legs all but touched.

“Look,” he said, nodding at the sky. The dark of night softened the Western Approach, and the sky was incomparable so breathtaking was its splendor . A crescent moon hung over their heads, a crown jewel.

“The crescent moon is a double-edged blade,” Amjad said, hushed. “Be careful, lest it cut you.” 


They left the mounts at their camp a safe distance away, but not so far that Hawke couldn’t carry Anders. He’d wanted the job even though Shandi had offered, and she’d surrendered Anders without protest. Hawke undid the loose, breathable wrapping around Anders head, taking a moment to study his beloved’s face . He walked ahead like a man about to lie down in his own grave.

Fenris walked at his side, his lyrium markings blazing in the darkness.

The draught horses brought the magrallen as far as they could. Amjad stood ahead of them, and as Gabriel dismounted he saw his friend studying the tower. He looked as grim as Fenris, then, likely thinking of all the blood that had been spilled . He could see the way the spirit of every slave who had ever died here dogged Amjad’s steps.

Gabriel could feel the truth of that, the cries of the sacrificed echoing up from the very stones under his boots .

And here we are to add to it.

It had to be done , but Creators…

Shandi came up beside him as though she could read his thoughts.

“All the gods protect you, my love,” he said, turning to look at her. She was, as always, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She looked celestial, the moonlight shining shy through her dress so that her nakedness -save the straps she’d used to bind her breasts - underneath was visible when she moved . Her dragon bracelet caught and held the glow, and her golden horns likewise. “My faerie queen.”

“Shut up,” she teased, though her gaze was kind. “I won’t disappoint you, mon tresor." She rolled her shoulders, stretched, and took her weapons from Amande’s saddle. The blade looked especially malevolent under the stars, dragon scale-red. “I came to fight.”

Amjad had reached the bottom of the stairs, pausing there. When he did begin again each step so clearly felt like an eternity. So much so that Gabriel could feel the emotions pouring off his friend as if they were his own.

“Come on,” he said, taking Shandi’s hand. “This is it. Mythal’enaste.”

Together they followed Amjad into the ritual tower. 


Through magery, Gabriel helped Solas lift the magrallen up the steps. As it was incomplete it lacked its base, and was at such a height that Shandi could bend over it and be shackled to it. Would it be enough? To save Anders, to trap Decadence?

He felt as though the foul demon’s presence was a foregone conclusion. He found himself gagging as Shandi had earlier, though he kept his dinner in his belly. Small mercies.

Aislinn bade her bird to take a perch high above them, so it would be able to detect any signals Aislinn might give it. Gabriel found himself staring at it.

Don’t be so dramatic. It’s not a harbinger of doom. It’s a tame old messenger bird.

Solas went to the magrallen to empower it. Dorian and Aislinn set to drawing complex glyphs on the stone with white chalk that glittered, eerie, in the night . Hawke laid Anders in the center of the intricate spellwork radiating out over the floor. Spellwork that, Creators willing, would free Anders for good. He looked unspeakably vulnerable, arms flung outward, head tilted back, his fingers nerveless against the cold stone under him .

Gabriel watched, heart battered and bruised, as Hawke brushed Anders’ hair away from Anders’ pale, slack face . The tenderness struck Gabriel in the chest as surely as one of Varric’s quarrels would have.

Pass over us, Falon’Din, Gabriel prayed, keep no secrets from us, Dirthamen.

He didn’t know how long had passed once the other mages were done drawing their glyphs and sigils. Fenris watched over them as they worked, his sword naked in his fist. Nothing here felt familiar or normal; minutes and hours were useless concepts. He’d spent the time getting kitted out for battle, sword at his hip, mana draughts hanging from his belt. He would have to focus on barriers, yes, but he also had to have some reasonable precautions if the fight turned physical .

He swallowed one of those draughts. His being lit up with power that made his head swim, shocks dancing down his vertebrae and beaming out of his eyes.

“Shandi,” Solas said, touching her hand. Gabriel felt a lash of territorial, frightened emotion tangle around his ribcage. Ever since he had first met Solas he hadn’t trusted him, and that hadn’t changed a whit with time. “We’re ready for you.”

Every eye turned towards her. She slipped her dress off as casually as if she were in a dressmaker’s back room, preparing for a fitting. She was luminous in the wan light from the scythe-sharp moon. Despite the black mood on him Gabriel couldn’t help but go dry mouthed with desire. Every time he gazed upon Shandi in this way felt as new and precious as the first time they’d lain together.

“Gabriel,” she said, her voice a whisper yet still carrying to his ears as surely as a shout. “Come on.”

He did, taking the whip from where he’d tied it over his shoulder, and the shackles - gleaming silver - from his belt. She knelt at the magrallen, then bent over it so the apex of the orb was pressing into her belly. She looked outright vulgar like that, her hands reaching for the stones on the far side as if to find purchase with her nails, opening her thighs to better brace her feet against the floor .

Shaking, Gabriel shackled her wrists and ankles, binding them to tie points that he shuddered to think had been used in sacrifices . She made a moue brought on by discomfort, but it soon passed. She seemed…serene, even though she was bound there as if they all meant to do unspeakable things to her. How she could be so composed, he couldn’t say. Composed was the last thing he felt.

Gabriel sensed the gazes of the others heavy on the back of his neck. He tested the whip against empty air, once, twice. Everything relied on this. This is what would start their spells, this is what would spark the fire needed to destroy Vengeance.

“Ready, Shandi?” He asked, flattening his palm against the small of her back.

“Yes. Just focus on me, mon tresor,” she said, the words meant only for his ears. “I consented to this. Don’t fret.”

Gabriel felt the sting of unshed tears.

“I know, my love, I know. I’m going to hit you, all right?”

“Yes,” she repeated, and he laid into her shoulders with half his strength. He could spare the moments needed to build up her tolerance and make it, if not pleasurable, at least bearable .

Shandi startled, but the shackles kept her in place. Her skin hadn’t split yet, but an angry red welt had blossomed where the whip had licked her. Gabriel pushed away his awareness of the others in their group, the fact that they were watching. Focus on her, Shandi had said, and Gabriel had never had a problem doing that.

“You look beautiful,” he said, feeling so reverent then that he had to resist the urge to drop to his knees. He could worship at her open, pink cunt for hours.

Shandi laughed, pleased, and Gabriel’s chest loosened a bit.

His next stroke landed in a similar spot, but this time he put his back into it and Shandi yelped. He was vaguely aware of Amjad looking away for a moment, horrified, but that too he chose not to dwell on.

Gabriel knew how to hurt someone like this. He'd witnessed it once or twice in brothels, back when he’d been flitting from place to place with little to no direction . He’d read about it, and he’d always wanted to do it. Or have it done to him, more like. And yet there was something so heady and euphoric about holding the whip as well that he quite forgot about the ritual a couple of strikes in .

By the time he’d striped Shandi from shoulders to thighs with lurid welts, she was writhing as much as she could against her restraints, and the smell of waking dragon had begun to fill the air . He tried not to notice that she indeed felt aroused by it, but it also relieved him of at least some portion of guilt.

The smell of blood brought him back to the moment and the reason for all this. He spotted Hawke rolling his sleeves up, an etched ritual knife in his hand. With no hesitation, Hawke sliced into the tender flesh of his wrist.

The next stroke of the lash drew more blood. He had to let the whip bite into the same wound over and over to get her to bleed and match Hawke’s power. He apologized, silently ; he knew she wouldn’t have heard him in her current state.

Shandi’s blood dripped down her sides and touched the magrallen. The stone flared, and the magery in it almost knocked Gabriel over. Solas grabbed for it, controlling it as much as it could be controlled . Solas was not a blood mage and would have lost his grip if Aislinn hadn’t come running over to help.

Shandi’s agonized panting sounded so loud in the small space. She’d gone from crying out at being hit to jerking like a horse struck with a crop, grunting as the lash came down again and again . Gabriel recognized it but had no idea Shandi was capable of entering such a state. It was the state he himself craved more than much else, the floaty, altered place where nothing mattered but the pain and the release it brought .

Gabriel caught sight of Hawke slicing into his other arm, opening his wrist and then up to his elbow. He let the blood flow into the glyph around Anders. Creators, it was a deep cut. Dorian raised his hands and gave the wild power shape and function. He wasn’t a blood mage, per se, but necromancy had enough similarities that he wasn’t at sea.

Gabriel could see Shandi’s body shift and change as he hit her. Scales curved around her wide, staring eyes as she looked back at him for a moment. Patches of them showed up all over her, the small of her back, her upper arms, the back of her neck. She pulled on her bindings. Gabriel felt a stab of satisfaction; it was working as they had planned. He wouldn’t have had to do this to her for nothing.

The glyph around Anders lit up like fairy lights, golden as fresh wheat. The energy flowed over and into Anders’ supine body, and began to struggle with the answering blue presence that represented Justice . Aislinn’s red essence and Dorian’s deep violet melded with Hawke’s, and the struggle for Anders’ soul began in earnest .

Gabriel felt the Fade strengthen, then deepen. Solas’ work. It made the sense of surreality all the more pronounced. His vision concertinaed and a wave of dizziness slammed into his unprepared form. He had to pause a moment to collect himself. The magrallen had whirled to life, the magic in it throwing itself against the border of its prison.

Any moment now.

He heard one of the shackles crack.

Aislinn went over to Hawke and Dorian. Hawke had turned parchment pale, a shadow of his former self. Blood stained his arms. Splatter was on his face and hair. He looked wretched. Once Aislinn started directing the magic Gabriel flung a healing spell at Hawke. Damned if he would let Hawke die here. Hawke collapsed, but Creators, he was alive and his wounds had closed.

Anders body jumped and twisted with the desperate nature of the fight as Aislinn bent over him, all but daring Vengeance to come out and face her . Gabriel landed another blow on Shandi’s ass, drawing blood immediately. She had blood running down her arms and legs, making her look as wild as a raging phoenix. She’d started to make a sound that hit his ear suspiciously like roaring. Her dragon-self had come through as strong as it ever had.

He felt it when Justice began to rise from Anders’ poor abused form, Aislinn all but wailing the odd consonants and cadences of her spell . Bloody essence had drenched her from head to toe, as if she’d stood under a slaughtered bull like a woman praying for a prophecy . Dorian backed her, the stone under their feet cracking in a long, jagged line from where he stood. Ozone hung in the air as his lightning mastery met his necromancy and arched out of him like a bolt of electricity.

The spirit’s essence crackled over them all as if they were standing in the heart of a lightning storm, in fact, making the very air crunch and crepitate . Two more lashes and Shandi had broken both her wrist shackles, and he could feel her draw taut under the whip. A predator, waiting for the prey to make a mistake.

She cracked the shackles on her ankles, then with one massive pull backed by dragon-strength she sheared them in two . Gabriel, task done, turned his attention to what was going on in the ritual circle. Aislinn stood in a circle of crimson, and Dorian beside her had blood magic staining his fingers. They were chanting in a way complimentary to the other, and the glyphs they had drawn flared up a sullen carmine.

Justice - no, Vengeance - had come half out of his host thanks to Dorian, Aislinn, and the oozing power coming off the magrallen . He looked like a fallen angel, once-white robe blackened with soot, wings made of streaming flame, armor of blackened bones . Fury had transformed the being’s face into a study in loathing.

Shandi grabbed her weapons, and Gabriel snapped a barrier over her. She went for the kill. Her enchanted chain lashed around Vengeance’s neck and yanked him out of Anders the rest of the way, the metal burning under her hands . Anders convulsed as if he were having a seizure, and Gabriel hoped beyond hope that the process hadn’t killed him .

Vengeance bellowed, an awful sound like swords clashing and sliding against one another. He knocked Shandi back, the chain slipping from his neck. He conjured a broadsword from pure Fade essence, holding it in such a way that left no doubt about whether he meant to use it . Fenris stepped up and blocked the strike before it could hit Shandi, who was still off balance. Her knuckles had gone white as she fought to keep hold of her blade. She straightened. She and Fenris looked at one another a moment, then nodded and turned again to face their opponent.

The veil drew over their heads, stifling and thick as if they were all entombed in a forgotten crypt. Dorian and Aislinn rushed in to pull Anders and Hawke to relative safety. Gabriel drew his sword, the glyphs warning lights against the depths of night. He concentrated on his barrier, knowing Shandi would die if he couldn’t keep it around her. She wore it as she’d worn her dress, with confidence and ease.

He circled the space, the smoldering runes sending pulses of blood magic directly into his circulatory system . He could rely on the fact that, though he couldn’t see Amjad at the moment, he would be near Dorian and Aislinn. Vengeance swept his sword around, trying to trip up whoever was too slow to get out of the way.

“See if Hawke has a pulse,” Dorian gasped. Dorian's attention was taken up by keeping Vengeance bound to this space instead of allowing the spirit to flee into the Fade, but he still spared what he could for concern over a friend . Gabriel saw the red and purple threads around Vengeance, searing into his already burning wings, etching divots in his armor . Amjad appeared out of the darkness, kneeling to check on Hawke, and then Anders.

“I can’t tell,” Amjad said, his voice flat and tense. Vengance adjusted his grip on his sword, raising it to murder the mages who dared stand in his way. Gabriel leapt in between Vengance and Dorian and Aislinn, bracing his sword to somehow absorb a blow dealt by a being of pure malevolence . “It will have to wait,” he heard Amjad shout.

Shandi moved quicker, shoving her sword between Vengeance’s ribs. Not enough to kill an entity such as this but enough to distract him at the very least. Fenris’ sword bit into Vengeance’s outstretched arm, sweeping it down and away from Gabriel . Not deterred, Vengeance slammed his shoulder into Shandi, knocking her back again. He reached out with his other arm and battered Gabriel until he fell. Fenris, he kicked hard in the stomach, making the elf clutch at the place that hurt most. He fell, rolling aside and laying still.

There was nothing between Vengeance and the mages now. Nothing save Gabriel, who knew even with all his powers he couldn’t face off against a spirit that strong and live.

In the split second between Gabriel’s thought and what might happen next, Amjad appeared on the dais behind Vengeance . He pitched a flask and it landed true, striking Vengeance squarely in the head. Frost poured over the spirit’s form, stiffening whatever passed for muscles and chilling the ichor in its veins . Spikes of rime erupted from the gaps in Vengeance’s armor, and his eyes glazed over with ice.

Shandi picked herself up and rushed back into the fight, determined to take advantage of this moment of weakness . Gabriel snapped another barrier around not just her, but around Dorian and Aislinn as they beat a hasty retreat . Fenris rose to his feet once more, but he had his head down and was panting with the exertion required. As Gabriel was feeling his lowest, the tear in the Veil reminded him of how much worse things could get.

“I can’t keep controlling the Veil like this!” Solas shouted, his hands upraised. Pure energy, much like that found in rifts, clung to him like a wet fishing net. As soon as he repaired the tear above them it ripped open again, a wound too fresh to consider closing. Even with the magrallen to help, smoldering behind him, he struggled. Gabriel could only imagine the strain and for once felt a moment of sympathy for Solas.

Amjad fell to his knees, the Mark blazing to life. He screamed, a sound that went through Gabriel as easily as a letter-opener set in the fold of an envelope. Shandi and Vengance locked swords, a grinding shriek adding to the cacophony.

The wound in the sky ripped open and a torrent of demons poured down in a river of brimstone and flame. Rage and Pride struck heat from the air, until it all but boiled. Shandi really did roar then, the bloodrage coming over her. She had more than enough goads pushing her in that direction. Amjad’s arrows found their targets and several demons burst apart into harmless shards, but there were still so many…

Apparently bored of fighting with a blade, Vengance flared up with energy and spun it outwards in an arc. 

Shandi leapt to the side, so full of Reaver agility that she was never in danger. Dorian and Aislinn had backed up enough to avoid it. Gabriel fought back, a quickly evaporating barrier around himself at the last second the only thing that saved him .

In the end, it was Fenris and Amjad that took the brunt of it. Fenris’ marks flared up with lyrium, his face in their harsh light twisted in determination and fury . They turned red and he crumpled. This time, he didn't get back up. 

Amjad fell to his knees and created a dome of mage light to hide under.

The sheer will involved was obvious in how Amjad's outstretched hands shook, demons clawing at his shield as he poured everything he had left into it . The Anchor whirled about with such unpredictable force it had to be painful, but Gabriel knew in an instant that Amjad’s spell hadn’t come from the Mark .

“Enemies of freedom,” Vengeance hissed, the crunch of broken glass, the sizzle of a broken-open fire flask . He kept his sword up against Shandi’s onslaught, though she and Fenris had scored enough hits that Fade energy belched forth from the cuts . Shandi forced Vengeance back, lashing the chain at him with her other hand in the hopes of at least tripping the spirit up . It couldn’t flee into the Veil; once the demons had stopped, Solas had stitched up the sky.

Gabriel had to turn from Shandi, as little as he wanted to. He remembered the last time he’d fought demons in the Western Approach and, imitating Amjad’s frost flask from earlier, he caught a wide swath of rage demons in a wave of magic . They took the cold snap head on, and shattered into meaningless shards before shimmering out of existence . But it hardly diminished their forces. By Mythal, had they done all this, come so far, just to die under the sheer weight of their opponents? He focused on Shandi again; if he was to die here, he would like to do so looking at her.

A massive crack split the air and two things happened in quick succession. One, a ruddy dragon spirit had come out of Shandi’s bracelet, its gold and silver body iridescent against the night . It blazed like Shandi’s blade as she held Vengance back by a mere inch or two. The dragon wriggled right into Shandi’s skin and in one moment to the next she and it had become one. They?..bit into Vengeance, fighting to crush his armor. Finally, finally, the dragon's teeth met in the middle, and the abhorrent abomination burst apart in a cloud of mana that made everything in its radius glimmer with wild magic .

Gabriel’s feeling of triumph was short lived. Almost as quickly as the transformation had happened, Shandi was herself again. She kept her feet by way of minor miracle, exhausted and in no small part confused. Or so Gabriel saw in her expression. He became aware of the others in stages, his own mind addled. Solas lay curled up on his side, not moving. Fenris, Hawke, and Anders were all dead to the world, too.

He forced down another vial of lyrium. Something told him that assuming their fight was done would be foolhardy at best.

He found Dorian on all fours, coughing, shaking. He’d spent everything he had, so much so he was in danger of hurting himself. Gabriel helped him sit up and all but forced the lyrium draught at Dorian's belt down Dorian’s throat. He looked like a corpse, but the lyrium brought some life back into him.

At some point, Amjad’s shield had flickered out. Amjad lay still, sprawled out the way Anders had been when Hawke had first placed him in the ritual circle. Dorian and Aislinn helped one another over to him, Aislinn screaming - or she would have been if her voice hadn’t gone hoarse already . Dorian was babbling in Tevene, too bewildered to deal with the sight of Amjad so still and lifeless. He knelt and started running his shaking hands over Amjad, looking for something, anything to indicate that his beloved’s soul hadn’t departed forever .

Gabriel felt as though he were walking a thread above a great and unfathomable chasm; if he didn’t control this situation Creators knew how bad it could get .

With energy he didn’t have he rushed over, trying to keep Dorian and then Aislinn from panicking. Dorian was a pitiful sight, begging and pleading with Amjad to return from whatever nether realm had claimed him . Gabriel tried to speak to him, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t respond to the words.

Gabriel pushed Dorian away as much as he could and wriggled into the space Dorian had left. He spoke to the spirits always forming and re-forming around him in a scintillating dance, the ones who hadn’t been corrupted by the tide of rage demons . In their voices like wind chimes they told him Amjad yet lived, but that his being was trapped beyond the Veil.

“He’s alive,” Gabriel rasped, and only then did he feel the full brunt of his own emotions. He blinked, and found himself blinking away tears. Aislinn sagged with relief and slid to the floor, too weary to keep standing. Enough of Gabriel’s statement got through that Dorian at least seemed to remember that he was in the Western Approach, and not some personal hell . “He’s trapped beyond the Veil, but we know how to handle that, don’t we?”

Dorian nodded, though he’d hid his face against the fabric of Amjad’s tunic. Gabriel reached out to pet Dorian’s hair before he realized what he was doing. Luckily Dorian seemed to need it, so he kept going.

“Aislinn,” Gabriel said, a tremor of fear going through him at her condition.

“I’ll be all right,” she said, holding out a placating hand as she struggled to sit. “Please, tend to the others.”

“I’ve got enough energy to help you too,” Gabriel assured her. He coaxed one of his friendly spirits to alight on Aislinn’s shoulder like a butterfly fresh from the cocoon, the pollen on its wings healing magic that cured ailments with each beat . He could see the relief relax her to the point where she’d probably be the next one to start crying. In fact, the next moment proved that true as she wept into Dorian’s shoulder.

He turned away as Aislinn had bid, though his heart was breaking. Solas had risen from where he’d lain, but he was still wandering the space as if he had gone quite mad. Hawke and Anders were both still unconscious and Gabriel could only hope that once they were back on friendly ground they would come to .

Oh, Creators. Unless they’re trapped in the Fade, too.

Fenris was another candidate for being lost to them. He’d seen Fenris absorb part of Vengeance’s awful power. He'd seen it drop Fenris where Fenris had stood, with the bare effort required to untie a skiff and let the waves carry it out to sea . He walked over, though sweat was dripping down his back and the sights before him blurred as he tried to focus. They were all exhausted, including him.

It was then he dared look at Shandi. She appeared her usual self again, her hair down in tangled skeins, her naked body tense, her head lifted as though she were smelling something the rest of them couldn’t . The crimson sword was still clutched in her hand. It dripped with shattered spirit essence, essence that swirled around her like foxfire petals on an ominous wind .

“Shandi?” He tried, only barely aware of the others after seeing her like that. “What is it?”

“It’s not over, Gabriel. Something’s wrong.”

As if things couldn’t be worse he caught a snippet of Aislinn and Solas talking:

“You said you could control the Veil!” Aislinn was all but shrieking like a banshee, undone by all that had happened. “You were supposed to save us!”

Solas looked down at her, impassive. “When did I say that I would save you?”

Aislinn’s cry of betrayal and recognition made an answering horrified cry rise in Gabriel’s throat, like crabs trying to escape their bucket before being boiled alive . No time, no time to deal with all that had been revealed. He had to keep his eye out, knowing another fighting force could descend on them at any moment.

The armed to the teeth group of Venatori coming up the stairs to meet them didn’t even have the grace to look so much as sheepish .

“Come on you bastards,” Shandi said, lashing her chain against the ground. Still full of bloodrage she added, “you want us you’ll have to come through me.”

Gabriel stepped over until he and Shandi were back to back, their swords out in a defensive stance. The Venatori rushed the steps. Their black and white armor was intimidating enough itself, but the mask and mantle each of them wore only added to the effect . Topping it all with horn headdresses and hoods was just flair, honestly . He was already properly afraid. 

It struck bone-deep, the simple mathematics of it all. There were too many of them. He could pick out mages amongst their number, in black robes with elaborate belts that hung down in strips . Shandi leapt for one of those mages and separated head from shoulders before the mage could get a barrier up .

The death thrilled him, gave him hope, but soon that hope was  crushed again under their sheer numbers. Dorian and Aislinn had both downed lyrium potions - he could feel the sudden burst of mana - but they were both in serious danger of hurting themselves . They'd already pushed far past the limitations of most mages.

His sword flared with green fire, the Veil energy strong in the ritual space. Even with the lyrium he’d drunk, throwing up a barrier right then was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. He felt Aislinn, Dorian, and Solas strengthening it, so that the Venatori had to stop. Only then, through the shimmering wall of protection, did Gabriel notice: their uniforms and armor were moth-eaten and mismatched .

He took what mana he had left and water washed through the enemy ranks, causing instant chaos and more than one pair of chattering teeth . He had the sense of Aislinn beside him, cutting into her own arm for the mana inherent in her blood. She had no capacity for fancy spellwork after everything she'd already been through, but the hammer of her magic came down on the Venatori hard and flattened some of them into dust .

Shandi was where she always was: the thick of battle. Gabriel took out the two men in front of him as the Venatori mages undid his barrier. It was a feat of pure desperation; without the adrenaline hijacking his system he wouldn’t have stood a chance

He and Shandi managed to control the battlefield for far longer than they had a right to. She was sure to take out the mages first, her sword flashing as she buried it in one of them, biting deep even as she got another around the neck with her chain . They both dropped, one with a cleaved heart, the other with a broken spine.

But just as Gabriel dared to hope, the assassin revealed herself. She looked fresh and full of energy, a lean light-skinned woman with dark hair shaved on the sides. She wore golden armor with a black capelet, one side longer and fringed. She had black gloves on, hands curling around her volcanic aurum daggers.

Both he and Shandi immediately redirected their attentions to the biggest threat in the fight . Shandi and the assassin clashed and only then did he see Shandi struggle. Shandi’s fighting style wasn’t meant to counter such quickness, to say nothing of the way rogues could become at least partly illusory . Still, she worked to keep up, pouring sweat.

Gabriel couldn’t watch for long. He had Venatori to deal with. It felt like facing a swarm of rats or locusts, never ending pests that nonetheless were quite dangerous in numbers . He cast a glyph of paralysis, repelling them long enough for him to get his last lyrium potion down his dry, aching throat .

It wasn’t enough. He knew it wasn’t. But he had to protect the others. Had to.

He shoved his sword into one man’s belly, his hand coming up with the dagger at his other hip and cutting his right-most opponent’s throat . He detected archers knocking their bows at the last second. He let his sword go, suspended in the air, as it deflected the projectiles intended for his lungs and brain.

Normally it would have fixed his barrier, too, but he was too weary to build a new one. There were other spells also. Ones that could have slowed and crippled his enemies, ones that could have restored his friends to their usual vitality . But they were as beyond his reach as they would have been to a mind-blind dwarf.

He saw Shandi spear the assassin through the chest. Done with such ferocity, the tip of the blade pierced the stone underneath the corpse as if it were mere clay instead.

A scream echoed across the space, but he was so tired he couldn’t place it. Weren't they all screaming by now?

Thank the Creators, they’d destroyed the last Venatori. He managed to turn falling on his face into a clumsy kneel, clutching to his sword to keep himself at least half upright .

He heard Aislinn first. She was screaming, wailing really, in utter grief and despair. The secondary terror made Gabriel lift his head. Amjad was still in the circle. Fenris, Hawke. Anders, who even now was starting to stir. Then what...? Gabriel got up and crossed to Aislinn.

She looked like the banshee he’d thought of earlier. She was covered in blood, on her face, in her hair, staining her dress. She’d cut so brutally  into herself that the wound was bordering on lurid; Gabriel could see her muscles and tendons .

“They took him,” she cried, “they took him.”

Before Gabriel could parse out what she meant, he heard his own name.

“Gabriel!” It was Shandi. But unlike her usual way of speaking, she was shrill with utter panic. He dropped his sword and ran to where she was kneeling, one knee up, one on the ground as if she were fighting against the urge to collapse, both hands scrabbling at her neck . “Gabriel, help me. I’m sick. I’m…”

Gabriel felt himself flush with pure fear. He was as desperate as Dorian had been earlier when clinging to Amjad’s far too still form.

“What is it? What happened?”

Shandi gurgled in response and his stomach tried to forcibly crawl out of him at speed. He found it then: five little needles. He could all but see the assasin’s hand, four in her neck, the fifth in her jaw.

Poison.

Shandi’s feverish eyes sought him out. She had an animal panic in her too-bright gaze, and her disheveled state made her look like a murder victim in those last moments, right before she was to be left broken apart in a shallow grave. 

Oh Mythal…it’s how Dierdre…

He couldn’t allow himself to say the word ‘died’ not even in his head.

If he weren’t so caught up in all the feelings currently using him as a punching bag, he would have been surprised at Anders rushing over . Shocked, even. But as it was all he saw was the healing mixture in Anders’ hand, one he’d likely stolen from Solas.

“Listen to me,” Anders said in a voice rough with disuse as he knelt by Shandi's head. “You have to drink this.”

Instead of answering Shandi convulsed. She barely avoiding smashing her head on the unforgiving ground, thanks to Gabriel stripping his coat off at lightning speed and putting it under her .

“Bugger all,” Anders snapped. He put his fingers in her mouth, pried it open, and poured the potion down her throat. It was sheer luck he hand't lost one of those fingers, Gabriel thought, but needs must. 

“Maker, Shandi,” Gabriel said as he conjured up a ball of light. “Hold on. We’ve got you.”

Shandi gagged, but she swallowed most of the liquid.

He found each needle again and drew them out of Shandi’s flesh with the very tips of his nails. He melted them down to nothing with a quick fire spell as soon as they were free. Anders had gotten Shandi into recovery position, so at least if she vomited she wouldn’t choke on it.

“This is a serious poison,” Anders said, as if he’d never left Gabriel’s side. “We need to get her somewhere with more than one healer. She ought to be kept comatose until we can purge it for sure.”

He got up on numb feet and went towards Aislinn, a broken sound falling from his throat like a piece of smashed pottery . He saw Aislinn shouting at Solas, mad with grief and incandescent fury. He barged in and grabbed her wrists, blocking the sight of Solas.

“Listen Aislinn,” he said, trying to be as calm as possible though he suspected it just made him look more unhinged. “I need you to send the raven to Skyhold. Tell them we need healers.”

Aislinn turned her full-moon-eyes on him. She looked like a little girl upset over a nightmare, but one of the worst nightmares a sentient mind had ever created .

“They took him,” she whispered. “I couldn’t stop them. I…”

He could barely register the words, let alone who might be missing from their number, so what he said was:

“I swear to you we will find him, but we need help now.”

Aislinn didn’t respond, except for with a thousand yard stare he’d seen on the faces of traumatized field agents.

“Aislinn!” He said, switching to Elvish. “Listen to me. Send a raven. I need to help Shandi and your brother.”

That got through, and Aislinn made a complex gesture to the bird atop the wall. It flew, a ragged caw coming from it as it stroked forcefuly through the air. She rounded on Solas again.

“And how long have you been here mocking me, Dread Wolf? It must be quite an accolade for you, trying to corrupt a First with your lies.”

The implications ran riot in Gabriel’s mind, shoving and howling for attention. He knew he didn’t have it in him to respond, so he went to Amjad and gathered Amjad up in his arms. It was only then when he was walking back to Anders that it struck him; he was the one carrying Amjad because Dorian wasn’t there to do it .

If his charge had been any less precious, he might have dropped it as the realization plunged his heart into a depthless drowning pool . As it was, he forced himself to make it to Anders, laying Amjad next to Shandi. Anders rushed to check their pulses, a crude but sometimes needed measure.

“Gabriel,” Anders said, quiet. “Tell me what happened?”

Shandi dry heaved before Gabriel could get started. Dark black blood spattered the ground. Anders’ hands lit up as he healed her as much as he could. What Anders must have been going through didn’t bear thinking about, but there he was pushing through and helping . Always helping.

Gabriel gave him the briefest rundown he could given the complexity of the situation. Anders brushed his fingers over Amjad’s brow, his eyes glowing with lyrium as he looked Beyond.

“He’s a Dreamer,” Anders gasped. “And locked in the Fade. Bloody hell, Gabriel. What is all this?”

“Can’t explain,” Gabriel muttered, tongue thick in his mouth. “ Just help. Please.”

He stood, intending to fetch Aislinn so she didn’t have to grieve alone. But her fight with Solas continued.

“Ungrateful,” Solas snarled. “I re-made the world for people like you, and I wake after a thousand years to find nothing but scorn. You think Amjad’s magery was protected at random?”

Aislinn’s face became a mask of hatred. Her long dagger was gripped in a hand so tight Gabriel thought her bones might erupt through her skin at any moment .

“Witherfang. Zathrian. By the Creators.”

“Yes. Witherfang - or what would become Witherfang - was a friend of mine. I stopped by from time to time. I knew no one in your clan could teach a Dreamer.”

“You’re a stupid prideful maggot,” Aislinn spat. Solas raised his hand as if to strike her, but thought better of it at the last moment. Her voice heavy with tears, so that she had to force out her next words. “No thought to what thousands of years means to an ever-evolving world. Despite what you say, you have always been selfish.”

“I am the advocate of the People!” Solas all but howled.

“Oh yes?” Aislinn said, looking like nothing so much as a spider waiting for prey to get too close. “And who are the People? Don’t lie and tell me you consider us the People. You are no better than an Orlesian noble in their bloody slippers, dancing on our graves.”

“Aislinn,” Solas said, sounding genuinely devastated. “You have it wrong. I didn’t think the Elves of these times were the same, you're right, or that you had the same worth. But you changed that. If nothing else, my love for you is true.”

Gabriel couldn't help but notice that Solas had not answered Aislinn's question about the nature of the People. 

“You awoke and met beings who could walk, talk, and harness magic, yet you still needed me to show you that we matter?” If anything, the confession seemed to make Aislinn even angrier, if that were possible. “We Dalish are what are left of your beloved comrades, yet you see so little value in us. Begone, Fen’Harel. As First, I conjure you to leave this place and to harm none as you go.”

“Don’t — “ Solas protested, but the ancient spell had taken hold. As Gabriel watched, transfixed, Solas collapsed into a different skin. This new shape was a massive black wolf monster with six red eyes, and as Aislinn stood before it, it tucked its tail between its legs and ran .

Aislinn watched as if she were watching an execution.

"Tel goras solasan, ma vhenan,” she whispered as Solas loped out of sight.

Come not to a prideful place, my heart.

Speaking of hearts, Gabriel’s felt like a fox tangled in a rose bush, the thorns slowly but surely getting past his fur so they could tear him apart . Wasn’t the blood ritual enough? Did they all deserve this awful, inexorable destruction of bonds after everything they’d already done ?

“Aislinn,” Gabriel said, reaching out to touch her shoulder. She collapsed into his arms, weeping as if she’d endured torture for months. He gently , oh so gently , brought her over to Anders. Both Shandi and Amjad still lived and he took comfort from that. 

It took him a long moment to truly realize they’d lost Dorian, and even then the thought was so cataclysmic to his feeble core that he shoved it away .

“They’re both in a bad way,” Anders said, “but — wait. Where’s Hawke?”

“Anders,” Gabriel said, sitting and all but pulling Aislinn into his lap. She clung to him and wept into his shoulder while he smoothed her hair. “Hawke and Fenris are both unconscious, but they yet live. Please, don’t ask me what happened. I swear to you, I will explain it all when we return to Skyhold.”

Anders visibly swallowed his panic and nodded.

I feel empty,” Anders added. He rubbed his chest, as though something as familiar to him as his own soul had been yanked away. And really , that was exactly what had happened. “I…”

“It was to separate you and Justice, what we did here,” Gabriel said, feeling that Anders wouldn’t appreciate it if he referred to the spirit as Vengeance . He could sense Anders building up a huge head of steam, so he cut in with: “look at yourself, Anders. He was eating you alive.”

Anders did. He noted the bony wrists, the ribs visible when his robe fell a certain way. He swallowed, silent.

Gabriel kept soothing poor Aislinn, sparing the tiniest wisp of mana to coax her down into a doze. He laid her beside the other two. Thank the Creators he was experiencing so much untenable to his being that a protective numbness had closed in on him . If he thought about Shandi, he knew he would become as useless as a foundered horse.

“How much do you even remember of the last year or so?” Gabriel pressed. He could see Anders flip through his memories, looking for clues. 

“Not much,” he admitted. “I should…I should check on Hawke.”

Anders got up and only belatedly did Gabriel realize Anders was about to see the truth of why Hawke was so bad off. A dismayed cry rang in the suffocating air.

“Mikael, you bloody idiot,” Anders said, taking one of Hawke’s arms and tracing the ugly raised scars. “You shouldn’t have done this, love.”

Gabriel could feel Anders’ healing power flickering, though it was like one or two half-hearted lightning bugs instead of his usual silver-blue wildfire . Still, Hawke stirred. He didn’t open his eyes, but even that little bit of reaction was enough to overcome Anders with relief.

Gabriel felt something else pulling at his attention. He didn’t look at Shandi. He daren’t. He went over to the dead Venatori and crouched down to inspect the ones nearest him. Their clothes weren’t quite right, but he couldn’t quite place what was wrong.

The longer he looked, however , the more it became obvious. The clothing and armor was ill-fitting and old, as he'd noted before. It also lacked symbols that should have been stitched into their robes and tooled onto their leather breastplates . The mages were the same. Their robes were tattered like vulture feathers, and several of the wearers didn’t even have shoes on.

The face of one of the dead caught his attention. He recognized it.

Rylen.

The commander of Griffin Wing Keep? What in the absolute hell —

This time the boots on the steps weren’t Venatori, but Inquisition. A little burst of flame burnt Rylen’s face beyond all recognition. He could only hope Rylen had been the only obvious tell. As the leaders of the group come to help them stepped up into the ritual space, Gabriel said,

“We stumbled on a Venatori blood ritual and disrupted it at great cost.” He didn’t bother hiding his panic now, though he still projected as steely an exterior as he could. “Help us get everyone back to Skyhold. Discreetly .”

He didn't know enough to tell them the truth. Not yet.

Once they’d accepted their orders he grabbed the nearest scout. Charter. Hard to forget her, what with her being Leiliana’s personal spy.

“Charter, someone took Dorian. I need trackers.”

Charter’s freckled face was stony, her ginger hair in its tail severe. 

“You shall have them,” Charter promised, her voice as hard as her expression. She disappeared into the crowd again and Gabriel could only hope she would keep her word, though he doubted Leiliana would have allowed any insubordination .

The sight of their mounts being lead across the sand finally allowed him to break down crying. They were going back to Skyhold. He had the best spy and tracker in the business on Dorian’s track. It would be all right. It would be all right.

He sat beside Shandi and held her hand until the Inquisition soldiers had to part them so they could leave.

Only at the last moment did he realize that Decadence hadn't shown up at all.