The circle glowed orange, then burst into flames with a loud crack. Any grass in the area was already seared off, but the fire burned for a few moments before scattering outward and dying. Kit scratched the back of her neck, squinting at the impact zone. “Well?”
“That was a fireball.” Donna grinned apologetically.
I hemmed and hawed. “Fireball.”
“Instant. So, fireball.” Sigmund said. “Though the inversion was a nice trick. I think we’ve got the trigger set up, it just fires off too early? Not sure.” He grabbed his stub of charcoal and started adjusting his diagrams on the page. The line was thick and uneven, more blob than line.
“Hold on, let me pull down yesterday’s build.” I curled my finger, then focused toward the empty space. A wisp slid across the Veil, flaring up over my hand. “Hello! Can you show us our fifth try from yesterday?” The wisp bounced in front of my face, looking for the echo. Its recall speed depended on the strength of the Veil. The spell was popular inside of circles, but less dependable for traveling enchanters. In a remote area, with no mage or demon activity, it could be painfully slow.
Out here, we had Circle speeds.
The wisp stopped bouncing and dashed into the center of our group. With jerky movements, it started tracing out lines and curves into the air. Once it had made a full loop, it accelerated, forming a blurry green image of the glyph. Kit poked at the trigger stroke.
“I want to curve it around here,” she said, tugging on the line, “but then it crosses the buffer zone over here. Kills the pressure buildup.”
“Can we do a flat burn?” Sigmund asked. “We’d have to refactor this whole section, but it could-”
I shook my head. “We tried that design earlier. Without the blast it gets warm, never ignites. Kit’s right, we need the buffer.”
Donna stared at the lower portion of the glyph. “If we rotate that part, can we jam more of the buffer over there?”
“That would push the trigger stroke left, wouldn’t that cancel the effect?” Kit considered, then started moving sections around. “Maybe not, worth a try at least. Need a rework here, pull that part into there…” She fiddled with some of the finer details, deep in thought. Sigmund scratched out a line on his notes.
“Can’t get this part to move over. Know it can fit. Won’t slide in right.” Kit sat back and looked over the glyph, tapping her lip.
“Are you sleeping any time soon?” We all turned to face Corin, who had been quietly gnawing on a ram haunch for the whole discussion. “This is fascinating, but you all complain about casting when you’re tired. One of these days, your maybe-a-fireballs will fry you. Or, Maker forbid, me.” At our chorus of grumbles and “I suppose”s, he chuckled. “No need to thank me, just doing my job. Protecting mages. And also innocent bystanders.” He fluttered his eyelashes.
“And it’s our job to complain, remember?” Donna said. “Or had you not gotten to that point in your training?”
Corin snorted. “Pretty sure that part of the training goes ‘if they complain too much, they’re blood mages!’ Must have missed that day.” Sigmund closed up his book and I called back the wisp. “Thank you,” I whispered, sending it into the Fade. “Isn’t that what they said about all mages?” Kit asked. “Why not have one day of training, ‘everyone’s a blood mage, here’s some lyrium’?” Sigmund shook out the blanket and folded it in half on the grass.
“Come now, we know not all of you are blood mages,” Corin said, looking wounded. “I have it on good authority that some mages are abominations in disguise!” He rubbed his chin. “Too bad we never learned how to spot them.”
“Yes, it really is too bad," said Donna, eyes crinkling. “Those abominations are nothing but trouble.”
As everyone else climbed into the blanket, Corin and I walked to the firepit. I leaned down to open up the scrap bag. I stacked the old clothes over my arm, handing the lyrium vial up to Corin as I dug through the pack. “Thanks.”
“From the Sky Pillars? Damn. I need to stop powering through these.”
“We can make a run tomorrow. There are some new soldiers coming through, saw templars with them. They probably have fresh stocks.”
“Wish I still had my armor. We'll have to be careful." I'd prefer not to kill them was implied.
I folded the bag shut and we continued toward the edge of camp. There was a hill with a tall rock formation in the middle that let us see most of camp. Our packs stood in the brightest ring of light around the fire. The lyrium was usually the biggest draw for thieves, but we also had old manuscripts that we couldn't replace. We liked to keep an eye on them. Past the fire, the others curled against each other in the blanket. We'd ditched our tent and some of our heavier supplies in a run-in with Qunari agents, but we'd had a string of clear nights. For now, the blanket was enough.
Corin stood against the rock, pushing one foot flat on the stone behind him. I sat down and started unwinding the grip on my staff. The sun had set completely now, and the last breaths of evening wind were dying down. Near the camp, a stream cut up slices of reflected moonlight. I moved the pile of disintegrating fabric to the side, and started tearing strips from an old robe. If I’d had any lacquer, now would be the time to apply a coat, but my pot of lacquer was on an unscheduled trip to Par Vollen. Instead, I knotted one end of the new strip to hold it in place, and started re-wrapping, holding the first loops tight with my thumb.
By the time I tied off the first layer of fabric, Corin was almost done. He tipped the vial vertical and tapped against the edge. Satisfied that he’d gotten the last dregs, he set it on the ground. He picked up his bow and a handful of arrows, splaying them between his knuckles. He looked over, expectantly. We’d pinched some good arrows from an Orlesian barracks, arrows we didn’t want to lose on practice. I choked my hand up my staff. Before the new grip could unravel, I flicked my other hand, creating a small ring of force around him. When he fired, the line of arrows slowed to a stop. He plucked them out of the air and repeated the shot, aiming at some distant rock.
I went back to wrapping my grip. Force magic looked flashy, but we joked that it came naturally. No one casts the same first spell, but their second spell is always deflection. Knight-Enchanters claimed "deflection" was a kind of barrier. For elemental mages, they called it "the element of disguise". I'd even heard a variation with blood magic. But for every subject, the next part went the same.
Are we learning how to cast it now?
Casting what? I'm just here to take you to the dining hall.
As much as the older teens would tease sheltered Circle babies, they relied on them for information about the Circle itself. Many a rumor was started by some grinning Circle tyke, mad with power.
Enchanter, I saw Andre drop his staff and pick it up real fast. Is there a blood mage in the tower?
Including a persistent superstition that mages dropped their staves when mind-controlled. Every few years, it came back in a different form. The mage does it as a last act of defiance, reducing their usefulness to their attacker. Or maybe maleficarum and demons don't like staves, it interferes with their casting. Or mind control isn't perfect, so the victim acts clumsy. Whatever the explanation, all it took was a single child pointing at a drawing of abominations with empty hands, and I'd spend the next few months reassuring young mages.
But what if he's trying to get my attention, and the blood mage tried to hide it!
If someone is controlled, they usually don't have time to call for help. They're not controlled, and then they are.
In retrospect, not the most comforting way of putting it. But the younger mages were terrifyingly practical. As long as they grasped the order of the world, they had no preference for whether it was grim or bright. Accounts of abominations and thralls erupting in violence? To them, that was life. They were far more troubled by Phoebe of Amaranthine, who credited her lush nature poetry to "Pique", believed to be a rage spirit. Or the Forbidden Hospice, where the dying bought rituals that removed their sense of pain. Shuttered in late Blessed as a peace offering to the southern Chantry.
For once, I wasn't throwing complexity at him. The young mage hopped in relief. Oh, that's good to hear! He borrowed one of my books yesterday. I thought I wouldn't get it back!
The Veil pulsed. Corin scooped up the suspended arrows and kept them arranged in his hand. I stood up, finishing the last few turns of fabric and tucking it through. I dispelled the ring. In the center of camp, Donna was sitting up, her eyes wide open.
“What is she seeing?”
Corin didn’t respond, but I could tell he was following her lines of sight. Donna stood, white-gold light spreading from her eyes and blooming along her skin.
“At a guess, I would say-”
“COWARDS!” Valor’s voice boomed into the night. An arrow sang out from behind a rock, landing in her stomach. In one smooth motion, she pulled it out, dropping it on the ground. A point of light appeared where the arrow had been, then went dark as it healed shut. We could see furtive movements where Kit and Sigmund slept, as they woke up, recognized the situation, and rolled out of the way.
“YOU COME TO US, HIDING BEHIND ARROWS”
On cue, more arrows flew out of the darkness. By now, the glare was so bright that most of them went wide. Corin returned their fire, picking them off as he saw movement. I quickly summoned a wisp, blowing it toward the main body of archers. As their hiding space lit up, Kit and Sigmund slammed them to the ground and sealed them in a firestorm.
“TOO AFRAID TO APPROACH WITH WORDS!”
Valor was pulling out arrows by the handful now. Corin quickly put down the stragglers still burning in the firestorm, then looked around for the second group. Sigmund dropped a paralysis glyph next to our bags, guessing that the intruders would be looking for valuables. A few seconds later, his guess proved correct, and Corin finished two more off with shots to the chest. Kit spun ice bolts behind the two corpses, hoping to land a freeze on some of their backup.
"BANISH YOUR FEAR, AND COME TO US AS FRIENDS!"
But the remaining attackers had seen enough already, and they ran off into the night. By degrees, Donna’s skin dimmed and went dark, until her eyes were the only thing still glowing. When those blinked human, she moved up to Corin and dropped a wad of arrows in his quiver. “As I was about to say, I believe it’s our turn to keep watch.”
It wasn't, but Donna had been having strange dreams for over a month now. She said that keeping watch helped clear her mind.
Kit moved to follow her to the edge of camp. “Sleep well.” Once we'd salvaged the rest of the arrows, Corin, Sigmund, and I climbed into the blanket and went to sleep.
The next morning, Corin was having a heated discussion with some stranger. A few paces away, Sigmund stood in front of a large pile of items, his arms crossed. Was it someone we’d stolen from? No, the stranger was trying to make nice. I blinked back sleep and got up, hearing Donna and Kit moving behind me.
“Dirthamen’s feathery nutsack, what happened to 'come as friends'? Blighted waste of time!” The elf was unarmed - no, she’d dropped her weapons on the ground. A sash of daggers, two larger daggers in sheaths, probably from her belt, weighted gloves, a suspiciously serrated hair pin, and a knapsack. I rounded on the knapsack. It was open, and absolutely filled to the brim with spike traps.
Kit came up behind me. “Who is this? A pirate?”
The stranger turned to scowl in our direction, but brightened when she saw Donna. “Ah, Coward Woman. You’ll speak to me!”
As if she had not woken up to a knife-plated elf calling her Coward Woman, Donna smiled. “I saw you come back for the bodies last night. Thought you’d be around.” She reached over to clap the elf on the back, jerking her head toward the campfire when we gave her nothing but blank stares.
“Come, eat with us. We still have plenty of ram roast. Cold, I’m afraid.”
“That sounds marvelous. I am Lisse, by the way,” she added, turning toward the rest of us. Inexplicably, she was much friendlier. I still didn't understand why Valor's calls to action worked. Like a chantry mother asking for rededications, someone always came to the front. Even if we'd tried our hardest to kill them the night before. Donna made introductions as we walked. When we reached the center of camp, she tore off a hunk of meat and offered it to our guest.
Lisse played with the clasp of her cloak and produced a dagger, using it to tuck into the roast. “As I explained to your quiet mage man, I’m joining your group.” Sigmund’s lips pursed. I couldn’t tell if he was affronted that she’d already forgotten his name, or wondering how many daggers she was still hiding on her person.
Corin rolled his eyes. “As I explained to the walking Crow supply closet, we can’t just take on anyone.” He turned to Donna. “We do remember the last time Valor brought in strays?"
“I remember having to sleep in the mud before those ‘strays’ gave us a quilt, Corin.”
“Yes, they were so polite before that ritual with the gurn.” Corin rubbed his temple, sticking his free hand into the scrap bag. “I will give them that.” He batted his hand around at the bottom of the bag, pointedly ignoring the fact that I was shaking my head at him. With both hands, he began lifting objects out and stacking them at his feet.
“Can’t find the lyrium?” Kit asked. “Is there some in the-”
"We're out,” he said, shoving the half-full bag away. “Another reason we shouldn't be wasting time on this woman."
Lisse tapped on Corin’s knee, like an overindulgent aunt. "You are needing lyrium. I know just the place. When I finish eating, we can go there."
"Oh, we've heard that tune." Kit grumbled. "Are the templars offering rewards now, or do you have a friend in the order?"
The newcomer blinked. "The templar order?"
She set down her knife.
“When was the last time you set foot in a tavern?”
Likely for the sake of game balance, abominations in the games are weaker than those described in stories (cf. Wynne in Asunder or Anders in his short story). I've chosen to go the "abominations op pls nerf" route.
City got too hot. She left.
We peppered Lisse with questions until sundown. We had missed so much. The tears in the Veil, we'd seen, but this was something else. The templar order disbanded. The rebel mages allied with Tevinter. A qunari mercenary doing miracles as Andraste's chosen. The whole world was changing.
But I clung to any news from Kirkwall.
We shouldn't go back. Couldn't. The viscount was a templar puppet. What did it matter that she was gone? And disbanding the templar order would make no difference to the Gallows. Even before Threnhold, they were our princes and viscounts, our empresses and queens. They'd hardly budged when the Maker cursed the knight-commander. Would they follow some far-off lieutenants laying down their banners? No. I refused to think that they would.
They wouldn't, because Kirkwall belonged to no one but itself. It could be cold, even cruel to outsiders, but in the end they came out as loyal as any native.
A year after I'd transferred there, word got back to Nevarra about a particularly bad escape attempt. No civilians were harmed, but the blood mages gutted anyone in their way. In the tower, that was mostly other mages. Loyalists, aequitarians, even other libertarians who knew the plan and tried to stop it. I'd been up with the other junior mages, far away, but most of the enchanters had friends among the casualties. There was a wave of tranquility, murmurings of annulment, but since it never spilled out of the Gallows, there were no calls for action from the outside. They forgot, and the city moved on.
I knew my father would panic, so I sent a letter first. This was one time. Look, the templars stopped it before they left the tower. In that first year, Kirkwall's stubborn independence had become my own. It was my first time living so far from my family, and maybe that feeling got tangled into my feelings for the city. A part of me feared that my parents, Nevarrans of no great standing, would trek to the Free Marches and convince the knight-commander to send me back. Next month, I begin studying under Ettis. The "swallowing the Veil" one, remember? She'll be training me personally. Even then, I knew. I insisted. I would never leave Kirkwall.
Well, we’d made our decision. We’d made an escape of our own, much smaller and with less blood. Burning away any chance that they’d take us back without the brand. We’d pulled in favors from apostates. I can’t believe the Circle’s supplying them. Potions, components, even Tevinter manuscripts! No one admits to it, the supplies are “lost” or “stolen”, but everyone knows. We can’t control what they’ll do with them. Perhaps that’s the point, pretend ignorance while they do the dirty work. But Sigmund’s contacts couldn’t read decade-old letters to my family, so they did the dirty work to get us out.
Even if we could return, the Circle would be a mess. The Veil even thinner than normal. "An opportunity disguised as danger... or is it danger disguised as an opportunity?” Ettis would have said. In dreams, the Fade would have its pick of horrors. The first enchanter would appear, only in flashes, his robes immaculate as he dashed from one meeting to another. The daughters and sons of noblemen would get up, one by one, and explain that they’d been transferred to another Circle. Wishing us all the best. Troublemakers, people that I knew had connections on the outside, would abandon their projects and sit peacefully on their beds, reading volumes that I didn’t recognize.
Ah, but there was no point to this line of thought, except to wallow in a past long gone.
I wrapped my edge of the blanket under me, pulling it taut over the others. After a little more wallowing, I was tired enough to fall asleep.
The next day, we set out for lyrium. Lisse had seen the same templars I had. Whatever was going on with the order, they still took the stuff. I'd seen enough in the Gallows to know that. Lisse had scouted the camp with her old group, so she took the lead. Donna went next, to absorb knife wounds if our new friend had a change of heart. Sigmund and I took the rear. We found that people forgot to look for other mages once Valor came out.
Kit stayed back at camp, guarding our books, a dagger bandolier, a knife brooch, a hairpin, weighted gloves, and a backpack full of spike traps. She'd offered to keep an eye on Corin as well, but he insisted that he was still good to fight. He knew he wasn't well enough to watch for trouble, so he walked between Donna and Sigmund.
The templars' supply post was some distance away. Lisse walked backward as she talked. "These scouts are sincere, but they were farmers not weeks ago. If they approach you, any story will do."
Sigmund frowned. "If they're as green as you say, we don't know how they'll react. Maybe they'll see their first chance to impress their superiors."
"Please. Farmers also retired into my former company." Her voice dripped with disdain. "I know exactly how they will respond, trust me."
"Still not a chance." I doubted that Sigmund trusted anyone, us included. "Is there any cover near their camp?"
"Incompetent as they are, even farmers understand thieves."
"Ah, just the spot, I see." Corin's arrows clattered against each other as he shifted them hand to hand. "Just a spot swarming with templars and fanatics, a spot that we'll approach with three mages, a templar with no templar armor or powers, and a door-to-door knife salesman."
"We will be fine. Coward Woman heals mortal wounds, and still you fear?"
A direct challenge. Unless Valor's opinion on the second spell had changed, we had moments before she explained her limitations in blunt detail. Generous as she was with information, Lisse had little to tie her to us. If she'd joined because she thought we had godlike powers...
The moment scratched along.
Corin's wrist slackened by a hair, the arrows falling into better position for loading.
Sigmund kept his scowl, but I felt the barest tingle of a fireball forming.
And Donna wrapped her other hand around her staff. Not preparing to cast, just holding. The meaning was clear. It's our choice, not Valor's.
In that moment, I trusted her intuition about Lisse. The rogue deserved to know. Avoiding eye contact with Corin and Sigmund, I wound up my lecture on the fickleness of spirits. I'd honed it on wave after wave of reckless trainee healers. It touched on virtues, on death, and on the deliciousness of fish soup. It was a good lecture.
But Donna broke a laugh before I could begin. "That would be no fun, wouldn't it? Where's the skill in that?"
Lisse tipped her dagger from her forehead. "Just so. Indeed, we may not need to be fighting at all. The Inquisition recruits all comers."
"I have seen apostates among them with my own eyes."
Corin swept arrows into his bow, idly shooting them into the distance. Sigmund still looked unconvinced. "Today they welcome mages. Tomorrow, maybe not. Templars tell people to jump, they'll run their own sister through." I tried to shift gravity around Corin to keep the arrows contained.
"This is a fair concern. But you are only needing their attention for today." My spell fell sideways. If anything, Corin was spending arrows faster now. Sure, no templar powers.
"'You.' Not 'we'?"
"A distraction distracts from. I am the from."
The last of the arrows from Lisse's band sailed toward a distant rock. Like a golem commanded to fidget, our templar reached into his quiver for the Orlesian arrows and kept firing. Donna's focus was on Lisse, but I could see her hand lift into Corin's periphery.
That got him to stow his bow, but the Fade dimmed. A locked door before a raid. On instinct, Sigmund, Donna, and I lowered our hands, opened our palms, and shifted apart. See, no gestures. No blood. No collusion. Move along. I don't know how the templars expected to surprise actual maleficarum. The senior commanders had their preemptive dispels under control, but Meredith had grown the force every month. Even junior mages could tell when a raid was coming.
"You said yourself that there was no cover,” Sigmund said, his attention now split between the two non-mages. ”Even with a distraction, they'll watch the supplies. New recruits are cautious."
Lisse crooked her elbow around one of her daggers, warming it. "Then distract them with caution." Her voice dropped. "We are near." Swapping daggers and elbows, she pointed at a campsite on the horizon. Before any of us could contradict, she'd darted off toward a halla. When it fell over dead, she'd gotten past it. On that flat, featureless riverbank, she vanished.
Donna mouthed something that looked like "Blood magic?" But we were close now, and Corin stalked forward without a second glance. The rest of us lengthened our strides to stay in front. Even if these scouts were hostile to apostates, he was in no condition to be our face. Besides, it felt wrong to walk behind him. The Fade still smelled like jumpy templar.
As we approached, three scouts were busy assembling some kind of surveying tool. Their armor was unmarked, but their chatter left no doubt about who they worked for. Beside them, eye and sword heraldry leaked out of a bag of banners. The whole scene was supposed to look careless. It reminded me of mages who had just learned how to control ice. "Accidentally" chilling their friends' drinks, or letting frost edge their hands when they reached for a high book, as if cold spells came to them unbidden.
If this became a fight, we outnumbered them and had Valor if need be. Yet three could become five or a dozen if they sounded a horn, and they had more formal training and real armor than all of us combined. Though they were busy, they were keeping half an eye on the wagon. We'd have to contrive quite a distraction to give Lisse any hope of sneaking in. "Blood magic" or no.
The youngest scout turned to address us. “Do you have business with the Inquisition?”
“None.” I said. Donna and I stepped forward. “But we’d heard of the Inquisition and wanted to see it for ourselves. What’s your interest in the area?”
The frontmost scout looked us up and down. “I’m surprised you have interest in this area.” One of the other scouts was tapping a hammer behind her, a gentle tick of metal against metal. “Marchers?”
“Kirkwall.” I motioned to the others, introducing them in turn.
“Kirkwall?" She glanced at our staves. "That explains the interest. Rest easy, we’re not in the business of mage hunting. Andraste’s herald is an apostate himself, if that’s a comfort.”
“Bedding a magister too!” “Bet that’s a comfort!” The oldest scout, a grey-haired Rivaini, made kissing noises at the other across the construction. Both of them dissolved into snickers.
“Scout Mullar, by the way.” Mullar rolled her eyes. “And despite the salacious tales, young Pavus is a valuable advisor on Tevinter, nothing more.”
“Must be some good advice! Nightingale keeps asking if we’ve found that heirloom yet.” More snickers from the back. The younger of the two, Orlesian by the accent, walked toward the wagon and pulled out more metal bars, slinging them over her shoulder. A skinning knife caught the light as she adjusted her armor. As casual as the bag of banners. When she turned around, there was a flicker of movement on the other side of the wagon. Not as inexperienced as we’d hoped.
Half to us, and half to them, Mullar folded her arms. “More likely, a bird told her how impatient you were getting. Or maybe she could hear your whining from Skyhold."
"Pah, you're still sore we got reassigned?" The Rivaini braced a crossbar in place while the other scout hammered down the opposite edges. As soon as a curl started to form, she'd swap to the other side to balance it out. "Even you thought there were no leads."
Without looking behind me, I knew Sigmund would be uneasy. Strangers reveal sensitive information when they know it will be useless. It can’t be used, or you can’t use it. He claimed that's what happened before his grandfather got fed to a varghest. He’d never clearly explained how an Avaar tribe came to possess a varghest, but I gathered it was the same reason their politics were so fraught.
"'No leads' doesn't mean 'no information'.
I decided to see how far I could push. We were the distraction, after all. “Has that happened to you often?”
“Reassignments? Not often. They're... just disruptive."
"What she means to say is she doesn't approve of 'leading by visions'." The Rivaini grinned. "Must have forgot to read the pamphlets before signing on." The Orlesian mimed licking her finger and flipping through pages. "Oooo, Herald of Andraste, wonder what that means?"
Mullar snorted. "Oh, I read the pamphlets. Nightingale's the best in the business, even if it is Chantry business. And you’re right, we were probably never going to find that village.”
"You mentioned you were looking for an heirloom out here? Something lost in the fighting?" Donna asked. Donna, as much as Valor would love to streak through a battlefield, you know she doesn't work well with Chantry folk.
"Ha! Nothing so exciting as that. We're headed for the capital."
("Orlais? Dull? Your great-grandmothers are turning in their lace-draped graves!")
"Ahem. Nightingale needed this area scouted, and it was on our way. Apparently it's 'more urgent' than usual."
("How can you be so calm? Nightingale says Herald says his friend says his friend says it is a matter of life and death!")
"The order came weeks ago. The Herald was at Skyhold. Clearly, it can't be a matter of-"
("That means it must be a slow death! Just think, to waste away for weeks on the edge of life and death, while this heartless woman dismisses your suffering!")
By this point, the both of them had dropped their materials and stood back-to-back, feigning swoons. In perfect coordination, they produced a chorus of sighs. "The soullessness!" "The appalling indifference!" "I can feel my very heart splitting, right to left!" "To be so cruel..!" "Oh! It boggles the mind!" Their eyes blinked open, and they peered sidelong at each other for several seconds. Then they squatted down, picked up their tools, and resumed working.
"That's new. When the order came, they were convinced the Herald would walk out of the sky on a staircase of Andrastes." Mullar turned to face us. "Anyway, did you need anything from the Inquisition?"
"We have what we need, Scout Mullar." Lisse sat perched on a rock beside Donna, her jacket considerably bulkier than it had been before. She hopped down, noiseless, and beckoned to the rest of us to hustle. "Thank you for your time." Mullar's eyes narrowed, in a way that suggested we might be worth the trouble, if we ever returned. After we made some distance, Lisse reached into her coat and fanned four bottles between her fingers. "They had these. Less than I had hoped." When she held them out to Corin, he backed away.
"Not to me. I want to have some left for tomorrow," Corin said, punctuating the sentence with a breathy laugh. The rogue pivoted toward me and handed off the bottles. Three went in my belt, and I passed the last one to him. Lisse had been right about apostates. This lyrium had been prepared for mages, not templars; the color and labeling made that clear.
I hadn't seen mage lyrium in years. Did it look so watery before? Corin tossed away his bottle, now drained. "Thank you," he said, smiling at Lisse. If I'd met him yesterday, I would have even believed the relief in his voice. It was an understandable mistake. Lyrium bottles were bigger, more obvious. Templar lyrium would be powders or philters, hidden away in a box. We'd forgotten to tell her, and she'd done the best she could.
An alternate title for this chapter could have been Snake-Kings of the Earth because of how many crackpot theories I squeezed into it. Some of the headcanons will be touched in later chapters, but most of them are only for flavor. In the same sense that mystery cheese is "a flavor".
The chapter title references one of those zesty flavor theories, and will have no impact on the rest of the story whatsoever. If asked about it, I will likely respond with paragraphs of text, ending in jazz hands and "draw your own conclusions."
(I used to have a housemate who'd say that phrase every time he was trying to convince us that the pyramids were ancient power plants / obelisks were calling cards of the Illuminati / etc. He'd also say "I'm not saying it was aliens" unironically.)
Sigmund made some excuse about needing templar supervision for glyph research, and Kit came to join us for food. I palmed the bottles to Sigmund. Corin had been through longer dry spells, before we learned how to steal. A blanket to himself, a nap, and some warm water would keep him, for now. Lyrium, portable and expensive, was currency for all kinds of unsavory elements; elements that would be drawn to the Inquisition. We'd have another opening soon.
Lisse knew more about hunting than templars, enough to put piles of kills on our shoulders. She had a peculiar hunting style. Near as I could tell, it involved slinging spike traps at high speed, then dancing circles until our quarry wandered through. My aging eyes had a hard enough time tracking the halla we were hunting, never mind Lisse. To me, it looked like all of her strategy relied on luck.
I chuckled to myself. When I was studying, I learned very quickly not to say that word aloud. If Ettis was nearby, that was her cue to tell the tale of "the luckiest village". A tale that got longer with every telling. In the forests of Ferelden, on the edge of the wilds, there was a village. The luckiest village in all of Thedas... She'd go on to describe all the luck they had, good weather and easy births. Inevitably, we'd end up on some tangent, looking back at farming records to prove this really was the luckiest village in all of Thedas.
Sometime in the evening, with obscure Chantry scrolls and histories littered around us, she'd loop back to the story. After many such years, they looked to each other and asked "Where does this luck come from?" It was not such an easy question, for they knew the Maker had turned his gaze from Thedas, and none of the old gods brought fortune to anyone. But, lo and behold, a spirit appears, says that it's called Luck, and everyone thanks it.
Then they have a plague, and this spirit convinces them not to seek aid. For surely, as the luckiest village, it would be greedy to ask for help. They already had it, and more! So the village heads agreed among themselves. They waited days, and the plague continued. They waited weeks, and it worsened. When months had passed, they waited no more, for every one of them was dead. On this side of the Veil, no living thing remained. Now is the day, today of all days, when I ask their final question. Tell me, where did their luck come from?
Ettis wouldn't let us sleep until we gave her an answer. On top of that, it couldn't be an answer we'd given before. "A sloth demon disguised as hope" only worked once.
"They believed luck was apathy, so the spirit believed it was Luck."
"Luck comes from observation. Observation doesn't stop a plague."
"The spirit was too weak to help them, so it gave them hope in the end."
"The real answer is that we are the luckiest mages in all of Thedas!" That had come after an unusually long telling. I remembered seeing his face fall as soon as he'd said the word "luck", early that morning. He'd been studying with Ettis long enough that he should have known better. She laughed. "Let it never be said that I'm immune to flattery." I will give them your answer.
Kit must have subscribed to the "observation" theory. Mid-hunt, she stopped casting and stared intently at Lisse. Once she had taken down yet another halla, Kit began bombarding her with questions about trap-laying. From the magical jargon creeping into the conversation, I realized she’d had an epiphany about fire glyphs. The hunting trip stretched longer, after that. Whenever we made a kill, Kit had a new batch of wild hand movements and spell theory to talk through.
Donna and I were content to stand back and watch. “Look at us, we’re so good at healing that they aren’t even getting injured,” Donna said, winking.
“Valor taught you preemptive healing? Ah, I knew I should have become a spirit healer.”
“Oh really? What happened to ‘what do you think you’re doing, Alrik is looking for any excuse’?”
“You know I would have been right there with you a few years earlier. Spirits choose the most inconvenient times to be helpful, don’t they?”
We watched as Kit rattled off a new list of questions. For her part, Lisse seemed to know just the information Kit needed. When we found the next halla, Kit cautiously tried the glyph we’d been working on. It still detonated on cast, but something about the pattern excited her. As she walked, she swirled her staff, drawing into air.
“Last time a blanket, this time a glyph breakthrough. Next time Corin questions Valor’s judgment, you'll be insufferable.”
“Shhh, don’t let it get to our head.”
By the time we got back to camp, the sun was setting and the glyph worked. Its intensity varied, and it sometimes exploded before or after it was stepped on. But it worked. Kit ran to Sigmund, and soon he was flipping through his notebook recording what she’d discovered. After that, we tucked into a huge supper, leaving trimmings scattered around our camp.
"I think we could hook the standard element module in here," Kit said, tapping the drawing with her pinky. She pulled her hand up quickly, to keep the meat drippings off the page.
Sigmund drew the design in the air with a bone. "Would the ice connector work? It has that long stroke-"
"See, there happens to be empty space between these areas." She spun her fingers around, tracing the pattern, then sat back on her heels. "Dammit. You're right. We wouldn't be able to make it ice and change the size, because that part unrolls."
"Maybe that's why the Tevinters don't use ice spells? Fits smoothly as fire."
Kit looked at him like he was crazy. "If you ever see me defend a one-piece, run away. I'm clearly dropping the staff."
"Run away? From a demon of glyph theory? It might have useful advice!"
"See, that's how it gets you. Teaches you awful glyphs, destroys your moral fiber."
"Plenty of decent glyphs are one-piece. They're faster to cast."
"And slower to memorize, slower to modify, slower to document..."
While they debated the glyph's structure, I turned to Lisse. "Could I borrow one of your daggers?" I brushed my hand on my chin. "My good knife got taken by Qunari."
The rogue patted her sleeves, then pinched one of the metal bands. Steadily, she unspooled a thin blade, a handbreadth long. It was recently sharpened, slicing through days of stubble.
From behind his notebook, Sigmund offered a withering sigh.
"Don't feel left out, my friend!" Lisse said, running a finger along her other sleeve. "You can have one too." He grumbled his way back to the conversation with Kit, but I could see him watching me out of the corner of his eye. The edge was fantastic, clean enough to get the sides of my hair off my ears. Sigmund's beard grew like weeds, and I could see him losing focus. To his credit, he refused to cave until after Kit and Donna had their turns, cropping their hair close to the scalp.
As we made ourselves respectable, a small flock of ravens picked through the extra meat. By the time we were ready to sleep, we still had more than we could eat, so we left them to their own feast.
We'd lost the Circle, true. But we had a warm summer night and a fire. We had full bellies and clean faces. We had no interruptions, no banging on the door. The loudest sound the glide of our blanket, and the crunch of bird feet in the dirt. In times like these, I almost allowed myself to say we had it better.
A few hours into the night, I woke up to rustling and murmuring beside me, where Corin slept. Half-asleep, I flinched away when something heavy smacked into my chest. Even through my robe, something didn’t feel right, more bedpost than arm. I reached up to push it off, feeling the sweat under my palms.
“Corin,” I whispered, shaking him gently.
“Corin! It’s a nightmare, wake up.” The thrashing and mumbling continued, nothing coherent.
He’d usually be awake by now. The faintest flicker of panic shot through me. I grabbed my staff and leaked some healing magic. About the best I could do was close papercuts, but in my groggy state it was the first thing I thought to try. At first, he seemed to settle down, and there was movement around his eyelashes.
Then the Fade snapped shut. He turned his head to me and opened his eyes, and the next thing I knew was confusion and pain. My back smacked against the dirt.
I saw him leap to standing as I curled around myself. My ribs stung, badly. That boy could pack a punch.
“It’s me!” The words came out silent, so I gulped down more air. I still couldn’t reach any spells. A wave of pain flared in my chest. He paced back and forth, legs stiff, turning around erratically. “Corin!” I felt like I was yelling, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. Maybe he heard it, maybe not. A few more moments of pacing, and he sat down, a bewildered expression on his face. He canted his head to the side, then looked up, wide-eyed, toward the sound of footsteps. I was facing the blanket and had no desire to move, praying to the Maker that the footsteps belonged to whoever was on watch.
Sure enough, Donna and Lisse strode into view. From the motion in the blanket, it looked like the others were up too. To their credit, none of them cast any sudden spells, and Donna managed to talk Corin into releasing his spell purge. I grunted as prickles of my own magic hit my ribcage. I hadn’t realized how hard I’d been trying to cast. Sigmund and Lisse were having a discussion back by the bags, something about “drank the last of it this morning.” Donna was going through her healer’s checklist with Corin, making sure he was stable.
Now that he was fully awake, his answers were calm, if a little loud. She frowned at something in his response, but told him to stay put while she checked on me.
“Fine, just some bruising.” I clenched my teeth, balling my hands into fists over my chest.
“Did you hit your head?”
“Not hard.” She felt the back of my skull anyway. Her eyes flashed white, and my chest filled up with a clean stiffness. I flexed my fingers, put my arms to the side, and took some deep breaths. “Better, thanks.” Without the pain, my earlier attempts at casting caught up with me. I rolled back into the blanket. As I drifted off, I could dimly hear Donna talking to Corin.
The voices morphed into Kit's, along with a thump of impact next to me.
"Stay down. We're followed."
Her hand was already clamped over my mouth. Followed? Behind her, Corin was hugging his knees silently. Sigmund laid on his side, wide awake and clutching his staff. I couldn't see Lisse, but I assumed she was hiding in a nest of knives somewhere. Moments later, Donna thumped next to Corin, flattening herself down. She craned her head around, then felt her belt. With a tick of glass against glass, she pulled out a vial and tipped it into his mouth. "I slowed them, but we need to move."
Hunched over, crawling, we snatched up bags, ready to drop at any moment. Corin tried bravely to unfold himself, until Sigmund scooped him over his shoulder. "Follow me!" he whispered. Still scurrying, we zigzagged between rocks and mounds, heading for the river.
"Who's after us?" I hissed.
"Who do you think?" Kit held out a hand to pull me over a ridge, using the other to half-unroll a band of vials. Even in the dark, I could see the stitched eye and sword. I could also see that it was enough lyrium to start a small smuggling operation.
"Inquisition?" Lisse flowed out of a shadow to my right, her eyes darting to Donna. "How many were there?"
"Just the three." Kit pursed her lips as she spoke.
"Ah. Does your spirit not approve of sneaking through the night?" Lisse said, weaving through a dirt gap. Sigmund hitched up one side of his robe and carefully splashed across the stream. Our first few years as apostates, we'd camped in the Free Marches and Ferelden. Sigmund's fear of mabari had seemed quaint, up until our first farm grab. Now, we quietly splashed after him.
"We'll explain once we're safe." Kit whispered back. A few more twists and turns, and we found a ruined house. A tight fit, but hard to see into without getting close. We squeezed in against each other, Corin sliding himself off of Sigmund's shoulder.
"How soon will they find us?" Lisse leaned on a wall, cross-legged, taking inventory of the items she'd gathered before we ran. Two daggers, a band of knives, a very jagged hairpin, one pair of razors, a large brooch, half a backpack of pristine traps, and an armful of muck-covered ones, arranged in rows. She had to shoo a bird off of one of the bloodier traps, but otherwise seemed satisfied with the count.
"I'm going to assume the answer is 'never' until someone shatters this poor templar's dreams." Corin's knees shook. But it was more like ordinary shivering than a tourney puppet show.
Kit shrugged. "Depends on how much they care. If we'd snagged this much lyrium from a Carta cell, we'd be fighting them off already. Maybe this Inquisition can afford some charity."
"Can probably afford to comb the entire region, too." Sigmund swivelled his staff in tight circles, trying not to bump into any of us. "How concerned are they going to be about their reputation?"
Lisse gradually reassembled her arsenal, sliding each blade into place. The main daggers went first, gliding into their hilts. Then the bandolier and the hairpin, which had to be woven in slowly so it wouldn't cut itself loose. She reached out for the brooch. "So. What did happen at the camp?" Her cloak bunched into a spiral as she fed the razors into her sleeves.
"How much do you know about spirits?" Sigmund asked. "Some, yes?"
"I have worked with apostates, some from Circles. Spirits stand for emotions? And dislike things that run against their emotion." She looked over to Donna. "Does your spirit disapprove of stealing? Is that why she did not help us yesterday?" So she understood more than we'd expected.
"We left the Circle four years ago. If she disapproves of theft, she would be long gone, believe me." Donna ran a hand through her hair. "We represent valor. Doesn't always require honesty."
"This sounds lucky. From the tales I heard, spirits are never satisfied unless you're saving the world. This one is content with-" She looked around, "-this? Not to complain."
That brought a smile. "Adventure? Looting? Running for our lives? Are you sure we aren't saving the world?" Her eyes snapped gold for an instant before fading back. "Some spirits are like that. Mages remember them for the same reason we remember meeting chevaliers. They bring up their virtues constantly."
Corin chuckled, stretching out a little. "You think she's exaggerating! The first Harrowing I sat for, mage spent the whole ritual being lectured by a spirit of faith. Claims she only endured by imagining the spirit in her father's pointed boots." He shook his head. "I figured it was a joke, tension or stress. But for the next week, the younger mages were bawling about 'a demon with scary feet'." Or, as he was known to the senior enchanters, the windbag. His insistence that people only learned "by confronting their nightmares" would have been entertaining, in a different year. He had the hardest time understanding that outside of the Fade, people - particularly templar people - get testy when mages start having night terrors at the same time. Night terrors about the mild disapproval of authority figures. But still.
Sigmund ran the back of his hand on his chin, nodding toward me. "Was that the one you finally convinced to leave?"
"More or less. We both spent far too long-"
"Ssst!" Sigmund lifted his staff, holding his finger to his lips.
"...right around these buildings..." Footsteps filtered in behind the Orlesian scout's voice.
Man, I love foisting more
code architectureerrrrr glyph research on you guys! Yep yes definitely some authentic glyph research and not discussions with coworkers reskinned in magicky words!
As one, we grabbed our bags and heaved ourselves over a break in the wall. Corin came up last, wobbling on his legs. He pushed forward when Sigmund reached for him. "I'm fine! Run!" We bolted up to the grass, aiming for speed over stealth. The night sky lit with Valor's pale yellow haste spell, and we could hear the sounds receding.
When the haste spell wore off, Donna lifted her palm to re-cast. Light rippled over her hand, sputtering between bright and dim. She gave her hand a shake and tried again. She stopped short. Sweeping her staff in front of her, she cast the spell the way we'd been taught. As the burst of speed shot through us, she gritted her teeth and sipped one of the vials. Behind me, I could hear her start running again, panting around the feel of templar lyrium.
Abruptly, the panting stopped. Before I could kick my head to look, my magic drained away, and thick purple lines of neutralization curved under my feet. "Spread out!" I yelled, searching for Donna. My eyes landed on Corin first, four arrows winged between his fingers, tips out. Kit zigzagged up a hill, pushing a vial back into her belt. She stood, whirled, and etched a glyph in the air in front of her.
Following the line of her cast, I saw the spell explode. Fireball. For a split second, the Orlesian's silhouette appeared in the flames. She twisted a staff parallel to the ground, and she was gone, spots of darkness spinning up from the fire. As I turned to track the movement, I saw Donna.
Needles of force clasped her, precise. They bulged around the center, very slightly, making the cage look like a budding flower. An innovation of Montsimmard, no doubt. Our healer was draped in the center, stiff and grimacing. Corin ran toward her, lumps of emptiness following him in the Fade.
"Above you!" Sigmund yelled, and Corin tugged an arrow back, swiveling diagonal. Kit flung a cluster of arcane bolts above his head, each bolt outlining a diving raven. Spinning his arms around himself, Corin shouted a dispel. The birds dropped from the sky. In their place stood the Orlesian scout, who drove the blade of her staff into Corin's thigh and kicked him to the ground.
She swung the edge of her weapon up to Donna's chest, still caged. "Careful, now. Keep fighting me, and your healer takes a trip to the Black City."
"Is this Inquisition business? Chasing after hungry thieves?" Sigmund said, twining his staff through his crossed arms. I tried to listen to the conversation, but my meager healing talents were screaming. If she'd nicked the vein near his groin, if he wasn't covering his wound, our time to stabilize Corin was measured in words, not sentences. And Donna was still trapped.
"You must be hungry indeed to mistake lyrium for food! Did you mean to sell it to the halla, or were you too busy eating them?" Her cage spell dropped. She grabbed Donna as she slumped, shifting her into a headlock. Donna stayed passive, but I could see her gaze narrow in on Corin. "You poor fools! For your own safety, I must arrest you."
I moved first. I left my staff nonthreatening, not that it mattered after that glyph. When I reached Corin, he had both hands pressed to his leg. Blood seeped across his leathers. Kit and Sigmund walked up behind me. "He'll need healing first." I said, eyes dashing between Corin, Donna, and the scout.
The scout looked us over, then released her hold. Donna canted forward. Landed in a kneel. She blinked her eyes, a shimmer of light racing over them before disappearing. She laid her free hand on his thigh. Closing her eyes, she blinked a few more times. Nothing.
"Is that what they called 'healing' in the Gallows? No wonder it was annulled." The scout grabbed Donna's collar.
"Wait," she said, weakly. "I just need more time."
"Do you intend to watch him bleed?" The Orlesian tossed me a roll of bandages. "Patch him up and carry him."
Donna struggled against the grab. "He needs healing, he's been sick, he'll go into shock. I need to-"
Suddenly, the scout spun, dragging our healer along with her. "Really?" One-handed, she punched out with her staff, sending a pair of daggers flying. "I've changed my mind." She advanced on Lisse as the rogue pulled knives out of her sash. "If you thought I'd let you get away with this twice," she tossed her staff in the air and caught it upside-down, near the blade, "you all must be lyrium-addled."
"Do they think we can't count?" the grey-haired Rivaini added, slinking out from behind a rock. Smirking, the second scout shoved Lisse from behind, forcing her to stumble sideways as the Orlesian jabbed with the tip of her staff.
"The very honor of the Inquisition is at stake!"
I tried my best to ignore the fight, pulling bandages tight around Corin's leg. "How are you feeling? Can you stand?"
"Probably not the best idea. I need..." He craned his neck around. Already? "Kit. Lyrium." She handed down a vial, watching Lisse. Our rogue had emptied her bandolier, and was bleeding from her shoulder. She fast-stepped backward so she could fiddle with her hairpin. It split into two stilettos, and she turned to keep the scouts in view. I poured the lyrium into Corin's mouth.
The Orlesian pushed Donna away, tipping her into the Rivaini's arms, and shapeshifted again. The birds swarmed Lisse, ripping out her brooch and sliding the razors from their grooves. At that, Sigmund and Kit snatched up lyrium vials of their own. Arcane bolts popped into the ravens, flashing in the night. Undeterred, they clawed and pecked at Lisse's hands, wresting the stilettos free. Beside me, I could hear Corin shifting.
"Careful. You can't risk a dispel."
He sat upright, swaying forward before righting himself. He batted my hand off his back and crawled his fingers along the ground. "Is that the only way to stop a spell?" He closed his hand around his bow. "You're as bad as the Knight-Commander." Drawing himself upright, he fired an arrow at the Rivaini.
The flock of birds slammed into the Orlesian's shape. She swung her staff around at full strength, widening the gap between her and Lisse, as she sprinted to the other scout. When she got closer, the older scout waved her away. Gesturing the arm where the arrow had landed, far away from vitals, the Inquisition rogue threw a jar of smoke and disappeared. Accordingly, the Orlesian shifted her trajectory and charged toward us.
I grabbed a vial from Kit, trying to drink a small dose. I'd had to use templar lyrium before. The younger mages whispered that it would burn a hole straight through your throat, that you'd swear you could see Hessarian's sword dancing in the pyre. The templars never corrected them. But out of earshot, they had their own names for their favorite brews. Desire's Arms. Rendezvous. Final Thought.
It would be easier if it burned. Corin kept shooting, pushing the scout off a straight-line path. With new clarity, I raised a well of force, slowing her. Still no sign of the Rivaini. Must have taken the long way. Sigmund and Kit surrounded our position with glyphs, holding their lyrium at the ready. In the corner of my eye, near where the Rivaini had been, a faint glow pulsed. Willing myself not to turn, I called down a pack of wisps, hoping to make the three of us brighter. More distracting.
Corin lined up a shot on the slowed scout. Before he could loose it, a flying knife nicked his sternum, sending it wild. We swivelled to see the Rivaini vanish into smoke again, cackling. Masked by the plume, another white-gold pulse flashed.
"I can see you! Can you see me?"
Behind us, Kit's glyphs started to detonate. Corin scooted his legs around to face the sound, arrow nocked. The scout shuffled from glyph to glyph, sliding toe-first to the center of each design. As if trying to trigger as many as possible. Each detonation sloughed off the Rivaini's skin, slithering purple into the grass. Our bolts dripped away, too; nothing connected. The grey-haired rogue continued advancing, leisurely, darting to another section of glyphs whenever Corin let an arrow fly.
Seeing the pointlessness of attacking the Rivaini, I focused on strengthening the trap under the Orlesian. I took another tiny draught of lyrium and raised my staff. Without warning, the grey-haired scout sprang at me. Both spell and I went spinning on impact. I pushed out a repelling blast, but the Rivaini may as well have been a tree. Lacking reinforcement, my earlier field shook loose. The younger scout finished her rush to our location, her path cleared of glyphs.
Glowing steadily, Valor lifted a finger to point at the two scouts.
"RUNNING FOR THE INJURED MAN! YOU ARE BOTH COWARDS!" On force of habit, we mouthed the last words along.
The Rivaini snapped a knife at Valor, catching her in the side. As Valor pulled the dagger out, the Orlesian swirled shots at her head, tracing a gleaming arc behind herself. We scattered from the blade, Sigmund pulling Corin along with him. The Orlesian turned to her friend as she cast another barrage.
"This spirit has a point. How unsporting to go after this ragtag band of six with our legion of two!"
The Rivaini gasped, flicking a line of knives. "We outnumber them one to three! Where is our honor?" The daggers landed in Valor like a tilted belt, tracing a curve from the bottom of her ribcage to her hip.
"Perhaps we could regain it by offering a duel? My great-great-aunt would insist-"
The Rivaini laughed. "Very well. Let us level the field. You and I, with no help from my armies." The scout gestured grandly at the Orlesian, turning to use the uninjured arm. Valor's light rippled, mirage-like, as her challenger sauntered toward her. The latest set of knife holes still glittered in the dark, slow to close. A movement from the Rivaini, and another group of hilts sank into her waist.
"What do you think? How long before this demon turns on them?" The grey-haired scout unbuckled a larger dagger. "How long? Already it flees." The points of light on Donna's body blinked off together. When Valor came back, each bright spot had a dark ring around it. She clutched her stomach, white-gold eyes shining, owl-sized. "Pfff, weren't you listening? It wouldn't do such a cowardly thing! I must be boring it."
The rogue took a running jump, barrelling into Valor. A lattice of cuts began glowing on her chest, the scout's slashes almost too quick to see. Valor stumbled back, arms flailing. She reached out to the scout's injured arm, pulling it straight. Yanking out the arrow, Valor clapped her hand onto the wound. When she let go, tendrils of power webbed from her palm.
"ENOUGH BOASTING! FIGHT ME WITH BOTH HANDS."
The arrow hole closed. One by one, Valor's wounds followed, winking shut. As the Rivaini unsheathed a second knife, Valor lifted her staff above her head. Abruptly, I heard a grunt behind me. Corin gripped his leg, luminescent fadestuff steaming between his fingers. Valor maintained the heal even as the Inquisition rogue sank both daggers into her gut.
Corin stowed his arrows and his bow, then pushed himself up off the ground, slowly. At that, the Orlesian slid a hand down her staff, daring us to interfere. As for the duel, Valor wrapped her hands around the older scout's fingers, locking both scout and knives in place. With a flash of light, she sliced both blades sideways out of her body, flinging them in opposite directions. The rogue, still carried by momentum, fell forward.
Valor pressed two fingers against the Rivaini's chest, stopping the fall.
"YOUR PERSIStence IS worthy." The twin cuts on Donna's abdomen pulsed on and off with her volume.
"And yours leaves something to be desired. Demon."
The slits sizzled, narrowing in bursts. "HA! WOULD THAT I COULD GIVE YOU the fight you deserve!" With two slivers left, the gold light snuffed out.
Donna held a knuckle to her forehead, blasting the rogue away. Green lines filled in where the gold had been, finishing the self-heal. Snapping open a fresh lyrium vial, she drank. A vortex of force materialized behind the Rivaini, pulling everything into its orbit.
Our healer stepped back. Her staff dipped low, other thumb pushed tight over the opened lyrium.
She knew how to end this. In the Gallows, she'd been just as good as Kit or Sigmund at necessary spells. I doubted that this Inquisition would respect the results of a duel, but the Orlesian might. All we needed was enough time to breathe, to move. We'd evaded the Chantry for this long. The Inquisition would just be one more banner to avoid.
Sigmund saw the rogue cloaking before anyone else. The tug against the Rivaini's legs released, and the scout began walking out of the spell. Donna kept backing up, raising a blizzard in front of her. The rogue plowed directly through the wind and ice, coat barely ruffled by the storm. Our healer widened her steps. She looked back for rocks or clods of dirt, picking her feet high. In the corner of my eye, Sigmund pressed the back of his hand to his mouth.
The Rivaini didn't even need to run. Bit by bit, the distance between them closed, and Donna began curving sideways. We'd used that strategy in the siege. When some of the templars drew daggers with the invaders, when their dispels became more than dispels, their cloaking was still shaky. But, feeling all-powerful, they'd follow us. Circling inside the spell until their new Qunari trick wore off.
We were not so lucky with the Rivaini. The cloak held, an oily film stretching from boot tips to the ends of the scout's curls. Letting the snow evaporate, Donna quickly backed herself against a spike of rock. She lifted her staff's blade off the ground. The rogue drew ever nearer, still unhurried.
"Coward Woman is good at this." Lisse appeared beside us, as she often did. She looked around at our expressions. "You disagree? To prolong a fight this long takes skill." Donna detached herself from the rock formation and continued retreating, staff swinging like a gate left ajar. "The consistency from one move to the next. The focus. The patience!" The scout unbuckled a pitted hunting knife, slicking it with a cloth.
"If only I could be so patient." With a metallic grind, a spike trap activated under the Rivaini. The scout leapt back, spikes embedded deep in the thick boots. Lisse caught Donna's eye. A mixture of relief and frustration passed over her face.
Nonetheless, she sipped a draught of lyrium and gave us haste.
As we ran, we looked back to see the Orlesian picking spikes out of her friend's feet. A gesture, and she moved aside, clearing line of sight for the dagger.
"Ssssaa!" Lisse hopped forward. The thrown knife thumped to the ground, falling from her calf. We slowed to a jog, Donna plucking at the Fade. "It is a scratch, save your healing." Lisse sprinted past us, settling in at the front. "We can tend to it-"
She doubled over. Donna threw a heal, green light streaking across the scrape. Vomit dribbled from the side of Lisse's mouth. "On second thought, how good are you at-" She heaved again, gasping for air.
"Healing poison? Not at all." Donna raised a vial of lyrium in a mock toast. "But with enough of this, I can heal the symptoms for as long as necessary." A trickle of green flowed out of her hand toward the elf. Sigmund hauled Lisse onto his shoulder. "We need to find a place soon." Donna drank continuously as we picked up speed, lyrium pressed against her mouth.
The first vial crunched on the ground. Kit looked sharply at Donna. "How much do you have?"
"Plenty." She held up her roll of lyrium, still almost full.
"For now." Donna uncorked the next vial. "When we need to decide, we'll stop."
Lisse looked up, bleary-eyed. "What?"
"Don't worry. I will heal you. I got you into this mess." Her haste and heal reignited. "All of you. I should have waited for morning."
Corin shook his head, grabbing some lyrium from Kit. "Could be worse. At least I get to be me again." He knocked back the liquid in one shot, throwing the empty container to the side. "Besides, we were getting bored of that old campsite, right?"
We ran through the rest of the night. A few hours after dawn, Donna threw away her latest vial of lyrium. "How much do you have, Kit?"
Sigmund laid Lisse on the ground. She sat up, looking pale. Donna moved to address her. "Lisse, we're thinking of looking for Valor. If we find her, she could heal you."
"We'll need to use most of our lyrium. If this poison is what I think it is, we'd have enough left over to heal you until it passes. But we'd have to look for more soon." She palmed another heal toward Lisse, bringing some color to the rogue's face. "And we'd" she gestured to herself and me "be unavailable while we search. No healers."
"Why both of you?"
I scratched my chin. "Good hygiene. If the Fade starts to look too much like me, or too much like Donna, the other might notice."
"Fair enough." She sat herself up. "Of course you should try. I can go some time between healings now."
Kit drew out her lyrium vials, handing half to Sigmund. As they prepared the ritual, Donna and I focused on a last big heal. "We don't have to succeed on the first trip." Donna gestured to the vials on her belt. "We can do another, if we need to."
"I'm sure we'll find her." How long has she been with you? Would she leave now? The earlier conversation itched in the back of my mind. Donna seemed convinced Valor wasn't bored. But when she had those dreams, it was always some apocalypse, chaos on a massive scale. Something far more interesting than us. I wasn't sure, but it sounded like Donna was fretting too.
We finished up the heal, heading to Sigmund and Kit. Sensitive to the time limit, they started up right away. Soon enough, our minds crossed into the Fade.
I stood in a back room of the Nevarran chantry. A pile of robes and candles sat against one wall. Just behind the pile, I could see the edge of a door. Above me, a mosaic of candles had been embedded in the ceiling. They were lit, flames pointing parallel to the floor, and the melting wax flowed between them.
I walked over to the pile and started unburying the door. The top of the stack was mostly candles, and as I moved the robes away, they rolled down to fill the space. More candles dropped from the ceiling as I dug, shedding crumbs of wax. When I looked up, the ceiling was higher, still covered in candles. And the door was, if anything, more unreachable.
I decided to try a different tactic. Picking up the candles, I started sticking them together. The wax was cold enough to touch, but the candles fused when pressed. I molded them into a large wheel, then rolled it toward the door. After a few false starts, it careened through the pile, and I ran behind it. Several candles bounced on the back of my head as I passed the threshold.
The door opened out to a narrow corridor. More hallways led off in each direction, their numbers shifting depending on where I turned. Rather than pick a direction, I climbed over the wheel and let it nudge me forward. It pushed me along through multiple branches, winding up and around. Through doorways, I could see sisters praying, templars training, and my own dormitory from the Circle.
Finally, I reached the roof. It was flat and tiled, with a rough lip all around. Like someone had chopped the top off of a normal room, and pasted the Black City on the horizon. Decorative chains were anchored at several points along the far edge. Each chain had one end attached to the rooftop, and the other ends ran into the distance.
The wheel was gone by this time. I suppose I'd forgotten about it. Donna sat meditating in the center, the way she sometimes did after having one of her night visions. There was even a wavery campfire next to her, stacked the way Sigmund insisted was "the only right way". As I got closer, she cracked open an eye and stood up.
"Have you seen this area?"
"Possibly. I think it makes the most sense to go..." She paced past the fire, her eyes closed. "Here."
We walked to the far edge of the rooftop, to one of the chains. As we got closer, it became a slim stone staircase, leading up. After climbing the stairs, we entered a natural-looking corridor. The cave walls gave way to another dormitory, larger than the one back home. We weaved through rows and groves of bunk beds. Some of the denser clusters had beds lashed together at unstable angles, creaking masses of straw and planks that stood only because they disagreed on which direction they should crash to the floor. Between the beds, the floor was strewn with mounds of robes, trunks, and books. After going around one of the larger hills, I could see a spirit standing in a clearing up ahead.
"I know that spirit." Donna said, stopping me with her hand. "I saw it. Had a vision."
"A friend of Valor's?"
She scrunched her face. "They've spoken, at least. Let's talk to it." She glided forward, coming up behind the spirit. She tapped on its shoulder.
"Excuse me. What are you called?"
The spirit rattled off a stream of unintelligible words, then paused, as if waiting for us to respond. After a few moments, it started another string of words. As it chattered, it turned to face us.
Its breath hitched mid-sentence, as if it needed to change the direction its words were going. The final word came out tight, bitten off.
Serious Real World Advice That Is 100% Applicable To Your Life:
If you ever get the chance to learn medieval fighting styles, learn daggers. Swords are always classy, shields have their moments, and capes are... well, in theory they can sweep away a blade, but somehow even great fighters turn them into floppy fan-dances of uselessness.
Daggers, on the other hand, are just plain fun.
The spirit cocked its head, seeing our confusion.
"Wisdom. That is the word in Common, isn't it?"
A wisdom spirit? I'd never met one, but it sounded like just what we needed. Spirits that embody wisdom are happy to offer guidance, if you are lucky enough to find one. I could remember where the words sat on the page, the fleck of ink in one of the letters. Of course it was common sense, wisdom from Wisdom. But the tome was nothing if not exhaustive. It fascinated me. When I was young, I'd read it over and over, until the pages were limp. I'd quoted passages to Ettis the first time we spoke, much to her amusement.
"You are looking for a friend, yes? One called Valor?"
Ettis was transferred, along with most of those books, when Meredith deemed them too dangerous for the Gallows. We stayed, on instruction that we were not to continue studying as spirit mediums. I don't think she counted on my childhood obsession, nor Donna's stubborn valor.
"Have you seen her?" Donna asked.
"She saw the danger. Run, run, retreat, Valor has no business here."
"Where is she? Will she speak to me?"
The spirit's eyes gentled. "You believe you offended her." It paused, gathering its words. "A powerful demon rules this area of the Fade. Your friend was not strong enough to fight it, and was forced to flee."
"'This area'? Are you in danger?" I asked. The high density of spirits made Kirkwall something of a Fade metropolis, with politics rivalling Val Royeaux. Since we'd left the city, Valor had never gotten tangled in territory disputes. Perhaps she was out of practice.
"This demon is a persuader, not a fighter. It is only as dangerous as the ear that listens to it." The spirit shook its head. "Such a spirit prides itself in using violence only when provoked. I begged Valor not to attack it."
"Is she hurt?"
"Weakened. Once the rifts have settled, and she is strong enough to cross over, I expect she will look for you."
"Do you know where she is? We have more lyrium, we could help her across-"
"No. I am sorry."
Dimly, we heard a sound that may have been a dry heave. Donna looked at me. "Fade, or Lisse?"
"I heard it too."
"Do we need to go back now? We have enough for another trip." She kneaded the edge of her sleeve. "I was hoping we'd make more progress."
Another heaving sound broke into the Fade. The gasp at the end was definitely Lisse. "Worse off than she thought, sounds like."
"Will we have enough lyrium left over?" It would be hard to get this much again. "But if we could just find Valor, she could deal with the poison..."
"Yes. Assuming Lisse survives that long."
Donna looked from me to the wisdom spirit. "What would Lisse want us to do?"
The spirit leaned against one of the bed frames.
"Are you sure that you want to know? She is ill, and not thinking so clearly. Would she give you the same answer now, as later? Does she know enough about her condition to make a real choice?"
The spirit flicked its eyes up, reaching out to hold Donna's hands. "In the end, you are the healer. As much as you wish to share the burden, this is for you to decide. No one else."
Donna sighed, pressing against her nose. She pulled the spirit into an embrace. "You're right. Thank you for all your help." The words were muffled against the spirit's stomach. "Hector, we should get back."
I centered myself. The Fade disappeared in pulses, making it look like Donna was tightening her grip. The chamber fell away, replaced by the clear sky above the plain. I sat up. Blinked out the sunlight. My eyes hit Lisse as she spasmed, hands on the ground. Sigmund and Corin sat next to her, rubbing her back, as Kit stood watch. I rushed over to them. "Do you think it's a two-phase poison?" Sigmund said. "She was fine until a few moments ago." I threaded a weak heal into her gut, slowing the convulsions.
Kit looked beyond us, calling out to Donna. "Any luck?"
Standing up, Donna looked down at her staff. "I know why we're here." Pulling her arm back as far as it would go, she flung it through the air. "That's something."
As the staff landed, far out of reach, she scrabbled her fingers along her belt, undoing the packet of lyrium vials. When it dropped, she gave it a few hard stomps, grinding the heel of her boot. A final twist of her ankle, and she picked it up by the corner. Lyrium and glass flowed off the fabric. Facing away from her staff, she threw the ruined lyrium in the opposite direction. Her fingers fidgeted along the rest of her belt, dipping into pockets and emptying herbs.
"Ah!" By the time the arrow landed, Corin was already drawing another. "Thank you. I thought I'd have to-" she grunted through her teeth "-spell it out. Maybe start fffff quoting the Chant. 'Blessed are they...'"
She crouched, shooting me a stern look when my feet shifted. "Don't. Corin will have to-" she winced "-have to use more arrows if you do. You'll need those." For a second, her shoulders warped, impossibly broad. "It really doesn't want to be here. But this was the only way we... you-" Donna looked to Kit. "HURRY!" The word boomed out, echoing as she crumpled.
The space above her shimmered once, twice.
And Wisdom walked into our world.
For the first few steps, the body wrapped limply across its ankle. With an earthshaking snarl, it shook its foot free, twisting Donna's legs around unnaturally. A few steps more, and Kit remembered herself, curving her staff through a paralysis glyph. The glyph stuck - barely - and we ran up the hill behind us.
"Wait!" Lisse said. "Are we going to leave this thing?" She bit back a retch, still standing in place. "Coward Woman wanted us to kill it!"
Corin grabbed her arm to get her moving again. "Look at it! Look at us! Have you already forgotten? We don't have a healer!" Kit ran further up the hill. When she reached the top, I could see her gauging times and distances before lifting her staff again. Once we saw the beginning of her design, Sigmund and I ran up to join her, adding our magic.
"See?" Corin had let go of Lisse, and was firing shot after shot at Wisdom. Backing away. The arrows landed shallow in its armor, hardly sinking past the tip. "We can't be the heroes here!" Kit drew the last stroke, releasing her earlier glyph at the same time. We raced down the other side of the rise, not daring to look back, and scattered behind nearby rocks.
I pressed my back against the stone. Willed myself to breathe slowly. No time to worry, no time to lose myself. No time to listen to the massive footfalls, moving faster than any monster I'd ever met. No time to think too hard about the thunderclaps, the inhuman shrieking, and the smell of burning meat. No time to wonder why the footsteps paused, replaced by wet tearing and silence. No time to consider why the Fade felt vivid and clear, like it had when my magic first manifested. Before I began spending time near templars.
No time to sag in relief when Kit's trap triggered, and a ring of stone teeth speared out of the ground. A binding circle. The demon roared, halfway between frustration and pleasure. The three of us turned to face it, squeezing our last dregs of energy into arcane bolts. My lips tingled, buzzing away everything except the sweep-flip of my staff. It needed to be perfect. One perfect rotation after another. Economical. Precise. Dodging sideways whenever the hairs on my arms prickled.
I couldn't tell if I was dealing damage. It didn't matter. This was what I needed to do. For all time, if necessary.
I don't know how many shouts it took to shake me loose.
The disorientation came first, chased by a loss of feeling in my muscles. The cackling spirit still stomped around its prison. Kit and Sigmund had moved further off, and were facing away from the circle. I moved to meet them, catching myself as my legs threatened to fold.
"Inquisition!" Sigmund hissed, when I got near. I recoiled at the sound. Had he yelled it, or was that the sound of my own pulse? He was pointing at a group of four, afternoon sun flashing off their armor. The eye and sword.
"What do we do?" My own voice sounded loud, too. Must have been my ears.
Sigmund grimaced. "We ask them for help."
I let more show on my face than I intended.
"We have to!" Sigmund said. "We're doing nothing to this thing, and we can't just turn it loose. If Donna thought it needed to be dead, it needs to be dead."
Something from the Fade clicked into place. "Not just Donna. Valor too."
I waved that away and stared toward the four newcomers. They were still a ways off, but the wind carried fragments of conversation.
"-means 'one who holds back evil' in the my people's tongue."
"Bah, none of this my people's tongue nonsense. You know exactly what it means. That's probably why you chose it in the first place."
"Hey! It's my heritage, magister." The last word was too sweet, like the sound of someone not trying very hard to keep a straight face.
"...remind me why I put up with-"
The wind shifted, and we waited. As they got closer, the group veered off to examine something in the grass. I chose not to recognize the places they were looking. In the back of my mind, I thought about what I would say. How much would they know? Had they gotten reports of us? Were they here to finish the job, or passing through? This is what we're supposed to be good at. Casting the second spell.
I walked to meet them, a dozen half-formed misdirections thumping in my head. We'd run into other thieves in the area. Could I steer it that way? The same fragment of thought repeated several times, my mind raw.
Two of their number, both mages, seemed to be in an animated discussion. The elf glanced toward me, anger written all over his face.
"Let us ask them!"
"A mage! You're not with the bandits?" Sweet Maker, could I make it sound any more fabricated? I pressed on, trying to keep my voice more level. "Do you have any lyrium potions? Most of us are exhausted. We've been fighting that demon-"
"You summoned that demon! Except it was a spirit of wisdom at the time. You made it kill! You twisted it against its purpose!"
"I understand how it might be confusing to someone who has not studied demons, but after you help us, I can-"
"We are not here to help you," he spat.
The qunari standing beside him grinned, taking on the same syrupy tone we'd heard before. "Word of advice. I'd hold off on explaining how demons work to my friend here."
That was too much. All the pent-up anxiety and frustration bubbled out of me, before I could stop it. "Listen to me. I was one of the foremost experts in the Kirkwall Circle-"
"Shut. Up. You summoned it... to protect you from the bandits."
You're trying to explain again. Stop. Stop it.
"You bound it to obedience, then commanded it to kill. That is when it turned."
Just let him say what he wants.
"The summoning circle. We break it, we break the binding. No orders to kill, no conflict with its nature, no demon."
But he and his yes-man overruled my objections, and they started destroying the circle. The three of us huddled nearby as they worked, unsure whether we should fight or take the chance to flee. They were undeniably skilled fighters. They dodged whips and claws as they worked, stripping the protection almost as quickly as Kit could.
The last stone crumbled, and the elf rushed to speak with Wisdom. We readied our staves, preparing for our last stand. But after a few moments of talking, the spirit dissolved, flowing around the mage's hands. That surprised me. Though, come to think of it, he'd correctly identified the spirit as Wisdom. Perhaps he could explain some of this madness. With the danger out of the way and emotions cooled, we'd have time to sit down. Compare notes on what had happened.
As we got closer, I felt a crazy thrill of hope. Maybe we could even join the Inquisition! Valor would love that kind of irony. Donna too. I swiped at my eyelids, fingertips squelching. Would drive Corin nuts, though. He'd find a spirit of Sensible Decisions to haunt us on his behalf.
Our rescuer finished talking to the others, and turned toward us. An odd smile played on his face.
"All that remains now is them."
I'm naturally suspicious of characters that are made to be hated. I always feel like it's a trick, somehow. That goes double when they appear in Solas' personal quest, after Solas has spent ages explaining how there are multiple sides to every story.
So I challenged myself to write an alternate perspective on the most hated NPC in Inquisition. I hope you enjoyed it!