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Vir Arla'nehn

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“Jodi, really, for the last time, no,” Em mumbled under her breath, staring into the swirling depths of her mug.

“So, what, you've been out on your own in the big city and you're too good to hang out with the rest of us nerds now?” Jodi asked, crossing her arms and rewarding Em with an unrelenting stare. “We've barely seen you for months, and we miss you. Besides... isn't a LARP exactly the kind of thing you're into? I don't get it...”

“A LARP has never, ever been my thing. Costumes are something I wear if I have one already, not something I come up with on the fly. And... and it's always been easier, with the tabletop games, you know? And now with everyone else moving on...” She shook her head. “Everyone there's going to be really young. Like, kids. I mean, I took a walk around campus on my way to the dorm yesterday, and all the new students look twelve or something. I feel old.” Em chanced a look at her friend, who was frowning at her across a half-eaten brownie.

“So I'll help you with the costume,” Jodi insisted with a wave of her fingers. Her nails glittered brightly with colors that perfectly matched her outfit. “You're going to meet so many new people, Em. I promise, not everyone's younger than us. Look, Lena and I knocked our heads together and we thought since we're all leaving you behind, we'd all do this one last thing together and you could meet new people.” She picked up her fork and took another bite of the brownie, chocolate sauce smudging her mouth. “I mean, what else are you going to do?”

Em was running out of excuses, and she knew it. No one was better at putting together an outfit, nevermind a costume, than Jodi, as far as Em was concerned. “Study and get a degree that'll actually go somewhere, maybe?” Em retorted, surprised at the bitterness in her own voice. She tried to recover her composure by taking a sip of the hot cocoa in front of her, destroying the beautiful flower pattern that the skilled barista had put on top with whipped cream. “It's not that I don't appreciate what you're doing, Jodi. It's just that...” She paused. How could she even explain? “You know, I don't think you're going to understand. I'm sorry, but I can't join the LARP. It's not my thing. It's not like going to the cons. It's... Oh nevermind. Let's just leave it at that, okay?”

“Okay, Em, I know something's up. I'm going to pry it out of you sooner or later, but I can tell it's not going to be tonight. Just... we've all been worried about you, okay? That's what happens when you practically drop all contact from your friends. And we don't plan on letting that happen again. Did you know your mom and dad were calling me every day thinking you might have come over to my place? Hell, Dan even called worrying about you, and you two have been over for months.” She sighed, shaking her head in frustration. “Okay, though, Em. Fine. That's done with. Other than refusing to tell your best friend what's wrong, you seem to be all right. Just... Em? Will you promise to at least consider the LARP? I mean, it's Dragon Age P&P, except, you know, a LARP.”

Em perked. “ Dragon Age? ” Damnit. “Damnit Jodi... it's still a LARP! I--” She didn't get the chance to finish her sentence.

“But it got you interested, didn't it?” Jodi teased, then nibbled the last bit of her brownie, then pushed her chair back. “Okay, well... I have a big project due tomorrow. It's been great seeing you again. So... now that you know it's Dragon Age, you'll consider it, right? I mean, I've got the perfect idea for you in mind. Three words, Em: Qunari. Arcane. Warrior.”

“Oh give me a break, Jodi. You know I always play templa—Shit! Jodi, quit that!” Em pitched an unopened sweetener packet at Jodi, and it skidded harmlessly across the table into the chair across from her.

Jodi giggled, then wiggled her fingers farewell as she rushed toward the door—not giving Em another chance to object. “So you'll think about it, right? Text me! The LARP starts next weekend, so we totally have time to shop and set up your costume...”

And then Jodi was out the door, and Em sat alone at the table with most of her mug of cocoa. “Wish I'd been a little friendlier,” she mumbled under her breath. She sat quietly for a moment, half expecting Lena or Mark or Sherry to join her, but according to Jodi, Lena and Sherry were on a date (it was about time they finally took that step, she thought), and Mark was off being, well, Mark, somewhere.

She pulled her phone out of her pocket, scrolling through the messages. Ellie had texted her repeatedly already:

 

Ellie: Jodi said she was gonna tell you about the LARP!!!!

Ellie: Sis, you there?

Ellie: If you do the LARP she'll help me with my costume. You gotta do it so I can be the best dwarf Warden EVAR!!!!!111!!!!

Ellie: You totally can't be a templar this time like with the games or the tabletop, Jodi's gonna be a templar.

Ellie: You know what? You should be an Avvar! That would be so cool!

Ellie: come on you know you wanna!

Ellie: And Mark said if the GM allows it we can use his horses. Just us 3.

Ellie: HORSES, EM!!!!!!!11111

Ellie: Fereldan Forder ftw!

Ellie: It's gonna be great you gotta do it!

Ellie: Eeeeeemmmmaaaaa! Answer meeeeeeeee!

 

Em laughed and slapped her forehead, causing some of the kids at the next table to give her funny looks. She squirmed uncomfortably under their stares, brushing a lock of hair away from her ear to cover her face. She tapped out her response quickly, before Ellie decided to bury her in texts.

 

Em: I'll think about it Ellie, OK? I'm sure she'll help you even if I don't join. If she doesn't want to I'll make her.

 

Trust Jodi to add pressure from Em's own geeky sister...

Now... who else was in on this LARP scheme? Hopefully no one. She scrolled through more messages... Dan? She deleted it without reading. Enough of that mess, already. After what he'd said that final day, there was no going back.

 

Mom: Em, sweetie, let us know once you've settled in. I know it's going to be hard starting over after you were out on your own, but we're here for you.

Dad: That money was for food ONLY, Em. You want booze, you find a new job. And remember to thank your aunt.

 

She hastily replied to her mother that she was there, her stuff had been stowed away in the dorm room, and she'd spoken to Jodi, then told her father that yes, she understood, and yes, she'd remember to thank Aunt Ana. She did not add that she had no idea what she was thanking Aunt Ana for, but she had her suspicions that it had something to do with her parents being able to finance Em's return to the university. Ana probably didn't want her to know at all—but it was still best to thank her in person.

No one else had texted—and Em was glad of that as she pocketed her phone again. She drained the last bit of her mug, dropped some change on the table for the absentee waiter, and started for the door.

Maybe starting over wasn't going to be so bad, but she wished she hadn't wasted the last two years chasing a dream that would never come true. Her friends were all going to be moving on to other things—graduating, getting married, having kids. Here she was, like she was just a kid again, relying on her parents' money after spending two years living on her own coin.

It didn't do any good to dwell on it. She'd been here for two years before she'd gone off to pursue her dream, and she'd made lots of good memories. There would be more friends and more memories. Jodi was even pursuing a PhD, so her best friend would be around even if she were super busy.

Em walked slowly along the sidewalks toward the dorm, enjoying the crisp air after the heat inside of the cafe. It was on the other side of campus, but the sun was only just setting. The light transformed the silvery-trunked trees into a golden spectacle, and Em could almost imagine she'd been transported to some faraway mystical locale. Who knew? Maybe with the fall scenery, the LARP could be a little enjoyable. She didn't have to be the star of the show, and she didn't have to impress anyone. Most of the people there probably wouldn't even know her. She could even just be lazy and play herself-as-a-whatever.

Ugh. Why was she even considering it? She didn't want to do the LARP. The thought of it alone made her anxious. She shifted her hair again, trying to hide her face even though no one she had passed was looking at her.

But all her friends would be there, and she'd been neglecting them. They didn't want to do a tabletop that weekend, or relax with some multiplayer game. She supposed, with most of them graduating and moving on, possibly even to lose contact, it was one last hurrah, one last chance for all of them to geek out together. They weren't just going to meet for a LARP with all that effort into costumes for just a single night. This thing would probably go on through the end of the year. Maybe some of them would still meet on weekends for it after graduation, if they didn't move too far away.

On top of everything else wrong with the idea of a LARP, it was a commitment that she wasn't sure she was ready to make—or whether she should make it.

A leaf drifted past, and she sighed., reminded that a week from now the vibrant colors could transform into barren branches. Maybe it would rain and the LARP would be canceled. They could do something else, something she'd definitely want to do with them. In the meantime, she was going to have to consider actually doing the LARP, if for no other reason than to give her friends a proper farewell. She'd neglected them for the past few months for reasons of her own, and they deserved better.

The last sliver of sun crept beneath the horizon as she reached the dorm complex. Rather than go inside and face whatever sort of person she'd gotten as a roommate this time, she climbed the stairwell that led to a rooftop patio. It wasn't late enough at night for parties, but someone had fired up a barbecue.

“Hey,” the erstwhile cook greeted. “Want a hot dog or a hamburger?” he offered.

“No thanks,” Em answered. “I guess you're in one of the rooms here?”

“Yeah. I've commuted the last two years, so I'm new to it. But when I saw we had this big grill, I had to try it out. The parties here are gonna be epic!” He flashed her a grin. “So you're one of the neighbors? You gotta take at least a soda.” He nabbed a can from a nearby cooler and tossed it at Em. She caught it with ease, but didn't pull the tab. “Oh, by the way,” he offered a hand to be shaken, “I'm Gray. Great to meet you.”

“I'm Em. I came here a couple of years, and now I'm back,” she said, wishing she'd chosen to go straight to her room instead. “I'm not really much for the party scene,” she admitted. “This time, I want to stay focused and get my degree. I don't want to disappoint Mom and Dad twice.” She fought the urge to bolt down the stairs and instead perched on the edge of a lawn chair near Gray and the grill.

“Ouch, Em,” Gray said, wincing expressively. “Yeah, I hear you. Most people can't afford to send a kid back if they drop out. You're lucky.”

She was lucky she had Ana for an aunt, she supposed—but she did have plenty else to be grateful for. “I am. I've got a great family and the best friends I could ask for. I'm sure I'm going to do just fine this time around. I've made my mistakes and I'm ready to do things right this time.” She set the soda can unopened on the table next to her.

Gray grinned at her over his shoulder as he flipped a burger. The scent of fresh cooked barbecue was drawing a few others up the stairs to investigate, so he started slapping meat onto buns and passing out paper plates and soda cans. “Yeah. You make me want to reconsider the partying. I mean, I want to have fun, but I don't want to go completely wild with it. If I screw up, I'm on my own. Mom and Dad couldn't even afford my tuition. I'm here on a music scholarship, believe it or not. Like that's gonna pay the bills... “ His grin faltered. “Even though I'm playing in the band and I have my own little band with friends here on campus, I'm majoring in physics. Maybe one day I'll even be an astronaut. Too bad you can't really see the stars here like you can back home.”

“Yeah. I came up here because you can see them a little, at least, and I have this app on my phone that shows the constellations,” Em admitted. “I thought I'd be alone.”

“Hey, did you see that?” Gray suddenly pointed toward the northern horizon.

“See what?” Em asked.

Gray peered into the night sky. “Nothing I guess. Probably car lights or some asshole with a laser pointer. For a second I thought we were getting an aurora. It's rare this far south, but it does happen sometimes. Actually I've seen a couple lately. It's weird. Solar storms, they've said on the news.” He shrugged, then turned off the grill and pushed a plate with a hot dog at her. “So what did you do when you dropped out, anyway? I mean, if you don't mind me asking.”

She didn't comment on the auroras; they'd been mentioned in all the news and she'd even seen one at her parents' home. It was one hell of a solar storm, apparently. Several satellites had been knocked out by it, and TV reception had been patchy at best. “I had a job, and I thought I was on top of the world. It fell through.” She suspected that Gray had already come up with his own conclusions before he'd even asked—and they were probably more interesting than what had actually happened. She put the plate next to the soda can. “I don't really want anything. I already had dinner and dessert with a friend earlier. Thanks, though.”

“Well... talk to you later, then? I mean... well, you can have my number. If you want it, that is.” Suddenly he was stumbling for words, and Em realized what all this attention was about.

“I'm sure we'll run across each other again,” she answered with a quick smile, sliding from her chair. She assessed Gray with a quick glance. Light hair—probably blond—average height, beautiful smile, and intelligent enough to major in physics. He was attractive, by her standards, but she wasn't quite ready to leap into a relationship yet. “It's not a no,” she added hastily. “You seem like a nice guy.” At least, he was generous enough to buy enough meat and soda for an impromptu party on the roof, and he seemed friendly. “I'm still trying to adjust to... well, to everything. I feel like a kid again. It's not a good feeling.”

Gray frowned slightly at her—maybe he thought she was calling him a kid? “Well, it's been great meeting you,” he offered up into the awkward pause that ensued, his smile glinting in the darkness with less certainty this time. “I should go meet some of the other people, too. Be a good neighbor, that kind of thing. Later, Em!”

Em nearly bolted down the stairs to the sanctity of her dorm room. She doubted that Gray would want to talk again. Maybe she should have taken his number. Maybe...

Her roommate wasn't there yet—maybe she was one of the people up on the roof? Or maybe she was one of those roommates who didn't get home until the wee hours of the morning. Either way, Em relished the quiet time.

The dorm room was much smaller than her apartment had been. Her roommate had plastered massive anime posters around the room in such a variety of genres that Em wasn't sure of anything other than that her roommate liked anime. Em didn't recognize any of the series. She smiled to herself at the observation, slid off her shoes, and pulled out her headphones. Some time with music and self-evaluation could not go amiss.

Especially because part of her was sure it was a personal failure that everything had gone wrong. And part of her was glad it had gone wrong.

She was a mess and she knew it.

Bright light flashed outside of the window. It hadn't been cloudy, but the day had been hot and the night was cool. She unplugged her laptop, then settled onto her bed with her phone, and sent a text to Jodi.

 

Em: I get it. You don't want this last big thing to go down without me now that I'm back.

Jodi: So you'll do it, right?

Em: I'm thinking about it. But I have to focus on classes, on getting a degree.

Em: I know you know how it is.

Em: Also I just blew it with a cute guy.

Jodi: You're trying to change the topic.

Em: You're right. I am.

Jodi: It might be the last time we all get together.

Jodi: Mark will be around and I'll be around, but I'll be busy.

Jodi: Lena and Sherry are trying to get internships. I don't know where they'll be.

Jodi: Ellie's graduating this year too. Never would've thought Ellie'd be the responsible one.

Em: You and me both.

Jodi: You'll shine like a star at the LARP.

Jodi: I know you'll have a blast.

Em: Maybe

Jodi: Em... come on, we've been friends since we were kids.

Jodi: And remember the cosplay two years ago? You were rockin' that Commander Shepard outfit.

Jodi: And you were RPing with that guy dressed up as Thane.

Jodi: It's like you were a whole different person.

Jodi: And the devs posted your pic on their site too!

Jodi: We all had so much fun! I think you had more fun than anybody else. The LARP is gonna be like that.

Jodi: Em? Are you OK?

Jodi: What's wrong???

 

The light flickered faster outside the window as the storm picked up force. Wind howled outside, tearing at the tree limbs. So much for the fall splendor.

Em didn't feel like talking to Jodi anymore. She was too close to admitting the real issue, and she didn't think Jodi would understand. Maybe she would, but that might even be worse. She'd already shed plenty of tears over it. She didn't want Jodi to do the same. She sniffled, took a deep breath to ward off the tears, and texted her mother.

 

Em: It's storming pretty bad over here. Probably heading that way. Make sure to watch the weather.

Mom: OK. Ellie already told me.

Mom: Ellie's worried about you.

Mom: You should visit her tomorrow at her dorm room before class starts.

Mom: And Dan called again. He says he's sorry.

Mom: He says he owes you some money and he can pay it back now.

Mom: But you have to actually answer his calls or texts or he can't.

Em: He can keep it. I told you what he said.

Mom: We all say things we regret when we're angry.

Em: I know. But not like that.

Em: If it gets much worse I need to get to the storm shelter.

Em: You should be ready to get to the basement.

Em: Is Dad home yet?

Mom: No, but he won't drive if there's bad weather. He'll be fine.

 

The alarm sirens outside began to blare, and Em grabbed her purse and laptop, walking toward the stairwell to the basement storm shelter. Outside of the windows, the sky gleamed green. Lightning crashed without pause.

Em stopped to gaze out the window at the spectacle. The whole world was awash in green. That couldn't be right. It was autumn. But no—the golden leaves were swirling through the gloom. It was dizzying. It was like fire. Was this a tornado? Was she too late?

Everything was so green. And beyond that...

Beyond that

It was like

looking through a crack

in

the

sky

Chapter Text

Jodi reached for Em's arm, drawing her attention down to meet a serious gaze. “What are you going to do without a degree, Em? It's been a whole semester since we graduated. I don't want to see you flipping burgers somewhere for minimum wage. You can do so much better, I know it!”

“I know, Jodi, but it's just one year. Mom and Dad can't afford tuition, so I'm trying to build up some savings first.” Em gazed off into the distance where two horses grazed among the cattle. “There's this guy, though. His name is Mark—he was a year ahead of us in class, remember him? The farm boy who transferred from up north? He offered to buy General and Luna. That would make it easier. I'll still have to work for a year or two, but I'm sure I can get a scholarship to help.”

Em! You'd sell General? But you--” Jodi was shocked. Of course she was.

Em cut her friend's protests off. “I know, Jodi. But he'll take great care of them. It's not like anyone's going to give me blue ribbons at the shows to help me earn his keep. They didn't even do that when I was little and cute. Besides, Mark's family can actually afford to keep them both fed. If we didn't have the horses to feed...” Em frowned, leaning against the rickety wooden fence as the wind rustled the grass. General perked his ears and trotted over, butting his head over the rails; Em patted his neck as Jodi watched Em and the horse with sad eyes.

 

#####

 

Even when she opened her eyes, it was cool and dark—too dark to be explained by her roommate using blackout curtains to make watching anime easier. There was no sun, there were no stars, and Em felt strange. It was if she had simultaneously become lighter and heavier. She felt weak and dizzy, but at the same time better than she'd ever felt.

The memory of the storm rushed back to her. “Shit...” Was she trapped under a massive pile of debris?

Hey! Anybody! Help! Is anyone there? HEY!” She shouted for a few moments longer, but no one answered. It was as silent where she lay as it was dark. In a panic, she wondered whether she were still alive, whether anyone had survived. But no, she was moving, she was breathing, her heart was pounding. She must be alive. She groped, hoping to reach her purse, her phone, her laptop—anything that might help her reach someone and tell them that she was alive, if trapped.

Her purse, her cell phone, her laptop—her fingers found none of their familiar surfaces. Soft, slick fabric rustled beneath her and around her. Whatever bed she was lying on was better than anything she had ever slept in—even that one time her family had stayed in a nice hotel on the beach. On the sides, something hard and cold and slick blocked her and...

Shit. No. She felt slowly up the sides of the walls, and yes, there was a lid.

A lid.

She was in a freaking coffin.

Sweat broke out across Em's skin. She shrieked in horror, then gasped for breath as she tried to calm herself. She must already be underground. They must have thought that she had died—why? Why did they think that? She felt odd and her mind felt hazy, but nothing hurt. How long had she been out? “Somebody! Anybody! I'm alive, I'm alive, help! HELP!

When no one answered, she bit down on her panic. She was going to run out of air if she kept on shouting. She reached up, pressing against the lid. It didn't budge. Maybe...

Her fingers slid across the seam between the lid and the walls. Maybe there was a latch?

Faint patterns lit up along the inside of her tomb, and the lid slid away on its own, showering her with dust and cobwebs—but not, she was grateful to discover, a massive wall of dirt. Dust and cobwebs were better than being suffocated.

She coughed and sneezed, scrabbling out of her erstwhile prison as quickly as she could manage, only to tumble face first onto the ground. She coughed more and battled with a sudden queasiness that overcame her as she moved.

At first, the only light was from the patterns on the coffin, like some sort of alien writing—but it was enough to see that around her, in all directions, were dozens more such sarcophogi, each intricately carved. It seemed familiar, but in the shock of the moment, she struggled to remember where she had seen it before. Shaking, she pushed back to her feet. As if on cue, a brazier blazed far ahead with a soft blue light.

“Hello? Anyone?” Her voice was odd in her own ears; the dust must be caught in her throat. She leaned against the edge of the coffin for support and coughed a few more times. Where was she? “I swear, Lena, if you have anything to do with this... I know you're watching. This has to be one of your pranks. Jodi, if you're in on it...”

No one answered, but she caught a faint scuttling sound in the darkness. Rats, maybe?

She glanced around through the darkness, her eyes settling again on that brazier in the distance, held aloft by a sleek metallic statue. Light probably meant people, and people meant safety.

They'd begun the LARP early, she decided. But this was way too much. She had said no.

Em gritted her teeth, stalking toward the cold light of the brazier. As she approached, another one lit further ahead, and above. She passed rows upon rows of tombs arranged in perfect order. “Okay, fine. Run. Run like hell. When I find you...” She let the threat hang in the darkness; she had no idea what she was going to do when she caught them. It was like she had been dropped off in a haunted house attraction—a very expensive one—and left to walk through it on her own.

The next brazier led to yet another, and that one to another. The scuttling came closer, even as the tombs she passed began to be in far worse shape than the one she had left. They were cracked open, bodies lying prone and decayed.

“It's not real, Em; none of it's real,” she assured herself, trying to ignore the terrible musty smell that surrounded her and the cold air that the braziers did nothing to dispel. And yet it all certainly looked real. “No idea how they afforded this, but it just looks real. It's not really real.” It had to be a trick of lighting and her own mind—if she looked closely enough it would all be plastic.

The sound of her voice was no comfort—the dust had strained it and she didn't sound the same at all. She fell silent again. She'd just follow the lights to the exit, and then she'd refuse to play along when she inevitably encountered her friends or any other LARP players. She'd get her phone back, and her laptop, and her purse, and she'd go back to the dorm. She just had to keep her nerve long enough to manage it. Her friends were probably recording all of this and laughing about it. They might be her ex-friends after this stunt.

The trail became a narrow arch over darkness so deep that she could not even guess what lay below. Instead of one brazier lighting the way, they lit up along the sides of massive pillars looming from the earth. And then abruptly, she came upon a large gap, crumbled stone falling into endless darkness as she halted mid-stride. Okay—wrong way. She'd just turn around and--

In the light of the braziers, countless many-legged creatures scuttled in a swarm toward her, their bodies catching the light of distant braziers. And was that—was there a person or two down there too, staggering around like a zombie? “I've seen bigger bugs in my apartment. You can do better than this!” she shouted. Still, the message was clear: go forward, or go nowhere at all. She laughed to herself—an unfamiliar laugh—and turned back to the gap. It was a long stretch; no doubt the “pit” wasn't really deep at all, just painted flat black for the illusion of depth in the darkness. She'd be fine.

That didn't mean it was any less unnerving.

Em froze, stone crumbling away at her feet. Her bare feet. What had they done with her shoes? She had been too preoccupied just trying to find her way through the darkness and the carefully manufactured debris to even notice.

Her legs carried her over the gap before she could gather the nerve to leap. She flailed in alarm, almost missing—and finding herself clinging to the crumbling far edge of the trail. Something screamed behind her, and she felt something wet and sticky hit her back through her clothing and drip down into the darkness. Hastily she clawed her way back onto the path, then turned to favor the massive spiders that waited at the other edge, fangs gleaming in the blue light of the braziers, with a scathing glare. She was even more sure this was her friends' doing. “I'm not afraid of spiders, Mark. But nice try.”

She moved forward with haste all the same. Something thudded to the path behind her, and she turned just in time to see the path break away beneath one of the spiders, plunging it into the depths. Or at least, she didn't see it stop falling. “Shit!” As sure as she was that none of this was real, it was increasingly unnerving. She returned her attention to the path ahead, breaking into a jog, just in case anything else decided to jump onto the path and break it. Her back had begun to burn with intense pain, but ahead, the light had changed from pale blue to orange.

She stumbled down a pair of stairs into a large and well lit room filled with cubbies and cabinets of long decayed items. She paused, trying to figure out where the light was coming from. There were only two torches on the far end, flanking a door she was certain was the exit to this place. Torches shouldn't produce enough light to brighten the entire room, but they seemed to be doing just that.

Once again, her body moved before she could think. She peeled off her shirt and the undergarment beneath it. They were befouled by a stinking green fluid, and she flung them aside with disgust, then rifled through one of the cabinets, wrapping her torso with enough gauze to make a mummy. It was clean, at least; more evidence that this was all a setup. But her back still burned, and she felt dizzier than before—and weaker. She wanted to lie down.

Not yet, she thought. She made her way to the door, puzzled at first by its mechanisms. Her hands knew precisely what to do. A light touch in two places, and it lit with markings just as the coffin had, swinging wide to allow for her exit. As soon as she stepped through, it sealed behind her. And ahead of her...

She stumbled into a rugged cavern formed from a ledge beneath a sparkling waterfall. It made her realize that she was thirsty, and her back still burnt so badly. It brought up a confused memory of another time and place when she had burnt with pain. But no, that was...

She stumbled toward the water, desperate to ease her thirst and cool her back. She overreached, losing her balance only to tumble off of the ledge and into a pool of deep, clear water. Fish of all sorts darted away from her in all directions, light glittering on their scales. Her lungs burnt from gasping in some of the water. She struggled to the surface, sputtering for breath and coughing. The shore was blessedly close, and she swam toward it before she could even decide to do so.

Everything was so hazy...

Em crawled up the rocky shore on her belly. She'd had plenty of water thanks to her fall, but her back was still aflame with pain despite the coolness of the pool. No one was there to greet her or help her. She dragged herself higher onto the grassy slope ahead and collapsed, shutting her eyes against her exhaustion and pain. Something was very wrong. She might need to visit the hospital. She hoped her friends or Ellie found her soon.

She couldn't help thinking that if she'd had her cell phone, she could just text someone for help.

 

Chapter Text

I wish I could, Em, but Mom and Dad...” Mark let the thought trail off unspoken. Em knew. Mark's cheeks were reddened with embarrassment, and neither of them met the other's gaze.

Em let the topic drop without further comment. Saying more would just make it even more awkward. She brushed her hair over the side of her face, not looking directly at Mark. Her feet swung over the railing. “Now that you've got General and Luna, I'd like to visit them sometimes, if that isn't too--”

No, that's fine, Em. I wouldn't have offered if I didn't know what was going on with your parents. And hey, once you've got a good job and you can afford a place to keep them, I'll sell them back to you, at a discount. But,” he waggled a finger at her, smiling playfully, “they're not getting any younger. General's, what, eight years?” Em nodded. “And Luna's ten, Ellie told me. So you'd better hurry up and get enrolled, so you can get him back faster. Otherwise they're going to be too old to ride.”

Mark had a beautiful smile. It was just such a shame that—but she wouldn't dwell on it. She understood. It was always like that, wasn't it? “As long as they always have a good home and no one sends them off to the knacker, I'm okay. I appreciate this more than you'll ever know, Mark. If you hadn't bought them, Ellie and I might not have much of a future at all. But... this semester's nearly over. It'll have to be next year.”

At least that's more time to save money,” Mark answered. “Have you gotten any word back from the scholarships you applied for?”

Ellie got a couple,” Em said evasively. “She's really bright. People don't give her enough credit.”

And I know for a fact you're just as smart. Don't waste it, Em. Promise me you won't waste it.”

 

####

 

Sharp pain jabbed into Em's burning back, jarring her back into consciousness. The sun scorched across her limbs and grass tickled at her bare arms and face. Her hazy mind had trouble understanding what was happening.

The pain jabbed again, at a different spot. Something or someone was poking her injury. She winced and yelped. Her tormentor cawed and flapped, then paced over her back with prickling claws to tap at her head and caw again even more loudly, directly into her ear. She flailed, and the raven croaked, flapping a short distance away to tilt its head at her warily.

“Not dead, damnit,” she croaked back at the bird, ripping grass from the ground to throw at it. The bird cawed back, then rustled to a nearby rock and cawed again, loudly, calling in a friend or two to the feast, she supposed. “Fill your belly elsewhere.”

She might not be dead yet, but she would be if a few ravens started pecking at her for long enough. She struggled, trying to regain her feet, but her body was too weak and her back hurt too badly. She dragged herself further away from the water. Perhaps, if she got to the top of the hill ahead, someone would see—preferably one of her friends. She must have been allergic to whatever they threw at her back. If she didn't show up soon, they'd be worried. But they'd help her. She knew they would help her.

The raven landed on her back again and jabbed viciously. She screamed in agony. The bird cawed loudly, jumped, flapped, and landed in the same spot. The other ravens must be nearby, Em decided.

And then, impossibly, she heard footsteps. The raven, rather than flying away, croaked as it paced her back, balancing at last with its sharp claws on the back of her head.

“I thought I heard someone screaming just now,” someone said, his voice muffled by distance.

The raven flapped up and gave another loud caw. Em started to crawl forward, but the bird rapped at her head with its beak and croaked at her.

“That is one of Sister Leliana's birds,” a woman's voice replied. “See the capsule on its leg? But what is it doing?”

“Perhaps we should investigate,” a third voice suggested.

“Ravens are drawn to corpses,” a fourth person remarked. “I'm not sure we'll like what we find.”

“Could be demons,” the first voice commented warily, closer now. “It's closer to the rift than I like.”

The raven cawed again, leaping into the air and landing. Getting attention, Em realized. She knew they were smart—she'd heard that crows and ravens were the most intelligent of birds, intelligent to the point it might be a little scary to think about too hard—but it should be trying to make a feast of her. This was not natural. Her mind was too hazy from pain to think too deeply on the topic; for now she would be grateful that the bird wasn't trying to eat her, after all.

She should not have crawled away from the water; she needed a drink desperately. The burning had spread from her back to the rest of her limbs, and neither the sunlight nor the bird were helping. But the people might.

“Help,” she groaned. Her voice was too quiet; they'd never hear her. “Ma halani!” she added slightly louder, before she could even think to speak. It confused her. Why ask for help in the Dragon Age elven language? That made no sense.

“Someone is asking for help,” the third voice spoke nearby. Now that it was closer, she could swear it sounded like Solas from Dragon Age: Inquisition. “There!” A pair of wrapped feet appeared before her nose, followed by a pair of green-clad knees as the person knelt to examine her more closely. Whoever was playing Solas was taking this LARP seriously to the extreme, she decided.

The raven croaked and hopped off of her head, pacing nearby.

Other feet crunched through the grass to join the first pair. Why wasn't anyone calling 911? “Be careful,” a woman who sounded like Cassandra warned. “The elf could be possessed.”

“If that's true,” Varric's voice intoned, “it's the weakest demon ever.” Whoever he actually was, he nudged her ribs lightly with a foot. “Look at it, wrapped up like a Nevarran mummy! --No offense intended to our resident Nevarran, of course.”

'Cassandra' grunted with disgust in answer.

“What do you think, Solas? Is the elf possessed?” the fourth voice asked. Whoever she was, the woman did not sound familiar to Em.

Ma halani,” she repeated, and followed it with a string of words she didn't understand. Why was she speaking gibberish? She needed emergency care. Was her allergic reaction affecting her mind as well?

“She says she has been stricken in the back by potent spider venom,” 'Solas' informed the others. “Whether she is possessed or not, I cannot say. However, she will die if we do not take her to the nearest camp for treatment. The refugee camp is too far. It is fortunate for her that Leliana's ravens are so well trained.” He began tugging at her arms, hauling her upward with unanticipated ease.

“No! I need--” she mumbled, struggling weakly, only to be cut short.

Ir halani,” Solas assured her. He shifted her weight over his shoulder, maintaining balance even as she tried to break free. At least whoever was playing the role was trying to avoid causing further pain through contact with her back. “We can put her under guard if you find that reassuring. However, I doubt that she will be in any state to cause trouble for some time to come.”

“I can carry her,” the fourth person offered. Now that Em was being held off the ground, she could see that the person was tall and wearing what looked like the Inquisitor's dragon armor. Adaar? “You're sturdy for an elf, but camp's going to seem a long way off if you're carrying someone. If she's that badly hurt, we need to move fast.”

“I've seen how you carry the injured, Cupcakes. It's not that far. Let Chuckles handle it. If we need somebody to carry potatoes around, we'll check in with you,” Varric said. As 'Solas' turned to walk toward a dirt road nearby, she caught a glimpse of the person playing Varric's role. The resemblance was uncanny.

“I can take her feet, if that will help,” Cassandra offered. “Even if she is not possessed, she is struggling. You cannot carry her the entire way with no help.”

“Very well,” Solas agreed, shuffling Em's weight against her protests so that Cassandra could shoulder her feet and legs. He said something sharply in Elvish, and Em forced herself to relax.

It wasn't because he'd said something at all. It was because she knew she didn't know the words, but somehow she understood exactly what he had said: Calm yourself. If you continue to struggle, the venom will kill you.

“I told you we should've gone to see Master Dennett first,” Varric grumbled. “Just think! A horse could be doing all this carrying instead of us.”

“You don't seem to be doing much of the carrying, Varric,” 'Cupcakes' observed. “But since you offered, and they're carrying the injured elf, maybe you'd like to help with their gear?”

“Damnit,” Varric grumbled. “All right,” he agreed. “You take the Seeker's, I'll take Chuckles'.”

“Do you think we have time to casually set her down and reorganize?” Solas demanded, shifting her weight on his shoulder again. “If we do not get her to camp quickly for treatment, she will die. She is barely able to move as it is.”

Em's whole body was on fire from the... venom? Allergic reaction? She wasn't sure. They were going to help her; that should be enough. “Camp” was probably campus. Maybe it was the hospital. From the corner of her eye, she could see the raven still following, flitting from perch to perch and cawing at the group. Grass and trees passed slowly by as they walked down the dusty path. It was too slow, and the motion of their stride was nauseating. She was in agony. She shut her eyes, hoping consciousness would fail her again so that she wouldn't need to suffer.

“Do you know her?” Cassandra asked. “You told me you are not Dalish. I saw she has the tattoos.”

“I have met Dalish in my travels—but no. I do not know her,” Solas replied, then gave Em a small shake. She gasped in pain. “Era tu na'din,” he warned. She understood: Sleeping will kill you.

“Not Dalish,” Em mumbled. Another string of words she didn't know followed before she found familiar words again. “I'm--”

“We will arrive soon,” Solas interrupted. Why didn't he want her to speak? It was the second time he'd interrupted her. Was he trying to keep her from ruining the LARP? Maybe her backstory was supposed to be that she was Dalish. Did he think she even cared about the LARP anymore? She needed medical attention, and this asshole wouldn't even drop character for an emergency situation!

“Solas, what did she say?” Cassandra demanded. Em could picture the person playing her role glowering at Solas, but with her torso draped over Solas's shoulder, she didn't have the satisfaction of seeing it.

“She is feverish from the venom,” Solas replied. “What she says will likely make little sense until she recovers.”

It was all too much to think about. Em was in agony, each step her carriers took setting her veins ablaze anew. She had no idea if they'd been walking for fifteen minutes or an hour, or even half a day. It seemed like an eternity, and silence stretched out between the group like a languid cat. The terrain continued to bounce past in slow motion. She wanted to sleep, but she couldn't forget the warning she'd been given.

“We're almost there,” Cupcakes said, breaking the silence and halting ahead of them. “How's the refugee?”

Solas stopped behind the qunari, and Varric walked closer to peer upward at Em. The dwarf's eyes met hers. She stared back, unnerved, wishing she could hide her face. How did they find someone who looked and sounded exactly like Varric? How much had they spent on these costumes? “Our Raven's still awake,” Varric said, then strolled away. “Hopefully they have the antivenin at camp. If not...”

“If not, she will die,” Cassandra finished the sentence for Varric from somewhere ahead of Solas. “One more life lost to the Breach and this foolish war.”

“She isn't going to die while I'm around,” Cupcakes declared from somewhere ahead. “That enough of a breather for you, Solas?” She didn't wait for his response; Em heard her heavy footsteps crunching onward ahead. “Let's go.”

“The antivenin will likely be insufficient. She will require healing for the damage,” Solas said, shifting her over his shoulder again—she must be making him uncomfortable. Good. If she had to be in agony because he and the rest of this group didn't want to break character long enough to take her seriously, then she was glad he was suffering at least a little in return. “There is more,” he continued, “but it is best discussed when we reach camp.”

“It's a great day to be Chuckles,” Varric quipped. Em saw him lingering nearby in her peripheral vision, as if watching her for any sign of a threat.

“What do you mean by that, Varric?” Cassandra asked when Solas didn't seem inclined to rise to the bait. Behind her—or more accurately, toward the front of the group—Em felt her feet being shifted, much as Solas had shifted her torso. Despite her agony, Em wondered if she'd somehow gained weight lately.

“Well, look at him. You haven't shouted at him even once today, he's saving a life—that's always a good day—and he's getting to carry around a half-naked woman. Seems like a pretty good time to me,” Varric answered, then laughed as Cassandra made an exasperated noise in the back of her throat.

Cupcakes stifled a laugh. “Oh come on, Seeker, he has a point.”

Em groaned her misery. Everything was blurry; she really just wanted to close her eyes and make the bouncing terrain go away—and yet this person was making jokes at her expense.

Solas turned his head to murmur to her in elvish. “It isn't far. Just a few more steps.” She groaned again in response. She would worry about how she understood him later.

“If Solas is correct, we must decide who will stay behind to care for the refugee. There are no mages here,” Cassandra said. “Let us hurry.”

Here? Were they at the hospital? Em tried to blink her eyes clear, lifting her head to look around. She hadn't even noticed that she'd let her face rest against Solas's back. Red tents came into view as he and Cassandra walked further into the camp. It was definitely not a hospital, and there were far more tents than she remembered being in any of the camps in Dragon Age: Inquisition. There were far more people, too—armored soldiers clanked around, or stirred massive cauldrons that wafted the scent of stewed cabbage and meat toward her nostrils. Three draft horses were picketed on the outskirts of the camp, their saddles and blankets draped over an unused hitching post. Beyond the horses, she saw a pile of dirt that, from the smell that hit when the wind wasn't blowing it the other way, probably hid a latrine.

The raven from before—or she thought it was the raven from before—perched on the Inquisition flag planted by the entrance to the camp as the group walked further in. It cawed at her knowingly.

How many people could possibly be involved in this LARP? What did they do, send an invitation to the entire fanbase? Just how serious was this thing?

“Anna!” Cassandra shouted. Someone jogged toward them on heavy boots.

“Yes, Seeker!”

“We need access to your stock of antivenin. Immediately. If you have a spare bedroll, get someone to drag it by the fire,” Cassandra ordered. Dust puffed up into Em's face as Anna rushed to obey, and others soon followed soot. She coughed and groaned at the fire that it sent through her body. “I will hear no complaints about bringing a refugee into camp. We are here to help. Redcliffe and the refugee camp were too far away, with too many attackers on the roads.”

Cassandra and Solas shuffled Em onto a coarse bedroll on her belly, stones digging into her despite its thick leather and fur. She was supposed to be feverish, she thought. If that were the case, she should be chilled. Instead the heat of the fire combined with the heat of the venom in her blood, and she felt as though she were a living torch. She tried to scream, but the sound came out as a weakened moan. Someone began cutting the gauze away from her torso. She protested, both because she wanted a real doctor and because she was wearing nothing beneath it, but whoever was tending her either wasn't listening or didn't understand.

“You think Raven's gonna be all right now?” Varric asked from nearby.

The person tending to Em began gently cleaning her back. She clutched at the bedroll, moaning again. She wanted to scream. Someone else knelt down in front of her, pressing a spoon to her lips. When she didn't open her mouth, they forced her to part her jaws and jammed it in. The flavor of whatever it was gagged her, but the person held her mouth shut and she was forced to swallow the concoction. She wanted to hide from the treatment she was being given as much as from the excessive attention, but she was too weak to escape.

“I am uncertain, but her chances must be greatly improved with the antivenin,” Solas mused. “Still, she has been too long without treatment, and the venom has done damage that must be healed. Does Adaar know any healing spells, I wonder?” His feet appeared in front of her nose again as he knelt beside her. “This will go better if you stop struggling,” he told her in Elvish. “The medicine may be unpleasant, but you will not recover without it. Once you have taken the full dose, you may sleep if you wish.

Just as she considered the ramifications of a “full dose,” the other person shoved the spoon into her mouth again, forcing her to swallow whatever unholy substance Solas was calling medicine. It was an emergency situation, and they were turning it into fun times for this ridiculous LARP. Because it had to be a LARP, didn't it? A really big one. If it wasn't a LARP, then she was having a terrible nightmare.

“What did you tell her?” Cupcakes asked from nearby.

“Ah. I told her to stop struggling and take her medicine,” Solas answered with a chuckle, as if it were high entertainment for a sick person to be tormented. “Varric and I were just discussing whether you have any knowledge of healing spells. My own skills in that field are mediocre at best.”

“Then you're going to have to stay with the refugee and do the patching up,” Adaar told him. “I don't know a single spell.” Cupcakes' heavy boots crunched up beside of Solas's bare toes and the scuffed leather boots of the person forcing a third spoonful of medicine down Em's throat. “I'd rather have you with us in case we need barriers, but Cassandra, Varric, and I will be fine.” Cupcakes' weight shifted as if she were glancing around. “There isn't much daylight left, but if we leave now, we can probably make it back to camp to get Solas by tomorrow evening.”

“I was going to suggest we stay at camp for the night,” Cassandra replied. “We could set out again at first light tomorrow, fully rested.”

“You just want to stay so you can question Raven the moment she's able to talk,” Varric said. “Or are you afraid Chuckles is going to make off like a thief in the night the moment you're not watching him?”

“Perhaps, after going to the trouble to see her safe, I would like to know whether the refugee recovers,” Cassandra retorted. “She may have family nearby who are missing her. I have told the scouts to watch for any Dalish clans in the area.”

“Well, far be it from me to make suggestions, but much as I'd like to kick back and play Wicked Grace with the soldiers, we need to reach that contact of Nightingale's. Not to mention, we still don't have enough horses for us, nevermind all the soldiers.” Varric's footsteps paced behind Adaar and Solas.

Another mouthful of the disgusting fluid was pressed down Em's throat, but she didn't have the energy to keep fighting. On the other hand, the heat in her veins seemed to be slowly subsiding, and the person who had been cleaning her back—was it burnt? Was what hit her acidic?--had finished their task. Maybe the “soldier” was actually a medical doctor in real life. Maybe the LARP group knew what they were doing, after all—even if she wished they weren't so set on staying in character. Although... wasn't antivenin usually administered with a vaccine? Maybe they already had, and she simply hadn't noticed. Her mind felt hazy; she wasn't certain she really knew what was going on.

“Then we're decided,” Adaar said. “You take good care of her, buddy,” she told Solas, clapping him on the back so hard that he nearly fell on top of Em. He braced himself against the ground with one hand before he could.

“That's the entire bottle,” the person who'd been forcing liquid torture down her throat declared after one last spoonful. The scuffed boots backed away from her face, and the man began to address Solas. “She'll probably fall asleep soon, but if she doesn't, find me in the third tent over there. I know a little alchemy, and I have some sleeping draughts brewed up to keep the injured still.”

He was right; she let her eyes drift shut, relieved that she was no longer being force-fed or prodded.

“Very well,” Solas replied. “I shall manage from here. Do you have anything to cover her with, once her back is healed? In the open as she is, people will stare.”

That's right, she remembered. She was topless. And people were staring? Ordinarily she'd be mortified, but for the moment she was simply too tired.

“You can move her to one of the empty tents if you think it won't set her recovery back,” the soldier replied. His voice seemed to reach her from far away. “I'll check with Anna about something for her to wear once she's up and about. Until then, she should be fine tucked into a bedroll.”

The soldier must have walked away, but as Em drifted toward unconsciousness, Solas spoke again in Elvish. Em thought she might be dreaming. Maybe she was dreaming all of this. How big could a LARP be? “ I shall do what I can to ensure your recovery. In exchange, I trust you will be willing to answer my questions when you wake.

She started to answer, but warm fingers brushed against her forehead; she could not fight the wave of drowsiness that followed.

 

Chapter Text

Em brought up the message screen of her phone and began typing as soon as she hung up from the call.

 

Em: Ellie, don't freak out on me but Mom's in the hospital

Ellie: What? How? What happened?

Em: Hey, stay calm. She's OK. They want to observe her for a day just in case there's some damage they haven't noticed yet, but it looks like all that's wrong is a broken arm.

Ellie: Emma what happened?

Em: She was in the grocery line and a guy just swung at her. Just went totally off, and started beating her.

Em: It happened while I was at work. I didn't even know until fifteen minutes ago. Mom called me from the hospital. She waited until she knew I'd be home. She sounds like hell, Ellie. Bastard busted her lip I think.

Ellie: Damnit, Emma, you're shitting me right?

Em: I wish... Look, Dad can't take off work right now-- so it looks like there's just me to help out with Mom and the farm.

Em: But it'll be okay! I mean... the job at the bookstore's going OK and I can still do part time until Mom can handle the farm work again.

Ellie: Emma... I thought we were going to sign up for classes next semester...

Em: And who's going to pay the bills if the cows don't get milked, Ellie?

Ellie: Damnit, Emma, I hate it when you're right. I'm not gonna leave all of it to you to do.

Ellie: But if we don't enroll soon, I'm gonna lose those scholarships.

Em: I know. I promise, we'll still go. Just... not for another semester, I guess.

Em: Right now, it's more important to make sure Mom's okay. Besides... more time to save money, right...?

Ellie: Yeah. You're right. It's just...

Ellie: It's not fair, Emma.

 

Em closed her messages out and shook her head, tears sliding down her cheeks as she leaned her forehead against the coarse bark of one of the oak trees beside their house. “I know, Ellie,” she whispered to herself, “It's not fair at all. Not for any of us.”

 

####

 

Em woke confused. Red light filtered through the waxed canvas of the small tent surrounding her. For an instant, she thought she was staring into a lake of blood. She shuddered, shaking away the gruesome idea, then groaned. Her muscles ached, her head ached, her skin burnt... But if she were still here, then the LARP was carrying on. Weird. She'd never heard of camping during a LARP; then again, she'd never done live action roleplaying before. Nor did she have any intention of cooperating now.

The tent could probably have held two sleeping campers, but not with any degree of comfort unless they were very close friends or lovers. There was barely space for one person to crawl from one end to the other. Em felt fortunate to have awakened alone, and more so that there was no sign that anyone else had been in the tent during the night. The bedroll she had slept on was the only one present.

She forced her aching muscles to obey as she rolled over out of the hot fur, only to find that her clothing had been removed at some point—underwear and all. She clamped down on the anger that threatened to boil over. Waking up naked meant that someone had removed the remainder of her clothing without her knowledge or consent—that was a boundary no one should have considered breaking. It could have been “just” a prank—nothing seemed to have been done to her beyond her clothing being taken—but if it had been, it wasn't an innocent prank and she wasn't going to forgive the perpetrator easily.

A pile of LARP-appropriate clothing caught her eye in the dim light of the tent. How common was it for someone else to provide the costume for a LARP? Was Jodi behind this? Em crawled toward the carefully folded clothing, examining the stack. It was clean, smelled faintly floral, and whoever left it had even thought to include underwear. Relieved that at least she didn't have to leave the tent naked, Em started to put on the outfit, and was surprised to find that it was too short and too tight, as if it had been made for someone ten years or more younger than she was—an unusual situation for her. She'd often had the opposite problem.

She also resolved that as soon as she was clothed, she was going to slip away and follow one of the roads until she hit pavement. From there she could surely find her way back to campus. It was just a matter of finding someone to ask. Enough was enough—she hadn't wanted to be part of the LARP in the first place, nevermind subjected to cruel pranks.

Em tugged one last time at one of her sleeves, but the cuff wouldn't meet her wrist no matter how she tried. She sighed and crawled through the tent flap into the blinding daylight outside.

A raven peered down at her from a nearby flagpole. Em gave a shudder and walked away from the bird, focusing on finding her way out of the camp.

The realism of the camp was even more apparent now that Em's head had cleared. The grass had been trampled down to hard dirt and slick mud. Scents of sweat, stew, and sewage blended in an unpleasant harmony around her. Red tents were arranged in perfect rows, with two white tents set aside from the rest nearby. One large white tent seemed to be a command tent; the groans of pain that came from the other marked it as an infirmary.

Fewer people wandered the camp at this time of day; it must be noon. If they'd been real soldiers, Em thought, they were probably out patrolling or sent on assignments. As LARPers, they were probably out looking for interesting things to roleplay about. Much as she didn't appreciate being forced into a LARP, she had to admit it was impressive that so many people had joined, and were willing to do so in seemingly minor roles.

Despite the discomfort and poor fit, Em was grateful for her costume—it allowed her to drift almost unnoticed through the handful of people still at the camp. At first, no one challenged her presence or made any move to stop her as she walked toward the road, taking care to avoid stepping on rocks with her bare feet.

“Ah,” Solas observed, walking toward the tent—and herself—at a leisurely pace, “I see my wards were correct: you are awake. Andaran atish'an.” He stopped, frowned for a second, and remarked, “I told them you were taller than most elves. Judging by the fit of your clothing, they did not believe me.”

At least, she thought it was Solas for a moment; the resemblance was uncanny. It was just someone playing the LARP; his costume was remarkable and must have cost him a fortune. Either he actually did look and sound exactly like Solas from Dragon Age: Inquisition, or he had extensive plastic surgery to look that way. She couldn't imagine someone sitting for hours each day to apply makeup for a LARP—and if he had, the heat of the day would have caused his sweat to ruin the effect. The chances of such a close resemblance to his character, from his slim but muscular build down to the scar on his forehead, were about as likely as Em becoming a lottery billionaire. This guy was surely an obsessed fan, a wealthy one—and after the Trespasser DLC, why would anyone want to be Solas? Maybe, she thought charitably, he had the surgery done before that DLC came out. Even so, that degree of obsession was unnerving.

“I was unaware I was so interesting to look at,” Solas told her, his arms resting behind his back. Even his posture was like the character's. His lips turned upward so slightly that she could almost have thought she imagined it. “Most seem to find me rather unassuming.”

She looked away from him and toward the camp entrance. No one else seemed to be paying much if any attention to her, and she was glad of that. “You look like someone,” she responded, irritation clawing at her thoughts. Did he really just needle her about her reaction to such detailed costuming? Did he think she wouldn't notice the amused smile? Anyone who'd played the game would have probably stared the same way she had. And, she admitted to herself, even if his costume job hadn't been excellent, his physique would have drawn her attention. Too bad he was trying so hard to be someone he wasn't; otherwise, she might have actually admired that physique. “I'm not going to play this game. I'm going home.”

The smile on his face faded into a neutral expression. “I set wards to warn me of your waking. I wished to speak with you, hear your answers—but if you wish to leave, you are not a prisoner,” Solas told her gently. “Come; if you intend to leave, you will be in need of a map and provisions.” His arms unclasped from behind his back, and he gestured to one of the larger tents nearby. “If you feel you have recovered sufficiently, I will not delay you.”

Em considered his request. She could bolt for the end of camp and follow the dirt paths until she reached a proper paved road, but that would attract attention that she didn't want. She doubted she was going to need any kind of map to do that, though it might be useful in heading the right direction back toward campus. As for provisions—she hadn't eaten since... had it been one day? Two days?--and he might be implying that campus was far away or difficult to reach. He'd better be ready to give her shoes back if it were much of a hike. She also hoped he had a great explanation for her missing clothing, as long as he was planning to lead her around.

“I'll come with you,” she agreed, falling in step behind him as he walked toward the tent.

“I was uncertain when we found you,” Solas said. He glanced over his shoulder, making certain that she still followed. “You must be Dalish, or perhaps one of the rebel mages. Yet you were all alone, and you had no provisions, no weapons nor armor, not even a single coin. You spoke to me in a language that has not been spoken fluently for centuries, and yet you now speak the common tongue as if you were born to it.”

“I told you I'm not playing your game,” Em replied. “If I didn't need something to eat, I would have left already. I just want to go home.”

Solas stopped walking to give her a long look; Em wasn't able to read his expression. She stopped, too, curious what he was going to say. “An unusual request for one of Dirthamen's creatures,” he responded, giving a polite incline of his head. “I would not have aided you if I intended you any harm,” he assured her. “Ma nuvenin, we shall not 'play games.' If I am to be direct, it is simple: I do not know what to make of you. I had hoped to learn who you are and how you came to be alone and unarmed in a wild corner of the Hinterlands.”

Dirthamen's creature? What does he mean by that? Em wondered, her forehead creasing into a frown. “You don't have to make anything of me,” she replied. “I'm just me.”

Solas frowned back at her. “Very well. Might I ask your name? I will need something to tell the Seeker and Adaar when they return to find you missing.”

For a moment, she considered toying with him, telling him her name was Knight-Commander Shepard or something equally absurd. But, no, she should just tell him she was Em and be done with it—done with any pretense of playing the LARP. “Lathbora,” she supplied, without a moment's hesitation.

That was not her name. That was not what she meant to say! What was going on?

Lathbora,” Solas repeated, his frown deepening. “Ir abelas. That is...” He hesitated, as if searching for appropriate words. His eyes caught hers for a long moment. “That is a sorrowful name,” he said finally, his voice somber.

Em struggled to remember where she'd seen or heard that word before. Was it one of the novels? It must have been. Lathbora vir'an, she recalled: Path to a place of lost love. She'd just told this LARPer that she was named “Lost Love.” She was doing herself no favors. “It's just a name,” she assured him, although she was feeling unsettled. There was more truth to the name than she'd like to admit.

“My name is Solas,” he supplied—although she already knew his character, and she certainly hadn't asked him.

“And your real name?” Em asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

He shifted his weight and replied, “That is my only name. Why would you think otherwise?” His gaze suddenly felt heavy to Em, as though she were a rabbit caught beneath the gaze of a hunting hawk.

Huh. So the obsessed fan even had his name changed, Em thought. And he doesn't like being called on it. Maybe he's not just obsessed. Maybe he's delusional and thinks he really is Solas. “You said something about food?” she prompted. At least if he insisted on staying in character about food, it would still be somewhat normal—or at least she hoped so.

“And a map,” he agreed, turning back toward the tent. “Although a map may be unnecessary if you are familiar with the area. Does your clan travel this area frequently? Are they perhaps camped nearby? If that is the case, it would be little trouble to escort--”

“I'll find my own way home, but thank you,” Em refused, increasing her stride so that she overtook him on the path to the “supply tent.” Her cell phone and her purse were probably in there. Maybe her laptop and shoes were there, too. She could text Jodi and Ellie, then use her handy GPS to find the way back, no map necessary.

Solas picked up his own pace. “They will not allow you to simply take valuable supplies,” he warned as he caught back up with her. “There is little to spare, since the Inquisition has been aiding the refugees. I am known to the soldiers of this camp; I will be able to manage the requisition for you.”

Fine; he wanted to be the first to go in, and she'd allow it. She slowed down to let him take the lead, although her patience was wearing thin. He had made no move to stop her thus far; she could just turn around and walk out of the camp. That would, however, mean leaving behind her purse and cell phone, and possibly her laptop and shoes, if they were responsible for her belongings being missing. “And what about my clothing?” she demanded. “I woke up without even underwear. You're the last person I remember being anywhere around.”

“I noticed as I healed your wounds that you were soaked in venom,” Solas explained patiently. “The medic cut away your clothing and cleaned your flesh before you relapsed. I had clothing sent to the tent once I had healed you, and then I placed the wards I spoke of. None have come or gone in there since last I left, except to tend you.”

Em knew she had been sick—she wasn't convinced it was actual venom, but she'd definitely reacted to whatever had been used to create the venom special effect. It made sense that a doctor or nurse within the LARP would have taken pains to avoid exposing her to it further. She considered what Solas had said as she walked. Someone must have watched to make sure no one slipped into the tent and invaded her privacy. Maybe it actually had been Solas. He might be delusional—she couldn't be sure as long as he insisted on staying in character—but maybe he was a decent guy all the same. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” he replied, not turning back around to face her.

They reached the open flaps of the large tent. Crates had been neatly stacked in front of it, beside it, and even within it. A rough-hewn makeshift desk stood inside toward the front, covered in neatly stacked papers. Em imagined the boxes filled with the belongings of everyone in the LARP, and the papers carefully noted with the contents of each box and the name of its owner. Cell phones, backpacks, snack food... It comforted her to think that each crate must be labeled with a player's real life name. She wondered which was hers, and which belonged to Ellie and her friends.

“No, I mean it,” Em said, brushing her hand against Solas's arm for emphasis. She didn't want him to think she was saying the words without meaning them. “I remember that you carried me here and made sure someone took care of me. If not for that, I'd probably be dead. And then, to hear you were making sure nobody did anything terrible... You seem to be a good person. So thank you.” She would rather have been taken to an emergency room, but she wasn't sure where they were. Maybe the nearest hospital was too far away to take her there in time. There weren't any cars parked within sight, so it might have taken too long to get to a vehicle even if the way to the hospital were just a short drive. They did appear to have had a doctor on site, so it had all worked out.

Solas seemed surprised at the physical contact, however brief it had been. He looked at her over his shoulder when he responded. “I did not wish to see preventable harm come to anyone. You were in need of aid, so we assisted you. Then, having helped you, I had no wish to see that aid undone.” His lips curled into a smile. “You are welcome,” he repeated, before walking away from her toward the woman at the desk.

Em followed, not sure what else to do. She was curious whether Solas would break character to ask for Em's belongings and something to eat.

He didn't.

“Requisitions Officer Anna, this is Lathbora, the refugee who was placed into my charge two days ago,” Solas explained.

Two days? Two real days? Or two LARP days? Are they the same? Em wondered. If they are, I've missed a lot of classes. How am I going to make up for it?

“She finally woke up?” Anna asked, looking curiously toward Em.

“I had begun to believe she was lost, that we were too late to help,” Solas admitted. “She is awake, and she wishes to leave.”

“Are you here because you expect me to provide her with weapons and armor?” Anna asked, crossing her arms. “We don't know anything about her. Her clan could be a threat.”

“No.” Solas shook his head. “She has not asked for any such supplies, nor would I freely offer them. Although I know that food is scarce, I believe we could provide rations and perhaps a bedroll for her journey. A map may also aid her.”

Anna frowned between Solas and Em, then planted her hands on the desk before her and shook her head slowly. “We're stretched thin enough as it is. The only reason we had a bedroll to spare for her was because one of our own died to bandits the night before she showed up. Every spare blanket and every extra scrap of food has gone to those refugees at the Crossroads.” Anna's fingers began to drum on the rough wood of her desk.

“Perhaps I could escort her to the Crossroads, then. She may be able to stay within the village until she is able to set forth on her own. Adaar has helped some of the people there. They may be willing to help someone else in return. Could you at least agree to spare us each three days' worth of rations for the journey?” Solas asked.

“Unfortunately, no. It would mean soldiers going without food until the next shipment arrives. I don't want them raiding the farmers' fields to fill their empty bellies when everyone around is already struggling to get by. Besides which, three days' worth of rations won't be enough to get you through a week's worth of walking. The game's been scared off from the fighting, and you'll be lucky to find any edible plants other than elfroot.” Anna eyed Em speculatively.

Em reacted to the staring by walking behind Solas, pretending to be distracted by the crates. She wished these people would drop character already. She reached to drape her hair over the sides of her face, only to realize that it was gone. She gasped involuntarily, then bit her lower lip hard to avoid shouting out her surprise and anger. They had probably had to cut it off because of the “spider venom.” It would have been difficult to wash an unconscious person's hair without drowning her. But... now that she thought about it, her scalp had been burning since she woke, as if it had been sunburned. She slowly rubbed at her head. Yes; it was completely shaven—and it must have been done before she had been rescued. Why would someone have shaved her head and left her in a coffin inside of a cave? Or had she dreamed that part? She felt exposed—and that made her want to hide.

The gasp seemed to have gotten Solas's attention, because he turned to look at her again. He made no comment about her surprise or her efforts to conceal it. “I had not thought to ask whether you may be from Redcliffe Village or the Crossroads,” he told her. “Is your home here in the Hinterlands? If it is, I am certain Varric, Adaar, and the Seeker will be pleased to help you home.”

Is he serious? Em thought to herself. “No. I'm not from the Hinterlands. I told you, I'm not playing this game! If you aren't serious about helping me, then I'll just have to find the way home myself.” She looked toward Anna and pleaded, “Please. I just want to go home! I'm done with this! I nearly died, my clothes are gone, my money is gone, and I don't know where my friends or my sister are!”

I am trying to help you!” Solas snapped impatiently, although he refrained from shouting. “You cannot journey without supplies, and if you are to go unarmed, you will need a capable escort to arrive safely. Or have you somehow failed to notice the war being waged in our vicinity? Did you think these were carnival tents?”

Em stepped away from Solas and ducked closer to the crates, startled at his abrupt display of temper. There were not names on the crates after all. They were labeled with whatever supply they were meant to represent, along with a number. Hopefully that meant they still contained people's belongings. Hopefully she'd still get her phone and her purse back after this ridiculous scene played out.

Anna rubbed at the back of her head in a gesture of frustration. “I can't spare you supplies, or I would, but I'm not sending a pretty little unarmed elven girl off on her own like that, not with all the chaos going on. I don't want it on my shoulders if something happens to you. If I have to keep you under guard and make you stay here until the Seeker gets back, I will.”

She is not a prisoner!” Solas argued. “If she wishes to leave, alone or no, you must allow it. If she feels she must leave now, I shall accompany her, and return to Haven as soon as she reaches her destination.” He leaned over the desk, glaring at Anna. Anna glared right back.

“The Seeker would not be pleased with an apostate slinking off. And I don't like the idea of sending a defenseless refugee woman away in the company of a man she barely knows. She is to stay at camp until Seeker Cassandra says otherwise,” Anna declared. “That is final.

Anna was right. Em hadn't taken many self defense classes, and she didn't have a gun or her pepper spray or even her cell phone. It probably was not, in fact, a great idea for a young woman to set out toward home alone, and that was the one reason she was still standing around waiting for Solas and Anna to go out of character instead of heading off to find real paved roads.

“If you could spare a map for her use, at least, she may be able to show us where she means to go. Perhaps it isn't far,” Solas suggested.

Solas sounded... defeated, Em decided, or maybe just tired. And she still didn't have her cell phone. How was she going to text her parents and her sister? And what would she tell them when she finally could text them? She could certainly explain that she'd been kidnapped into a live-action roleplaying session she wanted no part in, but they'd never believe it. They'd think she was being irresponsible, that she'd gone to the LARP and hadn't wanted to leave, or worse, they'd believe that she'd made another foolish decision that had fallen through and had decided to lie about it this time.

“All right. We have several maps copied.” Anna yanked open a drawer of the ramshackle desk and pulled out a battered, roll of parchment. Someone was sparing no expense, if they were paying for genuine parchment. The requisitions officer untied the ribbon holding the map rolled, then smoothed it down on top of the desk, examining it. It was large enough that it spilled off the edges of the desk. Sheets of coarse paper were shuffled out of their stacks and onto the floor, but Anna seemed to be ignoring them as much as Em was paying attention to them. “This one looks current,” she said. “But it doesn't have the rifts marked on it. The Seeker will need to see to that when she returns.”

While Anna preoccupied herself with the map, Em knelt down to pick up one of the sheets of paper. It was more cream than white, and its texture was just as coarse as it had appeared to be. A list was hand-written on it, with notes beside the listings and specks here and there where ink had splattered.

 

406A. Shipment of dried fish. (Won't make the soldiers happy, but it'll keep them fed.)

39E. More paper and a large pot of ink. (Better be sealed properly this time, we lost half the last shipment of paper.)

56A. Healing tonics. (Not enough of them. Tell Henric we'll need him to brew more. See if the soldiers can gather elfroot while they're out.)

171D. Arrows. (We have plenty, but I've informed our archers they need to retrieve arrows when possible just in case.)

 

Em only realized she had said something aloud when Anna's sharp gaze fell upon her and the other woman stomped over to her side.

Anna snatched the paper from Em's fingers, and the edge of it cut into her hand, drawing blood. Em gasped in surprise. “That's sensitive information!” Anna shouted. “Not for your eyes, if you can even read!” She shoved the map at Em. “Go,” she ordered, not waiting to see if Em took the parchment. “And you,” she directed at Solas, “keep an eye on her. I don't want to find out she's a spy for whoever's behind the Breach."

Solas knelt down to retrieve the fallen map. He gestured to Em. “Come,” he directed, and she could hear his disapproval even in just that single syllable. Em wasn't sure if he were displeased with Anna, or with herself, or both. She hadn't thought looking at the papers would be an issue, but maybe it was. Maybe they were some kind of quest-related item for some group or another within the game, and had to be kept secret. Whatever the case, his obvious annoyance unnerved her. “We must speak,” he added. She steeled herself. The obsessed fan was going to give her an in-character lecture; she was now sure of it.

Em glanced over her shoulder to make certain Anna wasn't throwing anything at her, but the woman had already gone back to business as usual, stacking her papers back in order. Reassured that she hadn't made a mortal enemy of that particular roleplayer, she fell in step with Solas.

 

She took all of two steps before she saw it.

 

The blood drained from her face, and her jaw fell open as she stared at either the best special effects she'd ever seen outside of a movie or video game, or the actual Breach. It loomed green and swirling in the sky behind the tent. Her knees shook from the sudden shock of the sight, and she took a step backward without realizing it.

How had she not noticed this before now? Maybe it hadn't been there? But... no. Her mind struggled with the idea for a moment, but she realized that she'd had her back to it since she left the tent. Before that... what little she remembered, she hadn't been in any state to so much as glance at the sky. Maybe it hadn't been there, but there was an excellent chance that it had, and she just hadn't looked in that direction.

She often dreamed vividly. She was probably dreaming now. But when she looked into it deeper, the Breach was clear, and then beyond that...

Beyond that, it was like looking through a crack in the sky. Like she could see the very substance of reality forming. Like--

She didn't want to think too hard about this. It couldn't be real. At most it was a dream. Video game worlds did not suddenly become reality one day when you woke up. That sort of thing only happened in fiction.

But what about the storm and the swirling green light?

No. It couldn't be real. It absolutely couldn't. It was special effects, or she was dreaming. There was no other option.

Yet, unless someone involved in the LARP were also a billionaire and a genius with access to technology that Em wasn't sure even existed yet, there was no way the Breach was a special effect. She must be dreaming.

Someone was speaking, but she was too shocked to understand the words.

Someone touched her arm, and she forced her attention away from the hole in the sky.

Solas was looking at her with sad and understanding eyes, his hand still on her arm, grounding her in place. If the hole in the sky wasn't a special effect, then he wasn't acting—but the idea that this could actually be Solas, the very Solas that Jodi had been such a fangirl about and that Em had distrusted from the beginning of the game, was impossible. He had to be acting. If he wasn't acting, then this was a dream, some product of Em's overactive imagination brought on by the wild wind and strange lighting of that storm. She might still be safely asleep in her dorm room, surrounded by her roommate's oversized anime posters.

Your reaction to the Breach answers a great many questions, and raises a great many more,” Solas informed her in ancient Elvhen. Em had no idea how she understood him—unless this entire sequence of events were merely a dream. What she did understand was that, dream or not, she was about to be barraged with questions she wasn't sure she could answer.

 

Chapter Text

So how'd the first week go, then?” Jodi asked as she reached up to give Em and Ellie each a hug.

Ugh. I'm so swamped with homework I don't know how I'll ever get it done, and all I want to do is go out and have a drink and meet cute guys!” Ellie grumbled halfheartedly, twisting her face into an exaggerated grumpy grimace.

You'll get it done quickly if you stay focused,” Em replied to Ellie, who stuck her tongue out at Em. “It'd already be done if you hadn't already been out having drinks and meeting cute guys all week long!” She rolled her eyes. “Actually, Jodi... it's going pretty well, as far as I'm concerned. I'm a little worried about Mom and Dad being out there without us to help, but... I've called and texted them every day and they seem to be okay.”

Is her arm completely better?” asked Jodi, as she guided them toward a group of other students surrounding several tables. “I've worried about all of you since what happened last spring... I wouldn't have thought that in this day and age someone would be that--”

It's fine,” Ellie cut her off. “Mom's doing great. She's back to doing everything she used to—she's probably in better shape than I am. Ohmygoodness LENA!” she shouted as she recognized her friend, and rushed away to greet her.

I hope she always stays positive,” Em said as she watched her sister join the group. “But... Dad's been grim about it. Mom went to the gas station a couple days ago to get a gallon of milk, and Dad freaked out. Doesn't want her to go anywhere alone. But she has to, you know? Not just to get stuff, but for herself. I can't blame her. No one should have to have an escort wherever they go...”

I hope Ellie can stay the way she is too,” Jodi answered, giving Ellie a glance. “But much as I appreciate your sister being a ray of sunshine, I can tell that you take this more seriously. We'll definitely talk about it more, but for now... with so many other people here, we should probably do that later. Maybe after the gaming session.” She nodded toward the tables that were becoming crowded with students. “Remember Dragon Age: Origins? And Dragon Age II? There's a pen-and-paper game, so some of us thought we might want to play. I'm sure Ellie will. I remember her gushing for hours about Zevran. Come to think of it, you did that too,” she mused, with a grin. “Well, how about it? Do you want to join us? It'll be me, Lena, Sherry, Mark, and some new guy named Danovan—yeah, not Donovan. I blame his parents. Just call him Dan. And I'm sure if Lena's playing, Ellie's not going to be kept away from her best friend even if she'd rather play something steampunk themed. I think the others are playing that steampunk game they ran last semester, but maybe some of them will join us too. I hope so. I've heard Dan runs one hell of a good game.”

Really? Dragon Age p-n-p? Count me in!” Em exclaimed, eager to try something new. It was easier than thinking about her parents or worrying what would happen when something finally happened that broke through Ellie's cheerful facade. And besides... tonight she'd be spending time with friends, and maybe making some new friends. “This Dan guy better be good, though. I mean, last time we all played together, you blew my mind with that plot twist in the last session. I couldn't believe we'd been working for the villain we thought we were taking down! That was pretty twisted, Jodi!”

Jodi laughed and gave Em a pat on the back. “I have no idea. Maybe you'd better ask Sherry. She's the one who asked him to run the game.” They walked toward the tables. People turned to look at them, and Em fell back behind Jodi by instinct, even though Jodi didn't even reach the height of Em's shoulders.

Relax, Em,” Jodi told her, stepping to the side. “We're all friends here. Hey everybody, this is Em! I've talked about her so much I'm sure you already think you know her. You've already met her twin, Ellie, I see. Hey, Dan, I think Em's gonna join your Dragon Age game.”

Em stepped forward only reluctantly, and quickly integrated herself with her known friends, before the attention became too much to bear.

 

####

 

Solas lifted his hand away as soon as Em was able to stop glancing nervously at the Breach. Her knees still shook and her legs felt like rubber, but she managed to remain on her feet without clutching at the apostate. Her shock was slowly fading—or she hoped that it was, anyway. “You are in an Inquisition camp, Lathbora,” he assured her in common. “You could be nowhere safer. Adaar has been able to seal a rift, and soon perhaps she shall seal the Breach as well.”

Em fought the urge to tell him that he was just a figment of her imagination, a figure wandering through a particularly vivid dream. She could have told him what was to come—that the mages would already have allied with the Venatori, that the templars were taking orders from Envy. She probably would have told Adaar or Varric or even Cassandra, but Solas and the Breach felt real somehow. She hesitated.

“I...” Em began, then stopped. All around her, there were tents and dust. The longer she looked, the more real they looked and felt as well—maybe not quite like Solas or the Breach, maybe as if they were missing some vital component, but... She watched the soldiers. Each one had an individual face. If she walked up and spoke to them, she was sure she could pick them out from a crowd. She felt her panic resurfacing.

“You have suffered a great shock,” Solas informed her, his stare intense and somber. “You must try to remain calm. With the Breach, corrupted spirits will make use of every advantage. It would be unwise to provide them a foothold. Breathe deeply. You are here, and you are safe.”

Demons. He meant demons. It was just a dream, but calming down before it turned into a nightmare didn't sound like a bad idea. She sat on a stray crate, closed her eyes, and took a few deep breaths. “I might need to take a walk,” Em suggested, already certain that Solas was not going to let her out of his sight. If she could wander the perimeter of this dreamscape, she would surely encounter something that didn't fit. That would prove that it wasn't real, that she didn't have to fear demons or bandits, red templars or darkspawn. “And... I should probably eat,” she added. Her voice was still not her own; the pitch and inflections were different. Maybe she was dreaming about being someone else. But if she'd noticed that, shouldn't she be waking up now?

Breathe. She stared at her hands. The familiar little scars and marks Em had earned from adventures growing up and helping out on a farm were gone. These hands were longer and stronger than Em's, but pasty and sunburnt from years of little light. Years sealed in a coffin , she realized. It made sense. She wondered if this dream-body of hers had the same deathlike features of Abelas and the other Sentinels from the game. What didn't make sense was that these strange hands were as familiar to her as her own. If she tried, she could remember where the few tiny scars on them had come from.

She didn't want to try. She shut her eyes and breathed deeply again.

The desire to leave camp was nearly a compulsion, but in her current state, she knew she should be resting and getting something to eat. Not only that, but Solas was standing nearby; she could see his feet and legs, but didn't want to meet his gaze. There wouldn't be any way for her to leave without his knowing. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised he was watching her just as he was asked to do, because she remembered Josephine commenting on Solas's excellent behavior in the game. He wouldn't place himself at risk.

“You have aroused suspicion with your curiosity. It would be best if you were more cautious in your future endeavors. Perhaps you should remain inside of your tent for now,” Solas suggested, turning away from her. “I shall bring you something to eat. It may not be delicate fare, but it will help you recover your strength.” He didn't await her response before he began to walk away. Did he think she would obey him without question?

Too proud to even consider I might not take your orders? Em wondered. She sprang to her feet, infuriated. “Yes, I'll go back to my cell like a good prisoner,” she snapped.

“I did not--” Solas began, but he was merely a blur as she strode past him.

She didn't wait to hear the rest. She stormed toward the vacated tent, her momentary anger helping her to forget how weak she'd felt just moments before. Beneath her anger, something inside her was panicking. Trapped again! Another part of her told her she was being irrational, that hunger was fueling her temper. But she had to leave the camp; she was a prisoner with or without shackles and iron bars. Was there another way out? Somewhere she didn't have to pass the requisition tent or the command tent?

A raven watched her from atop the flagpole and cawed at her as she passed—probably the same one as before, but a raven was a raven and Em could not tell the difference. She shuddered and walked faster, remembering awakening to sharp jabs from a raven's beak, and--

No. It was only because of the bird that had been pecking her when she was hurt. And even then it was only a dream. There was nothing to fear from a curious, tame bird—it was wearing a message tube, after all—watching her in a dream.

Stay calm, she told herself, slowing her stride as the small tent loomed ahead. With her brief flash of anger concluded, she was reminded how draining her fear and hunger had been. You're only dreaming. You'll be okay, she reassured herself. It was just a dream, no matter how realistic the Breach or Solas seemed. She needed to remember that. No one in the dream had control over her. Her panic slunk back into a deep recess of her mind as she knelt down and crawled into the tent. Her entire body was shaking as she slid past the tent flap, letting it fall shut behind her as she curled up on top of the bedroll.

Maybe Solas was right. The tent was hot, but it offered solitude Em wasn't going to find anywhere else in camp. It would protect her bare scalp from further burns, and perhaps even provide a fabric shield against Solas's impending interrogation. She also couldn't get into any mischief by accident—although that made for a boring dream. She just wished it had been some other color; although she had always liked red and had been delighted at the unusual coloring chosen for the Inquisition's tents in the game, she found it unsettling in this dream.

She lay still and silent with her thoughts until she started to doze. Although no one had arrived to bring food to the tent, she appreciated her isolation. The only expectations placed on her were her own.

 

####

 

Em wasn't sure how long she'd been asleep when she heard the soft padding of bare feet outside of the tent. She'd been dreaming that she had bought General back from Mark and was texting Ellie about it, but the dream felt distant and unreal, as if she'd been dreaming about being someone else. It was disconcerting, but with intrusion imminent, she had no time to think about it.

“If your anger has subsided, I have brought you something more substantial than broth. After such a shock, I suspect you have little energy to spare.”

Silence settled between them. Em hoped it meant he was setting the food down and leaving until she heard Solas clear his throat outside of the tent.

“I hope I have not waited too long,” she heard him say, his voice soft. He sounded concerned; she was tempted to let him stay that way. “Are you awake?” he asked in a louder tone. “If you do not respond, I shall--”

“I'm awake,” Em replied, unable to hide the annoyance in her tone. She shuffled into a sitting position, feeling groggy and distant and nauseated—or maybe just painfully hungry.

“You do not sound well,” Solas observed. The tent flap rustled open, and he set a chipped ceramic bowl inside of the tent, a battered spoon handle poking out of it. It smelled enticingly of herbs and vegetables, and Em's belly rumbled in anticipation. “Eat this soup, if you are able. I have added herbs that should help strengthen you.” She had half expected him to crawl into the tent, but he remained outside.

“And then what? On to a proper jail cell?” Em demanded. As tempting as the soup was, she was suspicious of its contents. He'd probably added those “strengthening herbs” he mentioned to knock her out or make her more willing to answer whatever questions he wanted to ask.

His sigh of disapproval was audible even through the heavy fabric of the tent. “I assure you that you are no prisoner.” A pause fell, and he must have realized from the silence within the tent that she hadn't moved to take the bowl. “I feared you would lose consciousness before I could bring the soup to you. You have had only broth for two days, and you have suffered a terrible shock—I can only guess what else may have transpired before we found you. After tending you for two days, I would not poison you.”

That reasoning sounded rational enough to Em. She reached for the bowl with trembling fingers, cursing when she nearly knocked it over instead. Solas said nothing, but she was sure he was still present. She could have humbled herself and asked for help with the soup, but instead she took up the spoon with trembling fingers, bracing one shaking arm with the other. She sloshed out some of the soup from the spoon, barely missing her bedroll, but overall it worked. She wouldn't have to suffer the indignity of being spoon-fed by a character in her dream. He couldn't be trusted, and she didn't want to owe him anything, not even in a dream. Why did he insist on helping her? Did he think she'd join his cause? Was it simply because he'd been told to look after her? He could lie all he wanted—she was certain she was a prisoner.

“Few safe places exist with the Breach threatening the entire world,” Solas said, muffled by the tent's fabric and, Em suspected, also by having his back turned toward the tent. She couldn't see him through the tent to be sure. Maybe he didn't like seeing the Breach any more than she did. He'd caused it, after all. “When the Seeker, Adaar, and Varric return, we could escort you to the Crossroads with the other refugees, or to Haven if you prefer. You would be safer among Inquisition forces than anywhere else. The Inquisition intends to seal the Breach and the rifts it has caused. Unfortunately, rifts among people are just as difficult to mend. The wars do not make our task simpler.”

Em didn't answer; she focused instead on taking one careful spoonful of soup after the other. It was much tastier than she expected—she wasn't sure if that were because she was so hungry, or because Solas was a skilled cook after years of wandering alone. Each bite left her feeling noticeably stronger, although she wasn't sure she would be able to eat it all until she suddenly realized that she was holding an empty bowl, tilting it to drain the last few drops of soup into her mouth. Having a full belly eased her irritation and left her mind clearer.

“I am sure the Seeker and Adaar will return soon. Their trip was only meant to take a day and a half,” Solas commented into the silence between them. “Has the soup helped?”

“I feel better,” Em admitted. “I don't know what you put into it, but I'd eat twice that much if I thought my stomach could take it. I thought you'd put something in it to make me sleep, at the very least. But you didn't. Ma serannas.” Why was she thanking him in elvish? Now that she thought about it, wasn't it odd that she had dreamed while dreaming? This was definitely an odd dream.

“You surprise me. I was certain that you hated me, and now you are thanking me wholeheartedly for a simple bowl of soup.” The tent flap parted, and Solas reached in to take the bowl and spoon. “There is perhaps a bowlful left. I thought you'd eat it. If not, I shall do so.” He smiled at her over the bowl as he eased backward again. “There is no need to let it go to waste.”

She frowned at him. “You haven't eaten yet?” Surely it wasn't time for the evening meal. The sun was still bright outside, but it was clearly well past noon.

“I expected you to eat it all,” Solas answered, his head still inside of the tent. “It is no matter—there is some left, and if there weren't, I am working with the Inquisition. Officer Anna would not deny me a meal.”

It was Em's turn to be surprised. “You gave the last of your food to me?” Surprise turned into suspicion; Solas would have said that she was a product of a cynical age. Em, however, was now convinced he was expecting something from her. “And what's the price for all this help you're offering? Do you expect me to do your laundry or something?” She suspected he wanted far more than that—her loyalty, her agreement to help him tear down the Veil, her service as a spy or as a recruiter. She might as well hear exactly what he wanted now, rather than later.

Solas chuckled at her blunt demand, then pushed his way past the flaps entirely, settling in front of her with the bowl still clutched in his hands. With a laugh like that, he certainly could be charming; for a moment, Em understood Jodi's fascination with him. She pushed it away, uncomfortable with his proximity and uncertain what he was going to say. He shook his head and smiled at her kindly. “No. I expect nothing of you. If you wish to help the Inquisition or myself in some way, that is your decision alone. You are not a prisoner. I am trying to help you, and I mean no offense in observing that you may need a great deal of aid in days to come.”

Their knees were touching; the inside of the tent had not grown larger since she had first awoken inside of it. Em wanted to scoot backward, but she could feel the fabric of the tent against her back. It would be even more awkward, and attract unwanted attention, if she suddenly fell through the back of her tent. Solas's back seemed to be against the flap, so he probably wasn't crowding her on purpose. She forced herself to remain still. “Then... thank you again, for helping me.” She didn't believe him for an instant. There would be some price to be paid. He simply hadn't asked it yet.

“You are welcome. I admit it is in part due to curiosity.” He gave a slight smile and a respectful incline of his head. He had never been this friendly in Em's game—she'd only seen a hint that he could be nicer when she'd watched Jodi play. If she hadn't known what he was up to, that he didn't really care at all, she'd have been utterly disarmed by him. Then again, maybe in her dream he was actually innocent and she was being too hard on him. She doubted it, though. “You are... unexpected. I am glad to help, although I'm certain my obligations will cut our acquaintance short.”

“Unexpected?” Em echoed.

A wrinkle appeared between Solas's eyes, and he looked away from Em. It must be hard to meet her gaze, after all that he was responsible for. He probably thought she was an ancient elf, one of the very people he had done tremendous harm to. She almost felt sorry for him. “Yes. You have seen the state of the world and its people.” Abruptly, he began to back out of the tent, taking the empty bowl with him. “I should go before the gossips in camp decide that we are trysting rather than talking. If you grow bored, find me in the camp. I have several books you may find entertaining, if you are able to read them. In the meantime, you may leave the tent whenever you wish. Simply be cautious. Do not pry into others' affairs, or you may be mistaken for a spy. You are already under suspicion for reading the ledger.”

He vanished back through the tent flaps as quickly as he had appeared. Em stared after him for a long moment. She hadn't appreciated having her personal space invaded, but thus far he'd been the only person in the camp who'd bothered time with her while she was conscious. The apostate's absence was making her lonely, and the idea that she might actually want Solas's company and conversation irritated her.

She pushed the thought out of her mind. She might go and borrow a book from Solas later. She might also try to do something productive around the camp, although she wasn't sure what she might be able to help with. She might, if...

The idea crossed her mind unbidden, and she was not able to let go of it. Even after Solas's reassurances, even knowing that he wanted to make sure she was left somewhere relatively safe, she still felt trapped. If she wasn't a prisoner, she shouldn't be forced to stay in the camp. Solas can't be trusted, she reminded herself. It would be foolhardy to forget.

With her belly finally full and the sun sinking slowly beneath the horizon, she had begun to feel drowsy again. She curled up on top of her bedroll, too hot to actually cover up in it and too concerned for modesty to strip her clothing before she slept. She wouldn't sleep for long, after she had already spent so much time asleep.

And when she woke...

When she woke, she knew exactly how she was going to escape.

 

Chapter Text

I can't believe we're really all going to the big con next weekend!” Ellie squealed, then leaped into the air like... like an excited cartoon character, Em mused as she watched with a lopsided grin. “This is gonna be so fun!

Jodi insists,” Em replied as calmly as she could. It was hard to come off as the reasonable one when she was going to be dressed as her badass Warden templar. “By the way, how's that Morrigan costume going? If I'm going to be dressed up, I am not going to be the only one.”

It's, um... coming along... kind of,” Ellie replied, giving a sidelong look at her closet door. The space was tiny in a campus dorm like this one, but it could have been worse. Em's roommate had taken both closets.

Which means it's not coming along at all. I'll tell Jodi and she'll have it done in time. She won't be happy about the late notice, but at least you've already got the materials.” Em sighed, yanking open the closet. Sure enough, the unopened shopping bags filled with fabric and leather were still piled down at the bottom. “You know, this would've come along faster if you'd actually done any work on it at all...”

Wellllll,” Ellie replied, giving her most winning smile, “you're going to be the star in the play, and I had to tell all my friends. And put fliers up around campus. And at the bar, and--”

Em smacked her forehead and then shook her head slowly. “No, you really didn't. Whoever came was going to come anyway. Besides, it's really nothing.”

It's not nothing, Emma, you're really good! I watched your rehearsal. You're amazing. It's like you were her, up there. I didn't even recognize you!” Ellie had gone completely serious—a dangerous thing, in Ellie. “Back in high school even when they put you in those tiny little roles, you always stole the show. You remember that Melody girl who got the lead role our senior year? She hated you! I noticed how nasty she was, so one day I waited until she was off by herself so I could figure out why, and beat her up if I didn't like the answers. She said it's because every time she'd ever been in one of the plays, no matter what role you were in, everyone's eyes were on YOU—even when she was the star and she deserved the attention. And why you? I mean... as far as she's concerned, we're both nobody. When you're not on stage, you disappear and you hide. I've seen you do that too. But then when you got on stage, you're suddenly like... like this goddess or something. Like the audience isn't even there, and you're the person you're acting as. Sorry if you don't like me saying that, but... really, Emma, you're amazing! I wish you'd take more credit.”

Em watched her sister for a moment. Ellie watched her back. It was like looking at her reflection, if her reflection suddenly developed different fashion sense from Em. “Well... I'm not like you, Ellie,” she said at last. “When you get attention, you glow like the sun. But me? I'm afraid of what might happen. Like with Mom, you know? So... I'm fine, if nobody sees me. But then if I'm on the stage, suddenly I can be somebody, you know? I can be anybody. I don't have to be me.” She grinned. “So next year, instead of a templar, I'm gonna be Commander Shepard at this convention. See if I don't.” The topic had gotten too serious, and she preferred to think of how much fun they were going to have.

You shouldn't be afraid, Emma. Not all the time. I worry about you, and I'm not the only one—Jodi mentioned it, too. Lena even mentioned something about it once, when she wasn't obsessing over that Sherry girl—Seriously, when will they just start dating already?--It's not that I'm not afraid, it's just... how can you live, if you're afraid all the time?” Ellie flopped down onto her bed, arms splayed. “So... at the convention... you think anyone will be dressed up as Zevran? If they are, I call dibs!”

I'm sure there's enough Zev to go around. Or at least he'd say so,” Em answered with a giggle. “Oh, Jodi's going as Leliana. I told her she needs some absolutely magnificent shoes.”

But Leliana only wears boots!” Ellie protested.

There was that pair that you got in the Feastday Gifts and Pranks pack. You remember that, right? The two pairs of shoes?”

Oh and Sten's butterfly sword... and the cone collar for the dog,” Ellie burst into giggles. “Oh my goodness and the PIGEON! That was great. I wish they'd do another pack like that. It didn't add much to the gameplay, but it was great.”

Yeah, we should've done something like that for the cosplay,” Em replied, settling on the edge of Ellie's bed. “So, when do you want to take that stuff to Jodi to put something together? Because you are coming, and you are facing the Wrath of the Angry Jodi.”

Ellie just groaned and covered her face with a pillow printed with the faces of her favorite band.

 

####

 

What the hell was I just dreaming? she thought to herself, blinking her eyes open to reddish darkness. She ran a palm over her face as she sat up, chasing away lingering images of Solas stripping down in the tent. Not that the sight had been unpleasant, but it wasn't what she wanted. We could spend our time trysting, rather than talking. She'd left the dream in haste before it could progress further. She'd worry about why she dreamed it later. Or... sometimes it was better not to think about these things too much at all. Better to abandon the dream.

Firelight glowed through the fabric of the tent, too distant to offer any warmth. It was just as well; although she was chilled through the thin fabric of her clothing, the night was not cold.

She was still in the tent, not the ritual chamber where she had stretched herself on a simple bed, intent on sleeping forever, nor the dorm room covered in anime posters. There was no cell phone handy to text Jodi teasingly that her digital boyfriend was Fade-cheating on Lavellan. No soft-spoken people passed her resting place on silent feet as they began their day. Was she still dreaming?

She needed to escape it, escape the Fade. All she had to do was get out of this camp; she was sure of it. She'd had a plan, she remembered. All she had to do was reach to the Fade, and...

She stopped before she began.

That was easier said than done. How did one reach to the Fade through the Veil? How could you reach for something that didn't exist in the first place? But no, it existed. She'd done this many times before; why doubt it now? Things had shifted, but she could still feel it. The part of her that doubted insisted—this shouldn't be possible. She wasn't able to do such a thing; she never had been. No one could. Yet her memories told her otherwise. She could, she had, and she would again. It would be more difficult, but that didn't mean it was impossible.

Quick and quiet, she warned herself. Just because this was a dream didn't mean it lacked danger.

She settled cross-legged atop the bedroll, considering her situation. Her eyes shut as she focused, reaching for the Fade through the Veil. It shouldn't be there, but then again it seemed right that it was. It had been that way in the games, hadn't it? She focused inward—yes, her true self was still there, even if it seemed different somehow; the connection to the Fade was weaker, but intact. Breathe, she reminded herself, quelling the part of herself that insisted what she was trying to do was impossible. This was going to take some thought and effort, and considerable practice before it became as easy as it once was—if it ever would be again. So much for “quick,” but she could still handle “quiet.”

The first brush of magic left some part of her soul cringing in terror and uncertainty. What the hell am I doing? she asked herself, at the same time as she pushed that fear to the back of her mind, willing herself to be strong. I don't even know if this will work! her mind protested, but she couldn't afford doubt or fear. Maybe this time, she would finally escape. She reached, the Veil giving way before her will. The Fade remembered their connection, and she drew the substance of dreams into her body, asking for change, limb by limb, sense by sense, and her will directed the change just as a sculptor might work her will upon a piece of clay.

When her eyes opened, it was to the familiar and unfamiliar and comforting and horrifying vision of her body becoming something else, and not in the kind of gradual progression that she could have tried to stop. But why would I want to stop it? I meant to do this. The tent grew larger around her, and the night grew brighter. She could hear the two soldiers who stood watch pacing in the darkness, but they were not close to her.

I'm dreaming I'm dreaming I'm dreaming I'm dreaming I'm dreaming I'm--

Getting my ass out of the Fade, she cut herself off. She bared her teeth in silent protest of her own thoughts. She wasn't going to panic, not now. And why should she? This form was almost as familiar to her as the one she had changed from.

Quick as a thought, she slipped through the tent flaps. The guards had met in the middle of their patrol, and they now stood near the requisitions tent exchanging words. Not a glance was spared in her direction. She clung to the shadows, dashing past tents filled with sleeping Inquisition soldiers and perhaps even a sleeping apostate. They would not know of her escape until long after she was already gone.

 

Chapter Text

Enansalath struggled to the top of a jagged boulder, nearly slipping before she settled atop her perch. From here, she could see the baths, empty of inhabitants at the moment. She could watch the simple footpaths that led from the eluvians, and observe the local wildlife without frightening it away. Few people would think to look to the tall and treacherous crags to find a person. Only the whistling of the wind among the stones kept her company here, and that was why she had come. It was a good place for being alone to think, but not so good for taking a nap to visit the Fade. Falling was a very real danger, and the wind at such a height often came in powerful gusts.

Dirthamen's ceremony was as good a time as any to slip away to think; no one would expect her to be working until after the ceremony. She was not shirking her duty—no one could accuse her of that when she would return before the ceremony's end to do her part in cleaning up afterward. Even if she had been neglecting her work, it wasn't as if Dirthamen himself had ever attended this particular temple in her memory. If he had ever been here personally, it had been so long ago that only the eldest elves would remember. They told no such stories, but they were loyal and wouldn't have shared such tales if Dirthamen had ordered their silence. She knew that she was unlikely to be punished severely as long as no one was occupied with keeping up appearances—and it wasn't as if this celebration would be any different from the hundreds of others she had attended in full. Or, maybe it would. This was the first such event presided over by the village's new priest, although he had thus far shown no signs of changing the village's routine.

Unconcerned, Enansalath sat on one of the few smooth spots atop the boulder—not a comfortable perch, or a stable one, but she had been here more than once without coming to harm. She let her gaze drift down over the village. It seemed especially peaceful with everyone at the temple. Sunlight gleamed over the coats of the harts grazing far below, and glowed through grass and tree leaves alike. The village was beautiful, even if it were often a dull place to live.

The new priest was one of the reasons Enansalath wanted to think. The previous one had left without any explanation. Had he gone into uthenera? Why no celebration for him, then? Had he fled? Then how had the new priest arrived so quickly? If he had been called into service by someone of higher rank, no one had remarked on it, and no one seemed to have seen any messengers. As for the new priest, he was a man of high status—more so than the previous one. Why place someone like that in such a remote village?

Murmurs among the village warned that war was coming to Dirthamen's lands. Her closest friends believed the rumors to be true—and she believed them when they said so. Enansalath understood what war would mean for this village—war all too often hurt people like her family and her neighbors, rather than those of higher rank for whose pride and honor the wars were fought. If her friends were right, and the war crossed these lands, whose homes and, worse, lives, would be taken? And could the previous priest's disappearance have something to do with coming war? She wasn't sure, but it seemed--

Stone cracked sharply on stone nearby. Enansalath jumped into a half crouch, barely catching her balance in time to avoid a fatal fall. It was nothing, she told herself—she had loosened a stone on the way up, and the wind had sent it falling.

Stone hit stone again, and she was no longer certain. Was someone following her up here?

Companionship...?” she asked, frowning. She eased to the edge of the boulder to peer downward—and nearly fell again from shock. She quickly stood and backed to the opposite edge of the boulder, swaying backward until she regained her balance. Her heart pounded; that was definitely not Companionship climbing up to join her. Falling might be a kinder fate than whatever awaited her now.

It must be that my good looks have fled me since I woke,” the new priest said as he drew himself up the rocks, clumsy but to all appearances fearless. “These days, everyone stares as if I'm some horror from the Abyss, and now young women are even willing to leap to their deaths to avoid me. A shame, really. If this goes on, I may even have to cease being vain.” He hauled himself up to the boulder. “Could you give me a hand, please?”

O-of course,” Enansalath hastened to crouch and grab his wrist with both hands and help pull him upward—nearly falling backward again in the effort. She bit back the urge to explain why she had avoided Dirthamen's ceremony. It was clear enough that she faced severe consequences for it; why else would the priest himself seek her out?

The wind did not seem to set him off balance the way it did Enansalath. Once he had reached the top of her perch, he stood, arms crossed, surveying the land. “An excellent view,” he mused. “I can see why this would be preferable to the temple.”

Enansalath was aware her explanation would only make matters worse, so she remained silent.

Nothing to say? Well, if it's fine for you to skip the service, then both of us might as well do the same,” the priest said, and sat down atop the boulder so that Enansalath couldn't climb down without first stepping over him. She wouldn't dare do that. “My name is Tel'din. And yours?”

But you're the priest! Without you--”

Your name, please,” he interrupted. Nothing about his posture or his voice suggested anger, but in Enansalath's experience, sometimes the calmest people were the most dangerous.

Enansalath,” she supplied, wary.

Hm. A kind name given by kind parents to a beloved child, or one earned and tested by time spent with a faithful lover. Either way, it's a good, positive name, and now I know which name to ask about the next time your face is missing from the congregation.” He grinned, but his gaze remained turned toward the scenery spread out before him.

Why did you come up here?” Enansalath asked, knowing it was a risk; it wasn't her place to question him.

You were here, and it was going to be difficult to speak with you from down there,” Tel'din answered with a soft laugh and a gesture toward the ground far below them.

She wanted to retort that he could have waited for her to descend, but she forced herself to remain silent.

I won't ask why you came up here, but I will ask that you don't do it again when we are meant to be honoring Dirthamen. We should both return to the temple now. Losing his favor now would be...” Tel'din let his sentence dangle, standing to brush the dust off of his fine robes.

All right,” Enansalath agreed, more than a little confounded by the new priest's attitude and expecting him to declare whatever punishment she'd earned at any moment.

Instead, he raised two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle as Enansalath watched, confused. Did he think that his hart could climb the steep stones?

At first nothing happened. Then steady wingbeats reached her ears, approaching swiftly from behind. She spun in place, the gusting wind throwing her off balance--

The grey griffon snatched her up in its talons, hovering long enough for Tel'din to haul himself to his mount's back before angling into a dive toward the temple.

 

####

 

Solas didn't know what hour it was when the wards alerted him that Lathbora had exited her tent, but as the minutes stretched onward into an hour, his wards did not tell of her return.

He had been re-reading a book about the Fade that was heavily layered with Chantry dogma, and as a result he hadn't slept at all. The Circle Mage scholar who had written the book had left hints that she had hidden knowledge in code within the book—and even if it were not new knowledge to him, it would be enlightening to know what the mage felt she had to hide. Now, with Lathbora wandering around, his concentration was disrupted. He snapped the book shut, replacing it with a copy of Hard in Hightown that he tucked under his arm. Varric's novel provided an innocuous excuse to seek out the stranger and find out why she was wandering around at this hour—and a means to keep her from overtaxing herself when she was only just recovering.

The wisp that had lit his tent bobbed twice and vanished, returning to the Fade behind Solas. The sky was still dark, pierced with glittering stars and a moon so large and bright it seemed one could merely reach up and take it from the sky. It was a good night to take a walk, even if one had awakened in a confused state to a world that was no longer recognizable as home. He smiled to himself and strolled through the darkness at a leisurely pace. With the moonlight and his excellent night vision, it would take little time to find Lathbora and hand her the book. Would she be able to read common as well as she spoke it? Many elves of this era were unable to read—the Dalish being no exception—and an illiterate slave of Dirthamen would find it difficult to learn or pass along secrets.

She might actually be Dalish, he reminded himself firmly. Sometimes, poisons could addle one's mind if left untreated for too long.

Not Dalish,” she had said. “That was-- You're mocking me! There isn't much of me left. What will you do when you're finally done? I'm--”

He puzzled over her words as he walked through the camp searching for her between tents and around guards. Had it been feverish nonsense? If not, what did it mean? A few moments of confusion and a denial that she is Dalish mean little. She may have lied to protect herself, or she might have been exiled from a Dalish clan. An exiled Dalish or the sole survivor of a dead clan might not view herself as Dalish, even if the rest of the world does.

Or maybe the Breach somehow enabled her to wake from a centuries-long slumber, stranded among murdered, corrupted, and Fade-trapped comrades. Maybe she clawed her way from her sleeping place underground, injured but enduring, only to find the world so changed that she couldn't recognize her home even if she were standing there. It is a situation I understand all too well.

He couldn't question her in the waking world to the extent he wanted to without looking suspicious, and it could be dangerous to approach her in the Fade without knowing anything about her. Regardless who she was or where she came from, she needed help and he was willing to provide it, at least until they parted ways or she proved to be an enemy.

He stopped walking mid-stride when he realized that he had circled the camp twice without seeing any sign of Lathbora. Perhaps she had somehow returned to her tent without activating his wards. Perhaps she had even managed to disable the wards—it wouldn't surprise him for someone wearing Dirthamen's marks to favor privacy. Even so, she'd need to be stealthy to avoid being noticed wandering around in the dark when all but the sentries and nighttime scouts were asleep in their tents.

Solas changed his course toward Lathbora's tent, careful to keep his pace steady and his feet quiet. If he hurried, someone would notice and assume there was trouble; he had no wish to cause unnecessary alarm. Curiosity burned in his thoughts. If she had escaped camp, how had she managed it? If she hadn't, then where was she? Either way, she had surprised him—and that did not happen often. The only other person who had managed to surprise him in this age was Adaar.

He knew before he reached the tent that it was empty. The hum of his wards brushed his awareness as he approached, but Lathbora herself had left behind only a lingering echo—a trace of some spell she had cast. He had known she was a magic user—he had felt the whisper of the Fade in her presence—but he hadn't given it much consideration. She'd arrived near death, and he had assumed that between her injuries and whatever incident that had led to them, she would be in no state for spellcasting. If, on top of being injured, she were newly awakened from uthenera, disoriented and weakened by the presence of the Veil, she should barely be able to do any magic at all. He'd presumed she was harmless. He could not afford to make such an assumption again.

He crouched outside of the tent as much to test the feel of her lingering magic as to put on a show for the sentries. “Lathbora? I would prefer to leave you to the Fade and whatever dreams you find there, but after the shock you endured earlier, I believed it would be wise to check that you are recovering properly.” He paused, pretending to await a response that would never come. “Lathbora? Are you well?” He paused again, then tossed open the tent flap to reveal the interior, summoning a wisp to provide better lighting.

The empty bedroll lay still rumpled on the ground. It was the only item in the tent—whoever she had been before she came to this camp, Lathbora had fewer possessions than even Solas. Surely she hadn't left with nothing but the thin, poorly fitting clothing she was wearing—if she had fled with no intention to return, the refugee would have taken the bedroll. Although elves were resistant to adverse weather, they weren't immune. The Hinterlands were often cold, especially at night; in fact, tonight had been unusually warm. But autumn was approaching; the brief warmth of summer would soon give way to a bitter chill that even Solas could feel—especially on clear nights such as tonight.

Just as Solas began to back away from the tent, certain that Lathbora remained within the boundary of the camp, the dim light of the wisp threw a pattern on the dirt floor into a stark contrast of dark and light. He didn't need to examine it more closely to confirm that the refugee had fled or to understand how she had gotten past the soldiers on watch. “Well,” he said to the emptiness, “you are certainly a sly one.”

He gathered the bedroll, dragging it from the tent to smooth the ruffled fur before it was put away or given to some new recruit. The process destroyed a set of dainty paw prints leading outside of the tent. His own footprints, and those of the soldiers on watch, destroyed the rest as he wound his way through the camp toward the requisition tent.

He dumped the bedroll onto the table in front of the requisitions officer who replaced Anna at night. “The injured refugee appears to have departed,” Solas said.

 

####

 

Solas stopped walking and pulled his bedroll further over his shoulders, guarding himself against the autumnal chill that had settled overnight. Dew that clung to the foliage had soaked through most of his clothing, but he didn't want to waste his energy drying off. All around him, trees cast shifting shadows, but ahead, the trees were not as dense and rays of moonlight danced between the branches. The soft sounds of nocturnal late-summer insects and birds reassured him. It meant that no predators lurked nearby enough to startle the other creatures to silence, but that could change at any time. He had heard howls in the distance. He had also passed a rift only moments before, and that had made his search more urgent if he meant to find the refugee alive. Corrupted spirits would be drawn to the degree of panic that had caused her to run without so much as stealing a coat for warmth or a staff for defense.

The wisp that lit his path bobbed ahead of him, insistent that he follow. It had been leading him for the past three hours as the moons sunk slowly down the horizon, but it seemed as excited about the task he had set for it as when he first set out. The refugee (or perhaps spy?) had traveled farther than Solas had anticipated, and despite the wisp's aid, he had begun to doubt that he could find her. More than once, he had considered sending the wisp back to the Fade and returning to camp.

But he hadn't.

“Very well. A bit further,” he said. “Only until daybreak. And then...” He sighed, leaning on his staff as he trudged uphill after the nimble wisp. Ahead, the treeline opened up. Tall, finger-like rock formations reached toward the larger of the two moons, and the hill dropped abruptly down a cliff face. He was sure now that in the morning, he would only find her broken body far below. It was a terrible waste.

“I have no intention of climbing down there in the dark for a corpse,” Solas informed the wisp. He slung his pack off of his shoulders and strode toward If he warded the area properly, he could sleep against one of the stone outcroppings without need to concern himself about demons. The wisp, however, had other plans. It rushed toward one of the rock formations, bobbed up and down again, and then returned to the apostate.

“Up there? She couldn't have...”

The wisp returned to the rock, its glow brightening.

A small dark shape, larger than a fennec but smaller than a halla, stared back down at him from the pinnacle of the rock, eyes wide with fear and glowing in the light of the wisp. Solas stopped, frowning to himself as he considered how best to approach without causing further alarm.

The wisp circled up close to Lathbora as he spoke, bobbing excitedly around her to let Solas know that it had found the person he had been looking for. “I thought perhaps you wished to leave the camp, let the scents and sounds of nature soothe you. May I join you?”

The Fade shifted, and what had been a dark-colored fox expanded into a shivering elf wearing poorly fitted clothing. “How could I stop you? You followed me all the way here already,” she replied, sounding resigned. She crouched low atop the rock, and Solas took a step back, hoping that she understood he intended no harm. It would be a waste to have spent so much effort helping this person only to have her fall to her death trying to escape him.

“Of course I did. You fled alone into a war zone with neither map nor weapon.” Solas said, even as he dismissed the wisp back to the Fade with a casual flick of his wrist. He could see the refugee clearly in the dwindling moonlight; he had no need to keep the wisp from the Fade any longer now that he had found her. “I am pleased to see that you survived.”

Lathbora watched him from her perch, her muscles visibly tense in the moonlight, as if she might flee despite the danger of falling to her death. “I thought if I could just get out of the camp, I'd wake up. Then I'd be home and safe. But all of this is real, somehow, when it shouldn't even be possible. And there's nowhere I can go to get away from it. So no... I wasn't just out for an evening stroll, as if you didn't already know that.”

“Your injury left you more confused than I anticipated. You are, as you have discovered, awake,” he said gently, even as he considered her words. Was she what the people of this age referred to as “Fade-Touched,” never to recover, or had she experienced only a temporary confusion? “You should be more cautious. Some people would kill you for using that particular kind of magic, no matter how practical it may be.”

The refugee rubbed at her sunburned scalp, then winced, sat down, and wrapped her arms around her knees instead. Solas noticed that she was shivering against the chill night air. “I know that. But I don't want to be a prisoner.”

Solas was unable to keep a hint of reprimand from entering his voice as he approached the rock formation. She watched him, but didn't make any effort to flee. “You appear to be a refugee, and it makes little sense to allow a civilian to wander through a war zone without escort or armaments. Even as I searched for you, I expected to find only a corpse. If you had waited until daylight, someone could have taken you to the Crossroads. From there, you might have found help in getting home, wherever that may be.” His fingers found a grip on the rock above him, and he began to pull himself upward.

“I don't think home even exists anymore. And even if it does, your Inquisition probably thinks I'm a spy. Running in the dead of night didn't help, did it?” Her voice trembled as she spoke, but she stared down at Solas while he climbed. “You followed me anyway, and I guess now it looks like I have something to hide.”

Solas's toes dug into a crack and he pushed himself higher. He didn't speak until his feet were securely planted on a tiny ledge. His body clung to the rock face for safety. “You have certainly created a difficult situation. However, if you return to camp willingly, I am sure the Seeker will understand that you are barely recovered and that perhaps your state of mind has been strained by the effects of fever and venom.”

“Suppose she does, and decides I'm harmless. Then what? Where will I go? What will I do? … And suppose she doesn't, suppose she decides I'm really a spy. What happens to me then?” She stood and backed away from the side of the rock that Solas was climbing. For a moment he feared she would go over the edge of the small space and tumble to the bottom of the cliff. Instead, she turned around toward the paling eastern sky. He suddenly had the impression she didn't want him to come any closer.

“I am uncertain whether Cassandra perceives anyone as harmless; however, an enemy would have tried to kill me while she believed she held the advantage. If you are a spy, you are a poorly trained one. As for what you will do, that decision is yours to make, once you have been cleared of any crime. Perhaps now you can return to your clan, or join a different one.” His suggestion was calculated; he wanted confirmation that his suspicion was true. She might have been fevered at the time, but he was sure she had spoken the truth. The evidence he'd seen didn't mean he'd reached the correct conclusion; a Dalish could be exiled, or her clan destroyed—and with enough time away, depending upon her circumstances, she could have lost the habit of preparing to travel beforehand. She could be a Tevinter slave who had tried to escape to the Dales, or a qunari convert who had turned out to be a terrible spy. Maybe she'd simply been a city or village elf who'd tried to flee to the Dales after learning she was a mage. Regardless of the explanation, Solas was annoyed with shouting to be heard. He sought another handhold, another toe hold, focusing on finding a path to the top of the rocks. Although he was used to physical exertion, he wasn't used to climbing at night without a ladder or a rope. His arms had begun to feel the strain, and he found himself wishing magic still came as easily as it once had.

“I'm not Dalish,” she said. “Actually, I realized almost as soon as I left camp that this was a bad plan. I'm not an expert survivalist or anything, and this place is probably a lot different than home. Not to mention the war, and the rifts, and the demons. I'd be useless to a Dalish clan. Worse than useless.”

Solas gritted his teeth as he dragged himself upward another few inches, arms trembling from the strain. From the ground, the rock hadn't seemed so steep nor the top of it so far away. He had ascended near enough to the top that he could no longer see the refugee past the edge of the rock above him—one more handhold, maybe two, and he'd be able to haul himself to the top. Then he'd be able to rest and perhaps finally learn Lathbora's origins.

He shouted in alarm as the final foothold crumbled beneath his bare toes, unable to bear his weight, and he slipped, suspended only by the remaining strength of one exhausted arm. He struggled to find another handhold or foothold, to reach the top of the rocks with his free hand—but his fingers were slipping, and he could find no purchase with either his toes or his fingertips. All of his plans, all of the hopes of the People were about to end in a gory stain beneath a rock formation.

It had been a foolish decision to follow her in the first place, nevermind when he chose to climb the rocks. His pride had demanded an answer to the mystery she had posed, and his conscience had insisted that he could help this one, at least. It hadn't been worth dying for—not even if she were truly Elvhen. He should have turned back and reported that she was dead. He should have--

Cold fingers clenched around his left wrist, pulling him upward. He let his hand fall from the rock to grip the refugee's wrist instead. One of his feet found a solid knob of rock and pushed him upward just as she yanked him over the edge onto the relatively flat top of the rock formation. The force sent Lathbora backward onto her behind and left Solas sprawling with his legs still dangling over the edge. He dragged his body the rest of the way onto the rock and rolled to his back, then lay still, taking deep breaths one after the other until he felt confident he could speak.

The refugee spoke first. “You shouldn't have climbed up here.”

Although Solas still felt shaky and was all the more exhausted for lack of sleep, his continued survival had improved his mood. He drew himself into a sitting position, facing his rescuer. The sun had begun to rise behind her, casting her face in shadow. She had already settled as far away from him as she could, huddled against the cold with her arms wrapped around her knees. He didn't respond to her comment—she was correct, and he had no intention of disputing it. He should not have attempted that climb. In fact, he said nothing at all until he had caught his breath and his heart had slowed back to its usual tempo. “I knew you weren't Dalish. You said you weren’t, but although there had been other clues, you were feverish then. It was possible I had misunderstood the situation. The final evidence came when you fled. A Dalish would have made travel preparations out of habit, even in a panic. I would hardly have been surprised for a Dalish to steal the necessary supplies. You did neither.”

“Then why did you suggest I go back to my clan, knowing I don't have one?”

Solas smiled at her. “I needed to be certain, and I expected your response to be interesting. I wasn't wrong.”

She glared back at him from over her knees. “I had the impression you were fishing for information. Apparently I wasn't wrong, either.”

“Good. You have perceived my intentions.” His smile stretched wider. He couldn’t be sure how clever she was, but it seemed promising—at least she hadn’t been lost entirely to the Fade. “Perhaps this conversation will actually go somewhere.”

“I really don’t want to talk to you,” Lathbora snapped.

Solas sighed, his smile vanishing. He should have expected this, for any number of reasons. “I understand that this is difficult for you, and perhaps you retain some misguided loyalty to Dirthamen. However, given the unusual circumstances of your appearance, keeping your secrets would be an ill-advised decision. That is triply the case now that you have fled in a panic. I am willing to help you because I do not believe you had anything to do with creating the Breach, but I can do nothing if you refuse to cooperate.”

He stood, shrugging his pack and bedroll from his shoulders while Lathbora brooded in silence over what he had said. He could have climbed more easily without his gear strapped to his back, but he hadn’t wanted to leave his supplies unattended for wild animals or bandits to find. More importantly, it contained a mercenary jacket that he had kept when he had acquired slightly better armor. He removed the folded jacket from his overloaded pack, then dropped the garment by the refugee’s feet. “I suspect you may find this more useful than I will. Even if you choose not to return to camp, it will at least provide some armor.” He politely avoided mentioning that she had been shivering from the moment he’d found her.

Lathbora shrunk away from Solas when he approached and eyed the coat with suspicion, then unfolded it and slid her arms through the sleeves. He hadn’t noticed before that she was somewhat too thin, but the coat was looser than it should be, even accounting for Solas’s sturdier frame. “Thanks.” She shivered again and huddled as much of herself under the heavy fabric of the coat as she could. “I was warmer as a fox, at least,” she mumbled.

“You are welcome,” Solas said, as he unrolled his bedding, “although it barely merits the term ‘armor.’” He sat atop his sleeping fur once it was spread out—the top of the rock was large enough to sleep upon. The sun had risen over the horizon, and the view of the hills and forest beyond was spectacular. He might have enjoyed it more if he hadn’t been exhausted from a night without sleep. He decided to risk being more direct. If she were not Elvhen, he hoped she would not know what he was implying. He didn’t want to harm anyone unnecessarily—least of all someone who had only moments before rescued him from becoming a splatter on the ground below. “You must have woken recently.”

“In a cave,” she agreed. She edged further away from him before she spoke again. In the morning light, her eyes were a vibrant shade of turquoise, and they were wide and wary despite the dark hollows underneath. Changing shape had probably taken more of her strength than she had expected, and Solas guessed that her shivering had as much to do with exhaustion as the cold early morning air. A coat couldn’t help with sleep deprivation. “That’s where the spiders were. I don’t want to think about it too hard. The spiders weren’t the worst part.”

Solas could easily imagine what she meant—murdered comrades and friends reduced to dessicated corpses would probably have surrounded her. Places that had once been well-lit and carefully tended had now gone dark and filled with choking dust while sculptures and supporting pillars crumbled all around. Time had not been kind to what remained of the Elvhen empire. He could only marvel that she had survived at all, through rebellions and rubble—nevermind that she had managed somehow to awaken despite the presence of the Veil. It had made that simple act so much more difficult for so many other slumbering Elvhen, or what few of them still survived. He would have felt sympathy for her in that instant even had he known her to be his worst enemy. “I understand.”

“I doubt that, but it doesn’t matter. You’re right that I can’t survive in the wilderness on my own, and I don’t want to die out here. But won’t they just think I’m a spy and execute me anyway if I go back to your camp?” She sighed and pressed a palm against her forehead. “What have I gotten myself into?”

He smiled reassuringly at her and spoke as he rummaged through his pack. “It would be dangerous to entrust anyone with the truth, but the implication of a story is often enough to prevent further prying. Perhaps all you need to say is that you escaped. Tevinter flourishes on the trade and labor of elven slaves; others would simply assume that you are a runaway Tevene. It will bring you pity, whether you want it or not—but more importantly, it will keep you among the living.”

She shifted uncomfortably and frowned at him. “Do you really think it’s going to be that easy? I just let them think up a lie for themselves, and then… what? What happens when someone wants to know more? Or when they start prying into my past and can’t find anything? If this Inquisition of yours is as military as it seems, I’m sure they have spies—probably good ones.”

Solas found the cold meat pie he was searching for, still wrapped in a clean scrap of fabric. He set it on top of the rock and pushed it at Lathbora’s feet. He had made certain to pack food before he set out—not only for himself, but because earlier, food had proven successful as a peace offering to Lathbora. “It will be easier if you lie as little as possible, but it seems you have correctly deduced that declaring yourself Elvhen would be a terrible mistake. The people of this age are accustomed to imagining the worst, and the worse they imagine, the less inclined they will be to pry. Let their imaginations do the lying for you. It will also be difficult for the spymaster to learn much about an insignificant runaway from Tevinter. Try not to worry until trouble approaches. If it does, I am certain we can find a solution.”

“You’re right, I guess. If I’m alive, I have a chance to stay that way.” She reached for the wrapped pie and turned it over in her hands before unwrapping it. Her eyes widened slightly. “You brought food? But what about the soldiers?”

“You should eat and rest while you can. I have no intention of climbing down this rock without help.”

“Then I hope you have a rope and something to attach it to the rocks with. I’m not sure I know how to get down from here if you don’t.”