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This is Fine

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I woke up with a start. My legs screamed in pain, making me acutely aware that I was kneeling on a hard stone floor. This is not my room.

I gingerly settled myself into a cross-legged position. It was harder than it should have been, since my hands were bound by some sort of metal shackles. The air was bitterly cold, far too cold for spring. I tried to clear the fuzziness clogging my head. Where am I? How did I even get here?  The last thing I could remember was falling asleep in my own bed at home. This was far too detailed to be a dream…wasn’t it? My heart raced. Do I have amnesia? Something must have happened.

My eyes finally adjusted to the dim lighting. I couldn’t see the source; it was somewhere behind me. Whatever had happened, I was relieved my glasses were on and seemingly undamaged, though they were filthy. I looked to see if I could slip out of my restraints. My blood froze. A jagged line cut across the palm of my left hand. It was glowing a faint but familiar shade of green.

No way. That’s impossible.

The door of Haven’s jail creaked in protest as it was thrown open. Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast’s heavy armor clanked loudly as she rushed in. The chainmail-clad hooded figure who shadowed her was nearly silent, a testament to spymaster Leliana’s skills as a bard. I tensed as the former Hands of the Divine approached me. While I had played the opening of Dragon Age: Inquisition enough times to know what would come next, it did not make actually being in the scene itself any less unsettling.

Cassandra scowled before crossing out of view behind me. “Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now.”

I was too anxious to process everything she was saying. Cassandra was far more intimidating in person, especially without the protection of the dialogue wheel to ensure I didn’t say the wrong thing to her. The beats of this scene might have been familiar, but there was no way I would be able to remember every bit of dialogue between now and whenever I woke up out of this…whatever this was.

Cass grabbed my marked hand roughly. It flared, sending searing pains shooting up my arm. Another detail that couldn’t be experienced in game, I thought weakly. “Explain this,” she demanded.

“I can’t,” I replied with complete honesty.

“What do you mean you ‘can’t?’”

“I don’t know how it got there.” Though I do know exactly what it is.

Cassandra seized my shoulders and shook me until my teeth rattled. “You’re lying!”

Leliana pulled Cass back. “We need her, Cassandra!”

They both turned to me. I felt the blood drain out of my face. I was supposed to say something, but I couldn’t remember what it was. “I-I’m sorry.” It was a poor offering.

Cassandra snorted triumphantly. “I knew it!”

“No! The Conclave wasn’t me. I swear it.” I couldn’t tell them about Corypheus. They would never believe me. “I’m sorry that you lost people you cared about.”

Both women exchanged a suspicious glance. Oh shit. I wasn’t supposed to know about Cass’s former flame Galyan or how close Leli and Dorothea were. Never mind that I had watched Dawn of the Seeker and played Leliana’s Song. The Inquisitor doesn’t even know who Cass and Leli are yet. And here I am delving into the depths of their hearts.

“Do you remember what happened? How this began?” Leliana asked.

To the Inquisitor? Yes. To myself? Not at all. I tried to recall what the Inquisitor knew at this early point of the game.

“I was in the Fade. There were spiders. And -” I stopped myself from saying “the spirit of Divine Justinia.” “A woman.”

“A woman?” I breathed an inward sigh of relief. I’d gotten that much right, anyway.

“She was…glowing.” That part was definitely wrong, though true. “She helped me get away from the spiders.”

Leli looked like she wanted to ask more questions, but Cassandra guided her toward the door. “Go to the forward camp, Leliana. I will take her to the rift.”

Cass unshackled my metal bonds and retied my hands with a thick rope. The formality was unnecessary as far as I was concerned, but I let her do what she needed to do – not that I had much choice anyway. She pulled me into a standing position, catching me when my legs buckled almost immediately. I had no idea how the Inquisitor managed to kneel through that entire introduction. Being fictional helps, I suppose.

Cassandra unceremoniously pushed me along until we were outside. I winced at the sudden surge of sunlight. Except it wasn’t sunlight - the sky was clouded over. It was the Breach. I couldn’t help gawking as I tried to find the top of the long curling tower of green fire. The sight looked far more impressive than it ever had in game. I suddenly understood just how much power had been required to create it. Knowing some of that power had been captured on my hand was terrifying.

“We call it the Breach,” she told me. I felt bad for her. She didn’t know I’d heard her explain everything at least a dozen times before. Divine Justinia, the head of the Chantry, had organized the Conclave to arrange peace between the warring mage and templar factions. As the only survivor of the explosion at the Conclave, I was therefore the only suspect and had been arrested by the Inquisition. So when she told me all the rifts were caused by the explosion, I made a point of answering her as the Inquisitor would have.

“An explosion can do that?”

This was going to be hard. I didn’t want to somehow break the world by letting on that I knew everything. And yet, it was frustrating hearing information I already knew. It’s one thing to replay a game and say the lines along with the characters, but another entirely to actually be there - especially not even knowing how you got there.

The Breach grew with a sudden electrical charge and I fell to my knees as the mark on my hand responded. The pain was so intense, I couldn’t even see for the duration of the flare up. Cassandra’s tone softened slightly, but she gave no other indication of sympathy.

“Each time the Breach expands, your mark spreads - and it is killing you. It may be the key to stopping this, but there isn’t much time.”

I tried to steady my breathing, willing myself not to cry as the dialogue wheel popped up in my head. I couldn’t remember the choices. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d have gone through every single one before moving on, but the agonizing pain gave me great incentive to be more efficient. “Let’s go then.”

Cassandra seemed surprised that I’d go along with her so willingly without question. She nodded and pulled me to my feet. I stifled a laugh as it occurred to me that most people don’t understand Cass’s efficient “get-it-done” attitude. That was all I wanted to do at this point too: test the mark on something smaller than the Breach, temporarily close the Breach, and hopefully get back where I belonged. The real Inquisitor could handle the rest.

I tuned out Cassandra’s introductory rundown. I knew why the Inquisitor was here. What I didn’t know was why I was here in their stead. How could this have happened? I pressed one of my fingernails hard against my skin, figuring that would wake me up. It didn’t. Could this actually be real? How was that possible?

“Come,” Cassandra told me, cutting the rope that bound my hands together. “It is not far.”

I nodded as I rubbed feeling back into my wrists. On a whim, I touched the tips of my ears. They felt the same as usual. Not an elf then. I didn’t feel any taller or shorter, so I wasn’t a qunari or dwarf. Time would tell if I had been thrust into the role of a Trevelyan or if I was simply myself. Considering that I could remember everything except how I ended up in Thedas in the first place, it seemed likely that it was the latter.

This was Cassandra’s first time experiencing this situation, so she didn’t notice that I was abnormally quiet on the way up to the bridge. The Anchor tingled constantly, like my hand was constantly being jabbed with pins and needles - something else that mere graphics could not convey.

I gasped in pain and sank to my knees as the mark surged with power again. Even knowing it was coming didn’t dampen the sheer shock of agony as powerful magic coursed through the Anchor.

Cassandra helped me back to my feet. “The pulses are coming faster now,” she observed as she made sure I didn’t fall over again. Thanks, Cass. I think I noticed. Still, I’d never been so grateful to have her by my side. Our first entry into combat was coming up and I really didn’t want to think about it. But I couldn’t help myself.

As much as I’d relied on Cassandra to tank all incoming damage while playing, I’d need her more now than ever. I generally played ranged classes – mages and archers – but I certainly wasn’t actually magical outside of the mark and I didn’t know how to use a real bow. I had no idea what weaponry would be waiting for me underneath the bridge and I had even less of an idea how I’d use it without dying immediately. Could I actually die here? Would there be resets for wipes? I’m not sure I wanted to find out, since the only way to do that would be…

I shook off the morbid thoughts. Focus.

The stone bridge lay before us. It would get struck by a blast from the Breach and collapse when we were about halfway across, but I had no idea how I’d avoid major injury in the process. Survival was much simpler when the game’s cut scenes handled it for you. At least I knew what was coming.

Cassandra nudged me forward. I kept my pace slow, looking for any sort of protection. The heavy sacks on the far side of the bridge wouldn’t help. We’d never reach them in time. I wished that I were in better shape or had any sort of training in gymnastics so I could roll into a safe landing.

Resigning myself to my fate, I stepped forward to the center of the bridge. Right on cue, a blast of green energy struck the bridge ahead of us, causing it to explode. Stone grated on stone as the bridge fell apart and the floor beneath us dropped to the ice below. Cassandra and I tumbled down the rocky remnants of one of the supports.

My armor provided more protection than I had expected. Until that moment, I hadn’t even noticed I was wearing the starting armor. Though I was winded and would undoubtedly have bruises later, I was alive. I couldn’t speak for how well Cassandra fared in her heavy plate armor, but she was already back on her feet before another jet of green energy hit the ground in front of us.

I forced myself to get up as the first shade rose into existence.

“Stay behind me!” Cassandra yelled.

I was more than glad to, but I would have to help Cass fight. She could easily get overwhelmed and that would have dire consequences for both of us.

The ground bubbled green before me as another shade prepared to make an appearance. Shit. Time was of the essence.

A few feet to my left, I found the supply crate where the starting weapons always spawned. My heart sank at the sight of a giant two-handed sword. I would never be able to lift that, let alone swing it hard enough to do any damage. I could hear the shade congealing into reality next to me. This was going to be ugly, no matter what happened. I ran to the supply crate, hoping I could at least hide behind it and buy myself some time.

That was when I spotted the pair of daggers lying on the ground next to the sword. I had never pictured myself as much of a rogue, but that definitely didn’t matter right now. I grabbed the daggers and hopped behind the crate, preparing myself to run to Cassandra. Hopefully the barrier would slow down the shade and I wouldn’t stab myself on the way.

My foot bumped against a utility belt. It had several pouches and a pair of sheaths for the daggers. Maybe it was all of the times that I’d played through the Inquisition prologue, but something told me I needed to open the pouches on the belt. The first was empty, but the second contained a large number of small purple pellets. If those were what I thought they were…

I was out of time. The shade nearest me had figured out my position and was making its way around the crate. I threw one of the pellets to the ground in front of me and prayed. While I didn’t disappear like I would have in game, I did have enough of a smokescreen to blind the shade and run to Cassandra the long way around the wreckage. I quickly buckled the belt around my waist and readied my daggers again.

Out of habit, I attacked the shade Cass was already fighting. If threat was still a factor in this lifelike version of Thedas, I wanted to take advantage of it. Not getting punched in the face any more than absolutely necessary would be nice – preferably not at all. Black miasma poured out of the shade as I slashed at it. I ducked, not wanting to accidentally touch it in case it was poisonous.

I thrust both daggers into the side of the shade as hard as I could, hoping I could pull them back out. The shade collapsed to the ground with a mournful whimper. A heavy shove on my back sent me sprawling after it.

The other shade had caught up. Cassandra bashed it in the head with her shield, but it kept bearing down on me. I scrambled backwards as best I could on the ice. My daggers remained embedded in the dead shade even as it melted into nothingness.

I couldn’t crawl away and reach the pouch of smoke pellets. The ice was cold beneath me and my breathing was ragged, but there was no opportunity to stop. It was flee or die. I kept backing away until I smacked into the stone wall of the bridge remnants behind me. Trapped, I fumbled at the clasp of the pouch.

With an anguished cry, the shade fell at my feet, revealing Cassandra behind it. Apparently I had just kited my first real opponent to death. I wanted to laugh in relief, but I held off, not wanting to accidentally offend Cass. “Thank you,” I told her from the bottom of my heart. My teeth were chattering. I couldn’t tell if it was the cold or the release of nervous tension.

Cassandra stared at me for a moment before sheathing her sword and helping me up. “You are welcome.” She appeared to want to add something else, but changed her mind. “Keep the daggers. You will need some means of protecting yourself in the valley.”

Not knowing how to address her, I nodded. As I picked the daggers up out of the black pool of former demon on the ground, it struck me that this was supposed to have been the conversation in which Cassandra commanded the Inquisitor to disarm. It seemed I wasn’t enough of a threat to even warrant a debate. With my lack of combat skills, even if I did try to pull a fast one on her, she could easily subdue me. I wasn’t sure whether this knowledge was reassuring or worrisome.

“Take these potions,” Cass told me, placing a few red vials into my hand. “Maker knows what we will face.”

Despite not being the Maker, I knew what was to come. And these potions would not be enough.

Chapter Text

We continued on, dispatching the new demons the Breach spat out at us as we went. I stayed close to Cassandra, hunching over to make myself as small as possible without hampering my movements. Though I was grateful to have the mobility of a rogue in terms of equipment, I was painfully aware that I did not have the agility required to survive as one. My arms felt like they were going to fall off and I had nearly twisted my ankle twice while sidestepping blows. My marked hand, the ungloved one, was blistered and raw in addition to being split open by the Anchor.

If Cassandra was put off by my shortcomings, she did not say so. She was every bit as formidable as she had been in game, never seeming to tire. And yet over time, more sweat beaded on her brow and her breathing grew deeper.

My breath caught in my throat as we reached a tall flight of stone stairs carved into the side of the mountain. Everything had happened so quickly that I hadn’t had time to think before now. The rest of the starting party was up those stairs. Were I playing the game, I would hit pause here and wander off for a good hour or so to process this revelation. Unfortunately, that was not an option here. I started climbing.

About halfway up, Cassandra spoke. “We’re getting close to the rift. You can hear the fighting.”

“Who’s fighting?” I kind of hoped Cassandra would change her usual answer. I needed to know this was real.

“You’ll see soon. We must help them.”

No such luck. I had figured as much. Knowing that lives were at stake, I pushed forward as quickly as I could, even though my muscles burned with every step.

I almost collapsed at the top. Each breath was an effort. Cassandra dragged me across the platform, then jumped down into the fray below the Fade rift ahead of us.

My mouth dropped open. They were really here. Fighting alongside the Inquisition agents was rogue storyteller Varric Tethras. His bright red shirt stood out amidst the chaos. Despite the freezing cold, his chest hair was exposed to the elements as it usually was. The dwarf was kiting a couple of shades while firing at them with his trusty crossbow Bianca. Somehow, he’d never come across as quite so nimble in game.

But it was the staff-wielding elf dressed in a simple tunic and leggings who held my attention. Solas. Wandering apostate, friend to spirits, elven god Fen’Harel, freer of slaves, creator of the Veil, the person responsible for the Breach and the mark now consuming my hand, potential destroyer of the world, and my absolute all-time favorite character. This was going to be a problem. On a number of levels, I added ruefully. The truth foremost among them. But there was no time for that now.

I hopped down off the platform and staggered to regain my balance. Thankfully, I didn’t actually fall over. Once I had my bearings, I ran to the shade that was closing in behind Solas and ripped my blades across its back. Even though I always went to help Solas during this fight on every playthrough, this time was different. I could feel my daggers catch on the demon’s skin. The open rift above emitted an unearthly hum that I had never heard in game. I nearly dropped my dagger as the mark sparked in reaction to the rift.

The demon fell and I turned to find another. Cold fingers grabbed my wrist, causing the mark to flare. I dropped my dagger from the shock and instinctively tried to pull away.

“Quickly! Before more come through!”

Oh! I immediately stopped trying to escape Solas’s grip. He held the mark up to the rift with great concentration. A sort of green umbilical cord burst out of the mark and caused the rift to overload. The edges of the mark tore at my skin and my hand shook from the sheer power of the magical forces at work. I would have fallen to the ground in agony if Solas hadn’t been there. Finally, with a bright green flash and an explosive BOOM, the rift dissipated.

I had closed hundreds of rifts before, but never like this. I still wasn’t entirely sure how the process worked. Was it really as simple as just holding the mark up to a rift and waiting? I became vaguely aware of Solas letting go of my wrist. It was only then that the Anchor went back to tingling. “How did you do that?” I asked him once I had caught my breath.

I did nothing. The credit is yours.” I made a very conscious effort not to make a face at that expectedly familiar but still completely unhelpful answer. He was practically giddy with relief, something I was only aware of after so many playthroughs. Far be it from me to take the moment away from him. After all, I knew the mark would work. He hadn’t even known I was going to wake up.

I knew Solas’s conversations better than most, but despite that, I only remembered one dialogue choice that seemed appropriate. “You mean the mark.”

“Whatever magic opened the Breach in the sky also placed that mark upon your hand,” Solas explained. I know, vhenan. The term of endearment felt out of place, even in my head. I sighed inwardly. I’d have to keep such thoughts in check. It wasn’t fair to Solas. As far as he knew, we’d just met for the first time. “I theorized the mark might be able to close the rifts that have opened in the Breach’s wake – and it seems I was correct.” Of course you were. It was your magic.

Cassandra walked over and handed me the dagger I’d dropped. “Meaning it could also close the Breach itself.”

“Possibly.” Solas clasped his hands before him and addressed me in a softer tone. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.” I looked away from his curious gaze. How many times had I screencapped this moment of connection between Solas and the Inquisitor? And here I was screwing it up in person. I was certain the heat in my cheeks was not from the exertion of combat.

“Good to know!” chipped in Varric.  “Here I thought we’d be ass-deep in demons forever.” I don’t think I had ever been more grateful to Varric than at that moment. I gladly took the excuse to turn and face him. “Varric Tethras!” he introduced himself with his usual bravado. “Rogue, storyteller, and occasionally unwelcome tagalong.” He winked at Cassandra. I didn’t need to look at her to know she was scowling back at him.

This dialogue wheel I remembered, but I hated the question that came next. Even though it prompted Solas to say one of my favorite lines, I just couldn’t. It would be pretty obvious to most people that Varric wasn’t part of the Chantry and I had no intention of making myself sound like a fool. “You’re Cassandra’s tagalong then?” I asked instead.

A familiar chuckle drew my attention. “In a manner of speaking,” Solas said dryly.

I tried to casually hide my face behind my hand as I stifled a laugh. Wonderful. I’d dodged one of the lines that was guaranteed to make me smile, only to run directly into something new that had a similar effect. You can’t just giggle at people for no discernable reason, I chastised myself. I had picked up some really bad habits while playing. Which I had known, of course. But now it actually mattered.

Varric answered as if Solas hadn’t spoken. “Technically I’m a prisoner, just like you.” Thankfully, he was too busy adjusting the cuffs of his shirt to notice what I was doing. I’d never hear the end of it if he suspected I had feelings for Solas.

Cassandra sighed in annoyance. “I brought you here to tell your story to the Divine,” she reminded Varric. “Clearly that is no longer necessary.” It had never actually been necessary as far as I was concerned, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell Cassandra that.

“Yet, here I am,” Varric said. “Lucky for you, considering current events.” Lucky for you too, Varric. He had no idea that if the Dragon Age 2: Exalted March DLC hadn’t been canceled, he would have been dead long before the Breach opened. My heart went out to him.

“Well, I for one am glad you and your crossbow are here,” I told him with the utmost sincerity. Cassandra grumbled her disapproval. I did my best to ignore her. This was an unusual reaction on my part – generally, I was not Varric’s biggest fan – so I was going to capitalize on it. Without forgetting Bianca, of course.

“You may reconsider that stance in time,” Solas warned me. It was hard to tell whether he was joking or not. I tried not to let my surprise show. I must have fallen into a different branch of the conversation, one I didn’t usually pick. Or maybe Solas somehow knew how I generally felt about Varric. That wouldn’t surprise me either. I casually shrugged my agreement. I knew he was right.

“Aww.” Varric pouted sarcastically at Solas. “I’m sure we’ll become great friends in the valley, Chuckles.”

“Absolutely not,” Cassandra growled. As she argued against Varric joining us for the battles to come, I couldn’t help but marvel at how once again, I had been softer toward Varric only to be immediately reminded of why he bugged me. I hated that he referred to Solas as Chuckles, the nickname he’d previously given comedic Hawkes in Dragon Age 2. Although I liked that it linked my canon Hawke to Solas, the idea that Varric didn’t bother giving either of them a unique nickname irked me. Ugh, WHY, Varric? This was going to be a problem too. Swearing at the screen was not an option here.

“My name is Solas, if there are to be introductions.” I hadn’t even heard Cass storm off as Varric won his argument. Unable to continue looking away without appearing suspicious, I turned to Solas. “I am pleased to see you still live,” he added with a calm politeness that belied the excitement that I knew bubbled within him.

“He means ‘I kept that mark from killing you while you slept,’” Varric translated helpfully.

Wait. That meant I had actually been the one who had no memory of stumbling out of a rift. It was me who had lain unconscious for days, not the real Inquisitor – whoever they were supposed to be this time. This was all getting terribly unnerving. I searched Solas’s face for answers, but as always, he was keeping his cards close to his chest.

“Thank you,” I said after what was probably too long a pause. “I can’t even imagine how difficult that must have been.” It was true. Just because Solas knew how the mark worked, he didn’t have his full powers. That he had any control over the Anchor in his weakened state was something of a miracle.

There was an almost imperceptible sadness in his smile. “Thank me if we manage to close the Breach without killing you in the process.” Ow. Another line I wasn’t intimately familiar with, if that was even a usual response at all. He wasn’t wrong, either. The mark could close the Breach just fine, but surviving the fight to reach it? That was another story entirely.

As I contemplated what he’d said, Solas addressed the Seeker, who had returned to the group after cooling off. “Cassandra, you should know: the magic involved here is unlike any I have seen.” Even though he was proving my innocence, I couldn’t help but wonder if that statement was entirely true. How could he not have seen magic like this? It was his magic. Unless Corypheus and his corrupted Blight magic changed its very nature. Solas certainly hadn’t expected the magister-turned-darkspawn to survive the blast. I frowned. Was I actually debating lore while standing in the middle of Thedas? I supposed I should have seen that coming.

“Well, Bianca’s excited!” Oops. Varric had seen my frown and assumed it was in reaction to the news that we were going to meet Leliana at the forward camp next. I really needed to stop zoning out of conversations I’d heard before. It was liable to get me into trouble.

Chapter Text

The four of us moved on to the valley, which was indeed overrun with demons as Varric had promised. We headed straight toward the steps leading to the forward camp. It was strange not checking every side path for loot, but we had no reason to. The Inquisition’s forces would take care of resource collection and time was truly of the essence. Still, it was a break in my early game routine.

It occurred to me that Solas and Varric had been on the front lines while they were fighting at the first rift. They had no way of closing the rift themselves, so they couldn’t end the constant flow of shades and wisps. I wondered how long those two and others had been stopping the demons from reaching Haven. The Herald DOES hold the key to Thedas’s salvation. I had never truly considered it before, just followed along the expected plotline without putting it into a real context. No wonder Solas had been so relieved to see me. Without the Inquisitor, he would have had a front row seat to his accidental destruction of the world. I wanted to ask him how he could have thought giving Corypheus his orb would be a good idea, but that was obviously out of the question.

“So I take it you’re from the Free Marches?”

Oh no. I had completely forgotten this conversation Varric has with human Inquisitors. I kept my tone light. “Oh?”

“Accent. I’m from Kirkwall, but you’re from, um, further east, maybe?”

I should do what Solas did and claim I was from some small town he’d never heard of. Except Solas was likely telling the truth and that would be a stretch for me if anyone started asking questions. Besides, the opportunity was too good.

“Good guess. I’m surprised you didn’t say Starkhaven outright.”

His reaction was priceless. “But you don’t sound like you’re from Starkhaven at all!”

I couldn’t help but grin. I couldn’t help but grin. He wasn’t wrong. “I grew up somewhere else.”

A curl of pride swirled up my spine. I forgot how exhausted I was for a moment. All true statements; no actual lies. Solas would approve if he knew. Which he’d better not, I chastised myself. I could certainly remember Starkhaven as part of my conjured backstory. Hopefully Leliana wouldn’t dig too deeply into that one, though I suspected she probably would. Oh well. I’m basically low key enough to pass as a peasant, right? Minus the glasses…that could be a problem. I suppose I could have robbed a dwarven merchant so I could get the exact prescription I needed in order to see. Ugh. No one was going to believe that.

A fresh set of demons interrupted my thoughts and I gratefully distracted myself with staying alive for the next several minutes. It was much easier now that Solas and Varric had joined us, though I still didn’t know what I was doing other than hacking and slashing wildly. I also found myself backing out of fights earlier than necessary because I wasn’t sure when Solas’s protective barrier was going to fall. Not for the first time, I bemoaned the lost conveniences of gameplay. Fighting is a lot easier when you have health bars and an assortment of skill timers in front of you. Not to mention a refillable stamina bar.

Every inch of me ached, inside and out. I could barely keep my daggers up, let alone stab things with them effectively. I had no idea how I was ever going to make it to the Breach to close it. The forward camp was only the halfway point and I was already exhausted.

“You must conserve your strength,” Solas told me as the last demon in the pack fell and we moved toward the next set of stairs. “You are the only one who can close the rifts.”

I dropped my gaze and nodded. I was too tired to answer him and too ashamed to look him in the eye. Tahni would never have been this tired. I groaned inwardly at the sight of a much taller staircase than the one we just climbed. Not for the first time, I wished I could actually be Tahni Lavellan. Even if she hadn’t been fictional, my canon Inquisitor was in better shape and a good decade younger than me. Also a mage, I added, eyeing Solas enviously. If only getting transported to Thedas had granted me magical abilities, but alas, that was not the case.

My foot caught on the edge of a step about halfway up and I barely caught my balance in time. Solas noticed and called for Cassandra to stop. She was not pleased, but did allow us to pause briefly. I supposed she didn’t want to carry me up the rest of the way. I felt bad for slowing us down unnecessarily, but there was another rift coming up before the forward camp. I would need every scrap of energy to close it. Varric filled the silence, to no one’s surprise.

“So – are you innocent?”

I glared at him for asking a question that demanded an answer when all I wanted to do was breathe for a minute. “I…I don’t remember what happened,” I panted. I figured it was safer to stick with the Inquisitor’s default answer, especially since the throbbing of my brain in my ears made it hard to think.

Varric made an amused noise like he’d expected that answer. “That’ll get you every time. Should have spun a story.”

“That’s what you would have done,” Cassandra told him. That IS what he did, I added silently, too breathless to add it out loud.

“It’s more believable,” Varric continued matter-of-factly. “And less likely to result in premature execution.”

“We’re not all born to lie, Varric,” I muttered under my breath. Fortunately for him, Cassandra didn’t hear me as she rolled her eyes and stalked up the stairs ahead of us.

Varric waved me off. “Sure, enjoy telling the truth in the hours you have left to live. Just don’t expect me to write a book honoring your memory.”

I hated to admit that I was impressed by his response, though I was also amused that Varric would turn out to be wrong on both of those counts. He was at least gracious enough to help me up. That’s Varric for you. If Solas had any reaction to my commentary on lying, I missed it. I hoped he didn’t think I meant him. Lying through omission and tricky wording was fine by me – a good thing, since I’d already been doing a lot of both.

There was a pack of demons I’d forgotten about at the top of the stairs, then another long walk up a steep ramp. At last, after what felt like an eternity, we reached the stairs that led to the forward camp. I had never realized how vertical the prologue was. Of course it’s vertical. We’re in the Frostback Mountains. My legs trembled from the strain I’d been putting them under.

Shouts came from the stone outpost ahead as we finally reached the top of the stairs. My hand immediately burst into pain. Thankfully, there weren’t that many shades and with two ranged fighters, the wisps were easily dispatched. I was so far past my breaking point that I didn’t feel bad about taking Solas’s advice, staying out of combat while the others cleared the area.

I was already positioned next to the rift when the last shade fell. Holding my marked hand up to face it, I braced my left arm with my right and concentrated all my strength on not moving. Green energy jumped between the rift and the Anchor until the rift dispersed. I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Oh good, it IS as simple as it looks.

“The rift is gone. Open the gate!” Cassandra called to the Inquisition agents on the other side of the wooden doors.

“We are clear for the moment,” Solas confirmed. “Well done.”

A pang of guilt struck me, even though his inflection was the same as ever. He sounds so winded. That was my last coherent thought before everything went white and I hit the snow.

Chapter Text

“Everyone move back. Give her air.” I could hear Cassandra barking out orders as though she were at the opposite end of a long tunnel.

Leliana sounded even further away. She was arguing with Chancellor Roderick, the Chantry official whose presence out here was pretty much unnecessary. In game, he helped provide more exposition. I couldn’t tell what he thought he stood to gain. Perhaps in his arrogance, he thought someone would listen to his concerns that the prisoner was running around free. Not that I’m going anywhere at the moment, obviously.

Varric was muttering somewhere nearby. “I’ve never seen anyone turn so pale – and I’ve seen ghosts.”

My eyelids were too heavy to lift. So was everything else, for that matter. The freezing wind no longer stung my cheeks, but judging from the crispness in the air, I was still outside. A warm patch radiated over my body, as though someone were holding a heat lamp a few inches above each section, thawing it before continuing. The warmed muscles were no longer screaming in pain. I could have cried in gratitude. Was that…magic? If so, Solas had to be the one healing me. Assuming the game was an accurate representation of the Inquisition, he was the only mage in its ranks at this early stage. I had no idea magic could work on something as mundane as sore muscles. I would have asked him to heal me earlier.

I tried to sit up and open my eyes, but only managed the latter for a fraction of a second. It seemed to be enough, since a moment later I heard Varric relaying the news to Cassandra and asking her for water on my behalf. I was definitely not worthy of that sort of kindness from him, but I was in no position to protest.

It seemed as though Solas had finished administering his magical treatment, as the healing rays had stopped passing over me. Slender fingers brushed the surface of my marked hand, tracing the edges of the Anchor. The tingling sensation increased slightly, but the mark did not tear apart like it had near the rifts or when the Breach expanded. That was a relief. After the mark flared during the meet cute with Solas earlier, I feared the Anchor would react poorly to him in his weakened state. Which makes no sense. He kept the mark from spreading too much while I was passed out before.

My eyes cracked open a sliver. I had been propped up against something slightly softer than the rock wall next to me, so I could see Solas’s expression as he studied the mark. To a casual observer, he was just a healer concerned about the well-being of his patient. But I had the benefit of knowing what worries truly creased his brow – and they had little to do with me directly. He should have had a little longer before needing to worry about the big picture again. That was my fault. My lips were so chapped that it took me a couple of attempts to speak.

“Don’t worry – I’m not going to die on you, Solas.”

Surprise flashed across his face for an instant before Varric returned, blocking him from my view. It was only after I was sitting up and hydrated that I worried whether I should have said anything. Was it really worth potentially blowing my cover to give Solas some small reassurance that everything would be all right? Well. Not everything. But I had no intention of failing him now that I was an integral part of his story. At least for the time being, I reminded myself. I didn’t know how much longer I would have before waking up in my own bed, but so long as I was here, I was going to do my best not to mess things up. Not that I was doing so well on that front at the moment, but I was trying.

It took some convincing for Varric to believe that I was well enough to stand, but eventually he and Solas helped me to my feet. Solas very specifically positioned himself on my left side, near the mark. Varric didn’t protest, much to my amusement. It wasn’t so much funny as it made sense – Varric wouldn’t exactly be much help if the Anchor acted up again – but I wasn’t really in the right state of mind to question my idea of humor.

The two of them guided me over to Cassandra, Leliana, and Chancellor Roderick. The trio was, of course, arguing loudly. I was glad I already knew what they were discussing so I didn’t have to waste valuable energy trying to follow every word of the conversation. Roderick was convinced I needed to go back to Haven to await execution. Cassandra and Leliana weren’t having any of it. In game, the Inquisitor-to-be would have already inserted themselves into the discussion in time to dictate what path we would take to the Breach. But I had missed my cue and was too weak to jump in. All I could do was watch helplessly as Cass and Leli listed our options. Cassandra favored the quick, direct route. Leliana preferred the mountain pass that took longer, but would overall be safer, despite the earlier disappearance of Inquisition soldiers in that area.

Suddenly my hand crackled as lightning-like bursts of green energy forked out of the mark. I cried out in agony and would have collapsed if Solas and Varric hadn’t been holding me upright. Bloody hell. Gritting my teeth, I managed to hold my arm steady as the pain very slowly started to subside. I vowed to never ever again forget that the Breach very conveniently surged with power at this point of the prologue.

The spectacle had silenced the others’ argument. I should have taken advantage of the moment, but it was all I could do to steady my breathing. The only sound was the faint hum of magical energy as Solas attended to the mark, further relieving the pain.

Mercifully, Cassandra broke the stalemate. “How do you think we should proceed?” She directed the question to me.

I was grateful she and Leliana had already shut down Roderick. Much as I wanted to tell him where he could stuff his bureaucracy, I was in no condition to fight anyone – verbally or physically. Solas’s healing would only increase the odds that I wouldn’t collapse before reaching the Breach. It definitely wasn’t a guarantee, especially with how akin to rubber my legs felt at the moment. At least falling over after closing the Breach is canon, right? But I had to make it that far first. Roderick couldn’t sap my energy any more than was absolutely necessary.

I put as much edge in my voice as I could. I had to be firm, since none of them were going to like my choice in this particular case. Neither was I, for that matter, but this was important. “We need to take the mountain path. The missing squad must be saved if they’re still alive. Not just for sentimental reasons,” I added, prematurely cutting off Cassandra’s protest. “We’re going to need every person we can get.”

The Seeker let out a loud sigh. “I suppose you are right. And a direct assault might prove too much for you.”

I nodded. She had a good point. I hadn’t even thought of that, since the shorter route had always felt easier to me. It took a lot less time in terms of gameplay, but the fight might have been a lot more brutal in person. Guess we’ll never know now. Hopefully my body would hold together. The mountain path involved a lot more climbing and I’d already proven I wasn’t up to that task. But I have to be. Steeling myself, I pulled myself away from Solas and Varric to stand on my own.

“Leliana,” Cassandra turned to the spymaster. “Bring everyone left in the valley. Everyone.

Leliana nodded and took off the way we came. The rest of us continued forward. “On your head be the consequences, Seeker,” Roderick spat as we passed by.

“Shut it, you useless windbag,” I muttered. Roderick didn’t hear me, but Cassandra did. Seeing her smirk was gratifying.

Chapter Text

The “mountain path” was more of a steep, unmarked trail than a proper path. Cassandra led the way, followed by Varric. I was third in line with Solas behind me. If I fainted again, he’d be right there to heal me – and prevent me from falling off the cliff, if it came to that.

Such a wonderful impression I’m making. I sighed inwardly. I had never fainted before in my life, despite having been close once or twice. This was a fine time to start. I supposed I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. This sort of extreme physical exertion was a new thing for me – and I had to deal with the Anchor on top of it. Either one of those things would have been plenty to handle alone. Both at once? Ridiculous.

Fortunately, I did not faint again and we reached the old mining complex in the middle of the path without incident. The only dodgy part was all the ladder-climbing up to the mine’s entrance, but I miraculously managed not to fall off. I was more impressed than ever that Cassandra was able to do this in heavy plate armor and was prepared to lead the charge afterwards.

The mine was better lit than I had expected. Somehow I always managed to forget there were balconies that let in sunlight. Most of the torches in the complex were already burning before our arrival due to the Inquisition soldiers having passed through earlier. They had also thinned out the demon population, which helped the others in making quick work of the remaining ones. My job was to hang back and yell if we somehow got flanked. I knew we wouldn’t, since that wasn’t how spawn points functioned in here. Nevertheless, I kept an eye out in case things were somehow different in this version of Thedas.

Not for the first time, I wondered if Solas had known there was a lyrium mining complex near the Temple of Sacred Ashes since the temple was connected to Mythal. I had so many burning questions related to Trespasser. It was slowly destroying me that Solas was only a few feet away and I still couldn’t ask him. As though he knew I was watching him, Solas glanced back with a curious expression. I hurried to examine my boots. Had I really been staring? I sighed inwardly.

I pointedly avoided making eye contact with Solas as we headed for the exit at the back of the mine. The remains of a few Inquisition soldiers awaited us at the top of the stairs.

Varric sighed heavily. “Guess we found the missing soldiers.”

Cassandra shook her head. “This cannot be all of them.”

“Maybe the rest are further down the road,” I chipped in, knowing full well that was the case.

“Our priority must be the Breach,” Solas reminded us. “Unless we seal it soon, no one is safe.”

“I’m leaving that to our squishy friend here.” Varric paused as he processed what he’d just said. “On second thought, that sounds like a terrible idea.”

Somehow, I felt like I should have seen that coming. “It’ll work,” I replied, even though I kind of wanted to agree with him. On paper, it really was a terrible idea. An Inquisitor with no combat skills? What sort of cosmic joke was this?

The path sloped down, which was a huge relief. My muscles had started complaining more loudly again and I didn’t want to bother Solas for healing unless I absolutely had to, especially not after what Varric had said. Just a little longer, then you can rest.

Finally, the sound of fighting echoed off in the distance. After traveling a few more yards down the path, the missing Inquisition soldiers came into view. They were locked in combat with the demons spilling from a nearby rift. I swallowed nervously. This rift would be the last before the Breach itself, but the prospect of closing it was daunting after what had happened at the previous one. As we got closer, the pins and needles in my hand started turning to knives. I tried to physically shake the pain off while mentally preparing for more. It was imperative that I not pass out again.

As Cass led the charge into the fray, I kept my distance from the rift. I was fairly certain the first terror demon in the game showed up here. Those nasty pieces of work – aside from screaming like Mass Effect banshees, which I hated – had a couple of moves that knocked any nearby victims to the ground. I figured that if I kept moving in a giant circle, I could avoid getting caught by any of those abilities, due to the delay between the beginning of the spell cast and its end. If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be applying MMO raid strategies to an actual fight someday, I would have laughed.

Thankfully, there was no terror demon in the initial wave and the wisps and shades were no trouble for the others. As I watched for the next wave, I stumbled on a patch of rough ground. Panic rose in my throat as I momentarily lost sight of the rift. I heard the terror demon shriek as it escaped from the Fade, but by the time I looked up, it was nowhere to be found. Crap.

The ground rumbled ahead of me. Of course the demon was coming after me first. Why wouldn’t it do that? I doubled back immediately and ran. I just barely got out of range in time as it popped out of the ground with a scream. At least I was pretty sure it was that close. Without the in-game interface, It was harder to tell. Man, terror demons are assholes. No matter. I could do this. Cass drew the creature’s attention and I took the opportunity to get to safety. If I hadn’t been saving my strength for the Breach, I would have helped her. For the hundredth time, I wished that I’d known this was going to happen so I could have prepared.

Once again, the ground trembled beneath my feet. But it’s too soon for – shit. I started running again as I realized my mistake. There are TWO terror demons in this wave. I couldn’t possibly make it out of the knockdown area this time; I’d started too late. A green barrier shimmered around me just before the demon burst up beneath my feet. I hit the ground hard, but thanks to the protective barrier, I wasn’t even winded. Nice one, vhenan!

Since I was already stuck near the damned thing, I figured I might as well attack it. I pulled out my daggers and slashed at the demon’s delicate ankles. The creature screamed and hurled one of its clawed hands at my face. I rolled away, its fingers grazing my face. A barrage of crossbow bolts hit it in the back of the head and the demon whirled around to face Varric. This was my chance. I scrambled to my feet and jammed my daggers into its bony ribcage. It screeched in pain and tried to free itself from my blades, but I held on tight until the creature slumped to the ground.

I looked at the field. All clear, except for the rift. The air around me turned green for a moment as Solas cast a new barrier around me. I blinked, figuratively stunned. I’d thrown barriers on myself for similar purposes before. How had I not thought of asking Solas to shield me before I closed a rift? Shoving that question and all its related emotions aside, I lifted my hand and braced myself, concentrating on the rift. The process remained painful, but now the agony was filtered. Like water through a veil. No, A veil. Not THE Veil. Not like Crestwood. With that thought, the rift exploded and disappeared.

Solas walked over to me. “Sealed, as before.” His staff was still in hand, I noted. Probably in case I passed out again. “You are becoming quite proficient at this.” He sounded both proud and impressed. If he hadn’t said that line with that same inflection in game, then I would have been convinced the sentiment was due to the fact I’d managed to close the rift without fainting.

“Thanks to you and your barriers! I’m not sure I’m strong enough yet to handle the mark without one.” Sadness flashed in his eyes so briefly I wasn’t sure I’d actually seen the emotion or only imagined it. Right…that would have hurt from his perspective. “I’ll get there,” I assured him. “I just want to close the Breach first.”

Solas frowned. Was I being too casual considering the high stakes? My foreknowledge of the situation afforded me some emotional distance. Had I already lost all perspective? He reached his hand toward my cheek. My brain unhelpfully supplied similar memories from Crestwood in game. He couldn’t have gotten me to freeze in my tracks more solidly than if he’d regained his full powers and turned me to stone. Without actually making contact with my skin, Solas healed the scratch I hadn’t even realized was there. Oh. I remembered to breathe.

I thanked him again. “Ma serannas.”

Solas’s eyebrows went up curiously. “You speak elven?”

Oh dammit all. That’s what I get for talking to my monitor all the time. I tried to keep the guilt out of my eyes. THIS IS FINE. I can fix this. “Only a little!” I giggled shyly. “And not very well at that, I’m afraid. I’m sure my accent is atrocious.” More painfully true statements. I just wished that I had actually intended to let that slip. Humans who spoke elven weren’t hugely common in Thedas. I wasn’t ready to stand out quite so soon.

I was saved from answering any follow-up questions as Cassandra sent the soldiers back to the road behind us. With them on their way to safety and the path ahead clear of demons, we were ready to continue on to the Breach uninterrupted. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be glad that the moment of truth was almost here. At least it would be behind me…assuming I lived through it.

Chapter Text

The path to the Temple of Sacred Ashes was long and relatively narrow with sharp twists and turns where you’d least expect them. But it was downhill, which was all I cared about at the moment. So long as I keep my footing, I should be in relatively decent shape to handle the Breach. Though honestly, it wasn’t the Breach that worried me. It was what came before it.

“So, holes in the Fade don’t just accidentally happen, right?” Varric asked Solas as I slowly climbed down one of the ladders connecting the steepest parts of the path. There was no way I was going to try sliding down it.

“If enough magic is brought to bear, it is possible,” Solas told him. Which is exactly what happened, I added silently. Although it did raise the question of whether the same thing had occurred in the Circle Tower in Witch Hunt – without the involvement of a supercharged ancient elvhen artifact, of course.

Varric pressed further. “But there are easier ways to make things explode.” You would know, Varric. I grimaced, thinking of the makeshift bomb Anders had used in Kirkwall. Of course, this method didn’t require a poop collection quest. I was never forgiving Anders for that. “Let’s find a few more deposits!” Ugh. I pushed myself off the bottom of the ladder and landed in the snow harder than was necessary. Dammit, Anders.

“That is true,” Solas agreed.

“We will consider how this happened once the immediate danger is past,” Cassandra called back over her shoulder.

Of course, no one would pick up this train of thought when the game continued in Haven. The question would linger, but it would no longer be actively asked. The Inquisition on the whole essentially stops wondering whodunnit and waits for the plot to unfold. It was an effective way of preventing many players from getting too far ahead of the narrative, though it was a bit of a cheat. I couldn’t help but wonder if that would remain the case here now that it was all real. It was only natural to question.

I held in a cry of pain as I nearly turned my ankle on a rock hidden beneath the snow. The sudden movement aggravated an old injury on my pinky toe. It tended to hurt in extremely cold weather, so I was surprised it hadn’t been radiating pain this entire time. Or maybe it has been and I hadn’t felt it because of the pain from the Anchor. Wonderful.

“Are you all right?” Solas asked as he caught up to me. Of course he had noticed.

“Yeah, I’m okay. Just clumsy.” Odd. There had been a pause at the end of his sentence…oh! “I just realized, none of you actually know me as anything other than ‘the prisoner.’ I’m Nancy.”

“Good to know,” Varric butted in from ahead of us. “Fair warning, I’m going to stick with calling you Squishy for as long as you’re still alive.”

I gave him a withering look even though he had already turned his attention back to the path. “Thanks, Varric. Glad I can count on you to boost my self-confidence.” I was too annoyed to bother taking the edge out of my voice. It was just hot air, but it still bothered me. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not going to die.” Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself.

“Don’t get me wrong – I’m rooting for you to live. If that thing on your hand really can save the world, then we need you alive. If you die, then we all die.”

I had to laugh at that. “Thanks, Varric,” I said again, this time without the sarcasm. Most of it, anyway.

I glanced over at Solas and our eyes met. The conversation had long since moved past the point of picking up where we’d left off. I shrugged and gave him a smile that I hoped would effectively convey my regret.

My hand started tingling slightly more than usual as the wreckage of the temple loomed over the left side of the path. The rock itself had been twisted into giant jagged spikes from the force of the blast that had given birth to the Breach. All of it glowed with magical green pulses the same shade as the Breach. I wanted to ask Solas if these magical remnants were only connected to the orb or if there was lyrium mixed in as well. Since I couldn’t do that without giving both him and myself away, I continued on in silence.

We jumped down a short ledge to the entrance of the temple. The still burning skeletons of some of the explosion’s victims were even more horrific to see in person. Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming stench of charred flesh. I shielded my face with one of my sleeves, but it didn’t help as much as I had hoped. Solas took a step toward me. I waved him off. I wasn’t going to pass out. It was just…a bit much for my nose to handle. The others didn’t seem nearly as bothered. Because they’ve seen this sort of carnage before. A sick feeling crawled into my chest. I staggered toward the narrow hallway leading into the temple itself. The sooner we got out of here, the better.

Things weren't much better in the entryway. Fires and corpses burned here too, though thankfully their numbers were fewer. I kept my sleeve in place as I carefully navigated the remains of the hall. I was grateful that the explosion had exposed this area to the elements. The air would have gone completely bad by now in an enclosed space. The others caught up to me as I rounded the corner and faced the Breach directly for the first time.

As big as it had looked from a distance, the Breach was downright massive up close. The concentrated green energy covered a good third of the blast area and stretched higher than I could see. The darker green crystal at its center which indicated that the Breach was closed – though not sealed – was a good two stories up. The equivalent epicenters of the smaller rifts were generally nearer to the ground. Red lyrium glowed at its base.

Leliana and the Inquisition soldiers came up behind us. The spymaster’s features softened as she spotted me and hurried over. Despite the large amount of chainmail she was wearing, she made no sound – likely one of the many tricks she’d learned as a bard in Orlais.

“You’re here!” Her relief was palpable. “Thank the Maker.”

“Leliana, have your people take up positions around the perimeter.” Despite the firmness of the command, Cassandra’s tone betrayed her own relief. Leliana nodded and moved to direct the troops. I was pleased to see Thornton, the hunter from Inquisition multiplayer, amongst them, as well as a good number of women. I knew we hadn’t gotten to see the whole picture in game.

Cass got my attention. “This is your chance to end this. Are you ready?”

I looked up at the Breach again and exhaled loudly. This wouldn’t end anything but the prologue. And possibly my time in Thedas, I thought with a pang of regret. I wished I’d been better able to appreciate it. Unable and unwilling to tell any of this to Cassandra, I nodded instead. “Let’s do it.” I resisted looking over at Solas. He knew what he had to do with his barriers without any prompting from me.

“Then let’s find a way down. And be careful.”

We hadn’t gone more than a few steps along the perimeter of the ruins when a disembodied voice spoke. “Now is the hour of our victory. Bring forth the sacrifice.” I groaned inwardly. Had it been too much to hope that Corypheus wouldn’t monologue as much in person? Probably.

“What are we hearing?” Cassandra asked. She sounded more awed than scared by the memory the Breach had preserved. I bit my lip in an effort not to answer.

“At a guess: the person who created the Breach,” Solas replied. My teeth sank even more deeply into my lip. What a completely accurate guess. Such a shocker!

I busied myself by paying extra close attention as we passed by some rocky outcroppings. They were still glowing with magical residue left by the explosion. It was all well and good to run forward willy-nilly in game, but I didn’t want to touch anything while actually here.

 “You know this stuff is red lyrium, Seeker,” Varric said, pointing at the glowing rocks embedded on the right wall of our makeshift path.

“I see it, Varric,” Cass replied in a clipped tone. I didn’t blame her for being so short with him – there were an awful lot of red lyrium clusters scattered around us in plain view. Although maybe she's simply annoyed he's talking to her at all - relatable!

“But what’s it doing here?” Now that was a question I’d wondered about myself. The lyrium beneath the temple could have been tainted by the magical explosion, Corypheus himself, or the Wardens who had been with him. Yet another thing I couldn’t ask Solas.

Solas looked thoughtful as he responded to Varric’s question. “Magic could have drawn from lyrium beneath the temple, corrupted it…”

I tried to conceal my surprise. It was not the first time I had forgotten Solas did volunteer information this early on. My track record with remembering canon was pretty spotty and this was only the prologue. It was just as well that my journey through Thedas would probably end here, as I’d end up talking myself into a corner otherwise.

“It’s evil,” Varric declared. “Whatever you do, don’t touch it.” I can’t imagine that any of us were planning on doing that, Varric. It was good that we weren’t in game. There had been times that Varric would say that line while standing on top of red lyrium crystals. It was pretty awful, all things considered. After all, he had lost his brother to its corruption.

“Keep the sacrifice still,” boomed the memory of Corypheus.

“Someone help me!” shouted the echo of a woman’s voice.

“That is Divine Justinia’s voice!” Cassandra exclaimed. I finally appreciated how unnerving that moment must have been for her as I braced myself for what was coming next. My palms were sweating, which meant my marked hand was prickling for multiple reasons. It was definitely not a pleasant feeling. I tried to shake the tension out of my hands, but the sensation remained.

We rounded the last corner of the path and descended a short staircase that connected to a ledge closer to the ground. This is it. I sat down and slid off the edge to make a safer landing rather than jumping. I didn’t trust myself not to turn an ankle before the final battle of the prologue. The anxiety in my hands was intensifying and spreading; now my calves and feet were crawling with nervous energy too.

The mark sparked even before I lifted my hand from my side. It hurt less than I expected, considering our close proximity to the Breach. Perhaps that was because the Breach was closed.

“Get away from her!” yelled my own disembodied voice. Even knowing it was coming did not prepare me for the surreal experience of hearing my voice saying words I had no memory of. So I really had seen Justinia. Apparently my past self hadn’t been concerned with canon accuracy – the Inquisitor was supposed to have said “What’s going on here?” But I would have already known I was in Thedas by that point…right?

Cass’s shock snapped me out of my reverie. “That was your voice! Most Holy called out to you. But…”

With a crackle of energy, the crystal core of the Breach flared brightly and displayed part of the events that had taken place here. Corypheus’s shadowy figure loomed over Justinia’s. A ghostly version of me ran into the memory, which was even stranger than just hearing myself. Justinia told me to run and warn the Conclave. The vision of Corypheus commanded his minions to kill me. The memory ended in another bright flash of light.

Despite knowing what we had just witnessed, I was more confused than ever. I was the first to admit I had trouble remembering things normally, but to be completely missing memories was terrifying. I couldn’t even imagine what my past self had been thinking, knowing what would happen to the one who bore the mark. Unless that was partly why I had done it…

“You were there!” Cassandra exclaimed. “Who attacked? And the Divine, is she…? Was this vision true? What are we seeing?” Her barrage of questions was as swift as her physical attacks on the battlefield. I could have answered all of them, if I hadn’t been concerned about the implications.

It was Solas who saved me from having to respond. “Echoes of what happened here. The Fade bleeds into this place.” Too bad it never seems to work in reverse. I’d like to see how the Fade reacted to reality bleeding into it. “This rift is not sealed, but it is closed - albeit temporarily.” I got a familiar twisting sensation in my gut. For some reason, I always got antsy at this part…even more so this time. Solas raised his voice so it carried further. “I believe that with the mark, the rift can be opened, and then sealed properly and safely.” Except for me. I’m going to pass out. Unless… I swallowed hard. If I fainted after closing a normal-sized rift, what if I did die sealing the Breach? Thank you, brain, for supplying THAT cheery thought. “However,” Solas continued. “Opening the rift will likely attract attention from the other side.”

“That means demons!” Cassandra shouted. “Stand ready!”

As the sounds of swords being unsheathed and arrows being nocked filled the air around me, I approached the rift that controlled the Breach. My heart was already racing from the projected memories and anticipation of the fight to come. I tried to swallow and compose myself, but my throat was too dry. This fight was always intense. I was not looking forward to being present for it.

“Let me know when you are ready.” I jumped. I hadn’t seen Solas move next to me. If he was worried, his face did not show it. An image of Solas looking extremely distressed while the Inquisitor closes the Breach forced its way into my conscious memory. Just what I needed, more emotional stress.

“Right.” I tried to smile to reflect my readiness, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate. More likely, I looked nervous as hell – probably because I was. “I’m ready,” I said, even though I wasn’t.

Solas acknowledged the reply with a nod as he cast a protective barrier over me. I smiled at him in thanks, glad my muscles decided to work properly this time. Turning my attention to the rift, I held my left arm up and braced myself. Here goes nothing.

The cord of green energy that burst out of the Anchor was so large that I could see it was actually two separate beams. The mark didn’t hurt as much this time, though whether it was because of the barrier, the fact I was opening a rift instead of closing it, or simply that I was getting used to the process, I had no idea. As the cast completed, the core of the Breach burst in a puff of green smoke before returning to its crystalline shape.

A bolt of green energy shot past me as the mark swallowed the loose strands of magic dangling from it. A massive shadow nearly as wide as the Breach itself fell over the area as a terrible roar reverberated though my chest. I whirled around and looked up…way up. A purple pride demon hulked over us, claws outstretched.

Chapter Text

“Now!” shouted Cassandra. The soldiers of the Inquisition attacked the creature from all sides as it swung an enormous claw at the Seeker. The demon’s roar rang in my ears as I rushed toward it, daggers at the ready. My plan was to dash into melee range long enough for Solas to cover me and the short range fighters, then slip back out to the rift to trigger a pulse that would stun all the demons.

This plan was probably doomed to fail, since I couldn’t actually see the range of Solas’s barriers, but I was going to try anyway.

I successfully managed to run behind the pride demon without getting hit. Its thick hide had uneven ridges that formed natural armor plating. It was difficult to find a spot to jab my blades, but I did manage to wedge them into a groove in its ankle.

The demon didn’t even seem to feel it. Instead, it let out a booming cackle, which was quickly followed by a grinding sound. I stumbled backwards as the demon’s skin glowed and hardened to become completely impenetrable. Oh shit. I immediately ran toward the rift. So this pride demon’s shield mechanics applied here after all. Whenever it built up its defenses in the game, it wouldn’t take damage until it was stunned by a blast of energy from the rift. I should have just stayed by the Breach. What little damage I might do wasn’t worth leaving those shields up longer.

By the time I got close, two shades had already escaped from the rift. One was advancing on Leliana, but the other was coming for me. I flung down a purple pellet to create a smokescreen, then broke hard to the right to circle around the creature. The ploy worked. The demon changed course and headed towards Varric and Solas. Sorry, guys, I thought anxiously in their direction. It couldn’t be helped. I had to trigger a power surge in the rift.

A new protective barrier fell over me just as I opened the connection between the mark and the rift. Solas had given me his barrier. I hoped that meant they had everything under control with the shade. The cast seemed to take twice as long as usual, but the rift did finally send out a pulse of energy that stunned all three demons.

I immediately made a break for the shade that had gone for Varric and Solas. It already had a couple of crossbow bolts sticking out of its head. A few slashes from me and it went down. I looked around for the other one and found it just as Leliana nailed it in the head with an arrow. The shade melted into a puddle.

I rushed back behind the pride demon. With the loss of its connection to the Breach, its hardened skin had retracted. I sank my daggers into vulnerable spots between the demon’s heel and its leg, trying to do as much damage as I could before the stun ended. With a heavy groan, the beast rose to its feet. I hurried back out of its range. I’d never be able to dodge its attacks if the demon decided to turn on me. Besides, my priority must be the Breach.

Fortunately, the demon ignored me entirely, swiping at Cassandra instead. It showed no signs of tiring. Most of the arrows fired at the creature merely glanced off its hide. A flaming arrow defied all odds and sank deep into one of the demon’s tiny eyes. The demon shrieked and stomped past Cass, advancing on the hooded archer who had landed the shot. Of course it was Leliana. She let the creature take several more steps toward her before vanishing in a cloud of purple smoke.

The demon roared in confusion, lashing out at the cloud with two whips of electrical energy. Both missed the fleeing spymaster, who was already a safe distance away, but grazed Solas’s leg and caught Varric square in the chest. Solas winced in pain, but managed to keep his footing. Varric fell to the dirt, his chest hair sparking with electric particles. The creature kept advancing on the fallen dwarf, ignoring all other attackers.

I hadn’t budged, torn between helping Varric and staying near the rift. Move, dammit! I hadn’t taken more than a step or two toward Varric before the demon put up its shield again. I had chosen poorly. I doubled back and raced toward the rift. At least Solas should be able to get Varric up and covered with a barrier. That’ll buy them time. I preemptively dropped a smokescreen at my feet. I only waited long enough to see that the shades had ignored me before beginning my channeled cast on the rift.

The pain spread through me like wildfire. I let out a cry of anguish as my hand fell, breaking the cast. The Breach truly was stronger than regular rifts. The pride demon roared behind me. I had to do this now. I gritted my teeth and raised the mark to the Breach again. This time, I kept my head down and eyes closed. It didn’t lessen the excruciating pain, but I did manage to hold my hand relatively steady. As much as my hand burned, it was my heart that felt like it was going to burst. A familiar hum registered in my subconscious just before the rift released its stunning energies. It hurt, but the pain was muffled. Solas. He’d given up his barrier for me - again.

I opened my eyes and whirled around to search for him and Varric. My head pounded furiously, nearly blinding me. Finally, I spotted them, mere feet away from the doubled over pride demon. Varric had regained his footing and was scrambling away. Solas had blocked the two shades from reaching the dwarf. He saw me coming to help and waved me back before taking down one of the shades with his staff. Cassandra charged in and bashed the other shade with her shield so hard that it instantly collapsed in a puddle.

They did seem to have things under control, so I positioned myself near the rift and waited as everyone else unloaded damage on the pride demon. Varric appeared to have recovered well enough, as one of Bianca’s bolts tore through the demon’s jaw. The creature screamed, its black blood flying everywhere. The Inquisition soldiers on the ground closest to the demon parted as it broke their ranks with wildly flailing claws. Cassandra hacked at its leg, but couldn’t get the creature to turn its attention back to her. I had no way of aiding them, short of triggering stuns from the rift. But it hurts too damned much for me to do that without Solas’s help. I had never felt so entirely useless in this fight.

The pride demon stretched out its arms to shield itself again. An extra shock of ice from Solas combined with everyone else’s attacks finally brought the creature down. I sighed in relief. I wasn’t sure if I could have handled prompting a third stun, even with Solas's barrier. Although now I have to close the Breach. I tried to position myself closer to the rift, but sank to my knees instead.

There were murmurs of confusion around me. I vaguely heard Leliana call to the archers to keep their bows trained on the Breach. C’mon, legs, move! The Breach had to be closed now. More demons could come through at any second. But I could not find the energy to stand, let alone lift my arm to close the Breach.

It was Cassandra who pulled me to my feet. “It must be now!” Her tone was not unsympathetic to my obvious exhaustion, but it was firm.

“Here, take this,” Varric said, offering me more water, which I accepted gratefully. I hadn’t even seen that he’d kept the flask from earlier.

As usual, Solas was unreadable. “This is our best opportunity to close the Breach.” Something – pity? – flickered across his face. “There will be more demons soon.” He doesn’t think I’m going to make it. Now that was terrifying. It was one thing for me to worry blindly, but Solas would know if I was too weak to survive this, right? Although I'll still have his barrier…

An unexpected surge of energy rushed up my spine and brought me to full alertness. Now would be an excellent time to prove to Solas that his suspicions aren’t always right. And to myself, I added pointedly. You’re a fighter – so fight! I tried to wrest myself out of Cassandra’s grip, but wasn’t quite strong enough. I’d have to compromise.

“Just hold my arm up,” I told her. “I can do this.”

As Cassandra lifted my hand to the correct angle, Solas cast a protective barrier over both of us. My hand shook as the world turned green from the flow of channeled energy. I could barely hold my head up from the combination of pain and exhaustion. The rift exploded in green smoke. The last thing I saw was the Breach collapsing upon itself.

Chapter Text

Sunlight played across my closed eyelids. I didn’t want to get up. It felt warm like mid-afternoon – appropriate, considering how much of the dream I remembered. I clung desperately to the remnants of my journey in Thedas. My only regret was that it had been the prologue, so I hadn’t gotten to interact with most of the Inquisition. Or been disappointed by Solas having no interest in a human. I knew where the line was and even in my dreams, I wouldn’t cross it. Only now that it was over could I admit to my anticipation of future heartbreak had things continued. Oh well. On that depressing note, I figured I might as well get up.

I grabbed my glasses from the night table beside my bed and opened my eyes. I wasn’t back home after all. The sunlight was actually firelight from the torches on the walls of my quarters in Haven. Why am I still here? When was I supposed to go home if not now? As the anxiety spread throughout my body, I noticed a movement by the door. I jumped as a wooden box crashed to the floor, scattering elfroot everywhere. A dark-haired elven servant who looked as startled as I felt stood above the mess, fretting anxiously.

“Oh! I didn’t know you were awake, I swear!”

I knew from experience that this distressed woman was extremely jittery, so I kept my voice as warm and soothing as I could. “It’s okay. I just –“

She didn’t seem to hear me. The woman dropped to her knees. “I beg your forgiveness and your blessing. I am but a humble servant.” I sighed inwardly and sat up. I guess there’s no way of calming her down no matter what you do. “You are back in Haven, my lady. They say you saved us. The Breach stopped growing, just like the mark on your hand.” The mark… Instinctively, I looked at the palm of my left hand, which was still glowing green. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt like it had before, while it was spreading. There was a constant otherworldly presence, almost like a hum, that indicated it was still there. With the Breach sealed – but not permanently, I reminded myself – it was more like a scab I wasn't going to pick at than truly painful. “It’s all anyone’s talked about for the last three days.” I tried not to react openly to that revelation. It was one thing to hear about a major passage of time in game and another to not have any memory of trying to wake up during it. Relax, please. You were already missing memories at the beginning of this whole mess. You dealt with it then. This is no different. Somehow, that knowledge provided little comfort. Snap out of it. For her sake.

I smiled at the elven woman reassuringly as she gathered up the elfroot. “Not surprising. It’s kind of important.” That wasn’t the right response, but I really wanted her to be at ease. She was a throwaway exposition character in game – as a result, there wasn’t a good opportunity to assure her that she had nothing to fear from me. “What’s your name?” She started backing away, wide-eyed. “I just want to know who’s been tending to me while I was unconscious.”

“Messeres Adan and Solas have been watching over you, my lady.”

I already knew that. Solas had to make sure the mark had stabilized and Adan was the resident apothecary. “But you’ve been here too. I mean, you’re certainly here now.” The woman avoided my eyes, placing the now full box of elfroot on the nearest table. “You’re not in trouble.” She clearly had no clue how to respond to me. Is it because I’m “the Herald of Andraste” or because she’s been mistreated in the past? She looked to be relatively young and unscarred, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Not all scars were visible.

She continued edging toward the door. “I’m certain Lady Cassandra would want to know you’ve wakened. She said ‘at once!’”

“Don’t worry! I’ll go see her right away. I just really want to –“

She was gone, the door closing hard behind her. I made a mental note to ask Josephine who that woman was. I’d also see about getting her assigned to me permanently if she wasn’t already – I wanted to ensure that she was treated well. Elves could face the same sort of verbal and physical abuses within the Inquisition as they did outside it. Both Josephine and quartermaster Threnn offered to protect elven Inquisitors from rough treatment. They weren’t just being cautious either – I’d seen and experienced verbal intolerance while playing as Tahni. There was no reason to believe the abuses couldn’t turn physical as well. That’s not going to happen on my watch. The same went for the dwarves and qunari. Few people in Thedas seemed truly concerned about the acceptance of non-human races, but I certainly was. Of course, I was getting ahead of myself. While Josephine would almost certainly oblige my request, I hadn’t yet met the Inquisition’s tireless ambassador in this world.

Moving was hard after having been unconscious for three days, but I did finally manage to push back the sheets. Apparently I was wearing the Inquisitor’s infamous beige casual wear. That was a surprise. They had never looked comfortable in game, especially with all the buckles. Appearances are deceiving, I suppose. Without having checked underneath the starting armor, I couldn’t tell if I had been wearing these from the beginning or if I’d been put into them. Neither option appealed, so I decided I didn’t want to know.

I was so stiff that it took me several minutes to find my footing. At least the worst of the muscle pains from the prologue had passed. I pulled on the boots I found next to the bed while trying to shake the grogginess that clouded my head. A small chest across the room caught my eye. No way. It looked like the “special shipments” chest. Was it always there or just when you had access to bonus gear that you’d unlocked? I couldn’t remember.

It felt like ages before I crossed the room on my unsteady legs. I carefully lowered myself to the floor in front of the chest, not entirely certain how I’d get back up again. As I opened the lid and saw what was inside, I gasped. Now this I could work with!

Once I regained full use of my limbs, I left my quarters as inconspicuously as possible and headed in the direction of Haven’s chantry. Not that wearing Avvar armor was exactly going to help me blend into a crowd. I didn’t care. I loved the snuggly hooded leather coat too much not to wear it. It didn’t make any sense that I’d have access to DLC gear here, but questioning the logic behind that apparent reality seemed unwise. After all, it made no sense that I was even in this world – who was I to doubt something as trivial as the convenient availability of armor?

The thick gloves that came with my coat concealed the Anchor, but I still overheard a few whispers about the Herald of Andraste as I walked toward the chantry. The people of Haven were apparently pretty quick on the uptake when it came to facial recognition. I was glad I knew so many of the town’s denizens from previous playthroughs. Not that this exactly counts as a playthrough. Without that knowledge, I would never be able to take in so much new information at once without getting overloaded. My respect for the real Inquisitor rose. Warmth radiated from the palm of my glove. Afraid I would literally have a fire on my hands, I begrudgingly took the glove off and shoved it in my pocket. I’d have to cut the palm out later, since the mark didn’t like being contained.

The Haven chantry stood at the back of the town, overlooking it like a sentinel. Much less ominously than it had in Dragon Age: Origins. It had been filled with cultists then. Its protected position made it the easiest building to fortify should the town come under attack – which it would, of course. All the innocents would come here for safety until Corypheus and his red lyrium dragon showed up. Then they would flee…how? Since the Inquisitor was always sent to distract Corypheus, I had no idea how the citizens of Haven got out of here. Perhaps the snowy cliff where I gathered so many materials in the game? I’d have to discuss evacuation plans with the others, assuming I could do so in a theoretical sense. Couldn’t have people suspecting I knew we were going to be attacked. They’d call me a lot more than the Herald of Andraste at that point – if they even took it as a good sign. I forced myself to focus on the present and pushed open the double doors of the chantry.

I lingered in the doorway for a moment while my eyes adjusted to the much darker interior. The fires lit the building well enough, but they were no match for the combined powers of the sun and the Breach. At least the latter was closed now and therefore less of a threat for the moment. As I crossed the long hall to the war room at the back of the chantry, I spotted the door to the ambassador’s office. Tempted as I was to go visit Josephine first, I figured she’d appreciate a formal introduction over having me wander in unannounced.

The voices of Chancellor Roderick and Cassandra carried through the thick wooden door of the war room. I knew from experience that they were arguing about what to do with me, so I didn’t bother trying to eavesdrop. But despite having reached my destination, I hesitated to go in. You’re SUPPOSED to interrupt them, I growled at myself. My stomach churned with anxiety – or was it hunger? When had I even eaten last? You’re stalling. I sighed inwardly, knowing perfectly well that I could worry about food after meeting with the advisers. Establishing the Inquisition was too important to wait. I’m going, I’m going. And with that last mental push, I entered the war room.

Chapter Text

“Chain her! I want her prepared for travel to the capital for trial.”

Nice to see you too, Roderick. I glowered at the Chantry sycophant as I approached the heavy mahogany war table. Cassandra and Leliana did not appear surprised to see me. I guess the elven servant was true to her word about letting Cass know “at once.” If she had interrupted that argument, then perhaps she had a brave streak I could encourage in the future.

“Disregard that, and leave us,” Cassandra told the Inquisition guards at the door. Naturally, they listened to her, not Roderick. You have no power here – begone! His days actually were numbered, which rather took the sting out of that line.

“You walk a dangerous line, Seeker,” Roderick sneered. I would have rolled my eyes, but he could see my face from where he was standing.

“The Breach is stable, but it is still a threat. I will not ignore it.” Cassandra’s tone implied that there was an “unlike you” at the end of that statement.

Much as I wanted to tell Roderick exactly what I thought of him and his opinions, there was no point. “Oh good,” I said instead, addressing Cassandra and Leliana. “So I’m officially working with you now, right?”

“Absolutely not!” hissed Roderick in a voice that brooked no argument.

“Yes, you are,” Cassandra confirmed, completely ignoring Roderick.

Someone was behind the explosion at the Conclave,” Leliana reminded us, though it was clear her words were for Roderick’s benefit. “Someone Most Holy did not expect. Perhaps they died with the others – or have allies who yet live.” She stared pointedly at the chancellor.

He answered with appropriate offense. “I am a suspect?”

You. And many others.” The steel in Leliana’s voice made me glad she was only fighting with words.

Roderick’s disbelief continued to escalate. “But not the prisoner.”

I mustered all of my willpower, attempting to appear as though I were paying attention as Cassandra explained that Justinia had called out to me for help. This was an important moment for both me and the Inquisition – or would be, once Roderick left. Just leave already, ya git.

“So her survival, that thing on her hand – all a coincidence?” Roderick remained skeptical.

“Providence. The Maker sent her to us in our darkest hour,” Cass insisted. Her tone was reverent, but firm.

Too bad Cassandra no longer represented the Chantry. That statement alone would have given me legitimacy from the Chantry’s perspective – not that Roderick was buying it. Normally, I’d be smashing the dialogue wheel option to deny that I was anyone’s Herald, especially not Andraste’s. But physically being here gave me pause.

It wasn’t that I believed Andraste was the one who brought me to Thedas. I had considered that Solas might have been responsible in some way, but he didn’t seem any different than usual. It could have been an accident, one he wasn’t aware of, but somehow, I didn’t think even Solas was a good enough actor to conceal knowledge of my otherworldliness. Besides, wouldn’t he have approached me about it? Not that he’s had the chance… No, it was still too unlikely. He would have dropped a hint.

This was getting me nowhere. I had to say something. “I don’t know about anyone “sending” me here, but I was in the right place at the right time to receive the mark. It’s why I can help – why I’ve already been helping. That’s all that really matters.”

Leliana nodded. “The Breach remains, and your mark is still our only hope of closing it.”

“This is not for you to decide,” Roderick scowled.

Cassandra slammed a thick leather-bound book down on the war table. “Do you know what this is, Chancellor? A writ from the Divine granting us the authority to act.” I had always wondered why the writ was in book form, but now was definitely not the time to ask. Perhaps there’s more information in there, like what jurisdiction the Inquisition has. “As of this moment, I declare the Inquisition reborn.” Leliana let a smug smile slip. She was clearly as fed up with the chancellor as Cass and I were. The Seeker got into Roderick’s face. “We will close the Breach. We will find those responsible and we will restore order, with or without your approval.”

Unable to do more than glare, Roderick stormed out of the war room. Finally! The moment his back was turned, Cassandra clenched her fists in frustration. I half expected her to punch a hole in the wall. As the walls were made of stone, the mental image was rather terrifying.

Leliana laid a gloved hand on the writ. “This is the Divine’s directive,” she said. “’Rebuild the Inquisition of old. Find those who will stand against the chaos.’” She turned to me and Cassandra with a serious expression. “We aren’t ready. We have no leader, no numbers, and now? No Chantry support.” She was right – for the moment.

“But we have no choice,” Cassandra reminded her. “We must act now. With you at our side,” she added, turning to me.

This was my initiation to the informal council that led the Inquisition. I would not officially become the Inquisitor until Skyhold, which was fine by me. I didn’t mind waiting to have a title and extra responsibility thrown on me. At least now I have a voice.

“By all means,” I said. “Let’s piece this world back together.” I could picture all of the dialogue wheel options I was skipping, but I didn’t need to know about the first Inquisition. I knew what the modern Inquisition stood for – and what I stood for. The driving force behind the Inquisition tended to stay the same for most of my playthroughs. But I played a lot of non-human characters, which better explained why my views tended to conflict so radically with the Chantry’s. I’d have to word things carefully in the future, lest I seem suspiciously radical for a human.

“That is the plan,” agreed Leliana.

“Help us fix this before it’s too late.” Cassandra held out her hand to me. I shook it, her grip every bit as strong as I expected it to be. She smiled as we separated, which prompted me to do the same. A headache was forming in my temples, so small social gestures took a greater effort than usual.

I awkwardly stood by the war table, unsure of what I was supposed to do. In the game, the handshake would have cued a montage of the Inquisition’s official formation. Leliana would have sent ravens to Redcliffe and Therinfal Redoubt to contact the mage and templar factions for their assistance in closing the Breach. The iconography of the Inquisition would have been hung everywhere. But montages don't happen in real life. I busied myself examining the detailed map of Thedas that covered the war table.

Fortunately, I was saved from any further awkwardness by Josephine Montilyet appearing in the war room doorway. The ambassador stepped lightly into the room, her polished board with its parchment and ever-burning candle at the ready. Her dress rustled as she took her post at the war table. The sound was quieter than I had expected, likely a sign that the material was expensive. Probably Orlesian. Commander Cullen Rutherford trudged along behind her. Snowflakes flecked the feathery collar of his armor. I had no doubt he had interrupted training his recruits to be here.

“I see that Chancellor Roderick has refused to change his stance,” Josephine observed. “At least he has learned that he cannot challenge us without support.”

“He’ll be back with or without support,” grumbled Cullen. “His sort never gives up that easily.”

Cassandra wasted no time in getting down to business. “May I present Commander Cullen, leader of the Inquisition’s forces.” You WOULD start with the military, Cass.

“Such as they are,” Cullen said with a note of concern. “We lost many soldiers in the valley, and I fear many more before this is through.”

“This is Lady Josephine Montilyet, our ambassador and chief diplomat.”

“I’ve heard much about you,” Josephine said with her usual renowned grace. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last.”

“And of course you know Sister Leliana,” Cass said.

Leli allowed one of her now-rare smiles. “My position here involves a degree of –“

“She is our spymaster.”

“Yes,” sighed Leliana. “Tactfully put, Cassandra.”

It suddenly occurred to me that of all the members of the Inquisition, Cassandra was the only one of the major players who was never formally introduced in the game. People talked about her, but somehow it never quite led to a proper introduction. Fascinating. I nodded formally to the advisers. “It’s good to officially meet all of you.”

“Your mark is now stable, as is the Breach. Solas believes a second attempt to close the Breach for good might succeed, provided the mark has more power: the same level of power used to open the Breach in the first place. That is not easy to come by.”

“Which means we must approach the rebel mages for help,” Leliana concluded.

“I still disagree,” Cullen argued. “The templars can serve just as well.”

Cassandra sighed. They had clearly been through this before. So have I, Cass. “We need power, commander. Enough magic poured into that mark –“

“Might destroy us all,” Cullen finished. “Templars could suppress the Breach, weaken it so –“

“Pure speculation,” Leliana interrupted.

“I was a templar,” Cullen protested. “I know what they’re capable of.”

Of course the next time we would try to close the Breach completely, it would work. But I was not ready for that. Not yet. Having to choose between the mages and the templars, knowing the terrible fate of the unchosen side – how could I live with myself? Black spots blocked my vision as the world spun. The bout of lightheadedness came on so suddenly that I was forced to grip the edge of the war table.

“Are you all right?” Cullen asked.

“Is it the mark?” Cassandra sounded worried.

“No, I’m just…” Finding the words was hard. “Really dizzy.”

“Let us adjourn until the Herald has regained her strength,” Josephine suggested.

“I’ll be all right,” I insisted. “Don’t stop on my account.” I was utterly useless here outside of carrying the mark. I wasn’t going to hold back the Inquisition just because I felt woozy.

“No, this will keep,” Leliana said firmly. “I will send my fastest ravens to contact the mages and templars. Until we hear from them, we can do nothing.”

Cassandra scowled, but Leliana was right. Further discussion of the Inquisition’s next course of action would have to wait.

Chapter Text

Josephine ushered me to the small room off the main hall of the chantry where the war council had its meals. There wasn’t much in it – just a long wooden table with a dozen chairs and an Inquisition banner – but I couldn’t stop staring at everything. As far as I had known, this room did not exist. It certainly wasn’t shown in the game. The surprises just keep on coming. At least it was justification for believing that things were different here.

Josie seemed to understand that I was not up for conversation, so she left me on my own. I put my head down on the table and closed my eyes. Whether I dozed off or not, I couldn’t say. All I knew was that some time later, servants brought in a bowl of stew. I wished I could have properly appreciated tasting Thedosian food for the first time, but I was far too hungry for that – though not so hungry that I didn’t avoid what I feared was nug meat.

In hindsight, I couldn’t fathom how I had managed to make it through the entirety of the prologue without collapsing more than twice. Unless...wait. If the Inquisitor woke up before the beginning of the game and was fed before talking to Cassandra and Leliana, then why couldn’t I remember doing so myself? Were the gaps in my memory linked to the scope of the game? I hated that there were far too many questions I simply could not answer.

As it would take several days for Leliana’s ravens to return with news, I decided to explore Haven. Ultimately, that translated to visiting Solas. If he knew I didn’t belong here, I needed to find out if he could get me home. And if he didn’t…well. I always loved talking to him.

I was grateful that “the Herald of Andraste” garnered respect. Most people granted me a wide berth as I passed – a reasonable reaction, considering the power contained in the mark. I knew that fear would pass with time as the Inquisition grew used to the presence of the Anchor, but for the moment, I enjoyed my relative freedom.

“Hey, Squishy! Good to see you back on your feet.”

Fenedhis! I bit my lip to hold back the profanity that had found its way to my lips far too quickly. What could Varric possibly want from me?

“Now that Cassandra’s out of earshot, are you holding up all right? I mean, you go from being the most wanted criminal in Thedas to joining the armies of the faithful. Most people would have spaced that out over more than one day.”

A small voice in the back of my head reminded me that I should be careful about what I said around Varric. The rest of me really didn’t care. For all the issues I had with him, I did trust him not to sell me out in print. Maker only knows why I thought that. I only assumed he was kind when he wrote about Hawkes he didn’t like in The Tale of the Champion. “I didn’t really have much of a choice, did I?” I answered rationally. Fatigue crept its way into my voice as I let down some of my guard. I didn’t want to fight. “But to answer your question, I’m exhausted – though under the circumstances, I guess that means I’m doing relatively well.”

“Heh, I suppose your being out cold for most of Cassandra’s frothing rage helped.” He wasn’t wrong. If I had seen Cassandra threaten Solas for not getting results, I would have mouthed off and she would have kicked my ass. “For days now, we’ve been staring at the Breach, watching demons and Maker-knows-what fall out of it.” As far as I knew, it was just demons. Artistic license, Varric? He frowned before adding, “‘Bad for morale’ would be an understatement. I still can’t believe anyone was in there and lived.”

I was having trouble imagining it myself. It seemed so unreal that I had actually been inside the Temple of Sacred Ashes when it blew up. It helped that I'd seen the explosion on the Inquisition loading screen and the Inquisitor’s memories of what had really happened with Corypheus. But neither of those experiences could get me to picture myself physically present at the Conclave. Or in the Fade, for that matter. “That makes two of us.”

Varric let out an amused snort, but his eyes were mirthless. “If this is all just the Maker winding us up, I hope there’s a damn good punch line coming.” I could think of a few involving the Dread Wolf’s involvement with all of these events, but they weren’t funny so much as they were painful. Don’t. I’d been through that depressing spiral before. I couldn’t think too far down the line because I knew this story ended in heartbreak. Bursting into tears wouldn’t do much for either my reputation or my mental state.

“You might want to consider running at the first opportunity.” Varric meant well, but there was a ridiculous number of reasons fleeing would be a terrible idea. “I’ve written enough tragedies to recognize where this is going. Heroes are everywhere. I’ve seen that. But the hole in the sky? That’s beyond heroes. We’re going to need a miracle.”

I bit my lip to keep myself from laughing. There’s your punch line, Varric. The person truly behind the Breach also held the information vital to fixing it. I’d go see him in a minute, but first…

“Mind if I ask you about The Tale of the Champion, Varric?”

He hadn’t expected the question. “I’m surprised you’ve read my book, considering your views on avowed liars. All right, go ahead, Squishy.”

I needed to know more about this world. In the game, the face of Thedas changed between different world states. I had no idea what to expect here. Was I linked to my main canon decisions? Was this a default BioWare world? Things could get awkward really fast if my main Hawke were here – Allison and I were dead ringers for each other. Although you’d think Varric would have said something if I looked like her. “What happened to all of them afterwards?”

Varric rattled off the DA2 roster, taking care not to spend too much time on any of them – likely to stave off any emotions in doing so. “Merrill decided to look after the elves left homeless by the fighting. She’s done a pretty good job of keeping them away from the mages and templars so far. I guess she had plenty of practice avoiding stupid human battles with her old Dalish clan.” And in the Kirkwall alienage, I added mentally. Apostates are good at hiding. They have to be. “Fenris has kept himself busy, hunting down the Tevinter slavers who came south to prey on the refugees. I’m not sure exactly where he is at the moment. You can usually follow the trail of corpses, though.” Not really a great indicator in the middle of a war, Varric. I sighed internally. I knew all of this already. “Isabela went back to the Raiders. She’s calling herself an admiral now. I don’t know if she’s actually in charge or just has a really big hat. Might be the same thing, honestly.” Later on, she would join the Inquisition, but I had no idea when that would happen. Multiplayer wasn’t exactly connected to the main storyline. “Sebastian went back to Starkhaven.” Varric hesitated. “But I’m sure you already knew that, since you’re from there.” I couldn’t help but smile. Varric had held back on his usual insult. Whatever his reasons for doing so, I was glad. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that his low opinion of Sebastian had changed – I was sure it hadn’t. But so long as I didn’t have to hear about it, I didn’t care. “Hawke’s siblings, Bethany and Carver, are still in the Free Marches.”

My jaw dropped open. “Both twins?” One of them always died to an ogre in the DA2 prologue. How was this possible?

Varric gave me a strange look. “Of course. They’re inseparable. Have been ever since Hawke nearly died saving Bethany from that ogre. Even more so after their mother died.”

My heart sank. I supposed it was too much to hope that Leandra’s death could have been avoided as well. At least the twins were still together. I really wanted to know how Hawke had managed to defy the inevitable, but that was definitely a question that couldn’t be answered, let alone asked. “You said they’re still in the Free Marches?”

“Carver’s helping the Kirkwall guard keep order and Bethany is watching out for other mages from the Kirkwall Circle.” That meant neither twin had gone on the Deep Roads trip. But was this Carver a templar or had Aveline actually let him into the city guard? If it was the latter, maybe this Hawke wasn’t Allison.

“Aveline is still guard-captain,” Varric continued. “I’m pretty sure Kirkwall would fall into the sea if she quit her job.” I nodded enthusiastically. Aveline was absolutely the best thing Kirkwall had going for it.

Varric seemed to have finished his list. It was a long shot, but I had to ask. “I notice you didn’t mention Anders.”

He folded his arms. “Not much to say about Blondie. The last I heard, he was still waiting to go to trial.”

WHAT?! That definitely wasn’t an in-game option. “You mean Hawke didn’t execute him before facing the Knight-Commander?”

Varric stared at me. “Are you sure you actually finished my book, Squishy?”

I closed my eyes for a moment to get my bearings. Maker preserve me. “I may have forgotten a few details,” I admitted. Not that this is one of them. “Hawke actually brought him in alive for trial?”

“Of course she did. Managed to talk down her fiancé from shooting him on the spot. Heh. Choir Boy in a rage. I wouldn’t have believed me either if I hadn’t actually been there. It was one of the most poignant scenes in the book.” He shot me an accusatory glance.

“Maybe I read a knockoff by mistake,” I replied with an apologetic shrug that concealed the rapid thudding of my heart. I knew Sebastian would have listened to reason if we’d had the option to convince him waiting was better! If only Varric had mentioned Hawke’s first name. It would look too suspicious if I asked him now. Despite the changes, this could still be Allison’s world state. This was how she would have ideally handled things.

“Damned hack jobs, stealing my stories and passing theirs off as the real thing,” Varric muttered.

“If it’s any consolation, they didn’t see a copper from me for it.” Technically true. That DLC had been a digital purchase. A thought occurred to me. “Are you sure he’s still waiting for trial, Varric? It’s been three years. He couldn’t have escaped or anything?” His shoulders tensed ever so slightly. If I hadn’t been looking for a tell, I would have completely missed it. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “He did, didn’t he?”

“That’s impossible, Squishy,” he replied in a too-loud voice. “They’d taken him to the most secure part of the Gallows afterwards. There was no way he was getting out of there. They’re just making him wait for it.” He paused for a moment, sizing me up. He must have seen something in my face or perhaps it was my tone of voice that told him I was sincere. Whatever the reason, he leaned in and matched my volume. “Look, leave Blondie alone, okay? He may have blown a huge chunk out of my home and helped cause this war between the mages and templars, but he’s still my friend. He’s had enough.”

My thoughts swirled around me like a cloud as I tried to process everything. Hawke had defied the game limitations twice over. The only way to keep Sebastian in the party at the end of DA2 was to execute Anders for blowing up the Kirkwall chantry. I’d always figured that if he’d gone to trial, he would still have died, just not by Hawke’s hand. But this? This was not a scenario I had considered. “Don’t worry, Varric. I’m not looking to turn him in.” For all that I didn’t agree with how Anders handled things, he had been punished enough. “How did he escape?”

“Some of his fellow mages finally bribed the right guards to sneak him out of there about a year ago. He was little more than skin and bones, but he was alive.” Ugh, two more years in solitary for Anders? That could not have possibly been good for him mentally. Hopefully now he was getting the recovery time he so desperately needed.

“What about Justice?” Varric had never known Justice as anything more than the spirit Anders had merged with, but I had to ask about him anyway. I had introduced the two of them through my Wardens back in Awakening.

“Still with him. Very cranky that the events in Kirkwall didn’t go quite as they had envisioned. To tell you the truth, I think Justice is the only reason Anders made it out of there alive.”

“Are they safe?”

“As far as I know, yes. But I can’t tell you anything else – I don’t know where they are now.” The same way you don’t know where Hawke is? I wasn’t going to press the point. I was just glad that somehow everyone who could have been saved had been.

“That’s something, anyway,” I replied. “I may not agree with what the two of them did, but I’m glad neither of them is dead.” That meant Anders could potentially someday find his way to the Avvar and get separated from Justice – a beneficial arrangement for both of them. It was a long-term pet theory of mine that this could happen for them. The Inquisition would encounter a clan of Avvar somewhere down the line. I’d have to casually drop a suggestion to Varric about bringing Anders to them. Their clan’s augur might be of some help on that front. For the moment, however, there wasn’t much I could do. “Thanks, Varric. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” I lowered my voice again. “Your secret’s safe with me.”

As I walked away, my head reeled from the whirlwind of questions I couldn’t ask. So many changes…what else is different here? I tried to ignore the anxiety gnawing at my stomach. These changes had all been positive, which meant there had to be negative ones coming. Something worse than the ordeal Anders went through before finally reaching freedom. I desperately wanted to be wrong, but there had to be a price paid somewhere along the line. It’s never that easy.

Chapter Text

Even though Solas was just a short staircase away, I circled the long way around to see him. It was difficult processing everything that Varric had said and I needed to have my wits about me before speaking to Solas. I exhaled slowly as I walked, watching my breath hang in the air. Now you’re just stalling. Old habits die hard, apparently. This wasn’t the first time I had delayed visiting Solas due to a buildup of anticipation. I doubted it would be the last.

Solas smiled enigmatically as I approached. “The Chosen of Andraste: a blessed hero sent to save us all.” I couldn’t tell if he was still giddy that the mark bearer continued to live despite all odds, or if he was being ironic, knowing the true origin of the mark was hardly Andraste. Probably both.

“It all sounds so romantic when you put it that way,” I told him with a grin. “A pity the truth is rather more…complicated.”

Sadness flickered in his eyes. Could he tell I knew exactly what I was talking about? Or was I being paranoid? “It always is.” Solas stepped a few paces away toward the stone wall. Oh no. I was not emotionally prepared for – "I’ve journeyed deep into the Fade in ancient ruins and battlefields to see the dreams of lost civilizations. I’ve watched as hosts of spirits clash to reenact the bloody past in ancient wars both famous and forgotten.” Solas turned back to me, giving no acknowledgment that he had slipped into partial iambic pentameter. Why would he? It comes as naturally to him as breathing. “Every great war has its heroes. I’m just curious what kind you’ll be.”

I had covered my face the moment I figured out what he was going to say, preemptively hiding the inevitable blush that had spread across my cheeks. This is ridiculous. With all that had happened since I’d first woken up in Thedas, this was the first time we’d gotten to talk properly. Now that I was really hearing him, I was lost in the rhythm of his speech patterns all over again.

Praying the cold air would account for the redness in my cheeks, I lowered my hand. “I can only hope that I’ll change things for the better in such a way that the storytellers won’t eat me alive afterwards.” Another pang of sadness in his eyes. Oops. I had not intended to make such a direct parallel to Solas’s own past.

“It is unfortunate that we do not get to tell our own stories.”

This was a disaster. I latched onto the only lifeline I could find. “What about the stories you’ve seen in the Fade? Are those more accurate?”

“Yes and no. Everything in the Fade is a memory and memories are all too easily muddied. Just like your history books, they contain truths, but reason and sense are required to extract it.”

My legs were starting to tire, so I climbed up onto the stone wall. “So ruins and battlefields are the best places to pick up memories?”

“Any building strong enough to withstand the rigors of time has a history. Every battlefield is steeped in death. Both attract spirits. They press against the Veil, weakening the barrier between our worlds. When I dream in such places, I go deep into the Fade. I can find memories no other living being has ever seen.” His enthusiasm was contagious, as it always was. The way he’d said the last line, it was as though he’d imparted a great secret. The spirit of adventure lingered in the air.

I am in SUCH trouble. I always was when it came to Solas, but this was worse than usual. It was hard enough being emotionally attached to him under normal circumstances. Now he was actually here in front of me. There was no way in hell this was going to end well. But keeping my feelings in check was a losing battle, something I’d known since Tahni’s playthrough. His tangible presence weakened my resolve even further.

I tried to focus. “Aren’t ancient ruins usually overrun by wildlife? The dangerous sort, of course.”

“I do set wards,” he assured me. “And if you leave food out for the giant spiders, they are usually content to live and let live.”

Usually?OH. I could actually ask him a question that had been bothering me for years! “There has to be a trick to get the giant spiders to leave you alone. What else do you do?”

I might as well have told Solas I was Mythal’s reincarnation. “Really? I tell you that I have explored forgotten parts of the Fade that no one else has ever seen and you want to know more about the spiders?”

I burst out laughing. “I want to know about both! I just want to know how you avoid the spiders first so we can move back to the Fade without distraction.”

Now Solas was laughing too. “You have interesting priorities, Nancy.”

That’s not fair! The blush crept back up my cheeks. I ignored it as best I could. “And you are avoiding the question!” I accused him with a grin. “That is not an answer!”

“Why do you find the spiders so fascinating?”

“Because I find it incredibly hard to believe that you just set food out for them and they leave you alone!” I neglected to mention that this belief was completely based off of my in-game experiences with giant spiders, which generally leaned towards “hostile.” Even if the spiders were more docile here – unlikely – there still had to be more to the process. I held up my hand. “I promise – wait, I shouldn’t swear on the mark.” I switched hands. “I promise not to tell anyone about your super-secret spider-charming techniques,” I vowed solemnly. “Not that anyone would believe me anyway. Or care to know, for that matter. But still.” Solas looked completely bemused. “Pleeease? I promise to ask better questions about the Fade.” I gave him my best puppy dog eyes. Solas of course had no idea how long I had wanted an answer to this ridiculous question. It was by far the least important one I had for him, but it also seemed like the only one I could get away with asking without raising suspicion.

He leaned in ever so slightly. “I have a certain…affinity with creatures most people see as terrible beasts. I make it clear that they have nothing to fear from me and offer them food by way of apology. In return, they allow me to dream in peace.”

That figures. My eyes were drawn to the wolf jawbone hanging around his neck. I should have guessed that Solas had a connection with other maligned animals a long time ago. Admittedly, finding out this way was more fun. “That’s brilliant! Not quite as brilliant as navigating lost parts of the Fade, of course, but still brilliant.”

Still bemused, Solas smiled. “Thank you. I think.”

“I mean it! Thank you for telling me.” We were so far away from the original conversation at this point. I tried to get things back on track. “Now, please tell me about your journeys in the Fade, because I am utterly fascinated to hear about them.” I leaned my elbows on my knees and clasped my hands under my chin, gazing intently at Solas. He still looked fairly bewildered by the intense line of side questioning. Poor Solas. I unfortunately made this kind of impression on people sometimes. Wonderful idea coming across that way to someone who’s been revered as a god. “What’s one of the most memorable places you’ve been?”

“I dreamt at Ostagar. I witnessed the brutality of the darkspawn and the valor of the Fereldan warriors. I saw Alistair and the Hero of Ferelden light the signal fire…and Loghain's infamous betrayal of Cailan's forces.”

Oh gosh, that’s right. I could also be in the same world as my main Warden, Lenna Amell. But what about Tahni? If I was in my canon world state, what happened to my Lavellan when I took her place as Inquisitor? I did not want to consider the implications.

“Good choice. I don’t think anyone will ever agree on what really happened that night.”

Solas seemed pleased by that answer. “Precisely. In the Fade, I see reflections created by spirits who react to the emotions of the warriors. One moment, I see heroic Wardens lighting the fire and a power-mad villain sneering as he lets King Cailan fall. The next, I see an army overwhelmed and a veteran commander refusing to let more soldiers die in a lost cause.”

“Subjective echoes of the past.” I couldn’t tell him about the biased view of Ostagar that was bestowed on players in Dragon Age: Origins. Loghain was outright coded as a villain, making it difficult for many to see him any other way. Not that some of his later actions helped his case. But in the beginning, he was definitely framed negatively. “I don’t suppose there were spirits who captured Loghain’s perspective? I’d like to see whether he’d planned the whole thing beforehand.”

Solas glanced at me with a curious expression. “If there were any, I did not encounter them. But it matters that you thought to ask.”

I could practically see the “Solas slightly approves” text pop up in front of me. It lightened my heart. “What else have you seen in your travels?”

Solas gazed at me a moment before shaking his head. “Another time. You are still recovering from your encounter with the Breach and should not tire yourself.” I blinked in astonishment. “You have been flushed for the duration of our conversation.”

Oh honestly! The heat spread to my ears. “I’m fine, really. It’s just the chill in the air.” In my hurry to respond, I thrust my arm too far forward and pitched toward the ground. Solas moved quicker than I could see to steady me. Well, that certainly undermines my argument. All other thoughts were muddled by the awareness of how close he was.

“Do not worry,” Solas assured me as he helped me down from the wall. “I will stay, at least until the Breach has been closed.”

“I didn’t realize that was in question.” More like I forgot. To me, Solas had never actually been in danger of leaving the Inquisition at this early stage.

“I am an apostate surrounded by Chantry forces in the middle of a mage rebellion.” There was an edge in his voice, but it came from practicality, not defensiveness. “Cassandra has been accommodating, but you understand my caution.”

I steeled my voice. “If anyone makes a move against you, they’re going to have to go through me first.” Considering that I was no bigger than the average elf and didn’t exactly have physical prowess, that wasn’t much of a threat.

“How would you stop them?” Solas asked softly. He sounded more sad than judgmental. Was that inflection there in the game? I couldn’t remember.

The Inquisitor’s usual answer of “however I had to” wouldn’t cut it for me. I couldn’t back that up. “I do have a bit of sway around here. No one else has the mark.” That still sounds weak. “Besides, I can’t imagine that anyone wants to face the wrath of the Herald of Andraste.” The title was faintly tinged with mockery. “If people are going to insist on calling me that, I’m going to reap the side benefits. And that means no one can touch you.”

“Thank you.” Solas’s gratitude was sincere. Of course it’s sincere – what human Inquisitor would defend him like that? A chill ran up my spine. No human Inquisitors ever defended Solas like that – that banter was exclusive to his romance. But I’m not an elf. My heart raced. How was this possible? There are no banter restrictions in real life. Obviously. More importantly, what did it mean? “For now, let us hope either the mages or the templars have the power to seal the Breach.”

“Right,” I agreed vaguely, still distracted by the previous exchange.

Solas extended his arm to me. “May I escort you back to your quarters?”

I must have looked as stunned as I felt. The lightheadedness had returned, though it was undoubtedly from a different cause than before. “If you like,” I murmured as I took his arm. I felt utterly pathetic at my own weakness as I steadied myself against Solas. And yet... NO. I needed to keep things in perspective. He was just keeping the Anchor bearer safe. That’s all. Wasn't it?

Chapter Text

For the next several days, I kept my distance from Solas. I had spent months at a time spiraling through Solas-related theories before, but that experience paled in the face of my current situation. He hadn’t even done anything and I’d already gone into an emotionally confused tailspin. The last thing I needed was more complicated conversations with him, no matter how badly I wanted to have them.

Without an official rank or responsibilities in the Inquisition, I had to find ways to occupy myself. My options were limited, as I was still recovering from closing the Breach. In the end, I busied myself walking around the border of Haven. There would be a great deal of traveling in my future and I had to prepare myself for it.

Walking gave me time to think. I tried to keep my mind off of Solas, with partial success. What I really needed to do was figure out how to compensate for my shoddy combat skills. About all I had to go on was what I’d seen in media, which was obviously not a good base. It went without saying that I couldn’t go on hiding while everyone else fought for me.

I needed training as a rogue, but I had no idea who to ask. Leliana and Josephine both had bard training, but were always busy with Inquisition business. Varric was exclusively a crossbow user. Not many of the multiplayer agents had joined the Inquisition yet, so I didn’t have any options there either. It wouldn’t be long ‘til I could meet Sera, but she favored a bow – unfortunately out of the question for me, due to my glasses. My best chance was Cole, but he wouldn’t join our ranks until after the mages or templars were recruited. I couldn’t fake it for that long.

It was a great relief when Meera, the elven servant from before, brought word that the war council was meeting. Perhaps the advisers would know how to handle my training. It dawned on me that I was ashamed to ask them. Under normal circumstances, the extra effort wouldn’t be necessary, as the Inquisitor would already be proficient in combat. Even though they wouldn’t know that I was making more work for them, I knew. For the hundredth time, I wished I had been properly prepared to be the Inquisitor.

The door of the chantry opened as I approached. Cassandra stopped short, a look of relief spreading across her face. Apparently, she was about to go find me herself. I was glad I’d responded to the summons promptly. Cass slowed to match my pace as we headed to the war room together.

“Does it trouble you?” She inclined her chin toward the mark.

I flexed my hand self-consciously. Ever since I’d gotten the Breach partially closed, the stabilized mark had done little more than prickle at me. It was like the palm of my hand constantly had that pins and needles feeling. It would undoubtedly hurt more once I got back to closing rifts, but for the moment, the Anchor was more annoying than painful. “Not so much anymore,” I replied. “Not since it stopped spreading.” I tried not to think about the mark's eventual fate.

“We take our victories where we can,” Cassandra said with a hint of a smile.

We entered the war room and joined the rest of the council.

“Leliana’s ravens have returned from Redcliffe and Therinfal Redoubt,” Cassandra announced, apparently for my benefit as no one else seemed surprised by the news.

“Unfortunately, neither the mages nor the templars will speak to us yet,” Josephine chimed in. “We are a new organization with little support. The Chantry has denounced the Inquisition – and you, specifically.” She pointed at me with her quill at the last bit.

I folded my arms over my chest and sighed. “Of course they did.”

“Shouldn’t they be busy arguing over who’s going to become Divine?” Cullen blurted in annoyance.

Josephine ignored him and continued her briefing. “Some are calling you the ‘Herald of Andraste.’ That frightens the Chantry. The remaining clerics have declared it blasphemy and us heretics for harboring you.”

“Chancellor Roderick’s doing, no doubt,” Cassandra added with distaste.

“It limits our options,” Josephine summed up. “Approaching the mages or templars for help is currently out of the question.”

“So what’s our next move?” I asked, consciously skipping over more dialogue wheel options. I already knew why people were calling me the Herald of Andraste; they assumed the woman who had been seen behind me in the rift was Andraste, rather than Divine Justinia.

“There is something you can do,” Leliana told me. “A Chantry cleric by the name of Mother Giselle has asked to speak to you. She is not far, and knows those involved far better than I. Her assistance could be invaluable.”

Normally, my Inquisitors expressed doubt that a Chantry mother would want to help us. Why should she risk herself on our account? But since I knew better… “All right, I’ll go see her. Where is she?” I figured it might be suspicious if I didn’t ask.

“You will find Mother Giselle tending to the wounded in the Hinterlands, near Redcliffe.” The softness in how Leliana said “Redcliffe” reminded me of the time we’d spent there in Origins. I wondered if Leliana was thinking of that as well, only with her Warden – whoever they were in this world.

“Look for other opportunities to expand the Inquisition’s influence while you’re there,” Cullen suggested.

“We need agents to extend our reach beyond this valley, and you’re better suited than anyone to recruit them,” Josephine offered.

“In the meantime, let’s think of other options,” Cassandra told the others. “I won’t leave this all to the Herald.”

“That reminds me,” I said. “My avoiding combat isn’t a practical option. I have no combat training whatsoever and don’t want to be a liability in the field.”

I swallowed the last of my pride at the look that passed between Cassandra and Leliana. They’d seen me "fight." Had they dreaded my asking this question? Or was it simply unexpected? Stop that, I ordered myself. It’s a weakness you can’t wish away.

“A wise idea,” Cullen agreed. “If you die, it’ll doom us all.”

“We will see what we can arrange for you,” Josephine assured me.

Leliana leaned forward, a gleam in her eye. “I believe I may have just the contact for the job,” she confided.

That was not a response I had expected. “I can’t wait to meet them,” I told her. My thoughts raced with possibilities. Whoever she had in mind was likely to be someone I knew, but most of her contacts were already part of the Inquisition…weren’t they? Who could she mean?

Cassandra appeared pleased that things were getting done. “Until then, you will not be without protection. I will accompany you personally.”

I smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Cassandra.” I winced inwardly – I’d almost called her Cass.

“Use caution and rely on your instincts,” Leliana advised. “You do have some ability.” I stared at her. “You are still alive, no?”

“Through no fault of my own,” I replied. I didn’t need her to soothe my ego – I knew my weaknesses.

Leliana shook her head. “You are too modest. As long as you do not take unnecessary risks, you will survive.”

On that point, we agreed. “I’ll do my best.”

As the others discussed the arrangements for travel to the Hinterlands, I wondered how we’d approach the Crossroads. In the game, it was located in the middle of the zone. But immersion-breaking teleportation was not an option here. That meant using one of the entrances on the edges of the map – and all three that I knew of were unsafe. An awful lot of bears roamed the western Hinterlands. Despite my general love of them, I had concerns about coming face to face with the more aggressive bears from that region. The entrance to the southeast had a dangerous rift and a slew of demons in front of it. The eastern entrance was watched by bandits…who were camped near a dragon’s lair. This is going to be a problem no matter what happens, isn’t it? Lovely…

Chapter Text

My anxiety mounted as Cassandra, Varric, Solas, and I set out from Haven with an entourage of Inquisition soldiers. Our journey to the Hinterlands would take about a fortnight, considerably longer than the near-instantaneous travel the war table offered in the game. I pictured our path on the Origins travel map as we crossed the Frostback Mountains. Doing so had the unfortunate side effect of making me flinch at every snowdrift and bend in the road, as I half-expected each to reveal some unforeseen danger.

I was completely unprepared for a true road trip. Making camp every night worked out well enough with all the available hands. It was the quiet that got to me. The air hung heavily in the evenings, with only the crackling of the campfire to disturb the silence after everyone but those on watch had gone to sleep. I’d lived in cities most of my life and it had been many years since I’d experienced such stillness. Even Haven had the wind whipping through it on occasion, as well as soldiers moving about on patrol.

The nights weren’t completely still. The mark’s faint hum was all the more audible, making sleep difficult. I had hoped that being in Thedas would enable me to remember more of my dreams. I’d been so tired before this, what with the whole “getting the Anchor and partially closing the Breach” thing, that I must have bypassed dreaming entirely. But at this point, I couldn’t sleep long enough to dream at all. It was utterly frustrating.

As a result, I was too tired and grumpy to be talkative. I brooded self-consciously as we slowly inched our way down toward the more temperate Hinterlands. Another fine impression to make on my companions. But it couldn’t be helped. Biting someone’s head off would be far worse, especially since “someone” would most likely be Varric. He was needling Cassandra about her aggressive interrogation techniques – again. Not that I could entirely blame him; she did rough him up pretty badly in Kirkwall. But the way he kept harping on it was grating on my nerves.

“Pay them no mind,” Solas said in a low voice. He was so quiet that I hadn’t heard him fall in next to me. “This is not uncommon.”

“I’m not surprised.” I craned my head up slightly to meet his eyes. Solas was tall for an elf, but still shorter than most humans. The two or three inches he had on me emphasized how small I was by Thedosian standards for humans. I had always suspected as much. The elves in Origins were around my size. Seeing the height difference in person…that was something else entirely. I let a quiet laugh slip out – anything more might attract Cassandra’s attention. Better that she keeps her annoyance directed at Varric. “Makes you glad you joined the Inquisition voluntarily, right?”

Solas’s gaze dropped as a faint smile played across his lips. “The Breach is a threat to us all. Any other choice would be foolish. However, I am afraid my cooperation was not enough to entirely alleviate the Seeker’s suspicions.”

His delivery had been casual enough, but I could sense an underlying tension. Ohhh. My chest tightened as I tried not to show my dismay. In the game, Solas mentioned to Varric how he had joined the Inquisition of his own accord – but that conversation hadn’t yet happened here. Was he trying to puzzle out who had told me that he’d offered his services to the Inquisition? Did he think I’d been asking people about him? I tried to calm the rapid beating of my heart. Maybe I was just worrying over nothing. I’d been on edge ever since I got here. I was terrified of changing some detail, no matter how small, and causing some sort of universe-ending paradox. Even if I didn’t cause the demise of this world, I had no clue how I’d get back to mine either. Great. I’ve got anxiety from having both too much and not enough knowledge.

“I thought getting yelled at by Cassandra was part of the Inquisition’s recruitment process. It wouldn’t be fair to everyone else if she didn’t shout at you too.” He chuckled at that, but I was still wracked by guilt that I might have added more stress to his already heavy burden. “I suppose if I had her set of responsibilities, I’d be pretty suspicious of strangers as well,” I admitted. “Even if they were genuinely trying to help.”

“Her reaction was understandable under the circumstances,” Solas agreed. His gaze sought the Anchor. “How do you feel now that the mark has stabilized?”

More testing, vhenan? Not that I was criticizing – observing the Anchor was beneficial to me moreso than anyone else. Since only Solas could bear the mark and live, it was quite likely that even he didn’t know how my body would react to it in the meantime. Such a cheery thought. Was it any wonder I was trying not to focus on the long-term consequences? “Better. Though I am nervous about closing more rifts. There are a lot of them out there.”

He nodded, his expression unreadable. “We will deal with them in time. For now, our focus must be the Breach.”

“Right, ‘cause it’s not really closed. At least getting it shut the rest of the way should be easier with help.” Solas’s eyes narrowed the smallest fraction. Oh no. “Unless of course something goes wrong with all that power being filtered through me. I feel like –“ A battery. But I couldn’t say that. “Thinking about this is a bad idea,” I finished feebly.

“If it is any consolation, the amount of power used to create the Breach was the same that put the mark upon your hand.”

Oh RIGHT. “Good point. I survived it once, I can survive it again!”

There was a lull in the conversation as my mortification washed over me in waves. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten something so obvious. Maker’s balls, when was I going to learn to keep my mouth shut? I wished Cass could tank this conversation for me – just take a verbal hit or two while I escaped.

“I would not say closing the Breach permanently will be easier.” I could feel Solas’s eyes on me as he studied my reactions. “But I do believe the second attempt will work.”

Somehow, hearing him tell me that himself took a weight off my shoulders. If Solas thought I’d survive closing the Breach properly, then I knew I would. After all, I’d endured the first attempted closure, and that was the tricky one. I would certainly be in better physical shape by the time we were ready to try again.

I grinned at him. “Glad to hear it! Now all I’ve got to do is worry about getting the power required to pull this off – and that should be simple by comparison.”

Solas smiled. “I hope you are correct.”

Of course it wouldn’t be simple. That was a given. The rest of the war council was still busy debating between contacting the mages or the templars, even though both groups had already refused us. But that would eventually change, and as the Herald, the decision of who to recruit would fall to me.

The two factions would come under attack at the same time, so we could only save and partner with one of them. Ultimately, my choice was a practical one. The time-altering magic a Tevinter magister used to entrap the mages was too dangerous to leave unchecked. It had to be stopped at the source. The envy demon terrorizing the templars was a horror, but it was only a single demon. “Magic that rips apart the fabric of time itself” would always win out as the more dangerous opponent.

A feeling of dread settled into the pit of my stomach as the reality sank in. There were good people in both groups, but I’d always been biased in favor of the mages. Magic users in Thedas were feared regardless of whether they used their powers for nefarious purposes or noble ones. The system worked against them simply because they wielded magic. From what I had seen, more of the mages who misused their magic did so in response to their mistreatment rather than as a result of powertripping.

Although the templars were also victimized by the system, those who abused their powers did so entirely of their own volition. But there were plenty of honorable templars. Some had voluntarily joined the order, not knowing how deep their sacrifices would go. Others were coerced into it, as much prisoners of the system as their mage charges. If a templar ever tried to quit taking the lyrium that the Chantry forced on them, they would suffer withdrawal symptoms, some as severe as permanent brain damage.

The weight of this decision had never felt so heavy. People are going to die because I didn’t save them. Was this how Solas felt all the time? So many people’s lives depended on his choices, as they had for years. I definitely could not handle that sort of pressure – not for long, anyway. The difference here is that I know the consequences of my actions because I’ve seen it all happen before. I shivered as a chill ran through me that wasn’t spurred by the cold. If only there was another way.

Chapter Text

I tried to keep to myself as we continued our trek toward the Hinterlands. That was no easy feat, as I was stuck at the center of the group for protection. It was far too risky to talk to anyone – not that I had any idea what to say. I already knew all of their little secrets…or in Solas’s case, many of them, few of which I could actually say anything about. What a terrible waste. In theory, I could ask them about themselves outside of the scope of the game, but the scope was too broad for me to find a starting place. Besides, what if asking them something different somehow caused reality itself to fall apart? Silence was easier – and safer. But lonelier.

After days of passing through relatively flat fields, the ground along the sides of the road slowly built itself into mountains too steep to climb. That meant we were nearing the outskirts of the Hinterlands. As I tried to swallow my nerves about impending bear sightings, Varric’s voice startled me. “So what were you even doing at the Conclave, Squishy? You’re certainly not a mage and unless you’re hiding your armor someplace I don’t even want to think about, you’re no templar. Since you aren’t with the Chantry either, it doesn’t make sense. Unless you were smuggling lyrium, but you don’t seem like the type to take on the carta or the Merchants Guild.”

I should have known my plan was doomed to fail. Not talking was like waving a red flag in front of Varric. He always zeroed in on everyone he met, trying to figure them out. If you were tight-lipped, you were hiding something…something he would worm out of you sooner or later. And if there weren’t any skeletons in your closet, he’d invent some, as he did with Sebastian – or had tried to, anyway. Sebastian was already upfront with his backstory, so Varric looked ridiculous when he made up lies. It wasn’t so easy for those of us who did have things to hide. Of course, even if I HAD been chattier, Varric would have still hounded me at some point. It’s his nature.

I sighed openly, immediately regretting the decision. Varric tended to take signs of annoyance as hints that he was onto something. “I already told you, Varric – I don’t remember what happened at the Conclave.” Hopefully I had managed to keep my voice neutral.

“What about before that? What line were you in?”

This was dangerous territory. What explanation could I offer that wasn’t suspicious? I decided to opt for the truth. “This might come as something of a shock, Master Tethras, but I too am a writer.” Why had I called him “Master Tethras?” Only Solas did that. I wasn’t nearly as formal as he could be, though. It would come back to haunt me if Varric thought I was being sarcastic. “And no, you wouldn’t’ve heard of me. I lack your reputation.”

Varric laughed in disbelief. “Is that so? That does explain a few things. Not why you were at the Conclave, but your unconventional fighting style.”

I wrinkled my nose, but didn’t protest. He wasn’t wrong. Besides, if I argued, I’d just drag out the conversation. “Too bad I didn’t tell you about our shared connection sooner. You could have called me Scribbles.” That nickname was one the Dragon Age fandom had given Josephine early in the pre-release hype for Inquisition. Given, I didn’t carry a quill and parchment like her, but I was never without a pen and notebook at home. I wouldn’t mind being called Scribbles. It was cuter than Squishy. And less insulting. More importantly, I hoped it would change the subject.

Varric shook his head. “Nice try. You don’t get to choose your nickname, Squishy.” He elbowed me in the ribs. It hurt more than it should have. “C’mon, you seem smart enough to know a bad situation when you see one. Why surround yourself with people ready to kill each other?”

“I could ask you the same,” I replied dryly. Not that he’d had much choice. Varric had grown up in Kirkwall and he was only at the Conclave because Cassandra had strong-armed him into it. “My best guess is that I went to document what happened so I could sell the story afterwards. Falling unconscious and getting amnesia certainly didn’t help me any.”

Did Thedas even have any sort of equivalent to newspapers? I guess I could have been implying I was writing a book like Varric eventually would. Either way, he seemed to buy it. “Maybe you shouldn’t get so close to the story next time.” Varric nodded at my marked hand.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Varric.” It didn’t count as lying if I was theorizing a hypothetical reason for my actions, right? It wasn’t like I knew how I even got to Thedas, much less what I was doing at the Conclave. Ugh, this is getting complicated.

I hated having to think about how people saw me. And it’ll just be worse after I’m Inquisitor. More eyes would be on me then – plus we’d be going to Halamshiral and dealing with Orlesian nobility. Navigating those waters seemed simple enough from the other side of the screen. My face couldn’t give anything away then.

Somehow, it was difficult to feel grateful to Varric for the practice. While I was pretty sure that he was only asking for his own edification, I couldn’t be completely certain that he wouldn’t discover an inconsistency in my story and rat me out to Leliana. Her reach extended further than his when it came to most information, so that was a true danger. If they asked too many questions, I had no backup plan. But I couldn’t tell them the truth – it would be too much for them to handle. Hell, it was too much for me to handle. I hated to admit it, but I desperately needed a sounding board. But who would believe that I somehow got transported here from a world with almost no connection to Thedas?

I forced my gaze to the ground, fighting every instinct to peek at Solas. Naturally, he’d be my top choice. He was certainly open-minded enough to believe me. But would he see me as a threat? At this stage, he had no reason to think I wouldn’t abuse that knowledge.

But who else was there? Merrill? Insightful and flexible, but there was no justifiable reason to pull her away from Kirkwall. Morrigan? Curious and knowledgeable, but I feared what she’d do with the information. Flemeth? I don’t care that she’s hosting whatever’s left of Mythal’s spirit – I don’t trust her. Dorian? Clever and creative, but too much like Varric for my taste.

No, there was no way around it. Objectively, Solas was the best choice of confidant. He knows the true story behind much of Thedas’s history and how the world itself was put together – and not in a theoretical sense. He figured out how to create a barrier between the Fade and the waking world. If anyone was going to understand my plight, it would be him.

And then what? I couldn’t lie about my knowledge of Thedas and its future. But what would happen if Solas learned the ultimate fate of the orb he sought to reclaim? Would he leave?

I shook my head. This was utterly ridiculous. I couldn’t tell him any of this. I didn’t want to break reality any more than it had been through my teleportation into Thedas. I had to ensure that I’d never have to explain that I was from another world and that my connection to Thedas meant I had some knowledge of what was going to happen. I’d been getting along all right without a sounding board up till now. I would muddle through somehow.

The migraine forming between my temples pulsed painfully. Goddammit, Varric, why do you always have to pry? Maybe I shouldn’t have told him I was a writer. I knew all too well that he couldn’t handle perceived competition. That was a huge part of why he never stopped treating Sebastian like garbage – Varric was afraid of being replaced by an archer who was superior to him in every way. It made no difference that Seb didn’t look down on him or that Hawke had room at their side for them both. Varric had already made up his mind that Sebastian was a threat.

I rolled my eyes so hard that I stumbled on a rock I didn’t see on the path. Something whizzed past the back of my neck as I caught myself from falling all the way. I whirled to the Inquisition soldier on my left as she cried out. An arrow had lodged itself into her leg. The thought had barely registered before several figures scrambled out from their hiding places in the underbrush. Welcome to the Hinterlands. We were under attack.

Chapter Text

That could have been me, I thought as I stared at the injured soldier’s leg. It would have been me if I hadn’t tripped. Which made her injury my fault. Would you really prefer to have been shot yourself? No, but – what am I DOING? I had to find cover. Not that there was any. The path was flanked by steep mountain cliffs on either side. There wasn’t even a rock to hide behind.

Cassandra appeared by my side so quickly I would have sworn she was a mage. She held out her shield, blocking me as much as possible from the archers. My ears rang as she shouted out commands to the remaining soldiers. They clustered around us, forming a defensive wall against the waves of bandits who were rapidly closing in. And making it easier for the archers to hit us successfully, I realized in a panic. But there was no other option – we were vastly outnumbered.

Solas cast a barrier over our immediate party, carefully positioning it to protect the Inquisition soldiers as well. Varric returned fire at the archers above us. There was a yelp as a shot hit home.

“Did you see that shot?” he crowed triumphantly. The enemy archers tried to retaliate, but the barrier deflected their arrows.

I tried to get my bearings. It was difficult to see as the forward group of bandits descended upon our front line. Some of the other soldiers in the escort hadn’t been as lucky as the injured one near me. Arrows protruded from their bodies in far more critical locations, leaving them incapacitated. At least two of the fallen weren’t moving at all.

This isn’t supposed to happen! The thought echoed in my head even as I fumbled for my daggers. No amount of protesting would change the reality of the situation. I cursed myself for getting complacent. It wasn’t like I hadn’t considered the possibility of us getting attacked on the road, even though it didn’t happen in game. The narrow mountain pass was the perfect place for an ambush. I should have seen this coming. Nothing to be done about it now.

There was no way our soldiers would hold the bandits back for long. Our troops had more protective armor than the bandits’ leather, but the attackers had the high ground. As well as numbers. At least there didn’t appear to be any archers on the left cliff. Probably to avoid crossfire. That would lower the chance they’d hit their own people. If they hadn’t been trying to kill us, I’d have been impressed by their tactics.

The outlaws approaching from the back were almost upon us when the ground before them shook violently. A thick wall of ice burst out of the path, separating us from the wave of bandits. One was less fortunate. The wall caught him on its way up. He managed to hold on until the wall suddenly stopped growing. The outlaw got shaken loose and fell. The Inquisition soldiers ended the man’s pain quickly. I tried not to gawk openly. Solas’s control of the battlefield was masterful. He’d evened the odds for us with a single spell.

Seeing the tide of the battle shift, Cassandra acted fast, shoving me roughly behind Solas. “Stay down!” she ordered me before returning to command the soldiers at the front line.

Now that they no longer needed to defend us on two sides, the soldiers shifted into an arc formation. This positioning was much more efficient. The remaining outlaws were completely blocked from reaching the rest of us. That left Varric and Solas to take care of the archers. And I’ll just twiddle my thumbs. I hated feeling useless even more than I hated not knowing what was going on. But I knew better than to disobey Cassandra’s orders. Besides, there was nowhere to go.

Under the clash of weaponry was a faint whooshing sound. The enemy archers were returning fire. The magical barrier deflected another barrage of arrows before finally dissipating. Varric tumbled out of the way as an arrow sank into the ground he’d just vacated. I flinched involuntarily as Solas pulled me out of the path of another. Maintaining the ice wall was taking its toll on him. Beads of sweat had appeared on his brow. With a calmness that came from years of experience fighting, Solas angled his outstretched hand toward the cliff above. Screams filled the air as two of the archers and the underbrush they were hiding in burst into flames.

The sound of leather against ice drew my attention. I whirled around. Apparently there had been two outlaws caught by the ice wall as it rose. This woman had been holding onto the other side and was just now pulling herself onto the top. Now would be the perfect time to take her out of the fight, before she’d fully caught her balance. But I had no way of reaching her. I could barely use my daggers for melee combat – if I threw one at her, I would almost certainly miss. Besides, Cass told me to hide.

The outlaw noticed I’d spotted her. She immediately pulled a knife from her belt and primed herself to throw it. Fear paralyzed me. I knew the likely outcome of a knife to the face, but I still couldn’t move. Her arm came forward. But before she could release her weapon, the woman froze solid, encased in a block of ice.

Relief and gratitude flowed through me. “You must stay out of sight!” Solas reminded me firmly. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to his other side, taking my place near the ice wall before casting a new barrier over us.

My apology caught in my throat as Varric fired a crossbow bolt past me. The frozen woman shattered in a shower of blood and ice. Those cross-class combos are more gruesome in person. It was a ridiculous thought. What were the odds that it was truly game mechanics that had caused that reaction? The things the mind does to protect itself.

The Inquisition soldiers held strong against the outlaws. The din of combat finally started to fade as Cassandra and the soldiers slowly thinned out the waves of bandits. As their numbers dwindled, the outlaws got less organized and more careless. They were brave, for whatever that was worth. The last fell as I watched, Cassandra’s sword buried in his gut. There was movement on the cliff as the few remaining archers saw the fight wasn’t going their way and turned to flee. Varric shot one in the back of the head. He definitely wouldn’t be getting up again. Even Cassandra looked impressed – but only for a moment.

“Stand ready!” she commanded the soldiers, pointing at the ice wall. They regrouped promptly, though I noticed a couple stealing looks at their fallen comrades. Varric kept an eye on the cliff just in case any of the archers returned to try something heroic. I was relegated to stand in the back next to Solas, as far out of melee range as possible. I tried not to crowd him, knowing full well that he’d need the space to fight.

Once everyone was in position, Cassandra nodded to Solas. He returned the nod and cast a new barrier over us. With a wave of his staff, he brought down the ice wall. My muscles tensed, ready for the final round of the battle.

But no one was there. The outlaws that had been trapped on the other side must have deserted their group when their partner got turned into ice cubes. The Inquisition soldiers checked the underbrush where the bandits had hidden before, but they were truly gone.

Solas went to tend to the fallen soldiers, leaning heavily on his staff as he went. Varric continued his watch, foregoing his usual post-combat chatter. Cassandra came over to me.

“Are you all right?”

I doubted she meant it to be a complicated question, but it was. Physically, I was unharmed. Mentally? I didn’t really know. I shrugged. “A bit shaken, but I’m okay otherwise.”

“That is good to hear.” Her tone was brusque and businesslike, but I knew she meant it sincerely on a personal level as well as a practical one. Yet another perk of omniscience. “We will continue our journey as soon as we are able.”

I nodded. “Good. I’d rather wait than see people’s injuries get worse on the road.” I glanced up at Cassandra. She was covered in a layer of blood-laced dirt, which poorly concealed a few new gashes. Beyond that, she appeared tired, but unhurt. “That means you too, Cass.”

She growled dismissively. “I will be fine.” With a nod, she added, “But it is kind of you to be concerned.”

With that, she rejoined the soldiers, leaving me to contemplate the aftermath of the ambush on my own.

Chapter Text

The next few days passed in a bleary haze. We set up camp a bit further down the road from the attack, on the other side of the stone gate that marked this entrance to the Hinterlands. Solas did what he could for the injured soldiers. Not all of them recovered. Cassandra oversaw the funerals and subsequent burning of the bodies, a religious practice as well as a practical one. Their families would be notified once we got word back to Haven. There were so many little details I had never considered. It was overwhelming.

Survivor’s guilt weighed heavily on me. Detaching myself from the attack was impossible because it had never happened to the Inquisitor in game. Line of duty or not, these soldiers died for me.

I needed space to think, but wasn’t allowed to leave the camp unattended. Not that I really wanted to. There could be bears around here and wouldn’t that be a fine mess for me to get into. Whatever affinity I had with bears in my heart, I didn’t honestly expect them to spare me in person if they felt threatened.

My compromise was to hide inside the tent I shared with Cass. She was so busy that I was pretty much left alone during the day. Maybe wallowing in my thoughts wasn’t the best idea, but it was better than subjecting myself to conversations I wasn’t prepared for. It was easier for Cassandra to keep track of me too. She didn’t tell me that was what she was doing, but I figured it out when her silhouette appeared outside periodically throughout the day.

I knew I wasn’t endearing myself to anyone by hiding, but I simply couldn’t face any of them. Not now, anyway. If I was this much of a mess over strangers dying for me, how would I be able to function if it were friends sacrificing themselves on my behalf? What good would it do anyone if I went into a continuous meltdown? Not that I’m doing anyone any good as it is...

It was a relief when we finally resumed our journey. There were still some mountains flanking the path, but they were more spread out than before. The flatter areas between them gave us glimpses of the farmlands that lay beyond.

I was surprised we hadn’t encountered any other travelers since the ambush. Things definitely weren’t this peaceful in game, with rogue mages and templars roaming the Hinterlands. They were troublemakers, not connected to the main groups that had gone to the Conclave in search of peace. These assholes just wanted to kill each other in a free-for-all. Come to think of it, we never actually saw the main factions fight against each other on the battlefield. Chalk one up for diplomacy. At least they were genuinely trying for peace, even after the Conclave. Which is the smart move when there are demons pouring out of a massive hole in the Veil. Team up to save the world, then kill each other later – of course, actually changing the system would be better.

Even more unsettling was the lack of wild animals. It was possible that the bears lived more to the south than I had thought, but there weren’t any smaller creatures either, like wolves or fennec foxes. Something odd was going on and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

My tension mounted as we reached the river. On either side of it lay abandoned campsites, the dying embers of their fires still warm. The wooden bridge that spanned the river was caved in on one side, just like it appeared in game. If I remembered correctly, the bridge had been damaged during the fight between the renegade groups. The hack marks our soldiers found on the edge of the planks supported that theory. The blades used had definitely belonged to templars. There were also unnatural icy patches on the ground nearby that had clearly been struck by magic. Cassandra ordered everyone to be on their guard.

We were just skirting the rogue templar stronghold in Fort Connor when the smell of smoke reached us. A bit further up the road, we saw burning buildings and the charred remains of what looked like farming equipment. In the fen before them, the deserter factions were locked in combat. At last we had caught up with the mage-templar fight. Or one of the fights, anyway. There would be other skirmishes, as I well knew. Do I really KNOW that, though? Things were the same here, yet different. I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.

I stuck by Solas and Varric as Cassandra led the charge on both groups. Even though they’d be fighting mere feet away from me, I wouldn’t be directly involved. Facing off with the heavily armored templars would be foolish and it was unlikely that I’d get within range of the mages before they destroyed me. So I watched and waited, my daggers clutched by my sides in case an opponent broke through our front line.

It was all over very quickly. Neither side had anticipated the Inquisition rolling through and wiping them out. No one ever expects us, I thought wryly. I was grateful nobody familiar with Monty Python was here to groan at the overdone reference. Unless Solas knows from Fade Netflix. He and Cole had extended conversations that referenced movies and tv shows from our world. Until now, I had thought they were just Easter eggs. Perhaps there was an actual connection between the two realities. That might explain a few things, like how I got here.

It was midday by the time the fires were extinguished and all the corpses had been burned. I was glad we didn’t just leave them to rot. The people of the Hinterlands had dealt with enough as it was. Besides, Redcliffe has had problems with the undead before. The circumstances had been different – an extreme case of demonic possession led to the dead attacking the town – but history could still theoretically repeat itself. With all the angry, vulnerable mages wandering around unattended while new demons spilled out of rifts across Thedas, the situation in the Hinterlands was already a disaster waiting to happen. All the more reason to settle the conflict between the main factions. Then the deserters wouldn’t be able to claim they were fighting a war. Not that anything was exactly resolved in game. The Inquisition supported one side and left the other to its fate as part of Corypheus’s army. The future of both factions as a whole would lie in the hands of the new Divine. And that’s a whole other mess.

We picked up the path again on the far side of the fen. It took a sharp turn and snaked up the mountainside to our right. The terrain was rough and the pass through the mountains was narrow, forcing us to travel single file. I kept looking at the tops of the overhanging rocks for any potential bandits. There weren’t any there in game, but by now I knew better than to blindly trust my past experience. Thankfully, nothing disastrous happened, short of a pebble getting into my boot.

At the top of the pass, the rocky walls gave way to a grassy plain. Several trees grew throughout the area, but not so many of them as to provide real cover. I bit my lip so I wouldn’t gasp out loud. I knew this place. The lake where Blackwall would later be recruited was off to the right. But we were going left, toward the ruined tower that was formerly Calenhad’s Foothold. I’d always liked this particular ruin – and not just because there was a painting of a maiden with a bear. This tower was one of the first spots I’d ever been in the Hinterlands. I found my first hidden chest here. And this was where I’d closed my first post-prologue rift. Guess that particular bit of history will be repeating itself. It was just as well. This would be a good test for the mark. And for me. Hopefully I wouldn’t pass out this time.

I said nothing. I couldn’t warn anyone. Knowing the rift was there before we encountered it would definitely raise suspicion. It felt like an eternity before one of our soldiers sounded the alarm. The shades closed in on us quickly, but they died just as fast. These waves of demons had always been fairly effortless to clear, and that was with the regular party of four. With the Inquisition soldiers here, the entire process was practically a joke.

The rift itself, however, was no laughing matter. The mark hurt less than it had before the Breach was stabilized, but that was no guarantee closing rifts would be any easier. As the last of the shades died, I positioned myself near the rift and prepared to close it.

A protective barrier fell over me before I even raised my hand. I guess Solas isn’t taking any chances. As before, the pain was successfully muted. I was grateful not to suffer any more than I had to, but some small part of me was slightly annoyed that I didn’t get to see if I could handle the rift without a filter. I’m stronger than all that.

I walked over to where Solas was gazing up at the ruins. But before I could say anything, he spoke. “That tower is impressive, even as a ruin.” His voice was tinged with reverence. “I wonder what dreams it might hold.”

Oh. My mind swirled with possibilities. I’d wondered that too, in part because Solas had mused on the subject in game. How could I have possibly forgotten he said that? It was a good thing his statement was rhetorical, as I was too stunned to speculate.

“Solas, why did you put a barrier on me?” I cringed even as the words left me. Blurted out like that, the question sounded awful. I didn’t want to criticize him – I just wanted to know why. “I had hoped that with the Breach stable, I could handle rifts better.”

Now Solas was the one who was surprised. “I did not think it necessary to expose you to extra strain.”

That made sense. Yet I couldn’t just let it go. “But how will I know if I can handle closing rifts without a barrier?”

There was that inscrutable look again. “I am here. There is no reason for you to experience avoidable trauma.”

“And what if you’re not?” My chest tightened painfully as I faced the inevitable truth. Solas would eventually leave. He always did.

“In that case, you would no doubt rise to the challenge.” How can you know that, Solas? He must have seen I remained unconvinced. “You did so once before, while in a far more weakened state. I do not believe you have cause to worry.”

Before I could protest, we were shuffled back into formation to continue our journey eastward. What on earth was he talking about? Even when I’d tried to trigger a power surge without a barrier during the pride demon fight, Solas had thrown one on me before the end of the cast.

He means the first rift, whispered a small voice in the back of my head. Goosebumps ran up my arms. Holy shit. I had never considered that rift properly before. I felt detached as a mere witness both in game and in reality, since Solas had been holding my hand. TO GUIDE ME, I added emphatically. He was doing all the work at that point – though I suppose it was through me. Much as my inner romantic wanted to attribute my success with that rift to his support, it was more likely that I’d simply had more energy for that rift since it was the first.

That meant Solas was right. I could do this. Besides, I’d always toughened up when I needed to. Everything would be fine. Then why is my skin still crawling with anxiety?

Chapter Text

Now I had another reason to favor Calenhad’s Foothold as a landmark. I knew exactly where we were. The Crossroads weren’t far off. At last we could recruit Mother Giselle and get the main quest underway.

Not that I was in any hurry to get to certain parts of it. Definitely not. Some huge risks lay ahead and I wasn’t entirely certain how to handle them in person. But pushing forward was generally how I dealt with anticipation. It was no wonder I wasn’t sleeping well, with all of the built up foreknowledge I had.

Then there were the things I didn’t know. This world already deviated from hard-fixed canon in multiple ways. What else was different? I had to find out. Besides, if the prologue didn’t get me home, maybe completing the main story will. And if it doesn’t… I wasn’t prepared to consider that scenario yet. There were enough immediate problems to deal with.

Solas was watching me again. I couldn’t catch him staring, but I could feel his gaze regardless. Or I’m just guilt-tripping myself into imagining it. I’d been wracked with guilt since questioning Solas’s decision to barrier me. He was fallible, sure – Inquisition would never have happened if he hadn’t given Corypheus his orb. But when it came to the mark itself, Solas knew what he was doing. And yet, the canon Inquisitor ended up losing half their arm. Why would he have waited that long if he knew that could happen? I’d assumed he’d had no other choice, but perhaps I was wrong.

Ugh, stop. This was getting me nowhere. I didn’t have enough information to confirm anything. Which is certainly par for the course when it comes to Solas. I resisted actually shaking my head at myself.

I started paying better attention to my surroundings, eager for a distraction. We were just approaching a fork in the road. The left path connected directly to the Crossroads. But we headed up the path to the right instead. Wait, what? Why?

It took me a couple of seconds to recognize the wooden home by the side of the road. It looked much like the other rounded homes in the area, but only this one was situated on a steep hillside. Then I understood. The camp Scout Harding and her team were at was on top of the nearby hill. I wasn’t used to approaching it from this direction. In game, this camp was the one we started out from, so I was more familiar with leaving it. Once the camp near the lake was established, I used that as my main base instead, rarely returning to this one. Checking in with Scout Harding made sense. Besides, someone has to send word to Haven that we made it. Well, most of us.

Two of the camp guards saw us from their vantage point above. It was no wonder the troops could hold a perimeter so close to some of the fighting. Anyone trying to reach the camp would be spotted from a long way off, and the steepness of the hill would slow down even the most determined enemies. Harding and the Inquisition soldiers had already cleared out the area, so it was safe. Except for the two packs of deserters that will conveniently show up when we visit the Crossroads. It made sense that the encounter would happen in game, as it was the first post-prologue fight, but here? I had no idea what the rogue mages or their templar counterparts expected to gain by attacking.

The second we reached the campsite, Scout Harding came over to greet us. As the only dwarf present aside from Varric, she stood out amongst the Inquisition troops. But that wasn’t the only reason. Something in her stance inspired respect.

“The Herald of Andraste! I’ve heard the stories. Everyone has. We know what you did at the Breach. It’s an honor to meet you, my lady. Inquisition Scout Harding, at your service. I – all of us here – we’ll do whatever we can to help.”

I couldn’t help but grin. I’d always liked Harding. I had a thing for playing dwarven archer ladies as a general rule, but she was the definitive canon representative. Plus, she was a truly genuine person. I had really wanted to spend more time with her and get to know her better, but there were in-game limitations that restricted the number of topics we could discuss with her. Well, that’s not a problem anymore. I wondered if she’d still spend most of her time in the field or if there would actually be opportunities to ask about her life before the Inquisition.

“Harding, huh? Ever been to Kirkwall’s Hightown?”

Aaaand the moment was gone. Thanks a lot, Varric.

Harding looked confused. “I can’t say I have. Why?”

“You’d be Harding in…no, never mind.”

Cassandra and I shared a moment of mutual disgust as she growled in annoyance and I buried my face in my hand. What had once been a mildly amusing reference to Varric’s book Hard in Hightown had grown into a cringeworthy moment of secondhand embarrassment. Varric, that’s so tacky. The more I heard him make that joke, I grew increasingly certain that Harding had never even heard of his book. I had to be honest, though – the real reason it bothered me so much was that I would have done the same thing in his place. Though I would hope I wouldn’t’ve said it out loud.

Right. Moving on. “I’m glad to meet you, Scout Harding.” I was careful not to accidentally call her Lace. She hardly ever told anyone her first name and players were sworn to secrecy once she told us.

After she and I exchanged nods, Harding addressed the group. “We should get to business. The situation’s pretty...dire.” Emotion crept into Harding’s voice as she went on. “We came to secure horses from Redcliffe’s old horsemaster. I grew up here, and people always said that Dennet’s herds were the strongest and the fastest this side of the Frostbacks. But with the mage-templar fighting getting worse, we couldn’t get to Dennet. Maker only knows if he’s even still alive.” I was freshly reminded of why Harding had been chosen to contact Master Dennet. It wasn’t just that she was well-spoken and a local – she truly cared. “Mother Giselle’s at the Crossroads helping refugees and the wounded. Our latest reports say that the war’s spread there, too.”

Reports? The Crossroads were plainly visible from this camp. In game, I would have assumed her wording choice was an oversight, but here it seemed to be a stroke of professionalism.

Harding went on. “Corporal Vale and our men are doing what they can to help protect the people, but they won’t be able to hold out very long.” I guess the Crossroads would have fallen if we hadn’t arrived to help reinforce the troops here.

A chill ran up my spine. Just how big was this fight going to be if Vale and the soldiers currently stationed here couldn’t effectively defend the Crossroads? There were quite a few of them in game. The Herald and their party took down a few waves of enemies as part of the introduction to the zone, but there was no reason Vale and his people couldn’t have handled that attack.

“You’d best get some rest,” Harding added, a note of concern in her voice. “It’ll be an early morning tomorrow.”

We’re not going now? It was only then that I noticed that the sun was already low in the sky. Was I really going to have to adjust to the day-night cycles in each individual area? I desperately need to break the in-game mentality. I thanked Harding for the report and waited until she was out of earshot before turning to Cassandra, eyebrows raised. “Can we afford to take an extra night?”

She sighed, which undoubtedly meant “no.” “It is not safe to journey even so short a distance with nightfall fast approaching. We will continue to the Crossroads tomorrow.”

I supposed that Mother Giselle, the refugees, and Corporal Vale could hold out one more night. “That does make sense, especially since we got ambushed in broad daylight.” It took more effort than it should have to stop myself from saying “got jumped.”

Cassandra nodded grimly. “We cannot afford to risk anything happening to you.” Ugh. Somehow, being reminded of that made me want to curl up under a rock. “Do not worry. It should be safe here. Our guards are vigilant.”

Explaining what I was actually thinking was too much of an effort, so I simply agreed and took my leave. I looked around at the soldiers who had made the trip from Haven with us. They had already spread out to rest after the day’s journey. Some had discarded parts of their armor, while others had sought out a proper meal. The few faces I could see from where I stood were deeply relieved. How had the lives of so many people essentially fallen into my hands? That was not a hand pun, I assured myself, self-consciously flexing my marked hand. The momentary amusement did not shake the dark cloud that had settled around me, nor did it alleviate my responsibilities. I had never truly understood the weight of being the Herald before. The knowledge offered no comfort. I doubt I’ll sleep tonight.

Chapter Text

I hated being right. This was turning out to be yet another sleepless night. Even worse, I had a stress headache that I knew wouldn’t dissipate until I slept. Staying in a single position for more than five minutes seemed an insurmountable task. Had I been at home, I would have resigned myself to my fate and given up trying to rest at all. But I was here, which limited my options.

It wasn’t safe to walk anywhere, not even in camp. Maybe I was being overly cautious, but nothing was certain in Thedas. Who was to say that these camps were as secure as the ones in game? So all I could do was stay put and get lost in my thoughts, while my back familiarized itself with every pebble beneath my bedroll.

I missed writing. Not that I felt much need to create anything at the moment. There was plenty of scope for the imagination here as it was. No, I needed to check in with myself from time to time in order to get my thoughts sorted. This entire experience was a lot to take in and I was still having trouble processing it. But that wasn’t an option. Even if the fear of discovery hadn’t stayed my hand, there was no way I could justify writing so much down, only to burn it afterwards. Paper was not as easy to come by in Thedas, and anything of higher quality was even less disposable. So I lay awake, mulling over everything that had happened and was going to happen.

There was no point in dwelling on what I couldn’t change or didn’t know yet. However, that had never stopped me before and it didn’t stop me now. No matter how much I tried to keep my mind off of the confusion that would no doubt be the running theme of tomorrow’s fight, I kept conjuring worse and worse scenarios. Every time I did, I reminded myself that as the Herald, I had to have some kind of protective plot armor. That was essentially how I approached every other problem in my life: things could get really bad, but not fatally so. Why should this be any different? Because sheer optimism is not a guarantee of safety, added the small voice of reason in the back of my head.

And thus the night dragged on. I must have eventually fallen asleep at some point, since the next thing I knew, I was blinded by sunlight filtering through the sides of the tent. Ugh, I thought blearily as I flung my arm over my face. My eyes aren’t even open yet and I can’t see. There was something wrong with the logic of that sentence, but I didn’t care. Wait… The sun was too bright for early morning. I rolled over to ask Cassandra what was happening.

But she wasn’t there. A cold feeling of dread settled into the middle of my chest. What the hell was going on? It was only then that I realized what had actually woken me: the clash of steel in the distance.

Panic rushed through me, squeezing my heart and making it hard to breathe. They left me. Had I somehow slept through most of the morning? I wasn’t that sound a sleeper. And yet, here I was.

I threw on my gear as quickly as I could and stumbled out of the tent. All the commotion startled the guard who’d been posted outside. I mumbled an apology as I took in the campsite. There were far fewer soldiers around than there had been yesterday, and Cassandra, Solas, and Varric were nowhere to be seen. At least the camp itself still existed. That was a plus. They intended to come back. Don’t be ridiculous. Of course they’re coming back. It makes no sense that they would have abandoned you. Despite that rationale, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been intentionally left behind.

Figuring I could watch the conflict below from one of the camp’s excellent vantage points, I trudged over to the cliff. Much to my surprise, Scout Harding was already there.

“Oh good, you’re ready. Seeker Pentaghast entrusted me to bring you to the Crossroads once the area is safe.” Seeming to know what I was thinking, Harding added, “She didn’t want to expose you to unnecessary risks.”

My heart rate finally started to slow for the first time since I’d awakened. The explanation made sense. The mark was too important – I needed to be kept away from the dangers of the battlefield. Of course it wasn’t personal. I had to stop falling into the trap of seeing myself as only a liability. Even if I was fantastic in combat, I should be kept off the front lines whenever possible.

Finally letting go of my anxiety, I smiled at Scout Harding. “Can they really get along without you down there?”

She laughed. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

There must have been hundreds of people below us. The mages and templars kept swarming into the Crossroads only to find themselves blocked by the Inquisition forces. It was difficult to identify individual fighters at this distance, which provided a certain amount of detachment from the fight. Besides, even without Harding, they’ve got good people down there. Things are well in hand.

As we watched, Harding and I discussed strategies and battle tactics. Nothing hugely in depth, as neither of us had a proper military background, but it was good getting a scout’s perspective on things. While I was unlikely to contribute to the Inquisition in terms of combat strategies, I wanted to have fallback plans when I was forced to fight.

The sun had reached its peak by the time the fighting began to slow. I looked to Harding, wondering if we should start heading to the Crossroads. She hadn’t moved. Waiting for the stragglers to get mopped up did seem like a good idea, I conceded. Just in case.

The fighting below got more and more scattered until at last it petered out entirely. A minute later, a bluish-green flare of magical energy rose up like a beacon from the Crossroads. At its peak, it hung in the air a brief moment before bursting. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. I’ve seen that before. On a much larger and more destructive scale perhaps, but I HAVE seen it. Solas had cast a similar-looking spell against the enemy qunari forces relatively early on in Trespasser. It wasn’t the same one by any stretch of the imagination, but they certainly looked eerily alike. I started as Harding tapped me on the arm to get my attention. Right. The present.

A handful of soldiers joined us on the short trip down the hill to the Crossroads. They seemed to be more of a precaution than necessary protection. The only lingering signs of the rogue apostates and deserter templars were the injuries they’d inflicted and their corpses.

Cassandra met us beneath one of the Inquisition banners overlooking the main road. Harding and the soldiers were dismissed shortly thereafter. Cass could handle bringing me to Mother Giselle herself.

A lump rose in my throat as I spotted Solas. He was already busy healing some of the wounded refugees, but at least a dozen others were still waiting for aid. I’d had no idea so many of them had been hurt in the fighting. Scaling, I reminded myself. There were more people here than in game. It stood to reason that more of them had been harmed. At least they’re alive.

Cassandra directed me over to a group of injured soldiers, then with a nod, walked off. I fought off a wave of distress. I had thought Cass would stay, if only for moral support. This is fine. There was no reason to be nervous. I’d had this conversation before. With a dialogue wheel... I shook off my unease and moved forward.

Mother Giselle was kneeling beside one of the cots, talking to a particularly distraught man. A mage healer paced anxiously behind her, intently listening to their conversation. I had never been so aware of how powerful Giselle was. Even in such a humble position, there was strength in her posture. She carried herself well, as befitting an Orlesian member of the Chantry. Not for the first time, I wondered why she wouldn’t be a candidate for the next Divine.

“There are mages here who can heal your wounds,” she told her charge in a voice that was soft-spoken, but firm. “Lie still.”

“Don’t…let them touch me, Mother.” The soldier’s voice was thick with pain and fear. “Their magic is –”

“Turned to noble purpose,” Giselle cut him off smoothly. “Their magic is surely no more evil than your blade.”

The soldier frowned. “But…“

“Hush, dear boy. Allow them to ease your suffering.”

I could only imagine what sort of end to his suffering the man expected. It was jarring to see such fear prevalent in the people around me. The fandom as a whole tended to focus on the mages’ best qualities and readily sympathized with their plight. The difference between living in a world without magic and one with it, I noted dryly.

I waited for the mage to step in behind Giselle before speaking. “Mother Giselle?”

She rose and turned to me. “I am. And you must be the one they’re calling the Herald of Andraste.”

I tried not to wince too visibly at the grand emphasis she put on the title. “That is what they call me,” I agreed. Though I might not have been improving at handling the title itself, I was getting better about not denying it outright. “You sent for me?”

Mother Giselle waved me over, leading me away from the injured soldiers. “I know of the Chantry’s denouncement, and I am familiar with those behind it. I won’t lie to you: some of them are grandstanding, hoping to increase their chances of becoming the new Divine.”

She was more direct than most Orlesians who moved in political circles. In game, I suspected it was because the Herald was the protagonist. Now I wondered if it was because Giselle already considered the Inquisition her allies.

“Some are simply terrified,” she went on. “So many good people, senselessly taken from us…” Giselle trailed off, her grief written on her face. She must have known many of those lost at the Conclave, if not all of them.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, putting as much empathy into my voice as I could. Those words never felt like they conveyed the depth of my sincerity, but I had to try.

Mother Giselle thanked me. She seemed to understand that I meant it, despite having only just met her. “Fear makes us desperate, but hopefully not beyond reason.” Urgency crept into her voice. “Go to them. Convince the remaining clerics you are no demon to be feared. They have heard only frightful tales of you. Give them something else to believe.”

Ugh. I forced my expression to remain neutral. “If they’ll even believe the truth,” I replied, knowing full well that a lot of people wouldn’t – not at first.

If Mother Giselle disapproved of my cynicism, she didn’t let on. “Let me put it this way,” she said patiently. “You needn’t convince them all. You just need some of them to…doubt. Their power is their unified voice. Take that from them, and you receive the time you need.”

Now that was a good point. We were just stalling at this stage, slowing down the campaign against the Inquisition until Corypheus revealed himself. Gotta stop thinking everything is set in stone. This isn’t the game. Nothing is inevitable. I was glad to have the reminder.

“I think I can manage that.”

Mother Giselle nodded. “I will go to Haven and provide Sister Leliana with the names of those in the Chantry who would be amenable to a gathering. It is not much, but I will do whatever I can.”

“You have been a great help already.” I meant it. Every bit of guidance was more valuable than gold to me right now. At least I had some time before I would actually have to lead the Inquisition. Even though I wouldn’t be without help in doing so, I definitely wasn’t ready. Not yet, anyway.

Chapter Text

Though time was of the essence, we couldn’t simply turn around and march right back to Haven with Mother Giselle. Those of us who had just made the two-week journey to the Hinterlands needed to rest and new soldiers had to be selected for our escort to replace the people we had lost.

So we spent the next several days at the Crossroads, helping the refugees get settled by hunting for food and gathering the supplies they needed. Strengthening the Inquisition’s foothold in the Hinterlands was important, but I was glad we were doing it through acts of goodwill rather than a show of power. In game, the Inquisition’s primary objective was often summed up as “restoring order.” That phrase always felt harsh, giving the impression of the Inquisition governing Thedas with an armored hand. It was deeply important to me that even before I stepped up to lead the Inquisition, it existed to help the people of Thedas for just and moral reasons.

My heart sank when Scout Harding and her small team rode into the Crossroads with the horses they’d secured from Master Dennet. I had hoped I’d have more time to prepare an explanation as to why horses were a problem.

I couldn’t ride. Not in the “I’ve never been on a horse before in my life” sense, though that was also true. No, I physically could not ride a horse. Ever.

How could I possibly explain to anyone why I couldn’t ride? It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do my part. I simply couldn’t. Thedosian medicine likely hadn’t progressed to include specific knowledge of organs. Even if it had, I couldn’t tell them why it had been necessary to remove my kidney. What did anyone here know of malignant tumors? Was cancer even a thing in Thedas? I sincerely doubted it.

For the first time, I found myself at a complete loss. It had been easy enough to protect my remaining kidney in combat, especially since I’d been fighting less than the Herald usually did. But I couldn’t hide this limitation. Faking it wasn’t an option. Riding a horse was the sort of strenuous activity that could get me into serious trouble. If my kidney failed, there was no guarantee that magic could heal it.

It would be hard enough keeping this quiet within the inner circle, let alone out of the hands of our enemies. If word spread that I was vulnerable on my left side, I’d be in deeper trouble than I already was. I didn’t want to think about the potential risks this weakness would pose in Orlais. Every detail was up for scrutiny by the players of the Great Game. Even Empress Celene rode on horseback. I would stick out like a sore thumb amongst the nobility.

I’d need some sort of cover story. There was likely a way of dressing up the eccentricity so I didn’t come off as haughty to the general public. A security issue, perhaps? I mean, it was a legitimate concern. Josephine could no doubt handle the details.

I shook my head. Stop it. My job was figuring out how to explain the problem to the inner circle in the first place. I could hear Varric’s voice in my head: “should have spun a story.” I was definitely not doing that. It was hard enough remembering not to use modern slang. Any plausible story I invented to account for my inability to ride would eventually get me caught in a lie. No, it had to be some form of the truth and it had to be now.

I went to find Harding before it was too late. It took me a while to locate her on the far side of the Crossroads where she was talking to Cassandra while settling the horses. My hands were shaking from nerves, so I stuffed them in my pockets as I walked over.

“Master Dennet agreed to join us in Haven, but cannot leave his family until his farm is protected,” Scout Harding reported. “My team and I did what we could, but we’ll need more people to build watchtowers for the area. Once those are built, we can arrange for his passage.”

Cassandra nodded. “Understood. I will speak with Corporal Vale.”

Harding noticed my approach. “Greetings, your Worship.”

Maker’s balls, I feel so awkward being called that. But under the circumstances, I had to let it go. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but this is important. I had an accident a few years ago that left me physically unable to ride a horse. I’m afraid I need a cart or a wagon or something instead.”

“Accident” about covered it. The whole thing had felt like a horrible mistake from the beginning. I’d come to terms with it all, but I figured the wording sufficed for these purposes. At its core, it’s the truth.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Harding told me. “A few of our soldiers are already looking for a wagon for Mother Giselle to travel in. You can ride with her.”

Oh! That possibility had never occurred to me. Mother Giselle got herself to Haven in game; it was never discussed how. This makes so much more sense! “That works out nicely then. Thank you!”

Cassandra, who had been deep in thought, finally spoke. “Despite the age of the injury, perhaps Solas could –“

“No!” That was the last thing I needed, Solas discovering that my scars were on the opposite side of the area that needed to be protected. “No, I’m afraid this damage is beyond magical healing.” Cassandra made a disgruntled noise of acknowledgment, but did not protest further. I breathed an internal sigh of relief. I didn’t want to argue the subject. “I do appreciate the thought.”

My problem was resolved – at least for the moment – so I took my leave. That was far easier than expected. Some of the weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had honestly anticipated more discussion – or worse, more questions.

Cassandra’s suggestion worried the hell out of me. Would she tell Solas? Even though I’d told her he couldn’t help, she was the type of person who would ask him anyway, just to be sure. He should hear it from me. But I didn’t want to tell him yet if I didn’t have to. Cass might not say anything to him at all and I’d have put myself in an uncomfortable position for nothing.

This is ridiculous. I had no actual reason not to tell Solas that I had a weakness. Hell, he was healing me. He probably should know. But something was holding me back. The fear that he’d ask questions I couldn’t answer, perhaps? You’re just ashamed that you have another weakness the real Inquisitor wouldn’t, whispered a nasty little voice in the back of my head. I frowned. Solas wouldn’t know the difference. But you do.

I sighed quietly. Regardless of how I felt, it was wiser for me to keep my mouth shut. Ideally, Cass wouldn’t look into Solas healing me. However, even if she did, he couldn’t easily ask me follow-up questions – he’d have to reveal how he found out. And if he gets that far…well, I already have the advantage of preparing an answer ahead of time.

Good. I really was not up for any extra complications at the moment. I just wanted to get back to Haven as soon as possible. Sleeping in a proper bed would hopefully cure my insomnia. Besides, if Leliana’s contact had arrived, I could finally begin formal combat training. I had no doubt I would feel more secure if I could defend myself. Plus I’d be taking another step toward being the Inquisitor. Things are finally falling into place.

Chapter Text

The sun was setting as we arrived in Haven. The trip back from the Hinterlands had been far easier than the journey down. It took half the time now that we had transportation. Plus no one attacked us. My muscles were rather stiff from riding in the wagon, but that was a small price to pay for the shortened travel time. Walking while everyone else rode hadn’t been an option, so thankfully it worked out.

Solas hadn’t said anything about my injury, so I figured I was probably in the clear. For the moment. Just as well – I hadn’t cooked up a good enough backstory that still skirted the truth yet.

Whether Mother Giselle would meet with the advisers tonight to get the ravens for the clerics in the air a few hours earlier, I didn’t know and quite frankly, I didn’t care. They didn’t need me to help set up the forthcoming meeting in Val Royeaux. That gave me the luxury of sinking into bed for a few blissful hours of sleep. If anyone needed me, I would be available tomorrow.

Firelight glowed invitingly through the windows of my quarters. Meera was stoking the fire as I entered. I made a point of scuffing my boots on the stone floor as I moved forward. Better than startling her again. “It’s good to see you, Meera.”

“Oh!” She turned, her perpetually worried expression giving way to a nervous smile. “Welcome back, my lady,” she said with a bow. I grinned back. This is progress! “Lady Josephine told me you requested I continue serving you. I hope I do not disappoint you.”

“You’re doing fine,” I reassured her. “I would not have asked if I didn’t believe you were the best person for the job.” For a moment, the nervousness in her smile vanished.

I couldn’t believe how much more confident Meera had gotten over the past month. We really didn’t get to know her at all in game, I reminded myself. Even so, she seemed more at ease now. I was glad. Meera needs to know she’s appreciated – and safe.

Unfortunately, a fresh wave of fatigue swept over me at that moment. I thanked Meera for taking care of things while I was gone and said goodnight. She left with another bow.

I flopped unceremoniously onto the bed. It was just as well that the Herald wasn’t as necessary for proceedings as the Inquisitor. Admittedly, I was too tired to be much help even if my presence was requested by anyone tonight. Definitely not prepared for that sort of focused responsibility. Hopefully I’d have things more under control by the time I become Inquisitor. I needed to have more going for me than common sense and the knowledge I’d gained by playing Inquisition.

When morning came, I was ready for it. Sleeping in a real bed did wonders. Meera looked surprised to see me up and about when she arrived. My schedule had been erratic since arriving in Thedas. Not that it was my fault that I had to sleep so much to recover.

The message Meera brought was from Leliana. She wanted to see me “about a matter we had previously discussed.” It was just like her to avoid committing too much concrete knowledge to paper. That had to mean my trainer was here. My nerves instantly sprang into action and threatened to devour my stomach from the inside. I sighed internally.  This was what I’d been waiting for. Getting anxious now was pointless. I wanted to make a good impression on whoever it was and this wouldn’t help at all.

I threw on my gear and hurried to the chantry, eager to get started. But as I entered the darkened building, my pace slowed considerably. Even though the building now had other purposes beyond being a place of worship, it felt disrespectful to run through it. In fact, I should probably not have rushed over here the way I did. What sort of impression am I leaving behind me? I had so many bad habits to break before becoming Inquisitor.

As I passed by Josephine’s office, I saw the ambassador speaking with Mother Giselle. They were no doubt discussing the forthcoming meeting with the clerics in Val Royeaux – perhaps my involvement with it? Whose idea was it to have the Herald address the clerics in Val Royeaux anyway? I’d no doubt find out at the next meeting of the war council.

Refusing to let my nerves pile up against me, I didn’t even pause as I opened the door to the war room. Leliana stood before the war table, arms crossed. She was laughing, an unusual sight these days. The crack in her serious façade melted away as she saw me. Guess I wasn’t supposed to see that.

The woman Leliana was talking to looked familiar, but I didn’t have time to place her before she turned around.

She was buff as hell. The woman looked like she could bench press Iron Bull without breaking a sweat. Dear Maker, I sound like Varric. Maybe not bench press Bull exactly, but she could certainly give him a run for his money in a duel. Her hair was wrapped in a familiar blue head scarf under her stylish admiral’s hat. Her eyes lit up when she saw me.

“Oh, aren’t you adorable?” the pirate captain declared. “You didn’t tell me she was so cute, Leliana!”

“Isabela,” I whispered, awestruck. To say I was unprepared for this meeting was an understatement.

For one brief moment, I was terrified I’d given myself away, but Isabela didn’t miss a beat. “Ooh, someone’s been reading Varric’s book!”

Leliana stepped in to regain control of the situation. “I will keep this brief. Nancy, this is Captain Isabela. She is a skilled duelist and will teach you how to handle yourself in combat. Isabela, this is the Herald of Andraste.”

I recovered my ability to speak. “Thank you for your help. I cannot say how much this means to me, though I suspect you’ll get the idea once you see me fight.”

Isabela smirked. “Don’t you worry, sweet thing. I always help my friends. Besides, I’m getting well paid for my time.” She winked at Leliana, who shifted uncomfortably. Wait, what?! Did that exchange mean what I thought it meant? Or was Bela just being…Bela?

“It is a worthy cause for the Inquisition’s assets,” Leliana replied to my unasked question. “We cannot have the Herald of Andraste defenseless.”

That doesn’t exactly deflect my suspicions, Leli. I didn’t see any point in making her feel more uncomfortable, so I turned to Isabela. “When do we start training?”

“Look at you, all eager for a workout!” I instantly regretted turning Bela’s focus back to me. “All right, grab your blades and let’s go.”

“Right now?” In my heart, I had known that would be her answer. That was why I had brought my daggers in the first place. And yet, I couldn’t stop my involuntary reaction from bursting out.

Isabela grinned at me. “No time like the present!” She gave Leliana a sweeping bow, even removing her hat for greater effect. “We’ll see you later, songbird.” Leliana nodded back, her expression unreadable. But there was an unmistakable flash of humor in her eyes.

I waved farewell to Leliana and followed Isabela out of the war room, trying to process all that I’d seen. I knew Bela would have joined the Inquisition eventually, but it never occurred to me that she was Leliana’s contact. Or that they were involved. That just raised further questions. This never happened canonically. There was a possible one-night stand with those two, the Warden, and either Alistair or Zevran back in Origins, but their continued relationship? That was new. Well, whatever happened, I’m glad Bela’s here now.

Chapter Text

Isabela held our training sessions in the center of the chantry’s dungeon. We didn’t need more space than that and the fewer people who knew I was weak on my left side, the better. The choice of location was especially fitting in a thematic sense, as that was the first place I could remember actually being in Thedas. I was glad to have a second chance to enter this world properly, with a set of skills that would suit my eventual rise to Inquisitor. That wasn’t how it worked, of course, but it gave me some semblance of peace to view things that way.

Solas’s visits after each session became a standard. While I was in better shape from the weeks of walking across Thedas, training with Isabela left me with sore muscles I hadn’t known I possessed. I hated to bother Solas for healing just to take the edge off, but I had a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. An injury would set me back even further.

Besides, I wanted to ask him more about the Fade. And everything else. But the Fade was safer. It was a terrible idea from a practical standpoint. I shouldn’t draw more attention to myself. But how could I bypass the opportunity to learn more?

“Why did you start exploring the Fade?” I asked Solas as he soothed the muscles in my left arm, taking care not to aggravate the mark. He finished his cast before speaking.

“I grew up in a village to the north. There was little to interest a young man, especially one gifted with magic.” More than most, I suspected. “But as I slept, spirits of the Fade showed me glimpses of wonders I had never imagined. I treasured my dreams. Being awake, out of the Fade, became troublesome.”

That sounds familiar – and not because I’ve heard this story before. Reality could be a real pain in the ass. “Would you have slept forever if you could?”

There was the briefest of hesitations before he answered. Solas covered it by switching to heal my other arm. Damn, that was too close to the truth, wasn’t it? “No.” His sadness was palpable. “Eventually I was unable to find new areas in the Fade.  A limitation I would have encountered regardless.”

“But why?” I only remembered half of his answer to that question, so I asked in earnest.

“Two reasons. First, the Fade reflects the world around it. Unless I traveled, I would never find anything new. Second, the Fade reflects and is limited by our imaginations. To find interesting areas, one must be interesting.”

Maybe I wasn’t interesting enough to remember most of my dreams back at home. Although if that’s the case, I don’t want to know. “Being with the Inquisition must be helpful then,” I observed with a grin.

A flicker of amusement crept into his voice. “I joined the Inquisition because we are all in terrible danger. If our enemies destroy the world, I would have nowhere to lay my head while dreaming of the Fade.”

Not for the first time, I wondered how much truth there was in that. Is that really what you would be doing if you weren’t…otherwise occupied? “That’s practical,” I replied with amusement of my own. “Not to mention that the world being destroyed would undoubtedly be rather loud, so you wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.” Was that a wry grin I saw? Solas, how can you guarantee that you’d even be alive at that point? My smile slowly melted away. Did he have tricks up his sleeve? Or was he was just being cagey?

“In truth, I have enjoyed experiencing more of life to find more of the Fade.”

“Oh? How so?”

“You train to flick a dagger or dodge attacks. Your heightened endurance is an enjoyable side benefit.”

Oh my god. I tried desperately to will the blush that was spreading across my cheeks to stop. I hadn’t realized what conversation we’d stumbled into until now. This bit of banter was as familiar to me as breathing. Each of the three classes got its own variation. But this compliment was new. Solas had changed it! For me! Of course he did; you’re not exactly a typical rogue. But he saw improvement… He’s the one healing you. Healing you less lets him conserve his mana – assuming that mana is a thing in actual Thedas.

How I dearly wished I could replay this moment. Due to my internal debate, I had completely missed the rest of what Solas had said and therefore his point. Something about us both enjoying the destination of the path chosen.

“I suppose my having more stamina would make things easier on you.” My smile froze on my face. Did I really just Allison myself with an accidental double entendre? That is so ridiculously typical.

Solas raised an eyebrow. “I meant that you enjoyed having it, presumably. But now that you mention it, yes.”

What does that mean??? Was he flirting with me or expressing relief that I wasn’t as much of a liability as before? Could it be both? It was probably both. This was Solas we were talking about here. But I’m human. I thought that was a dealbreaker for him.

I laughed, trying not to make it obvious how flustered I was. “Always glad to help, vhenan.”

The warmth of the spell on my arm faded. “There, that appears to be the last.”

Words could not express how grateful I was for the subject change. “Thank you, Solas. As always.”

He bowed his head in acknowledgment, then left – more quickly than usual, I noticed. There was tension in his back too. A pang of distress ached in my chest. What did I do? What could have possibly – oh shit.

I had called Solas vhenan. Out loud. To his face.

The world swirled out of focus as a sudden wave of nausea brought me to my knees. I dragged myself over to my bed and curled up in a ball.

He had obviously noticed. Sooner than I did, I groaned inwardly. But he ran instead of saying something. What did that mean? Was he offended? It was certainly an inappropriate use of the word, considering that as far as he knew, we’d just met each other about a month and a half ago.

If only I had caught it at the time. I could have played it off as misspeak of lethallan. Wait, that’s the feminine version. Lethallin doesn’t sound anything like vhenan. Not that lethallan did either – just the ending.

Maybe he’ll just let it go. That seemed unlikely. He wasn’t the type to let that deep an endearment slide. Assuming there wasn’t some other meaning of the word to create further confusion. I wasn’t exactly fluent in elven.

You know him better than all that. He’ll need time to process what happened. That’s what he always does. But what conclusion would he draw? Could he figure out everything from a single slip of the tongue? I covered my face with my hands. This was an absolute disaster. How could I have screwed up so badly?

Unless…maybe I was looking at this the wrong way. Solas might think I don’t know what vhenan means. He’s aware I don’t speak fluent elven. But why would he assume that? Common sense dictates that I would only be familiar with such a specialized word if I knew what it meant. If anything, it raised further questions as to why I knew the word in the first place. Solas couldn’t possibly figure out it was because he taught me.

None of that would help him determine why I used it now. The simplest explanation would be that I care about him and couldn’t contain my feelings anymore. Making it the correct interpretation, apparently, I admitted with a sigh. But it’s WAY too soon for that sort of declaration. It would feel false to him, even though it’s clearly real to me or I wouldn’t’ve unconsciously said it.

I frowned. My feelings needed to stay off the table. Between Solas’s secret past and my own, there were a ridiculous number of reasons I shouldn’t even be entertaining the idea of getting close to him in any capacity. Of course, this only happened because you can’t stay away from him. My protest died before I could begin to form the counter-argument in my head. It was true. Even though I needed Solas to heal me, I didn’t have to talk to him as much as I was. You already know how you feel. And now it’s real, which makes it even more complicated.

Groaning loudly, I buried my face in my pillow. This endless debating was getting me absolutely nowhere. The situation was already out of my control. Whatever was going to happen was completely out of my hands. Any attempts to fix my mistake would only draw more attention to it. All I could do in the meantime was hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Besides, if I’d scared Solas off, it would be better in the long run. I know how that story ends. It’s easier this way. And yet somehow, I remained unconvinced.

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Avoiding Solas was a lot harder now that I needed to see him regularly for healing.  Thankfully, my faux pas was not mentioned, but our conversations had an underlying tension that had not been there before. I tried not to think about what any of it meant – which of course meant that was all I could think about. Why can’t I just reload my last save? Oh right.

Days passed without word from the remaining clerics. The ravens’ travel time was a lot longer in person than in game. Damn you, realistic passage of time. I kept checking in with Cassandra for updates – mildly surprising, considering how intimidating she could be. And yet, after all the traveling we’d done, I was more comfortable with her than the others on the council. Besides, without her insistence, we might not have gone along with Mother Giselle’s suggestion to contact the clerics. Cass had convinced Leliana that we needed to act, even though it would be risky.

But as I approached the training area this time, I found Cassandra discussing something with Cullen. It didn’t appear to be a social visit, as both were observing the Inquisition recruits with serious expressions. Not wanting to intrude, I ducked back inside the gates of Haven to ask Leliana instead.

Unlike Inquisition, Leliana’s office was inside the chantry itself rather than in a tent. It made sense – the tent was far too open for the spymaster to run things with any degree of secrecy. The small room located in a darkened corner of the main hall was much better suited for Leliana’s purposes.

The door to Leliana’s office was ajar, but I knocked anyway to alert her to my arrival. She looked up from the papers she was studying and waved me into the room. I entered slowly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dim candlelight in the chamber. Before I could ask about the clerics, one of Leliana’s agents ran in with a message for her.

“I am sorry, Nancy,” Leliana apologized as she accepted the report. “This is urgent.”

I held up a hand in acknowledgement. “Take all the time you need.”

There was something familiar about Leliana’s body language as she read, as though I had seen this play out before.

“So it’s true,” she said, breaking the silence at last. “Butler has turned on us. I hoped my hunch was wrong.” The last word was steeped in regret. My heart sank. I had seen this conversation. It was the first opportunity to soften the hardened shell Leliana had put up around her heart and bring her back to her truest self. I’m not prepared for this.

“You knew him well?” asked the agent who had brought the news.

“Not as well as I thought,” Leliana replied, bitterness creeping into her tone. “There were so many questions surrounding Farrier’s death. Did Butler think we wouldn’t notice?” Leliana’s anger built as she spoke, directed as much at the poor execution as the act itself. “He’s killed one of my best agents and knows where the others are.”

With a resolute shake of her head, Leliana addressed the messenger. “You know what must be done. Make it clean – painless, if you can. We were friends once.” There was no trace of sympathy in her voice.

I had to do something. Leliana was about to make a huge mistake. Not strategically, but personally. “Wait – is there no other way?”

The spymaster redirected her cold fury to me. “He betrayed us! He murdered my agent.”

As terrifying as Leliana was when she was angry – and justifiably so – I had to hold firm. This was a crucial moment for her. If I couldn’t convince Leliana to spare Butler, then she would lose the compassionate soul at her core. “You’d rather just kill him instead of using him for information?”

Leliana folded her arms. “You find fault with my decision?”

I had to handle this carefully. Outside of my title, I offered very little to the Inquisition at this point. Leliana had no reason to listen to me. She had no idea I’d met the girl who had been betrayed by Marjolaine or the lay sister who offered a helping hand to the Hero of Ferelden. And it has to stay that way. I’d already screwed up horribly with Solas. I wasn’t going to put Leliana off too – even if I was trying to help her.

“Only the part where killing him is your first response. I understand wanting to tie up a loose end. But do we know the nature of his betrayal? Did he pass along information on the Inquisition agents to our enemies or is he working alone? What if that helps shed light on what happened at the Conclave?”

Leliana growled in disgust. “And if he lies? What then? I will have put my agents at risk for nothing.”

“You said yourself they’re already at risk,” I reminded her. “If he told anyone else where those agents are, killing him won’t protect them from a future attack.”

Leliana glowered at me in silence for a moment. I hoped she could tell I was concerned about her, not challenging her for the mere sake of doing so. She leaned over the papers on her desk, taking time to mull over the situation. When she finally spoke again, it was with an edged calmness. “You feel very strongly about this.” It was not a question.

“If this is how you treat your own people, then what would you be capable of doing to your enemies?”

 “Very well,” she conceded with a sigh. “I will think of another way to deal with this man.”

Leliana spoke to the messenger in a softer tone. “Apprehend Butler, but see that he lives.” The agent bowed and left. Leliana didn’t bother turning around when she addressed me again. “Now if you’re happy, I have more work to do.”

That was my cue to leave, so I did.

It was a relief that Leliana had listened. She would not have changed her mind if she wasn’t fully convinced that this was the correct course of action.

And yet, I hoped I had done the right thing. Leliana wasn’t completely wrong about killing Butler. The Inquisition wasn’t well-equipped to hold many prisoners in Haven, and I knew there would be more coming. Plus there was a good chance that if Butler had been working for Corypheus, he’d be reunited with his new boss during the attack on Haven. Assuming he lived to do so. But telling Leliana in order to help her make a more informed decision was out of the question. Besides, actively reinforcing that she should kill him at all might cause her heart to remain hardened. Not that game mechanics necessarily applied here… What if nothing actually follows the plot of the game?

I shook my head, physically cutting off that train of thought. There was no sense in overthinking the situation, since it was impossible to fully understand it. I was missing too many pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, I kept having this argument with myself as I continued trying to apply my omniscience to the real Thedas.

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I barely talked to anyone after that. Too risky. I threw myself into my training instead. Building up my physical endurance wasn’t just practical for combat – more strength meant I wouldn’t need to see Solas as much for healing.

The whole experience was exhausting. Nothing drained me more than not being myself. It was one thing to become a hermit by choice and another to live alone because you fear saying the wrong thing. It hardly felt like living at all.

Word finally came from the remaining clerics that the meeting was on. Now it was official that I would represent the Inquisition in Val Royeaux. Preparations to leave began at once.

It didn’t take me long to be ready – I had gathered together what little I had even before we heard from the clerics. Anxious as I was about encountering the mage and templar factions in person for the first time, I needed to get out of Haven. It had become a cage. And my response was to put myself in an even smaller cage to ensure I wouldn’t press against the bars of the first. Somehow, the knowledge that I was holding the keys to my self-imposed prison made the situation that much worse.

My training was put on hold, as Isabela’s expertise – and her ship – were needed elsewhere. A pity. I would have liked to have seen Bela in her element firsthand. Reading about it just wasn’t the same. But it couldn’t be helped. The scandal of sailing into the capital of Orlais on a pirate ship would have undermined our cause to win the clerics’ favor. At least Isabela assured me that I would be fine with what I knew.

Everything was arranged. Josephine’s contacts would grant us safe passage through Jader. Once we arrived in Val Royeaux, we would meet the agents Leliana had posted there. This time, “we” would just be me, Cassandra, Solas, and Varric. By keeping our numbers small, our pace would be quicker and we would draw less attention.

Snow dusted our armor as we left Haven. I hoped the weather would hold. In another life, I might have enjoyed the close quarters with Solas on the road. But now? It would only create more problems.

Thankfully, the snowfall remained light and the road was clear. I spent the majority of the week-long journey to Jader caring for the horses that pulled my cart. Guiding them on the path took all of my concentration, at least in the beginning. I was more than happy to tend to them when we stopped to make camp, in part because it gave me an excuse not to talk to anyone. Cassandra was a huge help on that front as well. I overheard her telling Varric to leave me alone, as I already had enough issues to contend with.

The prospect of visiting a city we’d only heard about in game thrilled me, even though we entered the seaport under the cover of nightfall. Jader as a whole did not approve of the Inquisition, so we had to be careful not to be seen as we made our way through the city’s winding streets. One of Josephine’s contacts took in our horses and the cart. She would keep them in her stables until we returned.

We were only a few yards away from the cargo ship that would take us to Val Royeaux when a guard on the docks stopped us. Hearing about our late night departure did nothing to ease his suspicions. That was when Varric stepped in, reassuring him that we weren’t smuggling contraband. He’s really got a way with people, I noted with amusement. His effusive personality may not appeal to me personally, but I could respect his ability to charm others. This is Varric’s true strength. Satisfied by the tale Varric had spun from embellished truths and plausible falsehoods, the guard waved us onward.

The ship belonged to an Orlesian merchant who had worked with the Montilyets in the past. Knowing that the captain and crew supported the Inquisition took a certain weight off, leaving me free to wander the deck. That turned out to be a mixed blessing, as it didn’t take me long to start mulling over the confrontation to come.

I’d moved past worrying about the clerics. The meeting with them would turn into a sidebar once the templars showed up. And then what? The templars would return to Therinfal Redoubt, where the envy demon would kill the loyal ones and turn the rest into red templars. When the Herald decided to go to Redcliffe instead, they unknowingly sentenced the templars to their deaths.

But I know.

There was no avoiding the truth anymore. It came to me in nightmares tinged with red. Ser Barris gaping in shock as his men fell in the bloodbath around him. Knight-Captain Denam’s eyes glowing red with corrupted lyrium as he transformed into an abomination. Cole fleeing in the chaos, his face frozen in anguish. I woke with the shrill laughter of the envy demon ringing in my ears. All the pieces were in place for this atrocity to occur. Somehow, it hadn’t seemed real before. But now the point of no return was fast approaching. It was destroying me.

I couldn’t let this happen. And yet, my hands were tied. Sending Inquisition soldiers to Therinfal Redoubt would likely only get them killed too. Without the Herald present, there would be little reason for the envy demon to continue posing as Lord Seeker Lucius before the attack on Haven.

Oh shit. My blood ran cold. The false Lucius would be in Val Royeaux. That meant the demon would be in the middle of the capital of Orlais. And I can’t do a damned thing to stop it. If I were to expose him, the demon would attack the city. So many possible casualties. But in the game, the envy demon just…disappears from the narrative. Presumably to do more damage from within Corypheus’s ranks. Which way is worse?

I bit back a scream of frustration. What good is it having partial omniscience if I can’t use it to our advantage?

Shouts from the crew filled the air as Val Royeaux came into view through the mists of twilight. The city was massive compared to the area we got to explore in Inquisition. A number of towers rose above the sprawling streets. The tallest one glowed with an unearthly light. That had to be the White Spire, home of the city’s Circle. How appropriate that Cole was the Ghost of the Spire. It suits him. Facing the Spire from across the city was the columned Grand Cathedral, which I recognized from Dawn of the Seeker. Within it sat the Sunburst Throne, from which the Divine ruled the Chantry. A domed edifice in the distance might have been the famed University of Orlais – but it also could have been the Grande Royeaux Theatre. It was difficult to tell from this far away. Disconcertingly, I couldn’t find the familiar blue paint and red banners of the Summer Bazaar in the fading light. That was where we would end up tomorrow and I had hoped to get my bearings now that we were here. The Ghislain Estate was out there somewhere. Did Vivienne already know we were coming? I wonder where Sera will be spending the night in this sprawling city.

A nearby floorboard creaked, bringing me back to my immediate surroundings. Varric had stepped up to the railing a few feet away, observing the city as we drew ever closer to it. He was likely the only other person in our small party who hadn’t seen Val Royeaux before. Cassandra was certainly well-familiar with the city, as the headquarters for the Seekers was here. Plus she had fought dragons and a pride demon at the Grand Cathedral. Solas had certainly seen Val Royeaux when it was nothing more than oiled leather tents covered with mud. He’d likely seen the city in its current form as well.

I could only imagine what Varric was thinking. Val Royeaux put Kirkwall to shame in terms of sheer grandeur. Kirkwall was covered with remnants of the Tevinter Imperium’s slave trade. And the Winter Palace at Halamshiral was built on the graves of the elves. I spotted a darkened section of the city, one with visible fire damage. The Val Royeaux alienage had burned due to Gaspard outplaying Empress Celene in the Grand Game. My eyes narrowed. This city was prettier than Kirkwall, but only on the surface.

“Kinda makes you miss Kirkwall, huh?” I asked him.

Varric let out a low chuckle. “I’m sure the first corpse we find in the gutter will make things feel much more like home.”

I grinned and turned back to the city, trying to shake the feeling that I’d just channeled Hawke.

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We spent the night on board the ship rather than staying in Val Royeaux proper, as per Leliana’s directive. She wasn’t taking any chances with assassins, especially since Butler was still on the loose. Cassandra and Leliana really are a remarkably effective team, I observed as Cass explained to Varric – again – why we hadn’t gone ashore. The Inquisition would never have gotten off the ground without them. And yet in the end, the organization needs a single leader to unify its people.

Now that we were finally within the city’s walls, Cassandra uncovered the Seekers’ sigil on her armor. The Inquisition’s first official public appearance had to make a statement. After all, we’d have more eyes on us than just those of the clerics.

Leliana was right that the clerics had no plans to hear us out. As I knew from Inquisition, this meeting would be quite public, taking place in the middle of the Summer Bazaar. The clerics were coming into this “discussion” fully prepared to denounce us in front of the people of Val Royeaux. They have no idea that they’ve set themselves up to incite further dissent within the Chantry, just as we had planned. How this plan was supposed to work if the templars didn’t interrupt the proceedings, I had no idea. Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.

As we descended the gangplank to the pier, the cargo ships rose up around us. I couldn’t help feeling lost. The only dock I’d seen in Val Royeaux was the much smaller one connected to the Summer Bazaar. Our ship was much too large to fit in amongst the pleasure boats. Good thing Cassandra knows where we’re going.

We crossed through parts of Val Royeaux I hadn’t even known existed. The streets were mostly filled with laborers going about their business, but as the morning went on, the nobility began to mingle in increasing numbers. A few merchants were still setting up their stalls, though most were already prepared for the day’s business. I tried not to grin too openly at a bakery that had small frilly cakes on display. Somehow, I had not expected to ever actually see those cakes in person.

Most passersby gave us a wide berth. Some of them looked distinctly uncomfortable.

“Just a guess, Seeker, but I think they all know who we are,” Varric muttered in an undertone as one woman backed away with an audible gasp.

“Your skills of observation never fail to impress me, Varric,” Cassandra replied dryly.

At last, I spotted the entrance to the Summer Bazaar. The wrought iron gates stood open underneath a towering archway, just as they had in the game. The grandness of scale was all the more impressive in person.

One of Leliana’s agents appeared in the crowd ahead as she hurried to meet us. “My Lady Herald,” she said with a bow. “Lady Seeker.”

“What have you found?” Cassandra asked. Right to the point, as always.

“The Chantry mothers await you, but so do a great many templars.”

“There are templars here?” The Seeker looked surprised.

“People seem to think that the templars will protect them from…from the Inquisition.”

I raised my eyebrows in response, but didn’t bother faking surprise beyond that. Leliana had expressed enough doubts about the purpose of this meeting that I could afford to take a skeptical stance. Stepping up to DO something is different than assuming the clerics had been on the level.

“They’re gathering on the other side of the market,” the scout went on. “I think that’s where the templars intend to meet you.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes as she mulled over the new information. “Return to Haven,” she directed the scout. “Someone will need to explain to them if we are…delayed.” As the scout nodded and melted back into the crowd, Cass led the rest of us forward.

My heart raced as we entered the market proper. Barely any of that exchange had sounded familiar – not a good sign for what was about to happen. I HAVE to remember. Lives are at stake. I need to be ready.

Cassandra still couldn’t believe what we’d heard. “They wish to protect the people from us?”

“Just me, probably,” I replied, biting off a follow-up remark. Cass didn’t need me sassing her too. I respected that she had such faith that people held religious figures of authority in high esteem, but it seemed misplaced – especially when it came to the as yet unverified Herald of Andraste. That’s not how Orlais works, Lady Seeker.

“You think the Order’s returned to the fold, maybe? To deal with us upstarts?” I was glad that Varric’s questions were once again aimed at Cassandra. I sure didn’t want to answer them. And Solas certainly doesn’t either, I added, suddenly realizing that he hadn’t said a word since we had entered the city.

“I know Lord Seeker Lucius,” Cassandra told Varric emphatically. “I can’t imagine him coming to the Chantry’s defense, not after all that’s occurred.” Score one for the Seeker. The real Lucius had joined a cult that was obsessed with improving society through the impending demise of the world.

As we rounded the blue tower in the central courtyard of the market, we encountered a thick crowd of people. They were gathered around a raised platform, listening intently to one of the clerics. My heart drummed loudly in my ears as I spotted Ser Delrin Barris standing mere feet away from her.

“Good people of Val Royeaux, hear me! Together, we mourn our Divine. Her naïve and beautiful heart silenced by treachery!” I tried very hard not to snort derisively. There was nothing naïve about Divine Justinia, who had once been Mother Dorothea. As Leliana had put it, before she became Justinia, the woman had had a “worldly life” – which was in large part why some members of the Chantry had fought her appointment in the beginning. “You wonder what will become of her murderer. Well, wonder no more!” She gestured to me. “Behold the so-called Herald of Andraste! Claiming to rise where our beloved fell.” My blood curdled, but I held my tongue. There would be a better opportunity. “We say this is a false prophet! No servant of anything beyond her selfish greed!”

Now. “I never asked for this responsibility,” I told her, making sure my voice projected as far as it could. “I’m not trying to replace the Divine or anyone else. My goal – and the goal of the Inquisition – is to close the Breach and restore order to Thedas.” I made a specific point not to mention finding who was responsible. “That’s all that matters right now. Everyone should be helping us accomplish this goal. You can argue about what to call me afterwards.” There were a few scattered chuckles in the crowd at that.

“It’s true! The Inquisition seeks only to end this madness before it is too late!” Cassandra added, getting us back on track.

“It is already too late!” the cleric shot back. She pointed to the additional templars approaching the stage through the rapidly parting crowd. A lump formed in my throat. The envy demon was there, looking just like Lord Seeker Lucius. It was an impressive disguise – I would never have known he wasn’t human if I wasn’t already aware of the truth. “The templars have returned to the Chantry! They will face this ‘Inquisition,’ and the people will be safe once more!”

The false Lucius walked right past her. One of the templars following him punched the Grand Cleric in the back of the head. I gasped along with everyone else as she hit the ground hard. I had known it was coming, just not then. Lucius stopped right between me and Ser Barris. Dammit.

Ser Barris moved forward to assist the fallen cleric, but Lucius blocked him.

“Still yourself,” he commanded Barris with a condescending pat on the arm. Barris looked stricken, but did not disobey orders. “She is beneath us.”

“How classy,” I proclaimed with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “I wasn’t aware the templars or the Seekers promoted violence against women.” What are you DOING? You can’t call him out here!

“I’m sure there’s a great deal you’re unaware of,” the demon replied without missing a beat. I glowered at him, but didn’t reply. Better not to draw him into a debate.

That didn’t stop Cass. “Lord Seeker Lucius, it’s imperative that we speak with –“

“You will not address me.” He didn’t even turn to look at her as he walked off the platform.

Cassandra couldn’t leave it at that. She matched his stride. “Lord Seeker?”

That got his attention. The demon stopped and turned to Cassandra.

This was my only chance.

I sidestepped over to Ser Barris, who had followed the fake Lord Seeker off the stage. Isabela’s training had already paid off, as Lucius kept his eyes fixed on Cass. He appeared to have entirely missed my movement.

“Ser Barris.” I kept my voice low. He looked stunned that I’d called him by name. “You don’t know me from Andraste, but your life is in grave danger. Take the few loyal templars you can trust and bring them to Haven.”

Wrinkles furrowed his brow. It was a lot to process at once, but Ser Barris was good at adapting. “How do you know this?”

“There’s no time to explain. Just know that if you return to Therinfal Redoubt, you will die.” I hated to be vague, but if I gave him too much information, I could get trapped by the truth later on. Assuming there is a later on. “Please. You deserve better.”

“Templars!” shouted Lucius. Dammit. We were out of time. The demon had finished his tirade. “Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection! We march!” I slipped back to my party – with Envy none the wiser, it seemed, as the templars left behind him. Ser Barris looked back over his shoulder at me as he followed the group.

“What was that all about, Squishy?” Of course Varric had noticed.

“Playing a hunch.” It was hard to keep the nerves out of my voice. “There’s something wrong here and I think we may need his allegiance whether or not we ask the templars for aid.”

“Quite the gambit,” Solas observed. I couldn’t tell if he approved of the gamble or not.

“I think you may be right, Herald,” Cassandra broke in. “Lord Seeker Lucius was always a decent man, never given to ambition and grandstanding. This is very bizarre.” She shook her head. “We should return to Haven and inform the others.”

THUNK! I jumped as an arrow stuck between the cobblestones at my feet.

Chapter Text

My heart thumped loudly against my ribcage as the arrow’s impact echoed in my ears. Holy shit, Sera! Even knowing that shot was coming was never enough – I jumped every time.

“What’s that?” demanded Cassandra. She looked equal parts startled and furious.

Varric had already wandered over to investigate. “Looks like an arrow with a message,” he told her.

I barely noticed, as I was scouring the upper level of the market for the elven archer. No sign of her. Of course not. If Sera didn’t want to be found, she wouldn’t be.

“A message?” Cassandra was also looking up, clearly expecting another attack. “For the Inquisition?”

Varric unfurled the scrap of paper and skimmed its contents. “The Herald.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “I think. It’s hard to tell from how it’s written.” I bit my tongue as he dropped the note in my hand. Varric had no grounds to judge other people’s writing. “The greatest boat in the history of boats,” indeed.

I turned my attention to the message. Its contents were the same as I remembered from the game.

People say you're special. I want to help, and I can bring everyone.

There's a baddie in Val Royeaux. I hear he wants to hurt you. Have a search for the red things in the market, the docks, and 'round the cafe, and maybe you'll meet him first. Bring swords.

Friends of Red Jenny

For some reason, I hadn’t expected to track down all the messages in reality. The search for the ringleader Sera indicated easily lent itself to a gaming format. But isn’t there a key attached to one of the notes? I should have anticipated this hunt.

Amongst the doodles lining the borders of the note were three rough sketches of the locations of the “red things.” Now that detail I had forgotten from the note’s in-game description. The search would be pretty easy, combining those images with my prior knowledge from Inquisition.

I got the others up to speed on what we needed to do. Naturally, the news did not exactly inspire Cassandra’s confidence regarding our mysterious helper. At least the reminder that we couldn’t afford to turn down allies placated her for the moment – though she still wasn’t happy that someone who was supposedly helping us had shot an arrow at me.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Cassandra refused to let me search for the three red tokens. That didn’t stop me from grumbling about it anyway. Finding things was my specialty, plus I had a vague idea of where to start looking for the places pictured in Sera’s message. But no, I have to hold back because it’s “not safe.” Given, Val Royeaux was dangerous in other ways, but from what I knew of Orlais, it was unlikely I’d get assassinated in broad daylight.

At least Varric and Solas were well-qualified to find hidden things. As a smuggler, writer, and lover of intrigue, Varric knew all about concealing things from the authorities. And Solas…well, he was hiding in plain sight. Besides, anyone who could create the intricate puzzles that appeared in Trespasser was more than up to this task.

So as the others scoured the docks for the first clue from the Jennies, I waited by Cassandra and studied Sera’s note. Between all the scratched out parts, her big flowy script held to relatively straight lines – quite a feat without a ruler. Makes sense, though – she’s an artist too, I added as I examined the cross-hatching on the doodle of a dragon’s head. Now that I’d actually seen her work, I understood Sera better than ever before. She’s the sort of person who loves the feeling of a quill in her hand. Her writing flows with constant motion, just like the rest of her personality.

Solas found the first note stuffed inside a barrel, a flash of red just barely visible through a knothole. Cass insisted that Varric retrieve it in case this was all a trap. As they argued about whether or not she was implying that Varric was expendable, Solas quietly removed the handkerchief from the barrel and handed it to me without comment. It was heavy, as it was wrapped around a key. Things went much more smoothly after that, though I still couldn’t bring myself to look Solas in the eye.

“The market” was a vague direction and Sera’s sketch of a window with a box of flowers below it wasn’t especially helpful. Knowing roughly where it had been in game, I suggested we search the upper market. After all, I reasoned, the messages couldn’t be too close together.

Well-armed with information, it didn’t take me long to spot the red sock half-buried in the last window box in the row. Stuffed inside it was a scrawled note, indicating when the enemies of the Inquisition would be meeting: today at dusk. I tried not to frown. Didn’t this meeting take place in the dead of night in game? Not that it really mattered, so long as we were there at the right time. It was simply…strange. For Ser Barris’s sake, I hoped these little changes meant something. But for the moment, they were simply worrisome. I don’t like surprises.

The final note was stashed behind the wall-mounted dragon’s head in one of the local cafés, Le Masque du Lion. As Solas recovered the paper from its hiding place, a well-dressed envoy approached him. “I presume that your mistress is the Herald of Andraste?”

Solas inclined his head ever so slightly in my direction. “That is indeed the Herald of Andraste,” he replied, playing to the man’s expectations without actually saying anything untrue.

I flinched, biting my lower lip so I wouldn’t say anything. It bothered the hell out of me when Solas posed as the Inquisitor’s servant at Halamshiral. This was no better. I didn’t care how effective the ploy was – it was infuriating.

“I have an invitation for her,” the man announced, handing Solas a gold-trimmed envelope and taking his leave.

 Solas walked over to me with an amused smirk. “It seems you have attracted quite a few admirers already,” he told me in an undertone, handing over both the invitation and the final message from the Jennies.

“Or the Inquisition has,” I mumbled back distractedly. I definitely could not handle him right now.

I gave the note a quick glance, confirming that it contained the location of the meeting before moving on to the invitation. The envelope was sealed with an unusual sigil: a mask made of metal. Iron, if I’m not mistaken. I had a little trouble breaking the seal due to the high quality of the parchment. Gold filigree adorned the invitation itself, which was written in a refined hand. The message, in contrast to its presentation, was brief and to the point.

You are cordially invited to attend my salon this evening to be held at the château of Duke Bastien de Ghislain.

Yours,
Vivienne de Fer
First Enchanter of Montsimmard
Enchanter to the Imperial Court

Much like Sera’s letter, Vivienne’s invitation conveyed a great deal about her. I was surprised her seal was never mentioned in game. It was an inspired choice, one that gave her the appearance of fitting in with the noble company she kept, while still reminding those who would dare to cross her that she was not to be trifled with.

“First Enchanter Vivienne is well-connected in the Imperial Court,” I said as I showed Cassandra the letter. I figured she’d be the one to make the official call on whether or not I should go. “Her support might be more valuable than that of the clerics.”

“She does have many followers,” Cassandra begrudgingly admitted. “It is she who leads the Loyalist mages after all.”

Did Solas tense up or had I imagined it? Either way, this was not a good topic of conversation. He was firmly against the Circles and the imprisonment of mages – one of the reasons he and Vivienne would not get along.

“Related subject,” I said, desperate to change it. “Can I wear this to her soirée?” I gestured to my armor, which suddenly felt bigger and bulkier than ever before.

Cassandra frowned. “Unfortunately, no. We will have to purchase appropriate attire for you immediately.”

Oh no. Cass looked about as excited as I felt about picking a formal gown. Orlesian fashion was definitely not my cup of tea – and I was neutral on tea to begin with. I didn’t even know if I needed a mask, as was customary in Orlais. Broaching the subject of my wardrobe was a terrible idea.

“Now this I have to see,” Varric put in with amusement.

“NO!” I snapped at him. He looked surprised that my response was so forceful.

Cassandra growled at both of us. “We will do what must be done,” she told me. Turning to Varric, she added, “And you will be quiet, dwarf.”

Chapter Text

Cassandra and I were both pretty clueless when it came to high Orlesian fashion. That unfortunately made Varric’s input necessary. I half-expected him to troll me with some terrible advice, but from what I could tell, he was genuinely being helpful. He was especially good at charming the staff as we went through the largest and most established stores in Orlais, searching for a gown that would suit me.

There weren’t many options available for my body type and specifications. It didn’t help that I only had a vague idea of what I was looking for. I knew the effect I wanted to have: fashionably fitting in with the crowd while still having a unique presence. Being the center of attention was not a thrilling prospect, but I was going to have to endure it in order to win Vivienne’s respect.

Finally, we had the good fortune to come across a smaller boutique with a selection of promising evening gowns on display. The designer introduced herself as Madame Zélie and our salvation. She had a deep purple gown on hand that could be tailored to fit me. An intricate floral pattern was embroidered into the bodice, leading into vines that spread across the skirt like a spiderweb. The poofy sleeves were definitely not my style, but were large enough to pass as chic by current Orlesian standards. However, the pockets hidden in the gown’s layers of fabric were a delightful surprise. What a blessing that the marquise who commissioned the gown had rejected it the moment that a better known designer became available. I said as much to the couturière, who was overjoyed that the Herald of Andraste appreciated her work. Much later, Varric told me that was one of the reasons she gave us a good price on the gown.

Madame Zélie truly was our salvation. I had never anticipated needing so many accessories for the rest of the ensemble, but she had everything well in hand. While I generally wasn’t a fan of white gloves, the matching pair was rather pretty, embroidered with the same vine pattern as the gown. They were lightweight enough that the heat from the mark was not overwhelming. Incredibly, Madame Zélie worked her magic and fashioned a silver half-mask that could fit around my glasses. The inside was padded to ensure the lenses would not get scratched.

Shoes were a bigger challenge, as I needed to be able to walk in them without falling over. After discussing the matter with her associate, Madame Zélie revealed a pair of dress shoes with thick soles. Poor Leliana will be horrified to learn that huge blocky shoes are making a comeback.

Madame Zélie was scandalized that I opted to wear my own necklace rather than something larger and more ornate. The plain silver chain and ceramic black bear charm didn’t exactly meet Orlesian standards, but I didn’t care. Aside from my glasses, Rufus was the only other piece of home that had been transported with me. He had to stay, whether he was appropriate for the occasion or not.

Now that I had everything on, I was excited about being dressed up. There was something about the whole ensemble that made me feel West Side Story pretty. It wouldn’t last, of course. The moment my lack of mobility restricted me, the feeling would dissipate. But for the moment, I could almost believe I belonged here.

“You will certainly leave quite the impression on Val Royeaux.”

My cheeks instantly turned pink. I hadn’t noticed Solas moving up behind me. A quick glance in the mirror showed Cassandra and Varric were busy paying for the ensemble and had not overheard.

“Honestly, I’m glad to hear you say that. This is hardly my area of expertise.” It was true. Solas’s humble appearance was the result of deliberate choices. I was grateful for his opinion on my overall presentation. Though I hate being sized up like this by anyone, I admitted as I tried not to squirm too openly. Especially him.

The corner of his mouth twitched with amusement. “They will remember you.”

The last few necessities would have to be acquired elsewhere. Madame Zélie had given me the name of a stylist and a set of instructions, but we were on our own for the rest. As it turned out, there wasn’t much that could be done with my hair, as it never responded well to such treatments. So I ended up with a short, slightly wavy style much like I’d had before, only neater.

When it came to cosmetics in any world, I was utterly lost. Fortunately, the woman Madame Zélie had recommended took a shine to me – or at least the Inquisition’s bankroll – and set me up with everything that was needed. She didn’t seem thrilled that I wanted to keep my look as natural as possible, especially since Madame Zélie had envisioned a much more stylized countenance. To her credit as a makeup artist, she managed to find a happy medium.

Varric insisted that perfume was a must when making a grand public appearance. I was exhausted from running around half of Val Royeaux and had no interest in coming across like one of his book characters. However, I’d come too far to quit now.

By the time we located a perfumerie and obtained a scent of roses, the sun was low in the sky. We would have to hurry to reach the place specified by the Jennies before dusk.

As we rushed toward the ship to drop off the packages accumulated throughout the day, I heard someone call out to me.

“If I might have a moment of your time?”

I whirled around to see an elf clad in Circle robes step out of the shadows. While her face was unfamiliar, I recognized her voice immediately.

“Grand Enchanter Fiona?” Cassandra sounded as surprised as I felt.

“Leader of the mage rebellion,” added Solas incredulously. “Is it not dangerous for you to be here?” That’s the most emotion he’s shown since I last heard him talk about the Fade. Of course, he did have some stake in her safety. Even though he wandered outside the boundaries of the Circle and would always be considered an apostate, Solas was in favor of this world being as mage-friendly as possible in the interim.

“I heard of this gathering, and I wanted to see the fabled Herald of Andraste with my own eyes.” Which look rather like your son’s, I noted silently. “If it’s help with the Breach you seek, perhaps my people are the wiser option.”

I had forgotten how receptive Fiona was when it came to the Inquisition’s objective of closing the Breach. Did she know how few options the mages would have in the long run? Or did she simply feel threatened by “Lucius?” I vaguely recalled that she suspected him of killing Divine Justinia to turn the people of Thedas even further against the mages. Whatever her reasoning, it was a mutually beneficial move. It was also convenient, since I’d already been planning on reaching out to the mages.

“Is that an official offer, Grand Enchanter?” I asked.

Surprisingly, Fiona did not answer directly. “We’re willing to discuss it with the Inquisition, at least. Consider this an invitation to Redcliffe: come meet with the mages. An alliance could help us both, after all.” I marveled at how much better the mages’ bargaining position was at this time. Because Alexius hasn’t shown up in Redcliffe and messed up the timeline yet. It was difficult to imagine what he could have possibly said to get Fiona to see a Tevinter magister as their only option. “I hope to see you there. Au revoir, my lady Herald.”

“See you soon, Grand Enchanter.” I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d bothered. Fiona would not remember this meeting once the timeline was altered. That’s not guaranteed to happen, is it? Who could even tell what was certain in this world?

I sensed Solas’s weight shift next to me. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew Solas would prefer working with the mages if there was a choice. But the importance of closing the Breach meant he’d assist the templars with the process too. Very pragmatic, as always. I suppressed a grin.

“Well, that was easy,” quipped Varric.

Cassandra frowned. No doubt she would have rathered the templars’ aid. If all goes well, we’ll get that too. “Come, let us return to the ship. We have much left to do before we return to Haven.”

Chapter Text

The sun was brushing the horizon as we finished stowing the packages on the ship. Thankfully, the courtyard for the meeting wasn’t very far from the docks. But afterwards, we’ll have to come back here so I can get ready for Vivienne’s soirée. And then travel all the way to the Ghislain estate… We’d be cutting it close, but it was doable.

The crowds had thinned out. Most people were either headed to the residential areas of the city or to the Grand Cathedral for evening services. Our destination lay in one of the sections of the city reserved for nobility. We walked in pairs so as to draw less attention to ourselves. Varric took his usual place by Cassandra’s side, while I stayed in back with Solas. I had to remain unnoticed and off the front line. The chill in the air from the winds of winter ensured that we weren’t the only people whose identities were obscured under the hoods of their cloaks.

At last we found the entrance to the courtyard and let ourselves in with the key from the Jennies. As the gate swung shut behind us, two guards came our way.

“Who goes there?” asked the taller one. She was wary, but not on alert yet.

The shorter guard stared at me suspiciously. “It’s the Herald!” he shouted, raising his sword.

Cassandra bashed him in the face with her shield. Her cloak fell to the ground, forgotten. The man staggered backwards. With his focus on me, he hadn’t seen the blow coming. Nor did he see the Seeker’s blade bury itself deep in his exposed chest. At the same moment, the tall guard reeled backwards from the force of a crossbow bolt striking her in the neck.

A series of crackling sounds echoed across the courtyard as a third guard was encased in a giant block of ice. Solas leaned against his staff and thrust his free hand in the guard’s direction. Lightning flashed from his palm to the guard, who was instantly electrocuted with a loud sizzle.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. I wouldn’t’ve had a chance to pull out my daggers even if I’d tried – which I had not. While I wanted to put Isabela’s training to good use, I had to remain presentable for Vivienne’s soirée. The mission comes first, and that means not messing up my makeup or hair. This is why I generally don’t bother with makeup – too stressful to maintain a look. At least I could use my omniscience to avoid all the fights here.

We crossed the courtyard, making our way to the double doors on the opposite side. Cassandra opened one of them. She immediately hid behind her shield as two fireballs flew directly at her. The nobleman Sera had sent us to find swore as his spells deflected away harmlessly. Holy shit, that guy’s a mage? File that under “Details I’ve Forgotten About Inquisition.” So much for omniscience.

“Herald of Andraste!” the man spat out as he saw me behind Cass. “How much did you expend to discover me? It must have weakened the Inquisition immeasurably!”

“Um…nothing? I don’t even know who you are.” Pompous windbag. I refused to call him that to his face. Though he was an immediate threat, he wasn’t worthy of being dignified with an insult.

“You don’t fool me!” he sneered. “I’m too important for this to be an accident! My efforts will survive in victories against you elsewhere!”

Sounds of fighting erupted behind the man. I grinned as he turned to see an elf with uneven hair dropping a now-dying guard to the ground. Thanks, Sera. That conversation hadn’t been going anywhere anyway.

“Just say ‘what!’” Sera dared him, notching an arrow and aiming directly at the man’s face.

“What is the –“ The arrow struck him just below the mask line. I couldn’t help flinching, even though I was used to Sera’s brutal justice after multiple Inquisition playthroughs. She HAD promised to release on “what” – and she did, with laser precision.

“Ugh!” Sera wrinkled her nose in disgust as she went to retrieve her arrow. “Squishy one, but you heard me, right? ‘Just say ‘what.’’ Rich tits always try for more than they deserve.” It took me a second to figure out that she was referring to the noble being squishy, not me. Dammit Varric. “’Blah blah blah! Obey me, arrow in my face!’” She cleaned off the tip of her arrow before placing it back in her quiver. “So, you followed the notes well enough,” Sera observed. “Glad to see you’re…you’re kind of plain, really. All that talk, and then you’re just…a person.” I couldn’t tell if she was more relieved or disappointed that I was not, in fact, six feet tall with lasers shooting out of my eyes or whatever other nonsense people were saying. “I mean, it’s all good, innit?” she added quickly, clearly understanding how bad what she’d said sounded. “The important thing is you glow. You’re the Herald thingy.”

Sera finally paused to come up for air and confirmation. I held up my left hand, the mark showing through the hole cut into the palm of my glove. “That’s me! But you can call me Nancy.” I inclined my chin toward the nobleman’s corpse. “Thanks for the tip on this jackass.”

She grinned. “My people said the Inquisition would want to have a look at him.” In game, that was the Herald’s cue to assume Sera’s people were elves. I am definitely not doing that. Ever. “Name’s Sera. This is cover. Get ‘round it. For the reinforcements.” She gestured to a nearby stack of boxes. “Don’t worry. Someone tipped me their equipment shed.” With a giggle, Sera confided, “They’ve got no breeches.” I couldn’t help but grin back. She was positively gleeful about this particular detail.

That was when the reinforcements arrived, swarming into the courtyard from the same side Sera had entered. Cassandra moved forward to intercept the guards. Varric and Sera provided cover fire as Solas dropped a barrier on us. I dashed around the boxes as instructed. Even if I hadn’t been avoiding direct combat, it would have been dangerous to stay in the open against the archers. As promised, none of the guards was wearing pants.

“Why didn’t you take their weapons?” Cassandra shouted over the din of battle.

“Because no breeches!” Sera yelled back with another giggle.

Cassandra’s disgusted sigh was audible even at this distance. I caught a chuckle from Varric as well. That figures, I thought, rolling my eyes at his lack of taste. My amusement stemmed from Sera’s enjoyment of her prank, not the act itself. At least our resident trickster is with me on this. Solas hadn’t shown any visible reaction to Sera, but I knew his kind of humor wasn’t derived from stealing people’s pants.

It didn’t take long for the others to dispatch the pantless guards. That would hopefully be the last fight I had to miss on account of my appearance.

“Friends really came through with that tip. No breeches!” Sera chortled as she came back over to me. “So, Herald of Andraste. You’re a strange one. I’d like to join.”

“We’d love to have you join the Inquisition,” I told her, aggressively pushing past all the introductory exposition. “And any other Jennies who want to come along.” I expected most of the Jennies probably wouldn’t. They were servants and peasants, not fighters. But if they didn’t have homes they could return to, I wanted to leave the door open for them.

“Yes! Get in good before you’re too big to like. That’ll keep your breeches where they should be. Plus extra breeches, since I have all these…” Sera trailed off. “You have merchants who buy that pish, yeah? Got to be worth something. Anyway. This will be grand.”

As Sera scurried off to retrieve the stolen breeches, Cassandra approached me. “Maker’s breath, I know we need all the help we can get, but who is she? How can we trust her? Who are these ‘Friends of Red Jenny?’”

I guess I’m not getting out of the explanation that easily. Cass’s reaction was justified. My initial impression of Sera had been similar, but after multiple playthroughs of Inquisition, I’d grown a lot more patient with her and her pranks. Plus understanding what she’s talking about helps. “I’ll explain on the way. Madame de Fer awaits.”

Chapter Text

Sera directed us to a shortcut that would help us return to the ship faster, then left to gather her things for the trip to Haven. She took the extra breeches with her.

The moment Sera was out of sight, Cassandra demanded answers about the Red Jennies. I did my best to assuage her concerns as we headed back to the ship.

“The Jennies are basically a few individuals who act under the same name. They’re not really a proper group,” I explained. “As a whole, they generally don’t support organizations of any kind. Too likely that it’ll come back to bite them. To their way of thinking, organizations give their leaders power and influence. Said leaders are the ones who oppress those without power. That’s why people who want to take a stand against the corrupt powers that be join or work with the Jennies in the first place. It’s the only way they can retaliate without overly endangering themselves.”

“Then surely supporting the Inquisition is a trick of some kind.”

Ugh. Proving the Jennies’ honesty without using in-game examples was a pain in the ass. “I don’t think so. If the Jennies – and Sera specifically – had a problem with the Inquisition, they could have just let that guy attack us. They could have even helped him! No, this was a show of good faith.”

Cassandra sighed heavily. “You may be right,” she conceded. But she still doesn’t truly understand. I couldn’t blame her. It can be difficult to understand the Jennies without having seen them in action. I rubbed my forehead, trying to stave off the forming headache. Attempting to get into the nuances of how the Jennies operate was taxing my strength.

“Look at it this way,” I said, trying a different tact. “Sera herself is joining us. She’s earnest in her support. Between her bow and her connections across Thedas, she’s a useful ally.”

“I suppose we will have to see.” Not the answer I was hoping for, but probably the best I could get under the circumstances. It’ll take time.

The lack of pedestrians on the now-empty streets enabled us to reach the docks more quickly than I had anticipated. Still feeling pressed for time, I hurried below deck to change for the soirée, Cassandra in tow. Though I intended to handle most of the process myself, I would need help fastening the buttons on the back of the gown.

Getting dressed up was easier the second time around, since I knew where everything was supposed to go. I couldn’t resist doing one Disney princess twirl before heading back out onto the deck. If Orlesian nobility obtained confidence boosts every time they got dressed, I could understand some of the Great Game’s appeal. The intricacies were fascinating…if you could forget that real people would suffer the consequences of the actions taken. Which I cannot.

There was a carriage waiting for us near the docks. Once again, I was grateful to Madame Zélie, who had told us where to hire one for the night. That was a detail I had not considered when looking to prepare for Vivienne’s salon. The odds of my tripping, falling, and ruining everything due to my new wardrobe had now dropped drastically.

The low-hanging sun cast the city in pinks and purples. It grew dark quickly, the flickering torchlights on the streets the only warmth as we reached the Ghislain Estate. The château was grandiose in typical Orlesian fashion, but lacked any distinguishing features. I would have expected a residence inhabited by Vivienne to have a certain je ne sais quoi to set it apart from other nobles’ estates. Could this be connected to Bastien’s failing health? Or am I simply ignorant of what’s considered attractive in Orlesian architecture?

I stepped down from the carriage, and was immediately escorted into the estate by attentive servants. Don’t look back. I wanted to know where Cassandra intended to stand guard outside. If something went horribly wrong, I’d need to find her quickly. But it would be a weakness to appear unsure of myself, so I continued on, prepared to cross that bridge when – if – I came to it.

Upon entering the foyer, I discovered the gala was already underway. I held my breath as I carefully ascended the steps into the mansion proper. Not being able to see my feet, especially when wearing new shoes, was troublesome. Why is there no delicate way of handling staircases? I assumed as haughty an expression as I could to deflect attention away from my discomfort.

A courtier standing at the top of the stairs asked for my name. It took me a moment to understand he was going to announce my arrival to the assembled guests. “Nancy – Lady Nancy – of the Inquisition,” I declared with as much dignity as I could muster. The title still did not come easily. I neglected to add the Herald of Andraste part, just in case some noble loyal to the Chantry took offense.

“Lady Nancy, representing the Inquisition,” the courtier proclaimed as I entered the ballroom. Definitely sounds better when he says it.

I braced myself as I surveyed the room. A chill lingered in the air, despite the number of nobles present. They were studying each other’s reactions more than the exquisitely carved statuary and general splendors of the room. As one would expect at an Orlesian social function. Though my omniscience gave me confidence I would not have possessed otherwise, I felt more in danger here than I had on the streets of Val Royeaux. Any of these nobles could secretly be an enemy of the Inquisition. As knowledgeable as Vivienne was about the inner workings of Orlais, she couldn’t know everyone’s agendas. After all, she has no idea who Corypheus is yet, let alone who might be one of his agents. Could the plot to assassinate Empress Celene already be underway?

“What a pleasure to meet you, my lady.” One of the nearby noblemen welcomed me into his conversation. “Seeing the same faces at every event becomes so tiresome.” As if anyone actually sees faces at these things, I quipped mentally with a glance at the man’s mask. “So you must be a guest of Madame de Fer. Or are you here for Duke Bastien?” And so begins the hunt for information. The man’s tone was friendly, but I recognized what he was really up to. Politeness was a double-edged sword in Orlais.

“Are you here on business?” asked the noblewoman with him, her face almost entirely obscured by her mask and high collar. “I have heard the most curious tales of you. I cannot imagine half of them are true.”

Her phrasing invited me to ask what she had heard. I’m not rising to that bait. “I imagine that none of them are true,” I confided in her. “But don’t tell anyone that. Let them enjoy their intrigues.”

The woman laughed politely. “A pity! I had so hoped some of them were more than wild tales.” I didn’t remember her shutting down so completely in game. Does this mean I won that exchange? Or that I’m terrible at playing the Game?

“The Inquisition?” an arrogant voice broke into our conversation, far too loudly to be appropriate for the setting. “What a load of pig shit!” I recognized the marquis as he dramatically descended the grand staircase into the ballroom. Marquis Alphonse, if my memory served correctly. He’d been awful to Vivienne in the past, so she had invited him tonight with the express purpose of destroying his reputation. Or rather, giving him the opportunity to do so himself, I noted dryly. His yellow-orange doublet clashed with the more subdued tones of the décor. Typical. “Washed-up sisters and crazed Seekers? No one can take them seriously. Everyone knows it’s just an excuse for a bunch of political outcasts to grab power.”

I bit back my first instinct to tell him where his head must be located. How could he have missed seeing the hole in the sky? Can’t sink to his level. “The Inquisition exists to close the Breach and restore order to Thedas.”

The Marquis sneered at that. Of course he did. When it comes to the players of the Great Game, power is always the underlying motive. “Here comes the outsider, restoring peace with an army! We know what your ‘Inquisition’ truly is.” He stepped forward into my personal space. I didn’t budge, even as my petticoats shifted around me. I glared at him defiantly through my mask. He grinned back menacingly. “If you were a woman of honor, you’d step outside and answer the charges.”

Alphonse reached for his sword. He made it no further than that as magical ice crackled around him, freezing him in place. As faint gasps echoed around me, I sought out the spell’s source at the top of the grand staircase. Delicate fingers caressed the bannister, the tips still sparkling with the remnants of magic. The pristine whites and dove grays of the woman’s impeccably chosen wardrobe gave her a soft glow as they reflected the moonlight. The dragon-like spires of her hennin gave her silhouette an even more intimidating presence.

“My dear Marquis,” the woman spoke, her voice steel sheathed in velvet. “How unkind of you to use such language in my house…to my guests.” First Enchanter Vivienne glided down the stairs and stopped directly in front of the trapped marquis. She towered over him, her posture exuding power with seemingly little effort. Truly a star entrance if there ever was one, I marveled. “You know such rudeness is…intolerable.”

“Madame Vivienne, I humbly beg your pardon!” Alphonse sputtered through the gap Vivienne had left in the ice.

“You should,” she replied curtly. “Whatever am I going to do with you, my dear?” Turning to me, she softened her tone. “My lady, you’re the wounded party in this unfortunate affair. What would you have me do with this foolish, foolish man?”

I was ready for the question. “As you said, Madame Vivienne, this is your house. As he is your guest, his fate is yours to determine.”

Without missing a beat, Vivienne cupped the cheek of the still-frozen marquis in a gesture of pity. “Poor Marquis, issuing challenges and hurling insults like some Fereldan dog-lord.” I forced myself not to bristle defensively on behalf of Fereldans. Vivienne took a step back and snapped her fingers.  The ice around Alphonse shattered. “And all dressed up in your Aunt Solange’s doublet. Didn’t she give you that to wear to the Grand Tourney? To think, all the brave chevaliers who will be competing left for Markham this morning…and you’re still here.” The marquis hung his head in shame. Vivienne had very much outplayed him. “Were you hoping to sate your damaged pride by defeating the Herald of Andraste in a public duel? Or did you think her blade could put an end to the misery of your failure?” Alphonse had no answer for her. “Run along, my dear. Do give my regards to your aunt.”

Dismissed, the marquis left in disgrace. I wondered if he would ever figure out that Vivienne had tricked him into challenging me in the first place. I rather doubted it. She had never fed him the idea directly, only left a letter where he could find it. That lie prompted him to act against the Inquisition. Of course, even if he did determine she’d set him up, it would only make her revenge all the sweeter.

Vivienne turned back to me, all smiles as though nothing had occurred. “I’m delighted you could attend this little gathering. I’ve so wanted to meet you.” With a subtle nod of her head, Vivienne indicated that I should follow her. We passed the window where our conversation took place in game, continuing on until we reached a set of double doors. Servants opened them, letting us out into the night. My nerves tingled. Where on earth are we going?

Chapter Text

As I followed Vivienne outside, my hand reflexively slipped past the handkerchief in my pocket to my pouch of smoke pellets. I didn’t expect anything bad to happen with Vivienne – I just didn’t trust Orlais.

I gasped softly as I saw where she was leading me. Before us lay a manicured garden lit by lanterns hanging from the jaws of stone lions. A high hedge surrounded the private courtyard, protecting it from view. A fountain with a statue of a pair of lovers dancing atop it adorned the center. That’s Vivienne! I imagined the casual viewer would assume it was the duke’s late wife, but there was no mistaking the First Enchanter’s poise.

Vivienne took a seat at a table near the fountain and waved me toward the place across from her. Freshly-poured tea and sweet cakes awaited us.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” she said. “I am Vivienne, First Enchanter of Montsimmard and Enchantress to the Imperial Court.”

I couldn’t help but wonder when Vivienne last visited Montsimmard. Now is not the time, I chided myself. “A pleasure to meet you, Madame Vivienne.” That felt too trite, but I was afraid to say anything else, lest I accidentally say too much.

“Ah, but I didn’t invite you to the château for pleasantries.” Her tone grew more businesslike. “With Divine Justinia dead, the Chantry is in shambles. Only the Inquisition might restore sanity and order to our frightened people.” The smile of the hostess returned. “As the leader of the last loyal mages of Thedas, I feel it only right that I lend my assistance to your cause.”

“That’s quite the offer.” I wanted to just say yes immediately, since recruiting her was the reason I had come here to begin with. But would Vivienne take that as a sign of gullibility? I didn’t want her to think I was a pushover or terrible at the Game. “Would you be supporting us here in Val Royeaux?”

“Ordinarily, I would be happy to serve as liaison to the court, but these are not ordinary times. The Veil has been ripped apart, and there is a hole in the sky.” The edge returned to her voice. “It is now the duty of every mage to work toward sealing the Breach, and so I would join the Inquisition on the field of battle.”

“Ah…I see.” I mulled over this information, trying to settle on an appropriate follow-up question. “So you’ll be bringing the Loyalists with you?”

She didn’t miss a beat. “The best of my esteemed colleagues will join us, yes. Those who are not suited for battle will stay to help rebuild the Circles. Everyone has their role to play.”

“And there are no small parts,” I agreed. “If I may ask, what do your colleagues offer aside from magical skill?” It was a fair question, since Vivienne’s Loyalists didn’t actually assist with closing the Breach in the game. And I don’t want to challenge Vivienne’s qualifications – then I’d appear uninformed.

“The Circle has a number of researchers who have dedicated their lives to magical studies. Their knowledge will no doubt prove invaluable in finding the best way to close the Breach.”

I slowly and deliberately sipped my tea. It was bitter, but I wasn’t going to show weakness by sweetening it. I wasn’t even thirsty; I just needed to stop myself from telling her we already had an expert on the Breach. Why must the Game be so complicated? “So you believe in our cause.”

Vivienne laughed airily. “Of course, my dear. There is no other sensible course of action to take.”

“Even though the Chantry doesn’t support us? Especially knowing how powerful an institution it is?” I highly doubted she was unaware of the Inquisition’s status in Val Royeaux.

“The Chantry is leaderless,” Vivienne said dismissively. “They’re in no position to officially sanction anything.” She savored her tea, allowing that point to sink in. “Besides, my dear, if there is one virtue the Chant of Light teaches us, it is forgiveness. Once the Inquisition has sealed the Breach, I’m sure the new Divine will not care in the slightest about official permission.”

She was really good at this. Vivienne was letting me control the direction of the conversation, making me think I was calling the shots. Except I actually am, since I know everything about her.

I had an idea. Let’s turn this back on her. “What about after the Breach is closed? What are your plans?”

“Much the same as yours, I expect,” Vivienne replied smoothly. “Thedas must be brought back to order. However, that process begins with closing the Breach.”

That gave me nothing. Not that I don’t already know her plans. I had just hoped for something more concrete. No point in stalling anymore.

“Very well, Madame Vivienne. As time is of the essence, I would like to officially welcome you to the Inquisition.”

She smiled as she took one of the sweet cakes from the table. “Great things are beginning, my dear. I can promise you that.”

I smiled back. “Of that, I have no doubt.”

As Vivienne discussed the arrangements she would make once the party was over, I breathed an internal sigh of relief. Hopefully our future conversations wouldn’t be this exhausting. But they will be. The Game never ends. You have to maintain your illusion.

After meeting her face to face and hearing the insincerity in her voice, the truth was clearer than ever. Vivienne talked a good game, but it was just words. All she truly wanted was political power and she didn’t care who she stepped on to get it. None of that erased her accomplishments or the suffering she had endured as both a mage and a self-made woman. But she was not my kind of person.

 And yet, we do need her, as well as the connections she’s cultivated. I might find being around her stressful, but the same was true of Varric. None of that matters anyway. Not in the big picture. Who was I to turn down help for the Inquisition, even if it wasn’t entirely free?

Chapter Text

We spent an extra day in Val Royeaux to allow Vivienne the time to contact her people and collect the supplies she would need in Haven. I had no doubt that a few of those things would be niceties only found in major cities. Even Josephine had mentioned once that she “made do” in Haven. It didn’t bother me as much, since all of Thedas lacked the amenities I was used to at home.

The journey back to Haven was as peaceful as the trip from it. Unfortunately, “peaceful” didn’t mean “easy.” The weather had shifted to heavy rain, leaving us all soaked through and miserable. Especially Varric, to my extreme non-surprise. Seeing the road was a challenge, both for us and the horses. Driving the cart got exponentially more difficult, so our speed slowed to a crawl. At least no one had to slog through the mud, since there was room for Sera and Vivienne in my cart. Still, with all the complaining, it was a great relief to finally reach Haven.

We arrived sometime in the afternoon, the storm making it difficult to pinpoint exactly when. I had barely gotten down from the cart when Cassandra insisted she and I see the rest of the council immediately. Had this been the game and not reality, I would have gone with her without hesitation. But it was real and I needed to put my body’s needs first. When I told Cass as much, she agreed. A relief, I thought. On a number of levels.

We regrouped outside the chantry a few minutes later. Someone must have sent word that we had come back from Val Royeaux, as the rest of the council was already waiting for us when we entered.

“It’s good you’ve returned,” Josephine said. “We heard of your encounter.”

“You heard?” Cassandra’s surprise was understandable. Unless the agent we had met at the gates of the Summer Bazaar had disobeyed orders, she would not have seen our run-in with Lucius.

“Of course,” Leliana broke in with a small smile. “I have more than one agent in the city,” she reminded Cassandra. “One of the others sent word ahead.”

“It’s a shame the templars have abandoned their senses as well as the capital,” Cullen added, getting us back on topic.

I neglected to point out how ironic that declaration was coming from a man who had left the templars in favor of the Inquisition. He could have stayed to lead Kirkwall’s templars after the confrontation with Knight-Commander Meredith and trained them to see things as he did. Instead, he came here. Not that I could blame Cullen for wanting to get away from such a corrupt system. He’s not the kind of leader to change the existing power structure. Cullen’s the type you go to when you need to maintain it. The excellent condition of the Inquisition’s forces was a testament to that.

“It didn’t appear to be all of them,” I replied instead. “At least one templar didn’t seem happy about the orders he was following.”

Cullen snorted. “Now that doesn’t surprise me. Who was he?”

I hesitated. I only knew who I’d spoken to because of my omniscience. But no one can prove that, provided that Ser Barris assumes someone told me to talk to him. “Ser Delrin Barris.”

The name evoked a spark of recognition. “We’ve never met, but I know of him. A good man and a better templar. Did you speak with him?”

 Doubt gripped my heart for a moment. No, you have to do this. It’ll raise questions later otherwise. “I told him he could join us and bring as many like-minded templars with him as he could.” With the exception of Cassandra, the council looked collectively shocked. “I don’t know if he will,” I added quickly. “It was hardly an official conversation. And there was no indication that he was even considering the option. Either way, there is no guarantee that there would be enough templars to help us close the Breach.”

“Then you intend to meet with the mages in Redcliffe instead?” Josephine asked me.

Guess that means Leliana’s agents passed along that information too. “That is the plan, yes.”

“You think the mage rebellion is more united?” Cullen protested. “It could be ten times worse!”

“Perhaps,” I agreed. He’s not wrong about the dissenters. “But it comes down to this: Grand Enchanter Fiona proposed a potential alliance between the mages and the Inquisition. Lord Seeker Lucius wants nothing to do with us. Ser Barris might not bring followers, if he comes to us at all. While it’s clear that something odd is going on within the templar order, closing the Breach is our highest priority. The templars are in no position to do that.” I was grateful the mages’ problems weren’t immediately apparent.

“And yet, you have already extended an offer to the templars,” Cassandra noted. “I doubt the mages will approve.”

“I offered Ser Barris nothing but an invitation to Haven and refuge from whatever Lucius has become. We already have both mages and templars within the Inquisition.” Cullen frowned. “And former templars,” I added before he could correct me. “If they can all deal with it, then so can the rebel mages. Our focus must be the Breach.”

“This may work to our advantage,” Josephine declared. “If we can unite the rebel mages and remaining templars under the Inquisition’s banner, it would send a powerful message to the rest of Thedas.”

If we can,” sighed Cassandra. “I do not believe that negotiations in Redcliffe will go as you expect them to.”

I raised an eyebrow at Cass. She would have been right if I didn’t have foreknowledge of the entire situation. But this was speculation. “You think it’s some sort of trap?”

“If some among the rebel mages were responsible for what happened at the Conclave…”

“The same could be said about the templars,” Josephine countered.

“It’s a risk either way,” I conceded, sidestepping the specifics of what the risks actually were. “But I believe our odds of reaching an official agreement with the mages are far stronger at the moment.” In the meantime, I’ll hope against hope that Ser Barris will take my warning to heart.

“Take a few days to prepare before setting out for Redcliffe,” Leliana told me. “Even if this storm does not pass before then, we cannot afford to delay further.”

I nodded. “Absolutely.”

The rest of the council dispersed, our business as a group concluded for the moment. Leliana waited for the others to get out of earshot before continuing.

“There is one other matter,” she confided. “Several months ago, the Grey Wardens of Ferelden vanished. I sent word to the Wardens in Orlais, but they have also disappeared.” I listened attentively, as though I hadn’t heard her tell me this before. “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even consider the idea they’re involved in all this, but the timing is…curious.”

Indeed it is. “I doubt it’s a coincidence,” I agreed.

Relief flickered briefly in Leliana’s eyes. “The others have disregarded my suspicion, but I cannot ignore it. Two days ago, my agents in the Hinterlands heard news of a Grey Warden by the name of Blackwall. If you have the opportunity, please seek him out. Perhaps he can put my mind at ease.”

Sorry, Leli. He doesn’t know what’s going on either. “I’ll find him.”

“Thank you. I fear there may be more going on than we thought.”

Chapter Text

I stopped myself from dancing out of the chantry. Things were really progressing quickly now if we were already going to recruit Thom. No, Blackwall. Thinking of him by his real name was a bad idea. I could slip up and reveal his identity before he was ready. And I am not going to cheat him of that choice. At any rate, learning Blackwall was out there meant that Cremisius Aclassi would be waiting for me outside, ready to offer the services of Bull’s Chargers to the Inquisition. I couldn’t wait to meet the Iron Bull and see the Storm Coast. If I was going to be soaked through, at least let it be by the sea.

But it wasn’t Krem waiting by the chantry. The hooded figure wasn’t nearly armored enough. I squinted through the pouring rain. That silhouette…

“Solas?” Guilt struck me as suddenly as confusion. The rain was still coming down in sheets. Even though Solas’s hooded cloak protected him from the worst of the elements, I very much doubted that this had been a comfortable wait. I pulled my own hood up and hurried to join him. “What are you…?” I couldn’t finish the question without sounding accusatory.

“It seems I once again bear a message for you.” He pulled a letter out and handed it to me, shielding it from the rain with his cloak. I hid the paper in my sleeve, then stuffed it into my pocket as best as I could without wrinkling it. There was no way I could read it out here.

“Thank you,” I replied in my bewilderment. “But where did this come from?”

Solas glanced up at the sky, then motioned for me to follow him. I nodded and did so. Damned fool, I growled at myself. Are you TRYING to get sick standing in the rain?

“One of the Inquisition’s couriers evidently mistook me for Meera,” he told me.

What the fuck? Even within the Inquisition’s ranks, Solas was being mistaken for a servant. “That’s terrible! Solas, don’t they know who you are?” BAD QUESTION. “You shouldn’t be subjected to that. No one should, honestly. I can handle my own letters.” I sighed. “I really hate it when you do that.”

Solas glanced at me curiously. “Do what? Receive your mail?” His tone was light, but I knew that expression. He’d tentatively taken the statement as an insult.

I gave him a pained look. “No, pose as a servant. Specifically mine.”

Despite the heavy rain and cloak partially masking his face, I could see Solas’s astonishment. My heart hurt. That shouldn’t be a surprise, vhenan. “Why? There is no harm done. I simply meet the expectations of the person in question.”

“That’s not the part that bothers me. I don’t want people thinking you’re subservient to me. Because you’re not.”

We reached Solas’s quarters before he could answer. Not a moment too soon, either. The rain was coming down harder than ever. The wind had shifted to blow the drops directly into my face, covering my glasses in seconds. The chill in the air got into my bones, making my teeth chatter.

I gratefully followed Solas out of the rain. The room was nearly as cold as it was outside, due to the lack of a fire in the fireplace, but at least it was dry. The tavern might have been warmer, but I doubted either of us wanted to deal with the crowd of people. Besides, Sera hangs out there and I’m not looking forward to her personality clashes with Solas.

 There was little here that appeared to actually belong to Solas, just some papers and books on one of the tables. The rest were items left by the home’s previous occupant from who knows how many years ago. I was under the impression that Haven had been occupied by pilgrims seeking Andraste’s Sacred Ashes after the Warden’s visit here, but I wasn’t sure how long they’d been gone.

Solas lit a fire with a flick of his wrist, doubling back to control it afterwards in a familiar fluid motion. I forced myself to stop staring. You’d think I’d have burned out on the excitement of seeing things that happened in game by now. I suppressed a grin. Never that one, though.

I peeled myself out of my soaked-through hoodie so I could clean my glasses. Even with the fire, I couldn’t stop shivering. For his part, Solas didn’t seem nearly as troubled by the cold. Of course he’s not, I reminded myself. This is the man who wandered around in the snow in little more than a long-sleeved shirt and leggings. In game, anyway.

Neither of us had said anything since we changed locations. My brain started running through all of the reasons that could be, coming to no useful conclusions. “I’m sorry if I offended you before,” I ventured, breaking the silence. “I hope you were treated with respect, regardless of perceived rank.”

Solas studied me for a moment. Reading him was difficult. I wondered how much I relied on prior knowledge to do that normally. These are uncharted waters. “The message bearer gave no indication that he considered me his equal. However, he also did not call me a knife-ear.” I flinched at the term. Even when said without venom behind it, the insult was still racially charged. “Why does this trouble you?”

I couldn’t tell if the question was in reference to what I’d said or the flinch. I opted to assume the former. “Because I won’t stand for that happening in the Inquisition.” A small voice in the back of my head asked if it was a good idea to be this frank in expressing my opinions. I ignored it. “Everyone’s got their biases, and elves tend to get the worst treatment out of anyone. If the mages and templars can work together, then people of different races can too without disrespecting each other. Meaning mostly the humans, since they tend to be the problem. But the point stands.”

I appeared to have once again stunned Solas into silence. You ARE aware that humans generally don’t support the elves with quite so much…fervor…right? Again, I told the voice to shut up. If there was any chance I could change the dynamic between the races of Thedas to be more accepting, then I would take it. Having the opportunity to hopefully save Ser Barris and his fellow templars had empowered me, even though there was no guarantee that any of them would survive. But hope was a powerful motivator, and now I was determined to stand up for what was right during the time I had here.

Solas’s intense gaze met mine. “While the thought is appreciated, it is not as simple as you might think.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I’m gonna do my best regardless.”

“Tell me, how do you intend to accomplish this unified front?”

It was a genuine question, not an attack. Unfortunately, that did not make it any easier to answer. “It’ll depend on individual situations, of course.” I paced around the room as I talked. Having an actual plan to put into action was not something I’d worked out yet. “But the basic idea is to talk to the troublemakers. Get them to explain why they feel how they do, so their logic can be picked apart. Once they start seeing those who are different from them as equal, things’ll be better. It’s not practical, but I’d talk to all of them myself if it helped.” Which reminds me, I thought as I spun back around. “I should pay Seggrit a visit after it stops raining. He’s definitely part of the problem.” I would never understand why the Inquisition allowed that price-gouging merchant to set up shop in Haven in the first place.

I grabbed the back of a nearby chair as a wave of dizziness came over me. What the hell? I hadn’t turned around that quickly.

“Hold still a moment.”

I hadn’t heard Solas approach. Acquiescing to his request was easy, as I feared falling over otherwise. Solas held his hands about an inch away from the sides of my face. My breath caught. Crestwood again. I forced my expression to stay impassive as Solas cast a spell.

This one was different than the healing magic he’d used on me before. His palms glowed a dark green instead of the usual orange-yellow. The barely audible hum was a different pitch. This magic resonated on a deeper level, its thin tendrils reaching through my skin and carrying away the fogginess clouding my mind. As Solas lowered his hands by my neck, then above my collarbone, it felt as though toxic particles were being strained through my skin and dissipating. And yet, I saw nothing but the glow of magic from Solas’s hands.

As Solas concentrated on his spell, I took advantage of the opportunity to study him. This was the longest he’d been in close proximity to me in weeks. I wasn’t getting the sense of uncomfortable tension from him anymore either. Maybe he’s finally forgotten – or at least forgiven me.

At last, the spell finished. I managed to wait until Solas had withdrawn from my personal space before coughing reactively. Only then did our eyes meet again.

“As I suspected,” he answered before I could ask. “You had indeed fallen ill on our journey back from Jader.”

So THAT was why he’d been mistaken for my servant. I couldn’t imagine how the courier had made that jump of logic. Now everything made sense. Solas had been waiting to heal me even before he intercepted the message.

I smiled. “Thanks, Solas.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until after the rain stopped and I’d returned to my quarters that I found the forgotten letter in my pocket. Between the wrinkles and rain damage, the poor thing looked the worse for wear. Hopefully I’d still be able to read it.

I dried out the envelope by the fire as best I could before opening it. While doing so, I made an exciting discovery: the seal on the envelope was marked with a bull. I had no idea the Chargers had a seal! In hindsight, it made sense that they would need one for official business. Sellswords have purchasable loyalty – if they wanted to instill trust in new clients, they’d have to win them over. Every bit of professionalism helps.

As I opened the envelope, I couldn’t help wondering what symbol Bull used for his messages to the qunari. Probably nothing. He’s a spy. The qunari likely wouldn’t approve of personal touches either. I brushed off the pang of sympathy I felt for Bull. He’ll get away from that life.

The ink had smudged in several places, but the letter remained overall legible. It was indeed from Krem. The contents were familiar: Bull’s Chargers, a mercenary company led by the Iron Bull, had gotten a lead about a Tevinter force and were preparing to intercept them. In addition to the free tip – most likely obtained through the qunari information network, I noted – the Inquisition was invited to watch the Chargers in action two weeks from now to see if we’d like to hire them.

But the location… I squinted more closely at the smeared writing to make sure I hadn’t misread. “…in the eastern Hinterlands, near the East Road.” That’s not right. We’re supposed to meet them on the beach of the Storm Coast. The Chargers have to fight the Vints there. This fight foreshadows a similar conflict that occurs during Bull’s personal quest, when Bull either reaffirms his loyalty to the Qun or frees himself from its grip. But if the Vints aren’t on the Storm Coast now, will they still show up there later?

I shook my head. The Chargers fighting Vints in the Hinterlands didn’t preclude Tevinter’s continued presence on the Storm Coast. But still, why the location change? These new mercs must have come to the Hinterlands with Magister Gereon Alexius. It wasn’t enough that he warped time in order to trick the rebel mages into following him – he had to retain control of Redcliffe. But why would the qunari care that Tevinter had a stronger hold on Ferelden? Or was this the Iron Bull’s idea? I didn’t have an answer for that. At this point, it didn’t seem to matter. The Chargers would be in the Hinterlands, so that’s where we’d have to go to meet them. And if the reason for the change is important, we’ll find out eventually anyway.

This would alter our itinerary for the forthcoming Hinterlands trip. I needed to tell Cassandra immediately. As the person in charge of organizing such plans, she would know how to best fit everything in. My hoodie was still damp from earlier, so I pulled on my cloak and went to find her.

I had never fully understood Cass’s role within the Inquisition until I came here. She was the only member of the war council who was consistently in the field. Someone had to make those tough on-the-fly decisions. That all got obscured in game once the Herald became Inquisitor. I suspected that would not be the case here. My knowledge of combat strategies was only theoretical.

A light rain had started up again by the time I found Cassandra. Despite the weather, she was hitting the training dummies in front of Haven. I couldn’t say I was surprised. She didn’t seem bothered by the interruption until I told her we had two stops to make before meeting the mages.

“It does not matter how skilled these mercenaries are. You said yourself that our priority must be the Breach.” Cassandra scowled. “We cannot spare the time to determine their skill before meeting with the rebel mages.”

“We could always use more talented muscle in our ranks,” I countered. Cass was right, of course. But I never delayed on recruiting anyone if I could help it. “The mages might be pleased that we have more non-templars in our ranks.”

Cassandra crossed her arms. “The mages’ comfort is not necessary for closing the Breach. They have already come to us to discuss an alliance. Further reassurances are a luxury.”

She had me there. I wasn’t happy. Recruiting the mages would prove more complicated than it appeared. In many ways, it would be simpler not to pursue Blackwall or Iron Bull and the Chargers. But that’s only if you don’t know the importance of their presence in the Inquisition.

Cass raised her eyebrows, a look of dawning realization spreading across her face. “You think I disapprove of investigating them at all.”

I shook my head. Especially not since you said that. “I’m just afraid we’ll run out of time. That goes for finding Blackwall as well. Even if that lead goes nowhere, it needs to be explored.”

“It does,” she admitted. “While we must act quickly, it would be foolish to ignore Leliana’s suspicion about the Wardens.” Her tone indicated that she still didn’t expect us to discover anything, but her respect for Leliana’s judgment overrode her own reservations. “We will find Bull’s Chargers and this Blackwall after we secure the alliance with the mages.”

This was why I loved working with Cass, even when we disagreed. No minced words, just respect for each other’s positions. Plus we both had a degree of flexibility when it came to planning, especially when presented with a logical counter-argument.

“Thank you, Cassandra. They’ll be worth our time.”

“I hope you are right. We may be sacrificing our chance to ensure the templars will help us with the Breach.”

Were this Inquisition and not reality, Cass would have been correct. I could only hope that situation would turn out differently here. “Do you know Ser Barris, Cassandra? Would he take the chance to join the Inquisition on behalf of the templars?”

From the look on her face, Cassandra had not expected the question. “I do not. But from what Cullen said of him and what we observed in Val Royeaux, he seems like a good and honorable man. In times like these, it is hard to know what the best course of action is.”

I nodded. I hadn’t expected her to have an answer, but I was glad she got the same impression I did. “I really do appreciate your support, even if you don’t always agree with my methods.”

“Your approach is sometimes…unconventional,” Cass agreed. “But perhaps that is what is needed.”

“I hope so! I don’t know how else to act.”

Chapter Text

The storms continued on and off over the next few days. Mercifully, the weather cleared by the time we were ready to leave for Redcliffe. The air remained bitterly cold, making my hands so stiff I could hardly move them. I was grateful that I had been relieved of my cart-driving duties. A couple of the soldiers from our escort had taken over that responsibility, leaving me free to shiver in the back.

It was going to take time for me to get used to having an entourage of soldiers going everywhere with us. The stealth mission to Val Royeaux had been the exception, not the rule. And from what I knew of the future to come, there wouldn’t be another situation like that one.

I was a little apprehensive about journeying to the Hinterlands after the attack on the first trip. There was unfortunately no way of avoiding the entrance where we’d been ambushed. Cassandra had our soldiers sweep the area before we passed through. Even with no signs of danger, it was still a relief to reach the Hinterlands gate safely.

We stopped briefly at the Crossroads to resupply and check in with Corporal Vale. The Inquisition’s presence had continued to spread across the Hinterlands in our absence. The refugees seemed genuinely glad to have our continued support and protection. No Tevinter forces had been reported yet. Either they were lying low or we’d actually made it to the Hinterlands before them. Unlikely, but it was worth hoping.

As we rode toward Redcliffe, my nerves started to get the better of me. Even knowing what was likely to happen only heightened my anticipation. If things unfolded here as they had in Inquisition, we were essentially walking into an unintentional trap. Fiona had invited us to Redcliffe in good faith before the timeline’s alteration. But after Alexius swooped in via time travel, he took leadership of the rebel mages. How did he even sneak himself and his soldiers in, anyway? Time travel wouldn’t exactly teleport them through space, just time.

Cassandra called for us to halt. Even before I turned around to see why we’d stopped, I heard the answer. The familiar crackle of an active Fade rift was audible up the road.

I jumped off the cart and readied my blades. I hadn’t used them in weeks, not since training with Bela. While I’d kept up practicing on my own, it wasn’t the same as being properly tested. This will be interesting.

As we approached the rift on foot, a group of Redcliffe soldiers came into view nearby. “I want a constant watch on that damned thing!” ordered their captain. “Sound the alarm at the first sign of demons!” Good, we’re not too late. This rift was right next to a highly populated area. Leaving it unchecked would be disastrous. Redcliffe’s soldiers might have dealt with attacks by the undead ten years ago, but there was no telling how much damage even one demon could cause – not that these rifts were generally in the habit of spawning just a single demon.

The captain spotted us coming. “Turn back!” she warned us. “We can’t open the gates until the threat has passed.”

No sooner had she finished the sentence than the rift opened and shades began spilling out of it. Something’s wrong. They were spawning far faster than usual.

Cassandra moved to separate me from the demons and commanded the Inquisition soldiers to engage. I mindvibed waves of gratitude towards her. There shouldn’t be this many demons. Not from this rift. Even with the combined forces of the Inquisition and Redcliffe, we still had quite a fight on our hands.

I watched the front line, ready to defend myself should any of the demons manage to break through. Thankfully, the soldiers looked to be holding steady in the face of such overwhelming opposition.

As a group of wraiths materialized behind the shades, a flash of understanding hit me. The rift was still spawning more demons. That’s not supposed to happen!

I had to get to the rift. It needed to be closed immediately.

But before I’d taken even one step, there was a yellow glow of magic in front of me. With an unearthly squeal, three shades popped into existence. Without thinking, I dashed to my left, putting as much distance between them and me as possible. What the fuck?

Cassandra turned and saw we’d been separated. She bashed one of the shades on the back of the head with her shield. Ice blocks encased the other two half a moment later as Solas and Vivienne cast their spells in tandem. I heard Sera screaming bloody murder about demons as she shot all three of the shades full of arrows. I couldn’t see Varric, but Bianca was firing away somewhere in the writhing mass of demons.

“I have to close the rift!” I yelled to Cass over the chaos.

Another series of high-pitched screeches surrounded us as half a dozen new shades blinked into our midst. “GO!” Cass shouted back as she threw herself deeper into the fray to give me a clear path.

I ran for the opening behind Cassandra. Why there was a gap so close to the front line was a mystery, but I’d take it. It didn’t last long. More shades were closing in fast. A few disappeared in yellow flashes, but most kept bearing down on me.

Bum-rushing the two nearest shades, I sank each of my daggers into the side of their heads. The demons screamed in unison as they fell. Bela was right about that weak spot. I dove toward the next, but it froze solid as I got within range.

I whirled around. Solas had followed me. Right, I’ll need his barrier for the rift. It was a good thing he was always 12 steps ahead of me in these situations. Plus his aid in clearing a path is welcome, I added as Solas dropped a static field to our left. About a dozen demons got yanked to its center with an electrifying jolt.

The screeches of disappearing and reappearing shades rang in my ears as we hurried onward. We dodged and subdued the shades more than killing them. There were simply too many.

The rift was only a few yards away when I heard the hum of one of Solas’s barriers. I grinned. He’d known I would just start closing it without waiting for him to cast his spell first.

Ducking between two shades, I finally found myself in range of the green crystal. I only paused long enough to find my footing before thrusting my left hand forward. The muted pain was familiar now. Perhaps I only imagined it hurt less.

A pulse of green energy burst from the crystal, stunning the masses of demons teeming around us. Dammit! So the rift couldn’t be closed until they’d all been killed. I made a mental note to ask Solas why later. At least the constant flow of demons had stopped pouring out of the tear in the Veil.

I didn’t have a plan B. But I did have Solas with me – and Sera, who had dashed up behind us. The few demons that made it past Solas’s walls of fire and Sera’s explosive arrows gave me little trouble. Inch by inch, the three of us cleared the area immediately around the rift.

With the demons now finite in number, our soldiers were able to whittle them down. The rest of the inner circle fought their way to us. Our safe area grew exponentially. Cassandra and I were left with little to do as our ranged companions eliminated the demons before they reached us. I had forgotten how the inner circle skewed toward ranged classes this early on.

At last, the final demon fell. Solas cast a new barrier on me as I raced back to the rift. C’mon, c’mon, hurry up! Fighting another wave of demons because I wasn’t fast enough was not an exciting prospect. I let out a sigh of relief as the rift closed. No sooner had my cast finished than Sera started swearing loudly.

“What in the friggin’ pissballs was that?” she demanded.

Naturally, Solas answered. “That rift altered the flow of time around itself.” He sounded as incredulous as Sera. “That is…unexpected.”

I’ll bet it is. Solas hadn’t delved into time travel when he put up the Veil. He probably hadn’t even considered that such a thing could happen. Another devastating revelation of the consequences of his well-intended actions.

“We’ll fix it,” I told them both reassuringly. At least in Sera’s case, it was no platitude. Bringing down the Veil would eliminate the time alteration problem, right?

Sera shivered. “It’s still just wrong.”

“Maker have mercy!” cried the Redcliffe captain as she approached. “It’s over? Open the gates!”

At her words, someone on the other side obliged, lifting the portcullis that had blocked the stone archway into Redcliffe. Cassandra ordered us to regroup before we went anywhere. Despite the multitude of demons, there were no casualties and only minor injuries. I slumped in relief. No more blood on my hands today. I hope, I amended quickly, praying that I hadn’t just jinxed the forthcoming negotiations.

Chapter Text

The path down to the village proper was rather steep, so great care would be needed to get the horses and the cart to the bottom safely. A few soldiers stayed behind to oversee that task while the rest of us entered Redcliffe’s gates on foot.

We hadn’t gotten far before one of Leliana’s agents approached us. He had apparently reached Redcliffe prior to the rift forming.

“We’ve spread word that the Inquisition was coming,” he said, addressing Cassandra and me. “But you should know that no one here was expecting us.”

I bit my lip. You are NOT making the Monty Python reference. It’s inappropriate. Just stop.

“No one?” Cassandra asked. “Not even Grand Enchanter Fiona?”

The agent shrugged helplessly. “If she was, she hasn’t told anyone.” She was – but not in this timeline. “We’ve arranged use of the tavern for the negotiations.”

“Agents of the Inquisition, my apologies!” An elf in fur-lined robes rushed over. Probably one of Alexius’s apprentice mages. “Magister Alexius is in charge now, but hasn’t yet arrived. He’s expected shortly.” My surprise was real. Where the hell is he if he’s not here? “You can speak with the former Grand Enchanter in the meantime,” the elf added before pointedly walking off. Clearly, he wouldn’t be answering any questions, like what right they had to strip Fiona of her title. I glanced at Vivienne, who showed no reaction to the news of her political rival’s demotion.

Varric frowned. “Is it just me or is something weird going on here?”

Of course he’d suspect something. I forced myself to remain silent, lest I reveal I knew too much. Your writer’s intuition serves you well, Varric.

“We should talk to the Grand Enchanter,” Cassandra replied.

We continued down the road into Redcliffe. Lake Calenhad sparkled in the sunlight unnoticed as the villagers went about their business. On the surface, nothing seemed amiss. But there was a sense of foreboding in the air that I couldn’t quite place. Instinctively, I looked over at Solas, who was lost in thought.

“Do you sense anything, Solas?” If he knew what was going on, maybe I could share a little of my meta knowledge, allowing us to enter the tavern as a more prepared group.

“The Veil is weaker here than in Haven,” he told me. “And not merely weakened, but altered in a way I have not seen.”

I bit my lip. Was that the result of Alexius messing with time travel or Connor Guerrin’s accidental possession by a desire demon ten years ago? I couldn’t risk asking. How much of that information was common knowledge?

The tavern we were looking for, the Gull and Lantern, was located on the far side of the village. A matched pair of signs shaped like diving seagulls flanked the door. Each of the metal birds held a lantern in its beak. I don’t remember these! Were they actually there in game too and I simply hadn’t noticed? Or were they a detail not captured by the game? It was getting difficult to tell.

The tavern was dark, though the lighting was brighter than it appeared in game. Which isn’t saying much. Our soldiers had to wait outside, since there wasn’t enough room for all of us in the tavern. So long as the inner circle was present, I figured we’d be fine.

Fiona was waiting for us. “Welcome, agents of the Inquisition.” She bowed, giving no sign of recognition until she got to Vivienne. “First Enchanter Vivienne,” Fiona added with a polite nod.

“My dear Fiona. It’s been so long since we last spoke.” Vivienne greeted her rival with the cordial tone one would expect in Orlais. “You look dreadful! Are you sleeping well?” Her shocked concern almost sounded genuine. Almost.

Whether Fiona saw the veiled attack for what it was or if she simply had bigger concerns, she chose to ignore the question. “What has brought you to Redcliffe?” she asked me.

“You invited us, Grand Enchanter. To negotiate an alliance.” Her brow furrowed. “We met in Val Royeaux,” I prompted.

“You must be mistaken,” Fiona told me with a shake of her head. “I haven’t been to Val Royeaux since before the Conclave.”

Damn, I should have had her sign something for us. Left us some sort of token. Proof that we’d spoken. Nothing could be done about that now.

“It did appear to be you. You approached us after the templars left Val Royeaux.” I gestured to the three companions who had experienced the same reality.

Fiona did not hide her surprise. “The templars left Val Royeaux? Where did they go? That sounds…” She frowned. “Why does that sound so strange?”

Now I frowned. Could Fiona have been mind-controlled? That was certainly possible through blood magic. I wasn’t aware of Alexius actually using blood magic, but the practice was hardly uncommon amongst most Tevinter magisters. Power-hungry fools that they are.

Fiona shook her head. “Whoever…or whatever brought you here, the situation has changed.” Sorrow lined her face. “The free mages have already…pledged themselves to the service of the Tevinter Imperium.”

“Andraste’s ass,” Varric put in. “I’m trying to think of a single worse thing you could have done. And I’ve got nothing.”

“I understand that you are afraid,” Solas said in a more diplomatic tone. “But you deserve better than slavery to Tevinter.”

“How can you still call yourselves ‘free mages’ if you’re Tevinter slaves?” The question burst out of me reflexively. Probably not the nicest thing to say under the circumstances, especially if Fiona wasn’t in control of her own mind.

Fiona puffed herself up to be taller and ignored all of our comments. “As one indentured to a magister, I no longer have the authority to negotiate with you.” Her bravado faded by the end of the sentence.

My heart went out to her. There was no way she would have agreed to this without some sort of outside influence forcing her into it. “Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “The free mages will be free again by the time we’re through.”

The tavern door creaked open behind us. Assuming all goes as planned, I amended silently.

Chapter Text

A chill entered the room, accompanying the new arrivals. Their leader wore the hooded red robes of a Tevinter magister and a plastic smile. “Welcome, my friends!” the man said in a far too amiable tone. My skin crawled. “I apologize for not greeting you earlier.”

“Agents of the Inquisition,” Fiona announced. “Allow me to introduce Magister Gereon Alexius.”

Alexius strode past, more confident than I remembered seeing him in game. A man in less ornate yellow robes followed him at a distance. That has to be Felix. He looked tired, but otherwise appeared to be a healthy young man. Whatever magic Alexius was using to keep the Blight from consuming his son was at least effective on his appearance.

“The southern mages are under my command,” Alexius told me. Of course he knows to address me instead of Cass. Could the hostile takeover of the rebel mages have been a ploy to get to me? I had thought Corypheus needed them for his big picture plan – perhaps not. “And you are the survivor, yes? The one from the Fade? Interesting.” There was a hint of menace in his voice in addition to curiosity.

I wanted to know what it was exactly that he found so “interesting” about me, but that was a trap. Keep the conversation off yourself and the mark.

“Not nearly as interesting as how quickly you managed to get here to take command of the mages.” Too aggressive. “Be that as it may,” I continued before Alexius could make up some lie to cover his tracks. “It seems we have an arrangement to discuss. We need your new charges’ help in closing the Breach.” I didn’t really want to tell him that much, but it was unlikely that Corypheus was ignorant of the Inquisition’s purpose.

“Right, to business! I understand, of course.”

Alexius waved me over to a nearby table. Sitting directly across from him, I found myself inventing clever new ways not to stare directly at the stubble on his chin, which split in three like a bird’s toes. That look does NOT work for you, Alexius. Or anyone.

Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. “Felix, would you send for a scribe, please?” Alexius asked. “Pardon my manners. My son Felix, friends.”

Felix bowed deeply, concealing the curious glance he gave me. I nodded back, trying to telepathically signal him that I knew he was secretly working against his father. A futile effort; the Herald wouldn’t normally be aware of that until told outright.

“I’m not surprised you’re here,” Alexius declared. “Containing the Breach is not a feat that many could even attempt. There is no telling how many mages would be needed for such an endeavor. Ambitious, indeed.”

Was he trying to dissuade me or just stalling? “Then surely you agree that every mage is essential to this plan’s success.” I leaned forward, resting my chin on my clasped hands. “After all, the Breach threatens all of us, even those in far-off Tevinter.”

I had no right to be smug. But I was. Knowing full well that he had no intention of helping us meant I held all the cards.

Alexius didn’t appear shaken by his weakened bargaining position. “There will have to be –“ He broke off as Felix staggered feebly toward us.

Oh crap, that’s right! I leapt to my feet just barely in time to catch him. It was a good thing Felix had faked his collapse. He’d positioned himself in such a way that his head wouldn’t hit the table when he fell. Which it would have otherwise. Felix jammed a scrap of paper into my hand. I squeezed back, both to confirm I’d received the message and to convey my condolences. He’d just subjected himself to hours of scrutiny from his father on our behalf.

“Felix!” Alexius cried. His concern was genuine.

“I’m so sorry!” Felix apologized. “Please forgive my clumsiness, my lady.”

Alexius rushed to his son’s side. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Father,” Felix replied, leaning heavily on the table and otherwise looking distinctly not-fine.

Alexius jumped into action. “Come, I’ll get your powders.” He addressed the rest of us. “Please excuse me, friends. We will have to continue this another time. Fiona, I require your assistance back at the castle.”

My heart settled into my stomach. Oh. Perhaps this wasn’t just a trap to capture me and retrieve the Anchor. Alexius was using the mages to try and cure the Blight that was consuming Felix. Specifically Fiona, since she’s the only known person in Thedas to ever be fully cured of the Blight. Not that she or anyone else knew how or why.

“I don’t mean to trouble everyone,” Felix said weakly as he hobbled across the room to his father.

Alexius turned back. “I shall send word to the Inquisition. We will conclude this business at a later date.”

While the Breach remains open. Not that Alexius was in any hurry to see the tear in the sky repaired. I wasn’t completely clear on the terms of his deal with Corypheus, but keeping the Breach active seemed to be part of it. Even if it wasn’t, Alexius wasn’t in any hurry to work out a deal with us. He’d lose access to Fiona’s knowledge, which would hasten Felix’s demise. At least his stalling should give the rest of the war council time to get out here.

I didn’t look at the parchment in my hand until I was sure Alexius had gone. The message was short and to the point: Come to the chantry. You are in danger. Dorian could be very bottom line when he needed to be. After making sure we weren’t being watched, I let the others read the warning.

“Did the magister’s son give you that?” To say Cassandra was skeptical would be an understatement. “Why would he help you?”

“The note is unsigned,” Solas observed. “The boy feared his father might retrieve it.” You never miss a trick, do you, vhenan?

I nodded. “We’ll be careful, but I don’t believe this is a trap.” In fact, I know it isn’t. “We need to figure out what’s going on around here anyway,” I added, mostly for Cassandra’s benefit. We had to have a concrete reason for taking a risk like this.

“This just keeps getting better and better,” muttered Varric. I resisted the urge to reply. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Varric.

Chapter Text

As we left the tavern, I realized that Sera had been uncharacteristically quiet. It makes sense, though. Sera wasn’t fond of demons or magic in general, and we hadn’t recruited the companions she was closest to yet. She’s got no real outlet for all of this fear. But what could I say to her that would be genuinely reassuring? Besides, if I was wrong about the reason for her silence, she might take whatever I said as patronizing.

So I said nothing, climbing the hill to the chantry in silence. When we reached the double wooden doors, Cassandra insisted she enter first in case it was a trap. I didn’t argue. She wasn’t wrong to be cautious, since I knew there was an open rift on the other side.

The inner circle piled into the chantry after Cassandra. Sure enough, the green crystal core of an open rift hung in the center of the room. Beneath it, a dashing mustachioed mage was clubbing two shades to death with his staff.

He glanced back and noticed us. “Good! You’re finally here! Now help me close this, would you?”

Only Dorian Pavus could be so bubbly after fighting demons to the point of exhaustion. And he must be that tired or he’d be casting spells. We of course hurried to assist him in clearing the area.

These demons appeared to be far more contained than the ones outside Redcliffe. The flow was much slower and none of them were skipping through time – yet, anyway. The rift must have just formed. Maybe I was wrong about Dorian being at his limit. He could be conserving mana.

I raised my hand to the crystal. I couldn’t close the rift, but I could use it to channel a stun on the demons. The mark burned, searing my flesh with white hot pain. I grabbed my wrist with my right hand so I wouldn’t break the connection to the rift. Solas got a barrier on me before the cast finished, but I had learned my lesson. Wait for him, I growled at myself.

A now-familiar screech came from behind me. I whirled to see a terror demon looming over me in a dissipating cloud of yellow magic. It apparently hadn’t been stunned. I guess the time magic kicked in after all, I thought wryly as I strafed around it to attack.

Despite that early scare, it didn’t take us long to dispatch the remaining demons. One of the other terror demons kept diving underground, but it too eventually died. With so many of us crammed into the chantry, they hadn’t stood a chance. This time, I waited for Solas’s barrier before closing the rift.

Dorian stared at the spot the rift had been before turning to address me. He exuded confidence and pride, just as he had in game. The most charming person in the room, and he knows it. Though he WILL backpedal if he realizes he’s being too obnoxious. “Fascinating. How does that work exactly?”

The question gave me pause. For all I knew about Thedas, I didn’t actually know how the Anchor functioned. The mark was only a McGuffin in Inquisition, but clearly it was more than a plot device here. Filed under things I want to ask Solas and can’t.

Dorian chuckled when I didn’t respond. “You don’t even know, do you? You just wiggle your fingers, and boom! Rift closes.”

The question had been in earnest, but I could never tell how good-natured his humor was with that follow-up comment. Unfortunately, hearing it in person didn’t clarify its intent. “There’s a little more to it than that.” I crossed my arms in mild annoyance. “Like the agonizing pain that tears my flesh apart every time I use it.” Was it my imagination or did Solas tense up? I immediately regretted complaining. “The barriers help,” I added quickly, just in case. Besides, it’s true.

The easy grin fell from Dorian’s face. I’d seen that expression before. He was always sheepish after realizing he’d put his foot in his mouth. “Yes, I would think they would.”

“Who are you?” Cassandra interrupted. She didn’t have time for this sort of posturing.

“Ah.” Dorian’s smile returned. “Getting ahead of myself, I see.” He gave a short bow, enough to qualify as fulfilling the formality. “Dorian of House Pavus, most recently of Minrathous. How do you do?”

“Another Tevinter,” Cassandra warned me. “Be cautious with this one.”

Dorian turned his attention back to me. “Suspicious friends you have here,” he observed lightly. “Magister Alexius was once my mentor, so my assistance should be valuable – as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Indeed it will be,” I agreed. “He’s definitely hiding something.” I really despised asking questions I already knew the answers to. Cutting to the chase was much more efficient. But it was important to let the others know that both Dorian and Felix were on the level. “Felix must have plenty of useful information on his father as well, I take it?”

“Of course he does.” Dorian glanced at the chantry doors. “I’m sure he’s on his way. He was to give you the note, then meet us here after ditching his father.”

“That might take him a bit. Alexius was fussing over him pretty intently when they left.”

“He’s had some lingering illness for months. Felix is an only child, and Alexius is being a mother hen, most likely.”

You’re not completely wrong. Felix’s mother had died in the same darkspawn attack that had poisoned Felix with the Blight. Alexius was heartbroken over the prospect of losing them both. If only Blackwall were actually a Grey Warden. I’d get him to recruit Felix to save his life. But all of the real Wardens were missing in action.

“So you sent us the note because you no longer see eye to eye with him?” I asked, mostly for Cassandra’s benefit. “Hence the former mentor.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that. Look, you must know there’s danger. That should be obvious even without the note.” I nodded. It really was. “Let’s start with Alexius claiming the allegiance of the mage rebels out from under you. As if by magic, yes? Which is exactly right. To reach Redcliffe before the Inquisition, Alexius distorted time itself.”

My jaw dropped open. I already knew how Alexius had pulled off the maneuver, but not what prompted him to do so. I’m a fool. Corypheus must have had spies in Val Royeaux too. They told him of Fiona’s offer. He called in Alexius, who altered time to get here right after Divine Justinia’s death. If I had a better memory, I would have figured that out earlier.

“Manipulating time itself?” Vivienne scoffed. “Many have attempted over the ages, but never once succeeded.” Because the Breach didn’t exist before now. I didn’t blame her for not thinking outside the box on that count. It had taken me some time to put all that together myself.

Solas looked thoughtful. “That is fascinating, if true…and almost certainly dangerous.” I frowned. Why shouldn’t we believe Dorian based off of what we’d already seen?

“The rift you closed here?” Dorian continued. “You saw how it twisted time around itself, sped some things up and slowed others down. Soon there will be more like it, and they’ll appear further and further away from Redcliffe. The magic Alexius is using is wildly unstable, and it’s unraveling the world.”

“Oh good, because we needed two types of magic doing that,” I quipped. Sorry, vhenan – it’s true.

“You don’t believe this, do you?” Sera asked me. “It’s daft.” Her expression was angry, but her skin was pale.

“I know what I’m talking about,” Dorian insisted. His tone brooked no argument. “I helped develop this magic. When I was still his apprentice, it was pure theory. Alexius could never get it to work. What I don’t understand is why he’s doing it. Ripping time to shreds just to gain a few hundred lackeys?”

A new voice broke in. “He didn’t do it for them.” Felix joined us, looking thoroughly put out, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Beyond the whole “secretly dying” part. I sighed internally.

“Took you long enough,” Dorian teased playfully. "Is he getting suspicious?” he added in a more somber tone.

“No, but I shouldn’t’ve played the illness card.” Felix scowled. “I thought he’d be fussing over me all day.” He turned to address me. “My father’s joined a cult. Tevinter supremacists. They call themselves ‘Venatori.’ And I can tell you one thing: whatever he’s done for them, he’s done it to get to you.”

I frowned. “But why would he do that? Why take such horrible risks and align with terrible people just to get to me?” My question was real. I’d forgotten what hold Corypheus had on Alexius.

“They’re obsessed with you, but I don’t know why.” Felix shrugged. “Perhaps because you survived the Temple of Sacred Ashes.”

“You can close the rifts,” Dorian pointed out. “Maybe there’s a connection. Or they see you as a threat.”

Felix shook his head. “If the Venatori are behind those rifts, or the breach in the sky, they’re even worse than I thought.”

I frowned. Well, that’s all true. But not the information I’m looking for. “So what’s our next move?” I knew what was going to happen, but that didn’t give me the logistics of how – not in a real sense.

“You know you’re his target,” Dorian told me. “Expecting the trap is the first step in turning it to your advantage.” Oh right – which means getting the rest of the war council in on the plan. But Haven was still a week’s journey away. Would the council come here? “I can’t stay in Redcliffe,” Dorian went on. Alexius doesn’t know I’m here, and I want to keep it that way for now. But whenever you’re ready to deal with him, I want to be there. I’ll be in touch.”

I nodded. “Of course. Our largest camp is at the Crossroads, so you can always contact the Inquisition there.”

“Splendid.” He turned to go. “Oh, and Felix? Try not to get yourself killed.”

Dorian missed the pained expression that crept over Felix’s face. “There are worse things than dying, Dorian.”

Chapter Text

After Felix took his leave, Cassandra pulled me aside. I braced myself for another warning about trusting the men from Tevinter.

“We should return to the Crossroads and contact the rest of the council. They will want to know what has happened here.” Cassandra gave me a pointed look. “It is not too late to formally reach out to the templars.”

I sighed inwardly. Admittedly, I should not have been surprised that Cass would keep trying to change my mind. But I had kind of hoped…

“That’s a long way to travel on the chance that showing up in person would ensure they’d help us,” I replied. “Besides, we can’t just leave Redcliffe in the hands of a Tevinter magister who’s manipulated time itself and enslaved a large number of mages. Especially since all this was done to get to me,” I added, echoing Felix’s words. “These issues are probably all connected to the Breach somehow, so we need to stay and resolve them.”

I immediately regretted that last point. While I knew for a fact that everything was connected through Corypheus, no one else could possibly know that yet. Except Solas, of course. Hopefully he wasn’t eavesdropping.

Cassandra grimaced. “I suppose you are right,” she muttered begrudgingly. “It is settled then. We will begin our search for Leliana’s Grey Warden tomorrow.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Cassandra.”

We reassembled our group and started making our way back to the south. Once again, I was grateful that our traveling setup allowed me space to think. Being on the cart kept me out of talking distance of almost everyone. Cassandra and Solas were always nearby, but they tended to be quiet on the whole. Besides, they’re keeping an eye on me. Solas was of course watching out for the mark bearer and Cassandra had long ago shifted from my jailer to my bodyguard.

Things were actually working out as I had originally wanted. I never talked to the mages before recruiting everyone I could in the game, so this entire experience in Redcliffe had been more surreal than usual. Well, in addition to being real. Even though it was practical, it still felt “wrong” somehow. Was I really so set In my ways that I couldn’t deviate from the order of events I was used to? Ridiculous. I had already made up my mind to change the templars’ fate. If I had been set on doing things one way, I certainly wouldn’t have tried. This section’s just familiar, is all, I reassured myself. And yet, the icky feeling of being hypocritical lingered anyway.

A dove grey horse trotted up alongside me, interrupting my train of thought. Vivienne. Her horse stood out amongst the Inquisition’s steeds, both due to color and breed. Clearly not one of Dennet’s. A gift from Bastien, no doubt.

“How are you feeling, my dear?” Vivienne asked cordially.

Had the question come from anyone but Vivienne, I would have taken it as a casual bit of small talk. Players of the Game are always playing it, even outside Orlais. Regularly forcing myself into that mentality would be difficult. That wasn’t how I generally went through life. But Vivienne played the Game both to survive and to get where she was now. She definitely had the advantage.

“Concerned about what’s going on with Alexius, mostly.” Nothing she didn’t already know. “How are you?”

She furrowed her brow. “I’m rather worried about your well-being. It must be so exhausting withstanding the pain from the mark.”

Damn, I walked right into that. Was she looking for weaknesses? Or something else? “I’ve gotten used to it.” It was true. The tingling of the Anchor when I wasn’t using it didn’t bother me as much anymore. Unless I’m thinking about it. Thanks for that.

Vivienne was the embodiment of sympathy. “You poor thing. It must be dreadful for you to suffer the loss of such simple pleasures like horse riding.”

My eyes narrowed instinctively. I tried to play it off as the sun blinding me momentarily. What are you getting at, Vivienne? I didn’t know how else to respond other than with the truth. “I couldn’t miss that one. I’ve never ridden a horse before in my life.”

“Truly?” If her surprise was faked, I couldn’t tell. “But you have such a way with them. Even Corentine seems to like you, and she is known for being…selective.” Vivienne patted her horse’s neck. “Should you grow tired of suffering the indignity of traveling on a cart, I could teach you to ride.”

There it is. But how could she know? Or maybe she was just digging blindly. It didn’t matter. My back was now against the wall.

“I don’t mind, honestly. I can’t miss something I’ve never done.” Not entirely true, but in this context, it was.

“Trust me, my dear, if you only knew, you would.”

I felt awful for the soldiers who had been assigned to drive the cart. Why should they be made to feel their jobs were undesirable and something to be looked down on? As far as I was concerned, they’d been elevated to positions closer to the inner circle. I was starting to learn their names as well as their faces.

“But I don’t, and I don’t really care to. Things are fine as they are.”

Vivienne waved that idea off. “Never settle for less, dear. Not when you can do better.”

“’Better’ is subjective,” I countered.

“But what would people think, seeing Andraste’s chosen being driven about like a beast to be sold at the market?”

I tried to hide my annoyance. “Hopefully ‘I’m glad the Herald of Andraste isn’t putting on airs instead of closing the Breach.’”

Vivienne remained adamant. “Appearances do matter, my dear. If you wish for that title to remain respectable, it would do you well to remember that.”

She definitely had a point. But so did I. Besides, I have to have some means of traveling. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you,” I told her sincerely.

As Vivienne dropped back in the line to ride by Varric again, I wondered how in the world I was going to brace myself for future conversations when I had no idea what she would discuss next.

Chapter Text

We set out early the next morning. According to a grateful refugee at the Crossroads, Blackwall had last been seen near Lake Luthias. I was glad we’d obtained that information. It was important that the others in the inner circle knew about the positive difference Thom had made in people’s lives even before teaming up with the Inquisition. I’d need their support when it came to officially judging him later on.

The journey didn’t take long. As we neared the farmhouse by the lake, I recognized the burly bearded man in Grey Warden armor talking to some of the local farmers. Despite their one-handed axes and wooden shields, his temporary recruits looked about as comfortable with the idea of combat as I had when I first arrived in Thedas. Yet Blackwall seemed unperturbed.

“Remember how to carry your shields!” he commanded them. “You’re not hiding, you’re holding. Otherwise, it’s useless!” The men looked nervous, but did appear ready to face the challenge ahead.

Blackwall turned at our entourage’s approach, his sword at the ready. He looked confused by our unexpected arrival.

I hopped down from the cart. “Blackwall?” I called out. It was best to put him at ease immediately, so he knew we weren’t conspiring with the bandits he was expecting.

He rushed right over. “You’re not –” Blackwall thought better of the statement. “How do you know my name?” he demanded. “Who sent –”

With a cry, he thrust his shield forward. I jumped back, startled. An arrow deflected away harmlessly instead of lodging itself in my left side. The blood drained from my face as I retreated behind Cassandra, who had just caught up. That was too close. I shoved away nightmare visions of the arrow hitting my kidney.

Shouts filled the air as a group of bandits swarmed toward us from the far side of the lake. There must have been about twenty of them. A few appeared better-equipped than the others – Blackwall’s former men?

Blackwall turned to me. “That’s it. Help or get out. We’re dealing with these idiots first!” But there are so many of them! I protested internally. More than there are supposed to be. “Conscripts!” Blackwall shouted to his charges. “Here they come!”

Cassandra grimaced. “Get to cover!” she ordered me.

I didn’t argue, ducking back into the cart and staying low. Much as I wanted to help, my near-disaster had badly rattled my nerves. And Cassandra knows it. No matter how much I had trained with Isabela, I didn’t think I would ever get jaded about brushes with death.

Hiding in the cart didn’t seem terribly safe, but at least the two soldiers who drove it were still there. They were pretty handy with their crossbows, so hopefully that would deter the bandits from converging on us.

No one else seemed to notice where I’d gone and eventually, the sounds of combat faded away. I poked my head out to see the bandits had been driven off. I frowned. The number of corpses on the ground indicated that “driven off” was a poor choice of words.

As I rejoined the main group, I spotted Blackwall kneeling over one of the better-equipped corpses. I couldn’t see the false Warden’s face from where I was standing, but his posture told me everything. That HAS to be one of his former men.

“Sorry bastards,” he muttered.

Blackwall shifted his attention to the now confident-looking farmers. “Good work, conscripts, even if this shouldn’t’ve happened. They should’ve –” He broke off. “Well, thieves are made, not born.” Even in person, I still couldn’t tell if he was taking responsibility for his former soldiers’ situation or condemning them for their choice to prey on the innocent. Probably both. “Take back what they stole,” Blackwall commanded them for the last time. “Go back to your families. You saved yourselves.”

The men nodded and dispersed, expressing their gratitude as they went. Only then did I walk over to the man who called himself Blackwall. He sized me up as I approached. I sensed Cassandra fall into step behind me.

“You’re no farmer,” he observed, his brow furrowing. “Why do you know my name? Who are you?” To the casual listener, he was asking reasonable questions. But there was an underlying sense of urgency that betrayed his fear.

“I’m an agent of the Inquisition,” I told him immediately in a ham-fisted attempt to put him at ease. “The Grey Wardens of Ferelden and Orlais have gone missing since the murder of Divine Justinia.” Except for you – but that sounds accusatory. “We’re investigating whether there’s a connection between the two events.” Which there is. It was going to really bother me to know most of the answers ahead of time. “You’re the only Warden we’ve been able to find.”

“Maker’s balls,” Blackwall swore. I forced my expression to stay impassive. That expression, along with “Andraste’s ass,” was one of my favorite oaths in Thedas. An early positive factor in my first assessment of Blackwall. “The Wardens and the Divine? That can’t – no, you’re asking, so you don’t really know.” Not true in this case, thanks to my meta knowledge. But he couldn’t know that. At least he looked less distressed now. “First off, I didn’t know they disappeared. But we do that, right? No more Blight, job done, Wardens are the first thing forgotten.” He’s not wrong, I had to admit. “But one thing I’ll tell you,” Blackwall added with conviction. “No Warden killed the Divine. Our purpose isn’t political.”

I bit my lip. Don’t do it. Blackwall had no idea that the Wardens had been disbanded in Ferelden years ago because their commander got involved in a political uprising. He also had zero clue that the Wardens were involved with Justinia’s death. Not that anyone but me, Corypheus, and the Wardens themselves knew that connection yet.

“In this case, it appears to be more of a literal disappearance than a figurative one,” I offered instead, trying to keep my tone light. “And even if they are not involved, they are still missing.”

Blackwall shrugged. “I haven’t seen any Wardens for months.” That statement could very well be completely true. I wasn’t entirely clear on how long ago the real Blackwall had died. “I travel alone, recruiting. Not much interest because the Archdemon is a decade dead, and no need to conscript because there’s no Blight coming.” He completely ignored that he had just “conscripted” the farmers to empower them, but I let that slide. It wasn’t the same thing. Blackwall was just using the Warden name to help those farmers. “Treaties give the Wardens the right to take what we need. Who we need. These idiots forced this fight, so I ‘conscripted’ their victims.” Ah, there we go. “They had to do what I said, so I told them to stand. Next time they won’t need me.”

That was absolutely not how the treaties worked, but since it was for the greater good, I said nothing. Besides, why would I know anything about how the Wardens work? The mention of the treaties reminded me that I would have to refuse Blackwall’s forthcoming offer to invoke them on the Inquisition’s behalf. We could make amends, sure – Josephine was more than up to that task – but why should we indebt ourselves when I know better?

“Grey Wardens can inspire, make you better than you think you are,” Blackwall finished.

It certainly worked on you. “They do indeed have that reputation,” I agreed. This would normally be the Herald’s cue to leave, but I wanted to recruit him outright. Unfortunately, words failed me. If I can’t smoothly transition into an offer, I should just leave. “Thank you again for your time, Blackwall.”

He called out to me before I’d moved three steps.

“Inqusition…agent, did you say? Hold a moment.” A note of desperation tinged his voice. He doesn’t want to be on his own out here. Not really. “The Divine is dead, and the sky is torn. Events like these, thinking we’re absent is almost as bad as thinking we’re involved.” And if it’s both? Which it is. He stared intently at me, his earnestness very much apparent. “If you’re trying to put things right, maybe you need a Warden. Maybe you need me.”

I glanced at Cassandra, who inclined her head in approval. Thank the Maker the Wardens’ reputation preceded them. “Well, I can’t imagine you’re going to do the Wardens much good as a recruiter if there aren’t any Wardens to send them to,” I noted, playing along with Blackwall’s cover story. “Very well then – the Inquisition accepts your offer.” I specifically did not use his false name. This commitment was made by the man, not the false persona.

“Good to hear,” he replied. “We both need to know what’s going on, and perhaps I’ve been keeping to myself for too long.” Now that I knew to be true. Being on one’s own can impact their judgment. I made a point of not looking at Solas. “This Warden walks with the Inquisition.”

I smiled. “Welcome aboard!” A flash of orange appeared in the corner of my eye. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a small matter to attend to.”

Chapter Text

I dashed after the orange and white ram known as Lord Woolsley. I knew from Inquisition that he belonged to a man named Jimmy. He was also a very special ram, due to the spirit possessing him. Or coexisting with him. That’s never addressed. We couldn’t afford to “do side quests” out here, but considering that Lord Woolsley would turn into a rage demon if attacked, it was safer to send him home.

Lord Woolsley seemed intent on losing me, leading me on a merry chase through the marshy areas on the south side of the lake. I tried to ignore the painful stitch in my side. Finally, frustrated and tired, I called to him by name. The ram slowed to a halt and gazed at me with his big black eyes. Lord Woolsley seemed wary, but curious as he let me approach. Well, he IS a very special ram.

Still winded from the chase, I needed to take several deep breaths before I was able to speak again. “Your Jimmy misses you,” I finally managed.

The ram cocked his head to the side before prancing off past me to the north. Hopefully that meant he was heading back home. A very cross-looking Cassandra stormed past him.

Oh shit.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded. “Why did you run off? There could be more bandits! There could be demons! What were you thinking?”

“I’m sorry,” I apologized as quickly as she’d let me. “I recognized that ram, who belongs to a man in Redcliffe. Didn’t want him to get away.”

Cass blinked, evidently not expecting that answer. “What man?” she insisted.

“A one-eyed man who doesn’t live too far from the tavern. I overheard him talking to someone as we went by in the village.” I specifically did not mention when the conversation had occurred, as it had not happened in this reality.

“Who was he talking to?” Cassandra asked suspiciously.

Fenedhis. “A woman. She was elven. Sweet face, earnest expression.” All of that was actually true. Tahni Lavellan had of course done that quest. “He didn’t know I was listening. It seemed to be okay.”

Cassandra folded her arms and glared at me. “How did you know he wasn’t saying it entirely for your benefit? How did you know it wasn’t a trap to capture or kill you?”

I furrowed my brow. That was something I couldn’t tell her. Meta knowledge is seriously a curse sometimes. “He said Lord Woolsley brings good fortune to his family. I know that’s not proof, but isn’t it worth the risk to help people?”

“Not when it involves running off recklessly to your death!”

“But I’m not dead,” I pointed out.

I had a moment of regret for saying that as Cassandra seethed. “Clearly not,” she growled, sounding as though she’d like to change that herself. After a moment of consideration, her expression softened. “And thank the Maker for that,” she said with a sigh. “But the fact remains that your safety was not guaranteed. I could not protect you.”

Underneath Cassandra’s anger burned guilt, even though it would have been my own fault if anything had happened to me. But she would still feel responsible. Hindsight was kicking me in the ass. “You’re right. I should have waited. It was foolish of me. I’m truly sorry.”

Cassandra shook her head wearily. “Just don’t let it happen again, Herald. You are the only person who can close the rifts. It is already difficult enough to see to your safety without you gallivanting across the countryside for the sake of a…pet.” She frowned. “I expected better of you.”

I nodded without looking at her, thoroughly abashed. “Understood.”

Cassandra frowned again. “It is difficult to carry the fate of the world on your shoulders. Your life is no longer entirely your own.”

I hadn’t expected the outpouring of sympathy. But she’s been in situations where many lives rested in her hands, I reminded myself. Just not on this grand a scale.

“You did not ask for this responsibility,” she went on. “Yet it is your burden to bear. We can help you. The Inquisition can help you. But only if you let us.”

Now I frowned. Did she think I was going rogue on the Inquisition? Because I ran off once? Off, not away! She doesn’t really know you. How can she know this won’t happen again?

“Don’t worry, Cassandra,” I assured her. “I’m up to the task. I just needed to do this for that family. Of course I wouldn’t’ve gone if I thought it wasn’t safe.” Somehow, that didn’t feel like enough. “But you’re right. I didn’t take enough factors into consideration. That’s a bad lapse in practicality.” I met Cassandra’s gaze directly. She needed to understand I meant this. “I’ll try to do better on communication. I’m still learning the ropes, since I’ve never been in this kind of situation before.” Playing Inquisition didn’t count. This was real. “I’m not going anywhere until all the rifts are closed.” Unless I get teleported home first, but I clearly can’t control that.

Some of the tension went out of Cassandra’s neck. “I am glad to hear it.” She considered me a moment before adding, “I am also glad Warden Blackwall has joined us, even though he could not answer Leliana’s question. We need strong, righteous warriors – now more than ever.”

Oh hell. I hoped Cass wouldn’t think of this conversation when the truth of Blackwall’s past was revealed. She would definitely blame me for allowing a wanted murderer into the Inquisition – if she found out that I’d known beforehand, anyway. That better not happen. I fully intend to bring up her initial impression of Blackwall myself on the theory it will help repair their friendship.

“He certainly does represent the best of what the Wardens stand for,” I agreed. “Many within the order have checkered pasts, but in joining, they vowed to sacrifice themselves for the people of Thedas. Not all embrace their duties with Blackwall’s fervor.” It was true. Thom Rainier had committed himself to a life of atonement in whatever way possible – short of turning himself in, as that would end his life.

“Let us hope that such sacrifice will not be necessary here.” Cass waved me over. “Now let us go see what this Iron Bull and his Chargers can do.”

Chapter Text

I followed Cassandra, grateful that I appeared to be out of trouble for the moment. As we headed back to the north side of the lake, Solas fell in with us. He must have been as concerned as Cassandra that I’d taken off like that. Solas couldn’t’ve been far behind Cass while chasing after me, but he had kept his distance during her lecture. It was a safe bet he’d heard everything, but he offered no commentary either way.

We rejoined the others, then we all set out for the Crossroads. It was just as well that we had to pass through that area again on our way to meet Iron Bull and the Chargers, since Blackwall needed a horse. On the way there, he rode with me in the back of the cart. I squandered the brief time we had together, torn between putting him at ease and giving him his space.

After our brief stop in the Crossroads, we continued on to the eastern Hinterlands. I kept an eye on Blackwall just to make sure he was settling in okay. Sera had a rapport with Varric and Vivienne could adapt quickly to any social situation, so I wasn’t worried about them fitting in. But Blackwall had secrets to keep and had been traveling alone for too long. I knew he and Sera would become fast friends, but I couldn’t remember if there was a window of apprehension for him before that. Maybe it’s just too soon to tell.

I was so distracted by my thoughts that I did not hear Solas ride up next to me. He was kind enough not to comment on how startled I was.

“Do you recall our earlier conversation about the ancient elven artifact I detected here in the Hinterlands?” he asked.

I instantly sat up straighter. Oh, that’s right! The ruins we were passing by marked the cavern that held the first of the artifacts. Solas had said they strengthened the Veil around them against further tears. I cursed myself for not realizing it would be on the way.

“Yes, of course!” I reassured him quickly. “Is it nearby?”

“According to my research, the artifact may be in this area. If we can locate it, then perhaps we could determine the whereabouts of other wards the ancient elves set.”

And by “ancient elves,” do you mean yourself, Solas? I cringed inwardly at my phrasing. It wasn’t meant as an insult. It just stood to reason that the creator of the Veil would also have needed to create artifacts to maintain it.

“Let’s tell Cassandra then,” I said aloud. “This needs to be addressed immediately. The fewer tears in the Veil, the better.”

It took several minutes of patient explanations from Solas to convince Cassandra that taking another detour was a good and necessary idea. He imparted a great deal of weight in every word, emphasizing the importance of the elven artifacts.

I could understand Cassandra’s reluctance. She had no idea that the artifact was definitely in the cavern. This was not the risk she thought it was. But for my part, I kept my mouth shut. I figured I’d only hurt our cause if I said anything, since I’d already derailed our journey once.

With a disgusted sigh, Cassandra instructed the party to head over to the cavern entrance. The soldiers would keep an eye on all the horses and serve as our rear guard while the inner circle searched for the artifact.

As we approached the cavern, an elven woman dressed in the robes of a Dalish Keeper came into view. She was holding off a pair of shades with her staff and a few spells. My eyes narrowed. Mihris. Somehow, I’d forgotten she would be here.

With our help, it didn’t take long for the demons to die. The light-haired woman bowed in greeting.

“Peace. I am no danger to you,” she assured us. “My name is Mihris.” Cassandra collectively introduced us as the Inquisition. “By your weapons, I see you come ready for battle. Perhaps we face a common enemy in these demons.”

It didn’t appear she had heard of us. Curious. “The demons threaten all of us in their current state,” I replied. But they were fine as spirits before that.

“Are you fighting the demons on your own?” Cassandra asked with clear surprise. A logical question, since Mihris had been struggling before we arrived. Not like Dorian.

“Fighting the demons is pointless,” Mihris replied sharply. “There will always be more. And I have no means of closing the rifts.” I would have held up the mark to show her that problem was solved – if I could have gotten a word in edgewise. “But I have heard of elven artifacts that measure the Veil. They may tell us where new rifts will appear.”

Now Mihris had my attention. Heard from where, I wonder. Or whom? I regretted that I had not finished reading The Masked Empire before ending up here. A little late now…

“I was not expecting so many demons, however,” she went on. “I believe one of the artifacts is nearby. Can you help me reach it?”

I didn’t really relish Mihris acting like she was suddenly in charge, even though that’s always how this conversation played out. And yet, letting her come along somehow felt like the morally right thing to do. But if she would interfere with Solas’s plan here… I glanced at Solas questioningly. He gestured back that it was my decision. I’ll take that as an “I don’t mind.”

After checking with Cassandra for her approval – which she granted – I nodded to Mihris. “Since our causes align, it would make sense to team up to find this artifact.”

“Thank you. I do not think I could have done this alone.”

We continued as a group up toward the cavern entrance. Mihris might have needed help, but she walked with pride. That’s not a pun, I grumbled at myself. Solas meant pride in elven. I swear, Solas took the name just so this sort of thing would happen often.

“How did you end up here, anyway?” Varric asked Mihris. “Don’t you Dalish elves usually stick with your clans?” I winced, thinking of Merrill, who could never return to her clan. I was certain Varric was too.

“I was – am – First of Clan Virnehn,” she replied. “I left in service of my clan and saw that great tear in the Veil on my journey.” She’s lying. I might not have finished The Masked Empire, but I’d read that Mihris was with her clan shortly before they were wiped out. Whether she witnessed the act or not, Mihris was aware of their deaths. “I know more of magic and the Veil than any shemlen, so I hoped to help.” Her inflection on “shemlen” was filled with the usual Dalish contempt for humans. I couldn’t help but bristle at her tone, despite the justified reasons elves had for not trusting humans by default. Not THIS shemlen, sister.

“Ma harel, da’len,” Solas told her quietly, but firmly.

Mihris looked startled. “I…we should keep moving.”

My brain melted into a puddle of profanities. What had he said to her? I got the general gist, since I knew those words separately, but I couldn’t figure out the less literal meaning. “Da’len” was a term the elves called fellow elves who were younger than them. But the first part… Something like “My trick” or “My deception.” Did Mihris know who Solas was? Had he told her? I had even more regrets about not finishing the book. But it didn’t make sense that he would have told her the full truth. Maybe Solas told her he was more knowledgeable in this area. In three words? Unlikely.

I nearly bumped into Cassandra as we stopped near a stone archway in the wall of the ruin at the top of the hill. Debris had fallen in front of the gap, blocking entry to the cavern.

“We’ll need focused magical energy to get by,” Mihris said. She turned to Solas. “You, flat-ear. Can you manage it?”

My temper flared. “How dare you insult him, then ask for his help?” I glared at Mihris, who looked shocked and offended. “You’re a mage. I don’t see you managing it.”

Sera’s laughter drowned out what might have been a polite chuckle from Vivienne. Mihris was far less amused.

“Keep out of this, shem,” she spat back.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that this was how the Dalish traditionally behaved when faced with a task they couldn’t handle,” I retorted.

A hand rested on my shoulder. “That will not be necessary, Herald.”

Solas’s rebuke was far gentler than Cassandra’s, but carried as much weight. A formal request to cease and desist. The fleeting realization that this was the closest we’d been since the time I fell off the wall in Haven didn’t help matters any. Brain, no.

I nodded my understanding and immediately felt a sense of loss as the hand was removed. As Solas passed me, our eyes met. I got the distinct impression that we’d be continuing this conversation later.

Standing before the blocked archway, Solas inclined his head in Mihris’s direction. “Ma nuvenin, da’len,” he told her without a trace of mockery. As you wish. The woman had the decency to look ashamed of herself as Solas concentrated on the remains of the broken stone columns and moved them aside.

No sooner had he cleared the way than half a dozen shades and wraiths rushed toward us through the gap. Cassandra and Blackwall immediately moved into action and blocked the demons’ exit, allowing everyone else to cast spells and fire their ammo into the narrow passageway beyond. As the only melee combatant not able to be on the front line, all I could do was watch. Works for me. With the day I was having, the less I did at this point, the better.

Once the demons were cleared, we moved forward into the space where they had been trapped. How they had even gotten in here in the first place was a mystery. Was there a rift ahead? The mark gave no indication.

A grotesque statue with an oversized head stood at the far end of the narrow passageway. Smaller archways on either side of the hall led into darkness. Magical energy emanated from Solas’s hands as he lit a torch by the arch on the left. Pale green flames lit the cramped space.

“What manner of fire is that?” Cassandra asked, more curious than alarmed.

“I have heard of this but never seen it before,” he replied. “It is called veilfire.”

That can’t be true. Solas had used veilfire as a key component in several puzzles that were featured in Trespasser. Unless it was called something else before the Veil existed… Even so, he would have seen it before. Solas generally took great care to only lie by omission. Why lie outright here? Unless there was no other way…

“It is a form of sympathetic magic,” Solas explained. “A memory of flame that burns in this world where the Veil is thin.”

I suppose that rules out its existence prior to the Veil. But then how and when did Solas create the puzzles with the wolf statues? I had thought he slept for a thousand years directly after creating the Veil. There was still so much I didn’t know.

We continued into the next chamber, which of course had more demons in it. Why WOULDN’T there be more demons? Fortunately, it was only about a dozen wraiths and shades – nothing we couldn’t handle. Solas’s mobility was compromised by the veilfire torch, but Vivienne was more than able to pick up the slack in terms of firepower. For her part, Mihris certainly fought better in a group than she had on her own, although the same would be true of anyone. But she’s trying even harder now, I noticed, spotting a glint of determination in her eyes.

I stayed near Solas to guard his torch-bearing side. Even though he could still cast one-handed, he couldn’t use his staff to enhance his powers. Not knowing how severe the restriction was, I didn’t want to take any chances. It should have been me holding the torch to provide light. I’m a far weaker fighter. Couldn’t be helped now – I didn’t want to accidentally drop the torch on a handoff.

After the demons had been disposed of, Solas stood still for a moment, concentrating. “I can sense elven magic somewhere nearby.”

Mihris spoke up from the far side of the room. “There. If we activate that crystal, it should react to the strength of the Veil.”

Once again, I wondered how she knew that. She seemed reluctant to actually touch the artifact, which was as fortunate as it was puzzling. Mihris’s knowledge appeared to be as spotty as mine. Just as well, since it was appropriate for Solas to activate the artifact himself. I reached out to hold the torch, but he either didn’t notice or ignored me as he knelt beside the mostly spherical artifact. Apparently, activation only required one hand.

“Yes,” Solas said with satisfaction as he rose to his feet. “The wards are helping to strengthen the Veil. This area should be safer for travelers now.”

“Well, that should prove useful,” Mihris said. “And it seems the ancestors left something for me as well,” she added, rooting through a small chest near the artifact. “Interesting.”

I took in a sharp breath of air. I thought the amulets of power were just a gameplay mechanic! This didn’t make any sense.

Mihris was too busy dismissing us to notice my reaction. “I believe our alliance is concluded. Go in peace, Inquisition.”

I didn’t know what to do. It felt wrong to let her take whatever had been here. What if it belonged to Solas? Even if it wasn’t an important object, it was the principle of the thing.

Solas was, as usual, way ahead of me. “Ma halani, ma glandival,” he told her. “Vir enasalin.” I didn’t understand every word, but I knew that he was asking for Mihris’s help. Maybe “I’ll get better use out of it than you will.”

She paused, considering his words. “I…perhaps you are right. Here. Take it.” Mihris placed the pendant in Solas’s hand. “Go with Mythal’s blessing.” If she was bitter about having gained nothing personally from this little adventure, she didn’t show it.

“Ma serannas,” I thanked her. Mihris looked stunned that I spoke elven. “Safe journey to you,” I added with a smile that only had a touch of smugness. I meant what I said, but I couldn’t help but be petty and get in the last word when it came to expectations. Besides, let her think I understood everything that was said earlier.

As we left the chamber, I caught a glimpse of the front of the pendant. It bore the face of a wolf, stylized like Fen’Harel’s visage in Trespasser. Well, that’s not entirely unexpected. Now I was doubly glad that Mihris hadn’t taken it. Even if the pendant didn’t do anything, it was presumably back with its rightful owner.

Chapter Text

I hated having unfinished business. I tried to find a moment to speak with Solas privately about what had happened with Mihris, but there were far too many people around. It would have to keep.

We hadn’t traveled far before we heard the clashing of swords echoing off the hexagonal rock formations alongside the ravine ahead. A voice that could only be Iron Bull’s boomed out war cries above the fray. I hadn’t realized the cave was that close to where the Chargers were. Was it like that in game? No wonder Cassandra was annoyed we’d stopped to activate the artifact.

As we rounded the corner into the ravine proper, it was immediately apparent that we’d missed most of the action. Fresh corpses lay strewn about the area. The Vints still had the high ground, but they were having trouble holding it with only one mage left in their group. Judging from the bodies, they hadn’t had many mages to begin with.

The Chargers were in good form, their attacks scrappy but focused. Iron Bull was the easiest to spot, as his bulky frame caused him to tower over the rest of the field. Besides, he’s the only qunari. Krem also stood out, in part because he was near Bull, but mostly because of his two-handed mace that looked far too heavy for him to carry. The only other Charger I recognized was Dalish, the blonde elven mage. She was keeping her companions barriered with the aid of her bow-shaped staff. Ha, so it IS a bow! An explosion across the field marked where Rocky must have been. The state of a number of the corpses indicated that the dwarf was largely responsible for thinning out the Vints’ numbers.

By the time we got within reasonable hailing distance, the last of the Vints had fallen. Iron Bull ordered the Chargers to stand down and checked the company’s status with Krem. Only a handful of injuries, none dead. I’m sure that’s at least partially for our benefit.

“That’s what I like to hear!” Bull’s voice carried across the area. “Let the throat cutters finish up, then break out the casks.”

It was only then that Bull came to greet us. With every step he took, he appeared even taller than I had imagined. I craned my head up toward the mountain of a man.

His tone swapped from commander to host. “So, you’re with the Inquisition, huh? Glad you could make it.” He waved me over. “C’mon, have a seat. Drinks are comin’.”

A momentary surge of panic hit me. Bonding with Bull as a teetotaler was going to be complicated as hell. Now there’s something I never had to deal with in game. I shoved all that aside. Another problem for another day. I’d just avoid drinking now.

“It’s a pleasure to meet the Iron Bull at last.” I made a point of calling him the Iron Bull. He’d like that. That joke was how he managed to fit in with the Qun considering him less of an individual. It was also why I wouldn’t be adding the “the” later on.

“And you must be the one they call the Herald.” It was only then that I realized he’d known to address me instead of Cassandra. My face must have betrayed my surprise, as Bull laughed softly. “Your hand gives away your identity as much as my horns do mine.” But you still knew to contact me instead of Cassandra, Bull. The qunari had already determined where the Inquisition’s true power lies. I couldn’t help wondering what other information they had passed on to Bull. Especially since there’s NOTHING on me here. I’m a woman without a past.

We sat on a couple of rocks by the ravine wall, watching as the Chargers carried out Bull’s orders. Skinner hurried by, carrying a couple of wicked-looking daggers. I found myself hoping that the city elf’s nickname hadn’t been as literal as Dalish’s, especially since she was probably one of the company’s throat cutters. Stitches, the Chargers’ medic, tended to the injuries of an uncomplaining Grim not far away. All in all, the ravine wasn’t anywhere near as scenic as the Storm Coast, but that couldn’t be helped.

“This is Cremisius Aclassi, my lieutenant.” Bull waved to the strong-jawed man as he approached.

“A pleasure to meet you in person,” Krem told me with a nod. “Throat cutters are done, Chief.”

“Already? Have ‘em check again. Don’t want any of those Tevinter bastards getting away – no offense, Krem,” Bull added with a soft chuckle.

“None taken,” Krem replied, taking the jab in stride. “At least a bastard knows who his mother was. Puts him one up on you qunari, right?”

It suddenly occurred to me that I was asking Cassandra to accept the allegiance of yet another man from Tevinter as well as a qunari after they’d burned a good portion of Kirkwall and beheaded the last viscount. Maker, I hope she doesn’t fight me on them. Cass had heard Varric’s account of that nightmare. If she assumed all qunari were like the Arishok…

Bull turned his attention back to me. “So, you’ve seen us fight. We’re expensive, but we’re worth it.” He grinned. “And I’m sure the Inquisition can afford us.”

Heh, of course – since it’s your assignment to join us. Cassandra, of course, did not know that. “Exactly how expensive is your company?” she demanded.

Bull didn’t appear put off that Cass had made herself part of this discussion. “Your ambassador…uh, what’s her name….Josephine. We’d go through her and get the payment set up. The gold will take care of itself – don’t worry about that. All that matters is we’re worth it,” he added with another chuckle.

Well, that’s not an answer at all. I didn’t for one second believe he’d forgotten Josie’s name either. The whole thing felt shady, even though I knew that in the long run, everything would be fine. I just had to ensure Cass didn’t shut things down.

“It certainly does appear that way,” I agreed. “The Chargers seem to be a really strong company.”

“They are.” Pride and affection crept into Bull’s voice in equal measure. “But you’re not just getting the boys. You’re getting me.” I tried not to laugh at that part of his sales pitch. Of course you’re part of the package, Bull. They’re YOUR Chargers. “You need a front line bodyguard, I’m your man. Whatever it is – demons, dragons – the bigger, the better.” His tone grew more serious. “And there’s one other thing – might be useful, might piss you off. Ever hear of the Ben-Hassrath?”

Oh geez. How was I supposed to answer that without appearing to know more than I should about the Qun? “Qunari spies, right?” I asked as casually as I could.

“Yeah, that’s them.” If Bull was surprised that I knew that, he didn’t let on. “Or…well…us.” Cassandra tensed next to me. Bloody hell. “The Ben-Hassrath are concerned about the Breach. Magic out of control like that could cause trouble everywhere.” And already has. “I’ve been ordered to join the Inquisition, get close to the people in charge, then send reports on what’s happening. But I also get reports from Ben-Hassrath agents all over Orlais. You sign me on, I’ll share them with your people.”

I had to sell this so Cass would be on board. “You sound more like a liaison than a spy, to be quite honest. Spies don’t generally tell the people they’re spying on that they’re spying on them.”

Bull laughed. “I’d have been tipped sooner or later. Better you hear it right up front from me.” He went on with a more sober look. “Whatever happened at that Conclave thing is bad. Someone needs to get that Breach closed. So whatever I am, I’m on your side.”

I stole a glance at Cassandra. She still looked skeptical, but she was listening. That was a positive sign. I hope.

“What sort of information would you include in your reports?” I asked Bull.

“Enough to keep my superiors happy. Nothing that’ll compromise your operations. The qunari want to know if they need to launch an invasion to stop the whole damn world from falling apart.” For a moment, I had a flash of a similar conversation with Leliana in DA2 – she’d come to Kirkwall to see if Justinia needed to send an Exalted March to the city. No good ever comes of these things. “If you let me send word of what you’re doing, it’ll put some minds at ease. That’s good for everyone.”

That isn’t really an answer either, not outside of the “uncompromised operations” part. I couldn’t wait to get Bull away from the Qun for good. “And the information from the Ben-Hassrath reports?”

“Enemy movements, suspicious activity, intriguing gossip. It’s a bit of everything. Alone, they’re not much, but if your spymaster is worth a damn, she’ll put them to good use.”

I grinned. “She is. But I suspect you already know that.” I couldn’t help poking Bull a bit about slightly overplaying his hand. Again I wondered just how much he already knew about us.

Bull chuckled. “I did a little research. Plus, I’ve always had a weakness for redheads.”

I glanced at Cassandra, who appeared to have reached a conclusion. She nodded. The tension went out of my shoulders as I turned back to Bull. “Very well then. Welcome to the Inquisition, Iron Bull.”

He grinned. “Excellent.” Rising to his feet, Bull called to Krem. “Tell the men to finish drinking on their own. The Chargers just got hired.”

Krem, who was on his way to us with two ale-filled tankards, stopped in his tracks. “What about the casks, Chief? We just opened them up – with axes.”

“Find some way to seal ‘em. You’re Tevinter, right? Try blood magic.” Bull faced me again. “I do have a piece of information you might be interested in sooner than later.”

Oh? “What’s that?”

A piercing scream cut through the air. My eyes went wide. I’d recognize that sound anywhere.

Bull grinned widely. “As you just heard, there’s a Ferelden Frostback not far from here. Up for a little dragon-slaying, boss?”

…well, shit.

Chapter Text

I jolted awake, the shriek of the dragon echoing in my ears. Get up! Move, dammit! But why was I lying down? Where –

Then I remembered. The Ferelden Frostback was dead. Between the combined efforts of the inner circle, Inquisition soldiers, and Bull’s Chargers, she had eventually fallen. With everyone working together, we all managed to make it through the fight alive.

Not that we escaped completely unscathed, I thought, running my fingers through my now considerably shorter hair. It had gone from shoulder length to not even reaching my chin. At least I couldn’t’ve really prepared to fight a dragon in person. Dodging every single fire breath would have been an impossible feat, even for a seasoned warrior. Which I am not.

I winced as I gingerly felt the lump on the back of my head. The dragon’s wing attacks had caught me off guard, throwing me to the ground multiple times. It was a small miracle that I hadn’t gotten a concussion. A pity there’s only so much magical healing can do when it comes to injuries as opposed to illnesses. While some physical injuries could be mended more quickly, there was still the problem of lingering pain afterwards.

I was alone in the tent. We had decided to remain at the Dusklight camp overnight. Even the uninjured had needed to rest after the battle with the dragon. Cassandra was probably already overseeing efforts to journey back to the Crossroads. I still couldn’t believe that Sera and Vivienne were managing to share a tent without destroying each other. Knowing they’d be at odds, I had offered to stay with Sera after we recruited Vivienne, but Cass had wanted to keep an eye on me.

It was early morning, the sun still low in the sky. I pulled my hood up to shield me against the chill in the air. The camp was already starting to bustle with soldiers making preparations to move out. One corner was still relatively quiet – the infirmary. As I approached, I could hear the muttered grumblings and moans of pain from the soldiers who hadn’t been lucky enough to escape the fight with bruises and shortened hair. At least none were so seriously injured that they couldn’t be moved.

Solas was there, of course. He always helped the Inquisition’s healers out when he got the chance. He came over when he saw me. We moved away from the infirmary as to not be in the way. I noticed his cloak, which had gotten burned in yesterday’s fight, had already been mended. My hair wasn’t the only thing that had temporarily caught fire.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better, thanks in large part to your efforts.” I nodded at his cloak. “I’m glad you were able to fix your cloak.”

“I was fortunate. Only my cloak was burned, so the damage was easily mended.”

“I’ll have to remember that the next time we fight a dragon. Maybe I’ll get to keep my hair.” I grinned. It would grow back. Vivienne was more distressed than I was that it looked unflattering in the meantime.

Solas chuckled, but the look on his face indicated that he had something else to discuss. “I wanted to thank you for what you said to Mihris.”

That wasn’t how I expected this conversation to go at all. “I wasn’t going to let her talk to you like that. Or Sera, if Mihris had gone after her instead.”

“It is not often that one finds support even within the elven community, so the effort is appreciated.”

His response didn’t make sense. Not for someone so well-versed in playing the Game. “So you’re not upset that I ruined the polite calm?”

Solas looked surprised by the question. “Why should I? Her words held no power over me. Your reaction was your own.” He gave me a curious look. “A stronger reaction than one would expect from a human, naturally, but yours nonetheless.”

Oh good, now he’s suspicious. Perfect. “I hate it when some of the Dalish think they’re the ‘true elves’ and look down on elves who aren’t like them. Same thing with the nobility of any race.” Well, it’s true. “Of course,” I added with a smirk. “If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would still tell her off.”

Solas made a sound of amusement. “Not an unexpected statement.”

I gasped in mock horror. “Oh no! My secret is out! How could I possibly be so transparent? Now everyone will know I’m extremely opinionated – at least when it comes to matters of morality,” I finished with a grin. Sarcastic dramatics were far more fun than the real thing. And simpler to deal with.

Solas laughed. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Even as we speak, your political rivals plan to lure you into endless debates to draw your attention from the Breach.” His tone was light. It was good to see hints of his true self poking through his protective façade.

“They’re going to be disappointed then. I loathe politics,” I confided. “Merely a means to an end.”

There was that inscrutable look again. “Indeed.” I got the distinct impression that Solas had been about to say something different and decided against it. “As is the case with the Tevinter magister, I assume?”

A frown creased my brow. “Absolutely. I have no intention of actually negotiating with that slaver.” The last word burst out of me with surprising force. I had actually intended to call him an asshole, but this was more specific. And far more meaningful.

“Are we to contact the templars instead then?” His tone was inquisitive, but his expression had darkened considerably.

Fenedhis! Solas hadn’t heard my conversation with Cassandra. I shook my head vigorously. “I already reached out to them in Val Royeaux. That will have to suffice, even if it’s not a guarantee. No, I don’t intend to negotiate with Alexius, but I’m not leaving the mages or Redcliffe in his hands.” How had he even gained control of the castle anyway? Arl Teagan would never have left willingly. I supposed possession was still nine-tenths of the law, even here. “He’s far too much of a threat to Thedas at large if he’s magically manipulating time. I mean, if you’ve never seen magic like it before…” I left it at that. I was a breath away from crossing the line that concealed my knowledge of Solas’s identity.

“No, I have not,” Solas confirmed. “It is…troubling.” Guess that was too close to the truth for him as well, since he knows I know that already. “Stopping Alexius does appear to be the wisest course of action. Then we can return our attention to the Breach.”

I nodded. “Hopefully the rest of the war council will be at the Crossroads by the time we return.”

Chapter Text

My estimate regarding the war council’s arrival had been a bit optimistic. Cullen, Josephine, and Leliana arrived at the Crossroads several days after we did. They’d traveled with Leliana’s agents rather than a full escort of soldiers, which had enabled them to avoid the main roads. Does that mean Leliana already has a plan in mind for infiltrating the castle? I could hardly wait for the war council to meet to find out.

The day before the advisers reached the Crossroads, Alexius had sent word that he was prepared to meet again to discuss the fate of the mages. He must have finally been satisfied with whatever he and Fiona had done to keep Felix alive, little knowing that their efforts had no actual effect. Poor Felix. All that fuss because he faked illness to contact me.

After a brief rest, the advisers, Cassandra, and I all gathered in the largest of our tents and clustered around a campaign table with a map of Thedas on it. With this setup, we had effectively moved the war room to the Hinterlands.

Cullen looked grave – well, more than usual. During the journey from Haven, he had already expressed his reservations about recruiting the mages. Repeatedly, Josephine had confided.

“I told Leliana before, we don’t have the manpower to take the castle!” Cullen scowled at the rest of us. “Either we find another way in, or give up this nonsense and go and get the templars!”

“Redcliffe is in the hands of a magister,” Cassandra reminded him. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”

“The letter from Alexius asked for the Herald of Andraste by name for the continued negotiations,” Josephine put in. “It’s an obvious trap,” she added in a tone that indicated she would never have made such a mistake.

“I don’t think any of us expected anything less, Josephine,” I noted. “From what Felix told us, the mages are just the Venatori’s way of getting to me.” I leaned forward over the map, pointing at Redcliffe for emphasis. “Whatever their reasons, we can’t just ignore what’s happened here. We need the mages –“ I pointedly ignored Cullen’s sound of protest. “– And we can’t just leave a Venatori stronghold in the middle of Ferelden. Not to mention the fluctuations of time surrounding the rifts here. Even Solas is concerned!” I crossed my arms. “There is some major magical misuse here, and I can’t believe the former knight-captain is arguing against stopping it immediately.”

As Cullen and I glared at each other, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was falling back on the templars as the only semblance of order he knew. Or maybe he’s afraid of following in Knight-Commander Meredith’s footsteps again. Cullen’s commanding officer in Kirkwall had pushed him further down the dark path he’d been set on by trauma from Ferelden’s Circle during the Blight. It had taken him seven years to even start returning to his original value system. I couldn’t fault him for that – he’d been mentally and physically tortured by blood mages and demons for Maker knows how long. Cullen had needed time off, not a transfer to Kirkwall. That he had gotten this far in his recovery on his own was nothing short of a miracle. I’d be damned if I let him accidentally backslide now.

“Redcliffe Castle is one of the most defensible fortresses in Ferelden,” Cullen growled through gritted teeth. “It has repelled thousands of assaults. If you go in there, you’ll die and we’ll lose the only means we have of closing these rifts. I won’t allow it.”

“It is as Nancy said before,” Leliana spoke up. “Losing the mages is unacceptable and we cannot leave a hostile foreign power on our doorstep.”

Josephine shook her head. “Even if we could assault the keep, it would be for naught. An ‘Orlesian’ Inquisition’s army marching into Ferelden would provoke a war. Our hands are tied.”

Cassandra started to protest. “The magister –“

“Has outplayed us,” Cullen finished with a grim finality.

And yet you’re all here with Leliana’s agents in tow… “You have a plan, don’t you, Leliana?” I asked the spymaster. “One that involves infiltrating the castle without my sacrificial death.”

From the blank look on her face, I could tell Leliana hadn’t thought of the hidden passage from Origins yet. Shit. I couldn’t exactly remind her.

Cullen frowned, thinking. Until that moment, I had forgotten he had any familiarity with the area. The Ferelden Circle was located in the middle of Lake Calanhad. The only way to reach it was by boat. I saw the face of the templar who had ferried us across the lake in Origins. My heart sank. Carroll may have already been corrupted by red lyrium. Even if he hadn’t, I had no idea where he might be now. The odds of saving him were practically nonexistent – not that I could have told Cullen about the danger his former colleague was in regardless.

“There’s nothing I know of that would work,” Cullen declared with a shake of his head.

“Wait,” Leliana broke in, realization dawning in her eyes. “There is a secret passage into the castle, an escape route for the family. It’s too narrow for our troops, but we could send agents through.”

“Too risky,” Cullen argued. “Those agents will be discovered well before they reach the magister.”

So certain of failure, are you? “Which is why I’m going to meet with him as bait,” I countered.

“That should be all the distraction they need,” Leliana agreed.

Our exchange gave Cullen pause as he seriously considered the plan. “Focus their attention on the Herald while we take out the Tevinters. It’s risky, but it could work.”

Oh honestly, EVERYTHING is risky, Cullen. At least he was in agreement now.

“Fortunately, you’ll have help,” interrupted a new voice. We all turned to see Dorian approach. I wondered what he had said to the guards outside the makeshift war room to allow his dramatic entrance to be so timely.

One of the Inquisition’s agents rushed in after him. Or perhaps he just forced his way in.

“This man says he has information about the magister and his methods, Commander,” said the agent, who was apparently one of Cullen’s men, not Leliana’s. I made a note to pay better attention to whose people were whose. Cullen nodded, both dismissing the guard and allowing Dorian to stay.

“Your spies will never get past Alexius’s magic without my help,” Dorian continued as though there had been no interruption. “So if you’re going after him, I’m coming along.”

Cullen looked to me, his brow furrowed in concern. “This plan puts you in the most danger. We can’t, in good conscience, order you to do this.” Good. I had played things low key enough that my deep involvement with the formation of this plan had escaped notice. “We can still go after the templars if you’d rather not play the bait. It’s up to you.” Ah. That explains it.

I gave him a withering look. “It has to be done, Cullen.” With as resolute a pose as I could muster, I added, “But don’t worry. I have no intention of dying.”

At that, Josephine moved into action. “I will send word to Magister Alexius that the Inquisition – meaning you in particular,” she added with a nod to me, “intends to continue the negotiations with a few trusted advisers.” Wait, the war council isn’t coming with me, are they? At my confused look, Josie clarified. “Surely the magister will take less offense to ‘advisers’ than ‘bodyguards.’”

“Thank you, Josephine,” I told her, glad she not only approved of the plan, but had already improved upon it. She always was quick to adapt to better ideas. “I do look forward to seeing this conflict resolved.”

I tried to ignore the anxiety starting to prickle in my chest. This is really happening. Even though everything would work out in the end, the others didn’t know that and their apprehension was contagious. But this is a fixed point in time that can’t be changed, right? Somehow, it was getting more difficult to assure myself of that.

Chapter Text

Leliana and her agents trickled into Redcliffe village over the next two days, preparing to sneak into the castle through the secret passage in the old windmill. Dorian went with them. On the morning of the third day, the distraction group and I set out to meet with Alexius.

My entourage was far smaller than usual: just Cassandra and Solas. Two of Leliana’s agents drove my cart, posing as ordinary servants. Those agents were to make their way from the stables to join Leliana outside the castle’s dungeons. If not, they would be the ones to report to Cullen and Josephine should anything go wrong.

It bothered me to no end that the party had shrunk to a normal in-game size. Even with Isabela’s training, I was hardly a skilled combatant. I harbored no illusions about that. It was enough that I could defend myself. But after Alexius sent us into the future, Dorian and I would be on our own until we found Cass and Solas. A larger party could have meant more people getting transported to the future with us. Not only would that have made the fighting easier, but there would have been more witnesses to corroborate what we’d seen. And yet, it was just as well that this was not the case. If Solas saw the continued darkness of a future brought about by his mistake, the results could be devastating. I just hope Dorian can make up for my deficiencies.

Though I hadn’t replayed Origins in years, Redcliffe castle looked much like I remembered it: small, but sturdy. There was even the tree Dog could mark for mabari dominance in the castle courtyard. The only difference was that instead of darkspawn atop the walls, there were Venatori soldiers. More than enough to repel any attack from the Inquisition’s forces, I noted.

We left Leliana’s agents and entered the castle. Venatori guards lined the walls, watching our every move. But it wasn’t until we reached the throne room that we met with resistance.

“Announce us,” Cassandra ordered the masked guard blocking our path. He only cocked his head curiously back at her.

A smarmy-looking blond man walked up behind the guard. “The magister’s invitation was for the Herald and no one else,” sneered the man. “You lot wait here.”

Of course they’re pulling this bullshit now that they don’t have to argue with Josephine. I crossed my arms and gave him my best death glare. “They come with me, or I’m leaving.” We didn’t have time for this.

The man narrowed his eyes, but there was nothing he could do. If he refused to let me enter, he’d get into worse trouble than if he let me in with bodyguards. His demeanor gave me the impression he was here willingly rather than a slave, so I had little sympathy for his predicament.

As we ascended the steps into the throne room proper, Alexius came into clearer view. He was sitting on Arl Teagan’s throne, his expression shrouded in shadow. A fire burned dramatically behind him. Though the Guerrins originally lit the room that way, seeing the backlit silhouettes of the Tevinter guards gave off a much more sinister vibe. Are all of Alexius’s people in here as a show of force? He’ll regret that when Leliana arrives.

Felix and Fiona stood on either side of Alexius. Fiona looked concerned, as to be expected under the circumstances. Felix appeared impassive, but I could only imagine what he was thinking. Does he know about the amulet that will transport me to the future? Is he trying to find a way to warn us about it?

The blond lackey accompanied us, taking his post across from Fiona. It was he who announced us. “My lord magister, the agents of the Inquisition have arrived.”

Alexius rose to his feet. “My friend! It’s so good to see you again.” Ugh, more of the false simpering. “And your associates, of course.” He definitely didn’t sound as happy to see the others. “I’m sure we can work out some arrangement that is equitable to all parties.”

Fiona stepped forward, her shoulders squared with tension. “Are we mages to have no voice in deciding our fate?” Interesting that she interpreted “all” parties to exclude the mages. She was right, of course – but that wouldn’t’ve been my assumption based on that sentence alone.

Alexius didn’t miss a beat. “Fiona, you would not have turned your followers over to my care if you did not trust me with their lives.” Unless she felt she had no other choice – which you ensured, Alexius. All the gaslighting was really pissing me off.

“You did say ‘all’ parties,” I pointed out, not bothering to temper the sharpness in my voice. “I was under the impression that the mages were to be included in this negotiation. After all, it is their lives that are at stake here.”

Fiona looked surprised that I jumped so quickly to support her. “Thank you,” she told me with a small bow.

Alexius sat down again. When he next spoke, he was all business. “The Inquisition needs mages to close the Breach, and I have them. So, what shall you offer in exchange?”

It would have been wiser to continue with the ruse. Leliana’s agents didn’t appear to have arrived yet. But I was already tired of the lies and Alexius’s false friendliness. If there was any chance at all of finding a real Warden who could save Felix, every minute counted.

“Your life,” I told him. “And the lives of your people in the castle, should they cooperate.”

Alexius raised an eyebrow. He looked amused rather than threatened. Good. Don’t want him to be on guard. “Bold words. And how do you imagine you will accomplish such a feat?”

“She knows everything, Father,” Felix told him.

For the first time, Alexius seemed to really see his son. “Felix, what have you done?” Alexius demanded. There was an edge in his voice that hadn’t been there before.

“The right thing,” I answered. “You would really raise up Tevinter supremacists as the world burns around you?” I chose my next words carefully, even as I charged forward verbally. “Without me, the Breach cannot be closed. You can’t possibly believe your fate would be different than anyone else’s. Felix has good reason to worry.” There, that should cover it. No details.

Alexius stood up again, advancing on me with greater purpose this time. “You walk into my stronghold with your stolen mark – a gift you don’t even understand – and think you’re in control?”

“Your stolen stronghold,” I reminded him, jutting out my chin defiantly.

He chose to ignore that. “You’re nothing but a mistake.”

Alexius was right about that on more levels than he knew. Why was I here? But I wasn’t going to agree with him.

“Why don’t you tell us who exactly I allegedly stole the mark from?”

“It belongs to your betters,” he retorted. “You wouldn’t even begin to understand its purpose.”

Wanna bet? “Try me.”

“Father, listen to yourself!” Felix broke in, distress etched across his face. “Do you know what you sound like?”

“He sounds exactly like the sort of villainous cliché everyone expects us to be,” Dorian replied, stepping forward from the side of the room and removing his hood dramatically. Not the reply I would have come up with, but I was glad Dorian was here. However, that also means it’s almost time. My stomach twisted in a knot.

“Dorian.” Alexius looked even more displeased. “I gave you a chance to be a part of this. You turned me down.” And you’re missing the point. “The Elder One has power you would not believe. He will raise the Imperium from its own ashes.”

“Like a phoenix raised by blood magic,” I quipped. Wait, do phoenixes even work like that here? Shit. “Pray tell, who is this Elder One?” I asked quickly, hoping to deflect any questions my comment might have raised.

“Soon he will become a god,” Alexius replied. It wasn’t said as a threat. It was an acknowledgement of power. “He will make the world bow to mages once more. We will rule from the Boeric Ocean to the Frozen Seas.”

The world wouldn’t be what Alexius expected. Tevinter magisters wouldn’t rule the world – Corypheus would. But I couldn’t tell him that. Not yet.

“You can’t involve my people in this!” Fiona protested. She was angrier than I’d ever seen her.

Dorian tried again to reason with his former mentor. “Alexius, this is exactly what you and I talked about never wanting to happen! Why would you support this?”

I heard a soft clank off in the distance behind us. My heart raced. Leliana’s agents are here and taking out the guards. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Stop it, Father.” Though Felix was pleading, his tone was firm. “Give up the Venatori. Let the southern mages fight the Breach, and let’s go home.”

“No!” Alexius insisted. “It’s the only way, Felix. He can save you!”

“Save me?” Felix asked, completely baffled.

“There is a way,” Alexius went on, almost to himself. “The Elder One promised. If I undo the mistake at the Temple…”

“I’m going to die,” Felix stated resolutely. “You need to accept that.”

Alexius ignored him and pointed at us. “Seize them, Venatori! The Elder One demands this woman’s life!”

There was resounding silence as Alexius realized that the guards lining the walls were no longer his men, but ours. The bodies of the Venatori lay on the cold stone floor before them.

“Your men are dead, Alexius,” Cassandra told him, driving the point home.

Instead of backing down, Alexius moved forward. I braced myself. “You…are a mistake!” he hissed at me. “You should never have existed!”

Alexius raised his hand, blue-green magic sparking wildly around it. The amulet floated out of his palm and hung in the air.

“No!” I barely had time to register what was happening as Dorian swiftly cut in front of me and whacked Alexius’s hand with his staff. There was a flash of yellow magic as Dorian attempted to counter the spell. As Alexius stumbled backwards, a swirling blue-green circle of magic opened in the air before us.

In a flash of white light and the muffled explosion of discharged magic, the throne room and everyone in it but Dorian disappeared.

Chapter Text

I barely kept my balance as I got thrown forward into knee-deep water by the force of the blast. There was a second splash as Dorian staggered next to me. Thanks to my meta knowledge, I knew exactly where we were – deep in the dungeons of Redcliffe castle. It was difficult to see in the overwhelming glow of the red lyrium around the cell. I almost didn’t notice the Venatori guards rushing toward us.

“Blood of the Elder One!” one shouted.

“Where’d they come from?” yelled the other.

Fortunately, I remembered they’d be here, so I was ready to act quickly. I grabbed a smoke pellet from its pouch and crushed it in my hand. I doubted it would break on the surface of the water. Purple smoke instantly filled the air. Sidestepping to my right, I unsheathed my daggers. With a thunk, the guard on the right ran directly into my blade. Holding it steady in his gut, I brought the other up to slash his throat. He fell with a sickening gurgle.

Quick and clean, just as Isabela had promised. She didn’t know it, but this was really the reason I’d thrown myself into my training so seriously. I will not be Dorian’s damsel in distress during this questline. I just won’t. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to him if he had to carry my dead weight.

The other guard fell in a burst of flames as Dorian finished him off with a flourish. That gave us a moment to regroup in the center of the room, away from the red lyrium on the walls.

Dorian rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Displacement? Interesting!” He turned to me, still thinking out loud, but this time with an audience. “It’s probably not what Alexius intended. The rift must have moved us…to what? The closest confluence of arcane energy?”

Shit. I forgot that there was no real way of knowing that we’d traveled through time until we found Solas or Cassandra. I kept my mouth shut.

“Let’s see,” Dorian mused. “If we’re still in the castle, it isn’t…” Something clicked into place, though I couldn’t imagine what. “Oh! Of course! It’s not simply where – it’s when!” That was fast! It stood to reason that he’d make that logical leap, knowing far better than I did what magic Alexius was trying to make work, but it was still quite clever. “Alexius used the amulet as a focus. It moved us through time!”

My thoughts instantly went to Solas’s orb, as it was also a focus. I wondered – not for the first time – if there was a connection. Stop it with the meta tangents, I scolded myself.

“Good job, figuring that out so quickly!” Much as I wanted to ask him how he could tell we had time traveled, I refrained from doing so. We had more important things to do, like erasing this horrific timeline. “So when are we and how do we get back to the present?”

“Those are excellent questions.” His tone grew more serious as he added, “We’ll have to find out, won’t we?” Dorian frowned. “Let’s look around, see where the rift took us. Then we can figure out how to get back…if we can.”

My heart lodged in my throat. Not getting back had never been a possibility in my mind, even on my first playthrough of Inquisition. Of course we had to return to the present to fix things. I wasn’t even supposed to be in Thedas – could I even get home from this timeline? Don’t start thinking failure’s a possibility now.

“I’m sure you can get us back,” I replied. “You know how this magic works better than anyone except Alexius himself.” Unless Solas knows more than he’s letting on, but I rather doubt that.

Dorian laughed curtly. “Unfortunately, that might not be enough. I can’t just snap my fingers and bring us back.”

I nodded. Broaching the subject of the amulet’s location would probably cross the line of what I should know, so I left it at that.

We set off through the dungeon, killing any Venatori guards we encountered. I left the idle chatter and observations of our surroundings to Dorian. Fighting off the tingle of anxiety in my gut was enough for me. I hated what we were going to find in this future and couldn’t wait to undo it. But we had to see it first and I was not looking forward to that.

Every door we opened raised my blood pressure. As far as I knew, there were four people imprisoned down here: Solas, Cassandra, Fiona, and an elven mage we hadn’t encountered in Redcliffe in this reality. Lysas, if I remembered right. Any one of them could be behind any of these doors. We had to find Solas and Cass. The other two were in no state to move, let alone fight.

At last, we opened a door and heard a familiar voice. “The Light shall lead her safely through the paths of this world and into the next. For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water.”

Cassandra’s intonation was strong and resolute, but also somewhat distorted. A side effect of the red lyrium poisoning, I knew. Dorian waved me over to a jail cell, where Cassandra was sitting on the ground. Her normally warm golden brown skin had gone pale and her eyes glowed red from within. The corruption was far more unsettling in person than in the game – and it had always bothered me there too. I had trouble looking Cass in the eye.

“You’ve returned!” she gasped. “Can it be? Has Andraste given us another chance?” She shook her head. “Maker forgive me, I failed you – I failed everyone. The end must truly be upon us if the dead return to life.”

“We didn’t die, Cassandra,” I assured her.

“I was there,” Cass said in disbelief. “The magister obliterated you with a gesture.”

“Alexius sent us through time – evidently to the future.”

I glanced at Dorian, who was unlocking the door of her cell with a key we’d found on one of the guards. He nodded. That much was obvious now. “If we find him, we may be able to return to the present,” he added.

Cassandra rose to her feet, her purpose renewed. “Go back in time? Then…can you make it so none of this ever took place?”

Not ALL of it. “We can certainly go back and stop this future from happening.” That was too definite. “Assuming, as Dorian says, that we can get back,” I added.

Cass mulled that over. “Alexius’s master…after you died, we could not stop the Elder One from rising. Empress Celene was murdered. The army that swept in afterwards…it was a horde of demons. Nothing stopped them. Nothing.”

And there it was. This little info dump meant Dorian and I could return to the present with knowledge of the future, giving us an advantage on Corypheus. This is all getting terribly meta again.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “We’ll use this information to stop the Elder One’s plans before they come to fruition. I’m just sorry that you had to suffer like this for us to gain that knowledge.”

Cass shook off my sympathy, setting her jaw with determination. “If this can all be undone, then it is worth the cost.” Despite knowing what I did, I could almost believe that.

Chapter Text

After we located Cassandra’s gear, our next step was to find Solas. Unfortunately, Cass didn’t know what had become of him. She was only aware that the Inquisition’s efforts to stop Corypheus had failed because she’d overheard the guards talking. My heart sank. I didn’t want to leave him here, even though we were going to fix things so this never happened. Besides, we need his help.

Fortunately, Solas turned out to be in a room not far from Cassandra’s. The moment we saw him, I knew something was wrong. As he turned to face us, I bit back a gasp.

The eerie red aura of smoke the red lyrium gave off was stronger around Solas than it was on Cass. Energy crackled through the cloud like lightning. His lyrium poisoning must be more severe since he’s a mage.

Solas looked as startled as I felt, taking a step back when he saw us. Defeat and guilt were written all over his face. Whatever the Venatori had done to him, he’d been mentally punishing himself the entire time he’d been here. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t made the mistake of giving his orb to Corypheus. But Alexius cheated to get here first! This future should never have existed. Tears stung my eyes. I always hated this moment, but experiencing it in person was too much to bear.

“You’re alive?” His voice came out as a rasp, hardly more than a whisper. Had he even spoken in the past year? “We saw you die!”

Even Solas hadn’t seen what really happened. A lump rose in my throat and refused to budge. I was grateful when Dorian answered him.

“The spell Alexius cast displaced us in time,” Dorian explained as he opened the door to the cell. “We just got here, so to speak.”

“Can you reverse the process?” Hope strengthened his voice, though he was still weak. “You could return and obviate the events of the last year. It may not be too late…”

“That’s the plan,” I croaked. Pull yourself together, dammit. “We’ll find Alexius and return to the moment we left so this future never happens.”

The logic of the statement seemed to ground Solas. “That makes sense. He sent you. He would be the key.” Though his voice was still distorted by the lyrium, he was starting to sound more like himself. “This world is an abomination. It must never come to pass.”

I met his eyes, red though they were with the corruption. “We’ll fix it, Solas,” I promised. We’ll fix ALL of it eventually.

“Good.” His relief was palpable.

I blinked off my tears. Getting such strong emotions from Solas after months of only seeing his reserved calm was opening my own emotional floodgates. THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO BE EMPATHIC, I chastised myself. You can cry after this future is nothing but a memory for you and Dorian.

Solas gestured to the door. “We’ll have to go up. I’ve heard the guards saying that Alexius barricaded himself in the throne room.”

After retrieving Solas’s equipment, we found our way back to the part of the dungeon that connected to the upper floors of the castle. I felt bad that we weren’t going to even try looking for Fiona, but there was no point in mentioning that she might still be alive. She had been fused to the wall by the red lyrium growing within her, so she couldn’t join us. Why extend the suffering of any of the people trapped in this timeline – Fiona included – knowing her current condition?

The maze of hallways seemed endless. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be many guards about. They’re probably more concentrated upstairs. Since the majority of their prisoners were in no state to move, let alone rebel, the Venatori were pretty safe having fewer guards in the dungeons.

We finally reached a hallway that looked familiar. A harsh voice was shouting on the other side of the door at the end of the hall.

“How did the Herald know of the sacrifice at the Temple? Answer!”

My back stiffened. That was one of the Venatori torturers. Which meant –

“Never!” Leliana’s voice was muffled, but resolute. She cried out in pain as the Venatori struck her.

“There’s no use to this defiance, little bird,” sneered the Venatori. “There’s no one left for you to protect.”

I opened the door. Going in without warning the others was hardly the best idea, but I knew Leliana would adapt to the distraction.

Leliana was hanging from a bar affixed to the ceiling, her hands chained apart from each other. The Venatori’s back was to the door, giving us the continued advantage of surprise.

“You’re wasting your breath,” she retorted.

The Venatori grabbed a dagger from a nearby table of nasty-looking instruments used for extracting information from the unwilling. He held the dagger against Leliana’s neck.

“You will break!” he hissed in her face.

“I will die first!”

I took a step forward. Whether it was that movement or Cassandra trying to get in front of me, the Venatori heard and whirled around.

That was all Leliana needed.

“Or you will!” she added, her voice full of menace.

She swung her legs forward and wrapped them around the Venatori’s neck. The struggle was short. By the time we reached them, the guard lay dead on the ground, his neck snapped. I retrieved the key to Leliana’s shackles from the man’s corpse, then handed it off to Cassandra since I was too short to reach the locks. I stayed close, knowing that Leliana would have questions.

“You’re alive!” Leliana observed in wonder.

It was painful to see how ragged her features were up close. She looked like a skeleton wearing skin that was too big for it. Being able to kill a man so violently in her current condition was a testament to Leliana’s bardic training and sheer force of will. I doubted she’d tell us what the Venatori had done to her. I only knew what I did because I’d read the codex entry about the experiments they’d conducted. Leliana had built up some sort of immunity to the Blight, possibly as a result of her time with the Hero of Ferelden. So the Venatori had done tests on her, trying to figure out how to harness that immunity. No doubt this was done for Felix’s benefit. That fact explained a great deal about her forthcoming actions in this terrible future. If only I could have told her I understood.

“Alexius transported Dorian and me through time,” I told her. “This is when we came out. We’re going to go back to when we left and stop all this from happening.”

“Good. Then it will be his last mistake.” Leliana gave us all a cursory glance. Checking that we had weapons, if my memory served correctly. Despite her physical state, her mind was sharp. She’s been in survival mode for a year. All positive feelings have been beaten out of her, leaving only cold vengeance. “The magister’s probably in his chambers,” she told us as she went to retrieve her own gear from a nearby chest.

Dorian spoke up, eager to explain the full scope of the situation. “This – Alexius’s victory, his Elder One – it was never meant to be.”

He meant that to be reassuring, but I knew from previous experience that Leliana had zero interest in how things came to be the way they are in this future. She only cared that they could be undone.

“And mages always wonder why people fear them.” Leliana shook her head. “No one should have this power.”

“Time magic is dangerous and unpredictable,” Dorian assured her. “Before the Breach, nothing we did –“

Leliana cut him off. “Enough! This is all pretend to you. Some future you hope will never exist.” Her fury burned behind her eyes. “I suffered. The whole world suffered. It was real.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her, trying to smooth things over. “If there had been any way of avoiding this…” Had there been? I could have sided with the templars. But then the Venatori would have been strengthened...

Leliana glowered at me. “That is what you intend to do, no? Make it so it never happened? But it did happen.”

I fell silent. That wasn’t what I meant, but she wasn’t wrong. It was no different than what Dorian had said moments ago or Solas trying to fix the past by removing the Veil. My brow furrowed. I wondered if Solas had made that connection as well. It would help with long-term understanding. Not that he’ll remember when this is all over…

Chapter Text

Our pace picked up with Leliana leading the way. Even in the castle’s current state with red lyrium growing out of the walls and floors, she knew enough of its layout to get us back to the upper levels.

The gate connecting the castle’s dungeon to the ground floor was blocked by a rift and a number of demons. Most of the party was still getting used to combat again, so Dorian was carrying us in terms of damage output. As he should be! He and I came into this situation pretty much fresh and I’m still a weak fighter. On those grounds, I didn’t expect Solas to barrier me before I closed the rift – but he did anyway. Solas knows what he’s doing, I reminded myself. He has to be conserving some energy for what lies ahead. That didn’t stop me from worrying.

We mostly traveled in silence. Dorian continued to press Leliana for details about this future.

“What happened while we were away?” I frowned at his word choice. He said “away” as though we’d gone off on a road trip somewhere.

“Stop talking,” Leliana snarled.

Dorian held up his hands defensively. “I’m just asking for information.”

“No. You’re talking to fill silence. Nothing happened that you want to hear.”

I didn’t interfere. If Dorian couldn’t take a hint, let alone direct requests to stop, then I couldn’t protect him from Leliana’s wrath. Nor would I want to. That’s insensitive as hell.

Up we went, fighting more demons along the way. At last, we found a door that opened onto the castle courtyard. The Breach filled the sky above us, clouding everything in a perpetual green twilight.

“The Breach! It’s everywhere,” Dorian noted in dismay.

“The Elder One and his Venatori,” Cassandra told him. “They are the ones who opened the Breach.”

That’s another helpful bit of meta knowledge to bring back with us. We were now only a step away from Corypheus revealing himself. Even though things were going to get worse when that happened, knowing we were getting closer to his true identity was actually a relief. It was wearing on me that no one else knew who we were really up against. I glanced at Solas. Well, almost no one.

As we crossed the courtyard, a new rift spawned next to a giant red lyrium crystal. Even though we dealt with it quickly, the rift was open long enough to spill out a good dozen or so demons. By the end of the fight, some of them were teleporting around us with yellow flashes. Time magic was very much still in effect in this dark future and stronger than ever. It had taken a lot longer for the demons back in the present Thedas to be able to skip through time.

Dorian noted as much aloud. “We need to find Alexius so we can stop this madness.”

I nodded my agreement. I didn’t want to think about how powerful the rift in the throne room would be. Except now that’s exactly what I’m doing. Thanks, Dorian.

We had almost reached the far side of the courtyard when a second rift burst into existence. I wanted very badly to ask Solas how there could still be rifts with the Breach opened so wide that it consumed everything. But that would be suspicious. How could I expect him to know?

The demons from this rift died even faster than those of the previous one. Did that mean Cass and Solas were regaining their strength? I hoped so. We still had a long way to go.

The door on this side of the courtyard let us into a narrow hallway. For a moment, I didn’t know where we were. Then I heard a man screaming in one of the rooms.

A pang of sorrow squeezed my heart. Connor! Teagan’s nephew must have been brought back to the castle at some point, perhaps as a hostage. Or maybe the Venatori figured a mage who’d once been possessed by a demon could somehow be of value.

Cassandra burst through the door as Connor’s body disappeared in a burst of flames. Unasked, Dorian explained that the man would rather have died than be controlled by a demon. Again, I added silently.

Seeing Connor was a stark reminder that some of Fiona’s mages weren’t thrilled to be counted amongst the rebels. Connor in particular would have almost certainly been lost if we had sided with the templars. Good thing we hadn’t. That poor guy’s suffered enough. Even though Connor died in this terrible future, he’d be restored when we returned to the present. I had faith that he’d be okay once he got a second chance. Besides, he’ll be with us.

At least now I knew where we were: the royal wing, upstairs from the main hall of the castle. Leliana knew as well, having met Connor 10 years ago while he was possessed. She said as much to the rest of the party. Dorian seemed to take this sharing of information as an invitation.

“What became of Felix? Do you know?” he asked Leliana.

“Yes. I know.”

“And you’re not going to tell me?” The question was almost a statement. He knew the answer already, though he still couldn’t believe it.

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

You don’t want to know, Dorian. The discovery we’d soon make was the worst possible way to find out that Felix had been tainted by the Blight. I felt helpless. I couldn’t protect Dorian from the truth or soften the blow for him.

We continued our journey onward to the staircase at the far end of the hall without further incident. As we reached the bottom, the mark sparked painfully. The rift it was responding to crackled on the opposite side of the door. I waved the others on as I held the mark against me to try and ease the flare-up. There was nothing they could do anyway.

Once I had steeled myself against the pain, I followed a few steps behind the rest of the party. The door came out on the expansive entryway we – well, Dorian and I – had been in mere hours ago. Where there had once been open space, there was now a giant spike of red lyrium. The rift behind it was larger than most, though it still paled in comparison to the Breach itself. Despite the rift’s size, there were relatively few demons around it. Several Venatori appeared to be killing off unneeded shades and wraiths. I suppose even the Venatori don’t have complete control over them.

We hadn’t been spotted yet, which gave us the few precious seconds we needed to plan. Dorian, Solas, and Leliana picked off the remaining demons while Cassandra distracted the Venatori. I held back and closed the rift right under the noses of the Venatori before they realized what was happening. The mark burned, even with Solas’s barrier protecting me. I was glad the others didn’t need me to help clean up the Vints.

With the room cleared, we all tried to get our bearings. Dorian’s attention was immediately drawn to the elaborate door that now blocked the way to the throne room.

“Maker’s breath! Where did Alexius find this? How did he even move it here?”

Those were good questions. All I knew about the door was that it was elven and looked like the doors in the Temple of Solasan and the one that sealed the chamber in the Frostback Basin. But instead of magical shards, this door used red lyrium as keys.

“His servants must have a way through,” Dorian declared. “He has to eat.”

You’re not wrong. I headed over to the bodies of the Venatori, knowing what we needed to find. Solas was already going through their belongings. Of course he had come to the same conclusion as Dorian – and far more quickly, due to knowing the mechanics of the door. He doesn’t seem to care as much about concealing his actions anymore. The stakes are too high.

“What in Andraste’s name is that?” Cassandra asked as Solas held up a polished oblong shard of red lyrium.

“I believe this may be what we are looking for,” Solas told her.

“There must be more of them,” Dorian said, looking at the shape of the door. “Could I see it for a moment?”

“That would not be wise,” Solas replied. “It is still red lyrium.”

And since he’s already been corrupted, it can only hasten the process. Ow. Dorian seemed to come to the same conclusion, since he let it go at that. However, the painful unspoken truth remained.

Chapter Text

Our search for keys to unlock the throne room door brought us to the upper level of the castle. We took care to avoid the partially collapsed walls and caved-in doorways. Fewer red lyrium deposits grew in the hallways, but that only made the amount of structural damage more baffling.

“How much damage did Alexius’s spell do?” Dorian asked. His flow of questions had slowed, but he couldn’t resist observing things out loud. I couldn’t really blame him. If I hadn’t known what to expect from this dark future, I would have been doing the same. So long as he stays away from the painful personal questions, he’s in the clear.

Leliana seemed to share that sentiment. “Rifts tore apart all of southern Thedas, starting here,” she replied. “But whether that’s his doing or the Breach, who can say?”

We made our way through the other accessible areas of the castle, killing any Venatori we found. Only the spellbinders carried the red lyrium keys we needed, but we couldn’t exactly ask them to step outside so we could kill them.

At last we gathered enough keys and returned to the main hall. Solas inserted them into the appropriate slots on the door with unquestioned precision. The door glowed green, then split down the middle and opened inward as double doors.

Alexius stood where the throne had been, his back to us as he stared into the flames. Felix knelt beside him, twitching nervously. If I hadn’t already known it was him, I would never have connected this sunken-faced man to Felix. He looked more like a living skeleton than a person. Felix might still technically be alive, but it’s only in the basest of senses. Unlike his father, Felix had heard us enter, shuffling around to face us. He gave no sign of recognition, not even for Dorian. My heart hurt for Dorian, who hadn’t shown any visible reaction. Maybe he’s processing. This must be quite a shock for him.

I exhaled softly as I tried to find the words that would somehow avoid provoking the fight to come.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, you know,” I told Alexius.

“I knew you would appear again,” he replied without turning around. “Not that it would be now, but I knew I hadn’t destroyed you. My final failure.”

“Technically, your first failure, chronologically speaking,” I quipped. “But that’s beside the point.”

“Was it worth it?” Dorian cut in. “Everything you did to the world? To yourself?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Alexius replied. “All we can do is wait for the end.”

My blood boiled. He held the amulet, our key to getting back and preventing this terrible future from happening, but he was blind to its value.

“There is a way to prevent any of this from happening,” I informed him.

Alexius shook his head. “How many times have I tried? The past cannot be undone.”

You shortsighted jackass. “You didn’t have us –“

Alexius kept going as though I hadn’t spoken. “All that I fought for, all that I betrayed, and what have I wrought?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Ruin and death. There is nothing else. The Elder One comes: for me, for you, for us all.”

Oh for fuck’s sake. Corypheus didn’t even know I was here, let alone still alive. But I had no chance to protest. Leliana grabbed Felix and pulled him to his feet, her dagger at his throat. Dammit! She had slipped away from the group while we’d been talking. Even knowing beforehand that she would do so hadn’t helped.

“Felix!” Alexius was completely distraught. As protective as he had been in the present, he had become far worse in this terrible future.

“That’s Felix?” Dorian gasped as Felix lolled like a rag doll in Leliana’s arms. “Maker’s breath, Alexius, what have you done?”

“He would have died, Dorian! I saved him!” Alexius insisted. “Please, don’t hurt my son,” he begged Leliana. “I’ll do anything you ask.”

Between Dorian’s righteous anger and Leliana’s simmering hatred, I knew it was unlikely I could alter the outcome of this conversation. But I had to try.

“Give us the amulet so Dorian and I can go back and undo all of this. We’ll let him go so long as this future still exists.” Please, Leliana…

Alexius turned to Leliana. “Let him go, and I swear you’ll get what you want.”

I want the world back,” she hissed, drawing her blade across Felix’s throat. His blood was black, tainted by the Blight.

As Alexius cried out in anguish, I unsheathed my daggers. Can’t blame Leliana for this, honestly. She’d suffered too much to just let Alexius off scot free. He’d performed Blight experiments on her in trying to find a cure for Felix. He deserved everything he got in this timeline.

With a burst of magic, Alexius threw Leliana back against one of the columns lining the room. Cassandra moved in to intercept him before he could turn on me. A blast of fire deflected harmlessly off her shield.

In a flash of yellow magic, Alexius disappeared and reappeared in the middle of the room. Damn, there must be a rift nearby. That was time magic at work. He froze mid-cast – literally – as Solas caught him with a spell of his own. Dorian followed up quickly with a blast of lightning that shocked his former mentor on multiple levels.

I stopped in my tracks. There was no way I was going to hit the now-electrified man. If I jam my daggers into him, I’ll get fried next.

Alexius’s strangled screams cut off suddenly as an arrow pierced his throat. Leliana had found her footing and wanted the final blow. A second arrow sank into his heart. As the spells Solas and Dorian had cast faded, Alexius’s lifeless body fell to the ground.

Chapter Text

I blinked at Alexius’s corpse, confused. That fight was far shorter than it had been in Inquisition. Of course it was. Alexius can’t summon rifts without prep time. He doesn’t have the mark. Apparently that had just been a gameplay mechanic. I suppose his immunity period was too, I noted wryly as Dorian knelt by his former mentor. Go figure.

“He wanted to die, didn’t he?” It was an observation more than a question. “All those lies he told himself, the justifications… He lost Felix long ago and didn’t even notice.” Dorian rose to his feet with a pitying sigh. “Oh, Alexius…”

Was Dorian holding it together so well because none of this was real to him? Or was he just internalizing everything? I couldn’t tell. “At least we can stop him before things ever get to this point,” I reminded him. Not that we’ll be able to save Felix, I added with a sigh of my own. But judging by the look on Dorian’s face, he already knew that.

“I suppose that’s true.” Dorian held up the amulet that he’d retrieved from Alexius’s corpse. “This is the amulet he used before. I think it’s the same one we made in Minrathous. That’s a relief.” He started moving back toward the others. I followed him. “Give me an hour to work out the spell he used, and I should be able to reopen the rift back to the present.”

Leliana charged over, incensed. “An hour? That’s impossible! You must go now!” The floor shook, leaving us swaying on our feet. Chunks fell from the ceiling as Corypheus’s red lyrium dragon screamed from somewhere above us. Leliana’s tone grew even more urgent. “The Elder One!” Oh shit. Alexius WASN’T just being dramatic? I’d thought this attack was only demons.

Concern flooded Solas’s face. “You cannot stay here!” I’d never seen him so distraught. He turned to Leliana. “We’ll hold the outer door,” he told her with a nod to Cassandra. “When they get past us, it will be your turn.”

“NO!” I cannot let this happen. “There’s no sense in throwing away your lives against a hoard of demons!” Tears welled up in my eyes, half-blinding me.

Leliana gestured to herself and the other survivors. “Look at us. We’re already dead. The only way we’ll live is if this day never comes.”

My tears fell. I ignored them. “I know that! I’m not suggesting –” What was I suggesting? “You could hold the door from this side. Seal it with wards. Destroy whatever comes through if it breaks.”

“The demons will break through the door more swiftly if we are not there to slow their progress,” Cassandra pointed out. “We can buy more time outside.”

“It’s a tradeoff,” I agreed. “But it should be easier to fortify the door from this side.”

“Wards will not last long,” Solas warned me. “If you cannot return to the moment you left, all will be lost. It is not worth the risk.”

I nearly gasped from the sudden weight on my heart. This can’t be happening. But I had no counterargument.

“Cast your spell,” Leliana told Dorian, who had already started working on the amulet. “You have as much time as I have arrows.”

I caught Solas’s arm as he followed Cassandra to the door. Desperate, I shoved a bunch of my smoke pellets into his hand.

Solas shook his head. “You will need them when you return.”

“I’ll get more. Please take them. They’ll help you stay alive longer, at the very least.” He wavered, considering the practicality. I pressed harder. “I don’t want you to suffer any more than you already have.” A rush went through me as everything suddenly became very clear. “You’ve already been through so much,” I went on in a lower tone. “But don’t worry. Dorian and I will go back to the present so this future never happens. Then we’ll all stop Corypheus and get back your orb.” Solas gave me a sharp look. I wasn’t supposed to know that. I met his eyes without faltering. “Once the Veil is down safely, we’ll free the Evanuris and deal with them – permanently.”

A wave of emotions swept across his face with each new secret that I spilled. “How did you discover the truth?”

“It’s…complicated. There isn’t time to explain.” As though in answer, the red lyrium dragon screeched again. “Just know that there is hope and that I believe in you.” The real you.

At last, Solas nodded and took the smoke pellets. His fingers were cold to the touch. We exchanged a nod as he slipped through the door after Cassandra. I trusted that Solas would cover for her as well. Carrying a sword and shield meant Cass couldn’t throw the pellets herself. It’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.

I gave Leliana some smoke pellets too. There was no telling what condition her gear was in. She’d been singled out for experimentation and extra torture. Chances were pretty good that she’d fought back, possibly leading to her using some of her consumables. Given that she didn’t fight me about helping her, it seemed I wasn’t wrong.

There was nothing else I could do other than be ready to teleport back to the moment we left. So I returned to Dorian’s side and settled in to wait.

Every sound from outside the chamber echoed through the walls like they were cardboard. Corypheus’s minions were getting closer. I hated having no control over my own fate. C’mon, Dorian…

Time passed. There was a steady pounding on the door. Though it held, each agonizing second was an eternity. I looked to Dorian. The amulet floated before him, as it had since he started casting the spell. It was glowing a brighter blue-green than ever. The spell had to be nearing its completion.

“Though darkness closes, I am shielded by flame.” Leliana had been quoting the Chant of Light during her vigil, but now she was louder to be heard over the demons.

The door burst open, allowing several Venatori and a terror demon in. The Venatori must have finally tracked down enough keys to unlock the door. And this demon appears far more loyal than the ones that were fighting the Vints earlier.

Leliana shot the first Vint in the chest. “Andraste guide me. Maker, take me to your side.” She was ready for the end. Another Venatori fell, an arrow through his forehead. The demon threw Cassandra’s limp form to the ground. She’s just passed out. She has to be. I didn’t see Solas. I chose to believe that meant he’d used the smoke pellets. Leliana cried out, a Venatori arrow buried in her shoulder.

Beside me, Dorian’s focus remained on the amulet, but his brow creased at the sounds of combat behind him. “You move and we all die!” he shouted to me. I know, Dorian. He wasn’t wrong to say it. I still wanted to help her.

The Venatori closed in on Leliana. She deflected their attacks with her bow, pushing one aside and using the space to roll over the other’s back. Her bow struck home in his gut, winding him.

With a crackle of energy, the time rift opened in a blue-green swirl of power. For one terrible moment, nothing happened. The terror demon finally subdued Leliana. As she reached out to us, everything went white again.

Chapter Text

The world came back into focus and Alexius stood before us. He was alive again – or more accurately, still alive. We had successfully returned to the present.

A look of shock spread across the magister’s face as he instinctively backpedaled away from our grand re-entrance. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cassandra and Solas quickly processing what had happened.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Dorian told his former mentor with a smirk.

The fight went out of Alexius as he fell to his knees. He had nothing left to throw at us. Even if he were to try casting regular spells, he was more than outmatched.

“It’s over, Alexius,” I told him. “You’re out of options.”

“You won,” he conceded. “There is no point extending this charade.” Alexius looked up to his son. “Felix…”

Felix knelt by Alexius’s side. “It’s going to be all right, Father.”

“You’ll die.” His voice broke.

“Everyone dies.”

Felix might have accepted his fate, but his father never would. At least Felix knows that. Leliana’s agents surrounded Alexius and escorted him from the throne room. They permitted Felix to accompany them.

“Well, I’m glad that’s over with!” Dorian told me. His tone was light, but there was a hint of fatigue in his eyes. The fate of his former mentor was now out of his hands. No sooner had the words been uttered than the sound of heavily armored footfalls echoed through the chamber. A contingent of Fereldan soldiers marched in and lined themselves along the walls. “Or not.”

I bit back a gasp at the three people who followed the soldiers into the room. Not so much because of the tall strawberry blond man or his chunky jawline. Alistair Theirin was often King of Ferelden in my playthroughs. Nor was it surprising to see the shorter man on his left. Though his brown hair was now streaked with gray, Arl Teagan Guerrin was still very recognizable – more so than he had ever been in Trespasser. Since it was Teagan’s castle that had been taken over by the Venatori, it stood to reason that he’d gone straight to his nephew for aid.

But it was the diminutive dwarven woman beside Alistair that held my attention. Who the hell is she? The most likely answer was the Hero of Ferelden, but that was impossible. The Warden was supposed to be off looking for a cure for the Blight – wasn’t she? The woman carried herself like a warrior. Is she an Aeducan? A Brosca? She wasn’t my own Avalon Aeducan, despite her fiery red hair and similar aura of command. Avalon’s hair was straight, while this woman’s was frizzy. I had so many questions.

Teagan moved to the side as the trio reached us, making it clear that he was deferring to Alistair and the red-haired woman. Since Teagan was in charge in Redcliffe, did she outrank him like Alistair?

“Grand Enchanter,” Alistair turned to Fiona, his voice heavy with formality and disdain. “We’d like to discuss your abuse of our hospitality.”

I winced internally. Alistair had no idea that he was being disrespectful to his own mother. She knew, but could say nothing. Nor would she, I added. Even if he believed her, he’d just think she was using it as a bargaining chip. All reasons she hadn’t told him, I imagined.

Fiona hesitated before replying with a bow. “Your majesties.”

WHAT? My brain broke. Only a Cousland Warden could become queen. Whoever this Warden was, she was definitely not a Cousland.

The Warden’s pale gray eyes flashed with righteous anger. “When we offered the mages sanctuary, we did not give them the right to drive our people from their homes.” Her eyes and poise felt familiar, like my Lenna Amell. But she’s no human mage…

Fiona fell over her words apologizing. “King Alistair, Queen Sereda, I assure you, we never intended…”

Sereda cut her off. “In light of your actions, good intentions are no longer enough.”

“You and your followers have worn out your welcome,” Alistair continued. “Leave Ferelden, or we’ll be forced to make you leave.”

This was beyond surreal. Sereda was the default name for Lady Aeducan, if I remembered right. Somehow, she’d managed to negotiate her way into an official marriage with Alistair. While that would certainly unite Ferelden and Orzammar if Sereda’s younger brother Bhelen remained on the throne, such a thing was impossible in Origins.

Fiona’s face fell. She could not tell Alistair the truth. He’d be less likely to listen now than ever. “But…we have hundreds who need protection! Where will we go?”

Oh shit. That’s my cue. “The Inquisition’s offer still stands,” I reminded her.

Fiona didn’t look happy. “And what are the terms of this arrangement?” Considering what the last set of negotiations had almost done to her and the other former Circle mages, I didn’t blame her for being suspicious.

“Hopefully better than what Alexius gave you,” Dorian replied, hitting the nail directly on the head. “The Inquisition is better than that, yes?”

“These mages have lost all possible supporters,” Solas noted, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “The Inquisition is their only remaining chance for freedom.”

“I suggest conscripting them,” Cassandra put in. “They’ve proven what they’ll do, given too much freedom.”

Fiona’s brow darkened. “It seems we have little choice but to accept whatever you offer.”

I guess we’re doing this now then, I thought in a daze. Somehow, I had forgotten Fiona wanted to know the terms up front. While it was a poor idea for the mages to vote for freedom so soon after the Kirkwall chantry was blown up, I couldn’t blame Fiona for getting stuck with Alexius. He had cheated to get to Redcliffe when he did, thusly forcing Fiona to surrender the mages to him. Besides, regardless of anyone’s leadership abilities, no one should be conscripted by the Inquisition. It’s not what the Chantry should stand for in any capacity.

“Our offer is an equal alliance, Grand Enchanter.” I was careful to keep things short as to reduce the chance of accidentally speaking too liberally. While in my eyes the choice was obvious, my tendency to treat mages like people was certainly atypical in Thedas.

Fiona’s relief was palpable. “A generous offer. But will the rest of the Inquisition honor it?” Her eyes darted nervously to Cassandra.

They’d damn well better. “The Breach threatens all of Thedas and we need your help to deal with it. It would be foolish for any of us to break this agreement with the fate of the world at stake.”

“I doubt you’re going to get a better offer from us,” Alistair chipped in. A corner of Sereda’s mouth twitched in amusement. Relief flooded through me. That small break in her stoic demeanor told me everything I needed to know about her. Of course you’d know there wouldn’t be a better offer coming from you two, Alistair – you’d be the ones making it. That Sereda was amused rather than annoyed by her husband’s comment indicated – at least to me – that this marriage was personal as well as political. Good.

A rush of guilt hit me as I looked over to Fiona, her amber eyes not meeting her son’s. It felt wrong to be happy about Alistair and Sereda’s relationship while Fiona’s heart was broken. Her son had rejected her, having no clue who she really was. My blood boiled with frustration. I’d been there with him when he was clutching at straws in Origins. Alistair had taken a lot of verbal abuse from Goldanna, just because he’d thought she was his sister. He would never knowingly push away his blood kin. But Fiona was possibly the only person in Thedas who knew the truth anymore and she wouldn’t tell him. How could she?

“We accept,” Fiona said at last. “It would be madness not to. I will gather my people and ready them for the journey to Haven. The Breach will be closed. You will not regret giving us this chance.”

“I already don’t,” I assured her. Hopefully, I’d figure out some way to reconcile them. After that, the truth would be up to Fiona. But that was a problem for another day. For now, I had other things to take care of. I approached Alistair and Sereda and gave them a deep bow. “Your majesties, might I ask of you a favor?” Though I kept things formal, I lowered my voice enough so that this felt more like a private audience.

The couple exchanged a puzzled glance. “If it’s to take the mages back, I’m afraid there are no refunds,” quipped Alistair.

Alistair, please. “As you were both Grey Wardens, perhaps you might know a way to save the life of Felix Alexius.” I took a breath to compose myself. Careful… “He has been tainted by the Blight. I have heard that joining the Wardens can slow the process.” I hurried on before either of them could ask how I knew that. “Felix’s aid was instrumental in foiling his father’s plan. Without his help, Redcliffe would still be in the hands of the Venatori. Please, if you know of any way to save him, he has more than earned his life.”

Sereda looked up at me, a thoughtful gleam in her eyes. It occurred to me that Aeducans were recruited into the Grey Wardens after being thrown out of Orzammar for fratricide. Would she be more sympathetic to Felix if she’d been falsely accused of killing her older brother? Not that there’s any way of knowing…

“He certainly does seem worthy,” Alistair told me. “But I’m afraid we haven’t been Grey Wardens for a long time.”

My heart sank. Of course. It had been ten years since the Fifth Blight.

Sereda elbowed her husband, a quick jab that didn’t seem to hurt him. “While we no longer officially have ties to the Wardens, we could certainly recommend him to those at Amaranthine.” She glanced up at me with a raised eyebrow. “Provided, of course, that he is willing.”

Sereda doesn’t miss a trick. She knows I haven’t told him about this possibility yet. “Thank you. I’ll find out.”

I bowed again and hurried out of the throne room. Hopefully Felix wasn’t so at peace with dying that he would say no.

Chapter Text

It took some convincing to get Felix on board with the plan to make him a Grey Warden. While I could understand his suspicion of any opportunity to survive after what his father had done on his behalf, the Wardens were an established group. His life was already forfeited and no one else’s potential sacrifice would be required. Assuming that whoever goes with him to get darkspawn blood for the Joining doesn’t meet with the same fate as the real Blackwall. Once Dorian learned what was going on, he made the strongest case in favor of Felix taking the chance.

I hoped that Felix would be safe from Corypheus with the Ferelden Wardens. The only Wardens we’d seen at Adamant in game were from Orlais. Besides, wouldn’t Alastair and Sereda have been hearing the false Calling if they were within its range? Not that they would have told us that. But I doubt they would have made the suggestion to send Felix to Amaranthine if they thought something was up.

As we headed back to the Crossroads with the mages and Alexius in tow, Cass, Solas, and Leliana held their questions about what transpired after Dorian and I had disappeared. The concept was too complicated for the road. Plus it would be foolish to openly discuss magic that could influence time. It wouldn’t help ease the tensions in Ferelden regarding magical use. If anything, it would make our new allies seem all the more dangerous. A public relations nightmare, basically.

Leliana had sent word ahead, so Cullen and Josephine were ready for us when we arrived. Cassandra briefly recounted what she had witnessed in the castle throne room, Leliana and Solas corroborating her account. Then it was Dorian’s turn to fill in the details about what had happened in future Redcliffe. I stayed quiet, not wanting to detract from his moment of glory. All I had done was close a few rifts. My contributions were important, but ultimately not what got us back to the present. Still, I chipped in every now and then to provide details or clarification.

“You are certain you experienced time travel?” Solas asked. “Could it have been an illusion? A trick of the Fade?”

“It was real,” I told him. “It was too solid to be the Fade.”

Solas appeared to accept my word on that. Surprising, since I’m not a mage.

“What an amazing gift.” His face betrayed no reaction. I had to hide mine. Seeing Solas with his emotions in check again was difficult. “It is vital the Inquisition succeed, to avoid the future you witnessed.”

Cullen scowled. “And in order to succeed, we will need to deal with the problems that come with the mages. It’s not a matter for debate,” he snapped, cutting off Leliana’s protest before it started. “There will be abominations among the mages and we must be prepared.”

It was Josephine who responded. “If we rescind the offer of an alliance, it makes the Inquisition appear incompetent at best, tyrannical at worst.” Her glare indicated that Cullen really ought to stay out of the Inquisition’s political arrangements.

He turned on me. “What were you thinking, turning mages loose with no oversight? The Veil is torn open!”

I crossed my arms so I wouldn’t hit and possibly break the campaign table. “And none of these mages who will be helping us to close the Breach have turned into abominations,” I replied, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “We just helped them out of a dire situation. They had every right to be terrified of their fates at the hands of a Tevinter magister. But not a single one of them was tempted by a demon, even under such difficult circumstances. They’re here to help us do what we need to do for the good of Thedas.”

“I know we need them for the Breach, but they could do as much damage as the demons themselves.” Cullen glared at Cassandra. “You were there, Seeker – why didn’t you intervene?”

Cass was completely unfazed by the commander’s accusation. “While I might not completely agree with the decision, I support it. The sole point of the Herald’s mission was to gain the mages’ aid and that was accomplished.”

“The voice of pragmatism speaks!” Dorian declared with cheerful sarcasm. “And here I was just starting to enjoy the circular arguments.”

The look Cassandra gave him was piercing, but not condemning. “Closing the Breach is all that matters.”

I didn’t want to leave the mage issue open. “Even if one mage were to turn into an abomination, we’d know it pretty damned quickly,” I told Cullen. “We have plenty of former templars like yourself who can handle such threats if they arise. We’ll have the active templars as well, if Ser Barris accepts my invitation. Either way, the mages don’t need constant surveillance for us to know if there’s a problem.”

Cullen didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t argue the point. He knows he’s outnumbered.

“We should look into the things you saw in this ‘dark future,’” Leliana said. “The assassination of Empress Celene? A demon army?”

“Sounds like something a Tevinter cult might do,” Dorian replied jovially. “Orlais falls, the Imperium rises. Chaos for everyone!”

“One battle at a time,” Cullen put in gruffly. “It’s going to take time to organize our troops and the mage recruits even after we return to Haven.”

“Oh goodie!” Dorian’s particular brand of sarcasm really did brighten up war council meetings. “I’ll leave all that in your capable hands. But once we arrive, I would like to see this Breach up close, if you don’t mind.”

Cassandra’s brows shot upwards. “Then you’re…staying?”

“Oh, didn’t I mention? The South is so charming and rustic. I adore it to little pieces.”

I couldn’t tell if Dorian was being facetious. Please stop breaking my inner sarcasm detector, Mr. Pavus. “And the fact that we’re trying to save the world doesn’t hurt either, huh?” I asked.

That sobered him up. “We both saw what could happen, what this ‘Elder One’ and his cult are trying to do. Not everything from Tevinter is terrible. Some of us have fought for eons against this sort of madness.” He stood up a bit straighter, though he didn’t seem to be conscious of doing it. “It’s my duty to stand with you. That future will not come to pass.”

I nodded. “Thank you. It’s an honor to have you aboard.”

For just a moment, his smile genuinely reached his eyes. You too have been on your own too long, Dorian. “Let’s just hope that we won’t be getting stranded in time again anytime soon.”

“No pun intended.” I grinned back.

Cassandra groaned quietly. Cullen completely ignored the exchange.

“I’ll begin preparations to march on the summit,” the commander announced. “Maker willing, the mages will be enough to grant us victory.”

And that Ser Barris and his templars will turn up in time, I added silently. If they didn’t get out of Therinfal Redoubt soon, it would be too late.

Chapter Text

Tensions were running high as the advisers and their entourage joined us on the journey back to Haven. The theory was that moving as a larger group would deter any attacks from the Elder One. I felt like the heart of the storm as our soldiers kept their weapons at the ready. To me, it seemed unlikely that Corypheus would strike before Haven. He’d lost Alexius and his foothold in Redcliffe – he didn’t have enough forces left here to ambush us.

Traveling through time had messed with my head. I’d been in Thedas almost four months now. Had that long passed at home too? Or was this a Narnia situation where I’d eventually snap back to the moment I left? Had I gotten older? I’d missed my birthday in there somewhere. How did the hours I’d spent in future Redcliffe with Dorian factor in? The whole thing gave me a headache. I had no answers and couldn’t do anything about the situation even if I did.

I was actually grateful that Solas wanted more details on what had happened in future Redcliffe. It kept me far enough away from the rabbit hole of theoretical questions. He would probably have gotten a better breakdown from Dorian, but I could understand why Solas didn’t want to press him for more information. Depending on the nature of the questions, it could raise suspicion.

By the time the group had stopped to rest for the day, our conversation had shifted to the mages. Solas knew me well enough by now to have expected the outcome, but in this world’s day and age, it was always a little surprising to see any open support for mages.

“The Inquisition is a temporary institution,” I reminded him. “So even if it wasn’t morally reprehensible to shackle the mages by conscripting them, it’s a shortsighted option. After the Breach and the Elder One are dealt with, the Inquisition will be disbanded. Who would the mages answer to then?”

“The Chantry would no doubt intercede for the good of Thedas,” Solas replied, each word laced with sarcasm.

I let out a sound of disgruntled agreement. “No doubt. Then they’d be right back where they started and nothing’s been solved.” Good thing no one was within earshot. This was not an opinion that would go over well with most of our traveling companions. “The whole system is broken. Even if the Circles were re-formed as schools rather than prisons, the templars would still be at risk due to lyrium corruption.”

Solas raised an eyebrow. “You empathize with the templars.” The observation was meant as a question.

I shrugged, trying to find the right words. “Not everyone serves the Chantry by choice. And whether they do or not, no one should be forced to drink lyrium. If you have to poison yourself in order to do your job, then there’s something wrong with the job.” And that applies to the Grey Wardens as well, I added mentally.

“I see. Now I understand why you were so quick to extend an offer to Ser Barris.” Solas rubbed his chin. “Should he and his templars arrive at Haven, what would be the conditions of their arrangement?”

I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was walking on the razor’s edge in terms of revealing too much, but what could I do other than go ahead? This is who I am. “I wouldn’t conscript them either. Same reason as for the mages. They need to learn how to function on their own.” I paused. “Not that allying with the Inquisition means complete independence. They’ll still be getting their lyrium through our connections. But it’s a start, at least when it comes to the leadership angle. Basically, it’s having a degree of control over them that we’re not using. No one’s going to get cut off from their lyrium supply. But it’s a nice ace in the hole to keep everyone’s behavior in check, no?” My shoulders slumped. “Not really my ideal way of maintaining control, of course. They’re on our land and are therefore our guests, so everyone needs to behave themselves. No illicit mage watching.”

“And afterwards? The Inquisition was formed to bring order to the chaos in Thedas.”

I didn’t have an answer for that. “Hopefully by then, the mages and templars will have learned how to coexist peacefully. The templars don’t have to hold the mages captive. They just need to step in if someone gets possessed. Reactive rather than proactive.”

Solas chuckled. “Would that idealism solve all conflicts so simply.” A sad statement, not a mocking one. I couldn’t help but bristle a little anyway.

“The real problem is that there’s no permanent solution for anything. Even if this generation learns, their children might forget. And thus the cycle begins anew.” The gritty underside of idealism. “But that’s why we need to keep trying. Peace is unfortunately a constant struggle.”

I half-expected Solas to comment about him being the grim and fatalistic one, but he didn’t have the chance. Cassandra found us at that moment.

“Come back to the center of the camp. You should not be out in the open,” she told me. Somehow, gentle disappointment from Cassandra hurt more than her outright yelling at me. “I am surprised you would encourage this negligence, Solas.”

Solas was unflustered. That makes one of us. “My apologies, Seeker. We shall be more cautious in the future.”

Cassandra nodded, apparently satisfied. As we followed her back to the main part of the Inquisition camp, I shot Solas a curious look.

“You didn’t argue with her.” I let the surprise creep into my voice. “It was my fault for wandering off again.”

Solas laughed softly. “You make it sound as though I did not know where we were.”

Oh. “Then you don’t think that we’re in danger of being ambushed either,” I said with dawning realization.

“The Elder One was defeated at Redcliffe. He no longer has the resources to pursue us in this part of Thedas. For the moment, in any event.”

I nodded. I was glad Solas understood. It was good being on the same page with him, even though he didn’t know just how fully I agreed. I had firsthand knowledge from Inquisition that Corypheus wouldn’t attack until Haven. Solas spoke with a certainty that seemed to be more than just logic. He must also have concrete proof that we’d be safe so soon after foiling the Redcliffe plot. Works for me.

Chapter Text

Our journey back to Haven was slow, since the mages didn’t have horses. Thankfully, the trip was as uneventful as I’d anticipated.

It was the greatest relief that we weren’t going to close the Breach immediately. The mages and I needed to rest first. The events in Redcliffe had been exhausting for us all and it felt like an eternity since I’d slept in a proper bed. So when we arrived back in Haven, the first order of business was to get our new allies settled in.

I had never given much thought to where the mages were going to stay in Haven. The game had never considered it, only that they had quarters of their own. When it came down to logistical concerns, there wasn’t enough available space in Haven to house them anywhere other than the chantry. The whole thing gave me a weird vibe. Keeping all the mages together felt too much like the Circle to me, even though it made sense that they’d want to stay near their friends and colleagues. Maybe they’d be able to spread out more in Skyhold. I certainly hoped so.

A number of correspondences had come in while we were away, so Josephine in particular was incredibly busy. She waved off any concerns I had about her working too hard. After all, she reminded me, she had not been transported into the future. It was pure chance that I happened to be there when she discovered the message from Starkhaven. Josie was pleased. Gaining an alliance with one of the most prosperous cities in the Free Marches was important to further establishing the Inquisition’s reputation and connections. The significance wasn’t lost on me, but I couldn’t stop staring at the parchment in wonder. Seeing Sebastian’s handwriting was surreal. No matter how many months I’d been here, there were still moments I couldn’t believe I was actually in Thedas.

“That reminds me, Your Worship,” Josephine told me, her brow furrowing slightly. “You mentioned that you come from Starkhaven?” Uh oh. I tried not to react visibly. “Leliana has been quietly seeking information about your past. Just to make certain there would be no…surprises, you understand.”

I nodded. For all anyone knew about me, I could have been an escaped murderer before turning up with the Anchor.

Josephine’s frown deepened. “Thus far, her agents have found nothing.”

My stomach turned to lead. I tried to keep my tone light. “That’s good, right? You know I’m clean. No criminal past or anything.”

Josie shook her head with a serious expression. “They found nothing at all. No one in Starkhaven seems to know who you are.” The sound echoing through my soul was the metaphorical other shoe dropping. “While it is true that Starkhaven is a large city, it is unlikely that someone with your appearance would have gone completely unnoticed.”

My heart turned to ice. So my glasses had gotten me into trouble after all. I was trapped. You have to tell her something. “That does make sense. I’m not actually from Starkhaven.” Forcing the nerves out of my voice was hard, especially as Josephine’s surprise spread across her face. “I only said it because I wanted to mess with Varric.”

“Then where are you from? If you will forgive the intrusion.”

A galaxy far, far away. “I don’t know,” I said simply. My birthplace didn’t exist in Thedas. “There’s a lot I don’t know about my past. I don’t remember much of it. I’ve lived in a bunch of places, but nowhere that people would recognize.” Not here, anyway. I hated to spin true statements into lies via context, but there seemed to be no other way out.

Josephine raised an eyebrow. “You have no family?”

The question hurt. My family was small, but they’d always been there for me. And I apparently abandoned them when I came here. I shoved that internal debate aside. I’d had no control over my presence here. Guilt-tripping myself wasn’t going to help a damned thing.

I shook my head. “Not anymore.”

Josephine’s guarded expression gave way to pity. “I am so sorry. What happened to them?”

I wish I knew. “It’s not something I can discuss easily.”

Perhaps Josephine sensed the ring of truth in my words. “I understand. I am truly sorry to have asked. I do not wish to pry into your personal affairs, but there are certain considerations that must be taken into account. You are, for better or worse, the face of the Inquisition.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. You’re just trying to do your job and here I am making things difficult for you.” Sigh. I couldn’t just leave her with nothing. “Suffice to say that I don’t have a past that’s going to come back to haunt me. There simply isn’t much to tell.”

 “That is…good to hear.” Was Josephine actually relieved or was it just wishful thinking on my part? At this point, I couldn’t tell anymore. “Thank you for indulging me. Should any visiting dignitaries ask, I will inform them you are from the Free Marches. Should they wish to know more, they will have to ask you directly – but I’m afraid you’ll be far too busy for such trivial conversations.”

The tightness in my chest dissipated. “Thanks, Josie.” That felt insufficient. “I know I’m making your job harder by being…myself, but having you in my corner means a lot.”

“I am glad to be here, Nancy,” Josephine replied with the utmost sincerity. “The Inquisition would not stand any chance of succeeding without your contributions.”

Honestly, I hadn’t expected that much support. “That’s more on the mark than on me.”

“You are able to wield it effectively. That is no small feat. Do not sell your own contributions short.”

I thanked Josephine again and took my leave. It hadn’t occurred to me that the Herald wasn’t guaranteed to be capable of using the Anchor. That would have stalled the plot in the game. I suppose knowing how the mark works is different than actually using it.

As I made my way out of the chantry, I noticed one of Leliana’s agents slip off in the direction of Leliana’s office. Odd. There was no reason for them to try avoiding my notice, unless… Had Leliana sent someone to watch me?

I forced myself not to stop short in the hallway, as that would have drawn attention. Hopefully this had been a temporary precaution while Josephine got answers about my past. Now I wonder if it was really a coincidence that Josephine discovered Sebastian’s message while I was present.

I didn’t know what I would do if our spymaster and ambassador didn’t trust me. Both were extremely dangerous opponents. What Leliana accomplished with knives and information, Josephine matched with wits and careful manipulation. If they started digging too deep, they’d find that I was hiding something, though there was no chance they would ever guess what. But they have ways of getting people to talk…

This was getting ridiculous. Josephine’s support appeared to be genuine. She and Leliana were probably just being cautious. It served no useful purpose for them to be at odds with the Herald. I suppose we’ll find out where they really stand when it comes to naming an Inquisitor. But in the meantime, I’d have to be careful.

Chapter Text

I kept my eyes peeled for Leliana’s agents over the next several days, but if she still had people watching me, they were doing their jobs well. However, it legitimately seemed that she agreed with Josephine on taking me at my word. Honesty really does pay off. Aside from details that were specifically tied to my world, I had been truthful with everyone. That’s just how I am, though.

The air was crisp on the day we were to close the Breach. My stomach churned nervously as the most capable of the mages and some of the inner circle trekked over to the Temple of Sacred Ashes. I knew we’d be able to pull this off. It was everything that would happen afterwards that terrified me. Tonight, Corypheus would reveal himself by attacking Haven.

The clouds were thick overhead, a precursor of the snowstorm we’d be traveling through as we fled the ruins of the village. If fandom estimates were correct, it would be a month before we reached Skyhold. That’s a long time to spend on the road. We still hadn’t heard from the templars. They’d have a hell of a time finding us, if they were even coming at all.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I was also anxious about meeting Cole. With his ability to read minds, he would be a real wild card. But he kept Solas’s identity secret, I reminded myself. He respected Solas’s privacy because Solas didn’t want that information known. There was no guarantee Cole would give me the same courtesy, if he could even comprehend what truth he had access to. It was difficult enough for him as a spirit to understand reality in Thedas – how could he fathom a second reality? Hell, I don’t even know if I understand it either.

I kept mulling over the possibilities as we made our way to the Temple of Sacred Ashes. There was unfortunately plenty of time for thinking, since our group was so large that any demons in our path were easily dispatched. Despite my preoccupation, I was acutely aware that Solas was staying by my side. Not unexpected, considering what we’re about to do. He didn’t appear to be worried – just keeping an eye on me, especially when he thought I wasn’t looking. That was reassuring. I knew we’d succeed in closing the Breach, but not how it would impact me physically. I’d be serving as a conduit between the magical energy of the mages and the Breach. The last time we were here, I’d passed out from far less exertion – knowledge that was hardly reassuring. But if Solas isn’t worried, maybe it’ll be okay.

At last, we reached the temple. The Breach towered above us, a wavering green column of magical energy. Its size seemed to have held steady over the past several months; its sheer raw power still permeated the air.

The mark sparked to life as we approached the Breach. I gritted my teeth against the small buzz of pain. It had been a few weeks since I was last near a rift, months since I’d last been this close to the Breach. I hadn’t missed the decidedly unpleasant experience.

The mages spread out evenly along the broken walls of the temple and readied themselves. Solas and Fiona joined me before the Breach itself. They would be calling the shots so I could concentrate on the Breach. Cassandra took her place a bit off to the side from where she could oversee the entire process. She gave me a questioning look. I was as ready as I’d ever be. I nodded, and Cass gave a “go ahead” gesture to Fiona.

“Mages!” Fiona’s voice echoed through the remains of the temple.

“Focus past the Herald!” Solas raised his staff, pointing where he directed. “Let her will draw from you!”

I waited as I heard the mages shuffle into position. In my mind’s eye, I saw them all kneeling with their staffs in front of them as they channeled the energy required. Solas’s barrier fell around me. That was my cue.

I planted my feet and lifted my arm, pointing my palm up toward the Breach. Twin beams of green shot out of the mark and connected to the giant rift. I gasped at the shock of pain, but held steady. The Breach glowed brighter than I’d ever seen a rift shine before. The air crackled with magical energy. So did my hair. Hadn’t expected that.

Just when I started to fear Solas’s barrier would fall, a burst of blinding light flashed from the Breach. The force of the blast knocked me back off my feet. I heard Solas and Fiona hit the ground near me. Cries of surprise emanated behind me as the mages were also blown back.

I lay there with my eyes closed, too dazed to do more than breathe. At least that’s done. As I heard Cassandra’s hurried footsteps approach, I forced myself up into a sitting position.

“You did it,” she told me as she helped me to my feet. Only then did I raise my eyes to the sky. There was still a huge green scar splitting the air and the swirling clouds that had surrounded the Breach remained. But the Breach itself had entirely disappeared.

“Well done,” Solas said as he joined us. He tried to keep his tone neutral, but I could hear the underlying gratitude beneath the relief.

“Couldn’t’ve done it without everyone here,” I replied. Especially Solas, but I can’t say that. I would have said something to Fiona, but she had already rejoined the other mages, both to congratulate them and to make sure that they were okay. I paused awkwardly. It was only now that I could admit to myself that I hadn’t anticipated being able to close the Breach without passing out. “So what happens now?”

“First, we return to Haven,” Cassandra replied. “Then we will stop the Elder One from assembling his demon army and assassinating Empress Celene.”

“We should also ready ourselves for his reprisal,” Solas warned us. He turned to me. “You have now interfered with his plans twice: once here at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and then again at Redcliffe. A being who aspires to godhood is unlikely to ignore such an affront.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. A surge of energy shot through me. This was the opportunity I needed. “We should prepare Haven for an assault. Closing the Breach might be the last straw for him. It could force his hand. The Inquisition’s reputation has grown. It’s likely he knows where we are.”

Cassandra nodded gravely. “As I last heard from Commander Cullen, the trebuchets are nearly ready.”

“We should also have an evacuation plan in place.” I didn’t care if I sounded paranoid. I knew how this “theoretical” battle ended. “While the chantry itself is defensible, the rest of Haven won’t be able to withstand a heavy onslaught of attackers.”

At least Cassandra appeared to agree. “We should speak with the rest of the war council. I am certain they will have suggestions on how best to prepare.”

I nodded. “Good. Let’s go.” If Haven was in a state of heightened readiness when Corypheus and his army attacked, then fewer people would die tonight. If only it would reduce the number of dead to zero…

Chapter Text

As most of Haven celebrated the closing of the Breach, the inner circle prepared for the Elder One’s next move. Soldiers were quietly assigned to keep a lookout on the walls and man the trebuchets. Leliana appeared troubled; she had already recalled her agents from the field after a few went missing. I reassured her that there was no sense in losing more of her people when we already knew who was most likely responsible for the disappearances. That seemed to help ease her concerns, though a frown still creased her brow.

It was all we could do. Planning for an evacuation seemed premature at this stage. Corypheus’s dragon would change everything, forcing us to flee. Unfortunately, I had to remain quiet, since there was no logical reason for me to know that would happen.

I found a spot to sit that gave me a good view of the village below. Anyone who saw me would think I was watching the celebrants, but my attention was on Haven’s gates. Cole would be here soon and I wanted to be ready for him.

As I tried to soothe the anxiety tickling my stomach, I nearly missed hearing Cassandra’s approach. Her armor clanked as she sat beside me.

“Solas confirms the heavens are scarred, but calm. The Breach is sealed,” she declared, effectively recapping what we’d discussed earlier. I could have hugged her. I don’t do small talk either, Cass. “We’ve reports of lingering rifts and many questions remain, but this was a victory.” She gave me a look of – admiration? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. “Word of your heroism has spread.”

“I couldn’t’ve sealed the Breach without everyone’s help,” I reminded her. “This was a team effort.”

“The Inquisition would not have come together without your leadership,” she countered. “Leliana and I merely started this iteration. You have been instrumental in populating its highest ranks.” She paused. “But you’re right. This was a victory of alliance, one of the few in recent memory. With the Breach closed, that alliance will need new focus.”

Before I could respond, warning bells pealed across Haven. My blood turned to ice. It was time.

The non-combative members of the Inquisition scrambled into the buildings for safety. None had been outside the walls, thanks to our precautions.

Cullen ran by, already on high alert.

“Forces approaching! To arms!” he ordered his men.

Cassandra unsheathed her sword. “We must get to the gates!” she told me.

The shiver running up my arms had nothing to do with the cold. I swallowed my nerves and followed Cass.

Solas joined us on the way. “This bodes poorly.” I nodded. Words could not express how much I agreed with him.

Cullen beat the rest of us to the doors by a good fifteen seconds. Cassandra immediately asked him for answers.

“One watch guard reporting,” he told her. “It’s a massive force, the bulk of them over the mountain.”

A rustle behind me. Josephine too had hurried to the front lines for information. “Under what banner?”

“None.” Cullen did not sound entirely surprised by this. I supposed it was because he was used to fighting abominations.

None?” Josephine’s area of expertise was formal engagements, so her astonishment was also understandable.

I tried to remember to breathe as I kept my eyes on the gates. Suddenly, a familiar voice called out.

“I can’t come in unless you open!”

Cole. He was, of course, talking to the doors directly. As he does, I thought fondly.

I rushed forward, motioning for the guards at the doors to open them.

The corpse of a Venatori soldier fell to the ground, revealing a pale youth with sorrowful eyes and a big floppy hat. I hurried to meet him. There were footsteps behind me, but I didn’t turn to see who had followed me outside.

“I’m Cole,” he said. His eyes went wide as they met mine. “You know me!”

I inhaled sharply. Well, that answers that. Now I really hoped Solas wasn’t directly behind me.

“Yes.” I couldn’t deny it. “We’ve met before.”

He looked confused. “Once upon a dream?”

Oh my god, Cole; please don’t read my mind. The reference to Sleeping Beauty was far too complex to get into right before a battle – or possibly ever.

“Yes,” I confirmed again with a strained smile. “I’ll explain later. Right now, there are more pressing matters.” I stole a glance behind me. Shit. Solas was indeed there. Hopefully he would agree there were more important things to worry about instead of being highly suspicious of the exchange that had just occurred. I didn’t even want to think about the odds of my talking myself out of this one.

“Yes,” Cole replied, once again filled with determination. “I came to warn you – to help. People are coming to hurt you.” He broke off. “You probably already know.”

That I do. But everyone else doesn’t. “Who’s attacking?”

“The templars and the Venatori come to kill you.”

I froze. WHAT? It should only have been the red templars.

“Templars?” Cullen barged into the conversation. “Is this the order’s response to our talks with the mages – attacking blindly?”

“No,” Cole said. “They also came to help.” He pointed to his left. A group of armored templars led by Ser Barris moved toward us at top speed. Tears stung my eyes. They DID come! “The red templars went to the Elder One and the Venatori.” Cole turned to me. “You know him, and he knows you. You took his mages.” This time, Cole pointed back directly behind him. “There.”

Corypheus’s encroaching army marched on Haven en masse. The snow-covered hills surrounding Haven could hardly be seen beneath the sheer multitude of people crossing them. I could just barely make out three figures at the top of one of the hills. The tallest glowed red. Definitely Corypheus. The features of the man and woman beside him were obscured, but I knew from experience who they were – Samson, commander of the red templars, and Calpernia, leader of the Venatori.

But this is impossible! We’d never had to fight both of Corypheus’s lieutenants in game. Only one ever rose to full power. I glanced at Ser Barris and the small contingent of templars he’d brought with him. Perhaps I had changed more than I thought by extending an invitation to them. No regrets, though, I added firmly.

“He’s very angry that you took his mages – and some of his templars.” To the casual bystander, Cole would have sounded bizarrely calm under the circumstances, but that was just his way.

I nodded my thanks to Cole, then turned to Cullen. “We need to get everyone inside.”

“Haven is no fortress,” Cullen replied. “If we are to withstand this monster, we must control the battle.” He sized up the templars. They were noticeably winded from their journey. With a nod of respect to Ser Barris, Cullen shifted his attention to the mages who had reported in. “Mages! You have sanction to engage them.” Oh Cullen, no. Your templar background is showing. We’ll have to talk about that later. “That is Samson – he will not make it easy!” Cullen turned to his men. “Inquisition! Get out there and hit that force with everything you can! For your lives! For all of us!”

Chapter Text

As the inner circle assembled to defend Haven, Cassandra insisted I return to the chantry with Josephine and the templars. The templars were in no condition to fight after their long journey, and though Josie had some experience as a bard, she preferred words as weapons. But me? I simply wasn’t a strong enough fighter to remain on the front lines. Cass was right to be cautious, of course. Even though it was my job to be out here leading the Inquisition and making a name for myself, I was unfortunately not that kind of Herald. My guilt plagued me all the way to the chantry. Even just for appearances, I should be out there. But none of this matters, spoke the voice of reason in the back of my head. Haven will be lost regardless of who fights for it.

Cole was clearly curious about how I knew him, but had thankfully not asked again. Yet. The relief I felt from not having to answer him now was dampened by the anticipation of having to do so later. I tried desperately to keep my mind off the subject. My thoughts were too jumbled to come up with a satisfactory answer which skirted the truth. But that just meant I was more preoccupied with what to say to him than ever. He can access everything. While I did trust Cole, as he was quite good about keeping Solas’s secrets, he wasn’t nearly as vigilant about Dorian’s. Dorian invited him to ask questions, though. You won’t make that mistake.

I busied myself helping Josephine officially welcome Ser Barris and the other templars into the Inquisition. The circumstances of their arrival were dire, but that only meant a lack of formalities – which I was more than fine with. A few of the non-fighting mages who had stayed behind in the chantry looked nervous about their new allies. Chancellor Roderick, on the other hand, looked quite pleased to see the templars.

Was I wrong to invite both groups? It was easier for the chosen group in game, since fewer representatives from the other side of the conflict joined the Inquisition. Ensuring that everyone got along and didn’t murder each other was going to be a real pain in the ass.

A loud rumble echoed through the air, shaking the chantry walls. The inner circle must have hit the mountain with the trebuchets. They’re trying to bury Corypheus’s army Mulan-style. Indeed, that seemed to be the case as faint cheers erupted outside. The celebration died quickly as the screech of Corypheus’s red lyrium dragon pierced the air. The sound of a fiery impact and splintering wood soon followed. That would have been the demise of at least one of the trebuchets.

No one inside the chantry had any idea what was going on but me. I rushed to the doors. Straggling townspeople would need help getting to safety with the dragon above us.

Cullen’s muffled voice came through the doors. “We need everyone back to the chantry! It’s the only building that might hold against that…beast!” In a lower, more resigned tone, he added, “At this point, just make them work for it.”

I rolled my eyes. Such a defeatist attitude. Yanking open the doors, I hurried past Cullen to actively look for people to help. I wouldn’t stand for that “we’re all going to die” nonsense. Knowing we’d get out of here gave me a resolve I might not have possessed otherwise.

I immediately saw I wouldn’t be going far. Red templars and Venatori had already breached the walls. Several buildings burned, set ablaze by the dragon’s breath. I saw Blackwall run by with Flissa and Adan in tow. Sera was right behind him, leading Minaeve to the chantry. That was a relief. Normally, the Herald would have to save some of the townspeople at this point. Those were the people I had intended to help. But if the inner circle’s got this handled, maybe I should just head back to the chantry.

A small cry for help came from somewhere to my right. Meera?!  I pulled my daggers from their sheaths and ran toward her, trying not to be seen by the invaders.

My heart sank as I heard Meera call out again. She was trapped in a burning building. Isn’t Seggrit supposed to be in there? I thought desperately, trying to apply logic to a situation without any. Game canon was irrelevant in the face of the truth before me.

I attempted to force the door open, but the heat from the nearby flames drove me back. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. The wooden platform to my left would grant me access to the building through the hole in the roof, but what if I hurt myself jumping down? Besides, I couldn’t move burning debris out of the way without putting myself at serious risk. And who’s gonna rescue me if I fail?

“Herald!” The silver parts of Vivienne’s armor shimmered in the moonlight as she approached. “You should really get to the chantry, my dear. It isn’t safe out here and you cannot endanger your life.”

My heart sank. Of all the people in the inner circle to appear in my time of need, it had to be Vivienne. Her top priority was the Herald’s safety. In game, she disapproved of taking the time to help the townspeople, since the Herald had to come first. Regardless, I had to try.

“Someone’s trapped in there,” I told Vivienne. “We need to get her out.” The First Enchanter frowned. C’mon, Viv, please. With a desperate pleading look, I added, “I know her.”

Vivienne’s gaze turned to the building. “I fear bursting down the door will cause the whole structure to collapse.”

My spirits rose. Vivienne’s tone had been sympathetic. “There’s a hole in the roof. We can get around! But the fire…”

“Leave that to me,” Vivienne declared, striking the ground with the base of her staff. A mist of ice cold water traveled from Vivienne’s fingers to the visible fires.

I thanked her as I climbed the ladder to the nearby wooden platform. Now all I had to worry about was gravity.

“Wait!” Vivienne’s voice halted me in my tracks. She followed me up the ladder with surprising deftness. And in heels yet! Once again, I had been completely outclassed by the First Enchanter. She cast another spell, one I did not recognize. We were surrounded by a thin white mist that sparkled with ice crystals. It left a chill in the air around it. “Proceed.”

We jumped through the hole in the roof, the magical cloud slowing our fall. I wracked my brain, trying to figure out what spell she’d used. Not one we’d had access to in game, that much was certain. Later, I chastised myself.

Meera had barricaded the door with crates, inadvertently blocking rescuers from reaching her after the roof caved in and pinned her under debris. Vivienne and I uncovered her as quickly as we could.

“Are you all right?” I asked Meera, who was shaking like a leaf.

She steadied herself long enough to nod, then went right back to trembling. I hoped she’d be okay. Meera was pretty nervous even before this horrible brush with death. At least she didn’t seem to have any broken bones.

“Good,” put in Vivienne, who was already pushing the boxes away from the door. “Then let us return to the chantry at once.”

The dragon’s unearthly shriek drowned out the din of the battle as it flew overhead, far too close for comfort. Don’t need to tell me twice.

Chapter Text

Inquisition soldiers were successfully holding Corypheus’s combined armies at bay, enabling Vivienne, Meera, and me to slip back up the side stairs without being seen.

We joined the flow of people running toward the chantry. As we approached, Inquisition soldiers opened the doors for us. Chancellor Roderick leaned heavily against the doorframe, ushering us inside.

“Keep going!” he said with what little energy he could muster as we ran by. “The chantry is your shelter!”

Cole hovered by his side like a ghost. When Roderick collapsed from pain and exhaustion, Cole was right there to catch him. But Roderick was in the chantry before I left! I saw him. When had he gone and gotten himself stabbed? Not that it mattered now.

The soldiers forced the doors shut behind us, muffling the sounds of combat. I whirled around, trying to get my bearings. Pretty much the entire population of Haven had crammed into the chantry, save the people who were still fighting outside. Threnn and Seggrit had come in with us, the latter looking rather shaken. Did Threnn rescue him? Gotta be a story there. I spotted Harritt in the crowd, reorganizing the few blacksmithing tools he’d been able to save. Good. Someone did help him get that door open even without my being there. Lysette had joined the group of templars and was talking to Ser Barris. I wasn’t certain, since I was less familiar with the faces of most of the multiplayer characters, but it looked like Belinda Darrow was also with them.

Meera was wringing her hands anxiously. I’d probably be lost too if I didn’t have a specific role in all of this confusion.

“Meera, perhaps you could see if Ambassador Montilyet needs help with anything,” I suggested.

Gratitude flashed in her eyes. Bingo. She nodded and went to find Josephine. I had to admit the suggestion was for my own peace of mind as well. Knowing that Meera would be with someone reliable during the evacuation was reassuring. Besides, I’m sure Josie will need help saving her important paperwork.

Only then did I turn my attention back to the ailing chancellor. I bit back a gasp when I saw just how much blood had soaked Roderick’s robe. It was harder to notice the stain from a distance, due to large sections of his robe being red to begin with.

“He tried to stop a templar,” Cole told me as he helped Roderick to sit down in a nearby chair. “The blade went deep. He’s going to die.”

“What a…charming boy,” Roderick managed to get out.

“Herald!” Cullen ran over. “Our position is not good,” he reported in a low voice. “That dragon stole back any time we might have earned.”

“I’ve seen an Archdemon,” Cole told us. “I was in the Fade, but it looked like that.”

Cullen shook his head. “I don’t care what it looks like. It’s cut a path for that army. They’ll kill everyone in Haven!”

“The Elder One doesn’t care about the village,” Cole informed Cullen. “He only wants the Herald.”

Oh, great. Even already knowing that revelation was coming didn’t stop my palms from sweating. “He doesn’t even want me. He just wants the mark. It’s spoiling all of his plans. And I’m not letting him take our only means of closing the rifts. We must stop him.”

“It won’t be easy,” Cole said with deadpan sincerity. “He has a dragon.”

The look on Cullen’s face was priceless. “We know what he –“ He broke off with a sigh, thinking better of the argument. “Herald, there are no tactics to make this survivable. The only thing that slowed them was the avalanche. We could turn the remaining trebuchets – cause one last slide. Bury Haven. We’re dying, but we can decide how. Many don’t get that choice.”

I was getting very tired of Cullen’s extremely practical but shortsighted assessments of our situation. “Dying isn’t an option, Cullen,” I insisted. “We’d doom the rest of Thedas.”

Thankfully, Cole broke in before I said something I would regret. “Chancellor Roderick can help. He wants to say it before he dies.”

Cullen and I glowered at each other before clustering around the dying chancellor.

“There is a path,” Roderick said weakly. “You wouldn’t know it unless you’d made the summer pilgrimage, as I have. The people can escape. She must have shown me. Andraste must have shown me so I could…tell you.”

It hurt that Roderick was going to die after all. I was so certain he’d avoided that fate by being in the chantry before the dragon attacked. We didn’t get along, of course, but it wasn’t like I’d wished death upon him.

“Thank you for remembering and letting us know,” I told him. “Can you get them out, Cullen?”

Cullen appeared glad to be wrong, but didn’t want to admit it. “Possibly. If he shows us the path.” He seemed to notice that I hadn’t included myself in that. “But what of your escape?”

This was supposed to be a big dramatic moment in the game as the Herald silently accepted their seemingly inevitable fate. But I didn’t have time for impractical dramatics. A slow grin spread across my face. “I have a plan. But I’ll need some volunteers.”

We gathered the inner circle. Even though I had no intention of dying, everyone was roundly unhappy that I was risking my life to hold the Elder One’s attention. I stuck to my guns. There was no other plan that would both turn his attention away from the rest of the Inquisition and slow any possible pursuit. My argument was bolstered by the dragon’s screech shaking the chantry walls.

After some heated negotiations, it was determined that Cassandra, Solas, Vivienne, Blackwall, and Varric would remain as my bodyguards. The rest would assist with the evacuation. I was fine with that. If there were too many of us, it would be harder for those with me to activate the trebuchet while I distracted Corypheus.

Facing Corypheus alone wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was a risk, no matter how much I planned ahead. But the trebuchet needed to be fired without him noticing, so my path was clear. Corypheus needed to think he was in control of the situation. I was more than happy to let his arrogance blind him.

Chapter Text

I took a deep breath as we slipped outside into the chaos of Haven. My lungs were instantly chilled from the night air. The wind was carrying the smoke from the fires in the other direction. So Corypheus’s dragon might catch scent of us on the battlefield. Good. Corypheus needed to know we were coming.

The group encircled me for protection. Cassandra led the way, of course. The mages took positions on either side of me, with Blackwall bringing up the rear. Varric settled in next to Cassandra. Initially, I hadn’t been thrilled he was coming with us. But there was a look in his eyes which indicated that he’d recognized Corypheus, even at this distance. Varric felt responsible for helping Hawke release the magister from his magically-sealed prison. That logic I could understand.

It was hard to see Haven burn around us. I was glad I didn’t have much in the way of personal belongings in Thedas, but felt bad for those whose lives were being destroyed. I checked to make sure Rufus was still hanging from the chain at my neck, tucked beneath my armor.

We fought our way to the final trebuchet, not far from Haven’s gates. There were few members of the Inquisition left to send to the chantry as we went. The rest…I didn’t want to think about their fates.

“The trebuchet must be aimed,” Cassandra ordered. “Quickly!”

Blackwall immediately sprang into action, turning the wheel that would face the weapon to the mountain. The rest of us held off the red templars who were bearing down on us. I didn’t notice the lone Venatori spellbinder in the back until Solas counterspelled her, leaving the woman open to a volley of crossbow bolts from Varric. Good to know that my battlefield awareness is as sharp as ever, I thought dryly.

A hollow scream echoed across the battlefield. A huge deformed colossus lumbered toward us. Large spikes of red lyrium poked out of its wrinkled gray skin. Shit. I had never liked the red templar behemoths. Aside from their tiny helmeted heads sticking out just above their chests, you couldn’t tell they had once been human. I knew from Inquisition that this one in particular had been Knight-Captain Denam, the templar that would have betrayed and murdered Ser Barris had I not intervened.

Cassandra, only momentarily taken aback by the sight of the monstrosity, rushed forward to engage it. Even with her heavy armor, Cass was far more mobile than the creature hulking over her. She dove out of the way as the behemoth struck the ground, leaving a bed of red lyrium spikes in its wake.

Even after Solas and Vivienne started to freeze the creature in place, I stayed back. The behemoth was pretty much made of red lyrium and I was terrified to get close. I knew it wasn’t fair to Cassandra, who was right up in its face, but I didn’t trust myself. Instead, I tried to help Blackwall reposition the trebuchet – not that he needed my assistance.

“Reinforcements!” Blackwall yelled as three red templar horrors moved in on the trebuchet. My breath caught in my throat. Those creatures were as corrupted as the behemoths, but had greater mobility.

Blackwall jumped in front of me, intercepting the misshapen former templars. I threw down a smoke pellet, giving myself some cover through which I could flank his attackers. There was more skin exposed between the spikes of lyrium on the horrors. I found a weak spot on the closest horror’s side and stabbed it as hard as I could. The creature screamed in pain, a blood-curdling cry that was cut off abruptly as Blackwall bashed its face with his shield.

“Squishy, move!” Varric’s voice carried over the screech of metal on metal. I obliged, ducking to the left as a series of crossbow bolts flew past me. One of the other horrors spontaneously burst into flames. I whirled around just as Solas turned his attention back to freezing the behemoth formerly known as Denam.

That extra spell tipped the odds in our favor, enabling us to take down the horrors more quickly. Only the behemoth remained. I ran in with Blackwall, joining him behind the still-frozen Denam. Solas and Vivienne might not agree on a number of subjects, but they sure could keep a freezing rotation going without much communication.

It was difficult finding vulnerable spots to attack. I still didn’t want to touch the red lyrium. Even being this close to it was driving my anxiety through the roof. You weren’t like this at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, I reminded myself. Of course, none of this had seemed real then… I settled for stabbing the creature in the legs, hindering its already limited movement.

At last, the creature toppled over, shaking the ground as it fell. But I felt no relief at its death. Corypheus’s dragon shrieked overhead. My heart rose in my throat. There was no time. I heard the others scatter behind me. I had to trust they knew what they were doing. If I turned to watch, I’d give them away. I kept my attention on the skies.

A good thing I did. The dragon swooped low. I rolled to my right. The dragon flew past, breathing flames of red lyrium. The ground I’d just been standing on burned. Close one.

My eyes watered from the smoke. I thought I saw – no, I did see – a tall, pointed figure in the flames. Corypheus. Even at this distance, I could tell he was scowling. The mark tingled in anticipation.

I scrambled to my feet as he approached. The ground shook, nearly knocking me back down. The dragon had come up behind me. It kept closing in. If I hadn’t fought the Ferelden Frostback before, I’d have been completely unprepared for the scope of the beast. As it was, this dragon was larger. It menacingly lowered its face to mine before letting loose a deafening screech.

“Enough!” commanded Corypheus. He held out his hands, which emitted red sparks at the dragon. Whatever spell he had cast, it halted the assault. “Pretender,” he addressed me with a glare. “You toy with forces beyond your ken no more.”

Showtime. “Who died and put you in charge?”

Corypheus sneered at me. The metal scraps sticking out of his face bent his expression in unnatural ways. “Mortals beg for truth they cannot have. It is beyond what you are…what I was.” I neglected to point out that overcoming his own mortality to get the knowledge he now possessed basically contradicted what he’d just said. “Know me. Know what you have pretended to be. Exalt the Elder One, the will that is Corypheus.” So he DID introduce himself during this monologue! It had been years since I’d actually listened to him properly and I had forgotten. Thank the Maker. Now I can refer to him by name. “You will kneel,” he ordered me, extending a bony finger in my direction.

“I bend the knee to no one,” I told him, perhaps a little too arrogantly.

Corypheus seemed nonplussed. “You will resist. You will always resist.” He raised his left hand. I let out a soft gasp. He was holding Solas’s orb, the one that had given me the mark. “It matters not,” Corypheus continued. “I am here for the Anchor.” The orb glowed red, as though corrupted with red lyrium. “The process of removing it begins now.”

Before I could react, Corypheus thrust his right hand in my direction. The spell he channeled made his hand glow red. The Anchor instantly sparked to life, sending shocks of pain shooting up my arm. I gritted my teeth, determined not to cry out in front of this asshole.

“It is your fault, Herald,” he told me. “You interrupted a ritual years in the planning and instead of dying, you stole its purpose.” With a sneer, he gestured toward me again, causing another surge of power from the Anchor. “I do not know how you survived, but what marks you as touched – what you flail at rifts – I crafted to assault the very heaven. And you use the Anchor to undo my work. The gall!”

Corypheus clenched his fist, sending another wave of pain shuddering through me. This one hurt less, but only by virtue of the barrier that fell over me just in time. It dissipated quickly, completely spent by the power of Corypheus’s spell. I hoped that meant he hadn’t noticed. Though the barrier hadn’t stopped much of my suffering, I was grateful that at least one of the mages was in range of me. Probably Solas.

I glared my hatred at Corypheus. “It must really bother you that I wield a power you don’t,” I panted, trying not to scream in agony. “I bet you don’t even understand it, since you let it slip away from you so easily.”

He glared right back at me. “It is meant to bring certainty where there is none. For you, the certainty that I would always come for it.”

With surprising swiftness, Corypheus closed the gap between us. Grabbing me by my left wrist, he dangled me aloft like a mistreated child’s toy. I struggled less out of hope of escape than to keep myself from spinning and accidentally sinking his claw-like fingers into me.

“I once breached the Fade in the name of another,” he hissed. “To serve the Old Gods of the Empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption, dead whispers. A thousand years I was confused. No more. I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own, to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world.” I recoiled from the decay on his breath. “Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods and it was empty.”

He hurled me away. The world blurred around me. Panic rose in my throat. Where was the ground? A barrier fell over me as I slammed hard into the side of the trebuchet. The shield instantly dissipated on impact. Pain shot through my back. It would have been worse without the barrier absorbing some of the shock. I vaguely mindvibed my gratitude toward Solas as I tried to regain my breath.

“The Anchor is permanent,” Corypheus declared with disgust. “You have spoilt it with your stumbling.” His dragon followed as he strode toward me. “So be it. I will begin again, find another way to give this world the nation and god it requires.”

Far behind Corypheus in the mountains, a flare went up. The Inquisition had cleared the tree line. We could safely bury Haven.

Corypheus was too busy staring me down to notice. “And you. I will not suffer even an unknowing rival. You must die.”

The trebuchet didn’t fire. Had something gone wrong? Were the others not behind me? Or had they not seen the signal? I pulled out my daggers, feigning a last stand.

“You’re no god,” I retorted. “Just a mortal with bigger delusions of grandeur!”

I kicked at the crank holding the trebuchet in place. The final boulder launched into the air and crashed into the mountainside. As Corypheus and the dragon turned to watch, I bolted away.

Running in a straight line was a terrible idea, but I had to make it to the cave before the avalanche reached us. The others were already there. Solas dropped another barrier over me as Varric provided cover fire. Cassandra and Blackwall shielded them. We dove into the cave just as rocks and snow buried Haven behind us. But instead of hitting the ground, we kept falling into the darkness.

Chapter Text

A white light flashed across the cave as Vivienne cast a spell to slow our fall. Only then did I let out my tension with a sigh of relief. We were far enough above the ground that we would have sustained serious injuries otherwise. The rumbling of the avalanche overhead faded, leaving us in eerie silence as we floated away from Haven.

No sooner had we touched down safely on the cave floor than Cassandra rushed to my side.

“Are you injured?” she asked, offering her hand to help me up.

I shook my head, ignoring the bruise forming on my back from where I’d hit the trebuchet. That doesn’t count. And yet, I found myself gritting my teeth as I was pulled to my feet.

Solas asked the group to hold a moment while he examined the mark. It was still sparking with energy after its encounter with Corypheus. My hand kept involuntarily closing as I shuddered with the anguish of holding it still. Solas finally said that the mark was not growing, but that there was little he could do for the pain due to its current condition. Not what I had wanted to hear, but if even Solas couldn’t fix it, I’d just have to deal as best I could.

Now that I was cleared to travel, we took stock of our surroundings. There was only one exit – an old stone archway that led someplace obscured by mist. Cassandra and Blackwall both took up positions in the front, leaving Varric to cover the rear. Solas and Vivienne split up, each casting fire spells that provided more light than warmth. Unfortunate, I thought, eyeing the icicles hanging from the ceiling.

And so we traveled for what felt like hours. The narrow tunnel twisted through the mountain, betraying no hints of its original purpose. Was this part of the path to the Temple of Sacred Ashes? I couldn’t tell, since there had been a number of landscape changes between Origins and Inquisition. It didn’t truly matter now. This path would get us out of Haven.

At last, the tunnel opened up into a slightly larger cavern. The cave exit appeared to lie beyond. The mark burned as several demons sprang into existence ahead of us. I recognized the hooded cloaks and slumped stature of despair demons.

NO! I hated fighting them more than I hated fighting terror demons. Both had abilities that would knock you onto your ass, but despair demons would freeze you first. Plus they didn’t have faces – just teeth upon more teeth. UGH. Why were they even here? I vaguely remembered demons turned up in this section of the game, but despair demons? No.

My distress seemed to be funneling itself into the mark, which hurt more than ever. I felt like my hand would explode from the surge of power. Inspiration came to me in a flash.

“Move back!” I shouted to the others as I thrust the mark toward our attackers. The front line scattered just in time as a miniature green rift formed between the demons. The rift pulled the demons into itself before disappearing with a boom.

“What was that?” Cassandra demanded.

“Looks like the mark’s learned a new trick,” I panted. Maker, I hope this gets easier. Knowing what else I was going to have to pull off with the mark in the future, I couldn’t be so spent afterwards.

Solas insisted on inspecting the mark again before we moved on. This time, he was successful in calming the angry energy coming from it, gradually soothing the pain. Suspicion descended upon me. Solas knew he couldn’t keep the mark in check before it had gained its new ability. I didn’t have a problem with the situation, just that he hadn’t warned me. How could he? I reminded myself. You’re not supposed to know who he is.

The wind howled outside as we finally approached the exit. A full-fledged blizzard had struck the Frostbacks while we were in that cave. The chill in the air instantly got into my bones.

It was impossible for Solas and Vivienne to keep their fires going. Clouds concealed the moon, leaving us to travel almost blindly in the dark. No one talked, save Varric, whose muttered curses about the weather were largely lost on the wind.

Time became meaningless. We forged on, following the Inquisition’s already cold trail. How we managed to keep going in a straight line was beyond me. There were no landmarks and the remnants of the Inquisition’s journey were few and far between.

Then I heard them. Wolves. I couldn’t tell where they were, but I knew they were here to help keep us on track. You don’t KNOW that, grumbled my inner voice of reason. There’s no proof they’re linked to Solas. But the wolves never showed themselves, so why else would they be here? That was in the game. This is real and you should be fearing for your life. But at this point, I was too tired and frozen to care.

When Cassandra discovered the still-warm embers of an Inquisition campfire, the significance was lost on me. Each step forward required my full attention. My legs were heavy. My armor was heavy. Everything was heavy. All I wanted to do was stop and sleep. Not an option.

The wind stopped throwing us about as we made our way into a ravine.  Something about it felt familiar. Then I spotted the large campfire burning in the canyon beyond, the Inquisition set up around it.

“There! It’s them!” Cullen’s shout echoed off the walls as he approached, Leliana and Josephine hot on his heels.

“Thank the Maker,” Cassandra declared.

We made it. It was only then that I let myself collapse to my knees.

Chapter Text

After I’d warmed up and gotten to rest a bit, I was better able to appreciate how much the people of Haven had brought with them on such short notice. Everyone had a place in one of the large tents, and there were enough of those to give the impression of a small village. The huge campfire I’d seen from a distance was the central point of the makeshift town, while smaller ones dotted the paths between the tents.

The war tent was situated toward the middle for protection, but far enough away that plans might be made without interruption. The war council had been arguing for hours, their raised voices carrying through the folds of the tent.

I could hear every word from my cot by the fire. Cullen stubbornly sticking to his guns. Leliana countering him. Josephine pleading that they use reason. Cassandra shouting them all down. The bickering amounted to the Inquisition’s lack of a single leader. That’ll be my job soon enough. Was I ready to become the Inquisitor? Or would I somehow magically get zapped home when that happened? At this point, I’d accept any and all responsibility just to get the four of them to be quiet for five minutes. Exhausted, I let out a disgusted groan.

“Shh. You need rest.”

A weary glance to my left reminded me that I wasn’t alone. Mother Giselle had come to visit and watch over me while I recovered.

I tried to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “They’re not getting anywhere arguing in circles.”

“They have that luxury, thanks to you,” Giselle pointed out. “The enemy could not follow, and with time to doubt, we turn to blame. In-fighting may threaten as much as this Corypheus.”

Ready or not, I was going to have to step up to lead sooner than later. I shuddered as another jolt of pain spread across my back, forcing me to lie down again. Maybe a little bit later.

“At least the in-fighting has a smaller body count,” I quipped. There was a sharpness in my tone that I was too tired to smooth out. “But yeah, this needs to stop.”

“They know,” came the reply. “But our situation – your situation – is complicated. Our leaders struggle because of what we survivors witnessed. We saw our defender stand and fall, and now we have seen her return.” I tried not to make a face. There was no falling. Not that my perspective mattered. Not that the truth mattered. “The more the enemy is beyond us, the more miraculous your actions appear and the more our trials seem ordained. That is hard to accept, no? What ‘we’ have been called to endure? What ‘we,’ perhaps, must come to believe?”

The Chantry’s spin on events seemed so gaudy and unnecessary, especially since I knew the truth. Perhaps processing things from a spiritual standpoint helped others within the Inquisition, but I personally had no time for that.

“People can believe what they want.” I punctuated the declaration with a sigh. “They’re going to anyway, whether or not I agree. All that matters is that they continue to stand against Corypheus, whatever their reasons.”

The look on Mother Giselle’s face was enough motivation for me to get up. I knew she wasn’t happy that I wouldn’t play along like a good little Andrastian, but that didn’t mean I needed to sit and bask in her disappointment.

The cold night air did nothing good for the stiffness in my back. It would have to heal the old-fashioned way – namely, without magic. I cast my gaze about, looking for a distraction. The war council had finally left their tent, each of the advisers lost in their own thoughts. I didn’t see Cassandra. Stabbing the map on the campaign table, perhaps.

Mother Giselle’s voice broke the silence behind me. “Shadows fall and hope has fled,” she sang, immediately gathering the attention of the people nearby.

Hope has indeed fled, I thought wryly. Of course Giselle was going to sing The Dawn Will Come. It was foolish of me to assume otherwise. Her performance had been weighty and meaningful the first time I’d seen it. Every repeat playthrough, I’d suffered secondhand embarrassment at best, indignation on behalf of the non-Andrastian Inquisitors at worst.

“Steel your heart, the dawn will come.” Giselle’s singing voice was low, but enchanting in its own way. The qualities that made her a compelling speaker also applied to her as a singer. “The night is long and the path is dark. Look to the sky for one day soon, the dawn will come.”

As the advisers and other members of the Inquisition gathered around and joined in, I kept reminding myself that this performance was not meant for me. I didn’t need the hope or determination – I already had both. It was the people of the Inquisition who needed to believe, the advisers who needed to remember their common cause.

A few people knelt before me. I became uncomfortably aware that even though Mother Giselle was the one leading the singing, I was the focal point of this little gathering. A clever move on her part to unite the Inquisition around me. Whatever her motivations, I doubted that this was accidental.

I avoided eye contact with anyone, taking in only the briefest impressions of the scene around me. Leliana and Cullen adding their voices to the song. Cole leaning over Roderick as the chancellor died. No sign of Solas. But I knew he was out there, away from the crowd. He would find me when the time was right.

As the song ended, an eerie silence fell over the camp. It was a charged silence, one full of energy and possibility. Mother Giselle had gotten her desired effect.

“An army needs more than an enemy,” she told me. “It needs a cause.”

Guess the show WAS for me after all, I mused as Giselle walked away. I still couldn’t decide whether Giselle made such politically savvy moves simply because her faith led her to them or whether it was all completely calculated.

Solas’s voice interrupted my train of thought. Had I not expected him, he would have startled me. “A word?” It was less a question than an imperative request.

“Always.”

My heart raced as I followed Solas out of the camp proper. It felt like something was about to happen, but I had no idea what. Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Chapter Text

The chill on the wind was more pronounced outside of the Inquistion camp. I pulled my hoodie around me more securely. Solas appeared unbothered by the cold, despite the lack of layers he was wearing. He walked over to a metal brazier and with one smooth flick of his wrist, lit it with veilfire. I was painfully aware of how much contrast there was between this picture of grace and my hunched posture. Great.

“A wise woman,” Solas said, regarding Mother Giselle. “Worth heeding. Her kind understand the moments that unify a cause. Or fracture it.”

“It’s all very Orlesian,” I quipped. “Combining religious fervor with the Great Game. And yet, she comes across as sincere in her beliefs. I suppose that’s the trick, isn’t it?”

Solas made a sound of acknowledgment that vaguely resembled agreement. He looked preoccupied. “The orb Corypheus carried – the power he used against you – it is elven.” Oh shit. I had forgotten how much of the truth Solas actually revealed, even to a human Inquisitor. “Corypheus used the orb to open the Breach. Unlocking it must have caused the explosion that destroyed the Conclave.”

If there was any guilt in Solas’s heart about giving said orb to Corypheus, he had buried it deep. What do you mean IF? I chided myself. You know he regrets what happened.

Solas visibly steeled himself. “I do not yet know how Corypheus survived.” His gaze pierced through me as desperation crept into his voice. “Nor am I certain how people will react when they learn of the orb’s origin.”

See? He’s worried about the consequences for the elves. And yet, I felt a pang of guilt for rushing to reassure myself of that truth. Dammit vhenan, why can’t you be easier to read?

“People won’t have any reason to blame the elves for what happened at the Conclave,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “Corypheus could have gotten the orb from anywhere.” Even though he didn’t. But most people won’t ever learn of Solas’s involvement…right? “Although the elves do tend to be used as scapegoats,” I conceded. “Even with the Inquisition standing by them, there will always be some assholes who don’t care about logic.”

“History would agree with you,” Solas replied. “But there are steps we can take to prevent such a distraction.” I scratched my eyebrow to conceal the look of confusion I felt creasing my forehead. Distraction? From what? “By attacking the Inquisition, Corypheus has changed it. Changed you. Scout to the north, be their guide.” Solas sounded more hopeful now, repeating himself in his earnestness. “There is a place that waits for a force to hold it. There is a place where the Inquisition can build, grow.”

“And what is this place called?” I asked, fully knowing the answer.

“Skyhold.”

Now it was my turn to make an ambiguous sound of acknowledgement. Skyhold was home in Inquisition, more so than Haven. But I couldn’t show that reaction when I was supposedly only just learning about it now.

“Would Skyhold be offended having a military force connected to the Chantry on its grounds?” I asked instead. Solas raised an eyebrow. My heart surged into my throat. WAIT NO. “Assuming that its origin is elven, I mean. Sorry, I didn’t mean to assume. Most things in Thedas seem to be connected to the elvhen in some capacity, so I figured Skyhold was too.”

Solas only looked at me more curiously than before. “You know a great deal about the ancient elves,” he observed. “The elvhen.” SHIT. What had I talked myself into this time? “Were you raised among elves?”

“What? Me? No.”

Solas looked a little sad that I was so quick to deny it. “I apologize. I did not mean to cause you discomfort. Any aspect of your heritage would remain safe with me.”

My eyes went wide. He thinks I’m elf-blooded. A reasonable conclusion to jump to, based on how most humans in Thedas remember so little of elven history. That would explain why I was different. The truth is FAR more complicated.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” I reassured him. “I just didn’t want you to have the wrong impression of who I was.” Any more than you already do, anyway. “I’m fully human. I just read a lot.”

Solas’s face was a mask. Was he disappointed? “I wonder, what sort of books about the elves does one read to learn the vocabulary you have?”

Fuck. My blood froze in horror. Of course he wasn’t going to let “vhenan” go, you idiot! There was no avoiding it now. The meaning was clear from his tone.

“First of all, let me apologize for calling you that. It was highly inappropriate and unconsciously done. By the time I realized what I’d said, you were already gone. I didn’t want to bring it up afterwards.” I couldn’t look at him. There was no way I could handle his reaction. “Suffice to say that you’re right. I didn’t learn that one from a book.”

The air was still as Solas mulled over my words. “He must have cared for you a great deal.”

A small part of me was annoyed that he’d automatically assumed it was a man, even though he was right. But mostly, I was trying to stop the tears that welled up in my eyes from falling. Why is the truth so complicated?

“Yes,” I finally managed to say in a strangled voice. “He did.”

Chapter Text

As we set off to the north, I had plenty of time to dwell on my conversation with Solas. I had undoubtedly ruined any chance of ever getting close to him. After all, I had been visibly emotional about a past lover. Even though it was him, I seethed in frustration. Another life, another world, but still him. Now, with the possibility gone, I could admit to myself that I had hoped against hope that things would have gone the romantic route – despite all of the disastrous complications on both ends. I never was very practical when it came to matters of the heart.

All of this made it even more imperative that I speak with Cole as soon as possible. I couldn’t have him blowing my cover, especially not to Solas – he couldn’t know where I was from or how I felt about him. Had I not been exhausted from escaping Haven and getting nearly frozen to death in the snow, I probably should have already given Cole my previously offered explanation. But this was a conversation that had to be handled delicately, so I needed my wits about me.

What can I even tell him, anyway? As it was, none of the truth made sense – not even to me. I sure as hell didn’t know how I got here. Cole’s understanding of Thedas was already pretty sketchy due to him being a spirit. Would he even get that I needed him to keep quiet? What a fucking mess.

I still hadn’t come up with an approach to take when Cole found me on the outskirts of the camp that night.

“Willfully wandering where one would. When we met before, it was through a window. A window between worlds.” There was a dreamlike quality to his voice, as was normal for Cole when he was lost in thought. “But I don’t remember.”

I hesitated, trying to find the words that would make him understand. “It was you, but not you. Your soul.” I would have said spirit, but that might have complicated things since he is a spirit. The less confusion right now, the better. “I don’t know how it works – how any of this works. All I know is that I’m here now and that I can make a difference. I can make things better.”

Cole nodded. He genuinely seemed to see where I was coming from. “You want to help. Like me. That’s why you’re not afraid. Some people are,” he added with a wistful sadness.

My heart broke. Cole meant well – he always did. He was a spirit of Compassion. That was his core nature.

“I know, Cole. That’s why I need your help. If anyone finds out I’m different, they’ll be scared and angry. Then I won’t be able to help them.”

Cole cocked his head to the side. “Like Solas.”

Dammit. Cole understood my problem – all too well, it seemed.

“He can’t know about me, Cole.”

Confusion flooded his face. “But you love Solas.”

It felt like my entire body was blushing. “It doesn’t matter, Cole. He can’t know that either.”

 “Why not? You understand him. You know he isn’t that kind of wolf.”

Maker’s balls. “Please, Cole. Don’t. The truth is complicated. It would upset him to find out anyone knew who he was, even if they were on his side.”

I know who he is. He doesn’t mind.”

He wasn’t wrong. “You’re a spirit who can read minds. He expects that.” This was getting far too convoluted to explain. “Just…trust me. I need to keep my distance from him.” Cole looked lost. I couldn’t leave it at that. “It’s okay, Cole. I can handle it. As can you,” I added with dawning realization. “Thank you for waiting and not bringing this up in front of the others. I’m sorry I left you hanging for so long without answers.”

“I wasn’t hanging. I walked.”

I barely suppressed a grin. Oh Cole. Always so literal. “It’s an expression. Don’t worry about it. Truly though, thank you. I hate to ask you to protect me the same way you do Solas, but there’s no other option.”

Too late, it occurred to me that Cole hadn’t really had time to cover for Solas yet. But perhaps the nuances of time and knowledge of the future were less troubling for a spirit, as Cole appeared unperturbed.

“I don’t mind,” Cole said. “I am glad I helped.”

An odd feeling of peace came over me. I should be paranoid that Cole’s going to blow my cover by accident. But I wasn’t.

“You really did,” I assured him. “It’s such a relief being able to talk about this with you. I’ve been isolated for months. It was getting lonely.”

Cole gave me one of his rare soft smiles. It was infectious.

What I didn’t tell him was that it was also a relief to hear from someone else who knew the truth that I was doing the right thing. I’d been plagued by doubt, especially as I deviated from in-game choices. No matter how many lives I saved, there was no way of knowing how many others I might be endangering by changing the timeline. You also have no idea how this will change Solas’s plans, whispered the voice in the back of my head. Everything could turn out far worse. Or it could be better. I had to believe what I was doing would help.

Those…creatures! That could have been us,” Cole intoned. “We would have died at Therinfal had we not heeded her warning in Val Royeaux.” It sounded like he was channeling Ser Barris – or at least one of his templars. “They are alive because of you,” Cole told me in his own voice. “You saved them.”

The corner of my mouth twitched. This lack of privacy was going to take some getting used to. But in this case, I was grateful for the intrusion.

I grinned. “Thanks for putting things in perspective, Cole. I’ll do my best to keep helping.”

Chapter Text

Cole honored my request to remain silent about my past. With each day that passed with my secret intact, my confidence in him grew. What a relief that I didn’t have to worry anymore – at least not about that.

The Inquisition continued its slow journey through the Frostback Mountains. I remembered from fandom speculations that it would take about a month to reach Skyhold. But the only other person who knew that was Solas, and he was playing coy about how long we’d be traveling. Probably to keep the focus off himself and on me.

Solas had told me to lead the Inquisition to Skyhold for a reason. It strengthened the case that I should be Inquisitor, allowing him to help while still remaining in the shadows. I didn’t mind being Solas’s figurehead, though I’d have been lying if I said I hadn’t wondered about his motivation. How much was he helping the Inquisition to further his own plans of bringing down the Veil and how much was him meddling because there was a problem to fix and he could see the solution? Good thing I supported him on both fronts or I might have been conflicted about my position.

Cassandra allowed me to travel ahead of the Inquisition for a change. Perhaps she was already aware of the impending power shift and, like Solas, wanted to turn the spotlight over to me. The lack of non-environmental dangers in this part of the Frostbacks probably didn’t hurt either. We weren’t encountering any people and the wildlife kept its distance, though we could still hear wolves howling at night.

At any rate, I was able to travel with Solas and Cole in relative privacy. They had of course hit it off immediately. They’d done so in Inquisition – I had no reason to believe they wouldn’t here. For my part, I was just as glad to listen to them talk about the Fade and its differences from reality. Besides, things had changed between me and Solas, and I didn’t want to deal with it.

As the days went by, I recognized several familiar conversations I’d previously encountered in the game. But it wasn’t until later that I overheard one I knew by heart.

“It sees him ready to jump,” Cole intoned. “Pain pounding, pulsing, life of frustration can finally fall, to freeze.”

“Ah yes,” Solas said. He recognized what Cole was referring to at the same time I did. Cole was describing the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life. The two of them occasionally made references to thematically-related movies and tv shows in some of their in-game banter, but I hadn’t expected to hear any of that dialogue repeated here. I rubbed my forehead, concealing a frown. Do they see the same thing as is canon in the source material or is it some sort of Thedosian equivalent?

“It holds him high, shows the hole, where everything falls without him. He never needs to leave. He matters here.”

“That is one interpretation, yes.”

I rolled my eyes. Here it comes.

Cole had no such preconceptions of what Solas was about to say. “You think it is different,” he observed, curiosity tinging his voice.

“I think he fell, and it held him as he died, leaving him with images that told him his life was worthwhile.”

“That’s much sadder,” Cole replied. “But yes. Calm, comfort, as the cold takes him away.”

I bit my lip. Solas’s interpretation was wrong. I had seen the movie. Hell, I had specifically rewatched it to see if there was any possibility he could have been right – which there wasn’t. But saying so would be waving a huge red flag that had SUSPICIOUS written on it in massive gold letters.

“That’s not what happened,” I heard myself say. Both of them turned to me, surprise etched across their faces. I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.

“How do you know?” Cole asked.

That’s not the plot of the film. I couldn’t say that. What on earth had I gotten myself into? Nothing good would come of this. “I mean, it could have,” I admitted. “But it wasn’t.” Not helping, dear. “You two aren’t the only ones who see things in the Fade,” I added defensively.

“You have encountered that memory?” Solas looked as astonished as I’d ever seen him. Maybe the mark wasn’t supposed to grant me that kind of access to the Fade. I ignored my stomach as it did anxious backflips. I was committed now.

“Yeah.” I waved my marked hand carelessly, pretending that I wasn’t attempting to draw attention to the Anchor. As though Solas wasn’t already thinking about the Fade access it granted me. “The whole situation is hopeful, not pessimistic. The point is that he chose to live in time. He just needed to be reminded that he wasn’t alone, no matter how isolated he felt.” The irony of my saying this to Solas, who was in a similar position, was not lost on me. In fact, that was likely the true reason I’d felt compelled to speak in the first place. I wasn’t going to let his pessimism cloud his vision if I could help it. He’s an optimist, I reminded myself. Just a grim and fatalistic one who’s been burned too often to blindly believe.

Solas stared at me intently. I wished I knew what he was thinking. I had taken such a huge risk in challenging him over a movie. And yet, I had no regrets.

“It saved him,” Cole interpreted with wonder.

I nodded. “He didn’t give up. He kept fighting.”

Solas looked unconvinced. “Despite changing his mind, it was too late. He had already fallen.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “There’s no proof that he died.” My subconscious screamed. What are you doing? All of your proof is tied up in knowing that it’s an unchanging movie narrative. “Maybe you only saw part of the memory.” I tried to soften my tone. It was possible that he really didn’t know what had happened. “From what I saw, he definitely lived.”

There was a long pause as Solas mulled over my words. At last, he replied. “I suppose it is possible,” he conceded. He didn’t sound anywhere near fully convinced. But there was doubt. Anything that got Solas to question the limitations of what he’d seen in any context was a victory. “Perhaps you could tell me more about these memories you’ve accessed through the Fade.”

And there it is. I groaned inwardly. At least Solas didn’t seem interested in discussing the subject in front of Cole. Or maybe that’s cause for more worry, since Cole should know about those memories already.

“Maybe,” I said aloud. “I don’t remember a lot of my dreams, though.”

That was unfortunately true, even after gaining the mark. I suspected I was simply too tired to enter a state in which I could remember them.

A smile played across Solas’s lips. “We shall see.”

Was that a challenge? I couldn’t tell. Maybe the Veil was thinner around Skyhold. Either way, I was now more concerned than ever. Why oh why can’t I ever keep my mouth shut?

Chapter Text

As we continued our journey to Skyhold, Solas did try to coax more information out of me about the memories I’d seen in the Fade. I was completely truthful when I said I couldn’t remember any others offhand. It was like being asked what my favorite movie was, then not being able to name a single one of them. In this case, it protected me from accidentally revealing any more of the truth than I already had. Did he suspect something strange was going on? Or did he simply want to know more about the practical effects of the Anchor on a non-mage? Either way, I gave him nothing else to work with, so he eventually stopped asking. I didn’t for one minute believe I was in the clear, but at least I appeared to be safe for the time being. Until I inevitably fuck that up too.

After the initial blizzard that had plagued our flight from Haven, the weather had remained clear. In fact, the snowbanks increasingly turned to slush as we traveled. I had to keep reminding myself that in Thedas, the north was warmer than the south. You and your northern hemisphere biases. Thankfully, that also meant it was easier for the Inquisition’s hunters to find game. There was no way the food we had brought with us from Haven would have been able to last an entire month, even with limited rations.

Weeks passed in relative tedium until at last, we climbed a mountain peak and spotted Skyhold’s rectangular turrets in the distance. It wasn’t flashy, like the Winter Palace at Halamshiral. Skyhold was built for practicality. The fortress overlooked a frozen river, its other sides flanked by mountain peaks and steep gaps. Corypheus would not attack us here. The only way in was the front gate. If he risked sending his dragon to fly over the walls, they would be quite defensible with the Inquisition’s mages on call. Not even a dragon of red lyrium could withstand that sort of direct onslaught.

For the first time since I’d woken up in Thedas, I felt at home. But I couldn’t let that show – Solas was watching.

It took us another couple of days to reach the castle itself. During that time, the war council stepped into high gear, completing preparations for the ceremony announcing me as Inquisitor. The game had apparently sprung the council’s decision on the player for dramatic effect; they had already told me here. I suppose reality requires a lot more planning. There was only so much we could do before we actually got to Skyhold, but thankfully, writing my acceptance speech was one of them. We – I – had to continue making a strong impression on the Inquisition. Finally, something I was capable of doing. Though rousing speeches weren’t exactly my cup of tea, Josephine’s approval set my mind at ease.

A ramp carved into the mountain led up to the great stone bridge before Skyhold’s entrance. It would take quite some time to move what supplies we had brought with us into the fortress. But that was a problem for other members of the Inquisition. The inner circle and I went ahead to explore.

My excitement mounted as we crossed the stone bridge and entered the castle courtyard. I’d had a fair idea of what to expect from its in-game appearance – crumbling walls, tattered banners, and patches of grass. Skyhold existed in some sort of metaphorical bubble. Though the air was cool, the climate inside the castle’s walls supported plant life. The snow remained outside in the rest of the Frostbacks. Sort of like a reverse snow globe. I was certain that whatever magic protected Skyhold had been set up by Solas when the castle was his. It was a pity I couldn’t ask him for details.

There was so much work to be done to get Skyhold functional again, since it had stood empty for what must have been centuries. But first, we had to get the formalities out of the way.

The courtyard was packed to bursting with members of the Inquisition. The only people from the inner circle I saw were Josephine and Cullen, who were standing at the front of the crowd. I stood above them on the stairs leading to the main keep with Cassandra and Leliana. A banner of the Inquisition waved in the wind behind us. I couldn’t get over the sea of murmuring faces below. Somehow, even though I’d been traveling with all of these people for the past month, I’d never realized just how many of them there were. It was, in a word, unnerving.

Leliana presented the sword representing the Inquisition to me. I took the sword with both hands. It wobbled as I held it up. Why is this thing so damned big, anyway? I definitely wasn’t rerolling to a two-handed warrior anytime soon. Right. Focus.

“Corypheus is a menace, a blight upon the face of Thedas.” I couldn’t resist the Blight pun, seeing as how Corypheus was one of the first darkspawn. “He was responsible for what happened at the Conclave. You saw for yourselves what he did to Haven.” I’d had to leave out the part where Corypheus killed the Divine to create the Breach. I only remembered that from the game. “But he can be defeated and together, we will stop him once and for all.”

There were shouts of agreement from the crowd.

“Wherever you lead us,” Cassandra told me with a nod of approval.

I tried not to cringe as Cass called down to Josephine and Cullen, who were continuing to hype up the crowd. Yes, it was important that the people of the Inquisition would follow their new Inquisitor, but Maker’s balls, did I ever hate this part of the formalities. To me, if you wanted to give someone your loyalty, you didn’t need to yell about it. But this ceremony isn’t for you. It’s for them. Unfortunately, knowing that didn’t make me feel any less awkward about the whole thing.

When Cullen raised his sword in a salute, I lifted the Inquisition sword as high as I dared in return. Please don’t fall, I begged it.

Mercifully, it didn’t. The crowd roared its support as I struggled to hold the sword aloft. The whole thing was overwhelming.

Finally, the crowd dispersed. I gratefully lowered the sword and turned it back over to Leliana. She too nodded in approval, bestowing one of her now-rare smiles as she did so. Josephine and Cullen joined us and the war council entered the throne room together. Between Skyhold’s repairs and foiling Corypheus’s plans, we had work to do.

Chapter Text

The throne room was in worse shape than I remembered. Piles of wooden beams were strewn across the stone floor. One of the metal chandeliers lay lopsided in the center of the walkway up to the disproportionately small red chair that served as a throne. A thick layer of dust covered everything. At least the stained glass windows on the far side of the room appeared to be intact, if grimy and in serious need of cleaning.

Cassandra took the Inquisition sword and headed off in the direction of the war room. Everything in its place, I suppose. It was a good thing that she’d already done some scouting before the ceremony. Dragging that sword around Skyhold and keeping it safe would have been difficult.

“So this is where it begins,” Cullen said without a shred of irony. He must really believe in the Inquisition’s chances if he’s ignoring the current state of the castle like that.

“It began in the courtyard,” Leliana corrected him. “This is where we turn that promise into action.”

“But what do we do?” Josephine asked with concern. “We know nothing about this Corypheus, except that he wanted your mark.”

That last comment was of course directed to me. I tried to ignore the small flare-up of energy from the Anchor. There was something about Skyhold that had awakened it – or perhaps it was just my own nerves. It probably was the castle, though. Solas created the Veil here, after all.

I turned to face the others. This I could handle.

“We also know that he’s one of the original Tevinter magisters who entered the Black City. Back then, he had intended to serve the Old Gods of Tevinter. Now, he considers himself a god, demanding fealty from those whose world he would destroy.” That was about all I felt safe in saying, so I slightly changed the subject. “Thanks to what I saw in Redcliffe, we do know a little bit about his plans.”

Leliana was quick to support me. “In that strange future you experienced, Empress Celene had been assassinated.”

Josephine looked troubled. “Imagine the chaos her death would cause. With his army –“

Cullen cut her off. “An army he’ll bolster with a massive force of demons,” he added with a scowl. “Or so the future tells it.”

“Corypheus could conquer the entire south of Thedas, god or no god,” Josephine finished. She looked even more worried than before.

Leliana sighed. “I’d feel better if I knew more about what we were dealing with.”

A new voice interrupted. “I know someone who could help with that.”

I tried not to look too annoyed as Varric joined us in the throne room. He was lucky Cassandra wasn’t here. She’d have already hit the roof. I frowned. In fact, shouldn’t she have known from interrogating him back in Kirkwall that Varric and Hawke had fought Corypheus? Maybe he’d fudged those details somehow. It wouldn’t’ve been the first time he’d lied.

He chuckled nervously when no one said anything. “Everyone acting all inspirational jogged my memory, so I sent a message to an old friend.” More like inadvertently guilted you into finally giving up Hawke. He’d known where she was the entire time. “She’s crossed paths with Corypheus before and may know more about what he’s doing. She can help.”

I tried not to gasp out loud. Wait. That means Hawke will be coming HERE. I knew this from the game, of course, but in all the excitement, I had forgotten that meant we’d be face to face. If this Hawke is indeed Allison, then things are going to get really weird, what with our similar features and all. And yet, that couldn’t be helped. Hawke was the key to dismantling Corypheus’s demon army. I would just have to deal with whatever weirdness ensued if it was Allison.

“Good. I look forward to meeting her,” I told Varric with forced casualness. This would have been the perfect opportunity to make him squirm by reminding him that I was familiar with his Tale of the Champion, but frankly, I wasn’t in the mood.

Varric looked hesitant anyway. “I’ll let you know when she arrives. We are out in the middle of nowhere, after all.” He scratched his nose nervously. “Nothing formal. Parading around might cause a fuss. It’s better for you to meet privately. On the battlements.” Leliana exchanged a knowing glance with Josephine at that. “Trust me. It’s complicated.”

After Varric left, Josephine stepped forward, her parchment in hand. “Well then,” she said. “We stand ready to move on both of these concerns.”

“On your order, Inquisitor,” Cullen said.

That gave me pause. “We don’t really have any leads on the demon army yet,” I pointed out. Hopefully Hawke will get here before Leliana decides to send agents out to hunt for clues. “Let’s see what we can do to save Empress Celene.”

Cullen and Josephine nodded their assent. Leliana still looked concerned.

“I know one thing,” she said at last. “If Varric has summoned who I think he has, Cassandra is going to kill him.”

“Probably,” I agreed.

Leliana gave me a look that clearly meant “and that would be a bad thing.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” I conceded. However, he WOULD rather deserve it.

Chapter Text

The next weeks were a whirlwind of activity as the Inquisition made Skyhold livable again. Walls were repaired, rubble was cleared, rooms were cleaned. The castle seemed bigger in person, likely due to in-game display limitations. Not just the inner circle got rooms – the indispensable Inquisition staff was also assigned quarters. That thankfully left fewer members of the Inquisition camped outside on the frozen river. Fiona’s mages and Ser Barris’s templars were each assigned a tower for a base. There were some minor arguments that broke out between the two factions, but for the most part, everyone was behaving themselves. That was a blessing – I really had no idea what I would do if there were any major conflicts between the groups. These were uncharted waters I’d waded into. I didn’t have the game as a cheat sheet for problem resolution.

I spotted more of the multiplayer characters trickling in as the Inquisition’s numbers grew. Our location was starting to become known as we told the rest of Thedas that we survived Haven. That was a key part of us receiving an invitation to the Winter Palace. Word was sent to Madame Zélie in Val Royeaux, summoning her to Skyhold to outfit the entirety of the inner circle for the occasion. I couldn’t even imagine how much gold Josephine had offered her for a job this large.

As for me, I was tied up with more formalities than I ever could have imagined. Juggling visiting dignitaries, giving approvals on operations in Skyhold, officially sentencing the prisoners we’d been dragging around with us since Haven – and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The hardest part was the lack of downtime. I didn’t even get to eat in peace, since the Inquisitor had to be present and visible during meals in the throne room. How can Josie dedicate herself to this kind of lifestyle? She must be perpetually exhausted. If that were true, she did a much better job of hiding it than I did.

Every night, I stumbled up the stairs to the Inquisitor’s bedroom in the tower not far from the throne room and collapsed into bed, too tired to dream. At least I had a few minutes in the morning to stand on one of the room’s balconies to admire the pinks and purples of the dawn. Definitely wouldn’t’ve been up early enough to have seen the sun rise at home.

What few spare moments I had were spent visiting Solas, Cole, or both, depending on where they were at any given moment. It was strange going for days without speaking to most of the inner circle outside an official capacity. I was the sort of player who constantly checked in with every member of the inner circle, even knowing that they wouldn’t have gotten new dialogue options yet. And now that they’re here and real, I don’t have the time to visit them at all. Nor the inclination, if truth be told. While they were all part of the Inquisition family, that didn’t mean that they were necessarily people I could relate to. And in some cases, even having some common ground isn’t enough to balance out our opposing viewpoints. Just because I wasn’t actively at war with Varric, it didn’t mean I wanted to hang out with him.

And yet, I wanted to protect everyone as best I could. Having meta knowledge of this world had its side benefits. I had very quietly started to work on solving the inner circle’s personal problems – some of them, anyway. A few required some buildup time, as they depended on outside factors. In the meantime, I did what I could for the others.

My first priority had been tipping off Josephine about the assassin’s contract that an old rival family had purchased a century ago from the House of Repose. She needed to get the slow political wheels in motion in order to reinstate the Du Paraquettes as nobility. Only then could they cancel the hit on her family. I pretended to have intercepted a message from one of Leliana’s ravens on the grounds that I didn’t want Leliana to take matters into her own hands. Josie seemed to buy that explanation, which was a great relief – especially because that truly was what Leli would have done. Why shed innocent blood if it wasn’t absolutely necessary? As it turned out, I actually did have to block a report from one of Leliana’s agents to cover my tracks.

I’d also sent Iron Bull and the Chargers to investigate Therinfal Redoubt for any loose ends. I knew they could destroy the envy demon who had impersonated Lord Seeker Lucius. After that, they were to put their beast-hunting skills to work in the Exalted Plains obtaining the heart of a snowy wyvern. I gave them no explanation, beyond it being important. I didn’t even know if Vivienne had begun preparing the potion to try and save her beloved Bastien’s life, but she would definitely need that heart to complete it. While I hadn’t quite worked out the details, I figured I could basically hand it to her and say “hey, I noticed you were looking at potions that needed this one ingredient – here you go!” …it was a work in progress.

Today, I intended to help steer Cassandra’s investigation into the fates of Lord Seeker Lucius and the other Seekers toward Caer Oswin. Maybe if she got there sooner, she could save the life of her former protégé, Daniel. Also on my agenda: possibly getting Cullen to talk to me about his quitting lyrium cold turkey. I wanted him to know that he had support. It couldn’t be easy for him to see the other templars around, as they were still taking lyrium.

With such a heavy agenda ahead of me, I didn’t really want to start the day yet. Maybe I’ll go check in with Solas before meeting with the war council. I hurried downstairs, only slowing my pace when peeking into the throne room. What luck! The room was still empty. I slipped through undetected. Thank the Maker for that. All I needed was for Cass to drag me off to the war room by my ear.

It was still a little strange to me to find people in different locations than they usually were in the game. Not that it was unexpected – just a change from what I was used to. Fortunately, Solas was indeed painting in the atrium. He had already completed the first panel depicting the explosion at the Conclave and was working on the second, which showed two wolves heralding the formation of the Inquisition. The painting had taken on new meaning for me, since I’d actually gone through the events firsthand. I didn’t want to startle Solas into making a mistake, so I watched him paint for a while. He lowered his brush when he saw me.

“Inquisitor.” I was once again grateful that he no longer had to formally address me as “Herald.” Inquisitor seemed…softer, somehow.

“It’s really coming along nicely,” I said, nodding at the fresco behind him. “I do love the sentry wolves in particular.” I wasn’t just saying that because of their significance to Solas and his wolf symbolism – it genuinely was my favorite fresco panel in the rotunda.

Solas smiled, revealing little more than polite acknowledgment. “Thank you. I was unaware that you liked wolves.”

Just one, mostly. “I’m really more of a bear person,” I admitted, automatically reaching up to pat Rufus at my neck. “But I do have a growing fondness for wolves.” Which is entirely your fault.

Solas peered at me with a curious expression. “Let us find a more interesting place to talk.”

I nodded my agreement and we headed outside through the throne room. It wasn’t the first time he’d made such a suggestion. I would never understand why Solas seemed to think so little of the rotunda. Maybe he just prefers being outside. Or maybe I was biased in finding the rotunda appealing because I was used to seeing him there in the game.

The rosy fingers of dawn crept across the surprisingly empty courtyard. Normally, the day would have already started for much of the Inquisition. But no one was around. The vendor stalls stood empty. There were no guards by the gate. There weren’t even any people passing through. Where is everyone?

I stopped in my tracks as Solas turned toward the front gate. “We’re going out there? Cassandra would kill you for endangering me, then kill me herself for going along with you.”

Solas laughed. “I would not dare risk angering Cassandra. Do not trouble yourself. We will not go anywhere that would endanger either of us.”

He wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true. I’m too valuable to put at risk. “All right,” I said aloud. “It’s not like she didn’t let us lead the way over here in the first place.”

We set off across the bridge, speculating about what punishments Cass would dole out if she did catch us. Or at least that’s what I was doing. Solas seemed content to let me throw out ideas while he occasionally chipped in with a quip of his own. As usual, I noted with a grin.

As we passed a particularly large snowdrift, some familiar wooden buildings came into view. My eyes went wide.

“Haven!” I breathed. It stood intact, as though Corypheus’s attack had never happened. It was only then that I realized I didn’t feel a true chill in the air around me – this was muted, a memory of the cold. We’re in the Fade! Even as my heart raced, I willed myself not to wake up. I wasn’t ready for the Fade date, but here we were.

“Haven is familiar,” Solas told me. “It will always be important to you.”

I let out a small, sheepish laugh. “Yes.” You have no idea.

Chapter Text

We wandered around Fade-Haven for a while. Solas didn’t let on that we were in the Fade, but I didn’t expect him to. That didn’t happen until the end of the conversation in the game. I wasn’t sure why he had brought us here, but he must have had a reason for doing so. I certainly hadn’t said whatever the Inquisitor usually did in game to prompt this conversation.

Our travels had brought us to the cell I’d woken up in. “I sat beside you while you slept, studying the Anchor,” Solas told me.

“I know.” What the fuck, you’re not Harrison Ford. “Thank you.” It dawned on me how miserable that entire experience must have been. Sitting on the cold stone floor of a dungeon with someone who might never wake up, knowing that they’re your only chance to fix things. “I truly mean that,” I added aloud. I couldn’t elaborate using information I wasn’t supposed to have.

“You were a mystery,” he offered as explanation. “You still are.”

My chest tightened as panic set in. Hopefully not too much of a mystery. The last thing I needed was for Solas to keep digging at my past.

Solas went on. I got the feeling he’d wanted to say all of this for a while. “I ran every test I could imagine, searched the Fade – yet found nothing.” I assumed that applied only to the Anchor. Some of the tension went out of my heart. “Cassandra suspected duplicity. She threatened to have me executed as an apostate if I didn’t produce results.” He sounded more amused than upset by the memory, which took the serious edge off the threat.

“That figures!” I chuckled. “She must have liked you, though – she didn’t stab you in the book.” As much as Cassandra enjoyed reading Varric’s writing, she sure as hell didn’t enjoy working with him.

Solas laughed. “Yes,” he agreed. I wondered if that meant he’d heard about her interrogation of Varric in Kirkwall.

We headed back outside. My heart was pounding so loudly with nerves, I was certain Solas could hear it. Where is he going with this? I knew how this scene could end – how I hoped it to end, even though it wouldn’t – but there was a reason he’d brought me here.

“You were never going to wake up,” Solas continued. “How could you? A mortal sent physically through the Fade.” I avoided his eyes. He was being completely honest and I knew it. This was his exact thought process. But he can’t know I know… “I was frustrated, frightened. The spirits I might have consulted had been driven away by the Breach. Although I wished to help, I had no faith in Cassandra, nor she in me. I was ready to flee.”

Solas stopped walking. My heart froze as our eyes met. All I saw was how hard this was for him to admit. He didn’t seem to have noticed how nervous I was. Good. I’m just ridiculously paranoid.

“But you didn’t,” I pointed out. “You stayed.”

“I did.”

“And Cassandra didn’t execute you.”

Solas chuckled. “Evidently not.” He grew serious again. “I told myself ‘one more attempt to seal the rifts.’ I tried and failed. No ordinary magic would affect them.”

I frowned. I’d forgotten that part. He didn’t have access to his higher forms of magic, I reminded myself. He still doesn’t. Even over a year after waking up, he’s too weak to use those powers.

“I watched the rifts expand and grow, resigned myself to flee. And then –“ Solas broke off, turning to me. And then I showed up. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.” He’d said that months ago, when we first met. Hearing him echo those words gave me chills. “You had sealed it with a gesture. And right then, I felt the whole world change.”

Of all the conversations I’d ever had with Solas in Inquisition, this was the one I remembered the most vividly. This section of it in particular I could quote word for word – but only the romance path. It was the only version that stuck, the only one that was real to me. No other response would come to mind, even though I knew Solas had no interest in humans.

“Felt the whole world change, huh?” I asked lightly, letting a teasing grin creep across my face. If I didn’t take it seriously, then I wouldn’t get hurt – or at least that’s what I tried to tell myself.

Solas didn’t miss a beat. “A figure of speech.”

I laughed. That made it easier to keep my emotional distance. “I’m aware of the metaphor. I’m more interested in ‘felt.’”

Something in Solas’s demeanor softened. “You change…everything.”

My joking smile melted away. He…DOES care? Even though I’m a human? It didn’t seem possible. Or at least likely. And yet, here we were.

What am I supposed to do with this? Pursuing a relationship with Solas would be the riskiest thing I could possibly do while in Thedas. And even if I managed not to be discovered, what would become of him once I left? I had a moral right not to get either of us involved in a relationship that wouldn’t end well.

And yet, that wasn’t guaranteed to happen. Look at all the good I’d done already, all the changes I’d made. How could I turn down this opportunity?

I couldn’t.

“I’m gonna try,” I murmured as I kissed him. This wasn’t self-indulgence. It was a promise. I would find a way to make this seemingly impossible thing happen. Not that he’ll necessarily get all that from the kiss, but that’s what I’m putting into it.

That was when it dawned on me that he was holding back. My blood turned to ice. Had I misread what he’d said? Maybe I was only seeing what I wanted to see.

I backed away from him immediately. Solas looked completely flustered. Guilt swept over me. Just because you can kiss him in game, that doesn’t make it any more implicitly consensual here. “I’m sor–“

In one fluid motion, Solas swept me into a second, deeper kiss. He didn’t hold back this time. Any doubts I’d had about how he felt melted away. This is real. I met his intensity head-on, and for a few glorious moments, everything made sense.

But then Solas pulled back, guilt clouding his features. The realities of the situation started to sink in. We are in such trouble.

“We shouldn’t,” he said. “It isn’t right, not even here.”

Who are you trying to convince, vhenan? I had no right to even think that question, considering my own guilt.

“I won’t tell the spirits if you won’t,” I quipped, deflecting my emotional turmoil.

He laughed, despite the lingering worry in his eyes. He didn’t seem surprised that I knew we were in the Fade. What does that MEAN? “We can discuss this further after you –”

“Wait!” I wasn’t ready yet.

“Wake up.”

I jolted awake, still in my quarters. Dammit, vhenan!

Chapter Text

I leapt out of bed and briefly tried to make myself look more presentable before I ran downstairs. “Ran” was too strong a word. I needed to collect myself before I spoke with Solas.

This was both the best and worst thing that could have possibly happened. Despite everything, our feelings were actually mutual – an outcome I had only anticipated in my wildest dreams. No wonder this happened in the Fade.

But the risks were ridiculous, both emotionally and practically. Solas would have to go on hiding his true self, only it would be harder because he had allowed himself to care about me. I would have to continue pretending that I didn’t know the truth, all the while still concealing my own origin – which would be even more complicated now that I’d given into my feelings once. In what world did I ever think this could work out well?

This time, there were people in the throne room as I cut through. Though I didn’t see Cassandra yet, I wouldn’t have much time before responsibilities dragged me away from Solas again. Dammit dammit dammit.

Solas was already waiting in the rotunda when I arrived. We’d had to travel roughly the same distance to get here, but I had lost time thinking. Much to my surprise, the fresco panel with the wolves was only outlined rather than filled in like it had been in the Fade. Guess that confirms one of my theories – Solas does do his outlining in dreams.

Our eyes met. Solas glanced upwards. I followed his gaze. There was already activity on the upper levels. We exchanged nods and headed for the side door that led outside.

“Sleep well?” Solas murmured as he held the door open for me. My face flushed instantly. I whirled around. His self-satisfied grin was infectious.

“As though you don’t already know!” I kept my voice low, but couldn’t help laughing.

Solas did too, but then he grew serious. He glanced around to make sure we were alone. I could hear the vendors setting up in the courtyard below us, but no one else was up here.

“I apologize,” Solas said in a low voice. “The kiss was...impulsive and ill-considered and I should not have encouraged it.”

I made a face at him. “To be fair, you did a lot more than ‘encourage’ it.” There was a flash of something – guilt? – in his eyes. I sighed. “That said, you’re right. It was reckless, all the way around. But it happened.” That same optimistic impulse struck me again. “And I’m glad it happened. I’d rather not live with regrets and might-have-beens.” Solas looked surprised by my forcefulness, even in the hushed tones we were using. “And based on your reaction before, I’m pretty sure you feel the same way.” Did he flinch? Or was that a trick of the light? “I know, I know. It’s horribly inconvenient timing and a terrible idea on a ridiculous number of practical levels. But when it comes to matters of the heart, I’ve always had trouble doing the wise thing.”

I don’t think Solas expected me to own all of this. Had I not gone through most of this before, I probably couldn’t have done it. I certainly could never have been this bold. Knowing the sincerity of Solas’s feelings helped.

“It has been a long time,” he said at last. “And things have always been easier for me in the Fade.” Solas’s brow creased. “I am not certain this is the best idea. It could lead to trouble.”

Too late. “Well, it’s up to you whether you’re willing to go for it.” That was when the self-awareness hit. “I know I’m coming on strong, but I really don’t want to pressure you into anything.”

“You’re not,” Solas reassured me. “I am perhaps pressuring myself.”

I nodded. Good. Not that he was pressuring himself, of course, but that I wasn’t forcing him into anything. “All right. You know how I feel. I won’t drag you into anything against your will, no matter how you feel about me or how I feel about you.”

A series of conflicting emotions flickered across Solas’s face. “I – maybe, yes. If I could take a little time to think. There are…considerations.”

Well, at least one of us is going to be thinking this through. I was utterly appalled by my own lack of restraint. And yet, I’d meant it when I’d said I would prefer not to live with regrets.

“Of course! Take all the time you need.”

A weight visibly lifted from Solas’s shoulders. “Thank you. I am not often thrown by things that happen in dreams.”

I grinned. “That’s just ‘cause I haven’t been in them before.”

Chapter Text

In the days that followed, I gave Solas the space he needed, both in and out of the Fade. I was surprised I was able to return to the realm of dreams so easily. Maybe I was starting to get used to the Inquisitor’s workload so I wasn’t as completely exhausted at the end of the day. Or maybe I’d been accessing the Fade the entire time I’d been in Thedas, but couldn’t remember it afterwards. At any rate, I was getting better about checking to make sure I was truly awake before leaving my room. Taking off my glasses turned out to be a pretty good indicator, since I could see the same with and without them in the Fade.

It was difficult avoiding Solas, since all I wanted to do was have things settled one way or the other, but I had to behave myself. It was bad enough that I’d been so irresponsible in the first place. And yet, I couldn’t regret any of it, despite having no long-term plan for where things would go. At least we’ll have each other in some capacity, assuming that Solas decides to go along with this wild journey. I was painfully aware that Solas couldn’t make a fully informed decision without knowing the truth about me, much like how Lavellan dove into a relationship with him without knowing who he really was. Which means that since I DO know who he is, I have the advantage…which essentially makes me him in this scenario. Wonderful. It was all way too meta for me.

Poor Cole fielded my jumble of emotions like a champ. After he declared “you’re happier now!” I became fully convinced that he was better at interpreting my feelings than I was. As far as I could tell, I was straight up terrified by either outcome at this point and just wanted closure. But in my heart, I knew he wasn’t wrong. I had put myself out there and was happier for at least trying.

To say I was preoccupied was an understatement. While there was – thankfully – a lot of Inquisition business that helped keep my mind off Solas, it never lasted for long.

So when Josephine told me someone wanted to see me privately, I wasn’t expecting it to be Varric. He was waiting for me on the battlements, presumably with Hawke.

I definitely wasn’t ready. What if it really was Allison? We looked nearly identical! But the Hero of Ferelden wasn’t my Aeducan, so why should I assume this Hawke would be Allison? The only explanation I could come up with was that on some level, I wanted it to be her. She and Tahni were my favorites in part because they were so similar to me. I couldn’t even imagine what actually meeting either of them would be like. Of course, if Hawke was Allison, then what had happened to Tahni, since I’d effectively replaced her as Inquisitor? I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer to that.

These questions plagued me as I climbed the stairs to the battlements. Not for the first time, I wished I could turn my brain off. I would find out the truth soon enough – there was no need to keep rehashing the possibilities.

At last, I spotted Varric. He was alone, but I assumed that was only because he was keeping Hawke hidden from Cassandra. Sure enough, not ten seconds after I reached him, I heard footsteps behind me. I took a deep breath and turned.

Blonde. She was blonde like me and like Allison. But that was where the similarities ended. Hawke’s features were much more pointed, whereas Allison’s and mine were rounded. Hawke’s pale gray eyes and light complexion reminded me of my first Hawke, Willow. But it wasn’t her either – this Hawke had no facial tattoos. Relief and a tinge of disappointment flooded through me. That answers that.

Varric broke the silence. “Inquisitor, meet Marion Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall.”

“Though I don’t use that title much anymore,” Marion added.

Varric continued his introductions without acknowledging the aside. I suppose it doesn’t fit his pre-scripted narrative. “Hawke, the Inquisitor.” I noticed he didn’t call me by name. Undoubtedly intentional. You know there’s no love lost between you and Varric. He turned back to Marion. “I figured you might have some friendly advice about Corypheus. You and I did fight him, after all.” Not on my playthrough, you didn’t. I glared after him as he walked off, leaving Marion and me to talk.

Marion leaned over the battlements, much like she had in the game. Unlike the in-game Inquisitor, I followed suit rather than hanging back. We wouldn’t have to raise our voices to be heard this way.

“You’ve already dropped half a mountain on the bastard,” Marion told me. “I’m sure anything I can tell you pales in comparison.”

“I dunno about that. You fought him in close quarters and lived.” Technically, Hawke and company had actually killed Corypheus, but I wasn’t 100% certain that Varric had put that in his book.

“Fought and killed,” Marion corrected. I liked her already. “The Grey Wardens were holding him, and he somehow used his connection to the darkspawn to influence them.”

“Corypheus got into their heads,” Varric chipped in, waving the bottle he carried for emphasis. Apparently he hadn’t wandered off as far as I’d thought. “Messed with their minds. Turned them against each other.”

That wasn’t exactly what had happened. The only Warden who had wanted to stop Corypheus was Larius, who was so corrupted by the Blight that he was practically a darkspawn himself. Janeka and her active group of Wardens were the ones under Corypheus’s influence. He’d tempted them with the idea of harnessing his powers and using them against the darkspawn. Of course, that plan involved freeing him first – convenient. I bit my lip. Don’t contradict Varric. You aren’t supposed to know this.

Marion frowned. “If the Wardens have disappeared, they could have fallen under his control again.”

Which is exactly what happened. “And that would definitely be a bad thing,” I agreed.

“Good thing I didn’t come this far just to give you bad news,” Marion replied. “I’ve got an acquaintance in the Wardens. He was investigating something unrelated for me.” My back stiffened. Doesn’t she usually refer to her contact as a friend? “His name is Loghain. The last time we spoke, he was worried about corruption in the Warden ranks. Since then, nothing.”

I tried to keep my confusion off my face. After having seen Alistair was king, I knew he wouldn’t be Hawke’s contact. But I had figured it would be Stroud, the Warden who Hawke met in DA2. Sereda must have done some serious negotiating if she was able to convince Alistair both to marry her AND allow her to spare Loghain. But that didn’t explain how Loghain and Marion had met. I have so many questions.

Varric saved me from having to respond. “Corypheus would certainly count as corruption in the ranks. Did Loghain disappear with them?”

“No, he told me he’d be hiding in an old smuggler’s cave near Crestwood.”

I couldn’t hold back my curiosity any longer. “What was Loghain looking into for you, if you don’t mind my asking? Maybe it actually is related.”

Marion shrugged. “The templars in Kirkwall were using a strange form of lyrium. It was red. I’d hoped the Wardens could tell me more about it.”

Shit. “Oh good. Corypheus does indeed have templars under his command who have been corrupted by red lyrium,” I told her.

Concern furrowed her brow. “Hopefully Loghain will know more.”

I nodded. “Let’s hope so.” Since I can’t tell anyone what I know about red lyrium. “Thank you for coming all the way out here to help, by the way. We couldn’t do this without you.”

“I’m doing this as much for myself as for you,” Marion admitted. “Corypheus is my responsibility. I thought I’d killed him before. This time, I’ll make sure of it.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “He won’t be escaping death again.”

Marion looked visibly relieved. “Good.” She pulled a letter out of the pouch at her side. I recognized the Starkhaven seal immediately. “In unrelated business, this is from my husband, Prince Sebastian Vael of Starkhaven. I believe you two have communicated before.” I nodded. “Kirkwall was our home for years and it breaks our hearts that it’s still in chaos since the chantry exploded.” That’s a diplomatic way of putting it. “We would like to request the Inquisition’s help in rebuilding Kirkwall. The particulars are all in that letter, but I wanted you to know how personal a project this is for us. Sebastian would’ve dropped everything to come with me and plead our case in person, but he was still needed in Starkhaven.”

I tried very hard not to laugh at the disgust on Varric’s face. I’m sure it killed him to know that Sebastian wanted to do something positive for Kirkwall. Even though the former Chantry brother had lived almost half his life in Kirkwall, Varric still considered him an outsider. So petty.

“While I can’t speak for the rest of the council, you certainly have my backing. I’ll see what I can do to support this project. It’s appalling that Kirkwall is still a mess this many years after the fact.”

Gratitude flooded Marion’s face. “Thank you. Just leave my name out of the official proceedings, will you? I’m staying in hiding until Thedas is stable again and people return to quietly fearing mages instead of actively trying to kill them for existing.” She conjured a small flame in her hand and studied it for a moment before dismissing it. “Until then, we’re not ‘officially’ married.”

“Of course.” I grinned. Allison would have done that too. “I can already tell that I’ll enjoy working with both of you.”

The gagging sound Varric made at that comment was definitely not my imagination. Get wrecked, Varric.

Chapter Text

“You knew where Hawke was all along!” Cassandra shouted as she towered over Varric, her voice echoing off the walls of the war room. I had hoped that if Cass heard about Hawke firsthand, we could avoid the violent part of this confrontation. Guess not. Varric had wisely put the war table between the two of them, but that wasn’t going to stop her for long. The rest of the council can’t get here fast enough.

“You’re damned right I did!” Varric yelled back defiantly.

“You conniving little shit!” Cassandra took a swing at him, but Varric ducked out of the way.

“Enough!” I wasn’t much taller than Varric, but I moved in front of him anyway. Maker’s balls, I can’t believe I’m actually defending him.

Cassandra was as surprised as I was and turned her anger on me. “You’re taking his side?”

“I’m not taking anyone’s side,” I told her. “Kicking his ass isn’t going to help any.”

Cass wasn’t going to let it go that easily. She glared at Varric. “We needed someone to lead this Inquisition. The Hero of Ferelden could not. As Queen of Ferelden, she had an obligation to her people.” I bit my tongue about how her people were also in Orzammar. Sereda might have cut ties with them, for all I knew. “So we looked for Hawke, but she was gone. Vanished without a trace.” She sneered at Varric. “But you knew where she was.”

Varric pointed at me. “The Inquisition has a leader!”

“Hawke would have been at the Conclave,” Cassandra spat out. “If anyone could have saved Most Holy…”

It was a good thing I knew Divine Justina’s fate was unavoidable based on how the events at the Conclave unfolded or I might have taken that personally. Even though I couldn’t actually remember what happened in my own memories, I could recall the game accurately. The Conclave exploded when the Inquisitor-to-be picked up the orb. They…and I…only lived because the mark threw us into the Fade.

It was difficult addressing both of them from my position, but I did my best. “Look, we can’t change the past. All we can do is work together to fix the future.”

Cassandra’s anger gave way to distress. “So I must accept…what, that the Maker wanted all this to happen?” Her voice broke. “That He…that He…” She trailed off. I stepped forward to comfort her, but her face hardened. “Varric is a liar, Inquisitor. A snake. Even after the Conclave, when we needed Hawke most, Varric kept her secret.”

“She’s with us now,” Varric replied stubbornly. “We’re on the same side.”

Cassandra waved him off dismissively. “We all know whose side you’re on, Varric. It will never be the Inquisition’s.”

This was giving me a migraine. “Of course he’s a liar,” I told her wearily. “That’s one of the few things he’s completely truthful about. But attacking him isn’t going to change a damned thing.”

Varric crossed his arms. “Heh, exactly.” Filed under things I never expected us to agree on.

Cassandra sighed. “He did bring Hawke,” she conceded. “Late, perhaps, but Hawke is with us. As are you.”

I hadn’t even realized I had gotten so tense until the ache in my chest lessened. Guess I had taken it personally that Cass wanted Hawke as Inquisitor after all.

I nodded my acknowledgment, then turned to Varric. “You don’t need to stay for the meeting if you don’t want to. I just figured I should be here when Cass found out.”

I’d never seen Varric look so shocked before. “You never cease to amaze me, Inquisitor.” He started to leave, then paused. “Thanks. For everything.” Only then did he go.

“I…believed him.” Cassandra sounded completely defeated, now that Varric was gone. “He spun his story for me and I swallowed it. If I’d just explained what was at stake, if I’d just made him understand…but I didn’t, did I? I didn’t explain why we needed Hawke.” She leaned heavily on the war table. “I’m such a fool.”

Cass always was her own harshest critic. “You did what you thought was best at the time,” I told her. “He’s a known liar. You were just trying to ensure that he didn’t lie to you.”

She didn’t look reassured. “Honestly, Hawke might not even have agreed to become Inquisitor. She supported the mage rebellion, after all.” Because she’s a mage. But bringing that up didn’t seem wise at the moment. “She wouldn’t have trusted me for a second.” Cass frowned. “But this isn’t about Hawke or even Varric – not truly. I should have been more careful. I should have been smarter.” She shook her head. “I don’t deserve to be here.”

“That’s ridiculous!” My reaction burst out without filter. “At least half the Inquisition wouldn’t be here in the first place if not for you,” I quickly clarified. “We all make mistakes. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

“Not hard enough, I think.” The edge had gone out of her voice.

I ignored my internal scream of frustration. “We can always wonder about what might have been if we’d done things differently. All we can do is take what we’ve learned and apply it to the next similar situation.”

“I suppose you are right,” she replied. “But let us hope that in this case there is never another similar situation.”

I had to give her that one. “That’s fair.”

She paused. “I want you to know I have no regrets. Maybe if we’d found Hawke, the Maker wouldn’t have needed to send you. But He did.” Cassandra looked me square in the eyes. “I don’t know what’s to come, but you’re more than I could have hoped for.”

Cassandra had no idea how many questions she’d raised within me. For all I knew, that could be why I was here in Thedas. I shoved all of that aside and took the comment in the genuine spirit it was intended. “Thanks, Cass.”

Chapter Text

With all the drama beforehand, I was exhausted by the end of the war council meeting. What I wanted to do was take a nap and recharge. Unfortunately, there was still work to be done. So instead, I found myself bringing Solas up to speed on the Inquisition’s next move.

“Hawke’s going and I’m going, but the council left choosing the rest of the Crestwood team up to me,” I told him as I paced around the rotunda, ticking off the options on my fingers as I went. “Blackwall’s an obvious choice, since he’s a Warden.” Or at least appears to be one. “There have been reports of undead and spirits in the lake, so it makes sense to bring Cole along as well. I’d like you to round out the group. Between you and Cole, we should be able to avoid any accidental conflict with spirits.” I hesitated. “Plus, well…I know Cole’s capable of taking care of himself, but I worry about him anyway. I would appreciate your keeping an eye on him in case I’m unable to do so because of Inquisitorial responsibilities.”

Solas had been observing me curiously the entire time. “You have chosen your team wisely. For my part, I would be happy to provide whatever assistance I can.”

I sighed in relief. Not that I had exactly expected him to refuse. I just wasn’t sure if he would object to traveling such a great distance together, since our relationship was currently in a delicate state. Having his approval of the team was a bonus. “Thank you. I mean, there’s no guarantee that we’ll actually encounter any of the spirits, but if we do, I want to be prepared. We should set out next week, weather allowing.”

There was so much to do before the trip to Crestwood. Visiting dignitaries were starting to make the trek out to our remote fortress and new recruits were pouring in every day. The agents Leliana had pursuing information on both of Corypheus’s lieutenants reported back with leads. That meant long meetings with artificer Dagna, the perky redheaded dwarf who had studied magic at Ferelden’s Circle. She’d always been one of my favorite side characters. Since dwarves couldn’t use magic, her fascination with it resonated with me. You don’t need to be able to do something yourself to be passionate about it or to become book-smart on the subject. Not that defeating Samson and Calpernia would necessarily require magic in the traditional sense, as we’d discussed at the aforementioned meetings. But Dagna was good at puzzling such things out.

On top of everything else, the inner circle needed to be outfitted properly for the upcoming ball at Halamshiral, even though the event was months away. Madame Zélie had already taken all the necessary measurements to get the creation process started, but there was still the question of design. At least the Inquisition had a team of experts on the Grand Game to help keep things moving while I was gone.

I kept debating whether I should tell Vivienne about the snowy wyvern heart. If she hadn’t started preparing the potion yet, she’d need time to do so. But then there was the question of how I came to know that she needed it in the first place. If she pressed me for details, I had no actual answers for her. I couldn’t use Leliana as a source too often. Someone was bound to ask the spymaster about these messages I was “intercepting” if I did. And yet, Vivienne had to know.

The day before we were to leave, I finally resolved myself to tell her. But Vivienne found me first and ushered me to the courtyard. I couldn’t imagine what she had in mind until I saw it.

There stood a carriage that looked like it belonged at the Winter Palace. It was enclosed to protect its occupants both from the elements and from being identified. Or easily shot at.

“I hope you like it, my dear,” Vivienne told me. “I took the liberty of diverting some of the Inquisition’s funds toward this project months ago – with Ambassador Montilyet’s permission, of course.”

“You’ve truly outdone yourself, Madame Vivienne.” I let the awe creep into my voice. This was truly an impressive display of thoughtful solidarity, considering how critical she’d been of my cart.

“Not at all, my dear,” she assured me breezily. “I was merely responsible for the commission. We can’t have the leader of the Inquisition traipsing about the countryside like a commoner.”

But I wasn’t Inquisitor months ago. Vivienne must have suspected that the Herald of Andraste would eventually end up leading the Inquisition – or perhaps she simply saw the need for the Herald to travel in style. Knowing Vivienne’s foresight, probably the former.

“Either way, I’m grateful for your thoughtfulness and practicality.”

Vivienne gave me one of her charming smiles. “Now, you said you were looking for me? My attention is yours.”

I balked slightly at the sudden conversation shift. It felt insensitive to bring up such a serious situation out of the blue with Vivienne’s guard apparently down. But she HAS to know.

“I got wind of a vague rumor that you needed a snowy wyvern heart for an alchemic potion of some sort.” If Vivienne was more than mildly curious as to how I knew that – and I’m certain she was – it didn’t show on her face. “So I assigned Iron Bull and the Chargers to obtain one for you after they finish investigating Therinfal Redoubt. They don’t know who they’re getting the heart for, of course. I tried to handle the situation with the utmost discretion, since this is – I assume – for a private matter.”

“You continue to be an excellent judge of character, my dear Inquisitor. I had intended to ask you for the Chargers’ assistance in this matter, but it seems that is now unnecessary. Tell me, do the Chargers know where its lair is?”

Oh. Shit. “Not exactly,” I admitted. “All I know is that there’s one in the Exalted Plains.”

Vivienne smiled, an enigmatic look in her eyes. She must have seen the panic in mine. “No need to fret, my dear. The Chargers need to return to Skyhold before they set out to find the wyvern, yes? I will make sure they know where to find the beast.”

I let myself slump visibly with relief. “Oh good. I’m glad they won’t have to search as hard for it.”

“I do appreciate your efforts to help,” Vivienne assured me. “Though I must confess curiosity as to how you knew such a service was required.”

Ah, there it is. I shrugged as innocently as I could. “An Inquisitor never reveals her sources. Suffice to say that you don’t need to worry about this information falling into the wrong hands.”

Much to my surprise, Vivienne nodded. “Good. Perhaps you will survive the dangers of Halamshiral after all.”

Chapter Text

For all of the carriage’s benefits, I missed being able to see my surroundings. Sure, there were windows on the doors, but I had to lean forward to look out. That led to a sore back far more quickly than I’d hoped.

So I spent a great deal of the week-long journey to Crestwood thinking. I’d been on such overload from a constant onslaught of Inquisition business that I hadn’t really had time to process anything that had happened with Solas.

Not much had actually changed between us thus far. Solas hadn’t yet given me an answer, so I’d tried to remain patient by keeping my thoughts elsewhere. If I didn’t, I knew I’d pester him to make a decision – and that might doom our already star-crossed relationship before it could truly begin.

At least we were slightly less guarded with our feelings for each other, though there were still a great many walls separating our truest selves. I hoped it wasn’t as obvious to Solas as it was to me that we were both hiding our pasts from each other.

Not that we were the only ones with secrets – literally every person in the main party was hiding something. Blackwall was concealing his true identity every bit as much as Solas and I were. Marion was hiding her secret marriage to Sebastian. And in my infinite wisdom, I’d brought Cole the mind-reading spirit along. Brilliant.

But Cole had been behaving himself, at least as much as one could expect him to. I’d advised him to respect people’s privacy and only help them if they gave him permission. Overall, that seemed to be working, but since Cole could make people forget he existed, it was difficult to say whether I’d missed any intrusions on his part.

As for my own thoughts, I remained a little paranoid about Cole sifting through them when I wasn’t expecting it. Of course, thinking about it made it even more awkward, since Cole could read that too. Perhaps the increased sense of security I felt in Skyhold was false. Either way, being essentially trapped on the road with him worried me more than I’d anticipated. I did trust him, but only to a point. He couldn’t help accessing people’s minds when they were completely open to him. I couldn’t blame him for the compulsion, but it did leave me feeling exposed emotionally.

…perhaps I was more than just “a little” paranoid.

At any rate, caution gave way to a different sort of bravery. It seemed safer to seek out Solas in the Fade than to try to have a personal conversation with Cole hanging around. And so I dreamt my way into the Fade during our third night on the road.

I found Solas staring into the echo of the campfire that burned in the Fade. Almost as though we’d planned it. He so often seemed to know what I was thinking before I did.

Solas didn’t seem surprised to see me either. “Good evening,” he said, his expression softening.

I saw that. Not that I blamed him. If I had better control over the Anchor, I too would brood in the Fade.

“Hey.” I always felt painfully informal next to Solas as it was – I figured I might as well embrace my calling. “Couldn’t sleep?” I asked with intentional irony. Solas let out a vague sound of amusement. I moved toward him, then paused. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

That comment earned me a raised eyebrow. “It is no bother.”

Only then did I sit by him – not too close, but not very far away either.

“You sure? Cause I totally understand needing space to think.” Great, now I sound like I’m prying. “I’d come here to do that myself more often if I could control the mark better.”

Solas studied me curiously. “You wish to enter the Fade physically?”

My blood ran cold. That was an extremely dangerous subject on a number of levels. “I mean, we’re not there physically right now, right? I just want to be able to do this at will.”

Did he relax at that assurance or was it just me? “Ah, I see.” Just me. He wasn’t volunteering anything more.

“Can you teach me?” I blurted out. Too blunt. “Assuming that such a thing could be taught. I mean, how do mages normally learn about the Fade?”

Solas didn’t miss a beat. “That entirely depends on the mage in question. The experiences of a Circle mage differ vastly from those of a mage born in Tevinter or one born under the Qun.”

“What about your experience?” The question was out of my mouth before I realized its deeply personal nature. Wonderful, now I’ve put him on the spot. But I really did want to know. Besides, I couldn’t exactly unsay it.

There was a pause as Solas considered his answer. “Much of my knowledge about the Fade comes from my own explorations,” he told me. “Few mages are drawn to travel its depths as I have. The untold wonders of memories that have lain undisturbed for years hold no interest for them.”

“How do you even get to these places? I know you travel in order to find new places to dream, but how do you access these hidden corners once you’re there?”

A slow smile crept across Solas’s face. “Face forward,” he instructed. “Close your eyes.” I did as he asked, suppressing the urge to ask why. “Relax. Empty your mind.”

Much as I tried, I could still sense Solas next to me. Knowing he was watching me made it impossible for me to detach myself from my surroundings. Besides, we were already in the Fade. How would this even work?

Solas seemed to pick up on my inability to focus. “Come, follow me.”

I opened my eyes and took his extended hand as he helped me to my feet. Solas hesitated before releasing mine. Always pulling back, I noted with a pang of sadness. Though he’s reaching out in the first place too.

Solas and I walked just outside the camp, finding a grassy spot to lie on comfortably. I made a note to see if this location existed outside the Fade or if Solas had created it for our convenience.

“Now relax,” Solas told me. I closed my eyes again. “Focus on the sound of my voice.”

This was better. Something about lying down made it easier to make everything around me fade away. I was still aware that Solas was close – closer than before; I could feel his warmth from here – but he too was dissolving into the landscape of nothingness around me.

“Let the memories of this place find you. The sun on your face. The breeze in your hair.” I felt the temperature shift around me.  The grass beneath me grew longer. “Look.”

I opened my eyes again and stood up to get a better view of our surroundings. The area around us had transformed to a summer’s day. A family of fennecs ran across the field. Three human children chased after them, laughing with reckless abandon. Their parents had lagged behind, but continued their pursuit. None of them acknowledged me or Solas, who was once again by my side.

“How long ago was this?” I whispered, as though my voice would break the illusion of the memory.

“Judging by the appearance of their clothes, perhaps five summers ago. Not all memories come from the deepest parts of the Fade.”

“That’s true.” I couldn’t help being a little disappointed that it wasn’t something older. But the odds of finding something truly forgotten on a major road like this are so unlikely. Regardless, the moment was still remarkable. “Was it easier for me to reach the Fade in Skyhold because it’s more like how it was in the past?”

Solas’s eyebrow went up the way it did whenever I asked a question he wasn’t expecting. “Possibly. More likely, the strength of the Veil around Skyhold makes it simpler to travel to the Fade.”

I hummed thoughtfully. That was another theory confirmed. The Veil is thinner there. “Well, hopefully I’ll be able to keep making it here without the boost from the Veil being thin.”

“Each journey helps you make the next with greater ease.” He smiled. “I suspect we will meet here again.”

I grinned. “That’s the idea.”

Chapter Text

I spent every night for the rest of the trip trying to reach the Fade. It turned out that my subconscious would default to the location’s most recent memories first, which was why when I and other dreamers initially entered the Fade, we ended up in the current echo of the immediate area. Concentrating from there unlocked older memories. I suspected that somniari like Solas – the Dreamers with a capital D – could control the Fade well enough to skip directly into the deeper memories, but I dared not ask Solas, since I wasn’t supposed to know what a somniari was.

Hearing his voice in my head was apparently the key to getting me to focus the right way. Every time I tried to think about my surroundings disappearing, they didn’t and I remained awake. Whether this was a me thing or a non-mage thing, I couldn’t tell. According to Solas – once he stopped laughing – it could have been both. At least he also said it was endearing.

The skies darkened and started pouring rain as we approached Crestwood. I couldn’t remember exactly why the weather was so dramatically impacted by the Breach’s aftermath in this particular area. Something to do with the Fade rift under the lake, though how that worked was beyond me.

I wouldn’t be closing that rift on this mission. Our priority was contacting Loghain. But eventually, I’d have to return and take care of it. Not something I wanted to dwell on. Thinking too far ahead about what was to come was a surefire way of giving myself anxiety. Especially in Crestwood. I could never disassociate this area from Solas breaking up with Lavellan. Maybe if we don’t clear the wyverns out of that cave, it can’t happen. But whoever said it still would? You can’t change everything. Says who? Says logic. This could all be a moot point if I get sent back home out of nowhere.

Sigh. If only I could physically shake myself out of that spiral of paranoia. I did the next best thing and kept myself in conversation with anyone I could. Cole followed me like a shadow, but he still respected my request not to bring up my secrets in public. Fortunately, I was able to calm myself down before he managed to catch me alone, and that seemed to be enough to deter any questions – for the moment.

We went the long way around the area occupied by the resident dragon, a Northern Hunter. Sparing the time was simply not an option. But even if it had been, we would have lacked the numbers to kill her. The creature’s screeches echoed eerily over the storm, but she did not show herself.

At last, we crossed a bridge that looked familiar. The cave that Loghain was using as a hideout wasn’t far past it. A banner bearing the visage of a skull with its eyes covered marked the entrance. It belonged to the cave’s previous occupants, not Loghain. I supposed it worked well enough as a cover.

“Better let me go first,” Marion said. “Wouldn’t want to spook him with such a huge crowd.”

“Perhaps the rest of you should wait here,” I told the Inquisition soldiers. “The front part of the cave should have enough space to keep you out of the elements.” Though it might be a bit crowded.

Marion and Solas led the way, lighting the path with their staffs. I was mildly surprised that they didn’t just use magic directly. I suppose an open flame would appear more threatening. Cole and I followed close behind, with Blackwall bringing up the rear. He said it was to watch our backs in case anything went wrong outside the cave. More likely, he fears Loghain might recognize that he isn’t the real Blackwall.

A wooden door appeared out of the near-darkness, blocking further travel into the cave. Marion knocked. “It’s just us! I brought the Inquisitor.”

The door opened from within, revealing a man with a weathered face and a drawn sword. He lowered the blade and motioned us into the chamber. His armor’s griffin heraldry clearly marked him as one of the Grey Wardens, though unlike Blackwall, he was the real thing. But he was more than that. He was once a man of importance: King Maric’s best friend and the teyrn of Gwaren. His daughter Anora had been Queen of Ferelden, married to Maric’s legitimate son, Cailan. I wondered what had happened to her in this timeline.

“Warden Loghain Mac Tir,” the man introduced himself with one of his wry grins. “I believe we have a common cause, Inquisitor.”

“So it would seem,” I agreed. Usually this would be the moment for the Inquisitor to bring up Loghain’s history and confirm that he was indeed THAT Loghain Mac Tir. I had no interest in dragging the man over the coals for mistakes he was already spending the rest of his life paying for. “You think that the Wardens’ disappearance is related to Corypheus then?”

“I believe so. After Hawke killed Corypheus, Weisshaupt was content to forget the whole affair.” Loghain sneered in disgust. I hadn’t remembered he was so passionate about the inner workings of the Wardens. How much contact has he even had with the lead Wardens in Weisshaupt? Ten years was a long time, and everyone knew the circumstances under which Loghain in particular had become a Grey Warden. “If an Archdemon can survive seemingly mortal wounds, why not Corypheus? I began to investigate.”

Loghain walked over to a table with neatly organized papers stacked on it. The gray in his hair shined silver in the torchlight. He looked older than he did in game. The life of a Warden was truly harrowing.

“I found evidence, but no proof,” Loghain went on. “And then, soon after, every Warden in Orlais began to hear the Calling.”

Marion gasped. “You never told me!”

“I didn’t believe it concerned you,” Loghain replied.

I frowned. Much as I wanted to press the conversation forward, I wasn’t supposed to know what the Calling was. The gradual corruption and eventual early death of each Warden was one of the great many secrets that the Wardens bore. But Blackwall doesn’t know what the Calling is – and that’s certainly a question that can’t come from an alleged Warden.

“What do you mean you all ‘heard the Calling?’” I asked, trying not to cringe at asking a question I knew the answer to.

Loghain did not hesitate to answer. The time for Warden secrets to remain such was past. “The Calling is a portent, like crows circling the battlefield before the fighting. It tells the Warden that his time has come.” He grew even more serious, a feat I had thought impossible. “First are the dreams. Then a voice whispers in the back of the Warden’s head, just at the edge of hearing. That is when the Warden goes down to the Deep Roads – to die with honor.”

Marion still looked shocked. “And every Grey Warden in Orlais is hearing that right now? They think they’re dying? You too?” The last question was directed to Blackwall, who shrugged. To those who did not know the truth, the reaction would appear an affirmation. But I knew better. That’s as non-committal a response as I’ve ever seen.

“Yes, thanks to Corypheus, I believe,” Loghain said with a calmness that likely came from his background as a military leader. “If the Wardens fall, who will stop the next Blight? That is what’s panicked my brethren.”

“Thanks to the Calling, Corypheus has them scared,” Marion spat out furiously. “And they’re playing right into his hands!”

I was legitimately starting to lose track of the conversation. How did Hawke know the Wardens were playing into Corypheus’s hands? “Wait – so what are the Wardens doing in their panic?” I asked instead.

“A Blight nearly destroyed Ferelden,” Loghain told me. With your help, I noted with mild annoyance. He hadn’t known then what he knows now, but Loghain’s actions in Origins had very nearly prevented the Wardens from having any presence near that Archdemon at all. “A Blight without Wardens to stop it might well destroy the world.” Like the first one. The First Blight had lasted 100 years before the Wardens figured out a way to kill the Archdemon.

Loghain paused, a look of distress creasing his features. “Warden-Commander Clarel proposed a ritual involving blood magic. A desperate measure to prevent further Blights. When I protested the plan, called it madness, they tried to arrest me.” The senior Warden jabbed a finger at the map lying on the table. “Grey Wardens are gathering here, in the Western Approach.” There didn’t appear to be many landmarks of note in that part of the desert – just Adamant Fortress, an old Warden stronghold. The spot Loghain was pointing at was blank. “It’s an ancient Tevinter ritual tower. There, we will find answers.”

My heart sank. I wasn’t ready for this mission – and I didn’t just mean emotionally. The date of Empress Celene’s imminent assassination was fast approaching and had to take priority over the Wardens. I was still having trouble wrapping my head around that, since I generally went to Adamant first in my playthroughs.

“Loghain and I will go on ahead,” Marion told me. I must have looked more worried than I had thought. “We’ll have Inquisition soldiers backing us up. Maybe we can figure out what’s going on before you even get to the Western Approach.”

I had a bad feeling about this. Was this really the sort of mission that could be outsourced? Knowing what lay ahead, Marion and Loghain could run into some real trouble. “What if there are Fade rifts that you can’t close without me?”

Marion patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. This is a scouting mission. We won’t get too close to anything that dangerous.”

Somehow, that wasn’t very reassuring. But what choice did we have?

Chapter Text

Everything was settled. Loghain and Marion would accompany us back to Skyhold, then set out for the Western Approach with a new group of Inquisition soldiers. The rest of us would have a couple of months to get things in order before Halamshiral. That sounded like a long time, but it really wasn’t. Not with travel times factored in.

Blackwall and Loghain didn’t have much interest in talking to each other. Loghain had never struck me as the personable sort and Blackwall needed to spend as much time away from a real Warden as possible, lest someone discover the difference between them. To that end, Loghain should have noticed that he couldn’t sense Blackwall’s presence, as the latter lacked the corruption of the Taint in his blood. The Calling must be clouding Loghain’s senses. Another lucky break for Blackwall, not that he knew it.

It was good to get out of Crestwood, away from its perpetual rain. I felt bad for the people stuck there, but at least they had better shelter than we did. The undead that were wandering around were certainly a larger problem, but I could only be in so many places at once and as the largest threat, Corypheus had to take priority. Besides, the Wardens have a presence in Crestwood. They’ll help. Once the Inquisition cleared the highwaymen out of Caer Bronach and got set up in the keep, Crestwood would have enough resources to hang on until I had the time to close the rift. In theory, anyway. I had to assume the best so I could sleep at night.

The weather had grown warmer, so it wasn’t until we were a few days out from Skyhold that the mountains were cold enough to turn snowy again. That morning, I found Solas drinking tea by the edge of the camp.

My blood ran cold. Solas hated tea. There could only be one reason he was drinking it.

I moved to his side at once. “What’s wrong?” I asked in an undertone.

Relief flashed in his eyes so quickly that I wasn’t sure I’d seen it at all. “This morning, I need to shake the dreams from my mind. I may also need a favor.”

“Whatever you need,” I promised. It wasn’t a blind promise. I knew what this was about.

Solas set his teacup down on a rock nearby. As he turned back to me, I could see a weight lift from his shoulders. Knowing he could speak in earnest without judgment was apparently already helpful. “One of my oldest friends has been captured by mages, forced into slavery. I heard the cry for help as I slept.”

Solas’s movements became more erratic as he spoke, his hands trembling with agitation. I hadn’t seen him this upset before. I reached out to touch his shoulder reassuringly. “Do you know where your friend is now? We’ll go to them at once.”

The relief returned. “Thank you. I got a sense of my friend’s location before I awoke – the Exalted Plains. I can mark it more specifically on our map.”

Oh! “Bull and the Chargers should be heading out there after they return from Therinfal Redoubt – perhaps we can go with them. That should cut down on the preparation required and get us there sooner to help your friend.” A pang of sorrow hit me. If this situation played out like it did in the game, then it was already too late to save his friend. “I hope your friend will be all right in the time it’s going to take us to get there. Do you think there’s any chance the mages will let them go before we get there?”

“I do not know,” Solas admitted. “My friend is a spirit of wisdom, an explorer seeking lost wisdom and reflecting on it. It knows a great deal of lore and history, but a mage could learn that simply by speaking to it in the Fade.” I wished Solas wouldn’t refer to his friend as an “it.” The word choice seemed disrespectful, even though Solas was anything but that regarding spirits. Another discussion for another time. “It is possible that they seek information that it does not wish to give and intend to torture it.”

“I certainly hope that isn’t the case!” It wasn’t, as I well knew. Solas was giving the mages too much credit. They didn’t want information – they wanted a bodyguard. Forcibly converting a spirit of wisdom into a pride demon seemed to go far beyond torture. “Maybe your friend will be able to escape while we’re on our way over.” Are you trying to convince him of that or yourself?

A shadow darkened Solas’s brow. He shook his head. “The mages used a summoning circle to capture it, I would imagine.”

My heart sank. The chances that Solas’s friend could get out of this situation alive were diminishing by the second. All I could do was hope that what I knew from the game was somehow wrong.

“Well, fingers crossed that we get there in time then. We’ll do everything we can.”

I gasped softly as Solas took my hand into both of his. “Thank you,” he repeated, more intently than before.

He left it at that, but his eyes told the rest: “I knew you would understand.”

Chapter Text

The war council had no trouble with Solas heading out to the Exalted Plains for a personal matter. Me, though? That was another issue entirely. Explaining why I had to be there for this particular mission was difficult. I couldn’t very well say I was going for emotional support and expect anyone to listen. But it dawned on me that no one on the war council was a mage. None of them could disprove my statement that the mark would help resolve the situation since the Fade was involved.

That wasn’t why I needed to go, of course. Solas truly would require support – my support – if we couldn’t save his friend. Sending Cole in my place wouldn’t be enough. Maybe it wasn’t the most practical use of my time from the Inquisition’s standpoint, but I knew there were compelling reasons for a human to show compassion to the man reviled as the Dread Wolf. Besides, I WANT to be there for him.

Ever the professionals, Bull and the Chargers were ready to set out for the Exalted Plains immediately, even though they’d only just returned to Skyhold. Taking work when and where they could get it must have raised their collective constitution. Besides, they were contracted for all sorts of odd jobs, from oversized spiders to giants. They had to be tough to survive.

When Iron Bull said he wanted to speak to me before we left, I figured it was about the sudden change in plans. But when I saw how serious his expression was, I knew it was something else.

“I got a letter from my contacts in the Ben-Hassrath,” he said, getting straight to business. “Already verified it with Red.”

I was never going to get used to Bull calling Leliana that. More importantly, I wasn’t ready to face what Bull was about to tell me, if I was right about where this was going.

“What did they say?” I asked with as casual a tone as I could muster.

“The Ben-Hassrath have been reading my reports. They don’t like Corypheus or his Venatori. And they really don’t like red lyrium.” I bit back a quip about agreeing with them. No need to make this any harder than it would already be by drawing parallels. “They’re ready to work with us. With you, boss. The Qunari and the Inquisition, joining forces.”

And there it is. Bull’s personal quest forced him to choose whether his loyalty lay with the Chargers or the Qunari, as he couldn’t save both groups from a surprise Venatori attack. This mission was going to hurt him, as well as endanger the Chargers. And yet, if I avoided the situation entirely, Bull would never leave the Qun. He wouldn’t ever learn that he cared more about his team than the people he’d left behind in Seheron.

“That seems like an advantageous alliance for both sides,” I agreed, struggling to find wording that was neutral. Maybe if I didn’t heavily commit to the idea, Bull wouldn’t be as hurt when it didn’t work out.

If Bull was pleased his sales pitch was working, he gave no indication. “My people have never made a full-blown alliance with a foreign power before. This would be a big step.” He rubbed his chin, the scratchy sound of his beard stubble audible even at this distance. “They’ve found a massive red lyrium shipping operation out on the coast. The plan is to hit it together. They’re worried about tipping the smugglers, so no army. My Chargers, you, maybe some backup. They’ll be sending in a dreadnought.”

I frowned. Being there for Bull was essential, but the Storm Coast was a long way to the east. “I don’t know if there’s enough time for us to go before the ball at the Winter Palace.”

“There isn’t,” Bull replied without hesitation. “It will take time for the dreadnought to reach the Storm Coast anyway.”

My head swam. This wasn’t right. Actually having a real timeline and travel times that mattered changed everything. “But Hawke and Loghain will likely have reported in about the Western Approach by then. I’ll have to go out there, and that’s completely in the opposite direction.”

Then it hit me. I couldn’t be in both places at once. But I also couldn’t put off the Qunari for too long. A chill gripped my heart as a terrible idea popped into my head.

“Do I have to be there personally?” I asked. “Would the A– they be offended?” Close one. I probably shouldn’t know who the Arishok is.

Bull adjusted his eyepatch as he hummed thoughtfully. “They won’t be happy about it, no. But I’ll convince them that you’re going after Corypheus since – well, you are.”

“Thank you, Bull. I mean, I don’t think you’ll miss me there. It’s not like I’m a strong fighter or anything.” My palms tingled with anxiety. The Chargers’ lives depend on the Inquisitor ordering Bull to recall the Chargers instead of forcing them to hold the high ground to protect the dreadnought. I couldn’t leave things like this. “I just wish I could go to make sure you and the Chargers come back alive.”

Bull made a sound of disgust. “Bah, we’ve been on harder missions than this. The stakes weren’t quite as high, but we’ve seen worse.”

“Even so,” I told him, putting as much edge in my voice as I dared and stretching myself to the tallest height I could manage. “I want all of you to come back safe. Nothing is worth trading the lives of our best company.”

Bull’s lighthearted air dissipated. “All right, boss. I get it. We’ll all return in one piece. I promise.”

“Except for you, Chief,” Krem interrupted from the doorway that connected Bull’s room to the tavern.

Bull made a face at his second-in-command. “That’s why you’re here, Krem. To keep an eye on me.”

Krem’s groan at the pun was barely audible over Bull’s laughter. These two, honestly. Bull had lost his eye saving Krem’s life the day they met. It took a lot of inner strength to laugh about something like that. That gives me an idea…

“You’ll need more people to go with you, right?” I asked. “How about Dorian and Sera?” Both had ranged attacks and wicked senses of humor. Strong support for Bull, on a number of levels.

Bull took a moment to consider. “Hmm…fighting fire with fire, eh, boss? I like it.”

I smiled, relieved that this seemed to be working out. “Good. I’ll make sure they’re up for the assignment, then you can make arrangements with the Qunari.”

I’ll also make sure Dorian and Sera know to remind Bull of his promise, I added silently. Not in those words, of course. The order to stay safe applied to all of them. The Chargers weren’t dying on my watch, even if I wasn’t there.

Chapter Text

We traveled lighter this time. Only half a dozen Inquisition soldiers accompanied us, since the Chargers provided more than enough protection.

I invited Solas to join me in the carriage on the pretense of reducing the number of horses in our entourage. Truthfully, I wanted to ensure he didn’t feel isolated. Not that he necessarily would on the way there, but I was thinking of the long journey back after Wisdom’s tragic end.

It didn’t matter – he declined. With good reason, of course. It would attract attention if the Inquisitor was suddenly keeping one of her allies closer than the others. Even if no one suspected a romantic entanglement, it would be clear that Solas had my favor and that would make him of interest to my political foes. While Solas had every reason to remain inconspicuous – and I knew that – I still hated having my hands tied due to the interference of others.

The closer we got to the Exalted Plains, the more trouble we encountered. Empress Celene and Duke Gaspard’s armies had ceased fighting each other, but only because the undead had risen in this part of the Dales. Rifts had also spat demons across the land that had already seen so much bloodshed, both in the present and in years past. Needless to say, Bull wasn’t thrilled. He hated demons.

Solas had hidden his emotions behind a mask again, but I could guess that he wasn’t happy either. The Exalted Plains were so named after one of the Chantry’s Exalted Marches, when the Dales were forcibly taken back from the elves. Those elves had not been the elves of old – the elvhen, his people – but Solas remained sympathetic to elves who were killed simply for being elves. The muddled politics justifying the genocide were unimportant in the great scheme of things. As far as I was concerned, based on what I’d learned in Inquisition, the misunderstandings that prompted the massacre were mere excuses for the Chantry to take action against the elves.

Upon reaching a crossroads near the river, we parted ways with Bull and the Chargers. They would travel north to obtain the snowy wyvern heart for Vivienne while Solas and I headed south with the Inquisition soldiers to help Wisdom. It had been two weeks. I hoped against logic that I was wrong, that we weren’t too late.

We hadn’t traveled for more than an hour when Solas called for us to halt. I swallowed hard as I recognized the scene. Four pillars that appeared to be made out of ice peeked out above the rocky hill before us. The summoning circle Solas had mentioned. We were definitely in the right place.

The carriage and horses would only slow us down at this point, so we left them behind with one of the soldiers. The rest of us hurried forward, Solas and me in the lead.

My breath caught in my throat as we crested the hill. As I had feared, we were too late. An enormous pride demon knelt in the center of the pillars. It groaned in pain, its suffering evident with every breath it took. Only now was I aware that I’d never seen another demon behave that way. Perhaps because this spirit was so unwilling to become one.

“My friend!” Solas’s cry of anguish shook me to my core.

“I’m so sorry, Solas.” The words felt insufficient. They were insufficient.

A pause. “These mages summoned my friend for a purpose so opposed to its own nature that it became corrupted.”

A human man stepped forward timidly. The soldiers behind us readied their swords. My hand rose, calling for them to hold. I had never liked this mage. He vaguely resembled my last ex with his thin moustache and heavyset physique, and it was difficult for me to break the association. But he genuinely didn’t mean us any harm. Everything that had been done to Solas’s friend was out of ignorance. Most mages didn’t understand the relationship between spirits and demons – especially not the ones from the Circle.

“Let us ask them,” Solas told me, his anger boiling over.

“A mage!” the man cried in wonder as he took in Solas’s appearance. “You’re not with the bandits? Do you have any lyrium potions? Most of us are exhausted. We’ve been fighting that demon.”

“You summoned that demon!” Solas snapped. “Except it was a spirit of wisdom at the time. You made it kill! You twisted it against its purpose!” Even in his fury, Solas was able to provide an explanation.

The human mage was taken aback by the outburst, stammering out his words. “I-I-I understand how it might be confusing to someone who has not studied demons, but after you help us, I can –“

“We’re not here to help you,” Solas spat out.

The man looked to me for support. Bad idea. “You realize that in the span of 30 seconds, you asked us for help, then insulted a man who knows more about spirits and demons than you will ever know, right?” He opened his mouth to answer. I cut him off. “Rhetorical question. Point is, you shouldn’t presume that you know anything, let alone more than him.”

My words fell on deaf ears. “Listen to me,” the man insisted. “I was one of the foremost experts in the Kirkwall Circle –“

“Shut. Up.” Solas was beyond done at this point. I couldn’t blame him. “You summoned it to protect you from the bandits.”

“I…yes,” the man finally admitted. He actually had the sense to look ashamed of himself. He might have even been sincere.

“You bound it to obedience, then commanded it to kill. That is when it turned.” Solas shifted his attention to me. “The summoning circle. We break it, we break the binding. No orders to kill, no conflict with its nature, no demon.”

“What?!” This mage did not know when to shut up. Ever. “The binding is the only thing keeping the demon from killing us! Whatever it was before, it is a monster now.”

“Inquisitor, please!” Solas had slipped back into formalities. It didn’t matter either way. There was nothing the mage could say that would have changed my mind.

“You,” I told the mage. “You seriously need to sit down, shut up, and actually listen to what people are telling you.” I turned to Solas. “Just show me what I need to do.”

“Thank you.” As relieved as Solas had sounded when he first told me about his friend’s plight, that was only a fraction of the feeling he expressed now.

I whirled around to the soldiers. “Distract the demon if you can, but from a distance. Solas and I will take care of the rest. And do NOT attack it!”

A few of the soldiers protested as I turned back to the demon. I ignored them. There was no time. I stopped short as the demon fixed its gaze on me. There was also apparently no choice.

Plan B! We didn’t even have a Plan A yet, but that didn’t matter. I bolted down the river, away from Solas, who had already advanced on the summoning circle. The demon’s heavy footsteps followed me, as did the clatter of metal that accompanied the soldiers.

The demon was tall but slow. The ground shook behind me as the creature tried to close the gap. It almost did when I curved back around toward the circle. The demon was still bound, so by that reasoning, it couldn’t travel far. If it hit its limit and decided to go back to attack Solas…well, I didn’t want to think about what position that would put him in.

Thankfully, that wasn’t going to be an issue. Solas shattered the final pillar as I reached him. With a roar that faded into a sigh, the demon returned to its spirit form. Wisdom’s true shape of choice was that of a woman whose eyes burned with veilfire. Their hair was short, but long enough to cover their ears, making it impossible to tell if their appearance was human or elven. Their conversation with Solas, however, was entirely the latter.

I didn’t know most of the words they used. “Ir abelas” I understood – Solas apologized to Wisdom, who then reassured him that he’d done all he could. The next part was murky, but ended with Wisdom pleading for Solas’s help in letting them go. I was more certain of that bit, since Solas waved his hands before them and the spirit of Wisdom disintegrated with a smile on their face.

“Dareth shiral.” Solas’s voice broke as he said goodbye into the now-empty air before him.

My heart went out to him. “Ir abelas, Solas.” The words still weren’t enough, not in any language.

Solas rose to his feet. “Don’t be,” he told me, his voice softer than before. “We gave it a moment’s peace before the end. That’s more than it might have had.” I nodded. Hopefully that’ll be enough. Solas’s expression hardened. “All that remains now is them,” he said, turning to the trio of mages who had walked over, led by the same ignorant fool as before.

“Thank you,” the man said with apparent sincerity. “We would not have risked the summoning, but the roads are too dangerous to travel unprotected.”

Solas advanced on the lead mage with righteous anger. “You tortured and killed my friend!”

“We didn’t know!” the mage babbled in a panic as his companions abandoned him. “It was just a spirit! The book said it could help us!”

I sighed internally. This guy was a complete douchebag, but killing him and his possibly innocent companions wouldn’t help matters any. I might not have expected things to go that route if I hadn’t known from the game, but since I did…

“Solas,” I said, reaching out to touch his shoulder. “It’s not worth it. He’s a pompous asshole who wouldn’t listen to his own mother unless the Circle told him to, but he’s not worth it.”

Solas’s muscles twitched. He glared at the man whose ignorance had ruined everything. “Never again,” he swore in a voice barely above a whisper. Was it a vow or a command? I couldn’t tell. Perhaps it was both.

Solas and I trailed behind the soldiers as we walked away. “I need some time alone,” he said.

I nodded. “I’ll be here if you need me.”

Chapter Text

I’d been right about one thing: the ride back to Skyhold did feel longer…to me. The Chargers were rowdier than they had been on the way to the Exalted Plains, since this was the first time in the past couple of months that they’d had no active assignment. I didn’t want to interfere with their downtime, so I left them to their own devices. Solas rode slightly apart from the rest of the group. He hadn’t needed me at all. I should have seen that coming.

There really wasn’t anything I could do. My emotional support wasn’t needed, we’d already closed all rifts along this path, and all other Inquisition business required me to be at Skyhold. I guess even the Inquisitor feels useless sometimes.

I spent a fair amount of time studying the Anchor. While I obviously didn’t have the understanding of the mark that Solas did, I at least wanted to try getting better at using it. Of course, it would be a disaster if I accidentally succeeded in physically transporting myself into the Fade. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising I made no noticeable progress in learning how the Anchor worked.

Accessing the Fade through dreams was a lot lonelier when there was little chance Solas would turn up. That wasn’t the only reason I had an interest in exploring the Fade, but I’d have been lying if I denied it was one of them. At least I got some quiet time to myself. Traveling in the carriage didn’t count, not with all the noises of the road. So I ended up finding nearby places in the Fade to spend my nights in a semi-meditative state.

Which was why when I heard my name, I thought I’d imagined it.

“Nancy.”

My eyes flew open. Solas!

“Hey!” I scrambled to find my footing, but Solas held out a hand to stop me, opting instead to join me by the tree I’d settled under that night. “How are you doing?”

He had already braced himself for the question. “It hurts. It always does. But I will survive.”

The understatement of it all was the hardest part to bear. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I’m here.”

“Thank you. It’s been so long since I could trust someone.” I know. “You already did everything you could to help.”

I rested my head on Solas’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“You were and continue to be a true friend.” His cheek rested against the top of my head. “I could hardly abandon you now.”

I had forgotten that it was never guaranteed that Solas would stay with the Inquisition until Corypheus’s destruction. It had always seemed to me that he would remain, if only for the sake of the orb. But he’s choosing to stay, I reminded myself.

“I would have understood if you did. That’s a lot to deal with.” Instant regret. I didn’t want to encourage him to leave! What the hell is wrong with me?

There was a pause as the statement lingered in the air. “I visited the place in the Fade where my friend used to be.” The answer to the question I had been afraid to ask. “It’s empty. But there are stirrings of energy in the void. Someday, something new may grow there.”

“But not your friend, right?”

“No. It isn’t the same for mortals. The energy of spirits returns to the Fade. If the idea giving the spirit form is strong or if the memory has shaped other spirits, it may someday rise again. Something similar to my friend, but it might have a different personality. It would likely not remember me. It would not be the friend I knew.”

Like Mythal. I had my suspicions that Mythal and the other Evanuris – possibly including Solas himself – had originally been spirits. So after Mythal was murdered, the friend and ally Solas had once known no longer existed. The part of her that merged with Flemeth was just a twisted memory, not Mythal herself. I didn’t trust Flemeth and her burning need for revenge against the Evanuris on Mythal’s behalf. While I certainly lacked a complete picture of the puzzle, I had a feeling that she was only keeping Solas around to bring down the Veil, enabling her to seek vengeance against the false elven gods for killing Mythal. Once he’d outlived his usefulness, she’d want to dispose of him, especially if he had objections about how she was handling things. He was trying to fix what he’d done to the world in order to stop the Evanuris in the first place. I wasn’t so certain that Solas would go along with Flemeth’s current revenge-based agenda. Surely it meant something that he hadn’t killed the Evanuris before.

I desperately wanted to say all of it out loud, to warn Solas that I feared for his life. But that meant revealing the truth about myself. And what if I’m wrong? Solas was deeply shaken by the loss of his friend Wisdom and it seemed like he’d been closer to Mythal. Even if I was right, what if he didn’t believe me? Then he’d know everything and would probably hate me for ruining the last connection he had with Mythal.

Since that wasn’t an option, I nodded and hugged Solas instead. What else could I do? Maybe I’d get lucky and figure out how to transfer the information to him via osmosis. A girl can dream, right?

Chapter Text

While Solas still understandably had an air of melancholy about him, he stopped completely isolating himself for the remainder of the trip back to Skyhold. Unfortunately, that also meant he was giving Bull a hard time about following the Qun. Hardly surprising, all things considered. Of course Solas would continue to fight for the freedom of mind and body, especially with particular memories stirred to the forefront of his mind in the wake of Wisdom’s death.

At night, Solas and I continued to meet in the Fade, hunting for areas that hadn’t been visited in a while. There were surprisingly few spirits around. I hadn’t seen any when I visited the Fade on my own either. When I asked Solas why, he theorized that they feared the Anchor. He also cautioned against wandering too far in the Fade on my own, lest braver demons be drawn to the mark. It was lucky that spirits and demons alike didn’t seem to linger along the road, which was about the extent of my solo adventures. Perhaps they preferred more interesting areas. I speculated as much to Solas. He agreed, but warned me not to assume too much.

The moment we reached Skyhold, I sought out Vivienne and gave her the wooden box that contained the snowy wyvern heart. She was well pleased by the heart’s quality and thanked me again for my discretion.

Vivienne and I met with the war council immediately. Not only did the others need to know she was going, I wanted to send Vivienne with an escort. With the ball at Halamshiral only a month away, the majority of the council was understandably concerned that one of our strongest contacts was leaving for a personal matter. But Vivienne assured them that she would never let down the Inquisition and would meet us at the Winter Palace.

Vivienne was nothing if not convincing, so a mere hour later, she set out for the Ghislain Estate with her alchemic equipment and a small entourage of Inquisition soldiers. I later heard from Leliana that Vivienne had been prepared to leave for the past week after receiving word that we were returning to Skyhold. Of course she was – Bastien’s life hangs in the balance. Hopefully she would reach him in time.

As I left the war room, I found Solas waiting for me.

“I was wondering – do you have a moment?”

My nerves fluttered. Stop that. “Always.”

Whatever this was about, Solas didn’t want to speak about it publicly, so we adjourned to my quarters. As I stepped out onto the balcony, I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. He was studying my face again, not being very subtle about it.

“What were you like? Before the Anchor.” I almost forgot to breathe. He’s made up his mind then. “Has it affected you? Changed you in any way? Your mind? Your morals? Your…spirit?”

I knew from experience what he was really asking. Solas wanted to know if the Anchor was making me real. None of the people in this broken world were real to him. He needed to keep emotional distance from those who would be the likely casualties of his plan to take down the Veil. It was easier to view us as temporary inhabitants of the world that he meant to restore than to see himself as a bringer of death. Unfortunately, darling, there are no easy answers here.

“Not personally, no. Just physically.” I stretched my hand self-consciously. The tingling seemed to increase its intensity when I was paying attention to the Anchor.

“Ah.” Solas fell quiet. One of his worst fears had been realized. Sorry, vhenan. You’ve got to face this sooner or later. Then you can come up with a way to bring down the Veil without ensuring the destruction of the current people of Thedas.

“What brought this on?” I asked into the awkward silence.

“You show a wisdom I have not seen since…” Mythal. The highest possible compliment from him. But he couldn’t say that without revealing his identity. It took him a moment to think of an alternative. “Since my deepest journeys into the ancient memories of the Fade.” His enthusiasm was genuine, and he’d managed to convey the depth of time and space that this observation covered. An impressive feat. And yet, to be the wisest person Solas had encountered in a thousand years was a ridiculous amount of pressure. “You are not what I expected.”

That statement I could grin at. “I would be very surprised if you’d expected me, to be honest.” In any capacity, I added. If only he knew the full truth…

Solas laughed. Did he always laugh during this conversation? I couldn’t remember. “Most people are predictable, but you have shown a subtlety in your actions – a wisdom that goes against everything I know of your people.”

Hoo boy. Now that was a can of worms right there. Solas had so many preconceptions to unlearn. “My people?” I repeated. “All the sentient species are people. Humans can be foolish and short-sighted, but so can elves, dwarves, and qunari. People who don’t learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.” I shrugged. “People are people. If I’m wise, it’s only because I spend a lot of time studying people – both past and present – and trying to learn so I can do better.”

So much of that could have been considered a dig at Solas personally, but surprisingly, he didn’t seem bothered. “You are modest,” he said instead. “Most people act with so little understanding of the world. But not you.”

It felt like anything I said would be insufficient. “Thanks – I do my best. There’s a lot I still don’t understand about the world. I imagine some things I never will.” Like how to not be super-serious all the time. “I hope that answered your questions. I sure don’t know what any of it really means.” I rolled my eyes at myself internally. Ugh, stop being awkward and shut up already.

Solas leaned forward. “It means I have not forgotten the kiss.”

My breath caught in my throat. There was a double meaning in that. The romantic aspect was obvious, but the kiss outright symbolized how real I was to him. And yet, that knowledge didn’t stop me from blushing about the first.

“I’d hope not!” I quipped. “It didn’t happen that long ago.” At the look on his face, I reined it in. “I know, that’s not what you meant.” I paused before asking the dangerous question. “Does that mean you’ve reached a decision?”

Now Solas was the one who hesitated. Oh. The sadness in his eyes…

I turned away, overwhelmed by disappointment. I hadn’t expected him to reject me at this point. How foolish of me to assume anything.

Arms wrapped around me, pulling me close. “It would be kinder in the long run. But losing you would…”

This time, I was the one caught off guard by the kiss. My head swam from all of the emotions swirling within me. I clung to Solas to steady myself.

Solas didn’t pull back nearly as far this time. “Ar lath ma, vhenan,” he murmured into my ear.

I almost responded in kind, but a thought struck me. “Is that a yes then?” I asked.

The barest of hesitations. “Yes.”

I hadn’t specified which question. It should have been implicit that it was the original question of whether he wanted to officially work on a relationship, but he could have meant that yes, he had reached a decision. Was Solas trying to avoid fully committing to a promise he wasn’t certain he could keep? Was this why Lavellan didn’t know what he and she were to each other in Crestwood? Oh, Solas. His feelings were sincere, but he had to restrict himself to only speaking full truths, leaving the rest in the gray area. I should know – I did the same thing.

For half a second, I debated trying to wrangle a more explicit response out of him. But what’s the point in making him compromise his principles? I had to have more faith in Solas than that.

I hugged him tighter. Only then could I say what I’d wanted to from the beginning. “I love you too, vhenan.”

Chapter Text

Now that I knew where I stood with Solas, everything was easier. The related complications were only just beginning, but in the meantime, the sense of stability helped a great deal.

Preparations for Halamshiral had gone well in my absence, largely due to Josephine’s efforts. Since I’d gone to the Exalted Plains, I had lost the argument to have the Inquisition wear a color other than red. Thankfully, Madame Zélie had chosen a better shade than what I remembered appearing in Inquisition. This red was darker, more subdued, and less overtly associated with the Chantry. She had also opted to use gold as an accent color rather than yellow, which added to the richness of the display. How she got away with such sweeping changes, I didn’t know. A small part of me wished I had been present to see what had happened, but I had no regrets about having helped Solas instead.

The men’s uniforms looked much like they did in the game, but all of the women had dresses, even Sera. It hadn’t even been a point of contention. This was Orlais and there were very strict dress codes in place – a fact not reflected in Inquisition, since the entirety of the Inquisition wore the same uniforms in the game. Chalk up the dresses as casualties of real world budgetary restrictions.

My gown was different. Madame Zélie and I had agreed that I needed to stand out from the rest of the Inquisition while still clearly being a representative of it. My one request was that it be made of velvet – and the expert designer had delivered. The fabric was a dark shade of crimson that set off the gold embroidery in a truly striking manner. The needlework on the skirt depicted the events that led to my becoming Inquisitor: seeing “Andraste” in the Fade, stumbling out of a rift, and closing the Breach. It was like wearing a miniature version of Solas’s frescos from the rotunda. Of course I loved the design. The only downside was the neckline, which was so wide that the sleeves started off the shoulder. With some adjustments, everything stayed in place as though by magic. Still, that didn’t make me feel any less anxious about wearing it.

I did fully win one battle: Rufus. I refused to wear any other necklace. It wasn’t just out of sentiment. What if something happened to him if I didn’t take him with me? Madame Zélie was displeased, as she’d pictured a larger, heavier piece of jewelry in his place. But since I told her outright that I’d wear him in addition to whatever else she made me wear, she opted to just let me do what I wanted. I did agree to swap out his silver chain for a gold one, but that was as far as I would go.

All of the preparations for Halamshiral took up a great deal of my time, but there was still plenty of pending Inquisition business that had no connection to the upcoming event at the Winter Palace. Reports came in daily from Inquisition outposts all across Ferelden and Orlais. Neither Hawke nor Loghain had yet sent word from the Western Approach. Leliana had already dispatched scouts after them, just in case. For his part, Cullen refused to commit troops to the unhospitable desert until we had more concrete information.

Suffice to say that within the first couple of days back at Skyhold, I missed the relative quiet of the road. It was difficult finding any time for myself or Solas outside of the Fade. Oddly enough, I ended up looking forward to taking baths, since no one bothered me during those.

Skyhold was a marvel of magical engineering, but it still lacked running water. My bedroom was all the way at the top of a tower. There was no way I would ask Meera to run water up all those steps, especially a bucketful at a time. That would be ridiculous. It made far more sense for a tub to be set up in one of the unoccupied bedrooms that overlooked the garden.

It’s funny how things can change over time. In the beginning, I dreaded dealing with this particular detail of life in Thedas. “Culture shock” didn’t seem to cover it. Besides, Haven was a LOT colder than Skyhold. It was a little easier to cheat and extend my “immunity time” when the water took longer to cool. But the biggest change was that Skyhold’s doors had locks. That added security did wonders for my nerves and let me really detach from everything that was weighing on my mind.

If it wasn’t for the giggle outside the door, I wouldn’t have noticed anything was amiss. But I knew that voice. Sera. She was up to something. The door ticked shut. Shit. She’d already been up to something. I whipped around to see if my clothes were where I’d left them on the bed.

They weren’t.

Panic set in. I knew Sera played pranks on the advisers, but I didn’t think she’d target me. She picked the fucking lock to do it! cried a disbelieving voice in the back of my head. Priorities! growled another. How in the actual fuck was I going to get out of this? Sure, I could wrap myself in a sheet and run to my room, but I’d have to cross half of Skyhold in broad daylight.

A knock at the door. “Inquisitor?” Much to my horror, the door slowly swung open. Apparently Sera had left it unlocked. I ducked as low as I could into the tub as a completely oblivious Cullen walked into the room. “You wanted to know when we – oh!” He instantly started to leave again.

“Wait!” Cullen froze and gave me a glance of pure confused distress. “Don’t look, but don’t go,” I clarified. Cullen almost jabbed himself in the eye with the report he was holding in his haste to oblige. “Sorry, this just happened. I mean – never mind, I’ll explain later. What I need you to do is find Meera and get her to bring me a new set of clothes.”

“Right away. She was the one who directed me here.” That all made sense. We’d had important briefings while I was drying my hair before. This whole mess was new. Poor Meera. She’d better not blame herself for her part in this. Cullen’s curiosity got the better of him. “But what happened to your –”

“Don’t ask, it’s a long story.” I wasn’t going to sell out Sera to Cullen over a prank that was relatively harmless. Especially not without an explanation first. “Just find Meera so we can have this conversation properly.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Solas appeared behind Cullen in the doorway. Wonderful. Sera should have warned me. I’d have sold tickets. Without looking in my direction, Solas tossed my clothes onto the bed. “I ran into Sera – or rather, she ran into me. I saw what she was holding and determined the rest from there.”

“Sera?” Cullen asked, his indignation rising.

“Please don’t,” I told him. “I want to discuss this with her personally. Thank you both for your help. It seems I will have to find a different room in the future – or maybe set up decoys first.”

For a second, it looked like Cullen was going to stand there and argue. But Solas steered him out of the doorway, all the while talking him out of rash action. I slumped in relief. That was too close. I’d owe both of them some kind of explanation later, I suspected, but for now, I had to deal with Sera.

As I got dressed, I wondered what had prompted this sudden outburst from Sera. What could have possibly been her reasoning? Did I need to be more of a “real person” to the little people? But none of them had any part of this, except Meera – and she’d be horrified. What are you playing at, Sera?

Chapter Text

I found Sera in her room on the second floor of the tavern. That cluttered little nook she’d claimed for herself was by far my favorite of the bedrooms in Skyhold outside of my own. And let’s be real: the main appeal of the Inquisitor’s quarters was the combination of space and privacy. It lacked coziness and window seats, both of which Sera’s room had in abundance.

Sera made a sound halfway between a yelp and a giggle when she saw me. She immediately bolted for the window. I grabbed her arm before she could escape onto the roof. Not too hard, I cautioned myself. Even though I was the victim here, I didn’t want Sera feeling threatened.

“That was pretty good, right?” Sera chortled jovially, but it was a little hollow. Was she worried she’d gone too far?

“Why did you do it, Sera?” I winced. So severe. “This doesn’t seem like your usual kind of prank. It’s too…mean, you know?”

Sera made a dismissive noise. “Wouldn’t’ve needed to if your breeches stayed where they should be, would I?” She burst out laughing. “Literally!”

I gave her a withering look. “What’m I supposed to do? Not take baths?” Unless…wait. My stomach twisted anxiously. “I’ve tried to do right by Meera and all the other people making up the bulk of the Inquisition. We couldn’t do anything without them – and besides, they’re people. They deserve respect like anyone else.” If someone was getting mistreated on my watch, then I deserved worse than getting pranked by Sera, champion of the common people.

Sera looked surprised. “Course you have! I’d know. Been watchin’.” Her eyes narrowed. “Not those kind of breeches.”

I was lost. “What do you mean?”

A bony hand darted out to smack me on the shoulder. “Don’t be daft!” Sera spat out. “You have to know. Going around being all haughty and elfy. You’re not even an elf!”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. “What are you talking about?”

“With Solas!” She gagged for dramatic effect.

Realization dawned. “Is this about the Dales?” It didn’t shock me that Sera knew about elven history. She had picked up some knowledge of her people’s past and present over the years, which I knew from the game. What I didn’t understand was why she’d jumped to the conclusion that Solas and I had gone there to pay respects to the graves or whatever else she suspected. “We went to the Exalted Plains to resolve a personal matter! It had nothing to do with elven history.” Just the history of one elf.

“Pfft! Sure.” Sera crossed her arms and spun away on her heel.

I studied the tension in her shoulders. She felt threatened, but why? Because she and Solas were about as different as you could get when it came to elves? Not that anyone knew the truth about Solas other than me. But he was clearly caught up on the elves’ past history. Sera, by contrast, barely acknowledged that she was an elf, due to trauma from her childhood. Which wasn’t all that long ago – she’s only 20.

“You know I’m curious about your life in the city too, right?” I offered, not wanting Sera to feel slighted. “I don’t like prying with questions.” Oh hell, just put it all out there already. “Also the whole elf thing seems to be a bit of a sore spot, so I figured you didn’t want to talk about it.”

She whirled back to face me. “It’s not about that! Well, maybe it is, a little.” Sera wrung her hands, an unconscious movement. “But not really. You’re the Herald of Andraste. And here you are running around chatting up elfy elves.”

Oh man. It hadn’t occurred to me that my actions bothered Sera as an Andrastian. That was actually one of her reasons for joining the Inquisition, though I only knew that from the game.

I was not prepared for this conversation.

“Is it so wrong to be curious about other people’s beliefs?” I wasn’t going to correct her about Solas. He certainly didn’t believe that the elven gods were gods and therefore didn’t qualify as a proper “elfy elf.”

“It’s weird. And I never see you with Mother Giselle or visiting the chantry.”

I was definitely not prepared for this conversation. Nothing to do but be honest, though. “I’m not Andrastian, Sera,” I told her as gently as I could. “People calling me her herald doesn’t change what I believe.”

Whatever answer Sera was looking for, that wasn’t it. “So if you don’t believe in Andraste or the Maker, then where do you think that thing came from?”

Asking the hard questions here. “Based on what Corypheus told me in Haven, he had something to do with it.”

“So you’re Coryphenis’s herald?” Sera was simultaneously horrified, disgusted, and pissed off – but still capable of mangling Corypheus’s name.

“No! I don’t think I’m anyone’s herald. There’s got to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for where the Anchor came from.”

“And if he was lying and it was Andraste?” she demanded.

“If that’s the case, then I’ll have to reconsider what I believe.” It’s not, though. “And no matter what I believe, it doesn’t change or invalidate what you believe.”

That seemed to satisfy Sera, at least for the moment. “All right. But I’ll be watchin’.”

“I know. I trust you to keep me honest if I start getting too close with the nobility or anything. Although I wouldn’t worry too much about that – I don’t like political hobnobbing.”

Sera’s giggle was reassuring – or at least I hoped it was.

Chapter Text

I sought out Cullen immediately, fearing that if I didn’t, he would go after Sera regardless of anything Solas might have said to deter him. He wasn’t happy about my vague explanations for Sera’s actions, but did grudgingly accept that the matter was resolved and therefore closed. Cullen also finally got to give his report: we’d received word from Hawke and Loghain, so he was sending troops over to aid them.

Solas was a different matter entirely. Even though he’d helped me out of that awkward situation, I doubted that his view of Sera had changed. To him, she was one of the modern elves who was least like what the elvhen used to be. While it was true that Solas eventually backed off of her in the game and let her simply be who she was, I wasn’t completely convinced that he hadn’t just given up rather than actually understanding her. You could be wrong, you know. Maybe he does get it – or at least will. Either way, I needed to ensure that Solas got there sooner rather than later.

The problem was that I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t in the rotunda and there was no answer at his quarters. Cole was busy hiding daggers in barrels, and I didn’t want to interrupt his noble mission to protect the Inquisition’s soldiers from spontaneous bar fights to ask him if he’d seen Solas. It wasn’t until I gave up and headed back to the main hall that I found Solas waiting for me. Apparently, he had something to show me. That was as much of a relief as it was unexpected – I could not have anticipated he was already looking for me, especially not for that reason.

My curiosity deepened when we didn’t stop in the rotunda, but continued on into the lower section of the castle. There were a lot more passageways than there were in the game, so it didn’t take long for me to lose my bearings.

“I’ve never been in this part of Skyhold before,” I told Solas.

“I suspect few have, based on the condition of the area,” he replied.

Had I not known Skyhold belonged to Solas before, I would have asked what had brought him here in the first place. But he was right that no one had been in this area for years. So rather than make him bend the truth for my benefit, I didn’t ask.

At last, we stopped, but not before any of the doors that lined the passageway – the stone wall appeared blank. Solas lit a torch hanging on the opposite wall with veilfire. As he waved the flickering green flame before the wall, the stones melted away to reveal a hidden room. I was so delighted by the idea that Skyhold even had a hidden room that I didn’t respond immediately when Solas motioned me through the doorway ahead of him.

Two flashes in the darkness reflected the veilfire. They felt familiar, but I didn’t really have time to process why before Solas stepped into the room, pushing the shadows further back. Before us sat a statue of a stone wolf with glittering green eyes, a stone bowl placed before its front paws. Just like one of the Fen’Harel logic puzzles in Trespasser, I thought in a daze. But one In Skyhold? I couldn’t imagine what Solas would have hidden here.

There was a plaque with writing on it attached to the front of the bowl. Without hesitation I stepped forward to read it:

The Dread Wolf’s gaze seeks the light in the darkness.

I frowned. What could that possibly mean? I turned around, hoping to glean some sort of hint from Solas. My breath caught in my throat as the light from Solas’s torch flickered across the mural on the wall behind us. I recognized Solas’s art style immediately. A group of elven travelers walking in the woods, their torches held high against the darkness. Each painted flame branched out into the third dimension as an unlit brazier.

Normally, I’d try to talk out the problem to figure out the solution. But this was one of Solas’s puzzles. It was a matter of pride to figure it out myself. Don’t you dare, I scolded myself as my brain tried to capitalize Pride. A Solas-related pun? Of course it would. Focus, please.

This puzzle seemed to be different from the ones I’d already done. The statue remained stationary when Solas entered the room, so “seeking the light in the darkness” did not mean that the wolf’s gaze followed the veilfire. But the first puzzle had involved lighting the correct brazier – the one the wolf was staring at. Could it be as simple as that? I looked between the wolf and the mural. The wolf wasn’t even staring at the elves. Its gaze was fixed on the trees ahead. Well, that complicates things. The other two puzzle mechanics didn’t seem to apply. There was no designated order to lighting the braziers in the clue and the source of the veilfire had clearly been outside the room.

I’m missing something. I moved closer to examine the mural in more detail. The elves were wrapped in cloaks that obscured much of their features. But they all definitely had vallaslin on their faces. Why would Solas depict them that way? That first mural in Trespasser showed the process of removing those tattoos for a reason – Solas freed them from the Evanuris. Why paint elves who aren’t free?

I had barely even thought the question before a tiny voice in the back of my head supplied an answer. Because they aren’t enlightened. I bit back a gasp. What if these elves weren’t seeking Solas to be freed? What if they were hunting him for the Evanuris? But how does that help? That means none of the braziers is the right one.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed the stone wolf’s gaze again, turning my attention to the trees it was staring at. The spot was almost off the edge of the mural and the trees were so thick that the area was almost entirely black. Almost…except for two flashes of green that reflected the veilfire. Eyes! Now that I knew where to look, I could make out the faint outline of the wolf in the shadows. But how could this be the answer? There was no brazier to light.

I touched the wall, running my fingers along the wolf’s face. Surely there was something, some sort of hint… But nothing happened. I pressed my fingers against the wolf’s eyes. They flashed bright green! Instinctively, I pulled my hand away from the burst of heat that accompanied it. The stone panel just before the wolf’s front paws rotated, revealing a hidden brazier.

“Holy shit!” I whispered.

“Impressive!” Solas said as he brought over the veilfire torch and handed it to me.

I couldn’t stop smiling. I had gotten to solve one of Solas’s puzzles with him present! He had no idea what this meant to me and I hadn’t even seen what he’d hidden here yet. I wanted to tell him exactly how much I loved his work, but obviously, that would be a bad idea.

“The puzzle was the truly impressive part,” I told him instead. It was the best I could do without revealing too much.

As I lit the brazier, the stone wolf’s eyes lit up and magical flames sprung to life in the bowl before the statue. There was a grinding of stone on stone as the wall behind the statue moved aside to reveal a staircase that led downward. The braziers lining the winding stairwell lit with veilfire even as we watched.

I grinned at Solas, who extinguished the veilfire torch and set it in an empty holder on the wall before taking my unmarked hand and leading the way forward. The thrill of our unexpected adventure had almost wiped the reason for us being here from my mind. It all came back to me in a rush as we reached the foot of the stairs.

Before us lay a spacious cavern I’d never seen before in Skyhold. An underground pool filled most of the room. A waterfall poured its contents around the wolf statue beneath it. Most surprisingly, the air in the cavern didn’t feel too cold. On a whim, I leaned forward and touched the water. It was temperate! Magic was definitely at work here. Another wolf statue sat on the dry side of the room, veilfire burning in the bowl between its paws. Whatever magic was affecting the room, it had also kept the cushions at the wolf’s side from collecting dust over the years. Or had Solas come down here beforehand?

“I thought you might prefer an alternative to Sera’s pranks,” Solas said. “The door to the rest of Skyhold seals when the fires are lit.”

“That’s fantastic!” I was having a hard time processing that Solas would have risked revealing his secret by showing me this place just so Sera couldn’t steal my clothes again. “Thank you! I mean, I doubt she’ll do it again, since I talked to her, but it doesn’t hurt to ensure she won’t change her mind. Although what am I going to tell Meera?”

Solas looked unfazed. He was used to my trains of thought by now. “Tell her that you have made other arrangements and that she should take some well-deserved time off.”

I bit my lip. “But she’ll protest – and probably question what I’m up to. Besides, I don’t want her to feel like she’s being replaced.”

“You can send her to me, if you would prefer. I am in need of someone to help with my research.”

“Anything I can do?” I asked immediately. You idiot, that defeats the purpose of him suggesting the job for Meera in the first place.

Solas smiled gently. “Perhaps. In this case, I had hoped that Meera could assist me in obtaining texts from Ambassador Montilyet while you were otherwise occupied.”

“Right.” I felt like a fool, but Solas was very good about not making a person feel bad about making silly mistakes. One of the reasons I’ve always loved him. Words failed me, so I hugged him instead. “Thank you for bringing me here,” I murmured against his neck. “I’m honored.”

Chapter Text

The new arrangement worked out. I was right that Meera wouldn’t give up her duties so easily, but she was willing to assist Solas if it would help me. Sera stopped pranking people, including me. I couldn’t tell whether that meant my discussion with Solas about giving her more space to be herself was helpful or if she was just laying low for a while. Sera’s need to keep the important people from getting too self-important meant the reprieve was likely only temporary, but at least for now, things were calm.

Most everything was ready for the journey to Halamshiral. That turned the focus back to other Inquisition business in the meantime.

Cassandra had returned from Cair Oswin. She was right that the Seekers of Truth had not been amongst the red templars we’d already seen. Their resistance to red lyrium made them unsuitable candidates for Corypheus’s army. So instead, he had turned the Seekers over to the Order of Fiery Promise, a cult that sought to rebuild the world by ending it. Lord Seeker Lucius had been working with the cult, sending the Seekers one by one to their fates as hosts for new demons. Cassandra confronted Lucius and slew him. I noted she did not report that her former protégé, Daniel, had not survived. While I couldn’t say anything, since I only knew about Daniel from the game, I made sure to see Cass after the council meeting. I wanted her to have the opportunity to vent if she needed it.

But there was something else weighing even more heavily on her mind. She showed me the book she’d brought back from Caer Oswin.

“This tome has passed from Lord Seeker to Lord Seeker since the time of the old Inquisition,” she said. “And now it falls to me.”

All of the secrets of the Seekers were in that book. “That’s a lot of responsibility to gain, especially on such short notice.”

Cassandra frowned at me, then turned back to the book. “Do you know what the Rite of Tranquility is?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “The last resort used on mages in the Circle, leaving them unable to cast, but depriving them of dreams and all emotion. It should only be used on those who cannot control their abilities, but that has not always been the case.”

Tears suddenly welled up in my eyes. Karl and many other mages in DA2 had been made Tranquil to keep them docile. “It shouldn’t be used at all,” I blurted out, my emotions getting the better of me. “It’s inhumane.”

Cassandra grimaced. “I always thought it a necessary evil. What finally began the mage rebellion was the discovery the Rite of Tranquility could be reversed.” I couldn’t remember which book covered that event. Asunder, perhaps? It was one I hadn’t read, at any rate. “The Lord Seeker at the time covered it up – harshly. There were deaths. It was dangerous knowledge. The shock of its discovery in addition to what happened in Kirkwall…” Cassandra trailed off. “But it appears we’ve always known how to reverse the Rite. From the beginning.”

“With the Lord Seekers hiding that information, there was nothing to be done. And you can’t change the past,” I told her.

Cassandra lowered her head. “We created the Rite of Tranquility,” she reminded me. “To become a Seeker, I spent months in a vigil, emptying myself of all emotion. I was made Tranquil and didn’t even know. Then the vigil summoned a spirit of faith to touch my mind. That broke Tranquility – and gave me my abilities. The Seekers did not share that secret. Not with me, not with the Chantry. Not even with…” Cassandra broke off again, turning away from me as she did. “There’s more. Lucius was not wrong about the order. I thought to rebuild the Seekers once victory was ours. Now I’m not certain the order deserves to be rebuilt. Will that happen to us, Inquisitor? Will we repeat history?”

The moment of truth, as it were. “The only way to find out is to try and do better. At least now you can stop the cure from being suppressed. Maybe laying a stronger foundation will allow the new order to learn from the past. Maybe you and the remaining Seekers – are there even any others left?”

“I can’t be the only one remaining. We were always spread to the winds, and some may still be out there.”

“There has to be someone who knew where they were assigned other than Lucius, right?” I asked.

Cassandra shook her head. “Perhaps.” She clearly wasn’t optimistic about those odds. I couldn’t blame her, with the Seekers’ infrastructure collapsing around her. “Were I to rebuild the Seekers, I would find them, one by one. We would all read this book – no more secrets. Then together we would establish a new charter. The Maker’s work, in truth.”

Considering what the Chantry had done in the name of the Maker, I had to question that particular word choice. “How do you define ‘the Maker’s work?’”

“There is no way to know for certain. That is why we must seek it out.” Cass clenched a fist, an unconscious movement. “Perhaps we lost our way because we stopped looking.”

The conviction in Cassandra’s voice was more reassuring than the surface meaning of her words. But to me, this was her true calling: rebuilding the Seekers better than they were. Becoming Divine would only take her from the battlefield and block major changes within the Chantry. It was too large and unfocused a job for her to tackle. The Seekers, however, required her expertise.

“Well, if anyone can lead the Seekers to redemption and a new, improved future, it’s you, Cassandra,” I told her.

“But are they worth rebuilding?”

That was a more complicated question than Cassandra intended. “Assuming that the templars are going to still be around in some capacity, then having the Seekers to watch them will be essential. And if they’re not, well, someone has to remember the mistakes of the past so they won’t be repeated in the future.”

Cassandra bowed her head. “I…will think on your words.”

Chapter Text

Talking to Cassandra about the Seekers reminded me that I’d have to make a recommendation to the Chantry for the next Divine. As the Hands of the previous Divine, Cassandra and Leliana would be the Chantry’s top choices, due to the deaths of all the Revered Mothers at the Conclave.

I didn’t want to recommend Cass. She was too likely to maintain the status quo for my tastes. Besides, she’d be busy getting the Seekers in line. Regardless of what happened with the Circles and the templars, the Seekers had to remain as a form of authority – and they certainly needed an honest person like Cassandra leading them.

That left Leliana. Her big sweeping reforms would quickly change the face of the Chantry. Opening the Chantry’s doors to people of all races would help increase the common ground between them, or at least those who accepted Andraste. Plus she’d disband the Circles. I hoped that would open up the possibility of magical schools outside of Chantry control, but if so, that wasn’t addressed in the epilogue of Inquisition.

Of course, I could also put forward Vivienne’s name to the Chantry as a third candidate for Divine. She wasn’t connected to the Chantry at all, just a big player in The Game. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Getting the Chantry to look outside its own numbers. Making Vivienne Divine would put a mage in the most powerful chair in southern Thedas. Naturally, Tevinter had its own Divine – but that was another story entirely.

However, there was a reason I generally picked Leliana as Divine in Inquisition: I didn’t trust Vivienne. Leliana’s actions were sometimes misguided, but she never sought out power for herself. Vivienne didn’t just gather political power, she flaunted it. If the Inquisitor had romanced Iron Bull only to be betrayed by him in Trespasser, Vivienne would offer to call for an Exalted March against the qunari in retaliation. That was a flagrant abuse of power, even if it only happened under certain circumstances.

But this is real. Could I really judge Vivienne for actions she hadn’t actually taken? And yet…I knew her heart. I could not in good faith support giving her more political power, no matter how savvy a leader she was. She’s TOO savvy. Her changes would be more likely to stick than Leliana’s, since Vivienne would rebuild the established system while giving the mages more rights. But she would build the system around herself, forcing everyone – including the mages – to answer to her. I kept thinking of that one banter from Inquisition in which Solas compared her to the Evanuris. Not in those words, but the spirit was there. And he was right. Vivienne was on track to become a tyrant like them. Only a fool wouldn’t learn from history.

No, it had to be Leliana. The Chantry would need a strong leader with an open mind, one who would rule with her heart as well as logic. Thedas would just have to deal with the extreme changes.

I shook my head. Ugh. Preserving the Chantry in any way bothered me. The system was corrupt and needed to be changed, so helping to stabilize it felt a little counter-intuitive. But leaving a power vacuum and letting the Chantry implode would likely do more harm than good, knowing how many people looked to religion for guidance. Josephine had said something back in Haven that stuck with me – the Chant of Light served as common ground between groups that otherwise had none. Who could know what other unseen effects the sudden loss of the Chanty might have?

With these thoughts pinging around my mind, I wandered up to the rookery to visit Leliana. I knew her better from the games than I did in person. It was time to remedy that.

I found her staring at a message at her desk in the rookery. She looked up at my approach.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she told me. “I received a message from Divine Justinia.”

Oh good! Leliana was about to complete her journey back to her own moral compass. Without returning to her truest self, Leliana would rule with a bloody knife rather than compassion. “She arranged for you to receive this after she died?”

Leliana nodded. “This message was written months – perhaps even years – ago. I’ve heard of such contingency plans. A sudden death often leaves loose ends. I’m to go to Valence, a small village on the Waking Sea. There is something hidden there.”

“What do you think she left for you?” I asked as though I didn’t already know. Freedom.

Leliana’s gaze still hadn’t left the message. “The Divine was a powerful woman who used her position to obtain all sorts of things. Whatever she hid in Valence would very likely benefit the Inquisition and must be kept from falling into the wrong hands.” She perked up a bit. “If I’m lucky, she will have instructions for me.”

Well, that part’s accurate. The box Leliana would find contained a note that would release her from her position as the Left Hand of the Divine. While it wouldn’t benefit the Inquisition directly, saving Leliana’s soul from darkness was far more important. I would have thought so regardless of who the person was. But in Leliana’s case, the entire population of Thedas would be impacted when she became Divine.

“Is there time for you to reach Valence before we need to travel to Halamshiral?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, I will have to journey there after we save Empress Celene from Corypheus’s assassins.” Leliana rose to her feet with renewed purpose. “I was hoping you would agree to come with me to Valence.”

My stomach clenched. Hawke and Loghain had already been in the Western Approach for a month. It did not seem like the wisest idea to delay my journey there any longer than I already had, as it gave Corypheus more time to build his demon army. There was no possible way the Inquisition could take Adamant without my being there.

“I would be honored to support you through this difficult time,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “But I fear that my presence will be required in the Western Approach sooner than later – and it’s already later. If Corypheus really is responsible for the false Calling that the Wardens are hearing, then I expect that whatever awaits us in the Western Approach will involve new rifts being opened.”

“Ah, I see.”

It was obvious that Leliana was hurt. “I’m sorry! I want to be there for you and I don’t think you should go alone. But the situation –”

She held up a hand. “Do not misunderstand. I see your point.” She sighed. “I will simply make do on my own.”

Inspiration struck me. “Perhaps Josephine could go with you after Halamshiral.”

Surprise flooded Leliana’s face. “But she will be needed back at Skyhold! After so many weeks away…”

I shrugged. “What harm would adding a few more days to her absence cause?”

Some of the tension left her face. “Perhaps you are right. It is a thought worth considering.”

“Or, if you don’t mind waiting, I could come with you after A – our business is concluded in the Western Approach.” Ugh, that was too close. I’d almost said Adamant.

Leliana nodded. “I will need some time to plan. Thank you, Nancy.”

I returned the nod. That was my cue to leave.

Chapter Text

The days before we were to depart for Halamshiral were filled with last minute plans as we ensured Inquisition business would continue while the entirety of the inner circle was away from Skyhold. It seemed like there was always something new cropping up just when we’d thought we were done.

Many of our important field agents, like Scout Harding, had been recalled to keep a strong trusted presence at the core of Skyhold. Charter, Leliana’s second in command, would serve as our liaison. If any trouble arose in our absence, Charter would contact us for further direction. I didn’t know her very well, but from what I’d read about her in my Dragon Age books, she was an elf with a hidden past. Charter might not even be her real name. There was also a strong possibility that she was one of Solas’s agents. That last point in particular was more reassuring than worrisome, at least to my way of thinking. Other than Sera and Solas himself, Charter was the highest ranked elf in the Inquisition. If she truly were a double agent hiding that high within the Inquisition’s ranks, I had the utmost respect for her. She reported directly to Leliana – concealing her true identity from the spymaster would have been no easy feat.

Ser Barris and his core group of templars had also been recalled to Skyhold. While it was important for him to prove himself in the field so that he might be promoted to knight-commander, his presence would certainly keep the templars in check should anything happen with the mages in the coming weeks. No one was anticipating trouble per se, but who knew what could happen with so many of the highest ranking Inquisition officials absent?

The journey to Halamshiral almost felt anticlimactic after all the buildup. We had some trouble navigating through the melting snow on our way out of the mountains, but that was the only obstacle we encountered. Cassandra kept us on track, having returned to her post of leading the main group. That left Cullen free to specifically focus on the troops and allowed Leliana to oversee her agents’ movements. But the one who surprised me was Josephine. She kept us presentable from the moment we left the Frostbacks. Even days away from the Winter Palace, we needed to look professional. The spy reports preceding us to Halamshiral should reflect our unified front.

It only took a week to cross through the Frostbacks and ride to the west. The night before we were to arrive, Solas reminded me that we would not be able to speak to each other much outside the Fade. I really hated that he was going to pretend to be my servant and I told him so for the hundredth time. And he told me for the hundredth time that even if he wasn’t disguised as a servant, it would be inadvisable to draw attention to our relationship. This was why we’d kept things quiet, even in Skyhold: the Inquisitor could not have a known “weakness.” Plus neither of us wanted the Inquisition’s enemies investigating Solas’s past too closely – but we didn’t discuss that, since I wasn’t supposed to know.

We reached the Winter Palace in the morning. Its blue walls were deceptively cheerful through the early morning mists. The truth lay beneath the palace’s imposing outline. It rested on the ancient elven grounds that had once been called Halamshiral. This was not a place to seek safe harbor.

I kept my face a blank slate as Meera helped me out of the carriage. Polite neutrality was about the best mask I could muster for the Great Game. Not literally. Madame Zélie had fashioned golden half-masks for the Inquisition, including one that fit over my glasses, much like the one she’d made before. But I would not be able to hide behind that mask until the ball that was to precede the peace talks.

As we were shown to the Inquisition’s rooms in the guest wing with all the pomp and circumstance that one would expect from Orlesians, I wondered where Celene and her people were staying. I vaguely recalled that they’d been moved out of the royal wing due to damage to the palace during the ongoing War of the Lions between her and her cousin Gaspard. Or does that only apply in the game? I’d have to ask Leliana later where the empress was staying. And what of Briala? Celene’s most trusted adviser and former lover must have a place to stay. Or was she still out of Celene’s favor at this point? I couldn’t remember, only that Briala was considered a potential third leader for gameplay purposes.

I had barely gotten settled into my room when there was a knock at the door. Vivienne had beaten us to the Winter Palace. After the usual pleasantries, she dismissed Meera, saying that she wanted to speak to me privately for a moment.

“Bastien is dead,” she confided. “I can hardly believe…”

The news hit me like a punch to the gut. After all I’d done to give Vivienne increased odds of saving Bastien, it hadn’t mattered in the end.

“I’m so sorry, Vivienne.” The words were not enough. Nothing would be.

Vivienne allowed herself a sigh. “Thank you, my dear. And I do appreciate your help. I have not forgotten.” She leaned in closer. “And I am glad you have not forgotten that the walls have ears, especially here.” I nodded. “Good. Then you are ready. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

As Vivienne left, I wondered if she would be all right. She was much more forthright with her emotions regarding Bastien after he died in the game. But Halamshiral wasn’t safe… Definitely something to be discussed back at Skyhold.

Chapter Text

We spent the next few days being entertained in a small garden area of the Winter Palace. There were musicians, dancers, and plenty of food, but no sign of Celene. Some of the nobility had already arrived, but the true introductions would keep until the ball, after Gaspard and the rest of the dignitaries had arrived. It was all very Orlesian.

I observed everything from the relative safety of my quarters, which overlooked the garden. The war council had agreed to my request to remain in my quarters, thus retaining an air of mystique. I hadn’t needed to lobby too hard. Part of me wondered if that meant that Josephine and the others were afraid of how I’d handle the intricacies of the Great Game. Not that I could blame them if that were the case. I wasn’t the type who could lie easily. Mostly, I was worried about unexpected questions that I’d answer incorrectly. At any rate, we all agreed I shouldn’t be out there any more than was necessary.

An antechamber connected to mine served as Meera’s room. She was also under orders to avoid unnecessary contact outside the Inquisition. Truth be told, I didn’t think Josephine or Leliana wanted me to bring her. I knew Vivienne hadn’t. Meera had relaxed more in Skyhold, but she still had a slightly nervous air on bad days. It wasn’t a wise move to bring someone who was so openly jittery around new experiences to a place where secrets were valuable and the weak were preyed upon. But I was nothing if not loyal and so I had asked Meera what she wanted. She said she would go if I needed her. So she did. As far as I’d seen, she was doing fine talking to the palace servants, deflecting any nosy questions with a nervous duck of her head.

We weren’t the only members of the Inquisition missing out on the entertainment. Solas hadn’t been invited, since he was posing as my other trusted servant. That meant that he spent most of his time standing guard outside my chamber when he wasn’t acting as a go-between for Meera and the palace servants. It killed me that he was so close, yet so far away. At least we could still meet in the Fade. There, he told me about some of the tidbits of information he’d gathered throughout the day.

Sera had made contact with the Jennies and was already nicking whatever resources she could get away with. She was doing a great job of covering her tracks. I only knew because I caught her sneaking back into her room one night, her pockets filled with treasures the nobility being hosted in other sections of the palace had not yet missed. The nod we exchanged was binding. I wasn’t going to turn her in. There was no purpose in making the Inquisition look bad, especially since Sera only stole from people who deserved it: the cruel, the unkind.

Josephine and Leliana visited in the evenings to keep me in the loop. Most of it was a blur of names I didn’t recognize, all fighting with each other. But one did catch my attention: Grand Duchess Florianne de Chalons had been greatly disappointed that I would not be available until the ball. She was the one who had set up these peace talks between her brother and Celene. But as I knew from the game, she was also the assassin Corypheus had sent to kill the empress. So much death could be avoided if I could only tell the others that. But I had no tangible proof, so I kept my mouth shut.

That reminded me that Florianne had orders to eliminate me as well, since the Inquisition had turned up at the peace talks. Of course, she couldn’t act against me if I didn’t leave the ball…unless she opened a Fade rift the way she did in the game. Then I would have to go close it. She shouldn’t be able to do that, though, I argued. It makes no sense – she’s no mage. Maybe I was just worrying for nothing. I hoped I was.

I couldn’t decide if meta knowledge was a blessing or a curse here.

Chapter Text

At last, Grand Duke Gaspard arrived at Halamshiral. He and his entourage were on time, but it wasn’t like the peace talks could have happened without them anyway. As with most things in Orlais, the true reason for the Grand Ball was supposed to be a secret – which of course meant practically everyone involved knew it.

Unfortunately, the Inquisition’s invitation to the ball came through Gaspard. Josephine had explained that it was to his advantage to have us there. Even if we didn’t ultimately support Gaspard, our mere presence pressured Celene’s hold on her throne. So on the eve of the ball, I found myself before the main gate to the Winter Palace, staring up at the man I wanted nothing to do with.

“Ah, Inquisitor!” Gaspard greeted me with a dramatic sweep of his arm. His voice was low, but still somehow commanding. I wondered how he sounded on the battlefield, where he had inspired his most loyal followers. “We meet at last. I’ve heard so much about you. Bringing the rebel mages into the ranks of your army was a brilliant move – and the templars? A clever political ploy as well.” While Gaspard favored more brutal methods of accomplishing his goals, he was still quite good at noticing exploitable opportunities. “Imagine what the Inquisition could accomplish with the full support of the rightful emperor of Orlais.”

Bold words, to be sure. But Gaspard looked like the military man he was, not an emperor. His brusque demeanor, the rigid way he carried himself, the simplicity of his mask’s design – these marked a man who didn’t have time for hobnobbing with the nobility in the Great Game. He was only doing this because he had to in order to gain approval. Well, he’s not getting mine.

“It seems as though we’re doing all right for ourselves at the moment,” I replied dryly. “We’ll see what the future brings.”

“I am not a man who forgets his friends, Inquisitor. You help me, I'll help you.” There was definitely a hint of menace in his voice.

We walked together in silence as his words hung in the air. I forced myself to face forward, but I was glad to know Solas, Dorian, Vivienne, and the rest of the war council weren’t far behind me. I’d strategically chosen them for the spotlight. An elf, a Tevinter mage, and the court’s own enchanter combined with the diplomatic and military leaders of the Inquisition showed not only our open-mindedness, but also our willingness to play the Game. The rest of the inner circle was also present, but it would be impractical to formally present all of us to Celene at once. Besides, I figured the Iron Bull didn’t need any more attention than he was already going to get.

“My lady, are you prepared to shock the court by walking into the grand ball with a hateful usurper?” He clearly relished the idea of the scandal. “They will be telling stories of this into the next age.”

You overestimate your own importance, Mr. Grand Duke. “Assuming there is a next age. There’s a world to save in the meantime.”

“Of course.” Gaspard didn’t seem pleased that I’d put him off a second time. “If you have the safety of the Orlesian people at heart, Inquisitor, perhaps you will look into something for me. This elven woman, Briala – I suspect that she intends to disrupt the negotiations. My people have found these ‘ambassadors’ all over the fortifications. Sabotage seems the least of their crimes.”

I was grateful for my mask, since I quirked an eyebrow at the accusation. Let the politicking begin. “Is this just a gut feeling or do you have actual proof that she intends to do something?”

“That ‘ambassador’ used to be a servant of Celene’s. That is, until my cousin had her arrested for crimes against the empire to cover up a political mistake. If anyone in this room wishes Celene harm, Inquisitor, it's that elf. She certainly has reason.” Gaspard sighed heavily. “Be as discreet as possible. I detest the Game, but if we do not play it well, our enemies will make us look like villains.” I nodded. On that point, we agreed. “We're keeping the court waiting, Inquisitor. Shall we?”

Before I could respond, Josephine caught up with us. “Inquisitor, a moment, if you please?”

I shrugged at Gaspard, who inclined his head and went in ahead of us, leaving Josie and me alone to talk.

Josephine’s expression was grave. “I must warn you before you go inside: how you speak to the court is a matter of life and death. It is no simple matter of etiquette and protocol. Every word, every gesture is measured and evaluated for weakness.”

I was already aware, since I’d had this chat with Josie in the game. But the firm reminder in those words gave new weight to the potential threats that waited inside the palace. Corypheus’s assassin was the most pressing, but far from the only one.

“I’ll be sure not to let my guard down,” I reassured her.

“Good. The Game is like Wicked Grace played to the death. You must never reveal your cards. When you meet the empress, the eyes of the entire court will be upon you. You were safer staring down Corypheus.”

And this is why I hate the Game. “And with him, I didn’t have to hide my intent.” I sighed. “Thank you for the reminder that none of us is ever safe here. Maybe the others could use that as well. I do worry about some of them.” Sera in particular. I figured she could get herself out of any accidental trouble, but I would prefer that she didn’t get into it in the first place.

“I’ll have a few…discreet words.” Josie let out a sigh. “Everything will be fine,” she added. Her voice quavered as she tried to convince herself of the truth of that statement.

I smiled at her. “Don’t worry. It will be. I believe in you and the rest of our team.”

That seemed to help. “But what about you, Inquisitor?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but when she asked, I suddenly knew the answer. “Myself included. I can do this.”

Chapter Text

The vestibule to the Winter Palace appeared much like it did in the game, only everything was in sharper focus. The golden bannisters along the stairs gleamed ever more brightly. I barely had time to glance at the paintings and sculptures along the walls before meeting Gaspard at the doors to the ballroom. It was quite a pacing difference from the game, where we’d gotten the chance to talk to our companions and eavesdrop on intriguing Orlesian political gossip.

My breath caught at the sheer size of the ballroom. It was difficult to get a proper perspective on how impressively grand it was until you were standing in it. And there are so many people, I thought, trying to quell the fear rising in my chest as a courtier announced Gaspard’s entrance. It felt like the entirety of the Orlesian nobility had turned out for the ball.

“…Lady Inquisitor Nancy!”

Shit. I straightened my back and descended the stairs into the ballroom with as much poise and confidence as I could muster. When I reached the landing, I curtsied to the lady in the blue gown directly across the room from me. Empress Celene nodded her acknowledgment. That was my cue to follow Gaspard in walking toward her.

The courtier announced the members of the inner circle who had joined me for the introductions as we went. Unfortunately, the music drowned out any reactions from the crowd, so I couldn’t gauge how my choices went over. No matter. Everything still felt right to me. Those who preferred the shadows could have them. About the only exception was Solas, but since he was used to hiding in plain sight as it was, he could handle it.

Gaspard and I reached the stairs on the opposite side of the room and climbed up to the landing beneath the empress. She came across as even paler than me, due to her almost-white platinum blonde hair. I noticed that Celene’s face was less lined than it was in the game. I KNEW that couldn’t’ve been right! She’s my age.

“Cousin,” Gaspard greeted her. “My dear sister.”

Sister?! That was when I noticed Florianne step forward next to Celene. Though her complexion was similar to Celene’s, she had a hardness in her eyes that reminded me of Gaspard.

“Grand Duke,” Celene replied. “We are always honored when your presence graces our court.”

Gaspard waved her off. “Don’t waste my time with pleasantries, Celene. We have business to conclude.” Though his tone was light – for him, anyway – that was hardly a respectful response.

Celene took the snub in stride. “We will meet for the negotiations after we have seen to our other guests.”

Dismissed, Gaspard bowed dramatically before Celene. “Inquisitor,” he said to me in a voice a little too loud for a casual aside before taking his leave. Trying to get a last dig in, no doubt. After all, we’re supposedly here on his behalf.

Celene turned her attention to me. “Lady Inquisitor, we welcome you to the Winter Palace. Allow us to present our cousin, the Grand Duchess of Lydes, without whom this gathering would never have been possible.” Convenient, that, I thought as Florianne gave her own bow.

“What an unexpected pleasure,” Florianne said in a tone that clearly stated that our meeting was anything but a pleasure. “I was not aware the Inquisition would be part of our festivities. We will certainly speak later, Inquisitor,” she added as she too left. I guess everyone wants to give us space. Or maybe this was simply court etiquette. I couldn’t pretend that I knew all the nuances of the Orlesian court, no matter how much I’d prepared for this moment.

“Your arrival at court is like a cool wind on a summer’s day,” Celene told me.

I vaguely remembered some fancy response on the dialogue wheel, which would respond to her in similarly flowery language – but I was on my own here.

“It is an honor to be here, your majesty,” I replied. The need to add something else was overwhelming, but I resisted the urge to elaborate. Less is more in Orlais. Besides, I could speak to her privately later – or at least I hoped I’d be able to.

“We have heard much of your exploits, Inquisitor. They have made grand tales for long evenings.” It took all of my willpower not to roll my eyes. I couldn’t imagine she actually believed that. I really despise the language of the court. Reducing the realities of the world to…that. “How do you find Halamshiral?”

Now there was a question I couldn’t answer honestly. “It’s much grander than I had even imagined.” And even more unsafe.

“We hope you will find time to take in some of its beauties. Feel free to enjoy the pleasures of the ballroom, Inquisitor. We look forward to watching you dance.”

A stab of fear shot through me as I curtsied before the empress. Learning how to dance had been among my preparations for the ball. But that sure didn’t mean I was ready to be scrutinized for that performance. Especially since this is definitely not my forte.

Leliana met me at the top of the stairs. “Inquisitor. A word, when you have a moment.”

We moved to a relatively secluded corner of the ballroom.

“What did the Duke say?” she asked in a hushed tone.

“He accused Briala of plotting to disrupt the negotiations,” I told her.

“The ambassador is up to something, but she can’t be our focus. The best place to strike at Celene is from her side.”

I tried not to wince visibly. That was where Celene would get stabbed if we failed. This is not the time to be literal.

“Empress Celene is fascinated by mysticism,” Leliana went on. “Forseeing the future, speaking with the dead, that sort of rubbish.” Leliana’s frown was visible even behind her mask. “She has an ‘occult advisor.’ An apostate who charmed the empress and key members of the court as if by magic. I’ve had dealings with her in the past. She is ruthless and capable of anything.” Your biases are showing, Leliana. “She’s worth investigating. Can’t be sure of anything here.”

Morrigan. Flemeth’s daughter. But I wasn’t supposed to know that.

“Is she here tonight?”

“According to my spies, yes. I’ll coordinate with them to see if I can find anything better on either of our leads.”

“Have them check up on the Grand Duchess as well. These negotiations would not be taking place if not for her. She’s certainly in a convenient position of power.”

Leliana nodded. “A good idea, Inquisitor. I will be in the ballroom if you need me.”

As she disappeared into the crowd, I couldn’t help but marvel at how easily I’d slipped the true culprit’s name into the mix. Good. Because I really doubt that I’ll be climbing the trellis in the garden.

Chapter Text

I found myself at a loss. With Leliana’s agents already covering the Winter Palace, there seemed to be little use for the Inquisitor as anything more than a showpiece. In the game, I would have already rushed off to start trying to dig up dirt on the three major Orlesian factions or at least some of the nobility. I suppressed a laugh. No, you wouldn’t’ve. The Game would have always come in second to checking in with the inner circle.

Scanning the room revealed that Josephine had been cornered by her younger sister Yvette. Vivienne was already deeply engrossed in a conversation of her own. Cassandra and Cullen looked about as thrilled to be here as I was – but at least together, they each had an ally against any potential unwanted conversations. I didn’t see the others. Hopefully no one was causing a scene. As much as I hated playing the Game, losing it would have been far worse.

A familiar pointed helm peeked through the crowd on the far side of the room. I went after it, weaving my way through the crowd at a much slower pace than I wanted to. It would be unseemly for the Inquisitor to kick off her shoes and run across the ballroom, after all.

By the time I reached him, Solas had already found a comfortable spot against the wall from which he could observe the room in relative obscurity. We exchanged polite smiles – lest anyone notice the level of familiarity I found so difficult to conceal – before moving outside onto one of Halamshiral’s many verandas.

“I do adore the heady blend of power, intrigue, danger, and sex that permeates these events,” Solas confided in me.

I blushed behind my mask. The way Solas expressed that observation had always struck me as containing all of those qualities itself. I have never once been prepared to hear him say that – especially not now.

“Well, at least one of us enjoys being here!” I paused, studying the lines of Solas’s face. Servants, and those passing as them, remained unmasked. “Although all things considered, I’m surprised either of us is.” Haven’t you had enough intrigues for one lifetime, Solas?

“I have seen countless such displays in my journeys in the Fade. The powerful have always been the same – only the costumes change.”

“Speaking of costumes, yours is quite convincing, I must say!” I leaned in a little closer than I needed to. “Taunting the Orlesians right under their noses with that hat – and they don’t even realize it!”

Solas pulled away from me, preserving the respectful distance between us. At least he was maintaining the act properly, even if I couldn’t. “I see you have taken advantage of Skyhold’s extensive library,” he noted with a grin.

I smiled back, restraining myself to make up for my faux pas. “Indeed I have.”

It wasn’t an untrue statement, but I hadn’t learned about the helm’s true origin in Skyhold. It was on the Dragon Age wiki that I discovered this style of helm had originally been worn by a group that fought against Orlais many years ago. I had done a lot of research on that helmet, due to its ridiculous appearance and Solas’s insistence on wearing it. At least this replica doesn’t have a nose guard. Makes the thing almost fashionable. Almost. Evidently, my love-hate relationship with “that fucking hat” as I used to call it was doomed to continue.

“On that note, has anyone given you a hard time tonight?” I asked. “Maybe not about your wardrobe choice, but in general.”

“The Orlesians do not quite know what to make of me. I do not have the look of one of the elven servants or I might well be invisible.” Solas was right on that, of course. Even if he hadn’t been dressed in the same uniform as the other Inquisition men, his posture would have set him apart. “I have kept to myself for fear of giving them some purchase to cling to.”

“My lady! My lady Inquisitor!” Three women wearing lace masks approached us. I sensed Solas shift his body weight, making himself less noticeable.

“May we have a word?” asked one of the other women. “It is very important.”

“The Empress has sent us with a message for you,” said the third.

I recognized the ladies – they did indeed represent Celene and House Valmont. “Of course! It is always an honor to receive word from her majesty.”

“Oh, she is the honored one, Inquisitor!” the first woman told me.

“Empress Celene is eager to assist the Herald of Andraste in her holy endeavor,” said the second.

The third adjusted her glove as she spoke. “She will pledge her full support to the Inquisition as soon as the usurper Gaspard is defeated.”

I knew what that meant. The Inquisition would have to help her with Gaspard somehow. But I couldn’t do anything about that personally – not if this was anything like Inquisition. All of the dirt on Gaspard would be hidden behind locked doors in areas that I wouldn’t be going to. What a pain in the ass.

And yet, playing innocent on that count seemed wise. “I appreciate her offer and look forward to working with her.”

“The Empress believes wholeheartedly that the Inquisition is our best hope for peace in these difficult times,” the second woman told me.

“She looks forward to cementing a formal alliance,” said the first.

“As soon as Gaspard is out of the way,” muttered the third.

“But we have taken enough of your time,” continued the first woman as though her compatriot hadn’t spoken.

“Please enjoy the masquerade, Inquisitor,” added the second woman as the trio curtsied and returned to the ballroom.

Solas and I exchanged a glance. “Well, that’s encouraging,” I said. “Not without strings, but a step in the right direction.” I sighed quietly. “I should probably go tell the war council about this. Maybe I’ll hear something about Gaspard on the way.”

Solas grinned. “Hunt well.”

Chapter Text

A chill came over me as I left Solas and rejoined the crowd in the ballroom. Not now, I commanded the anxiety tightening in my chest. Being around this many people, especially when there was a distinct possibility that many of them were plotting against me and the rest of the Inquisition, was not good for my nerves. I’d been doing better before I was left to my own devices.

I wasn’t sure who to bring Celene’s pledge of support to first. By all rights, it was Josephine’s expertise as an ambassador that I needed the most, but Leliana’s cunning knowledge of the Game would also be key in interpreting the true meaning of the offer…and the spymaster was nowhere in sight.

“Well, well, what have we here?” asked someone behind me. I tried not to flinch in surprise. Whether I succeeded, I couldn’t tell. I knew that voice, even though I’d never heard it before in person. Turning around revealed a woman in a splendid gown of black and red with a large intricate gold necklace. She wore no mask, all the better to show off her startling yellow eyes.

“The leader of the new Inquisition, fabled Herald of the faith, delivered from the grasp of the Fade by the hand of Blessed Andraste herself,” she went on. Every title was delivered with such a dramatic air that I couldn’t decide if Morrigan was mocking me or not. The last one sounded especially sarcastic. Ironic, since Andraste is likely the same person as Mythal…a.k.a. Morrigan’s mother. “What could bring such an exalted creature here to the Imperial Court, I wonder? Do even you know?”

What a surprise that her first instinct was to insult me. She wants information. Despite knowing who she was and that we’d need her help, I was disinclined to give her anything at the moment. “Why? What have you heard?” I asked, folding my arms.

“A great deal,” she returned. “Courtly intrigues obscure much, but not all.” She inclined her head in greeting. “I am Morrigan. Some call me adviser to Empress Celene on matters of the arcane." She indicated I should follow her, so we set off across the ballroom. She continued in an even lower voice. “Your people have been very busy this evening, hunting in every dark corner of the palace. Perhaps you and I hunt the same prey?”

Either more time had passed than I’d thought or Leliana’s people were much faster than I’d anticipated. That didn’t matter now. “You tell me,” I replied noncommittally. “Do we?”

She laughed lightly. “You are being coy.”

“Seems like a wise thing to be in the Winter Palace, doesn’t it?” I asked in as flat a voice as I could muster. Get to the point, Morrigan.

“Not unwise, here of all places,” she conceded. “Allow me to speak first, then. Recently, I found – and killed – an unwelcome guest within these very halls. An agent of Tevinter.” Morrigan’s tone was matter-of-fact, but her implicit warning was understood. She was quite dangerous if she wanted to be. “What intentions the Imperium has here, I suspect you know far better than I. So I offer you this, Inquisitor: a key, found on the Tevinter’s body.” She pressed the square key into my hand. “Where it leads, I cannot say, yet if Celene is in danger, I cannot leave her side long enough to search. You can.”

My head swam. Was I going to have to explore Halamshiral after all? Or would Leliana’s agents be able to handle it? Something else to discuss when I track down the war council. “We’ll look into it. Thank you.”

“Proceed with caution, Inquisitor. Enemies abound, and not all of them are aligned with Tevinter.” Her warning sounded almost sincere. “What comes next will be most exciting.”

And that…did not. But unable to do anything else, I merely nodded and took my leave.

Chapter Text

I returned to the ballroom and after several minutes of frantic searching finally found Leliana in the crowd. I updated her on what Celene’s representatives and Morrigan had told me.

“Most curious,” Leliana mused as she studied the key I’d handed her. “Could it be a ruse, I wonder? But if Morrigan is as loyal to Celene as she claims...but then when was she ever loyal to anyone except herself?”

“Have your agents found anything suspicious?” I asked by way of redirecting the subject away from Morrigan. Whatever her reasons for protecting Celene, Morrigan was not the problem we had to face tonight.

“There have been whispers of elves going missing in the servants’ quarters. Briala’s people.”

“Maybe this key leads there then,” I offered. “Maybe,” heh. Of course it did. “Should I help investigate?”

Leliana looked surprised that I would even ask. “It would be scandalous enough if my agents were caught wandering the palace, let alone the Inquisitor herself. No, Inquisitor, you must remain here.”

I nodded, anxiety gnawing at my chest again. It was foolish to broach the subject simply because I didn’t know what to do with myself in the real Orlais.

“What should I do about Celene’s offer in the meantime?”

“Nothing, for the moment,” Leliana advised. “We must first succeed in our mission.”

There was little I could say to that, so we parted ways. I tried to stop myself from visibly shaking. Orlais was a lot easier to handle from behind a computer screen when I didn’t have to play the part of the politician myself. Actually keeping a stone face was a lot more difficult in person.

“Inquisitor Nancy?” Ice ran up my spine as I turned to face the speaker. “We met briefly. I am Grand Duchess Florianne de Chalons. Welcome to my party.”

“Good evening.” I was not ready for this. At all.

“I believe tonight you and I are both concerned by the actions of…a certain person.” Pretty sure the actions I’m worried about the most are yours. “Come, dance with me,” she added in a lower voice. “Spies will not hear us on the dance floor.”

The mark tingled with energy as my anxiety flared. Dancing was difficult enough for me without my partner being Corypheus’s agent. But I didn’t really have a choice here.

“Very well. Shall we then?”

“I’d be delighted,” Florianne said in a much louder voice, one that was intended to be overheard.

I still wasn’t sure how being on the dance floor would protect us from being overheard by spies who were also on the dance floor, but at this point, I was too tired to question the nuances of the Great Game. I just hoped that the lessons I’d gotten from Josephine paid off here.

“You are from the Free Marches, are you not?” Florianne asked. “How much do you know about our little war?”

“Well, it’s not little,” I quipped. She wasn’t going to get any information out of me. “What happens in Orlais impacts the rest of Thedas.”

“Perhaps it does. I should not be surprised to find the Empire is the center of everyone’s world.” I tried not to cringe at how dismissive her tone was. “It took great effort to arrange tonight’s negotiations, yet one party would use this occasion for blackest treason.” You, I thought as we turned and faced each other once again. Although Gaspard’s certainly at work as well. “The security of the Empire is at stake. Neither one of us wishes to see it fall.”

Now that was definitely a lie. “Do we both want that, Lady Florianne?” I asked, funneling the venom behind the words into false sweetness.

“I hope we are of one mind on this,” she countered in a simpering voice that immediately pissed me off.

“In times like these, it can sometimes be difficult to tell friend from foe, would you not agree, your grace?” I countered as we moved further down the dance floor.

“I know you arrived here as a guest of my brother, Gaspard. And that your people have been everywhere in the palace…” I took advantage of our positioning to hide my face. I’d forgotten she knew that. “You are a curiosity to many, Inquisitor…and a matter of concern to some.”

“And which of those groups are you in?” I asked boldly.

“Both, actually. This evening is of great importance, Inquisitor. I wonder what role you will play in it. Do you even yet know who is friend and who is foe? Who in the court can be trusted?”

Not you. “I could ask you the same thing, your grace.”

We twirled around the dance floor twice before Florianne responded. “In the Winter Palace, everyone is alone. It cannot have escaped your notice that certain parties have engaged in dangerous machinations tonight.”

“Sounds like a typical night at Halamshiral, does it not?” I wasn’t rising to any of this bait. I didn’t want to let her know which side to implicate in her lies.

There were murmurs in the crowd as I dipped Florianne. That didn’t help my nerves any. “You have little time,” Florianne said, choosing to completely ignore my question. “The attack will come soon. You must stop Gaspard before he strikes. In the royal wing garden, you will find the captain of my brother’s mercenaries. He knows all Gaspard’s secrets. I’m sure you can persuade him to be forthcoming.”

And there it was. The trap. From what I remembered, Florianne would open a Fade rift to summon demons against me. I would have to go this time. No one else could close it.

“We’ll see what the night has in store for us then, won’t we?” I asked as the dance came to an end.

Chapter Text

My brain raced. I couldn’t just flounce into the royal wing in my gown. How was I going to change into my armor for the impending battle, then get prettied up again in time to confront Florianne? The costume shift wasn’t properly addressed in Halamshiral’s video game equivalent – it just sort of…happened. Plus the Inquisitor wore pants in the game. No matter. Gotta find the council first.

For what felt like an eternity, I failed to spot any of the Inquisition’s red in the crowd. I tried not to jump as a gloved hand fell on my shoulder. It was Josephine, who was practically glowing with pride. “You’ll be the talk of the court for months! We should take you dancing more often.”

While I appreciated her support and approval, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. “The grand duchess offered some information,” I said, sidestepping that conversation. “A little too freely, I might add.”

Josephine’s tone sobered immediately. “Of that, I have no doubt.”

We moved to a quieter corner of the ballroom. Cassandra and Cullen joined us.

“Were you dancing with Duchess Florianne?” Cassandra’s disgust was apparent. Did she suspect the duchess of wrongdoing or was she just being protective? Perhaps she was simply unhappy that I was dancing under the circumstances.

“More importantly, what happened in the servants’ quarters?” Cullen asked Leliana as she approached. “I heard there was fighting.”

“I hope you have good news,” Josephine said, distress creeping into her voice. “It appears the peace talks are crumbling.”

“My agents discovered Tevinter assassins and chevaliers bearing the Chalons family crest,” Leliana reported. Her eyes narrowed. “Many servants and an emissary from the Council of Heralds were killed.”

“And Florianne told me where we might find the captain of Gaspard’s mercenaries,” I added.

Even behind her mask, Leliana’s surprise was evident. “She offered up her own brother? She’s more cutthroat than I realized.”

“Then…the attack on the empress will happen tonight,” Cullen concluded. The concern in his voice caught me off-guard. Had he really hoped the attack wouldn’t happen?

“Warning Celene is pointless,” Josephine said. “She needs these talks to succeed, and to flee would admit defeat.”

“Then perhaps we should let her die,” Leliana put in. I couldn’t wait for her to visit Valance with Josephine so she could be freed from serving Justinia even in death. Hard-hearted practical Leliana quite frankly scared the shit out of me.

“The whole reason we’re here is to prevent Celene from being assassinated,” I reminded Leliana.

“What Corypheus wants is chaos,” Leliana countered. “Even with Celene alive, that could still happen. To foil his plan, the empire must remain strong. This evening, someone must emerge victorious.”

“You think that warmonger Gaspard would keep Orlais stable?” I could feel my chance to keep Briala in the loop slipping away. While I hadn’t yet met her in person, I knew that the only way Orlais would be any better for the elves was to keep her in Celene’s good graces. Whether that meant rekindling their romance would be up to them. I’d gotten far enough into The Masked Empire to get the feeling that part would be a bad idea. “I suspect that with him out of the picture, Celene and Briala will be able to bring Orlais back to a happier, more stable state.”

“Presuming they can be reconciled,” Cullen pointed out.

“You told us Florianne offered us the location of Gaspard’s captain?” Cassandra asked.

“He’s in the royal wing,” I told her. “According to Florianne, he knows about the assassination.”

Cullen frowned. “Which could be a trap.”

“Or a lead,” Josephine mused.

“It sounds like both to me,” I said, choosing my words carefully. Gaspard was far from innocent, but Florianne was the true threat here. “It seems awfully convenient that Florianne has so much information about her brother’s actions, yet she’s having us do her dirty work.”

Leliana nodded. “I will have my agents investigate – both the duchess and the royal wing.”

“I should go with them in case there’s a Fade rift or something. After all, Corypheus is involved – his agent might be able to open a rift.” I wasn’t being terribly subtle, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

“Absolutely not,” Cassandra said. “You are the only person with power over the rifts. You must be kept safe above all else.”

“If there is somehow a rift inside the Winter Palace, then my agents can hold off the demons until you arrive,” Leliana reassured me.

I had no counter-argument to that. “All right,” I conceded, trying to keep my voice even. The feeling of wrongness was overwhelming, but what else could I do? I had been successfully overruled. Hopefully no one dies because of this deviation from canon.

Chapter Text

I didn’t know what to do with myself. With Leliana’s agents investigating Florianne and her false lead, I had no assignment, no purpose while waiting for them to return. Keeping an eye on the grand duchess herself wasn’t an option, since she’d disappeared while I was talking to the war council.

Even something as trivial as looking around the room could be dangerous. It might draw attention to the Inquisition soldiers that Cullen was currently moving into position for the imminent attack. Talking to other members of the Inquisition after having just met with the war council in public might also raise suspicion. That left me with the rest of the nobility for options, but I wasn’t up for more verbal dancing. I settled on watching the dancers who were still on the floor, hoping that would be an innocuous enough choice.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

I knew that distinctive accent. I turned to see an elven woman clad in a green gown that was simple by Orlesian standards. The freckles on her tan skin stood out even under her silver half-mask.

“We haven’t been properly introduced, have we? I’m Ambassador Briala.” She gave a short bow.

I imagined that to most of Orlais, Briala didn’t look much like an ambassador. But for the work she needed to do, I doubted she cared – at least not tonight.

“It’s good to meet you, Ambassador.” I made sure there was enough warmth in my voice to convey that sincerity. Of the three candidates to rule Orlais, I liked Briala the most, even though I’d never gone that route in game.

“Your reputation for getting results is well-deserved.” She indicated that we should walk outside. I nodded and followed her out onto one of the verandas.

Only when we were alone did Briala speak again. “Your agents have been busy tonight. So…the Council of Heralds emissary in the courtyard. That wasn’t your work, was it?”

Briala wasn’t one to mince words, the polar opposite of Celene. No wonder she’d needed the space to talk. I knew I liked her.

“No, it wasn’t us.”

Briala allowed herself a satisfied smirk. “I expected as much. You may have arrived with the Grand Duke, but you don’t seem to be doing his dirty work.” Her tone grew serious. “I knew he was smuggling in his chevaliers, but killing a council emissary? Bringing Tevinter assassins into the palace? Those are desperate acts. Gaspard must be planning to strike tonight.”

Was he, though? The Tevinter assassins could have been with Florianne. Or she could have been setting up her brother. But his mercenary captain would confirm Gaspard really was planning to act tonight, I reminded myself. Regardless of whatever suspicion Florianne had tried to divert to her brother, the man was still guilty.

“Have you told Celene?” I asked.

“You can try to warn her,” Briala replied. “She won’t believe anything from me.” There was a taste of bitterness in those words. “I misjudged you, Inquisitor. You might just be an ally worth having.” Her approval seemed sincere, or about as sincere as anything got in Orlais. “What could you do with an army of elven spies at your disposal? You should think about it.”

Work alongside Solas’s army of elven spies. I winced internally. That was terribly unlikely to happen. “Don’t you need them?” I deflected instead.

Briala smirked again, though just for a moment. “I know which way the wind is blowing. I’d bet coin that you’ll be part of the peace talks before the night is over. And if you happen to lean a little bit our way? It could prove advantageous to us both. Just a thought.”

And with that, Briala disappeared back into the ballroom, leaving me to mull over her offer.

Chapter Text

I felt like a fool. How could I not have thought to warn Celene before Briala suggested it? Was I really so used to the events of Halamshiral unfolding the way they did in the game that I’d stopped thinking outside the box?

Enough. There wasn’t time. I could criticize myself later. I had to find Celene.

There was no sign of her distinctive blue gown anywhere in the ballroom that I could see. You’d think she’d have to at least be visible from a distance. Perhaps Celene was taking better security precautions than I had remembered.

There. I spotted Celene’s three ladies-in-waiting across the ballroom. Surely they would know where she was.

“Inquisitor! To what do we owe this honor?” asked the first woman.

“We are always delighted to speak with you, of course,” added the second.

“Her Imperial Majesty is unfortunately occupied at present,” apologized the third.

That can’t be good. “I know the empress must be busy with the negotiations, but I must speak with her immediately. It’s urgent.” Redundant, perhaps, but they needed to understand.

The third woman shook her head. “I am afraid we cannot disturb her Majesty during the negotiations.”

“But we will speak to the empress on your behalf at the earliest opportunity,” the second assured me.

That was not what I wanted to hear. At least from what I remembered, these women were trustworthy. But could they reach her before it was too late?

“I have reason to believe that there will be an attack on the empress tonight,” I confided.

None of the women seemed more than politely surprised.

“The empress has taken precautions to protect herself from such an attack,” the first woman told me.

“Even one not coming from Gaspard?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. Now I had the women’s attention.

“That is quite the accusation, Inquisitor,” said the third woman.

“Who else plots against our empress?” asked the first.

“Do you have proof of this ill intent?” inquired the second.

That last question gave me pause. All I had was knowledge from the game and that definitely didn’t count as proof. You fool, look at where your good intentions have landed you this time.

“My people are still investigating,” I admitted. “But it looks like –”

The second woman cut me off. “We appreciate your concern, Inquisitor.”

“But I am afraid we cannot act on suspicions alone,” added the third.

“Do not worry,” the first reassured me.

“We will take extra precautions to protect her,” the second chimed in. “Just to be safe.”

I knew when I was being dismissed. There really wasn’t much else I could do with nothing more than unproven theories. I couldn’t pretend to be extra intuitive like with Ser Barris. This was the Orlesian court, the Great Game. Every rumor could be denied unless there was explicit proof to the contrary.

I bowed. “Thank you. I will remain on my guard as well.”

Chapter Text

Now what? I couldn’t reach Celene. Leliana’s agents hadn’t returned. If I didn’t have proof from them that Florianne was the assassin waiting to kill Celene, I couldn’t stop her in front of the court. Guards would die, as might Celene herself. Calm down. Florianne isn’t even here yet. There was still time, but that didn’t relieve the anxiety weighing heavily on my chest.

I kept an eye on the door, trying to make it look like I wasn’t staring, even though I definitely was. Each moment felt like an eternity. I hoped against hope that Florianne hadn’t bothered with opening a Fade rift without my being there.

A faint murmur spread through the crowd. I turned instinctively toward the center of the ballroom. My heart sank. Florianne had joined Gaspard and Briala in waiting for Celene to make her speech. That was when Florianne intended to strike.

Leliana’s agents had not returned. We were out of time. I had to act now or Celene would die.

I crossed the ballroom as quickly as decorum allowed. It wasn’t until I was within hailing distance that I became painfully aware that I had no plan.

“Might I have a word, your grace?” I asked in a voice loud enough to carry across the ballroom.

Florianne faced me, her face a mask of innocence. “Inquisitor?”

These words had to count. “I mean in private. I wouldn’t want to destroy what’s left of your reputation in front of the court.”

“Don’t you mean yours, Inquisitor?” A smug smile spread across Florianne’s face. She thought I had nothing on her. I hoped that the agents were okay.

“I’m not the one plotting to assassinate the empress at the ball you so cunningly arranged for her.” Her smirk faltered for a moment. “Nor am I the one working for Corypheus.”

Her façade fell back into place. “These are quite the accusations, Inquisitor,” Florianne bluffed. “A pity you lack proof to support them.”

She had me there. But I wasn’t done yet. “You really should make sure that all loose ends have been tied up before thinking you’re safe, your Grace. Telling the truth to people you believe are about to die is perhaps the worst mistake a villain can make.”

Florianne went pale. Got her. So the real Florianne was as liable to monologue and explain her motivations as her in-game equivalent. That’s lucky. The Inquisition might know that I was bluffing here, but Florianne didn’t.

“While we’re at it, you should apologize to your brother for trying to frame him for the death of a council emissary,” I went on. The crowd erupted further at that revelation. Gaspard looked shocked. “Everyone was intended to assume that the convenient appearance of the Chalons family crest would point to him rather than you. But if you know who the true mastermind of the plot against the empress is, it all comes into clearer focus.”

“This is…very entertaining,” Florianne said dismissively as she slowly backed away. “But you do not imagine anyone believes your wild stories.”

“That will be a matter for a judge to decide, Cousin.” Celene had arrived while we were talking.

It seemed to be dawning on Florianne that she’d lost. “Gaspard? You cannot believe this! You know I would never –”

Gaspard shook his head in disgust and walked away without a word. Whether Florianne truly had murdered the emissary or not, letting the court believe she had was the only way for Gaspard to save face.

Celene’s guards closed in to take Florianne away. Cullen and the Inquisition’s soldiers were strategically placed around the ballroom to back them up if needed, but it didn’t appear to be necessary as the disgraced grand duchess sank to her knees.

Relief flooded my system. I can’t believe that worked. I’d had to rely on bluffs and a great deal of meta knowledge, but we were victorious.

“Inquisitor?” Celene asked. “Might we speak privately?”

I nodded. “Certainly, your majesty.” A movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Leliana. “In just a moment.”

Chapter Text

Leliana briefed me on what I’d missed as quickly as she could. Her agents were relatively unharmed. There had been no demons. Thank the Maker that had just been a dramatic gameplay detail. Leliana was impressed that I’d undermined Florianne’s doubts and fears so well under the circumstances. Fortunately, since Celene was waiting, I was saved from providing an explanation – for the moment, at any rate.

I joined Celene and the other Orlesian leaders on the veranda. Things were already getting heated.

“Your sister attempted regicide in front of the entire court, Gaspard!” Briala spat out.

Gaspard didn’t miss a beat. “You’re the spymaster. If anyone knew this atrocity was coming, it was you.”

“You don’t deny your involvement,” Briala noted.

“I do deny it!” Gaspard’s anger boiled over quickly. “I knew nothing of Florianne’s plans. But you! You knew it all and did nothing.”

Briala snorted in amusement. “I don’t know which is better: that you think I’m all-seeing or that you’re trying so hard to play innocent – and failing.”

“Enough!” Celene stepped in commandingly. “We will not bicker while Tevinter plots against our nation! For the safety of the Empire, I will have answers.”

Even if Gaspard didn’t know about Florianne’s plans, he’d had his own in place. Briala couldn’t be faulted for assuming Gaspard was responsible for his sister’s actions. There was only one option that I saw.

“Gaspard may not have known about his sister’s plans, but that didn’t stop him from putting his own into motion,” I told Celene truthfully. “He snuck chevaliers and mercenaries into the Winter Palace this evening. Gaspard intended to overthrow you. Briala helped us uncover information on both plots.”

“You were working together?” Celene was clearly surprised.

“Of course,” Briala confirmed smoothly, as though we’d planned it.

“We have the leader of Gaspard’s mercenaries who can testify to his boss’s intent here tonight,” I added.

“In light of overwhelming evidence, we have no choice but to declare you an enemy of the Empire,” Celene proclaimed to Gaspard. “You are hereby sentenced to death.” The empress summoned guards to take Gaspard away. I wondered if he’d get to see Florianne again before they both died.

My stomach fluttered nervously. I had to put in a good word for Briala, but I also didn’t want things to go back to the way they were. I knew enough about their relationship from The Masked Empire to know that Celene had burned an alienage despite her supposed love for Briala. This was going to be hard.

 “Ambassador Briala deserves recognition for what she’s done for the Empire today – and for you personally, your majesty.” Dial it back. “Whatever you two do with your personal lives is up to you. Either way, I highly recommend that the elves of Orlais be treated more like people and less like pawns in your Great Game. The elves have suffered enough at the hands of humans.”

That is NOT dialing it back. Even behind her mask, Briala looked stunned. Celene gave me a long, hard look in silence.

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” she said at last. “For all your efforts tonight. I owe you my life and Orlais owes you its future. Your words will be taken into consideration.”

And with that, Celene walked into the ballroom with Briala. She’d dropped the royal “we” for that, so maybe my plea would stick. I certainly hoped so. Things needed to get better.

I hurried after the women as quickly as decorum allowed.

“You have done so much,” Celene told me when I caught up. “For my people…and for us.” That wasn’t the royal “us;” she’d glanced at Briala.

“We won’t forget this,” Briala added.

“I hope that the two of you can bring positive change to Orlais in the years to come,” I said, fully aware that we could now be more easily overheard. “And look forward to working with you to save Thedas from Corypheus.”

Celene smiled. “Come, stand with us, Inquisitor. We must give the good news to the nobility.”

My skin crawled as we took our places above the dance floor. Everyone’s eyes were on us.

“Lords and ladies of the court,” Celene announced, her arms spread wide. “This is a night for celebration! Those who have sought to poison our empire with treason have been brought to justice.” The crowd appeared nonplussed. How many of them had secretly been counting on Gaspard winning the throne? “It is a new age for Orlais. We shall build a world in which all men and women live in harmony. Let the cornerstone of change be laid. I introduce the newest member of our court, Marquise Briala of the Dales!”

A murmur rippled through the crowd as Briala stepped forward next to Celene. “This is not just a victory in Halamshiral, all within the Empire, or even for elves alone. This is a triumph for everyone!” Her voice was pure and true in a way that Celene’s was not and never could be. The Great Game had not diminished her sincerity. “Over a thousand years ago in the Valarian Fields, elves and humans together defeated the Imperium. We can do so much more now. We are greater than our ancestors ever dreamed! Together, we will start by saving our world from the enemy who took the Divine and tore the sky apart!”

That was my cue to move next to Briala. She was a hard act to follow. “All of Thedas must unite against this terror who threatens the peace and order of this land.” That means you, you privileged assholes. The nobility did not know how close they had come to witnessing the wrath of Corypheus firsthand tonight.

“We are already tracking these Tevinter agents,” Briala added. “Soon, they’ll have no place to hide.”

“But that is tomorrow,” Celene declared. “Tonight, we celebrate our newfound fellowship. Let the festivities commence!”

As the crowd cheered, I slipped away to look for an unoccupied veranda. I needed to think.

Chapter Text

Despite knowing my crimson gown made me stand out from the crowd, I tried my best to make an inconspicuous escape from the ballroom. At last I found an unoccupied veranda and breathed a sigh of relief in the cool night air.

“The Orlesian nobility make drunken toasts to your victory,” said a familiar voice behind me. “And yet, you are not present to hear them.” I tried not to look annoyed as Morrigan walked up next to me. So much for a moment alone. “Do you tire so quickly of their congratulations, Inquisitor? ‘Tis most fickle, after all your efforts on their behalf.”

She had to be fishing for information. That was one of the things Morrigan was good at doing. “I just needed a minute to myself,” I said truthfully. “To take in some air after all the events of the evening.”

If Morrigan felt slighted by my need to be alone, it didn’t show on her face. “I had no wish to interrupt your breathing, only to bring news. By Imperial decree, I have been named liaison to the Inquisition. Celene wishes to offer you any and all aid, including mine.” Morrigan’s gaze dropped. There was a tinge of bitterness in her voice. I knew from Origins just how much Morrigan hated being forced to do things. Unfortunate. Her smile snapped back onto her face. “Congratulations,” she added with polite sincerity.

I wanted to ask her if she was okay with this arrangement – to let her out if she so desired. But I knew we would need her. Besides, Morrigan likely would want to see and experience some of the things we would encounter anyway.

“Welcome to the Inquisition, Lady Morrigan,” I replied, stumbling a little on the title. She was just Morrigan to me. “We’re glad to have you aboard.”

She smiled. “A most gracious response.”

With that, Morrigan left me to my thoughts, her heels clicking on the stone floor as she departed. Probably off to inform the war council of our new liaison. Cassandra and Cullen would be thrilled, no doubt. Hopefully Morrigan found Leliana first. Even with their past history, Leliana wouldn’t turn away a gained opportunity.

“I’m not surprised to find you out here.” I tried not to jump as Solas appeared at my side. I hadn’t heard his approach. “Thoughts?”

The question was deceptively simple. “I can’t wait to get back home – to Skyhold.” With a lopsided grin, I added, “It’s been a very long day and I’m tired of Orlais.” I winced as I accidentally rhymed.

Solas rested a hand on my back. “It has been a long day for everyone, I imagine,” he agreed. “It’s nearly over now. Cullen’s giving the soldiers their marching orders as we speak.” That hadn’t taken long, though I couldn’t say I was surprised. Cullen hated Orlais as much as I did. Solas removed his hand from my back and extended it in invitation. “Come, before the band stops playing, dance with me.”

Time stopped. With all of the stress of stopping Florianne, I had forgotten the possibility of Solas asking. The good part was that I hadn’t been agonizing over it all evening. The bad part was that all of the related panic was hitting me simultaneously now.

“Aren’t you worried about blowing your cover?” I asked with a weak smile. You’re deflecting the question. I groaned internally. Even knowing how to dance didn’t take away my nerves about dancing with someone I loved.

Solas shrugged. “The eyes of the court do not appear to be upon us or you would be surrounded by admirers.” And even if they were, he doesn’t care. It was written all over his face.

I couldn’t help grinning. Solas being a little reckless and impulsive? How could I resist? “Just one is enough for me,” I said as I took his hand. “Admirer, not dance, I mean.”

Ugh, why are words so hard? But my anxiety melted away as he took me in his arms with a laugh.

Chapter Text

“What do you mean we’re not going back to Skyhold?” My knuckles whitened as I gripped the edge of the campaign table which had been set up on the outskirts of our temporary camp. This was not the plan.

“We cannot spare the time,” Leliana replied in an infuriatingly calm tone. “We will travel far enough from the Winter Palace to trick anyone who might follow us, then we will split up.” The spymaster moved pieces around the map as she spoke. “Most of the Inquisition soldiers will return to Skyhold to divert attention. Josie and I will travel to Valence to see what Divine Justinia left for me. Dorian and Sera will accompany Iron Bull and the Chargers to the Storm Coast, where they will rendez-vous with the qunari.”

Cassandra folded her arms. “Commander Cullen and I will escort you and the rest of the inner circle to the Western Approach with the remainder of the soldiers. Hawke and Loghain await us there.”

This was a lot to process. Sure, it made practical sense. We were already partway to the Western Approach as it was. Going back to Skyhold first would add an unnecessary two week delay. “But why wasn’t I told?” I asked aloud.

“The decision was deemed a distraction,” Josephine explained gently. “Your focus needed to be on the negotiations. Any other topics were considered…extraneous.”

I cringed internally even as I nodded my understanding. They knew me too well, it seemed. “What about Morrigan and her son?” Kieran was a quiet boy of about 10. While he no doubt had inherited some of his mother’s magic and survival skills, the Western Approach was no place for him. Or the soul of the archdemon that he no doubt carries inside him, since Kieran’s very existence confirmed that the dark ritual had been done.

“They will travel to Skyhold under the protection of our soldiers,” Leliana assured me. “No harm will come to them.”

Cullen stepped forward. “In the meantime, we continue to receive reports regarding the search for weaknesses in Corypheus’s lieutenants.” With a look of utter distaste, he added, “It seems that Samson has fashioned himself a suit of armor that uses red lyrium to dramatically enhance his powers. Arcanist Dagna is currently working on a solution to break his armor.”

Cullen and Samson had once served as templars together in Kirkwall. Their paths away from the Chantry had been similar, but Cullen’s was certainly the more noble one. Of course he was bitter about Samson.

Before I could acknowledge the information, Leliana spoke up again. “Dagna has also been instrumental in discovering more information about Calpernia. My agents followed a lead while investigating the Venatori and discovered a broken dwarven memory crystal. She has repaired the device and my agents are currently on a mission to put it to use spying on the woman.”

Anxiety bubbled in my chest. While I was glad of the progress being made, I was suddenly painfully aware that I had never actually finished a playthrough in which Calpernia was Corypheus’s lieutenant. I didn’t know how that storyline ended firsthand, only that she could be coaxed into leaving Corypheus’s employ. Now if only I had the slightest clue as to how to make that happen.

Four sets of eyes watched me expectantly. “Good,” I offered lamely. “I’m glad that Dagna has been helpful on that front, as Corypheus seems to place a great deal of faith in his lieutenants. Or rather…whatever his twisted equivalent of faith is. Dependence, I suppose.”

“To that end, this message arrived for you this morning,” Josephine told me, handing me a sealed envelope. “It is from Mother Giselle.”

Of all the people to contact me, she was the last one I expected to – wait. My brain halted midsentence as I realized I knew exactly what this was about.

“Thank you,” I said, attempting to keep my voice steady. “I will see to this immediately, unless there are any further reports.” Four headshakes. “Very well then.”

I fiddled with the letter’s wax seal as I walked back toward the rest of the Inquisition. If this was what I thought it was, I had to find Dorian immediately.

Chapter Text

I skimmed Mother Giselle’s message as I made my way through the camp. It was as I expected. Dorian’s estranged father had contacted her to trick Dorian into meeting with a family retainer. It seemed as though Dorian’s dad figured that Dorian would only show up if he didn’t know about the meeting beforehand. But since Dorian didn’t seem to care for Mother Giselle, she was asking me to bring Dorian to the Vandral Hills instead.

From her tone, Giselle herself didn’t seem to have any malicious intent and was only trying to help reconcile the family. But if Dorian refused to go with the family retainer, she hoped “that would be the end of it.” She didn’t know Dorian’s father was the sort of man to threaten using blood magic to stop his son from being gay.

I had to tell Dorian about the meeting. I knew from the game that the “family retainer” was Dorian’s father himself. I would never want to face my own father that way – and I certainly wouldn’t lead Dorian into a trap with a man who had betrayed him so deeply.

It didn’t take long to find Dorian swapping stories with Vivienne about their time in Halamshiral. My concern must have shown, as he didn’t protest my request to speak to him alone too much. How helpful that Mother Giselle had enclosed the letter from Dorian’s father with her own message. It saved me the trouble of accidentally revealing too much about the “retainer,” while allowing Dorian the opportunity to assess his father’s sincerity directly.

Naturally, Dorian wasn’t thrilled.

“’I know my son!’” he quoted indignantly. “What my father knows of me would barely fill a thimble!” I tried not to let my increasingly growing distress show. I had said similar things myself, but that wasn’t important right now. “This is so typical! I’m willing to bet this ‘retainer’ is a henchman, hired to knock me on the head and drag me back to Tevinter!”

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” I assured him. “Though if you do, you’re absolutely not going without Bull and the Chargers, so no one will be able to drag you anywhere.”

“He expects me to travel with Mother Giselle, although Maker knows why he’d think I would.”

I shrugged. “I mean, he doesn’t know you. It shows.”

Dorian laughed bitterly. “You’re correct about that.” His bravado came back to him. “Very well. We will meet this so-called ‘family retainer.’ If it’s a trap, we escape and kill everyone. The Chargers are good at that. Bull, too, naturally. If it’s not, I send the man back to my father with the message that he can stick his alarm in his ‘wit’s end.’”

I hesitated. Should I…? “What if the ‘retainer’ is your father?” Yes. Whatever happened, I couldn’t let Dorian be blindsided.

His scowl grew deeper. “Then I will tell him so directly.”

I nodded. “Good. Whatever your relationship was like in the past, now you are the one who defines it. He doesn’t have that right. If you want him in your life in any capacity, that’s up to you. If you want him to fuck off into the sun instead, then he’ll just have to accept that.” Dorian appeared more surprised by the sudden profanity than anything else. I couldn’t help but smirk a little. Pathetic excuses for parents, especially fathers, were a sore subject for me – but he didn’t know that. “I just wish I could go with you.”

Dorian waved me off. “Never mind that, Nancy. There’s so much inquisiting to be done!” His face grew serious again. “But I do appreciate the offer regardless.”

I nodded. “At least you’ll have this behind you, one way or the other.”

“Indeed. I wonder how much my father paid this man to wait around just in case I showed?” Dorian sighed. “We’ll find out soon enough.”

Chapter Text

Things were quieter in the camp after Dorian, Sera, and Iron Bull left with the Chargers. Vivienne had set out for Skyhold with the bulk of our soldiers. I was glad, knowing how little she wanted to deal with demons. Besides, she was still very much in mourning for Bastien. Their collective absence was felt quite keenly.

The tone shift also applied to war council meetings. Neither Cassandra nor Cullen was the type to mince words and there wasn’t much to say anyway with our mission already clear. To say meetings were brief would have been an understatement.

Despite all of the personnel changes, the hardest adjustment for me was moving back to a cart. My carriage had been sent back to Skyhold, thus concealing my movements from Corypheus as well as protecting Morrigan and Kieran from the elements. Normally, I would have been fine with returning to a lower quality mode of transportation, but the cart did nothing to shield me from the height of Thedas’s summer. The eyestrain and risk of heat stroke meant that I spent most of my time huddled in the back of the cart, trying in vain to hide my face from the sun. Hardly a position befitting the Inquisitor, but at least it helped conceal my presence.

It was a relief to slip into the Fade and feel the aches and pains of travel melt away. The next week was going to be tough, but at least I could count on my dreams for a respite.

I opened my eyes to find Solas already curled up next to me. With a cry of joy, I hugged him close. We’d been avoiding each other outside of the Fade since Halamshiral. Certain people (Varric) had noticed us dancing and started to ask questions. Neither of us wanted to deal with him prying into our personal lives.

“I missed you,” I mumbled against his shoulder.

Solas laughed softly. “And I you, vhenan.”

That moment of sincerity meant everything. I had fully expected him to say that he hadn’t been far, that I was being silly. But apparently that was a reflection of my own doubts.

There was so much I’d wanted to say, but couldn’t think of any of it now. I leaned against Solas’s side instead, finding emotional balance I hadn’t realized I’d needed.

“Sorry,” I apologized, realizing that I’d gone quiet. “I’m just glad to be away from the Winter Palace.”

Solas laughed, not at my expense. “Had your fill of court intrigue?”

“Haven’t you?” It was a foolish question, since I knew the answer.

“Political gambits, broken promises, half-truths? It is a palace full of motivation. And motivation causes great things to happen.”

“Sure, important things happened. I’m glad the situation got resolved the way it did. But I wish that playing the Great Game hadn’t been necessary. Too many innocents got hurt in the crossfire.”

I winced internally. That was too close to the destruction that occurred when Solas created the Veil and separated the Fade from reality. But if Solas took the comment personally, he gave no indication.

“In any event, Celene should now be a steadfast ally,” he said, effortlessly changing the subject. “And Briala as well, thanks to your efforts on her behalf.”

“I hope things work out for the better, especially for the elves of Orlais. It wasn’t easy choosing to support the Empress of Fire, after all.” I couldn’t resist the dig at Celene. There still had to have been a better solution than burning the Halamshiral alienage. “But with Briala in a true position of power, her voice should actually be heard, regardless of whether she and Celene reconcile privately.”

“I expect you are correct. She is an admirable woman.” Hearing the note of respect in his voice reminded me that he’d come full circle from The Masked Empire. I hadn’t actually read that part, but I knew Solas dismissed Felassan’s high opinion of Briala.

“Indeed she is,” I agreed. “Hopefully the Inquisition’s influence will help as well, at least while it’s still needed.”

“Yes,” Solas replied, his voice catching with an emotion I couldn’t place. But then it hit me. He doesn’t expect there to be a long term for the current residents of Thedas. “However much I identify – or fail to identify – with her people, Briala’s efforts have been remarkable. She organized resistance against a powerful enemy, using only her wits and the resources at hand.” My throat went dry. Was he still talking about the events at the Winter Palace? Or was this about her actions in The Masked Empire? “That demands respect, especially in a world where most would look at her and only see a pair of pointed ears.”

“Most people are superficial, racist jackasses,” I grumbled.

Solas chuckled. “An unfortunate truth.”

Chapter Text

The next week of travel passed slowly. The days were agonizing, since there was little I could do while hiding except overthink everything. But the nights were worth the wait. Something had shifted since Halamshiral. The largely impenetrable walls Solas usually kept around his heart seemed to have either started to crumble or sprung holes in them. He was warmer, more at ease between the moments in which he remembered who he was and how impossible a situation we faced. But that made it harder for me to keep my own walls up. If I relaxed too much, I might say something I shouldn’t. I knew myself well enough to legitimately fear that. And yet…how could I not cherish every moment his guard was down?

A message from Marion arrived just as we reached the Western Approach. The Wardens had spent the last two months reclaiming Adamant Fortress from darkspawn and the elements, so the ritual had not yet taken place. Marion and Loghain awaited us near the aforementioned Tevinter tower so that we might stop said ritual before it was too late. The troops we’d already stationed in the area were watching over the fortress, keeping their distance as to not give away Marion and Loghain’s position.

Now that we were truly in the middle of nowhere, I made a more concentrated effort to fight against the harshness of the sun and stay alert in the middle of the day. It was doubtful that Corypheus knew I was here, and even if he sent attackers, we’d see them coming through the open desert.

Blackwall seemed to be holding up okay, even as we neared the genuine Grey Wardens. Naturally, he was uncomfortable any time they came up in conversation, but to his credit, he was coming up with quite a bit of plausible “Warden wisdom” when the occasion called for it. I couldn’t wait for him to come clean about not being the real Blackwall so that he could live without hating himself. He had made a horrible mistake in the past, but it was one made on the fly in a situation he wasn’t supposed to encounter. There was no good way out at that point. Everything Thom had done during the years he’d been posing as a Warden had been to help those who needed it. Indeed, his code of honor was stronger than that of many actual Wardens. If anyone deserved redemption, it was him. But I imagined it would take some convincing to get him to see things that way.

In hindsight, I was surprised Cole had stayed, knowing that we were going to be facing demons. But he assured me that he was not afraid, that he would go where he was needed in order to help. Perhaps he wasn’t scared – Cole was nothing if not truthful – and yet I was worried for him regardless.

At last, the Tevinter ritual tower came into view. Its stone walls were weathered from years in the desert sun. The sharp spires surrounding the tower made it look like a clawed hand. The stone bridge leading to it gave the appearance of a malformed arm. Before the bridge stood two figures – Marion and Loghain, no doubt.

Cullen supervised his soldiers as they set up defenses nearby. The remainder of the inner circle and I made our way to the bridge.

“Good,” Loghain greeted us. “Whatever’s happening has already started. We saw lights coming from the tower.”

“Blood magic, I’d wager.” Disapproval sharpened Marion’s tone. I couldn’t help but wonder if her relationship with blood magic was as complicated as Allison’s. “You can smell it...or see the corpses.” Probably not. “Take point,” she nodded to us. “I’ll guard your backs.”

The mark tingled as we crossed the bridge and climbed the stairs of the roofless tower. I remembered what the ritual involved and it wasn’t pretty.

“Wait! No!” a desperate voice cried out. Collectively, we sped up our pace.

“Warden-Commander Clarel’s orders were clear.” The second speaker’s voice was harsh, like gargling salt water.

“This is wrong!” pleaded the first.

“Remember your oath.” The second voice almost sounded bored. “’In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death…’”

A pile of corpses and a wisp of a Fade rift greeted us at the top of the stairs. A half dozen demons stood at attention, Warden mages with glowing red eyes unmoving at their sides. In the center, another mage muttered an apology to his non-mage colleague before stabbing him with a dagger. We were too late to save the first speaker.

“’Sacrifice!’” sneered the white-robed Tevinter magister who stood on the raised platform at the far end of the tower. A new rage demon sprang into existence from the blood spatters on the ground. “Good! Now bind it, just as I showed you,” he ordered the mage. Before we could react, the rage demon bent its head in supplication and the Warden’s eyes glowed red like the others. The magister’s hand sparked with magic, like that of Corypheus and his red lyrium. Only after ordering the newly enthralled mage and demon to stand aside did he acknowledge us.

“Inquisitor! What an unexpected pleasure.” The man positively dripped with sarcasm. Even his over-exaggerated bow was filled with mockery. “Lord Livius Erimond of Vyrantium, at your service.”

I took in a breath, ready to unleash my own retort. But Loghain stepped forward first. “You’re no Warden, mage.”

Erimond looked over Loghain with disdain, his mustache and beard making him look ever more the villain he was. Dorian would have been having a fit, had he been present. “But you are. The one Clarel let slip. And you found the Inquisitor and came to stop me. Shall we see how that goes?”

His smug face looked very punchable. “Looks like we’re too late to save these Wardens,” I said, waving a hand at the assembled men and demons. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t stop you from causing any more harm.”

“They did this to themselves,” Erimond told me dismissively. “You see, the Calling had the Wardens terrified. They looked everywhere for help.”

Loghain frowned. “In desperation, they turned to the Imperium.”

“Yes,” Erimond confirmed. “And since it was my master who had put the Calling into their little heads, we in the Venatori were prepared. I went to Clarel full of sympathy and together, we came up with a plan: raise a demon army, march into the Deep Roads, and kill the Old Gods before they wake.”

My blood went cold. There were a number of theories that tied the Old Gods to the Evanuris. Who knew what would happen if the remaining two gods were killed? Then they’d all be gone – except for Urthemial, whose soul presumably currently resided within Kieran’s body, since all three of the Origins Wardens were currently alive.

“Sadly for the Wardens, the binding ritual that I taught their mages has a side effect: they’re now my master’s slaves.” Erimond was easy to get monologuing. Typical. “This was a test. Once the rest of the Wardens complete the ritual, the army will conquer Thedas.”

Cassandra looked horrified. “Corypheus influenced the Wardens to make them do this ritual?”

Erimond laughed. “Made them? No, everything you see here? The blood sacrifices to bind the demons? The Wardens did it of their own free will. Fear is a very good motivator and they were very afraid. You should have seen Clarel agonize over the decision. Burdens of command, I suppose.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the Wardens thought a demon army was a good idea,” Varric put in.

“A Blight happens when darkspawn find an Old God and corrupt it into an archdemon,” Erimond sneered. “If someone fought through the Deep Roads – perhaps with a demon army – and killed the Old Gods before they could be corrupted, poof! No more Blights. Ever. The Wardens sacrifice their lives and save the world.”

“That’s madness!” broke in Solas. “For all we know, killing the Old Gods could make things even worse!”

I shuddered involuntarily. Solas might actually know, so him saying that terrified me. Is that why you don’t trust the Wardens, vhenan?

Erimond cackled. “Well then, it’s a good thing I’m taking this demon army off their hands!”

“Not if we have anything to say about it!” I declared, already reaching for my daggers.

“No, you won’t,” Erimond countered. He raised his hand, which glowed bright red. I gasped and fell to my knees as the mark on my hand burst into agonizing pain. “The Elder One showed me how to deal with you in the event you were foolish enough to interfere again.” The pain shot through every nerve in my body, rendering it nearly impossible to move. “That mark you bear? The Anchor that lets you pass safely through the Veil? You stole that from my master. He’s been forced to seek other ways to access the Fade.” Fleetingly, I took note of that, as Solas must already be trying to do the same thing. Or is that only without the orb? The thought grounded me, giving me the determination to drag myself to my feet. He’s pulling his power from the rift, even though it’s closed and weak. I targeted the rift, trying to force it completely shut. “When I bring him your head, his gratitude will be –”

With a burst of green magic, the rift disappeared out of existence. Erimond fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Whatever connection he’d had with the Fade via the rift, severing it had hurt him directly. Now it was Erimond’s turn to stumble to his feet.

“Kill them!” he ordered the demons and their handlers.

Chapter Text

Cassandra moved in front of me protectively. I fell back, cradling my hand against my chest. The mark still burned, even with the connection cut.

It was a good thing so many of us had come to the tower. Even though I couldn’t fight, we still had a strong numbers advantage. The demons’ movements were predictable – I fleetingly recalled a conversation between Solas and Blackwall on the subject – and the mages seemed sluggish, perhaps a result of the mind control. The inner circle was able to dispatch all of them rather quickly.

Unfortunately, Erimond had escaped in the fray. Hopefully that meant he’d run into Cullen and his troops. That might even negate the need to fight the Wardens at Adamant. But I wouldn’t put it past the Vints who had built this tower to have included an escape route. Erimond would be long gone by the time we found it.

Marion looked distressed. “Blood magic.”

“As you feared,” Loghain said with a nod. “The mages who completed the ritual are under the thrall of Corypheus.”

“And the Warden warriors? Sacrificed!” Marion’s eyes blazed with fury. “I knew they’d go too far!”

“Despite their lack of wisdom, they acted out of necessity,” Loghain put in. He of all people understood terrible decisions being made for what seemed to be the right reasons. I forced myself not to look at Solas.

“All blood mages do,” Marion scoffed. “Everyone has a story they tell themselves to justify bad decisions – and it never matters. In the end, you’re always alone with your actions.”

A clatter on the stairs heralded Cullen’s arrival, a handful of his soldiers in tow. Erimond had cast a spell to whip up a localized sandstorm, covering his escape.

“At least we know where he went,” I said. It was good that the pain from the mark had lessened. I was going to need the Anchor at Adamant.

“Loghain and I will scout out Adamant to see if anything’s changed,” Marion told me. “We’ll send word as soon as we can.”

“Good,” Cullen said. “We will need that time to unite our troops with the ones already posted here and plan an attack on the fortress.”

I nodded. This wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary. I suspect we’ll have a war council meeting immediately after this. But having that meeting without Leliana and Josephine was going to be strange.

With our plans solidified, we headed for the stairs.

“Inquisitor.” Solas’s voice was low, but he was still completely formal in the presence of others. “Are you all right?”

I looked around. We’d fallen a bit behind the group. “A little shaken, but I’m okay,” I replied truthfully.

“Might I have a look at the mark?”

Oh. I’d been so focused on where we were going that I’d managed to block out the lingering dull buzz of discomfort from the mark. “Yes, of course.”

As Solas took my hand, my mind swirled with questions. Did he know what was to come at Adamant? Or was he simply asking because I’d been in pain?

Chapter Text

“Adamant Fortress has stood against the darkspawn since the time of the Second Blight,” Cullen said as he leaned over the campaign table. “Fortunately for us, that means it was built before the age of modern siege equipment. A good trebuchet will do major damage to those ancient walls.” Cullen actually smiled. “Thanks to our lady ambassador’s efforts, we have a dozen borrowed trebuchets at our service. Our troops are bringing them to Adamant as we speak.”

“That’s good news!” I was truly impressed by how much the war council had accomplished before we’d even set foot in the Western Approach.

“Not all of the news is good,” Cassandra reminded me. “Erimond called the ritual of transforming the Wardens a ‘test.’ Since we failed to apprehend him, he may already be raising his army of demons.”

Cullen frowned. “The Inquisition forces can breach the gate, but if the Wardens already have their demons…”

Cassandra waved him off. She hadn’t finished. “Leliana found records of Adamant’s construction. There are chokepoints we can use to limit the field of battle.”

“That’s good.” Cullen turned to me. “We may not be able to defeat them outright, but if we cut off reinforcements, we can carve you a path to Warden-Commander Clarel. It’ll be hard-fought, no way around it – but we’ll get that gate open.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and some of the Wardens will want to join us,” I mused. “I can’t imagine they’d be thrilled about this arrangement once they find out that Corypheus is behind everything.”

“I hope you are right,” Cassandra said. “To think that anyone would willingly become a demon…” She grimaced.

After the meeting, I walked along the outskirts of our campsite to mull things over. I didn’t really know much about Warden-Commander Clarel. In the game, all that mattered was that she was in charge of the Orlesian Wardens and that she’d made the terrible decision to trust Erimond. Her situation paralleled Fiona’s – both women made choices they never would have otherwise if their circumstances hadn’t been so desperate. It was especially bad in the case of the Wardens, since they needed to protect Thedas from the darkspawn.

Or do they? Solas wasn’t a fan of the Wardens. Their way of stopping the Blights was definitely not to his liking. If only I knew why. Clearly the Old Golds were connected to the Evanuris in some way, but why would killing them or some aspect of them be a bad thing? I wanted to understand, but I obviously couldn’t ask him without giving away that I knew too much.

I sighed. It was frustrating being so close to the truth and not being able to pursue it. My deep knowledge of Thedosian lore still had some massive holes in it, this being one of them. That’s how the Dragon Age games were set up, after all – the missing bits of lore would eventually appear in future games, answering previous questions.

Unfortunately, knowing that there were things I didn’t know was only going to make Adamant harder. If things unfolded as they did in the game, I was going to have to decide whether to let the Orlesian Wardens join us or tell them to leave Orlais. Why the Inquisitor would have such power, I didn’t know. Maybe it was just the circumstances and that no other authority figures would be present. If Clarel still dies, that is. Saving her, if possible, might change everything. But if not…what would I do? I always kept the Wardens in the game, even though Solas didn’t like it. But what if he was right that in the long run, they were actually hurting Thedas instead of helping? There was no easy answer.

Chapter Text

We set up camp about a day’s journey away from Adamant. It would take several more days for the Inquisition troops that had been scattered across the Western Approach to reach us. By staggering their arrivals, the soldiers hoped to conceal their movements from the Wardens. Thus far, the strategy seemed to have worked – or at least they hadn’t sent anyone to attack us. Yet.

I couldn’t decide which was worse: anticipation of the known or the unknown. As much as it worried me that Solas wouldn’t be happy with the decision I was likely to make about the Wardens, I did have other concerns. This trip to Adamant would restore missing memories to me, assuming that everything played out like it did in the game. I would finally learn what had happened when I was physically in the Fade the first time. Sure, I knew what usually happened to the Inquisitor in those memories. But I didn’t know what I had done.

The Anchor shocked me back to reality with a sharp surge of pain. I grimaced and clenched my fist, trying to will the mark to calm down. That was the part I couldn’t wrap my head around. Unlike the usual Inquisitor, I knew what the orb did and what the mark was capable of. I was also acutely aware that the mark was a death sentence if it was attached to anyone other than Solas. What had I been thinking? I hadn’t survived my surgery only to fling myself towards death now.

I felt eyes on me. I kept walking, continuing my circuit around the camp. Cole had been following me like a shadow for days. My distress shined like a beacon to him. All he wanted to do was help relieve that pain, but as I’d told him before, there was nothing he could do to make this stress go away. I simply had to get through the ordeal myself. So we’d reached an awkward stalemate where he gave me space, but I knew he was still lurking around wanting to help. I wished I could turn off my brain for a while, if only for his sake. Just another thing outside my control.

I stopped short and turned around. “Hey Cole, c’mere.”

He did as I asked, wringing his hands. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. Sorry.” The apology came out barely louder than a whisper.

“It’s all right, Cole. You’re a spirit of Compassion. I know you just want to help. I don’t blame you at all. Really, I don’t.” He always knew what was in people’s hearts, so perhaps not all of those reassurances were necessary, but I wanted to be certain he understood. “I want to make sure you’re okay, since we’re going to be facing demons. Not that you are one,” I added quickly. “But as a sensitive sort of spirit, I imagine fighting demons is hard. At least on some level.” I cringed internally. Hopefully Cole got my intent. I didn’t want to accidentally insult him.

Instead, he looked confused. “But I’m not like them. Not anymore. Not like before.”

I was quick to agree. “No, of course you aren’t. And you won’t be again. I know this about you.” Why were words so hard sometimes? Cole needed to see he had emotional support. Instead, I was pushing him into an existential crisis. I’d seen him spiral off in the game. Spirits and demons were understandably a touchy subject for him.

“Yes. I see it too. Frantic, falling. The Fade. Everything is wrong. A picture of a picture of a picture.”

The blood drained from my face. I had hoped that not thinking about what was to come would protect Cole from seeing it. “So you know what we’re going into.” Oh. Only now did I realize I’d been handling things the wrong way. “You don’t have to come into Adamant. Walking physically through the Fade will be hard for you as a spirit. I don’t want to put you through that if it can be avoided.”

Cole shook his head. “I want to help. You will be there. Solas too. You help me understand. It will be all right.”

Maybe things really would be easier since Cole was prepared for things to go south. It felt like cheating to give him some of my meta knowledge, even though it was by accident. Nothing that can be done about it now. At least Cole wouldn’t get hit by the sudden shock of returning to the Fade in his more corporeal form.

“All right – but if you change your mind, you let me know immediately, okay?”

Chapter Text

Part of Adamant’s eastern ramparts exploded into flaming debris, lighting up the night sky. The Inquisition’s borrowed siege engines were making short work of the ancient stone walls.

As worried as I was about what was to come during the assault on Adamant Fortress, I didn’t think I could have handled another night of limbo. Solas and I had spent so much time in the Fade together, he would surely have noticed if I’d suddenly started avoiding him. But thinking I could hide my heightened anxiety from him for much longer was folly and I knew it.

Cullen directed the front lines to get ladders up against the wall, clearing the way for our battering ram. However, the Wardens were resisting. More soldiers than I wanted to count fell to flaming arrows or rocks. The most successful group was Marion’s. They made it onto the battlements without losing a single person, thanks to her well-timed barriers.

The screech of metal on metal split the air as Adamant’s doors caved in. The Inquisition troops pushed through, clearing out the Wardens on the other side. I moved forward, waiting for Cullen’s signal that the immediate path ahead was secure enough for me, the rest of the inner circle, and Loghain to enter.

It didn’t take long. Cullen ran over much sooner than I expected. “All right, Inquisitor – you have your way in. Best make use of it. We’ll keep the main host of demons occupied for as long as we can.”

I nodded. “Good luck with the troops! Stay as safe as you can.”

Cullen’s expression darkened. “We’ll do what we have to, Inquisitor.”

I wasn’t going to argue with him, though I really wanted to. Doing what’s needed doesn’t always mean taking unnecessary risks. Instead, I followed Cassandra and Blackwall through the breached doors of the fortress, Cole and Solas by my sides. Varric and Loghain brought up the rear, watching out for any flankers. The last thing we needed was demons sneaking up behind us.

With such a large party, our movements through the fortress seemed easier than in the game. Unfortunately, that was only by comparison. Determining which Wardens had refused to take part in the ritual was harder. And yet, under the circumstances, it seemed like a safe bet that the rebelling Wardens had already put themselves at risk before the Inquisition turned up. I didn’t want to send them back to the gate alone, though – Cullen and his troops would have no way of knowing that the Wardens weren’t lying. So I sent Varric with them as an escort. Loghain expressed his approval in not so many words. A curl of pride rose within my chest. For all the man had made some terrible decisions in his life, he was still a renowned military leader. It was reassuring to know that my off-script military decision was a good one.

We fought our way up to the battlements, where Marion and her soldiers were holding steady, but struggling to gain a foothold. The demons they faced were larger than those we’d encountered elsewhere in the fortress. The pride demon in particular was the worst, but having two mages to freeze its movements helped a great deal. We had to be getting closer to Clarel and Erimond.

Marion stayed with the soldiers as the rest of us pressed on. Though we’d thinned out their numbers, the demons were still coming. Leaving a capable mage to help was the smartest possible move – even if said mage was secretly the princess of Starkhaven. For both her sake and Sebastian’s, I hope Marion stays safe.

Cassandra led our winding way across the fortress. It was a good thing she’d reviewed the floor plans beforehand. I generally had a good sense of direction, but the layout of Adamant Fortress had me confounded.

But when the last door opened onto a huge courtyard, I finally got my bearings. A raised platform of stone stood on the far side, two figures standing atop it. One was Erimond. The other, a woman with short-cropped hair, addressed the assembled Wardens below her.

“We are betrayed by the very world we have sworn to protect!”

Erimond moved forward. “The Inquisition is inside, Clarel. We have no time to stand on ceremony!” He spoke with such haste that his voice carried to where we stood in the back.

Clarel gave him a death glare. Whatever Erimond had said to convince her that the ritual was a necessary course of action, it had done nothing to diminish her respect for her fellow Wardens. “These men and women are giving their lives, magister! That might mean little in Tevinter, but for the Wardens, it is a sacred duty.” With a look of disgust, she turned her back on both Erimond and the crowd.

A third figure came into view on the back of the platform: a bearded Warden who looked to be Clarel’s contemporary. Clarel’s expression softened.

“It has been many long years, my friend.” Clarel’s voice caught with emotion.

“Too many, Clarel,” the man replied wearily as he knelt before her. “If my sword arm can no longer serve the Wardens, then my blood will have to do.”

Clarel unsheathed a knife, the sound audible across the silent courtyard. She grimaced as she lifted the blade to his throat. “It will.”

“STOP!” I shouted. There was no reason this man had to die just because he did in the game.

Clarel hesitated. Erimond sprang forward. “Stop them! We must complete the ritual!”

The Wardens before us didn’t move. They seemed to be waiting for orders from Clarel, not Erimond.

I ignored Erimond for the moment. “Don’t do it, Clarel! Erimond is working for Corypheus. This is all a trick to enslave the Wardens and hand him control of the demon army!”

Clarel’s face went ashen. “Corypheus? But he’s dead!”

Erimond’s reaction was instantaneous. “These people will say anything to shake your confidence, Clarel.”

“But it’s the truth!” I insisted. “You’re the only who will say anything to better serve your master!”

Clarel took a long moment to think, mulling over what we’d both told her. With a shake of her head, she raised her blade again and slit her friend’s throat. The man’s body fell to the ground with a sickening thud. Erimond’s satisfied sneer was somehow even more revolting than the act we’d just witnessed.

“Bring it through!” Clarel ordered.

The half dozen mage Wardens before the platform stood in a circle around a partially formed Fade rift. Before we could react, they pooled their magic with the power of the final blood sacrifice, further sundering the Veil. A flash of numerous eyes became visible through the rift. Nightmare. That was the name of the demon that controlled this section of the Fade. Thankfully, it wasn’t through the Veil yet. There was still time to stop the ritual.

“Please!” Marion ran forward. I hadn’t even noticed she’d caught up with us. “I have seen more than my share of blood magic! It is never worth the cost!”

“I betrayed the Wardens once and it cost me everything!” Loghain yelled to Clarel. “Are you mad enough to think I’d do it again?”

“Be ready with the ritual, Clarel,” Erimond said, ignoring the outbursts. Perhaps he thought he’d already won. It wasn’t over yet. “This demon is truly worthy of your strength.”

“Think about it, Clarel!” I pleaded. “Those aren’t the words of a man who has the best interests of Thedas or the Wardens at heart. He only cares about power – his master’s power.” Her expression didn’t change. I needed to try a different tactic. “Look, the Inquisition isn’t here for the Wardens. We know you’re all being used.  That’s why we’ve spared those who want no part of this. It’s Corypheus who needs to be stopped!”

“Some of your people know it’s wrong,” Blackwall put in. “I can see it on their faces.”

One of the Wardens before us spoke up. “The mages who’ve done the ritual – they’re not right. They were my friends, but now they’re like puppets on a string!”

“You cannot let fear sway your mind, Warden Chernoff!” Clarel reprimanded him.

“He’s not afraid!” Marion retorted, eyes blazing. “You are! You’re afraid that you ordered all these brave men and women to die for nothing!”

Loghain shook his head. “One day, you may be asked to give your lives to stop a Blight. But not today.”

The Wardens looked to Clarel for guidance. Erimond pounced on her indecision. “Clarel, we have come so far! You’re the only one who can do this!”

“Perhaps we could test the truth of these charges to avoid more bloodshed.” Clarel’s voice strengthened as she spoke.

Erimond looked annoyed. “Or perhaps I should bring in a more reliable ally.” He brought his staff down hard on the ground. Red magic spewed forth. “My master thought you might come here, Inquisitor! He sent me this to welcome you!”

A deafening screech shattered the night sky. Red lyrium flames erupted from the darkness as a great beast swooped low over the fortress and settled onto the ramparts. Corypheus’s red lyrium dragon had arrived.

Chapter Text

A burst of lightning crackled through the air, hurling Erimond to the ground. Clarel stood over him, scowling. She threw a second blast at the dragon, but it shook off the impact. Well, at least Clarel believes us now.

The dragon swooped down at Clarel, breathing red lyrium fire. She dodged out of the way just in time.

An unearthly roar echoed through the courtyard as a pride demon and half a dozen shades materialized out of the rift. Erimond found his footing and fled in the confusion.

“Help the Inquisitor!” Clarel ordered the Wardens as she ran off after Erimond.

With the Wardens’ help, we dispatched the demons with relative ease. Demons truly were predictable as fighters once you knew what to look for. If only the pride demon near Haven had been this simple. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We didn’t have the experience to handle them back then.

I raised my hand to the rift to close it. Nothing happened. What the hell? Then it hit me. We had to go into the Fade and deal with Nightmare. Not kill – it was too powerful for that. But we needed to weaken its grip on the rift from the other side before the rift could be closed.

Blackwall had already started up the stairs behind the platform, following Clarel. Cassandra urged the rest of us to catch up. The stairs were unfortunately too narrow for the troops to keep up with us, so I told them to help the Wardens with any demons that came through the rift.

More shades spawned before us on the path to the top of the fortress. I hadn’t thought the rift could reach this far. It’s probably empowered due to Nightmare. This was definitely not the time to ask Solas if that theory held water. He was concentrating on keeping barriers over the inner circle. The dragon had turned its attention to us and without the barriers, we would have quite literally been toast.

At last, we reached Clarel. She had cornered Erimond at the very top of the fortress. The far side of the tower connected to a partly destroyed bridge. Perhaps there had been another identical tower across from this one in years past. It didn’t matter now. Erimond had put the drop at his back, hurling fireballs at Clarel to keep her away. She shielded herself with a barrier, not slowing her pace for even a second.

“You! You’ve destroyed the Grey Wardens!” Clarel spat out the accusation. She punctuated the sentence by flinging a magical fist of stone at Erimond. The magister fell to the ground, his partially conjured fireball fizzling in the process. Clarel did not stop her advance.

“You did that to yourself.” Erimond laughed darkly as he found his footing. “All I did was dangle a little power before your eyes. And you couldn't wait to get your hands bloody!”

Clarel hit Erimond with another blast of lightning, this time knocking him back toward us. The force was powerful enough for him to skid several yards. Faint curls of smoke rose up as he writhed in agony. This time, Clarel approached him slowly, deliberately. She hadn’t knocked him off the edge, so I doubted she intended to kill him. At least not right away.

“You could have served a new god,” Erimond croaked.

“I will never serve the Blight!” Clarel declared with furious righteousness.

At that moment, the dragon’s gaping jaws poked through the smoke generated by the fires and fighting below. The beast snapped up Clarel and shook her furiously before flinging her body to the ground next to us. It all happened too fast for anyone to react in time – not that we could have done much against a dragon.

Corypheus’s pet then advanced on us, prowling almost like a cat. Cassandra moved in front of me as we backed away. It passed over Clarel, who had started to recite the Wardens’ oath. Her voice was strained.

“In war, victory. In peace, vigilance.”

The dragon lunged at us, but screamed in pain as Clarel fired a blast of lightning at its vulnerable belly. The dragon flew too far to the left, falling heavily against the remnants of the stone bridge and sliding off the edge into the darkness below.

The bridge beneath us shuddered with the impact and fell apart. Even as we started to run, I knew we weren’t going to make it back to the stable part of the fortress. As the stones slipped out from beneath our feet and we went into a freefall, I grabbed my left wrist, holding the mark before me. C’mon buddy, do your thing.

Nothing happened. A chill ran through me. I had no clue how to actually control the Anchor. You should have asked Solas before. I had meant to bring up the subject with him, but had never been able to find the words to ask in a way that wouldn’t raise suspicions. To say that I regretted it now was an incredible understatement.

But no sooner had I thought that than the mark flared to life. A massive rift opened beneath us. I didn’t have time to see if everyone made it in before everything went bright green.

Chapter Text

The Fade flashed into view around me. Impressions of floating rocks flew past as I continued falling at full speed toward the ground below.

I braced myself for the impact. It never came. Something slowed me down mid-air. My center of gravity shifted behind me, flipping me around, throwing me back the way I came – toward the ground which was now once again inexplicably in front of me. I stopped short just before hitting the dirt. It was close enough to touch. I reached out instinctively. The moment my fingers made contact, I was dropped onto the ground unceremoniously.

I lay on my back for a moment, trying to regain my breath. Everything had happened so fast. The world was still spinning. But did everyone make it? I forced myself to stand up, but nearly fell down again immediately. The disorientation was overwhelming.

“What happened?” I looked up, following the sound of Loghain’s voice. He was standing on a wall above me – horizontally.

“We were falling,” Marion answered from the outcropping of rock she was perched on. From my perspective, she was upside-down. “If this is the afterlife, then the Chantry owes me an apology. This looks nothing like the Maker’s bosom.”

I, of course, knew exactly what had happened. But did I dare say it? How much was I supposed to know?

Solas saved me from my indecision. “No,” he said, his voice low and filled with an emotion I couldn’t put words to. “This is the Fade.” For a moment, no one spoke as the news sank in. “The Inquisitor opened a rift. We came through – and survived!” I stared at him, confused. Why is that so surprising, vhenan? “I never thought I would ever find myself here physically. Look!” He directed our attention to a floating rock that had an entire city on top of it. His eyes hadn’t left it this entire time. “The Black City. Almost close enough to touch.”

It wasn’t quite that close, but I understood Solas’s meaning. It was likely where he’d wanted to go. Possibly where he’d imprisoned the Evanuris. Corypheus had said the city was empty, so I wasn’t certain the Evanuris were actually there. I bit back a gasp. What if the Golden City had originally been built where Skyhold is now? What if THIS is why it was called Tarasyl'an Te'las, “the place where the sky was held back?” Maybe that’s how Solas stopped the Blight from spreading – he’d transported the Evanuris and the city into the Fade by raising the Veil at Skyhold. But Skyhold once belonged to Solas – how does that fit into the timeline?

Solas tore his gaze away from the city. “Cole, how does it feel to be back home?”

“I can’t be here!” Cole paced around anxiously, unable to remain in one place for long. “Not like this! Not like me!”

Solas went over to him, keeping his tone soothing. “It’s all right. We’ll make it right.” We’ll MAKE it right? Was Cole’s current state a result of the forced separation between the Fade and the real world?

“This place is wrong,” Cole declared. “I made myself forget when I made myself real, but I know it wasn’t like this!”

“The Fade looked much different the last time I was here,” Marion put in. “Perhaps it’s because we’re here physically, instead of just dreaming.” She turned away from the Black City to me. “The stories say you walked out of the Fade at Haven. Was it like this?”

Shit. The Inquisitor normally had no idea. I mean, I couldn’t recall physically being in the Fade before either. Clearly I had been, since I had the mark. But I couldn’t recall those memories. However, unlike other Inquisitors, I could remember the Fade from the games.

“Possibly? I can’t remember actually being here before,” I replied truthfully.

That answer seemed to satisfy her. “Well, whatever happened at Haven, we can’t assume we’re safe now.” Heh. THERE’S an understatement. “That huge demon was right on the other side of the rift Erimond was using – and there could be others.”

Loghain, who had been deep in thought, spoke again. “In the real world, the rift producing the demons was nearby in the main hall. Can we return to the world through that?”

“That certainly makes sense,” I replied. “I’m not sure how I opened the rift which saved us to begin with, let alone how to open another to get us back out – if that’s even possible. Besides, there’s no guarantee we wouldn’t go right back to falling to our deaths. So all things considered, this is the best option.” I pointed to the green glow indicating the rift was to the right of the Black City. “There. Let’s go.”

Once everyone was reassembled on the ground, we set out in the direction of the rift. Cole had quieted down, though he was still noticeably jittery. Blackwall asked Cole silly questions about the beard the boy had talked about growing. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did seem to be helping Cole to focus. Good thing Blackwall stepped up. I don’t know how we’d do this without him.

Normally, Solas would have been the one calming Cole, but he was understandably preoccupied with our circumstances. None of us knew the Fade as well as he did, so Solas had to be the one to guide us through safely.

“This is fascinating!” Solas said in wonder. “It is not the area I would have chosen, of course, but to physically walk within the Fade…”

Cassandra wasn’t amused. “Concentrate on the task at hand, mage. There is nothing more dangerous than this place.”

“Thank you for the warning,” Solas replied dryly.

Hooooo boy. I broke in before that situation could escalate. “I know this part of the Fade isn’t familiar to you, vh- Solas, but is there anything you can tell us about it that might help?”

“The Fade is shaped by intent and emotion. Remain focused and it will lead you where you wish to go.”

“Oh good! The rift looked awfully far away when we first got here. If it will essentially come to us, that will help considerably.”

This section of the Fade felt like the surface of an asteroid, only everything had a greenish tinge and the air was breathable. There was also a scattered assortment of statues and furniture from various times and places across Thedas. I made a point of looking for the giant broken statue of Andraste floating above us, since I never remembered to check for it in game.

We wandered through the immediate area until we found a staircase leading up. My breath caught as we reached the top. An older woman wearing the gold, red, and white raiment of the Divine stood before us. Divine Justinia.

Chapter Text

No one said anything. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond myself. As far as I knew, it probably wasn’t the real Divine Justinia, but a spirit that had captured her memory. And yet, she looked every bit as human as I was.

“Impossible!” declared Loghain.

Justinia smiled. “I greet you, Warden. And you, Champion,” she added, addressing Marion. Her accent was Orlesian.

Cassandra stepped forward, her expression incredulous and relieved. “Divine Justinia? Most Holy?”

Justinia’s tone grew warmer, less formal. “Cassandra.”

“Is it really her?” Blackwall asked.

Cassandra hesitated. Her face fell as reality set in. “I…I don’t know. It is said the souls of the dead pass through the Fade and sometimes linger, but we know the spirits lie.” She added in a lower voice tinged with sorrow, “Be wary, Inquisitor.”

“It can’t be the Divine,” Loghain said. “Most likely a demon.”

Justinia, or the spirit keeping her memory alive, overheard. “You think my survival impossible. Yet here you stand, alive in the Fade yourselves. In truth, proving my existence either way would require time we do not have.”

“Really?” Marion asked. “How hard is it to answer one question? I’m a human, and you’re…?”

Spirit or not, Justina was less than amused. “I am here to help you,” she replied, a tinge of annoyance in her voice. Her attention shifted to me. “You do not remember what happened at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, Inquisitor.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No, I don’t,” I told her. My stomach knotted up. Even knowing what was coming, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“The memories you have lost were taken by the demon that serves Corypheus. It is the Nightmare you forget upon waking. It feeds off memories of fear and darkness, growing fat upon the terror.” Note to self: don’t let this thing gorge itself upon my anxieties. “The false Calling that terrified the Wardens into making such grave mistakes? Its work.”

Loghain grunted. “Then perhaps I owe this Nightmare a visit.”

“You will have your chance, brave Warden,” Justinia told him. “This place of darkness is its lair.”

Such a visit, of course, would be a terrible idea. We didn’t have the numbers or firepower to take on a demon of its size. “Can you help us get out of the Fade?” I asked.

“That is why I found you,” Justinia said. “When you went into the Fade at Haven, the demon took a part of you. Before you do anything else, you must recover it.” She waved to her right. Four wisps popped into existence. “These are your memories, Inquisitor.”

I braced myself for a fight, but the wisps just floated there. Each fell with one cut of a dagger. Not how it was in the game, I noted. A pale green residue remained behind as a remnant of each wisp. I held the mark above each, unsure what to expect. The mark acted of its own volition, reabsorbing the memory fragments.

Nothing seemed to change until the final piece fell into place. The memories came back in a rush. Justinia being held captive by Warden mages in the Temple of Sacred Ashes. “Why are you doing this? You, of all people!” Corypheus advancing on her, activated orb in hand. “Keep the sacrifice still.” Justinia’s cries for help. The orb stealing her life from her. Me bursting through the doors. “Get away from her!” Justinia knocking the orb from Corypheus’s hand. Me grabbing the glowing orb. Crying out in pain as it burned the mark into my flesh. Corypheus rushing me in anger. The orb blasting all of us back with a surge of power.

I shook my head to clear it as the Fade came back into focus around me. Those memories weren’t just mine. Justinia’s had to have been mixed in with them. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to see what had happened in the room before I entered it.

And yet, something was still missing. I still had no memory of how I came to be in Thedas. The feelings I’d gotten from the vision told me nothing. There had been no other choice than to pick up the orb and stop Corypheus from obtaining the Anchor. All I could sense was my understanding of how the event was meant to play out. Perhaps I had simply dropped in at that exact moment. Dropped… I had lost my grip on the orb. If I hadn’t, everything would have changed.

“So Andraste didn't bestow her mark upon you,” Loghain said, interrupting my train of thought. “It came from the orb Corypheus used in his ritual.” Apparently the others had all seen the same vision I had. The Fade is such a strange place sometimes.

Justinia nodded. “Corypheus intended to rip open the Veil, use the Anchor to enter the Fade, and throw open the doors of the Black City. Not for the Old Gods, but for himself. When you interrupted his plan, the orb bestowed the Anchor upon you instead.”

I didn’t really know how I was supposed to react. Surprise? Fear? I already knew the origin of the mark, so having a genuine response to this “news” was difficult.

Fortunately, Cassandra was having a harder time wrapping her head around all of this. “So this power, this mark, is an accident? Not the Maker’s will?”

“And if it was?” Justinia asked her, a bit more gently than she might have addressed any of the rest of us. Words seemed to have failed Cassandra, leaving her unable to answer. “If you believe in the Maker, then you believe He made this world and everything in it – including this accident.” Her gaze returned to me. “And if you do not, then nothing has changed.” How could she possibly know? “You cannot escape the lair of the Nightmare until you regain all that it took from you. You have recovered some of yourself, but now it knows you are here.” Oh good. “You must make haste. I will prepare the way ahead.”

Justinia disappeared. I must have blinked, since I didn’t see her leave.

“Is there a problem, Hawke?” Loghain asked.

Marion frowned. “I wondered if you might be concerned about the Grey Wardens holding the Divine in that vision. Their actions led to her death.”

Loghain didn’t miss a beat. “Corypheus had clearly taken the Wardens’ minds. You yourself have seen them do this.” I had thought as much myself. But what if he hadn’t? “In any case, we can deal with that after we escape.”

Marion’s eyes flashed with determination. “Oh, I intend to.”

She wasn’t going to let the subject go. Honor matters a great deal to the Vaels. Even though Marion wasn’t one by blood, she still shared her husband’s high standards of morality.

“Just save it until we’re out of the Fade, okay?” I tried to keep my tone light, but I knew that she and Loghain would be at each other’s throats later in our journey if they kept at it.

Cassandra’s voice wavered. “Could that have truly been the Most Holy?”

“We have survived in the Fade physically,” Solas pointed out. “Perhaps she did as well. Or, if it is a spirit that identifies so strongly with Justinia that it believes it is her, how can we say it is not?” I sincerely doubt Cassandra wants to consider THAT possibility, vhenan.

“Whether she is a spirit or a demon, she wishes to help us,” Loghain put in, ever the practical one. “For the moment, at least.”

“And the Nightmare?” Blackwall asked. “From what she said, I don't look forward to meeting it.”

“It's nothing like me.” Cole’s words tripped over each other in their hurry to spill out of him. “I make people forget to help them. It eats their fears.” He was getting more agitated by the second. “I don't know if I could do that, but I don't. I don't want to. That's not me.”

“Peace, Cole.” Solas placed a hand on Cole’s shoulder. “None of us mistake you for the Nightmare.” That seemed to help, as some of the tension went out of Cole’s back. “It is a fear demon, as I suspected.” Solas took no satisfaction in being correct. “Likely drawing on terrors related to the Blight. Fear is a very old, very strong feeling. It predates love, pride, compassion...every emotion, save perhaps desire. Be wary. The Nightmare will do anything in its power to weaken our resolve.”

Loghain scowled. “After its corruption of the Wardens, I’ll see it pay.”

“But first, I imagine we need to find the rest of my missing memories.” I didn’t want us getting too far off-track. Or anyone dying unnecessarily. There would be no heroic sacrifices this time. Not if I could help it.

Chapter Text

We descended one set of stairs, then climbed another. A few scattered demons challenged us, but nothing too difficult to handle.

Everything seemed relatively under control until the Nightmare spoke.

“Ah, we have a visitor,” it boomed, its words echoing throughout the area. The demon sounded a great deal like Corypheus. Was that its real voice or an act it put on for our benefit? “Some silly little girl comes to steal the fear I kindly lifted from her shoulders. You should have thanked me and left your fear where it lay, forgotten.” I rolled my eyes. No one asked you, Nightmare. “You think that pain will make you stronger? What fool filled your mind with such drivel? The only one who grows stronger from your fears is me.” That alone is a good enough reason to want them back. I didn’t want to give it the satisfaction of an answer, so I bit my tongue. “But you are a guest here in my home, so by all means, let me return what you have forgotten.”

The others looked at me. I shrugged. Any “hospitality” would be a lie, of course. Even if we had to fight harder for the memories, at least the Nightmare was cocky enough to give us the opportunity. But I didn’t want to say so out loud, since it was clear the demon was paying attention to us now.

The path onward twisted and turned, but was thankfully relatively linear. We started seeing red lyrium sprouting out of the rocks, a less than reassuring sight. As we continued climbing stairs in both directions, it dawned on me how vertical this part of the Fade was. Connected to a fear of heights, perhaps?

We had just reached another landing when skittering hisses filled the air.

“What are those things?” Cassandra cried out, her shield already in position to deal with the new threats as they dropped down before us from a rocky overhang.

These weren’t the usual Fade spiders I had expected. They were paler with longer, more spindly legs – mutated versions of spiders I might have seen lurking around back at home. Their legs moved faster than they had any right to. Guess they DO look different, depending on the viewer. It was a good thing they were the size of a full-grown mabari. The spiders were less creepy when I didn’t have to worry about where they were.

“Those were little fears,” Solas explained. “Tiny manifestations spawned from the Nightmare itself.”

“And of course they look like giant spiders,” Marion quipped.

“Spiders?” Loghain asked. “Those were darkspawn, not spiders.”

Solas was quick to respond. “Remember, we walk in the Fade. Demons of fear shape their appearance to unnerve each of us.”

We pressed on down a narrow pathway. The Nightmare spoke again. This time, it had a new target.

“Did you think you mattered, Hawke? Did you think anything you ever did mattered? You couldn’t even save your city. How could you expect to strike down a god? Sebastian is going to die, just like your family, and everyone you ever cared about.”

Marion’s eyes narrowed. “Well, that’s going to get tiresome quickly.”

The Nightmare wasn’t finished. “Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, the brilliant commander. Pity the one time you tried to rule, you failed so miserably. You had to be beaten, humiliated, lest you destroy your own country. You even doomed the Wardens by bringing the Inquisitor down on them. You destroy everything you touch.”

Loghain snorted. “Is that all you’ve got? It’s nothing I’ve not said to myself.”

As though in response, half a dozen rage demons sprang up from the ground. By the time we cleared them out, the Nightmare had chosen its next victim.

“Perhaps I should be afraid, facing the most powerful members of the Inquisition.” My heart froze as the demon laughed. I knew what was coming and it was never easy to bear. “Like Blackwall. Ah, there’s nothing like a Grey Warden. And you are nothing like a Grey Warden.”

“I’ll show you a Warden’s strength, beast,” Blackwall muttered back. I wanted to assure Thom that he was nobler than many other Wardens I’d encountered, but that was impossible. I’d have to acknowledge I knew he wasn’t the real Blackwall.

 “Your Inquisitor is a fraud, Cassandra,” the Nightmare taunted. “Yet more evidence there is no Maker, that all your ‘faith’ has been for naught.”

“Die in the Void, demon,” Cassandra spat out.

I expected another wave of demons, but instead, the creature tried a different tactic.

“Are you afraid, Cole?” simpered the Nightmare. “I can help you forget. Just like you help other people. We’re so very much alike, you and I.”

“No.” Cole’s voice remained strong and sure. He might have been falling apart before, but he was ready to stand up for himself now. If it hadn’t been an inappropriate moment in which to do so, I would have told him how proud I was. Hopefully he’d be able to use this to strengthen his resolve in the future.

“Dirth ma, harellan.” The Nightmare addressed Solas in elvhen. “Ma banal enasalin. Mar solas ena mar din.” His name being part of the message was a coincidence. The exact translation had been the subject of fandom debate for years. The general gist was that Solas was a traitor whose victory was meaningless and his pride would lead to his death.

But Solas’s reply I remembered clearly. “Banal nadas.” Nothing is inevitable. Tears welled up in my eyes. If Solas truly believed that, then everything to come after Trespasser could be avoided. This is why I believe in you, vhenan. NOTHING is inevitable.

I steeled myself, waiting for the Nightmare to target me. But it seemed to have shut up for the time being. I guess it doesn’t know what else to do with me.

We continued forward, no one speaking further about what the Nightmare had said. No one wanted to open themselves up to questions. Fine by me. Let everyone keep what remained of their privacy.

Around the next bend waited Justinia, or the spirit channeling her.

“The Nightmare is closer now. It knows you seek escape.” No kidding. “With each moment, it grows stronger.”

Four new wisps spawned behind her. I nodded. As before, they fell with a single stroke of my blade. I held the mark above each, taking the memory fragments back into myself.

The familiar rush swept over me as the fourth was absorbed. The Fade. An impossibly tall staircase, more of a ladder. Climbing. Demon spiders on my heels. Justinia at the top, hand extended. The real Justinia. “The demons!” “Keep running!” The Breach. Demons pulling Justinia back. Her hand slipping from my grip. “Go!” Refusing to let go. Justinia pushing me away. Gone. Diving through the Breach.

This time when I returned to myself, I fell to my knees. The overwhelming sense of failure weighed on me. I had honestly thought I could bring Justinia back with me. I had tried, even knowing she wasn’t supposed to make it.

As Solas helped me to my feet, Cassandra approached Justinia.

“It was you,” she said, her tone soft with the realization. Sorrow clouded Justinia’s face. “We thought it was Andraste delivering the Herald from the Fade, but it was you. And then you…she…died.”

Justinia gave a slow nod. “Yes.”

“We’ve been following a demon then,” Loghain said.

“Spirit,” I corrected him. “Either way, she’s been helping us regardless of what she is.”

“I’m sorry if I disappoint you,” said the spirit that looked like Justinia.

With a soft glow of golden light, Justinia’s body faded away, revealing the spirit’s true form. It retained Justinia’s profile, but otherwise appeared as a shimmering golden light. We craned our heads upward, following the spirit’s path as it floated higher above us.

Marion frowned. “What we do know is that the mortal Divine perished at the temple, thanks to the Grey Wardens.” She gave Loghain a dirty look.

“Corypheus controlled them. We have discussed this already,” Loghain told her. “If this spirit has no further revelations, we should work on getting back to Adamant alive.”

“Assuming that the Wardens and their demon army didn't destroy the Inquisition while we were gone.” Marion’s bitter sarcasm struck a chord in me. Was the Nightmare manipulating her? Or had she simply been through too much in Kirkwall? Without knowing everything about her, I had no idea which was more likely – or if it was a bit of both.

Loghain set his jaw, the look of a man whose loyalties had been repeatedly challenged over the past ten years. “I see. Atrocities are your purview alone? You tore Kirkwall apart and started the mage rebellion!”

Marion got into his face. “To protect innocent mages, not madmen drunk on blood magic!” She let out a sigh of disgust. “But you'd ignore that, because you can't imagine a world without the Wardens – even if that's what we need!”

“Agreed,” Solas put in. “The Wardens may once have served a greater good, but they are far too dangerous now.”

“What are you saying?” Blackwall demanded, understandably appalled. “You want to get rid of the Wardens? Everyone makes mistakes. They would've died to save us!”

“The Wardens are still a risk,” Cassandra countered.

“Just stop!” The words burst out of me more loudly than intended. “None of this matters right now. We need to get out of the Fade.” Then most of you can hate me later. For all the excellent points made, I still didn’t like the idea of tearing down the Wardens and leaving nothing to replace them. I’d seen what nearly happened to Ferelden in Origins. The barely-rebuilt order got crushed at the very start of the Fifth Blight and if not for Flemeth saving Alistair and the Warden at Ostagar, Ferelden would have fallen. I wasn’t about to make that mistake.

Loghain’s expression shifted. “Inquisitor.”

A warning. I whirled around to see a half dozen spiders drop down behind me.

“The Nightmare has found us,” declared the spirit. It disappeared in a burst of golden light.

Loghain and Marion exchanged nods. There would be a truce…for now.

Chapter Text

We cleared out the spiders – or fearlings, since they didn’t look like spiders to everyone. My head throbbed as we continued onward. No matter how badly I tried to focus on the task at hand, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen once we were out of the Fade. But that’s what it wants me to do.

The spirit that channeled Justinia reappeared before us. But as it did, the Nightmare spoke again.

“Do you think you can fight me? I am your every fear come to life.” Not EVERY fear, I imagine. “I am the Veiled hand of Corypheus himself! The demon army you fear? I command it. They are bound all through me!”

“Ah, so if we banish you, we banish the demons?” asked the spirit. “Thank you, every fear come to life.”

I wasn’t sure if the smug touch of satisfaction was something the spirit had picked up from Justinia or if it was capable of such a feeling normally. Either way, I enjoyed seeing the Nightmare caught monologuing. The Nightmare clearly felt differently, as it growled in wordless rage.

The spirit pointed us forward before disappearing again. The way ahead was mostly flat and heavily waterlogged. The operating theory in Inquisition was that the water might have poured into the Fade through the biggest rift in Crestwood. It stood to reason, but I didn’t know if it was true. Avoiding the deeper puddles while keeping our pace up was a difficult undertaking.

As we reached the far side of the marsh-like area, a group of more dangerous demons materialized, including three despair demons. Either the Nightmare was starting to take us seriously after revealing too much to Justinia or we were getting close to its lair.

One of the despair demons fixated on me. I threw down a smoke pellet to escape, barely squeaking between another despair demon and the waterfront. The second despair demon hurled a blast of ice after me. I dodged through a nearby fence, barely stopping short of slamming directly into a large rock.

I whirled around, bracing myself for an attack. But Cassandra had attracted the demon’s attention, halting its pursuit. For the moment, I was safe.

The others had turned the fight in their favor, so I took a moment to breathe. My gaze fell onto the rock I’d nearly run into. Not a rock. A tombstone. A chill ran up my spine as I realized where I was.

This wasn’t just any graveyard. The tombstone before me read “Cole: Despair.” It was exactly as I’d seen in the game. The entirety of the inner circle was here, their deepest fears displayed for all to see.

I glanced back at the battlefield. The despair demons had all been killed. Only a few shades were left. They didn’t need me to finish clearing the field. I wouldn’t have long, but…

I couldn’t help it. I sought out the miniature shrine for Solas. The inscription read “Dying Alone.” That had always resonated with me, even before I knew he was Fen’Harel and exactly why he had every reason to have that fear.

One of the other stones caught my eye. “Nancy: Abandonment.” My heart sank into my stomach. It was something I already knew, but seeing it in print was worse.

As I watched, the text below my name started to change. “He Knows.”

The blood drained out of my face. That’s impossible! Not the text shifting – anything could happen in the Fade. But Solas couldn’t know the truth about me. He didn’t have enough information to figure it out!

I got the hell away from the graveyard as quickly as possible. No one noticed. The last demon had just fallen. A huge relief, since I didn’t think I would handle any sort of questioning well at the moment.

My heart pounded in my ears, blocking out all other sound. Calm down. This is what the Nightmare wants: to get into your head. There’s no tombstone for the Inquisitor in the game.

Something touched my shoulder. I jumped, biting back a yell.

“How do you feel, vhenan?” Solas looked visibly concerned, a rarity. “Are you unwell?”

“I’ll be all right,” I assured him, picking my words carefully. “I’ll be happier once we’re out of here. I enjoy being in the Fade, but not like this.”

Solas nodded, remaining by my side. I knew he meant to be comforting, but I was nowhere near ready to face him.

Chapter Text

We climbed another set of stairs, away from the graveyard. A green barrier blocked the path forward. It looked like a shield rather than a rift, but I held the mark up anyway. No effect.

Unearthly screeches pierced the air. I whirled around. Terror demons were closing in on us. Despair demons flung frostbolts at us from the back line. The spirit of Justinia materialized and set to work dispelling the magic barrier. The rest of us fended off the demons.

The Nightmare meant business now. No sooner had a demon fallen than another took its place. I knew getting here had been too easy. As their numbers swelled, rage demons and shades joined the fray. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, a low bellow shook the area as a pride demon entered the fight.

The waves of demons seemed unending. My movements grew sluggish. The time between each of Solas’s barriers lengthened significantly. Even Cassandra was starting to tire. Only Cole remained in top form, practically dancing between the demons.

But at last, the final shade fell and so did the barrier blocking our way. We ran through into a tunnel filled with water that came up to my knees. More poured down from holes in the low ceiling. I knew this place. We’re almost there.

“You must get through the rift, Inquisitor!” insisted the spirit of Justinia as it floated alongside us. “Get through and then slam it closed with all your strength! That will banish the army of demons and exile this cursed creature to the farthest reaches of the Fade.”

I wasn’t sure about that. Leaving this thing to its own devices outside or inside the Fade seemed like a bad idea. Something to ask Solas later.

The tunnel came to an abrupt end. In the clearing ahead stood the Nightmare itself. So many eyes. It looked like a mutated spider with the armor of a crustacean. I was grateful it was too big for me to fully process all of its features.

A new demon materialized before the Nightmare. It rivaled a pride demon in size, but resembled a spider, what with all the pointed appendages sticking out on either side of its head. An Aspect of the Nightmare. It was part of the Nightmare, somehow both connected and detached. The Nightmare must have split this piece off from itself to stop us from getting too close – a little late, since we were already here. Both creatures hissed as they spotted us.

Without hesitation, the spirit of Justinia flew toward the demons. “If you would,” she called back to us. “Please tell Leliana ‘I’m sorry. I failed you too.’”

Power surged through Justinia, tendrils of light snaking over to zap the Aspect. The spirit advanced on the Nightmare, glowing with a blinding yellow-white light. When the light faded, the spirit and the Nightmare were gone. The Aspect lay on the ground, stunned.

Now was our chance. “Go for the rift!” I shouted to the others.

We were supposed to fight the Aspect, but that would give the Nightmare enough time to recover and block our path. Then Hawke and Loghain would debate over who would remain in the Fade while everyone else got out. Not today. No one gets left behind on my watch.

A screech pierced the air. The Aspect had recovered. “Keep going!” I urged the others.

“Go!” Marion shouted back. “I’ll cover you!”

A chill ran through me. NO! They were doing it anyway.

“No!” Loghain echoed my thought. “You were right. Wardens made this mistake. A Warden must –”

“A Warden must help them rebuild!” Marion insisted. “That’s your job. Corypheus is mine.”

I looked back. Neither had stopped running, but they had slowed down to be in the back. The Aspect was gaining ground.

“There’s no need!” I yelled at them. “Keep going!”

“You will not die while I draw breath,” Loghain declared.

WHAT? I almost tripped glancing over my shoulder. Loghain had turned around and charged the Aspect. It teleported forward to meet him. My heart sank into my stomach. I’d forgotten it could do that.

 “Vhenan!” Solas’s voice shook me to my senses. “The Nightmare comes!”

He was right. We had to go. I ran toward the rift, Marion mere steps behind me. Solas cast a barrier over us as we came into his range. The three of us passed through the rift together.

Crossing over into the real world was less disorienting than the other way around. And yet, I hesitated to close the rift. I didn’t want to sentence Loghain to death.

“Inquisitor, it must be now!” Cassandra’s words brought me back to the first time I had closed the Breach.

With a sigh of resignation, I lifted my hand, sealing both the rift and Loghain’s fate.

Chapter Text

The sound of cheering vaguely entered my senses. The remnants of the demon army had disintegrated into nothing once I closed the rift, leaving behind scores of relieved Inquisition soldiers.

I rubbed my temples, trying to stave off the emotions swirling through my head. Loghain must have really wanted that noble sacrifice he hadn’t gotten against the Archdemon. Dying in the Wardens’ service after having done so much to sabotage their efforts in Ferelden was a fitting penance. But now I’m the one responsible because I closed the rift.

Marion broke into my thoughts. “She was right! Without the Nightmare to control them, the mages are free and Corypheus loses his demon army.” Despite her excitement, Marion kept her voice low. She didn’t call Justinia by name either – wise move. “Though as far as they’re all concerned, the Inquisitor broke the spell with the blessing of the Maker.”

I grimaced. “That sort of false belief might sit better with some of them, but the truth would be far more useful in combatting similar problems in the future.”

Marion shook her head. “They’ll be terrified. I for one am tired of giving fear demons anything to feed on. Let them have their story.”

I would have argued the point further, but one of Leliana’s agents approached. “Inquisitor, the archdemon flew off as soon as you disappeared. The Venatori magister is unconscious, but alive. Cullen thought you might wish to deal with him yourself. As for the Wardens, those who weren’t corrupted helped us fight the demons.”

A helmeted Warden stepped forward next to the agent. “We stand ready to help make up for Clarel’s tragic mistake.” The man’s voice caught on the “tragic.” “Where is Loghain?” he asked, noticing the senior Warden’s absence. Marion bowed her head.

I didn’t know what else to say other than the truth. “He sacrificed himself to ensure the rest of us made it out alive. Loghain wouldn’t let anyone else die because of a Warden’s mistake.” I intentionally kept the focus on Clarel, even though at least some of the Wardens had acted willingly, not just on orders. There was no sense in making them defensive when I needed them to cooperate. “Even under such terrible circumstances that challenged what being an honorable Warden means, he found a way to uphold the code.”

It was the least I could do. For all his faults, Loghain had been fully prepared to give up his life for the past ten years. He needed to atone in a big, meaningful way and now he had. To protect the Inquisitor was to protect all of Thedas – at least until the rifts were closed and Corypheus was defeated. Perhaps I’d let Josephine handle the message notifying Anora of her father’s death. The teyrna would probably appreciate Josie’s tact.

The Warden still looked concerned. “Inquisitor, we have no one left of any significant rank. What do we do now?”

Marion caught my eye. She gazed at me pleadingly. A weight lifted from my chest. At least I won’t be alone on this decision. But I still I couldn’t look at Solas.

“Help the Inquisition stop Corypheus from destroying the world. His influence extends beyond the borders of Orlais and you’ll be safer with us than on your own.” My voice strengthened as the truth of what I was saying reassured me that this was the right call. “But Corypheus will not corrupt the Wardens again. His plan relied on deception and your compliance. Now that he’s been exposed, he no longer has that advantage.”

I faltered. That wasn’t completely true. When killed, Corypheus could still possess a nearby Warden’s body whether or not they were a willing vessel. The Wardens couldn’t be on the front lines against him.

Marion stepped forward. “While they do that, I’ll inform the Wardens at Weisshaupt what’s happened. Best they not get caught off guard.”

I nodded. Good. She would tell them the truth. I could see it in her eyes. Wardens who weren’t personally impacted by the Nightmare’s influence would have the necessary emotional distance to process the new threat. But maybe I’ll send word to Sereda and Alistair too…just in case.

The helmeted Warden bowed. “Thank you, your Worship. We will not fail you.”

The crowd started to disperse. Marion lingered.

“Good luck with your Inquisition,” she told me. “Try not to start an Exalted March on anything.” Her tone was light, but there was a touch of bitterness. Leliana had visited Kirkwall just before everything went to hell there. Her purpose was to see if Divine Justinia needed to order an Exalted March on Kirkwall.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “Even if we had the authority to do that, I wouldn’t stand for it.”

A faint smile quirked at the corner of her mouth. “Good.” Marion’s gaze shifted behind me. “And take care of Varric for me.” Now the grin bubbled to the surface. “He hates being outside.”

A laugh escaped before I could stifle it. This wasn’t the time or place, but Marion had caught me unaware. “I know – and I will.”

Chapter Text

“After all that, you gave them yet another chance?” Cassandra was incredulous. I sighed internally. At least she had waited to question my judgment until we were back at camp.

“What else was I supposed to do, Cassandra?” I asked, wearily leaning against the campaign table. “There have been reports of darkspawn activity across Thedas. Corypheus stirred up a bunch of shit with his attack on the Conclave.”

“But they hurt people,” Cole protested.

“I know, Cole.” His code of honor was rigidly in favor of helping people. How could I get him to understand that this was the lesser of two evils? “It’s irrelevant whether they did it under orders or for the good of Thedas.” I left out the possibility of some Wardens secretly enjoying it. I hadn’t seen any who took the group’s sacrifices as anything more than a horrible responsibility. “Good people still died. But those who survived are as much victims as victimizers. They know what they did was wrong, even if it seemed like their only option at the time. Those Wardens will carry that burden for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t bring back anyone who was lost, but their deaths won’t be in vain so long as these Wardens help strengthen their order against threats like Corypheus. Knowledge is everything here.”

There was the possibility that the other acolytes of the Old Gods would surface and try to pull something like Corypheus did. Certainly the Architect was still out there. Who knew how many of the others yet lived?

Cassandra sighed. “I suppose it no longer matters. It is done. I hope you know what you are doing, Nancy.”

Neither of them looked happy as they left. I buried my face in my arms, taking care not to disturb any of the pieces on the table. “So do I, Cass.” Despite all of the logic backing up my decision, there was a small part of me that worried that I was wrong.

The sound of a man clearing his throat broke the silence. My head popped back up as panic surged through me. Couldn’t be caught with my guard down.

Blackwall stepped forward once I’d acknowledged him. “Someone I knew once described Adamant to me.” He of course meant the real Blackwall, the man who had died trying to recruit Thom Rainier into the Wardens. Not that he completely failed in doing so anyway. “‘Adamant is, and always will be, the Order,’ he said. ‘A guardian on the edge of the abyss, the lone soul that stares into oblivion and doesn’t waver.’ That’s what Warden-Commander Clarel tried to be. What they all tried to be.” His hands flexed, as though looking for occupation. Blackwall leaned on the campaign table across from me instead. “I’m told her Wardens never hesitated. They went to their deaths willingly. They died for us, and Corypheus twisted their sacrifice to make it his own.”

I nodded. It was good hearing confirmation of what I knew in my heart to be true. “That’s why their actions, while objectively horrible, are forgivable. Their intent must be taken into account when judging their actions.” I wanted to add that the only people they hurt were themselves and their peers, but was all too aware that I was talking to Thom Rainier, who had his own skeletons in his closet.

“There’s no one to blame but Corypheus. Even Clarel’s intentions were righteous. Her desire to protect was so great that it led her astray.” Blackwall shook his head. “It’s not right. To want to do good – to be good – and have that turned against you.”

We definitely weren’t just talking about the Wardens anymore. Thom’s downward spiral started after he accepted a contract to assassinate an ally of Empress Celene. In-game, he’d claimed it was for the money. I had always suspected his political ideals blinded him instead, but he couldn’t admit it, ashamed of being a pawn in the Game.

I chose my words carefully. “For what it’s worth, I do believe you wouldn’t have faltered in their place. You would have fought against it, like Loghain.” I steered clear of the Calling. I knew Thom had never completed his joining ritual, so he didn’t have that influencing his decisions. And yet…with his past, I truly did believe that even under such duress, he would not have gone along with the “march a demon army into the Deep Roads” plan.

“Before the Inquisition, I had the Wardens, the vow I made to them. Before that vow, I had nothing, was nothing.” Blackwall frowned. “It’s not the armor or the trappings of the Order. It’s not the…Joining.” He stumbled on the word. The truth was nipping at his heels. “At the heart of it, all a Warden is is a promise to protect others, even at the cost of your own life.”

He wasn’t wrong. I’d always felt letting Thom be a real Warden was a good choice. But being here, staring the man in the face, knowing what fate awaited all Wardens in the end…was it the right choice?

“This is why you are one of the most steadfast Wardens I’ve ever known,” I said, ignoring that he wasn’t actually a Warden. “You hold to that promise.”

The look on Blackwall’s face was a stark reminder that he couldn’t forget that particular detail.

Chapter Text

Sleeping was difficult that night. After letting the Wardens stay, I didn’t want to face Solas, but I didn’t want to let his anger fester either. My indecision became a choice as my anxiety locked me out of the Fade. I was too tense to reach a state of lucid dreaming.

It was still dark when I gave up on sleep entirely. I slipped into my hoodie and crept out of the tent without waking Cassandra. She wouldn’t be happy I was wandering around on my own. Good thing she didn’t need to know. I had no plans on going far.

The fires had burned low. There were guards stationed on the outskirts of the camp, but it was hard to see them in the darkness. I used the mark as a guiding light, though I made sure to shield it from glowing too brightly. The last thing I needed was a guard getting spooked and raising the alarm over my hand.

A muttered curse from a nearby tent made me jump. I recognized the muffled groan of pain that followed. But Cullen didn’t sustain injuries in the battle, unless… I bit back a gasp. His lyrium withdrawals must be getting worse.

After I became Inquisitor, Cullen had told me that he’d stopped taking lyrium. He and Cassandra had an agreement that he’d be relieved of his duty if he was no longer fit to serve the Inquisition. Knowing the full extent of his situation better than most, I’d expressed my approval and support. But for all my meta knowledge, I’d never actually heard Cullen suffering before.

I didn’t know what to do. Bursting in there to offer moral support seemed self-serving. Cullen did his best to hide his pain; he wouldn’t want to be seen in a weak moment. And yet, what if he needed the company, even if he didn’t want it?

I inched away from the tent, burdened by choice. Ultimately, it wasn’t my call to make. Cullen would come to me when he needed help. I knew this, both in my heart and from the game.

My back pressed against something warm. Shock silenced my reactive yelp as I whirled around to see what I’d bumped into. Not what, who. Solas didn’t look anywhere near as rattled as I felt.

“Sorry,” I said instinctively. Even if it hadn’t been my fault, I would have apologized, especially under these circumstances. “I was definitely not paying attention to where I was going.”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “I hadn’t noticed.” His sarcasm was gentle, but I winced anyway.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t in the Fade either.” I didn’t want to assume Solas had been looking for me, but with our habits as of late, it seemed pretty likely that he’d noticed I was missing. “I couldn’t sleep. Obviously.”

“Unsurprising, under the circumstances. Are you all right?”

I searched his face and found nothing but concern. “I…guess so? Loghain wasn’t perfect by any means, but he still died on my watch. And yet, it was his choice.” I faltered. It had to be asked. “You’re not mad that I let the Wardens stay?”

Only now did Solas look stunned. “Why should I? You heard my argument and made your decision. I cannot say I am not disappointed that we disagree, but I understand your reasoning.”

Relief washed over me, even through my confusion. It all seemed too easy. “And I understand yours – I want you to know that. I just couldn’t risk creating a power vacuum. There’s so much we don’t know about the darkspawn and the magic the Wardens use against them. With so many unanswered questions, how could I take the chance?”

“I know, vhenan.” Did that mean he knew what I was saying? Or that he knew the answers to those questions? Both, probably. “You needn’t worry. There are unfortunately more pressing matters at hand.”

“True.” I sighed. “I just wish I’d had more information. It’s too big a decision to be made with only partial vision.” Solas’s eyes betrayed nothing. Unfortunately, some things cannot be helped.

Chapter Text

Despite the losses suffered at Adamant, the trip back to Skyhold was far less tense than the journey to the Western Approach. Only a handful of us had been on the front lines to see the horrors of the Wardens’ actions firsthand and even fewer had gone into the Fade. So morale was up, since the Inquisition had dealt Corypheus another major blow.

I welcomed the relative peace of the journey home. We’d been pushing nonstop for months, preparing for Halamshiral and then, unexpectedly, Adamant. The burden of responsibility had been lifted from my shoulders, albeit briefly. It was easier to deal with Adamant’s aftermath than to anticipate it, especially now that I’d had the opportunity to process everything. I’d done the best I could under the circumstances when it came to making large scale decisions. As for Loghain, he had chosen his own fate, so my guilt over his death was unnecessary.

Of course, the biggest relief of all was that Solas hadn’t treated me any differently for disagreeing with him on such an important subject as the Wardens. In fairness, I didn’t know the full scope of the situation, so the possibility of Solas getting angry had been a perfectly reasonable fear. But even if the Wardens sticking around was going to be a major issue in the long run, it hadn’t changed anything in the present.

No!” Solas’s tone brooked no protest.

And this is why I shouldn’t ever assume things are actually calm for a change. I hurried over in the direction of his voice, finding him and Cole in a previously quiet corner of the camp.

“But you like demons!” Cole insisted.

“I enjoy the company of spirits, yes, which is part of why I do not abuse them with bindings!”

Oh. I’d forgotten this argument would happen after Adamant. I’m not ready for this.

Cole wasn’t backing down. “It isn’t abuse if I ask!”

A pained expression crossed Solas’s face. “Not always true.” Was he talking about himself? “Also, I do not practice blood magic, which renders this entire conversation academic.”

That was when they noticed I was listening. I joined them, my brain racing to find the right words so as not to upset Cole further.

“What’s going on?” I asked gently.

Cole rushed over. “He won’t bind me!” He shook his head in frustration. “He’s a mage and he likes demons, but he won’t help!”

“He said he wouldn’t bind you, but he never said anything about not helping – not that I heard, anyway.” I didn’t want to commit Solas’s assistance without asking him, but the words were already spoken. “I’m not a mage, but I’ll do what I can to help too. Why do you want him to bind you?”

“So I’m safe!” Cole whirled away from us, getting more agitated by the moment. “If Solas won’t do the ritual to bind me, someone else could – will – like the Warden mages. And then –“ Cole broke off, emotion overcoming him. “I’m not me anymore. Walls around what I want – blocking, bleeding, making me a monster.”

“That would be bad,” I agreed. The words felt insufficient, but I was more concerned with finding a solution. I turned to Solas. “Is there another way to protect Cole from possession? One that doesn’t involve preemptively binding him?”

Solas nodded. His tone became softer, less defensive as he spoke. “I recall stories of amulets used by Rivaini seers to protect spirits they summoned from rival mages. A spirit wearing the Amulet of the Unbound was immune to blood magic and binding. It should protect Cole as well.”

“Do you know where we might find one?” I asked. “Other than ‘in Rivain,’ obviously.”

“No, but perhaps the resources of the Inquisition could be used to find such a talisman.”

“Oh right.” I felt foolish for not thinking of it myself. This had been a war table mission, after all. “I’ll send word ahead to Josephine and Leliana. Surely one of them can locate an amulet for Cole.”

“Good,” Cole declared. “They will not take me.”

He walked off with purpose. My heart sank as he went. I couldn’t remember ever seeing Cole leave before. Usually he just disappeared.

I knew there would be complications with the amulet – complications that would require Cole to choose to remain a spirit or become human. Neither ever felt like the right choice to me, especially since the decision was up to the Inquisitor – at least in the game. Here? Who knew what would happen?

Chapter Text

Skyhold looked vastly different than when we’d left. A great deal of construction had been completed in our absence. Cole in particular was pleased by the expanded infirmary off the main courtyard, as he always spent a significant amount of time helping the ill, injured, and dying. That was a fortunate distraction for him, since I hadn’t sent word ahead inquiring about the Rivaini amulet in case the message would be intercepted. We didn’t want to give Corypheus’s minions any ideas, after all.

Thankfully, Josephine and Leliana had already returned from Valence. I went to see them immediately about the amulet. Josie had some idea of who she’d contact about obtaining such a talisman, which was a huge relief. Just because it had been true in the game, it didn’t necessarily mean she would have had the information offhand here.

Leliana’s demeanor had shifted since the discovery of the box Justinia had left for her in Valence. It was clear the message freed her from the burden of serving as the Left Hand of the Divine, restoring her inner peace. I could tell from the gentleness of her smile that she was herself again. A Chantry Sister sent by one of Justinia’s rivals attempted to wheedle information out of Leliana with the intent of making off with the box first. Leliana saw right through her and sent the Sister away, empty-handed but alive. No longer would Leliana seek to take lives when she could spare them.

A sudden wave of fatigue came over me, so I took my leave. The toll of the past several months was catching up with me. The preparation for Halamshiral, the ball itself, the immediate journey to Adamant afterwards – no wonder I was exhausted. We hadn’t had a moment to breathe.

Every stair up to my quarters felt like twenty. But finally, I reached the top. I tossed my armor unceremoniously onto the floor. I didn’t want to get the dirt of the road on the couch. Meera had left my nightclothes out as requested, so it didn’t take me long to collapse into bed. Thank you, Meera and past me. Future me could deal with a bath. Right now, I needed to rest. With half the war council weary from travel, we wouldn’t meet until later in the day, so I was in the clear.

But sleep didn’t come. It was too quiet. And apparently I had forgotten what having a proper bed felt like. No matter. I didn’t mind having a little quiet time to myself.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such a luxury. Haven, probably. Most stolen moments with Solas had occurred either in dreams or between other commitments. But time for myself? Time to think without fear of interruption? It felt like an eternity.

I tried not to think about all the other things that required attention now that we were back at Skyhold. Nothing so immediate that a few hours more would matter. If I was to handle those tasks properly, I needed to clear my head first.

One of the downsides of falling into Thedas as the Inquisitor was that the world was constantly in peril. Even after Trespasser, the situation was poised to become…unstable. I didn’t know how much longer I might remain in Thedas, but it seemed unlikely that I’d ever get to see the world in a truly peaceful state in person. The downside of living in “interesting times,” I thought wryly. The only way to survive those seemed to be taking time for yourself when you could. Survival wasn’t enough – you had to feel like you were truly living too.

It still made no sense that I’d turned up in Thedas at all. If I’d been able to remember my dreams better in the real world, I would have sworn that this was all an extended one. But if this were truly a dream, my mind would have surely supplied an explanation for my presence in Thedas by now. The ultimate question of “Why am I here?”

At least I could supply a partial answer. Ser Barris and his templars would not have survived without my intervention. But was that enough? Does it matter? asked the voice in the back of my head. You’ve helped. Maybe it was enough.

Chapter Text

Sleep did eventually take me. The sun was low in the sky when I woke. Dammit. I shook my head, trying to dislodge the grogginess. The war council meeting was soon and I had to be alert. Hell, it may have already started.

Assuming the worst, I changed and raced downstairs as quickly as I dared. At least the war room also connects to the main hall. I slowed my pace as I passed the handful of Inquisition members in the hall.

My heart sank as I entered Josephine’s office. She wasn’t there. Since everyone going to the war room had to pass through her office to get there, it stood to reason that Josie was already inside with the others. I picked up my pace again, speedwalking through the small hallway beyond.

As I opened the doors to the war room, I immediately saw I was wrong. Only Cassandra and Cullen had arrived thus far – and they were in the midst of a heated conversation.

“You asked for my opinion and I’ve given it.” Cassandra’s tone was matter-of-fact, not hostile. “Why would you expect it to change?”

“I expect you to keep your word!” growled Cullen. “It’s relentless! I can’t –“ He broke off mid-sentence, gripping his forehead in pain.

“You give yourself too little credit,” Cassandra insisted.

Distress mixed with frustration on Cullen’s face. “If I’m unable to fulfill what vows I’ve kept, then nothing good has come of this! Would you rather save face than admit –“ This time, Cullen stopped because he saw me. “We will speak of this later,” he told Cassandra, heading for the doors.

For a brief moment, I considered stopping him. We could just hash this all out now. But Cullen clearly wasn’t ready to talk to me yet, so I let him go.

“And people say I’m stubborn!” Cassandra said, loud enough for Cullen to hear. “This is ridiculous.” Her attention shifted to me. “Cullen told you that he’s no longer taking lyrium?”

I nodded. “And that you’re watching him to make sure he remains fit for duty. Which he is.”

Cassandra frowned. “I agree. Not that he’s willing to listen. Cullen has asked that I recommend a replacement for him.”

“Of course he has.” I sighed. “He sees what he’s unable to do, but we see that he’s still more than capable of doing what he needs to.”

“I refused. It’s not necessary. Besides, it would destroy him. He’s come so far.”

“I can try to convince him to see what we see.”

“If anyone could, it’s you.” Cassandra leaned against the war table. “Mages have made their suffering known, but templars never have. They are bound to the order, mind and soul, with someone always holding their lyrium leash. Cullen has a chance to break that leash – to prove to himself and anyone who would follow suit that it’s possible. He can do this. I knew that when we met in Kirkwall.” Cass’s gaze implored me to act. “Talk to him. Decide if now is the time. I will remain here and inform Leliana and Josephine that you two will be delayed.”

I set off for Cullen’s office immediately. Hopefully he’d had enough time to cool down. Good thing I wasn’t late, I thought wryly.

The shortest route to Cullen’s office was through the rotunda. Solas wasn’t there, but as evidenced by the state of the walls, he had been earlier. He’d already gotten a rough sketch of the Halamshiral panel of the fresco onto the wall. The Adamant section remained untouched, but I doubted it would stay that way for long.

I crossed the bridge over the courtyard. The shopkeepers were clearing out for the evening. Lanterns were lit in the stable. Probably Blackwall working on a project. Unless… I shook my head. No, he couldn’t be preparing to leave the Inquisition yet. We were due for another conversation before that. I should check on him, just in case. But first, I had to help Cullen.

No sooner had I opened the door to Cullen’s office than a wooden box flew at the wall next to me. I jumped back instinctively as lyrium paraphernalia flew everywhere.

“Maker’s breath!” Cullen looked more rattled than I felt. “I didn’t hear you enter. I…” He dropped his gaze. “Forgive me.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “You missed!”

“You don’t have to –“ Cullen groaned in pain, leaning heavily on his desk for support. I froze, torn between helping him and giving him space. He waved me off, ending my internal debate. “I never meant for this to interfere.”

“Of course you didn’t.” I kept my tone gentle, hoping he wouldn’t take it as an accusation. “Sometimes our bodies don’t listen when we want them to.” I inched closer. “Are you all right?”

With effort, Cullen straightened up. “Yes.” A darkness passed over his face. “No…I don’t know,” he muttered. “You asked about the end of my time in Ferelden’s Circle, when it was taken over by abominations. The templars – my friends – were slaughtered.” Cullen’s breathing grew more labored as he got more agitated. “I was….tortured. They tried to break my mind and I – how can you be the same person after that?” It had never been so clear to me that he’d never talked about this before – to anyone. No wonder his judgment afterwards was so royally fucked up. “Still…I wanted to serve. They sent me to Kirkwall.” Contempt crept into his voice. “I trusted my knight-commander and for what, hmm? Her fear of mages ended in madness. Kirkwall’s Circle fell. Innocent people died in the streets. Can’t you see why I want nothing to do with that life?”

“Oh definitely.” This was not the time to debate how he could have, should have done things differently. I had longed for such a moment, but this wasn’t it. Cullen was already dealing with enough. Getting into the nuances of his relationship with mages would wait for another day. “That’s why –“

Cullen cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t. You should be questioning what I’ve done.” His anxious pacing picked up as his voice became even more strained. “I thought this would be better, that I would regain some control over my life, but these thoughts won’t leave me. How many lives depend on our success? I swore myself to this cause! I will not give less to the Inquisition than I did the Chantry! I should be taking it!” The last sentence escaped as a rasped whisper. Cullen punched a nearby bookshelf in frustration. Several books fell to the floor. “I should be taking it,” he repeated to himself.

I frowned. “Cullen, you’re giving more to the Inquisition without lyrium. Besides setting a good example for the other former templars, your contributions are unfiltered, unenhanced artificially. Lyrium is a poison, a dependency that the Chantry uses to control its templars. You don’t need it. Once you make it through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms, you’ll be yourself again for the first time in years.” I leaned over him, but not too close – just enough to remind him that he wasn’t alone. “Don’t you see, Cullen? This is why you’re here and why you belong at the head of the Inquisition’s forces. Even if you need some extra breaks in moments like this, it’s okay. The Inquisition has become a well-oiled machine. Things won’t instantly fall apart because you need some time to take care of yourself.”

Cullen let out a sigh – one of relief and determination, not frustration. “All right.” He rubbed the back of his neck, an embarrassed tic that I recognized from as far back as Origins.  “I suppose we have a war council meeting to attend then.”

I grinned. Good. He would be all right.

Chapter Text

By the time Cullen and I reached the war room, Cassandra had been joined by Josephine and Leliana.

Cassandra nodded. “Good. To business.” I raised an eyebrow. Morrigan was supposed to be here as well. I guess most of what’s on our agenda won’t involve her. “The Inquisition’s efforts to locate the lairs of Corypheus’s lieutenants have borne fruit in our absence. Samson’s stronghold is in a shrine dedicated to the Old God Dumat.”

“He’s been growing red lyrium within people in order to create more red templars and augment his armor, which seems to resist the effects of the stuff.” Cullen scowled. “There must be something in his stronghold that will help Artificer Dagna complete the rune she’s working on. Samson’s armor will be broken.”

“Strangely, Calpernia is not permitted access to the shrine, despite being the leader of the Venatori,” Leliana added. “I suspect Corypheus is hiding something from her, as their relationship appears strained at best.”

Josephine chimed in next. “We also discovered that Corypheus has told both of them they will become the Vessel. We don’t know what that means, but it seems likely that Corypheus will have them compete for the honor of the position.”

“Without telling them beforehand,” Cullen sneered.

“If we can find out more, perhaps we can create a rift between Corypheus and Calpernia – so to speak.” Leliana allowed herself a smile at her own joke.

Cassandra stepped forward. “Without his demon army and Orlais stronger than ever, Corypheus has taken refuge in the Arbor Wilds. Once we have the means to deprive Corypheus of his lieutenants, we can take the battle to him.”

Josephine frowned. “But what is Corypheus doing in such a remote area?”

“His people have been ransacking elven ruins since Haven,” Leliana replied. “We believe he seeks more. What he hopes to find, however, continues to elude us.”

“Which should surprise no one,” a new voice declared. Morrigan had slipped into the war room and now took a place by my side. “Fortunately, I can assist.”

How long had Morrigan been listening before making her grand entrance? Not that it mattered. “You have our attention,” I told her with a respectful nod.

“What Corypheus seeks in those forgotten woods is as ancient as it is dangerous.”

Morrigan paused, probably to increase the dramatic tension. Oh honestly. Maybe I was just jaded because I already knew what Corypheus was after.

“Which is?” I asked, humoring her.

“’Tis best if I show you,” Morrigan replied, heading for the door.

The invitation had only been extended to me. I shrugged at the rest of the war council and followed her.

As we weaved through the people of Skyhold, I spent my time trying to muster my best surprised expression. I knew exactly where we were going, but a normal Inquisitor wouldn’t.

Morrigan led me into one of the small rooms off the garden. There wasn’t much in it, just some furniture covered in cloths, a pair of tall gothic windows, and a opaque mirror that showed no reflection.

“This is an eluvian,” Morrigan told me, referring to the mirror. “An elven artifact from a time long before their empire was lost to human greed.” I gritted my teeth and willed myself not to correct her. She didn’t know the elves had destroyed themselves. “I restored this one at great cost, but another lies within the Arbor Wilds. That is what Corypheus seeks.”

I let my genuine confusion show. Corypheus was after the Well of Sorrows, not an eluvian. “How do you know that?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“I found legends of an elven temple within the Arbor Wilds untouched. It proved too dangerous to approach and thus, I turned elsewhere to find my prize. If Corypheus has turned southward, he could succeed where I failed. The eluvian would be his.” An incorrect assumption on her part, but a logical one, based off the information she had.

“What’s so special about that eluvian that he would want it?” I asked, trying to play dumb.

Morrigan raised her hands to the eluvian. The pane of glass glowed bright blue as it activated.

“A more appropriate question would be ‘where does it lead?’”

With that ominous question hanging in the air, Morrigan entered the mirror. I braced myself as I approached the glass. Humans didn’t do well in the place we were going. I exhaled slowly, steadying my nerves, then followed Morrigan.

The journey was instantaneous and without fanfare, much like blinking. I didn’t know what I had expected, but something…more.

The area we stepped out into was covered by a thick fog that made breathing hard. The air felt ancient. Scattered around through the area were other eluvians of varying shapes and sizes. Off in the distance, I spotted an eluvian identical to the one Merrill had rescued and rebuilt.

“If this place once had a name, it has long been lost.” Morrigan’s tone was low and reverent. “I call it the Crossroads, a place where all eluvians join, wherever they might be.”

“It’s like walking directly into history.” Had this been the equivalent of a train station for the elvhen? Or had it been restricted to the high ranking elves, like the Evanuris? Or had they belonged to Solas? A chill ran up my spine and my hands grew clammy. Even if he didn’t have full control over the eluvian network yet, he would certainly have most of it by the time Trespasser rolled around. Did Solas know we were here? Would he be upset that this eluvian remained out of his reach, despite one end being in Skyhold?

“The ancient elves left no roads, only ruins hidden in far-flung corners. This is how they traveled between them.” Morrigan frowned. “As you can see, most of the mirrors are dark: broken, corrupted, or unusable. As for the rest, a few can be opened from this side – but only a few.”

I tried to keep my face neutral. What about Solas’s eluvian network from Trespasser? Was it not connected to this place? Did he build his off the main network in order to gain an advantage against the evanuris? I had no answers and I certainly couldn’t ask Morrigan.

“So Corypheus wants to gain access to this place? Another location through here?” I didn’t know what else to ask without making Morrigan suspicious that I knew too much.

“This is not the Fade, but it is very close. Someone with enough power could tear down the ancient barriers...”

Oh. “And reach the Fade,” I finished. That did explain a lot, though with all the talk of Vessels, Corypheus was certainly after the Well of Sorrows more than anything else.

“He learned of the eluvian in the Arbor Wilds, as I did. He marshals the last of his forces to reach it.” We headed back toward Morrigan’s eluvian. My breath caught. Those were Mythal’s dragons flanking it. Was that a coincidence? Morrigan paused before going through. “You have made Corypheus desperate, Inquisitor. We must work together to stop him and soon.”

I took one last look around the Crossroads. A place between worlds, like in Trespasser. Elves could see more colors in these pockets between the Fade and reality. Was this within the Veil itself? Perhaps Solas specifically tuned the Veil’s frequency to elves when he created it. I wished I could ask him. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. With a sigh, I entered the eluvian, leaving those questions lingering behind me.

Chapter Text

After I filled in the rest of the war council on Morrigan’s eluvian theory, we officially adjourned. No one said it outright, but I was fairly certain that at least half the council wasn’t impressed by Morrigan’s theatrics. Good thing we’d finished all of the important business prior to that.

I found myself wandering toward the rotunda to see if Solas had returned. It hadn’t taken me long to return to my usual Skyhold routines. But as I approached the door, I stopped short. There was a familiar-looking dwarven woman talking to Varric.

Varric looked uncharacteristically concerned. “I appreciate the warning, but you shouldn’t’ve come yourself. What if the Guild found out? Or…What’s-His-Name?”

The woman raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you worrying for me or for yourself?”

“A little of column A, a little of column B. I am the expendable one, after all.”

“Aww, don’t worry,” the woman assured him. Her tone was playful, but I knew from experience that she was sincere. “I’ll protect you. We’ll just have to –“ She broke off mid-sentence. I’d been noticed. “Well, this is a surprise. You’re the Inquisitor, right? Bianca Davri, at your service.”

Yes, that Bianca. She couldn’t have been anyone else. The brilliant inventor so far ahead of her time that she was up for consideration as the first surface dwarf Paragon. Her machines were changing the world. And yet, her most relevant invention at the moment was the crossbow that bore her name. It was all Varric could have of her, since she’d been forcibly married off to someone else in the Guild for her family’s political power. Maybe things will change someday after he becomes Viscount. It wasn’t a strong hope, but it was the most I could do to help them.

“A pleasure to meet the real Bianca,” I replied, giving her a grin. Varric looked stricken. Couldn’t resist. “It can’t be a coincidence that you two share a name, no matter how many other women have it.” I winked at Varric. “Don’t worry, your poorly-kept secret is safe with me.” While I was giving him crap for being so obvious about the torch he carried for Bianca, I knew I would have probably done the same in his place. Some things are more important than being cautious.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to see the humor in the situation. “She’s taken a huge risk coming here herself. Maybe for both of us.”

Bianca laughed. “You’re such a worrier! There’s a giant hole in the sky! I think the Merchants Guild has bigger things to think about.”

“Bianca’s got a lead on where Corypheus got his red lyrium,” Varric told me.

“The site of Bartrand’s Folly, the thaig Varric found, has been leaked.” What Bianca did not say was that she was the source of the leak. But I wasn’t supposed to know that. “There’s a Deep Roads entrance crawling with strange humans carting out red lyrium by the handful.”

I frowned. “But that thaig’s under the Free Marches, isn’t it?” Wait, I don’t know the entrance in question is in the Hinterlands yet. “I assume the entrance is relatively close to us or you wouldn’t be here in person.”

“The Deep Roads are all connected,” Varric reminded me. “Or they used to be – collapses and such. Some of them on purpose.”

“They really are roads,” Bianca added. “They spanned the dwarven empire. Went to every corner of the continent, maybe further. In theory, you can get to any thaig using the Deep Roads, but in practice…well, there’s a reason nobody uses them anymore.”

Darkspawn mostly, I’d imagine. Or something worse. “Corypheus may have other sources of red lyrium, but we don’t want him to have any.” Putting it that way, it really didn’t seem like a huge problem Bianca had leaked that information. Corypheus would have gotten access to red lyrium eventually. There had been huge unmovable chunks sitting in Kirkwall for years and plenty more was generated at the Conclave during the explosion. “We’ll have to send a team to shut down the operation.”

For the first time in the conversation, relief crossed Varric’s face. His guilt at having told Bianca about the thaig to begin with had been eating at him. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“I’ll keep an eye on their operation,” Bianca said. “If you’re interested in shutting it down, you’ve got my help.” She gave Varric a look that definitely didn’t pass as casual flirting. “Try not to leave me waiting too long, Varric. I’ve got my own work to do, you know.”

There was no way I could be spared to go to the Hinterlands with them. Not with the Arbor Wilds fast approaching. But as I spotted a familiar silhouette across the main hall, I had an idea of who could go in my stead. “Don’t worry about waiting,” I assured Bianca, waving over who I’d seen. “I know exactly the right person for this job.”

Chapter Text

Isabela was more than happy to help Varric and Bianca clear out the red lyrium operation. I got the distinct impression that Varric would have preferred that those two ladies never had met, but it couldn’t be helped. Besides, he can handle a bit of ribbing.

After tracking down Leliana to set up the mission particulars with her scouts, I was finally able to check for Solas. The rotunda still stood empty, but fresh paint on the fresco panel of Adamant indicated that he’d been here. Unfortunate timing. Looked like it was going to be one of those days we only saw each other in the Fade. Unless maybe he’s visiting Cole in his usual spot above the tavern.

As I headed toward Herald’s Rest, Blackwall fell into step with me. “Want a drink?” he asked. “I’ve a hankering for company.”

Yep, definitely one of those days. No matter. “Sure!” I returned his smile in kind.

It wasn’t the first time Blackwall and I had gotten drinks together at the tavern. Well, he drank and I kept him company with water. After so many years wandering alone with nothing to keep him company but his guilt, Thom wasn’t going to be upset that one of his drinking partners didn’t drink. For my part, I was glad to help him feel like a regular person for a little while.

The evening crowd was just starting to settle in, so we had no trouble finding a quiet table. We focused on lighter topics, like the latest news on Blackwall’s favorite jouster, until Blackwall grew somber about three and a half drinks in.

“When I was a boy, there were these urchins who roamed the streets near my father’s house. One day, they found a dog – a wretched little thing.”

My heart froze. I knew where this was going and I wasn’t ready.

Blackwall was too wrapped up in his memory to notice my premature distress. “It came to them for food. They caught it, tied a rope around its neck…and strung it up.” His voice remained even, but the pauses exposed the depth of his pain. “Do you know what I did?” he asked me.

Nothing. But would he be demoralized that I would think so little of him as to assume the truth?

“How much could you have done?” I countered instead. “You would have been outnumbered.”

A wave of anguish swept across his face. “But I didn’t even try! It was crying. I saw the kicking legs, the neck straining and twisting. And I turned around, went inside, and closed the door.”

What could I say? I honestly didn’t know if I would have done differently in his place. Although you did once get snippy with some football players in uni, said the little voice in the back of my head. Even though they were massive compared to you, you still spoke up. Okay, maybe I would have done differently. But the point was that I could understand why Thom hadn’t done anything.

Blackwall’s voice broke. “I could have told my father or alerted someone. I didn’t. I just pretended it wasn’t happening.”

“It’s always easier to see your options in hindsight. Especially when you’re a child, certain courses of action don’t come to mind as readily.”

He frowned. “That doesn’t make what I did any less wrong! I may as well have tied the noose myself.” Blackwall paused. “We…could make the world better. It’s just easier to shut our eyes.”

“That’s what most people do,” I agreed. “Most of us start in that mindset. It’s the ones who don’t change and who don’t ever try to make things better who are the real problem. Even if someone figures things out later than others, at least they’re trying, you know?” I stared him in the eye. He didn’t flinch…much. “You’re trying now and have been ever since I met you. It doesn’t matter what came before in that it did motivate you to act.”

Blackwall snorted in amusement. “Look at you. You would have done the right thing.”

A pang of guilt hit me. “I dunno abou-“

“We’re lucky there are people like you in the world.” Blackwall spoke with such confidence that I couldn’t bear to try contradicting him again. “There’s always some dog out there, some fucking mongrel that doesn’t know how to stay away.”

“That’s why we do what we can to help when we can.”

I hesitated. He must have gotten word that his second-in-command was to be executed in his stead or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That meant Thom would attempt to leave for Val Royeaux tonight. Should I wait to catch him in the act? Or could I stop him now?

The question was answered for me as Thom stood to leave. No time like the present! I rose with him, offering him an arm of support. He waved me off.

“I have some…things to take care of.”

I glanced around the tavern. The evening crowd had come and gone. I could do this.

“Like sneaking off to Val Royeaux in the dead of night?” I kept my tone as light as I could. It wasn’t an accusation.

But the way Thom’s face went pale, my words had clearly been taken as a threat. “How could you possibly…”

“I saw Leliana’s report too,” I told him. It was true. I’d seen it in the game. “About how ‘Thom Rainier’ is due to be executed in Val Royeaux soon.” I had to bluff a bit; I didn’t have a date. “That’s you, isn’t it? Or rather, they think this man is you.” The more I talked, the worse this idea seemed, but I was committed now. “That’s what all of this was about, right? Doing the right thing?” Thom was still reeling from the revelations. “Everything I said before was true. You’ve done everything in your power to make the world a better place as long as I’ve known you. We’ll make this right.”

“You don’t know what I’ve done,” he protested feebly.

Visions of the children who died at the hands of Thom’s men passed before my eyes. But it was Cole’s voice that spoke to me: “all they want is not to have died.”

“I have a pretty good idea of what happened.” I hoped I wasn’t revealing too much. But if Thom started reliving the entire experience again, he’d be less kind to himself and the progress he’d made since then. “Let’s put it this way: my plan is to talk to Josephine and get the falsely accused man released. I also want the Inquisition to have authority over your case.” Thom made a sound of protest. I ignored him. “There are two ways we can do this. Either you accept my full pardon, on the grounds that your current actions outweigh those from your past, or you can join the Wardens – for real this time – after the Inquisition has eliminated Corypheus.” That got through to him. Any further protests died unsaid. “You have some time to decide. Just…think about it, all right?”

“I…yes.” Thom Rainier hadn’t had anyone truly believe in him in years. It showed. “Thank you, Nancy. Inquisitor.”

Finally, I could smile. “Hey, you earned this chance. Don’t sell yourself short.” I patted his arm reassuringly. “I’ll tell Josephine so she can start planning her negotiation tactics. Then the true recovery can begin.”

Chapter Text

Josephine was understandably shocked about Blackwall’s true identity. But she agreed with me that he was more than worth betting on. It wasn’t until I rose to leave that I noticed the vase of flowers on her desk.

Oh.

I knew from the game that Josephine and Thom would flirt with each other under certain circumstances, but I hadn’t realized it was happening here. Yeesh. Their relationship wouldn’t go anywhere in the long run anyway – the difference between their stations was too great, as they well knew – but I still hoped revealing his true identity wouldn’t make things weird for them in the meantime.

As I was about to leave, the door burst open in my face. An incensed Chantry Mother practically bowled me over as she pushed past. I didn’t know her, but she seemed somehow familiar. The way she approached Josie, I got the impression this was part two of an earlier conversation.

“The matter is urgent, Lady Josephine!” the Revered Mother insisted with gritted teeth.

Josephine was, as ever, unflappable. “I am well aware of that, Revered Mother.”

This was the last straw for the Mother. “We will need them to return to Val Royeaux as soon as possible. There are ceremonies – ordinations! Maker’s mercy!”

“That’s quite impossible at the moment,” Josephine told her with a shake of her head. “However, I will see to this matter as soon as possible.”

Only then did the Mother notice I was there. She immediately honeyed her tone. “My lady Inquisitor! Please, may I have a word with you?”

Really? “Aside from that one, I presume,” I noted dryly.

She faltered at my acidic response, but then pressed forward. “With the political turmoil put to rest, our minds turn to a single question: the next Divine. We cannot answer it without the Left and Right Hands of Divine Justinia V. But surely with the support of the Empire, the Inquisition will not be harmed by the loss of just two souls?”

I knew Leliana and Cassandra had to be there, especially since both of them were also candidates for Divine. But… “You are aware of how important both of them are to the Inquisition’s current efforts, Revered Mother? Without Lady Leliana and Seeker Cassandra, there would be no Inquisition. They are needed here now more than ever to ensure that Corypheus is brought down. Only after Corypheus is gone can they be spared.” The Mother started to protest. I talked over her. “This is not a negotiable point, Revered Mother. If there is any possibility that either of them might become the next Divine, then it becomes even more imperative that Corypheus be stopped first.”

That shut her up. She hadn’t mentioned the Divine thing yet, so my uncanny “insight” gave her pause.

Josephine hurried to fill the awkward silence. “I’m afraid this will have to be settled later. The Inquisitor has only just returned and has important business to attend to. You must excuse us, Revered Mother.”

The Mother looked quite unhappy about this turn of events, but left as she was asked. Josephine gave me a look that made me regret almost everything I’d said.

“While that was not the most…tactful response, I agree that Cassandra and Leliana cannot be spared at the moment.”

“Thanks for smoothing things over as best you could,” I replied sheepishly. “I just didn’t like her appealing to me as though you weren’t even there. I’m sorry for making your job harder.”

Josephine shrugged modestly. “While the situation is less than pleasant, it is more easily negotiated than most of the Inquisition’s other troubles.”

A wave of relief washed over me. “Oh good. I’m glad. That this wasn’t a huge problem, I mean. I am sorry you have other messes to mop up.”

We shared a good laugh as Josie saw me to the door a second time.

The fatigue didn’t hit me until I was safely past the main hall. I dragged myself up the stairs to my quarters one agonizing step at a time. It had been such a very long day. A lot of good had come out of it, but I had absolutely no energy left. I changed and crawled into bed, finding myself in the Fade almost the moment my head hit the pillow.

With the physical pains of the day no longer weighing on me, I practically floated downstairs to the rotunda. This time, Solas was there, sitting on one of the couches and poring over what looked like his sketch for the Adamant fresco. He didn’t seem to notice me until I sat next to him and rested my head on his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around me and laid his head against the top of mine.

“Good evening,” he said. The warmth in his voice was clear.

I smiled back. “Hey, darling.”

Nothing more needed to be said.

Chapter Text

Though still exhausted from the combined trip to Halamshiral and Adamant Fortress, I braced myself for the whirlwind of preparations necessary before we could set out for the Shrine of Dumat. However, much to my surprise, it was determined at the next war council meeting that I would not be going. Leliana announced that an opportunity for me to get some advanced combat training had presented itself and everyone agreed that I should take advantage of it. While I was excited to learn more, I was curious about the wording. An opportunity “had presented itself?” What could that possibly mean?

So that evening, I found myself accompanying Isabela to meet my new trainer in our old practice spot on top of the tallest tower in Skyhold. She wouldn’t answer any of my questions about the person. The whole thing was very cloak and dagger. I suppose that’s fitting, since there’s likely rogues involved. But still, why all the secrecy, even within the safety of Skyhold’s walls?

The hooded figure waiting for us was short, around my height. The pointed ears were unmistakably elven. His laugh was familiar.

“Ah, my dear Isabela, is this truly the Inquisitor?” the elf asked. “I was expecting someone…perhaps taller. Not to offend, of course, my lady,” he added to me, his amber eyes glinting mischievously in the moonlight.

Had it been anyone else, I probably would not have laughed. But even with his face obscured, I’d have known that voice anywhere. “No offense taken. I do get that a lot.”

“See?” Isabela elbowed her longtime friend in the ribs. “I told you she was all right!” She turned her attention back to me. “Inquisitor Nancy, I would like for you to meet Zevran Arainai, formerly of the Antivan Crows.”

“And previous companion of the Hero of Ferelden. A pleasure to meet the infamously charming assassin in the flesh,” I said with a grin. “Your reputation precedes you. Although I imagine you already know that, what with all the secrecy surrounding our meeting.”

Zevran chuckled. “Indeed I do. When one has assassinated a certain number of high profile targets within the most fearsome assassins’ guild in the world, one finds the shadows rather more attractive.”

“Are you laying low here for a while then?” I asked. “I can’t imagine you came here just to train me, especially since Isabela already taught me as much as I’m likely to be able to learn.”

Isabela laughed. “There are still a few things you can stand to learn, kitten. Zevran focuses on the more…subtle arts of combat.”

“An assassin specializes in striking from stealth, and in maximizing that first attack to be as lethal as possible,” Zevran explained. “Debilitating your foe, either by poison or by crippling their limbs, makes any follow-up combat you need to engage in that much simpler.”

“This is all true,” I agreed. “But it doesn’t answer my question. Especially since it’s unlikely that I’m going to find myself in a position of initiating combat.”

Zevran shrugged. “You are partially correct. While it would be convenient for me to…disappear for a while after so recently helping your Inquisition with another task, it would also be beneficial for you to have the option of striking first if you should ever find the opportunity, no?”

He had me there. After all that had happened, I didn’t know what else might change. If Bull had saved the Chargers – which he better have done – then the qunari would eventually be sending assassins after him. I couldn’t really picture myself initiating a kill in cold blood, but if it was still ultimately an act of self-defense, perhaps the knowledge would help.

“You make a fair point,” I admitted. “All right, when do we start?”

Zevran laughed. “Right now, if you wish!”

Chapter Text

It was good to have a combat focus again. Not that I was exactly thrilled to be working with poisons – I was certain something was bound to go wrong at any moment and I’d accidentally hurt myself. But Zevran was understanding of my hesitance and remained patient, restricting the teasing quips I knew he had bubbling under the surface.

While I still had no idea when I might actually need these skills, I did notice that I was gaining a better sense of whether or not a situation favored me. My instincts had been a bit mixed on that front in the past and I’d mostly stayed safe because I’d assumed I was going to lose. But I had sustained a few bumps, bruises, and cuts that I should not have because I’d tried to run instead of holding my ground. This, above all else, was valuable information. Isabela, who was present for our first few training sessions, approved. I’d finally started grasping the confidence needed to pull off some of the moves she’d taught me.

The rest of the Inquisition’s major projects proceeded as planned. Isabela left for Valammar with Varric and both Biancas. While Cullen had gotten his team together for the mission at the Shrine of Dumat, he had taken my suggestion to delay leaving on the chance that Dorian might join them. There was no guarantee Dorian would be in any shape to head back out so soon after having been on the road for so long, but I had a feeling he’d want to regardless, due to Tevinter’s significant involvement.

My hunch turned out to be correct when Dorian arrived back at Skyhold two days later. He had a number of choice words to share about his father, but did not hesitate to volunteer for the Shrine assignment. The official reports on the events of the Storm Coast were left to Iron Bull, as Sera had zero interest in appearing at the meeting. Ever the professional, Bull restricted his commentary to just the facts regarding the failed alliance with the qunari. Tevinter mages had outnumbered the Chargers and gained the high ground. There had been no way to protect the qunari dreadnaught, so the potential alliance had fallen through.

It wasn’t until later that I got the full truth. Bull asked to meet me up on the ramparts. I knew from the game what that meant: assassins. I slipped my daggers into my boots so I’d be prepared, but hadn’t taken two steps before I pulled them out again. I couldn’t walk normally like that and I didn’t want to tip the assassins off that I knew something was up. So I went to meet with Bull completely unprepared.

I needn’t’ve worried. When the “Inquisition soldiers” attacked, Iron Bull countered them easily, killing one with his own knife and chucking the other over the ramparts onto the bridge below.

“Yeah, yeah, my soul’s dust,” Bull spat out. “Yours is scattered all over the ground though, so…” Bull grunted in pain, rolling the shoulder that had gotten stabbed. “Sorry, boss. I thought I might need backup. Guess I’m not even worth sending professionals for.”

“Are you all right?” I asked, feeling terrible that I hadn’t been more than a decoy.

“Fine. Hurt myself worse than this fooling around in bed.”

I willed myself not to die of embarrassment. “What if the knife was poisoned?” I asked by way of deflection.

Bull didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, they definitely used poison. Saar-qamek, liquid form. If I hadn’t been dosing myself with the antidote, I’d be going crazy and puking my guts up right now. As it is, it stings like shit, but that’s about it.”

“Do you think they’ll try again?”

“No.” Bull almost sounded disappointed – but not because he was looking for a fight. “Sending two guys with blades against me? That’s not a hit. That’s a formality. Just making it clear that I’m Tal-Vashoth.” He sighed heavily. “Tal-Va-fucking-shoth.”

Now this I could handle. “You’re still you, Bull. You’ve been living in between the Qun and the Chargers for years. You weren’t just playing at being the Iron Bull; it’s who you really are. That was no act. That’s why you called back the Chargers. You wouldn’t sacrifice them for the Qun.”

“I was acting on your orders, boss,” Bull pointed out. “Your very specific orders.”

“Partly, yes,” I conceded. “But I wasn’t even there. You could have overridden me and I wouldn’t’ve known. Shit happens on the battlefield, right? It would have been easy enough to cover up. No, you made this choice yourself. You chose Iron Bull over Hissrad. You chose the Chargers.” I patted one of his massive shoulders, the one that hadn’t been stabbed. “And I’m glad you did. The Inquisition wouldn’t be the same without you.”

The tension went out of Bull’s back. “Thanks, boss. I can live with that.”

Chapter Text

After the attack on Iron Bull, the war council had a lengthy discussion about potential spies in our midst. Efforts to know every face in the Inquisition were to be redoubled. Skilled agents would be watched closely before being granted promotions and extra access.

For my part, I contributed very little to the discussion about our vetting process. While we didn’t want qunari spies in our ranks, I didn’t want Solas’s spies to get discovered either. He might not need their information yet, since he was still with the Inquisition himself, but they were definitely already here. I hadn’t caught her name, but I’d seen the blonde elf spy from Trespasser going about her business in Skyhold. I continued to harbor suspicions that Cillian, the former Dalish First, and Charter, Leliana’s second in command, also belonged to Solas. I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to any of them if they were mistaken for qunari spies and became forced to defend themselves. Besides, I fully intended to disband the Inquisition after Corypheus and the rifts were gone. Assuming I’m still here to do that. There was always the possibility that I’d get ported home first.

Unfortunately, Leliana noticed my silence and pulled me aside afterwards.

“You seem…distracted,” she told me. “Is everything all right?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question or even a leading one. But there were plenty of opportunities for me to trap myself if I said the wrong thing.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” I told her honestly. “Including the identity of the next Divine – which I note we didn’t discuss earlier, despite the insistence that you and Cassandra be present for those proceedings.” I didn’t bother concealing my contempt for the rude Chantry Mother.

“The delay was at my request,” Leliana confided. “I wanted to talk to you before we brought the matter before the rest of the council.”

“Oh?”

“It occurred to me – would it be so ridiculous for the Grand Clerics to support me as the next Divine?”

Fortunately, I was ready for this conversation. I’d already made my decision to support Leliana as Divine a long time ago. Cassandra wouldn’t change the underlying structure of the system and would be miserable dealing with all the politics. While I’d seriously considered Vivienne’s strategy of building up the mages within the existing system, I just couldn’t shake the knowledge that she would also hoard more power for herself – and I couldn’t trust anyone in power who did that.

“It did sound like you and Cassandra would be going as candidates as well as consultants,” I admitted. “You both certainly had close ties to Divine Justinia. Especially you, since you’d known her before she became Divine.” Even though I already knew what Leliana stood for, I still had to ask. “What would you do as Divine?”

“Change things!” The smile that escaped her was almost playful, a hint of the old Leliana. “Change everything. Your support of the mage rebellion was a good start. We must build on this. No more Circles. The mages will be free. The Chantry will accept them as the Maker’s children. In fact, it will accept everyone: elves, dwarves – even qunari! Why exclude them? The Chantry allows our differences to tear us apart instead of teaching us how we are the same.” Her gaze drifted off as she fell into deeper thought. “The Chantry was a beacon of hope to me once, you know. In my years at Lothering’s chantry, we turned no one away from our doors. It was a refuge, a place of peace. I felt the Maker’s presence and His love, even when they told me He’d left us. This is the Chantry I know, the Chantry I wish the world to see.”

While I wanted to go along with her wholeheartedly, I also needed to make sure she’d thought this through completely. “That isn’t exactly how the Chantry’s been in the past,” I pointed out. “Your experience is not a universal one.”

Sorrow tinged her expression. “The Chantry dictated where it should have inspired. It spoke of judgment instead of acceptance. It should encourage the good in everyone, rather than rebuke us for our sins.” Determination tightened her jaw. “No one should be turned away from our doors. No one is without worth. Whoever you are, whatever your mistakes, you are loved unconditionally. ‘In your heart shall burn an unquenchable flame.’”

Is she really being as inclusive as she thinks she is? This plan still required people to join the Chantry and believe in the Maker. “What about those who don’t believe in the Chantry’s teachings?”

The question gave her pause. It wasn’t something she had considered. “They would not have to join us, of course. People need not be part of the Chantry to be worthy of the Maker’s love, whether they believe in Him or not.”

At first glance, that seemed like an open-minded approach, but there was an implication that those who weren’t part of the Chantry were somehow lesser. It was the sort of argument I doubted I would win today, but seeing how much growth Leliana had undergone in the past ten years, perhaps she would one day take my words to heart. So long as she approached everyone from a position of compassion, then I could believe that she would someday be the Divine I hoped she would be. In the meantime, she was certainly the best option of what was available.

“That does sound like the sort of reality check the Chantry needs. I think you’re up to the task.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Relief flickered in her eyes. “Your support may persuade the Grand Clerics to vote in my favor.”

“Whatever I can do to help, I will,” I promised. “But I do fear that you will meet with resistance to some of these sweeping changes, even if they do put you on the Sunburst Throne. You wouldn’t want the Divine who follows you to undo all of your hard work.”

Leliana didn’t seem concerned. “By that time, the world will have changed. Entire generations will have grown up seeing everyone as equals, regardless of who they are.”

I missed half of what she said as “the world will have changed” echoed through my mind. Solas was going to bring down the Veil long before any of Leliana’s theories could come to pass. Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter who was sitting on the Sunburst Throne. The world was going to change and we would have to adapt.

“I hope you’re right,” I said instead.

Chapter Text

At the next war council meeting, Cassandra supported the decision to back Leliana for Divine and Josephine started drafting the paperwork immediately. It was still unanimous that neither Cass nor Leli would be available until after Corypheus had been taken care of. Cleaning up the remaining rifts afterwards could be done with a smaller roster. If I’m still here. But of course I didn’t say that out loud.

After we finished, I found myself compelled to take a walk around Skyhold’s garden. I hadn’t really had the opportunity to spend much time here over the past months. There’d barely been a chance to breathe since Haven. But with the Inquisition’s major progress halted until we had leverage on Corypheus’s lieutenants from the Shrine of Dumat, my list of pressing responsibilities had shrunk significantly.

The garden was relatively empty at this odd hour of the afternoon. The Inquisition’s apothecaries were inspecting a new shipment of herbs that had just arrived. A few members of the chantry were passing through on their way to visit the chapel that had been set up in one of the rooms that led off the garden.

“You’re the Inquisitor,” said a high-pitched reedy voice.

Startled, I turned to see a dark-haired boy of about 10 staring up at me with bright amber eyes. My breath caught. Kieran, Morrigan’s son. It had to be. There were no other children in Skyhold.

The boy looked confused. “I thought you’d be scarier. Mother said you were scary.”

My heartrate tripled. What does that MEAN? Did Morrigan know I didn’t belong here? Did Kieran? Alistair and Loghain had both survived the Fifth Blight, which meant Kieran had the archdemon Urthemiel’s soul within him. That soul granted Kieran access to ancient knowledge of Thedas. It also means Alistair or Loghain is his father – but that’s not relevant at the moment.

“There are plenty of words I’d use to describe myself in a negative light, but ‘scary’ isn’t one of them,” I said truthfully. “I’m not sure where she got that from.”

“Because people fear the next age if it comes too soon.”

I breathed an inward sigh of relief. This wasn’t about me. It was about the mark. Hopefully, anyway.

“I guess she’s right on that count. But that doesn’t reflect on me as a person, does it?”

Kieran shook his head. “No, you don’t seem scary to me.”

“Kieran.” I hadn’t heard Morrigan approach. “Are you bothering the Inquisitor?”

“Of course not! Did you see what’s on her hand, Mother?”

“I did see,” Morrigan replied with a bemused smile. “’Tis time to return to your studies, little man.” Her tone was gentler than I’d ever heard it before.

Kieran sighed loudly, but after Morrigan gestured him back to his quarters, he left us.

Morrigan let out a soft laugh. “My son. Never where you expect him to be, naturally.”

“I can’t imagine where he gets that from,” I told her with a grin. Maybe I didn’t technically know her well enough to make that joke safely, but I couldn’t help myself.

Morrigan laughed again, louder this time. “Most likely from his father.”

I chuckled. Probably Alistair then. But I didn’t pursue the question. Even if I hadn’t already suspected the answer, it wasn’t my business to ask.

“Kieran is a curious boy, but seldom troublesome,” Morrigan assured me. “Your fortress is a large place, and I’m sure you have scarce noticed our presence.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it! You’re both welcome here. He really wasn’t bothering me, you know,” I added, in case she hadn’t believed her son earlier.

She nodded. “To think, until recently this place stood decrepit, occupied only by the desperate and the lost.” The conversation shifted so quickly that it nearly gave me whiplash. But I had no problem going with the flow, so long as it meant Morrigan felt more secure. “Now it is party to events that threaten to shake the world. I wonder if it is pleased.”

Probably, since it wouldn’t be the first time. Skyhold was almost certainly the place that Solas had created the Veil. But I doubted Morrigan knew that. Even I wasn’t completely sure. “It does seem to have its own personality, doesn’t it?” I said instead. “I imagine it’s at least glad to be at work again.”

“This fortress was built upon the remains of a site holy to the ancient elves,” Morrigan explained. Perhaps my answer hadn’t been deep enough. “They called it Tarasyl’an: ‘the place where the sky is kept.’ It is said that from here, they reached up to the heavens to bring them down to rest.” I quite literally bit my tongue to keep my expression even. She was close to the truth, but didn’t know. She couldn’t. “They abandoned it, as did the humans who came after them. Bones laid upon bones, silent until your arrival.”

“I just hope Skyhold finds us worthy of its protection,” I said truthfully. “I certainly am grateful to it. Besides, it’s got heart.”

Morrigan gave me a studying look. “The magic in this place has seeped into the stones, protecting it from darkness. Those who let it fall to ruin did not know what they possessed. You, I think, shall do it justice.”

“Thank you, Lady Morrigan. I hope that Skyhold agrees with you.”

Chapter Text

The weeks that followed passed slowly. Training with Zevran took up my mornings and while there was still plenty of Inquisition business to attend to in Skyhold, I had more time to myself than I’d ever had in Thedas before.

Of all the things I could have done, I found myself poring through Skyhold’s library. Not Varric’s books – I’d already read parts of those through codex entries. No, I wanted to sink my teeth into the real literature of Thedas. There were plays and history books, cookbooks and tales of legend. I wanted to know the real Thedas from the inside out.

On this particular afternoon, I was curled up in bed reading a book of Rivaini poetry. Well, rereading the same sentence six times in a row, anyway. My attention had wandered and the rhythms of the piece were too good to be ruined by my own distraction.

I set the book aside and rolled out of bed to stretch. I wrapped myself up in my blanket, much like I would have at home, before heading over to my desk. With a grin, I leaned over the back of the already-occupied chair and rested my chin on Solas’s shoulder. “Find anything interesting, darling?” I murmured in his ear.

He must have heard my approach, since he didn’t even flinch before setting down the book he was reading. “Unfortunately, no. Nothing that I did not already know, at any rate.”

I glanced at the title: Dalish Myth and Collected Truths Against. I could only speculate what sort of information Solas had hoped to gain about the Fade from a book like that. Maybe he just wanted to know what lies had been passed around in his absence. “Ah, that figures.” I hugged him sympathetically. “Anything I can do to help?”

Solas thought for a moment. “If you could, please ask Artificer Dagna for the book I lent her. There is something I wish to verify.”

“The templar’s memoir?”

“Yes.”

The request was simple, but unusual. Solas generally did everything himself. Unless…

“Has she been asking you questions about the Fade again?”

“I do not believe she ever stopped.”

I knew I shouldn’t laugh. Solas wasn’t really annoyed by Dagna asking him about the Fade. More likely, she was asking deep questions that he didn’t want to answer, as they might give away his identity. And that would ruin everything.

“All right, I’ll run interference for you.” Realizing how out of place that expression sounded here, I covered for it by kissing Solas’s temple. “At least anything she asks me can’t really go anywhere, since I’m not magical.”

Solas turned to wrinkle his nose at me. “That is a matter of debate.”

“Ha, that’s a good line! Or do you mean that seriously because of the mark?”

He smiled. “Perhaps it is both.”

I rolled my eyes. “You ass. I could still refuse and leave you to play 20 Questions with Dagna!”

Solas let out a mock gasp of indignation. “You wouldn’t dare!”

I smirked. “No, I wouldn’t.” I moved toward my wardrobe. “I’ll be back then.”

“Wait!” Solas caught my arm. “There is no hurry.”

“I suppose you do have quite a few other books to go through first.” I nodded at the leather-bound tome toward the bottom of the stack. “Have you read the one by Brother Genitivi yet?”

He shook his head. “Why do you ask?”

Cause I met the man in another life. “Well, he’s supposed to be a renowned scholar. Besides which, the book has ‘spirits’ in the title.”

Solas laughed. “A compelling argument. Very well, I will read his findings next.”

Chapter Text

Things continued to fall into place as the days went by. Val Royeaux officially released Thom Rainier into the Inquisition’s custody. At his sentencing, I again offered Thom the choice of either joining the Grey Wardens for real or remaining with the Inquisition to continue atoning for his transgressions. He chose to stay. Later, Thom told me that he had taken my words to heart and intended to redouble his efforts to help others. We worked out that he would head his own company within the Inquisition, a haven for those with troubled pasts who wished to better themselves and the rest of the world. Though I would have preferred something less conspicuously connected to the Chantry, Andraste’s Redeemed was a fitting name.

The Rivaini talisman for Cole arrived at last. Together we sought out Solas in the rotunda.

“It is simple enough,” Solas told Cole. “You put it on, I charge it with magic, and you should be protected.”

There was a pause. “Are you ready, Cole?” I asked. If he was having second thoughts, now would be the time to say so.

Cole nodded, determination etched across his face. “They can’t make me a monster.”

Once the amulet was in place, Solas stretched his hand out toward Cole. Blue tendrils of magic flowed through Solas’s fingers as he closed his eyes to concentrate on the spell. For several moments, they stood like that, the silence only broken by the soft hum of magical energy . I braced myself, but still jumped when the hum broke off and Cole cried out.

My heart leapt into my throat. “Are you okay?”

“It didn’t work.” Cole’s disappointment was palpable.

“Something is interfering with the enchantment,” Solas told us.

My mouth ran dry. Varric’s supposed to be here. But he hadn’t yet returned from Valammar. There’s no one to present the idea that Cole might be turning into an actual human. Not unless I did it myself. But I wasn’t sure what Cole wanted. Would bringing up that possibility only cause him distress?

“What could be blocking it?” I asked instead.

“Focus on the amulet,” Solas instructed Cole. “Tell me what you feel.”

Cole bowed his head. “Warm, soft blanket covering, but it catches, tears, I’m the wrong shape – there’s something…” He turned and pointed at one of the walls. “There. That way.”

I knew from experience that it was in the direction of the Hinterlands. The templar who had killed the real Cole was out there somewhere.

“You know, don’t you?” Cole was staring at me intently.

Whatever color remained in my face left. It has to be done. “Come with me a minute, please, Cole?” I turned to Solas. “We’ll get to the bottom of this,” I promised.

Solas gave me an enigmatic glance, but nodded. Cole, for his part, was eager to follow me up to my quarters. I couldn’t take a chance on us being overheard.

I exhaled, trying to prepare myself for the impossible. “What have you seen in my mind, Cole?”

“Murky, missing memories, moments that never happened. ‘Varric was supposed to be here.’” A chill ran up my spine as my own unspoken words were echoed back to me. Cole fixed his questioning gaze on me. “How do you know?”

“It’s…really complicated to explain,” I admitted. “To me…these possibilities are all real, even though that’s not what ended up happening.” How can I possibly explain something simply when I can barely wrap my head around it myself? “The important part is that through this knowledge, you can make your own choice about how to make the amulet work. Either you forget the templar who locked up the real Cole or you try to kill him and fail, then work through the feelings.”

Cole cocked his head to the side. “But I can’t fail. Varric isn’t here.” …shit. If Cole were being made more human, Varric would lend Bianca to him – without any ammo. “Besides, I would know it was a trick.”

I rubbed my forehead, trying to force off my impending migraine. “I guess that means you don’t have much of a choice in the matter after all. I’m so sorry, Cole. I only ever wanted you to be the one deciding who you want to be.”

“But I am me,” he insisted. “I understand now. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll erase his records.’ They clap me on the shoulder, smell of oiled metal and blood. They smile like Louis did when he made me drown the kittens. Laughter bounces off the walls like a thin child’s fists. He is sorry for what he did to the real Cole. I will make him forget so I can forget.”

Panic surged through me. I’d forgotten they’d both needed to forget so Cole could be free. “Do you have to go to him for that?” If that were the case, Cole wouldn’t be coming with us to the Arbor Wilds – and I had no idea who to send with him to the Hinterlands to find the former templar.

“Yes. But don’t worry. I won’t hurt him.”

“I was worried about you, Cole. I want you to be safe.” Inspiration struck. “And I think I know who I can trust you to escort you there safely.”

“Good. I like Scout Harding.”

I couldn’t help but smile. Of course he already knew.

Chapter Text

Sending Cole off to the Hinterlands without me or Solas present was not an ideal solution, but it was the best I could manage. Cole had to be protected from possession for his own sense of well-being and I wasn’t sure how much time we’d have after the Arbor Wilds. Corypheus wouldn’t take his eventual failure well and would attempt to reopen the Breach, but due to Inquisition’s flexible timeline, I didn’t know when. No, Cole had to be safe before that or else he’d be vulnerable to Corypheus.

A mere two days after Cole and Scout Harding’s team set out for the Hinterlands, Varric’s group returned. Bianca – the dwarf Bianca – was not with them. Varric’s report to the war council was brief: they had cut off Corypheus’s red lyrium supply from Bartrand’s Folly.

I waited until afterwards to ask if he’d also found the source of the leak. Much to my surprise, Varric told me it was Bianca who had accidentally revealed the location of the thaig to Corypheus.

“I’m glad to have answers, but…shit.” He couldn’t look me in the eye now that the truth was out. “The second she showed up here, I knew. I just…I let this mess happen. I gave her the thaig.” Varric looked up at me with an almost sheepish laugh. “I’m not good at dealing with shit like this.”

“I can’t imagine anyone is, honestly.” I wouldn’t be either. “Mistakes were made with the best of intentions on both sides –”

“No, no.” Varric looked pained by my attempt at sympathy. “The point is…I don’t! I don’t deal with things. If Cassandra hadn’t dragged me here, I’d be in Kirkwall right now pretending none of this was happenin