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Serenity: Origins

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Serenity ascended the steps into the bungalow she shared with her mother, winded from running about the alienage. "Mamae! Look what I found!" She held her hands up, cupped to hide something between them.

Kyna took one look at Serenity, barefoot and covered in mud up to her knees, and shot up from her seat. "Don't track all that mud in here, da'len!"

Serenity looked down at her feet and took a step back toward the door. She was only seven years old, skinny and bright faced, her hair in tiny tangled braids. "Mamae, look at this beetle. It's so colorful!"

Kyna scrunched up her face and walked over to turn Serenity around and guide her back out the door, ready to swat the thing out of the air when Serenity opened her hands to show her. "Don't touch the beetles, da'len. And stay out of the mud."

Serenity shrieked when the beetle flew up toward her face with a loud buzz before flying away. She laughed and strained against her mother's hands on her shoulders to run back outside to play with the other children. Kyna would have to wait for the muddy footprints at the door to dry before sweeping them away. She was more intent on returning to the altar she was building to honor her husband on the one year anniversary of his death.

In Denerim, the only elf to come from the Dalish had been her husband, Ufen. He hadn't left his tribe by choice, of course. No Dalish ever did, not to join an alienage, at least. So few Dalish existed outside of their clans that many of the residents inside the walls of the city didn't believe them to exist. Ufen was a fine carpenter, having learned his craft from his father. He had followed a travelling merchant away from the clan's aravels, intrigued by an item in his possession. Before reaching him, he was set upon by bandits, captured, and taken to Highever.

Ufen was sold to a merchant from Denerim. He lived amongst the elves in the alienage for a time, determined to escape and return to his people. He hated the slum and the community inside it, ignorant to their culture and content to live in squalor and filth with pride. The merchant worked him hard, selling his constructs in the market district for high prices. When Kyna first met him, he was quiet. She stood under the overhang of one of the houses and watched him carve in the shade.

"I've seen you make many of these pendants," she said. "And you put that symbol into everything. What does it mean?" She understood the Dalish wore the blood writing on their faces to honor their gods and figured the symbol must relate to his, the elven god of craft, June. She had overheard him explain it to the hahren.

"It means shit," Ufen said, looking up at her.

"I don't understand," she said quietly. Surely he didn't mean that literally.

He smirked, "We do not know how to read or write in our native tongue any longer. The keeper knows more than the rest of us do. But if there is one word I am going to learn in a language, it's shit. Or fuck. But nobody knows that one. If the shemlen want to wear my work, they will wear shit."

She fell irrevocably in love with him in that moment. And it was not long before Ufen's desire to escape came second to his desire for her. Their marriage was not arranged. Despite the hahren's reservations, he agreed to obtain the license for them. It was not long after that Serenity was born. And it was not long after that that Ufen contracted an infection from a dull blade he'd accidentally cut himself with while he was working. Kyna hated the shemlen for what they did to him. Even though she never would have met him otherwise, she thought of him as a bird whose wings had been clipped. He did not fit in with the rats in the alienage, though the hahren tried to welcome him.

Kyna wiped her eyes and stood up to answer a knock at the door, surprised to see the hahren. "Valendrian?"

"We need to talk," he said, "about Serenity."

"What has she done?" Kyna asked, her voice stiff. She had first noticed her daughter's magic when she was just four years old. She had an affinity for manipulating the cold, or perhaps it was manipulating heat but in an unusual way. She couldn't begin to understand it.

She had caught Serenity creating hoarfrost on a window pane. She traced circular designs and hearts into it like one would if they breathed against the glass. It didn't settle in right away that it was magic. She'd thought it must have been there already. She thought she had to have been mistaken. But after that, she would notice Serenity acting suspicious. She would watch her daughter trot away innocently, then find the suspect window covered in icy shapes or covered in ice with the shapes carved into it.

She was frightened, but she knew her da'len was harmless. She forbade her from doing it again, for fear that she would be taken away. Serenity had cried, had felt like she did something wrong. It pained Kyna to let her believe her gift was wrong.

Valendrian sighed and walked inside, closing the door behind him. "Kyna, please, sit down."

"No, tell me," she said, hands shaking. She knew. She already knew what he was going to say, and it made her chest tighten.

"I overheard a guard talking," he said. "They're going to report her to the Chantry."

"They haven't yet?" Kyna asked, gripping the wall to keep herself steady. There was still a chance to stop them.

"They are likely on their way to do so now," he said, putting his hand on her shoulder to steady her. "You need to prepare yourself."

Kyna crumpled to the floor, her heart breaking. She could hardly breathe, but a desperate cry escaped her. She couldn't speak, her voice hitched as she wailed.

Valendrian stepped back and held the door. He knew they would be back by morning. "I will find her and bring her home. Calm yourself, Kyna. You do not want to scare her."

Serenity was confused when Valendrian took her by the hand and led her back home. He helped her wipe her feet clean before taking her inside. Her mother was hunched over the table, head resting in her arms, but she was quiet. "Mamae?"

Kyna stood up and took her into her arms. "We have to hurry, da'len."

Valendrian pet Serenity's hair and nodded. "I will bring your supper," he offered. Kyna needed as much time with her daughter as she could get. Cooking would only take away from it.

After Valendrian left, Kyna set Serenity on the chair. "Do you remember your father? And his bedtime stories?"

Serenity nodded slowly. Her father had told her the story of June, though she hardly remembered it or any of the others. She usually fell asleep during his storytelling. "He had face paints for his god."

"Yes," she said. "I don't believe in the same gods he does. But he was different from the rest of us. He was like a bird that fell from his nest and was scooped up by the humans. Then he was put in a cage with rats."

Serenity nodded, "Are you going to paint my face, mamae?"

"I can't," she said, her voice wavering. "We are not Dalish. But you must remember your father and his stories. You must remember how much he loved you and how much I love you. No matter what happens. No matter how scared you are. Remember that you are special. You come from two worlds. You come from love."

"Mamae, why are you crying?"

She didn't know how to say goodbye. She didn't know how to explain what was happening or why. She had already lost the love of her life and now she was losing the child they'd created together. "They're coming. Go upstairs, da'len."

Serenity didn't know who she meant, but she knew her mother was upset. She did as she was told and ran up the steps to the tiny room her bed was tucked into. She heard the door open and the voices of men downstairs. Her mother pleaded with somebody to leave. She thought she heard Valendrian too, asking for more time. Scared, Serenity hid beneath her bed as heavy armored footsteps ascended the stairs. There was no knock before the door opened.

"Where is she?" a man's voice asked. "Do you think her mother hid her?"

"No," another voice answered, the one in front. She watched his loud rattling boots move over to the bed, and then she saw his hands and a helmet hiding his face as he looked at her under the bed. "Come out, child."

Serenity felt the tears well up in her eyes as she did what he commanded, crawling out to stand before him. "Mamae?"

"Don't be scared," he said. "You're safe with us. No harm will come to you."

"Your mother is waiting downstairs," the other man, dressed in the city guard's uniform, said and walked down ahead of them.

Serenity ran into her mother's arms. Kyna lifted her face to kiss both her cheeks and said, "I'm sorry, da'len. They wouldn't listen. I thought we would have more time. Don't forget what I told you."

"Where am I going, mamae? Are you coming with me?"

"I can't," Kyna cried, petting her hair. "I love you, da'len. Be good. I will see you again someday. Ar dir'vhen'an."

When it was time to leave, Serenity took the templar's gloved hand and didn't let go until they reached the Circle tower.

Chapter Text

When Serenity arrived at the Ferelden Circle, she was greeted by First Enchanter Irving. He was an old man with kind eyes. He showed her to her room, where a few other children were preparing for bed. She was too anxious about being away from her mother to notice them or her surroundings. She went to bed sore, sad, and tired.

The next morning, when she woke up, a dark-haired boy was standing over her bed, watching her. "Are you an elf?" he asked.

She pulled her blanket over her head to hide and felt the tears come flooding back. Mamae.

"Leave the knife-ear alone," a little girl said. "You'll catch her cooties."

It wasn't long before somebody else came to bother her. It was Irving. He pulled a chair up to her bedside, in the otherwise empty room. All the children were in the dining hall but her. "Child, are you ready to listen?"

She nodded, pulling her knees up to her chest to hug them.

"The children may treat you like a stranger now, but they will come to learn that you are one of us," he said. "You have magic in you. Elves have a natural talent and history with magic. Did you know that?" When she shook her head, he said, "You can learn about the history of the elves here if you want to."

"The man said I had to come here because of magic."

"Yes," Irving said, assuming the man she referred to was the templar that escorted her. "You will learn about magic, how to harness your innate talents, and how to control it. You will learn the dangers of magic and why we must abide by the Chantry's rule and live in this tower."

"Are there other elves here?" she asked.

"Not your age, child," he said, "but you are not the only elf that resides in this tower. You are the only elf in your class. But worry not. You will be treated like any other apprentice in the Circle. You will hear people belittle you for being an elf anywhere you go. But least of all here. This is your home now."

"Will I see my mamae again?"

He sighed. Visitors were not allowed to see the apprentices. "Perhaps, someday. But not until you pass a test. Many years from now."

It was months before Serenity stopped crying out for her mother and years before she stopped thinking of Denerim altogether. She slept better in the Circle than she ever had in the cold, dank house in the alienage. She didn't have any truly close friends for the first five years living in the tower. What Irving told her that first day had been true though. The children, after living with her for long enough, stopped treating her as the filthy knife-ear and began to see her as an equal. Whatever prejudices they'd learned were left in the past with their families. She became close friends with the boy, Jowan, who'd first approached her. He was a curious and awkward child and still a curious and awkward young man at the age of seventeen.

It was a few years before her Harrowing when Serenity first learned of the Tranquil. She was on her way to meet Jowan in the library when she saw the templar, Ivan, in the hallway, berating him. When no one else was around, Ivan was mean, and he liked bullying Jowan most of all. He usually wore his helmet, so it wasn’t always easy to tell when he was around, but if one knew it was him, they would avoid him.

Serenity was on her way to the library to study when she saw Jowan ahead of her. Ivan was standing at his post in the hallway leading to the library and slid his foot out as Jowan was about to pass, tripping him. He laughed, his grin hidden by his helmet. Ivan chided, “You should watch where you’re going, apprentice.”

“Ha, ha, very funny, Ivan,” Jowan sighed, standing up and wiping off his knees. “Why do you always have to be such a jerk?”

“I don't know what you're talking about, apprentice. You must have tripped over your own foot,” he said with a smirk. He stepped forward with his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, “Or are you calling me a liar?”

Jowan glared indignantly, “Your idle threats don’t scare me.”

“Oh, yeah?” He said, raising his hand up so Jowan flinched and looked up at it, then he punched him in the stomach with his other hand. “I didn't think you'd fall for that. Are all of you mages so simple?”

Jowan keeled over, holding his stomach as he coughed and gasped for air. Serenity hurried over to help Jowan stand up straight and stood between them. “What the hell is your problem, Ivan?”

“You,” he spat. “You’re my problem. You and all the rest of these mistakes."

“Why don't you just leave? I'm sure the Circle and the chantry would be better off without you.”

Jowan backed up, furrowing his brow. “Stop, Serenity. Let’s just go.”

“Yeah, listen to the simpleton,” Ivan smirked.

“You’re despicable."

“And you’re annoying. Don't you know nobody likes you, knife-ear?” he said, pleased that his words hurt her feelings. “If I have to listen to the sound of your voice any longer, I might lose my mind.”

“Oh? Maybe I should continue talking your ear off then. That might be funny.”

“The first thing I'd do is cut yours off," he hissed. "You won’t be pestering me when you’re made tranquil. And I’ll be the one laughing.”

She knew he wouldn't actually harm her and scoffed, “Tranquil? What’s that?”

He grinned, “Oh, you don’t know? You should go read about it.”

“I will.”

Jowan shook his head, “Serenity, just ignore him.”

She gave Ivan one last dirty look before walking into the library with Jowan.

"What do you think he meant by that? Tranquil?" Jowan asked.

"I don't know. I've heard the word before though," Serenity asked, leading him to a section of books. "Let's find out."

Together they studied the rite of tranquility, horrified by the result of the procedure, even without fully comprehending what it meant to be cut off from the Fade. "This... this is horrible," Jowan said, looking at her with fear in his eyes. "Do you think he can really have them make us tranquil?"

"Irving would never let that happen. We haven't done anything wrong."

"Maybe not, but Greagoir is the one that holds all the power," he said. "And he hates mages. All templars do. That's what they're trained to do."

"That's not true," Serenity argued. "Many of the templars are nice. They're here because they choose to be, to protect us."

"Protect us? Is that what you call killing? That doesn't make any sense."

"No..." she faltered, thinking about it. The templars were tasked with hunting apostates and killing or capturing them, as well as striking the killing blow against abominations. But they weren't evil. She had a hard time seeing them that way, even though there was little evidence of them being friends to mages. She had grown up around them, seeing them as guardians. Though they were not supposed to be on friendly terms with their charges, many of them were. Speaking with the templars was different from speaking with other apprentices, sometimes in a good way. The templars didn't care much for the gossip between apprentices, though they'd heard it all too. "I'm just saying Greagoir wouldn't abuse his power that way. He and Irving work together."

"A templar and a mage working together. Pah!" Jowan scoffed, "Irving isn't Greagoir's equal. He's on a leash, like the rest of us. If that jerk, Ivan, wanted to convince Greagoir to make us tranquil, he'd probably be taken at his word."

"I refuse to believe that," Serenity said. "He was just being an ass. He would have to be a real monster to have innocent lives ruined."

"You're really naive if you don't think we hold monsters in this tower," Jowan said. "Mages aren't the only ones who can be evil."

Serenity knew he was right, but she hadn't heard any accounts of people being made tranquil against their will. "You need to stop worrying so much."

"What if I'm no good at magic? It says here a mage who cannot control their magic can be made tranquil."

"You'll be good at magic, Jowan. You just need to find your area of expertise. I can try to tutor you in cold magic."

"But I don't even know any cold spells," Jowan whined. "I can make a flame, a little one. Not enough to hurt a demon though."

"Then you should practice with fire," Serenity said. "First enchanter Uldred would spend more time you if you requested it, to make sure you know what you're doing."

"You think so? Maybe I should ask him."

It was a year later that a new templar arrived at the tower. When new templars arrived, they were integrated into the tower without any introduction by Greagoir. They just became a part of the Circle, much like new apprentices did. Templars fresh out of recruitment were always stationed in the apprentices' quarters until they were with the Circle for six months, at which time they might be sent out to hunt mages, chosen to attend a Harrowing, or moved upstairs to the mages' quarters on guard duty.

It wasn't long before whispers in the apprentice quarters started about a handsome young templar guarding the library. Serenity was just as curious as the next apprentice, though not due to the recruit's appearance. She was more eager to find out whether he was a good templar or a bad templar, compassionate or hardened against his charges.

At dawn, Cullen took his post by the doorway overlooking the library, relieving the night watch. He scanned the room as spritely early risers or sleepy-eyed apprentices dragged their feet entering. He kept his composure when some of the apprentices sneaked looks at him or others stared and gossiped to each other in whispers. He wasn't used to so much attention and hadn't expected it, but he reminded himself of his duty not to talk to the mages or allow himself to get too close to them. But he wondered how the two groups could exist with an invisible wall between them.

While most mages respected the boundaries set forth by the Order, Serenity preferred to break the invisible wall down. She was always the first apprentice to speak to a new templar. Ordinarily she would test the waters with casual conversation. Some would tell her not to bother them or politely remind her that they're on duty, while others might answer her questions.

Serenity approached the new templar and, for the first time, found herself struggling to think of what to say. She heard two of the girls nearby giggling and remembered she was under the watchful eye of not only the templar but also any fellow apprentices within earshot.

When Serenity walked toward him, he felt his skin grow warm, embarrassed that his first thought was how attractive she was, and hoped that she was just moving along and not coming his way because of him. When she stopped before him, he found himself speaking, even though he was not supposed to. "Do... is..." He took a breath, realizing words escaped him and now he was committed to conversation. "Is there something I can help you with?"

Serenity smiled, relieved he initiated the conversation. She didn't always give the templars a chance to do so. "No, I just wanted to know your name and introduce myself. I'm Serenity. I'm pleased to meet you."

He figured he might as well give his name as it would be annoying to be called Templar all the time. "My name is Cullen. It's, uh... nice... to meet you too, Serenity." He was having a hard time making eye contact with her and felt silly for it. This hadn't been a problem in the past. She was just an apprentice. And an elf, at that. An elf with striking features and pale blue eyes that gleamed with intensity. He lowered his voice, "You know we are not supposed to speak to each other, right?"

"But it would be awfully boring if we didn't," she said. "Have you been here long? It's not your first day, is it?" He could have been guarding the dock outside or transferred from another Circle, though he looked quite young to have been a templar for very long.

"This is my first day on duty, but I have spent three days within the templar quarters to be briefed on my duties here within the tower."

"Have they hazed you yet?"

"Hazed?" he asked, brow raised. "No. Is there something you know that I should?"

"I'm not privvy to the details. I have only overheard talk of pranks among the templars. Nothing they would ever do in front of the mages though. They must be sworn to secrecy because I can never get the details out of anyone." She smirked, "Or maybe it's just something really embarrassing."

"Maybe they don't want the mages learning their secrets and doing hazing of their own?" He remembered his duty and said, "Or it could be that we are supposed to keep talking with you to a minimum."

"I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if mages have their own hazing rituals upstairs," Serenity said. "As if going the Harrowing isn't enough. Did you know they wake up apprentices in the middle of the night to do it? I've heard the templars come in and take people away."

"I did know that, yes," Cullen answered guardedly. "I was told that it is much easier to do it that way than when everyone is awake and aware of what's happening."

"That makes sense," Serenity said, "Sometimes the apprentice is carried back to their bed, but usually they are moved up to the mages' quarters right away so they can't tell us what it's like. I think maybe they do it that way so if they fail their Harrowing, we won't know. We'll just think they've been taken upstairs."

Cullen was told about what happens to those who fail, but he thought it best not say anything. "I have yet to attend a harrowing." He realized that was obvious, having already told her it was his first day, and stammered, blushing. "As... as I'm sure... you know. Of course."

Serenity saw a templar coming and didn't want to get him in trouble. This templar knew her well enough to know she would be trying to talk to him. "Andraste's knickers, you're stubborn," she scoffed, hand on her hips. "Pretending to be a statue just like the rest of them."

Cullen looked at her confused, unsure what just happened. He was about to speak when he noticed the senior templar approaching and straightened up.

Hadley cast Serenity a disapproving look with a hint of amusement. "Why am I not surprised to see you harassing our newest arrival?" He turned, noticing all the other apprentices suddenly looking busy. "They're like jackals on the scent of fresh blood."

"We're not that bad," Serenity grinned, clasping her hands behind her back, the picture of innocence.

"Serenity, shouldn't you be studying? Magic, I mean. Not our templars," he said pointedly.

"Yes, Ser Hadley. I just thought it would be rude not to introduce myself."

"Well, consider it done. Off you go." After Serenity went to sit with Jowan at a table, Hadley looked at Cullen, studying the nervous young man. "She got you to talk, didn't she?"

Cullen's face betrayed his guilt and he admitted, "Yes. It is a lot harder than I thought it would be to resist. I'm sorry."

"It is your first day, Cullen. She does it to everybody. Just don't make a habit of it," he advised. He knew from what he'd heard from the templars of Honnleath that Cullen was compassionate. "We cannot become too friendly with our charges. If someday she were to be too weak to resist the temptation of a demon or the desire for freedom, it would be our duty to stop her, just like the rest."

Cullen appreciated his understanding and his advice. "You said she talks to everyone. Is there anything else that I should know about her?"

"Well, I guess I don't have to tell you she's an elf. Not that that matters much. I don't think she remembers what it was like being an elf outside the Circle. You don't have a problem with elves, do you?"

"No, I do not," Cullen said, raising his chin. "Elf or human, they are all mages under our care. Like you said, what they were before coming here doesn't really matter."

"Good. Well, back to work, then," Hadley said and took his leave.

"Well, what was that one like?" Jowan asked, leaning forward on his elbows, voice low.

"I like him," Serenity said, glancing toward the door. "He's nice."

"You mean you like him," Jowan said, teasing. "You think he's cute, like all the other girls."

"Maybe."

"Ew!" Jowan sat back, repulsed by the idea. "But he's a templar!"

"Shh! Will you be quiet?"

"It's not like it's a secret that every girl in here has fallen in love with him. Do you think we could get him on our side against Ivan?"

"Wow," Serenity chuckled, eyebrows raised. "If only exaggeration were a spell, you could pass your Harrowing right now. He's barely been here a few hours."

"Don't be surprised if half of them are in the library researching love spells and potions."

It was a few weeks later when Serenity snuck out of the dining hall early to go to the library before the other apprentices returned, though most of them would retire to their rooms after supper. She poked her head in through the doorway and saw only a senior enchanter on the far end of the room and Cullen standing a few feet away. She poked the back of his elbow and hid around the corner.

Cullen twitched, startled. He had lulled himself into a daze. "Who's there?!"

Serenity snorted and covered her mouth to stifle a giggle then deepened her voice to try to sound ominous. "The ghost of the library... WooOooOoo..."

Cullen followed the sound of her voice, not falling for it, mostly due to the snort and giggle. "Oh, it's you," he said, finding her looking pleased with herself. She walked inside to stand in the library beside him. "Perhaps the hazing you were talking about was actually your doing all along?"

"The only person I play pranks on is Jowan," she said, silently recalling the times she'd turned his drinks into blocks of ice. "Does that mean you've been hazed?"

"Not until now, 'ghost of the library,'" he said, cracking a smile.

She understood his appeal, especially when he smiled. "What's it like, being a templar? I overheard Bran talking about the training once. And he wasn't too happy about having to stand guard all day. Sounded like he missed swinging a sword."

Cullen glanced around before answering, "The training is long and vigorous. But through it all, you feel like you have a just purpose. They tell you that you are to protect not only the people from mages but the mages themselves. If that is my cause, I do not mind standing vigilant every day." He cleared his throat, feeling the familiar heat warming him as he suddenly felt nervous speaking to her. She was lovely. "And... uh... what's it like to be a mage?"

She hadn't expected him to ask that. Nobody ever had. "It's... um... lonely, I guess. Our families aren't allowed to visit us. Some of the others received letters, but... not me. I think it's because my mother lives in the alienage in Denerim. Irving told me a long time ago it might be difficult for her to write me... if she even knows how."

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice and eyes full of compassion. "It's not quite the same... but as templar recruits, we were not allowed contact with our families either. We needed to remain focused. They even discourage us from having children and getting married..." He added quickly, "But it's not like we're not allowed to ever have... relations of any kind... ever..." He felt the heat rise to his face and resisted covering it with his hand in frustration with himself. Why had he felt the need to blurt that out and inform her? It wasn't as if he were allowed to have relationships with mages or other templars. Maker's breath, he thought, get a hold of yourself.

Serenity didn't want to say anything about the apprentices fooling around with each other, but he would probably notice that soon enough. She had never had any interest in involving herself with another apprentice. Perhaps she had known them all too long. Few of them were her friends, but she did think of many of them as family, dysfunctional as it may be. "It must be nice being able to go outside though. I feel especially restless during the summer when the sun shines bright through the windows."

"When you pass your Harrowing, you may be allowed to leave if your request is granted," he said.

"I hope so. Even if it's just for a stroll outside for some fresh air," she said. "It can get quite muggy in here, especially when other students are practicing their fire spells. The senior enchanters are pretty good about regulating the temperatures inside, but I sometimes cool it down a little more to my liking."

"I'm sure the templars appreciate you keeping it cool in here when it needs to be."

"I did notice Bran sweats a lot. Maybe I should frost his armor for him," she chuckled.

"I... do not recommend you do that. Even if he doesn't mind, if you were to be seen casting magic on a templar..."

"You're right, of course," she sighed. She would like to be able to put her talents to use, and cooling down sweaty people was one thing she could actually do, as small a gesture as it was.

"I was wondering something. When I first got here, the Knight-Commander informed me that I would be given watch over the apprentices. He also told me he had heard rumors that there have been abuses by a templar upon the mages here. None have actually stepped forward and filed a complaint, so it remains rumors for now. Would you know if these rumors are true or not?"

Serenity was surprised this rumor had spread among them and hoped it hadn't reached Ivan. Fortunately, she hadn't seen him in weeks. "They're true. I spoke with Irving about it once. He must have taken it to Greagoir."

Cullen had hoped it was just a rumor. "The Knight-Commander also asked me to keep an eye out for any offenders. I believe he told me this because I'm new here and have not made friends within the templars here... and you are the only mage who seems to want to actually talk to me."

Serenity didn't correct him in calling her a mage even though she was still only an apprentice. "Oh, I think some of the girls want to talk to you but not about being a templar," she said, immediately regretting admitting that. She saw him shift his weight bashfully and quickly added, "I'm glad Greagoir hasn't ignored it entirely. Most of the templars here are nice. Or blasé. They tolerate me." She smiled ruefully, "And there are a few who prefer I pretend they're invisible and let me know it. But there is one in particular we all try to avoid. Especially Jowan."

"His name?" Cullen asked.

"His name is Ivan. He hasn't been around for the last few weeks. I wasn't sure if they moved him to the mages' quarters or if he was sent out on a mission."

"He must be out on a mission because he was not here when I arrived. So, he targets that boy I see you with often?"

"Jowan," she said, withholding that she had been victimized as well, though that was mostly because she would throw herself in the line of fire to protect Jowan. "He knows Jowan won't say anything or fight back. Not that anyone would ever fight back."

"Tell me if he or any other member of the order attempts to commit abuse upon their charges. It is unacceptable."

His stern protective voice made her feel aflutter inside, and she realized she was smiling at him for an awkward length of time.

Cullen swallowed hard, blushing because he was admiring her until they both realized they were staring at each other in awkward silence. "So... um... h-how many of the books... have you read here?"

"I haven't kept count," she said, "I couldn't even guess. The last book I read was Meditations and Odes to Bees."

"Bees...? You jest."

"Surely your work is far too vital to be interrupted by one like me. I am in no way entitled to earn the notice of a honeybee," she recited. She blushed at the thought of this analogous poem, suddenly struck by the thought that his hair was the color of honey. Inwardly, she recalled the last couplet, Listen traveler, if you would walk the garden paths some spring: Mind that you don't trespass, for the gardeners do sting.

"You... weren't joking," he said, surprised. "That was... lovely. And you do not have to worry for this honeybee does not sting without cause."

Serenity felt her ears burn and stammered, "Well, I have lived here many years and there isn't much to do but read or practice..."

"You'll be a First Enchanter in no time."

She smiled, "Maybe. I don't have a future outside the Circle, so I must make the best of it. Irving told me early on that advancement isn't necessarily easy for elves, despite our history with magic. It's worse in other Circles, I think, but sometimes mages are transferred. I hope I stay here. Here they judge a mage on their merit and talents, not on their appearance." She added, "And my favorite templar resides here."

"Would that be Ser Bran?"

Serenity laughed. As fond as she was of Bran and his dry humor, she doubted he cared for how much she pestered him. And she far preferred her present company. "I meant you."

"I... I don't quite know how I earned your favor, but I will do what I can to keep it."

Serenity heard voices growing nearer and leaned aside to look out the doorway at a small group of apprentices coming. "Well, I had better go to my room. Good night, Cullen."

Cullen could scarcely mask his disappointment, but he knew it was for the best, for both of them. "I shall see you tomorrow, Serenity."

Chapter Text

It was a month since Cullen arrived at the Circle tower. Serenity tried to talk to him whenever she had the chance, but opportunities seldom arose without the prying eyes and ears of apprentices, senior enchanters, and the other templars. She would sneak glances his way, but he didn't seem to notice, which was fine by her. She had to deal with enough teasing from Jowan as it was. She didn't need to feel any more embarrassed by being caught in the act.

After eating lunch, Serenity and Jowan passed through the library and walked down the hall to the apprentice quarters. They were interrupted by a templar, who blocked their way, and his face was hidden behind his helmet. "I need to talk with you two," he said, holding up his hand so they wouldn't try to pass.

"I'm sorry?" Serenity asked, tilting her head. She didn't recognize his voice. "Do I know you?"

Jowan had the sinking feeling he knew who it was. "Why do you need to talk to us?"

"I heard there's a pair of mage apprentices who are planning to escape. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" the templar asked, his voice deep and grainy.

"No," Serenity said, exchanging looks with Jowan. "Where did you hear that?"

"I don't believe you. I'm going to need you both to come with me."

"What?" Jowan scoffed, "You can't be serious."

"Let's just go get this straightened out, Jowan," Serenity said.

The templar growled, "If you disobey me, I'll report you both to Knight-Commander Greagoir for being disruptive. Then maybe we'll have you both sent to the Gallows in Kirkwall."

Jowan balked, "Well, that's excessive!"

Serenity was picking up on this being a load of crap. "Ivan? Is that you?"

Ivan laughed and removed his helmet. "I should have known you would figure out my identity before donkey brain over here."

"You almost had me going."

"Yeah, har har. Very funny," Jowan said, not the least bit amused. He wasn't sure how Serenity could even fake a smile around this jerk.

"I was beginning to wonder how two apprentices planned to escape. Out the window, maybe? But they'd have to scale the wall somehow."

"And then learn to fly," Jowan added.

"Do you think it impossible? I'm sure you two noticed I was gone. Do you know where I was?" Ivan said, a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips.

"I did notice it was unusually peaceful around here," Jowan said.

"I thought you might have been moved upstairs," Serenity said. Or at least she'd hoped. "Where were you?"

"Hunting down two apostates," he said. "One was an apprentice and the other was a mage that helped him escape from another Circle to Ferelden."

Jowan shifted uncomfortably. "Are you supposed to be telling us this?"

"Were they blood mages?" Serenity asked curiously.

Ivan shook his head, "No, just your average mage and apprentice. They really should have surrendered properly."

"You couldn't capture them and bring them back?"

"Maybe," he shrugged, "But I had to ensure my own survival and not take any chances. So, you two had better behave yourselves or else you might find yourselves on the opposite end of my sword."

"You said they weren't blood mages," Serenity pressed, "What chances would you be taking if they're not blood mages? You could cut them off from the Fade."

Ivan glared at her. "And who are you to question me? Maybe I should have brought their heads back with me just to give you both an idea of what happens."

Jowan took Serenity's arm. "Come on, Serenity. Don't antagonize him. He likes killing mages. Probably finds a reason to when he doesn't have one."

"As a templar, I always have a reason," Ivan said, jabbing Jowan in the chest with his finger.

Jowan took a step back, wincing. "Let's go back to the library."

Serenity wasn't finished yet. "As a templar, you're supposed to protect mages too."

"I'm also not supposed to associate with you. But yet here we are talking," Ivan smirked.

"Serenity," Jowan said with an edge of pleading in his voice.

Ivan did make her uneasy. Part of her wondered if he really did kill those mages, if he was really that monstrous or if he was just trying to scare them, as he was wont to do. "Fine," she said, turning to leave.

"I didn't say you two could go yet," Ivan said, his voice harsh and cold as he firmly gripped her arm. "I haven't seen either of you in a month."

"Let her go!" Jowan shouted and shoved him with both hands on his chest, without giving it a thought beforehand. It was reflexive.

Serenity saw the look of rage cross Ivan's face and stepped between him and Jowan before giving her friend a push. "Run!"

Ivan tightened his grip on her arm as Jowan backed up, conflicted about leaving her with him. "It will be my word against yours."

"And what will your word say of the bruise you're leaving on my arm?" Serenity tried to pull her arm free to no avail and turned her head to look at Jowan, relieved that he was running down the hall, hopefully to find help.

"I had to defend myself and stop you from an unprovoked attack."

"You can't honestly think that would fool anybody," she said, feigning amusement.

Ivan pulled her by the arm and pushed her against the wall. "You had better learn to respect me!"

Serenity winced and raised her chin. "You don't scare me. You're a coward. Killing mages that don't practice blood magic because you're afraid they'll get the better of you. And picking on apprentices that can't defend themselves." She lowered her eyes and looked back up to meet his. "You don't deserve to wear that armor."

Ivan grabbed her by the throat, squeezing just enough to keep a hold on her but not enough to strangle her. Pinning her to the wall, he gripped his sword and unsheathed it enough to drive the pommel into her stomach, knocking the air out of her. "What was that again?"

Serenity gripped his arm in both hands to try to pull his hand away, but she hadn't braced herself for the force that struck her abdomen. She gasped and sputtered, not giving him the satisfaction of hearing her cry out in pain. Her hands covered his gauntlet in frost as she said, her voice barely above a whisper, "Coward."

Her unwillingness to break angered him more and he squeezed her throat. He didn't hear, or perhaps he ignored, the voice shouting at him from the hall.

"Ser Ivan!" Cullen shouted again as he closed the distance with Jowan on his heels. Jowan had come running, had told him Serenity was being attacked, but it was worse than he thought. When Ivan didn't respond, Cullen clenched his gauntlet covered fist and punched Ivan across the jaw, jarring him.

Ivan released Serenity and stumbled from the blow. "Who...?" He held his jaw and looked at the stranger that hit him. "Traitor!"

"You, templar, are out of line!" Cullen said, moving to stand between him and the apprentices.

Jowan helped Serenity up. "Are you okay?"

Serenity cleared her throat and nodded, looking at the templars, hoping this would be enough for Greagoir to strip Ivan of his rank, or at the very least, transfer him to guard duty on the dock.

"Stand down, Ser Ivan!" Cullen shouted, seeing Ivan reach for his sword. He placed his hand on his sword grip and said, "Do not do anything you will regret."

Ivan noticed the cold on his hand and held his arm out to show him the frost. "She attempted to use magic on me! See? Ice! She deserves to be made tranquil!"

"That--it's not what it looks like," she rasped.

"If she cast a spell on you and is such a threat, you would not have such a small amount of frost on your gauntlet," Cullen said, drawing his sword when Ivan did. "Serenity, Jowan, go."

Jowan backed up and pulled Serenity along by her hand. "Come on. You heard him."

Serenity wasn't sure how far Ivan would go, having never expected him to go so far before, and she didn't want Cullen to come to harm. "I'm going to find Greagoir," she said, following Jowan.

"Shouldn't you bring it to Irving and let him deal with Greagoir?" Jowan said, "He'll just grill you, you know."

"No. Irving would try to think of some way to manipulate the situation to give him power," she said uncertainly. She didn't know that for sure, but she wasn't going to risk making this political. "Cullen needs help."

"Are you okay?" Jowan asked, worried. "Your voice..."

"I'll see a healer afterwards," she said, stopping in front of the stairs to the second floor guarded by a templar. She looked back at her friend. "Thank you, Jowan."

"For bringing your knight in shining armor to your rescue?" he teased.

She smiled, "Yeah."

"Well, I guess you were right about him being a good one," he conceded.

As she walked up the steps, the templar held up his hand and said, "No apprentices allowed."

"It's an emergency," she said. "I need to speak to Knight-Commander Greagoir."

"Knight-Comm... why?"

"I would rather tell him. You can escort me to his office, if you must."

Cullen sheathed his sword as he took a step closer. He did not intend to kill another templar, and he was aware the sword wasn't too much of a threat in full plate. "It is just us now. Put the sword away," he said, hoping he wouldn't have to disarm the man himself. "Do you think you can get away with attacking a fellow templar?"

"You're a mage lover and a disgrace," Ivan spat. He wasn't backing down, too enraged in the moment to see reason. Something had changed in him over the course of the last few weeks, sparked something inside of him.

Cullen quickly closed the distance between them and grasped Ivan's sword by the blade as he grabbed his breastplate to try to control him and pushed him against the wall without letting go. To loosen his grip on the sword, Cullen slammed Ivan's hand against the wall. Undeterred from the fight, Ivan swung a punch with his free hand, making purchase with Cullen's cheek. The impact of the blow was lessened by the position Ivan was in, but it still stung due to the gauntlet.

Cullen pulled Ivan toward him and slammed his forehead into his brow. "You don't deserve to wear this armor."

Ivan was dizzy and gripping the collar of Cullen's breastplate. "I was here long before you. Whose side do you think they will take?" He pushed Cullen as he slipped his foot behind his in a desperate attempt to knock him off kilter, but he was pulled down with him when Cullen gripped his pauldron.

Cullen inwardly cursed himself for giving Ivan the opportunity to get the best of him as he lay under him. He covered his face before Ivan could slam his fist into it and noticed his helmet on the ground, but he didn't dare reach for it and leave himself open.

The apprentices had taken notice of the fight and began shuffling into the room to watch. Their sudden intrusion brought Ivan's onslaught to a halt and gave Cullen the opportunity to reach over and grab the helmet while he took hold of Ivan's collar. With one motion he pulled Ivan toward him and swung the helmet into the side of Ivan's head with a loud clang.

"Stand down! Both of you!" Greagoir shouted, pointing at Cullen and Ivan as he approached. First Enchanter Irving was close behind, followed by Serenity and Jowan. Greagoir glowered at the spying apprentices and yelled at them too. "Get into your rooms!"

Cullen pushed Ivan off of him and stood at attention as soon he heard Greagoir's voice. "Knight-Commander!"

Ivan begrudgingly did the same, head spinning.

"A word," Greagoir said, his voice hard. "Both of you. Upstairs. In my office. NOW!"

Cullen waited for Ivan to pass him before following him to Greagoir's office.

"This behavior is unbecoming of a templar," Irving said wryly.

"It will be dealt with," Greagoir said and marched back toward the stairs, quickly catching up to Cullen.

"What about us?" Jowan asked Irving. "Don't you want to hear our side?"

"I will hear what you have to say. Come," Irving said and gave the spying apprentices a disapproving look. He didn't like that Serenity hadn't come to him first, but he also understood the situation was dire. Had she not informed Greagoir right away, the fight could have escalated. He could not fault her for making the right decision, even though it left him in the dark.

After speaking with Irving, Serenity went to the library to see if Cullen was there, but he was not back yet. She walked with Jowan toward her room.

"You should find a spirit healer," he said.

"I will... after I find Cullen."

"Doesn't it hurt though?"

"I'll be fine." She was sore, but she would rather wait for Cullen to come down so she could thank him and find out what was to come of Ivan.

"At least we won't have to see Ivan anymore. You don't think they'd keep him around, do you?" Jowan asked, suddenly worried about what he would do to them if he were allowed to stay.

"I doubt he will be kept in the tower. I don't know how the order works, but they might just see his ruthlessness as an asset when it comes to hunting blood mages," she said and wrapped a scarf around her neck. "We're not safe with him here though. Greagoir wouldn't allow that." Irving had informed Greagoir of the rumors months ago. This was the proof they needed to do something about it. As she walked back toward the stairs leading to the second floor, Serenity said, "You don't have to wait with me."

"I can take a hint," Jowan said and stopped following her as they passed through the library.

Cullen smiled when he saw Serenity at the foot of the stairs, but his smile faded when he noticed the scarf around her neck. "Are you all right?"

Her voice was still slightly raspy, but she smiled back and nodded, tilting her head to gesture for him to follow, just out of earshot of the nearby templar. "I'm okay," she said. "I wanted to thank you."

"Your neck... does it hurt?" he asked, concerned. "Why hasn't a healer seen to you?"

"I haven't looked for one yet."

"Is it bad...?"

She loosened the scarf and pulled it down a little bit. "I haven't looked in the mirror, but it doesn't hurt as bad as my stomach does."

Cullen felt the rush of adrenaline return, making his heart race and his hands shake as they had before. He scowled at the thought of Ivan hitting her in the stomach, knowing how much that would hurt, especially with a plate gauntlet. It made his stomach turn to think of it. "Attacking a woman... an elf half his size. It's despicable. He should be removed from the order for this."

"Will he be?" she asked with an edge of hope in her voice.

"I only know that he will no longer reside in the Circle. I was dismissed before Knight-Commander Greagoir finished with him."

"That's a relief," she said, adjusting her scarf. "I always knew my mouth would get me in trouble."

"What do you mean?"

She sighed, "I always talked back, but I never pushed him that far before. I called him a coward to his face."

"He should not have been interacting with you at all. You are not to blame for what he did."

She felt relieved to hear him say so and remembered the frost on Ivan's gauntlet. "I didn't cast a spell on him," she assured him, just in case he doubted her.

"I didn't think you did," he said. "What was that though?"

"I don't know," she admitted quietly, embarrassed. "I panicked."

"You lose control over your magic when you're scared?" That made sense to him. It was just another reason why the mages were kept confined to the Circle.

"It's never happened before," she said and changed the subject. "You didn't get in trouble, did you?"

"The Knight-Commander was pleased that I upheld the honor of the order, but I have to peel onions for the kitchen. After he hears what the First Enchanter has to say, he may wish to speak with me again."

"Irving knows that you protected me and how violent Ivan was," she said, eyeing the bruise under his right eye.

He smiled, "Don't worry. I, uh... I've had worse in training."

Serenity bit her lip. "Senior Enchanter Wynne is upstairs. She can heal us both."

Cullen stepped aside to allow her to go ahead of him. "After you."

Serenity walked up the steps ahead of him, and when she heard the door close behind them, for a fleeting moment she had the urge to turn around and kiss him, knowing no one would see and she wouldn't have to stand on her toes, being two steps ahead of him. But she kept moving, pushing away the temptation. She would put him in an awful position if she did such a thing. She couldn't ever do that to him, no matter how much she daydreamed about it. She let her feet carry her to the Senior Enchanter's room and didn't look back.

Chapter Text

I know what you are. You are a demon of Pride.

Serenity awoke from the Harrowing in her bed in the Apprentice chambers. The last night was a blur, but she vaguely remembered Mouse and the eyes of white fire. Holding onto the bed post, she stood up, still feeling a little dizzy. She could hear voices in the distance, across the room, and eavesdropped as she regained her bearings. It was something every apprentice became adept at -- eavesdropping. Living in the tower among the same people for years afforded little excitement, so gossip, eavesdropping, and pranks were what kept the inhabitants entertained most of the time when they weren't reading, practicing magic, or working with the tranquils.

“I’m just curious. That templar, Cullen, said it was the quickest, cleanest harrowing he’d ever seen. He says she’s very talented and very brave.”

Serenity smiled at that. She’d seen the way Cullen looked at her in passing, though he would always look away if she caught him.

“Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

She realized now it was not only obvious to her. The few times she had had conversations with him, she tried to make sure there weren't many other people around. It was not easy to sneak around in the tower, especially without meeting in private. She thought she could never ask that though, knowing how inappropriate it would be.

She stopped in the chapel to pray, finding Keili there as per usual, looking troubled. Though she believed in the Maker and understood the necessity of the Circle and most of its practices, she did not like being treated like an abomination without being one. She didn't like the fear mongering and the brain washing. She believed it all came down to will, morality, and education. She would not be tempted by demons and therefore she would not become possessed. It seemed simple, really. But Keili lived in fear of her own power.

“Magic causes such misery," Keili lamented. "It’s dangerous and vile and wicked. The Chantry must protect the world from us. Being born with something so terrible must be a punishment. I wish I could be rid of it. Perhaps I should be asked to be made Tranquil. That takes the magic from me, doesn’t it?”

“It takes more than magic from you. It takes your happiness," she said, wondering if Keili ever felt happy.

"But it would also take my fear and my sadness."

Serenity did not like the idea of Tranquility one bit, but she had seen Keili struggle with her nature for years, and she knew if she could not accept herself as she was, she would surely die in the Fade, putting the templars and Irving at risk in the Harrowing chamber. But she would likely not make it that far. “Goodbye, Keili,” Serenity said sullenly, wondering if that would be the last time she would saw her. She stepped back into the hallway and noticed Cullen standing guard against the wall. The cloud of melancholy that hung over her dissipated as soon as she saw him. She smiled, feeling more confident after finishing her Harrowing and approached him with some bounce in her step. “Hello, Cullen,” she beamed.

“Oh, um… uh, hello. I, uh… I'm glad to see your Harrowing went smoothly. They picked me as the templar to strike the killing blow if you became an abomination.” He added quickly and defensively, “It’s nothing personal, I swear.”

“I know,” she said, feeling as flustered as he was, but the truth was, she did believe it was personal. Not on Cullen's part, of course, but she thought it was not a coincidence that Greagoir had chosen him to be there, to be the one to kill her if things went south. He must have known that Cullen was fond of her. She didn't think Greagoir hoped she would fail, but if she did, her death would serve to break Cullen into the order without the risk of distraction or becoming too friendly with his charges. Despite the grim revelation, she still felt like she was drifting on a cloud, high from her success and possibly from the residual traces of lyrium. "I'm glad you were there, although I would have been less happy about it if it ended badly."

Cullen felt his face warming up and inwardly cursed at his body's betrayal. If she noticed, she might tease him again. She had noticed him blushing before and seemed to take great pleasure in making it worse. “Uh, I’m just glad you’re all right.”

“I knew I would not fail my Harrowing."

“You’ve always been so confident… or so I hear,” he caught himself.

She smiled, rocking on her heels. "Well, Irving made sure I was prepared. He was confident in me, so I had little room for doubt. He has always answered my questions and provided me resources when I asked. I think he knows I'm determined to eventually teach the Cold tree. I've been tutoring apprentices to learn Winter's Grasp... unofficially."

"That's... very kind of you to take the time to help others before you've even passed your own test."

"It's good practice too," she said modestly. "Were you nervous about my Harrowing?"

“No, I... well, I’ve heard of failed Harrowings and the consequences were… unpleasant,” he said guardedly.

“Yes, you would have had to kill me,” she said knowingly.

“I would have felt terrible about it," he said and lowered his gaze, "but… I serve the Chantry and the Maker, and I will do as I am commanded.”

“Have you killed many mages before?” she asked, curious. “Is it true templars enjoy it?” She had heard as much from Ivan, but she hoped he was the exception and not the rule.

“Maybe some but not me. It’s my duty to hunt down apostate mages, but… I do so with a heavy heart.”

He met her gaze and it gave her pause, her confidence suddenly wavering. “I shouldn’t distract you from your duties,” she blurted out.

“Oh, you’re not distracting. I mean, you are, but… well, you’re not. I mean, you can talk to me anytime you like,” he smiled.

“I would like that. To get to know you better, I mean,” she answered, wondering what he looked like without the heavy armor on. She had never seen him off-duty and wondered if he stayed in the templars' quarters or if he left the Circle often. She would like to hear stories about the outside and about his family. “Maybe…" she wrung her hands together nervously, taking a step closer, “someday, elsewhere, we can speak in private, without the risk of being eavesdropped on.” She could feel her ears burn at the proposition, as innocent as she intended it to be. She knew templars to sneak off from their posts from time to time, perhaps to use the restroom, but they either went unnoticed or unquestioned. She knew sometimes they were off doing other things, not that she had seen what they were up to. She imagined they were sneaking naps, not anything illicit.

“Elsewhere…? Oh, my goodness. That would be... really… inappropriate. I couldn’t… I…" Cullen felt like his heart was going to beat out of his chest.

"I don't mean we would leave the Circle," Serenity started, realizing it might have sounded like she was asking him to break the rules.

As much as he enjoyed watching Serenity, listening to her, and speaking with her, he knew his attraction to her was forbidden. A templar developing feelings for one of his charges? It was wrong, and he couldn't encourage it, no matter how tempted he was to do so. His duty as a templar had to come first. He wasn't even supposed to be talking to her casually as they were now, and he had just told her she could talk to him anytime. He realized his blunder and stammered, "I, uh... I should go.”

"You--what?" Serenity watched him turn on his heel and walk away quickly, shaking his head as he realized what he was doing. He shouldn't have been the one to leave. He could have told her to move along. But he also couldn't imagine doing that to her either. Hell, he could have just changed the subject.

Serenity cursed inwardly for being too forward. "Wait, Cullen," she called out quietly. "I'm sorry." She watched him leave his post and wondered if he would get in trouble for it, if he even realized what he was doing in his hurry to get away from her. She glanced around, hoping no one had heard them, and left in the opposite direction so he could come back without trying to avoid her. She would take it back, apologize, and then pretend it didn't happen the next time she saw him. They could go back to the way things were, chatting in the hallway or the library, where other apprentices and templars could overhear their innocent conversations. The reality of their limited friendship did sadden her, but she tried to push it out of her mind.

She continued down the hall toward the First Enchanter’s room and stopped in the doorway. She would have stepped out of view to listen in, but she had already been seen. Greagoir and Irving were at it again, loudly disagreeing with one another over politics.

“Gentlemen, please,” the stranger standing between them, who had seen her enter, interrupted. “Irving, someone is here to see you.”

Greagoir took his leave and Irving introduced Serenity to Duncan, the Grey Warden Commander. She spent all of her time in the Circle studying, whether it was magic or history, so she was well aware of the Grey Wardens and the darkspawn. She had also heard enough talk between the templars to know of the battle they would be waging at Ostagar. Serenity received her robes, staff, and the Circle insignia ring from the First Enchanter before escorting Duncan to his room.

"I'm honored to meet you," Serenity said. "I've read a lot of books. The Grey Wardens are brave warriors.”

“I am flattered. I was not expecting quite so warm a reception," Duncan said, smiling down at her. "Being a Grey Warden is a calling. A sacrifice. You know, some of our most honored wardens were elves. The hero Garahel, the last warden to slay an archdemon, was one such. The darkspawn do not distinguish between the races and neither should we. Has being an elf in the circle been difficult?”

“Not really, not anymore,” she answered. Those templars that distrusted and disliked her did so for her magic, not her ears. But she recalled her first year of apprenticeship, when she overheard a human girl say ‘she doesn’t even try to hide her pointy ears’ as if she should be ashamed. She learned that those were not just mean children’s antics but the way of the world. “Why do you ask?”

“Elves are often treated as lower class in the cities. It is hard to change perceptions. I’ve tried to reason with many and failed. But do not let that discourage you. Let it temper you and make you stronger.”

"I admire your compassion, Duncan," she said, stopping outside his room. Few people, aside from Irving upon her arrival, addressed the oppression of elves around her. It was a harsh truth brushed under the rug, treated as something that happened outside the Circle and therefore outside her own realm of experience. "If I may be so bold, I was wondering if I might ask you a favor."

“Oh?"

"You mentioned Denerim. That's where my mother is from. I haven't seen her since I was taken. If you're ever back that way, might you find her and deliver a message?"

He did pass through Denerim often, and he knew Valendrian well enough. "What would you have me say?"

"Let her know I am doing well. I excel in my studies. And I have not forgotten her."

"I will do that," he said. "Thank you for escorting me."

“It was my pleasure,” she answered. He went inside and she turned around to see Jowan approach. “Are you stalking me?"

“Yes, I need to talk to you.”

Maybe he hadn’t seen or was just going to pretend he hadn’t seen her earlier awkward exchange with Cullen. “Why are you whispering? It looks suspicious.”

“Shh!” he hushed her and whispered even more quietly, “I just want to make sure we’re not overheard. I don’t feel safe talking here.” He led her to the chapel where he stopped to stand beside a chantry sister initiate. “We should be safe here.”

She looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “In the templars' favorite haunt?” She pointed at the initiate, “You do realize we’re not alone.”

“A few months ago, I told you that I met a girl,” Jowan said sheepishly. “This is Lily.”

“Ah,” she nodded slowly and grinned. "Seriously? You give me crap all the time for having a crush on a templar when you've fallen in love with an initiate? Jowan, I had no idea you were so naughty.”

Jowan blushed and looked at her indignantly, "Be serious, Serenity. "Lily’s been given to the Chantry. She's not allowed to have relations with men. If anyone finds out, we’ll both be in trouble."

“You can trust me. I won’t tell anyone,” Serenity assured them. She was a little bit envious that Jowan had somehow been able to seduce an initiate, yet she couldn't even get Cullen to speak with her in private. Thinking back on it, she couldn't believe he'd left his post! She knew he was shy, but she had really overstepped her bounds. Even so, it was fun to test his boundaries and make him blush.

“Thank you. I knew you’d stand by me,” Jowan smiled, relieved.

“Look, I'm happy for you both, but you need to be careful. There's no way for you to openly be together. You'll have to bend the rules a little bit.”

"I can't do that," Lily started, dismayed by the thought of taking vows only to break them. She wanted a family and a home to call her own, not to sneak around and risk imprisonment.

“There is something else,” Jowan hesitated. “I know they’re going to make me Tranquil. They’ll take everything from me, my dreams, hopes, fears… my love for Lily. All gone. They’ll extinguish my humanity! I’ll just be a husk, breathing and existing, but not truly living. People think I’m a blood mage. They think making me a Circle mage will endanger everyone.”

He would have been the absolute last person she would have suspected. Jowan, who, since learning of the rite, had an irrational fear of being made Tranquil, would risk the rite by practicing blood magic? Absurd! When she scoffed, she saw the hurt look on his face and corrected herself. “How do you know?”

Lily answered, “I saw the document on Greagoir’s table. It authorized the rite on Jowan and Irving signed it.”

She was honestly surprised now that Jowan’s paranoia had some basis to it. And she was even more surprised that Irving would agree to it. “What are you going to do?”

“I need to escape. I need to destroy my phylactery. Without it they can’t track me down. We need your help. Lily and I can’t do this on our own,” he pleaded.

She’d never seen him so desperate. But she didn't like the position they were putting her in. “I need to think this over,” she answered. Jowan was her best friend. But she hated to betray Irving’s trust and break the Circle’s rules. And if they got caught?

“I suppose that’s fair, but please, give us your answer soon. Time is running out. The rite is happening tonight.”

Serenity left the chapel, pressing her fingers to her temples. She had a headache. She had to ask Irving if it was true. She would not betray their secret, but she had to probe him for answers before she went back to them.

“I trust you saw Duncan back to his quarters?” Irving asked.

“Of course, First Enchanter.”

“I’m glad you met him. He’s a most honorable man. Now, did you need something?” he tilted his head, peering at her as if he could see right through her.

Serenity hesitated, “Jowan believes he is going to be made Tranquil.”

“And how does he know this? I suppose the young initiate he dallies about with revealed it to him.” He squinted at the shocked expression on her face and said, “You think I did not know? I did not become First Enchanter by keeping my eyes and ears shut.”

She realized her best friend really was going to become a husk and her heart sank. She had known him since she first arrived, found comfort in him when she was at her loneliest, stood up for him when he was bullied -- and vice versa. She always imagined he would become a counselor there at the Circle, helping students find which path they should follow, seeing as how he struggled to find his own for so long. She imagined their friendship lasting the test of time. Without him, she would be... alone. “Please, I beg you. Don’t do this to Jowan!”

“Greagoir says he has proof and eyewitness testimony that Jowan has been practicing blood magic.” He held up a hand to stop her from asking more questions. “I cannot say more. Were it left to me things might be different, but the Chantry… I’m sorry child. This rite of Tranquility will happen.” He spoke softly, “It’s not such a bad thing. Jowan will come to terms with it, as will you.”

She bit her lip to stay the trembling and muttered, “No. I will not.”

“Perhaps one day, you will see it from my side.”

"I understand you're powerless to stop it," she said. "But that doesn't make it right." She returned to the chapel, her hands shaking, but she didn't approach Jowan and Lily right away. Greagoir would not fabricate evidence or simply take somebody at their word without proof. It would be too easy to frame a mage if that were the case. She couldn't imagine Jowan practicing blood magic. Where would he have learned it? And he was barely skilled enough with fire, how could be possibly become a dangerous maleficar? And why? To what end?

She sat in the pew furthest from the altar to think. If she helped them, she would not be able to escape with him. Her phylactery was on its way to Denerim. If she were caught, and she had no illusions of getting away with it, she knew she would likely be sent to the mages' prison. Or killed. But that was less likely considering she had no intention of fighting the templars. She would give herself up willingly. But could she do it? Could she really give up her entire future to save her friend?

The thought of losing everything she'd worked for made her guts wrench. And Cullen. She would never see Cullen again. Her fantasy of becoming First Enchanter with him as her Knight-Commander melted away. That's all it ever was, she reminded herself, a fantasy.

If she didn't help them escape, to find their happily ever after, she would see her closest friend taken away from her. She had never thought the Tranquil as creepy as Jowan described them until she imagined Jowan turning into one of them. He would no longer be her friend. Tranquils did not have friends. They were instruments used by the mages, nothing more.

She would not be able to live with herself. And she had already chased Cullen away. Whatever happened next, there would be no happy ending in it for her. But at least Jowan might find his. She wept, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She thought when she finished her Harrowing, she would be celebrating.

She wanted to believe Jowan. She needed to. But she had her doubts. She believed in Greagoir's fair judgment most of the time. Sneaking around is one thing, but being caught performing a spell was unmistakable, and the witness would have to have been sure to make such a life altering accusation. Or, at least, she hoped they would. Jowan was not popular among their peers, but she couldn't imagine someone spreading such a terrible lie. She decided to take him at his word, despite the niggling doubt in her gut. Would it have changed her mind?

“Are you going to help us?” Jowan asked softly, interrupting her thoughts.

She sighed, “Yes... I'll help.”


Their plan was set in motion; as the only mage among them, Serenity had the task of obtaining a fire rod to melt the locks, which meant her name was on the paperwork handed into Owain. She knew she would be left behind to face Irving and Greagoir’s wrath. She left the fire rod in her room and went for a walk back downstairs, through the apprentice quarters, and stood in the doorway to the main room. She could hear the two templars guarding the entrance door talking.

“Is there another Harrowing tonight?” Bran asked, his voice edged with boredom.

Oliver whispered back shortly, “Don’t know. Greagoir hasn’t said anything yet. Shh, we’re on duty.”

Serenity walked into the room and leaned against the wall adjacent to Oliver. “Good afternoon,” she said, her voice lacking the usual vigor she greeted them with.

Oliver pointed at Bran with his thumb. “Talk to Bran, he’s the chatty one.”

“Don't I know it," she smiled, looking over at Bran. "How are you today?"

“Fine. Is there something you need?” he asked, keeping it professional.

“I'm bored," she sighed, lying. She did want a distraction, not to entertain her though. She crossed her arms and gestured with her chin toward the door behind him. "That’s a big door.”

“Yes, it is. Do you need something or are you just here to state the obvious?”

“I’m just here to state the obvious." She liked bothering Bran. It was one of her favorite pastimes. “Can you open it?”

He chuckled, “The Knight-Commander would have my head if I did that. Besides, I hear it takes no less than four grown men to open this door.”

“So you've never done it before?"

"Nope."

"I bet you could make it move.”

“Don’t count on it.”

"You really don't want to try? Just to see? You could brag about it."

"I'm not exerting energy for nothing," Bran said. "And I'm not helping you escape. How idiotic would that look? A templar opens the front door to entertain an apprentice and the apprentice escapes while the templar is crushed by the weight of the door closing on him. All it would take is a breeze to slam it shut."

“I wasn't thinking of escaping," she said. "So, what’s out there?” She hadn’t left the Circle tower since she moved in eleven years prior. She wondered what it was Jowan and Lily would see.

“Ferelden. It’s not very interesting. Mostly farms, the occasional river.”

“I have the distinct feeling you’re underselling it,” she scoffed, disappointed. As well he should; mages needed to believe they had all they needed to be content in the tower. If she truly wanted to know what it was like outside the tower, she should have asked Duncan. He did let her know life as an elf outside the tower would not be easy. Still... “By the way, I'm no longer an apprentice. Can I leave the tower now?” she asked, hoping she might be granted an ounce of freedom. Just a breath of fresh air and the sun on her face.

“No, you may not. I’m surprised you ask," he droned. "I would have thought you’d be used to this idea by now.”

“Look, my robes are gold, not blue,” she brushed a wrinkle out of her sleeve.

“Only mages on official Circle business are allowed to leave the tower. And the First Enchanter has not informed us of any mages leaving the tower today.”

“Fine," she sighed. She knew as much. “Is this the only way out of the tower?” Not that she planned on escaping or anything.

“The only safe one as far as I know. There are windows on the higher levels, but surely you don’t need me to warn you of the dangers of leaping from them. It never ends well.”

“Does that happen often?”

“It happens. Don't do it.”

"I wasn't planning to," she insisted. "I suppose I will leave you alone with your door."

“Maker smile fortune on you.”

She couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not beneath his helmet, but she thought perhaps he was. Probably because he was glad she was finished with him. She turned back to Oliver. He didn’t move, but she could hear him yawn. “What about you, Oli? Are you having a pleasant day?”

“I really shouldn’t be talking while I’m on duty. But congratulations on your Harrowing.”

“Thank you. Even though it seems to make no difference. I still can’t go outside, lest I want to leap from a window,” she replied, casting a look at Bran.

“At least you get to walk around. I’m stuck guarding this door for another three hours,” Oliver answered.

"Don't your feet get sore?"

Bran piped in, "Oh, yes, why don't you tell the mage how sore your feet are, Oliver?" He'd heard him complain enough.

Oliver shrugged, "Nope. My feet are sturdy and not sore at all. In fact, I never feel any pain whatsoever."

Serenity chuckled and turned on her heel. That would likely be the last time she spoke with them, unless they were tasked with escorting her to Aeonar. And if that were the case, she knew they would not be so friendly. She returned to the mages’ quarters, stopping in the library to speak with Duncan again before retrieving the fire rod from her room. She returned to Jowan and Lily, and they went down to the basement together to break into the repository. They traversed the haunted hallways, fighting sentient spirits, until they broke into the treasure room and found Jowan’s phylactery.

Part of her envied his freedom, but all Serenity could do was accept that she would live her life confined to the Circle... or the mage's prison. Either way, she was confined. She watched as he destroyed his phylactery, then they made their way out of the basement quietly. She had a feeling of dread looming over her as they made their way up the stairs, and her fears were confirmed when she saw their leaders waiting for them outside with the templars.

“Greagoir…” Lily looked ashamed.

“An initiate conspiring with a blood mage. I’m disappointed, Lily,” Greagoir scowled and looked to Irving. “She seems fully in control of her own mind. Not a thrall of the blood mage then. You were right, Irving, the initiate has betrayed us. The Chantry will not let this go unpunished.” He pointed at Serenity, raising his voice, “And this one, newly a mage and already flouting the rules of the Circle! As Knight-Commander of the templars here assembled, I sentence this blood mage to death. And this initiate has scorned the Chantry and her vows. Take her to Aeonar.”

“The… the mages' prison… please, no, no, not there…” Lily stepped back toward the stairs, her eyes glazed with fear.

“Jowan! No!” Serenity watched, horrified, as he pulled a knife from his belt and drew his own blood. He displayed his powers, confirming everyone’s suspicions and signing her death sentence as an accomplice. With a single swift spell, he knocked everyone in front of him off their feet, stunning them.

“By the Maker, blood magic! How could you! You said you never!” Lily stepped back, repulsed.

Jowan spoke softly, “I admit, I… I dabbled! I thought it would make me a better mage. But I’m going to give it up. All magic. I just want to be with you, Lily. Please, come with me…”

“I trusted you. I was ready to sacrifice everything for you. I don’t know who you are, blood mage. Stay away from me,” she recoiled.

He hesitated only for a moment before turning away to run without so much as a sideways glance at Serenity. For a moment then, she hated him. But she did not try to stop him, focusing instead on checking First Enchanter Irving for a pulse. He was breathing, as were the others. Her mind was racing, but her thoughts were all muddled together.

“He lied to me,” Serenity said, sad that he never trusted her enough to tell her the truth. But she'd believed Greagoir, hadn't she? She knew going into it what he was, but she'd blinded herself to it for his sake. She would never make that mistake again. She would never love somebody so unconditionally that she would put innocents at risk.

“If you had let me act sooner, this would not have happened! Now we have a blood mage on the loose and no way to track him down,” Greagoir admonished. He pointed at Lily and ordered, “Get her out of my sight.” He turned on Serenity next. “And you. You know why the repository exists. Some artifacts, some magics are locked away for a reason!"

She felt a lump in her throat. She would accept her punishment, hoping it was not to be made Tranquil. She would rather be sent to Aeonar, even though it was not as luxurious a prison as the Circle. “Do as you will.”

“Knight-Commander, if I may…” Duncan interjected, “I am not only looking for mages to join the King’s army. I am also recruiting for the Grey Wardens. Irving spoke highly of this mage, and I would like her to join the Warden ranks.”

“Duncan, this mage has assisted a maleficar,” Irving spoke disapprovingly, and the words stung, “and shown a lack of regard for the Circle’s rules.”

“She is a danger to all of us,” Greagoir said harshly.

She knew then what her fate would be should she be left in the hands of the Circle. She would take Jowan’s place in the rite of Tranquility. Nothing scared her more. She did not consider herself a danger to any of them, but she understood why they would think so after she assisted a maleficar.

“It is a rare person who risks all for a friend in need,” Duncan said. “She knowingly forfeited her own life for the survival of her friend. I've been watching her. It was not an easy choice but one made selflessly. Her loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for a just cause are qualities valued in a Grey Warden. I stand by my decision. I will recruit this mage.”

“What’s he doing?” Greagoir raised his voice, “Stop him! You are not taking this mage away! I refuse to let her go unpunished!”

“You know Duncan can invoke the Right of Conscription if he wishes. We must comply,” Irving stated calmly.

Serenity’s eyes widened. “He has greater authority than you?” She hadn’t known that. She would gladly leave the Circle if it meant keeping her life and her magic. She could hardly believe the turn of events the day had taken. Luck was on her side for the Grey Warden to visit on this day of all days.

“If the Grey Wardens wish to conscript someone, neither lord nor King can deny them,” Irving answered.

She looked to Duncan, her eyes pleading, and vowed, "I will devote my life to your cause." She would be free. She would have a purpose. She would retain her sense of self and her connection to the Fade. Whatever the future entailed, she trusted Duncan to teach her what she needed to know. Irving had done all he could.


"We have no more say in this matter,” Irving said. “The Circle never forgets its apprentices, Serenity, but the Grey Wardens will be your family now.”

She bowed her head, “Thank you for everything, First Enchanter.” She cast a quick glance at Greagoir but avoided making eye contact with him. She was sure he hated her now and would never forgive her for what she’d done. Worst yet, she knew that Cullen would hear of what happened.

Cullen.

Serenity fought the sting of tears and blinked them away. Would she ever see him again? Would he still be kind to her after what she'd done? Or would he spurn her, treat her as the templars would maleficarum? No matter that she hadn't cast the spell herself. She was an accomplice.

“Come, your new life awaits,” Duncan said, leading her out of the tower.

As they were leaving, she saw Cullen in the hallway. He hadn't been there when Jowan performed his blood magic, but he could have overheard the discussion that followed. She mouthed, "I'm sorry." It was all she could think to say that would be appropriate now.

Serenity shielded her eyes from the sun as they stepped outside the Circle tower. The brightness gave her a headache, but after her eyes adjusted to it, she drank in the sights of the outside world. Though their trek was long and uneventful, there wasn’t a dull moment for her on their way to Ostagar. She was both excited and nervous to be outside the tower, and when they reached Ostagar three days later, she was met by the King of Ferelden, an honor very few, mages or otherwise, would experience in their lifetime. Her dull existence had taken an unexpected turn, and she was starting anew, armed with only knowledge gained from books, not experience. She had no choice but to be ready.

Chapter Text

When the recruits were sent out to the Korcari wilds to retrieve darkspawn blood for the Joining, Serenity learned quickly how best to utilize the few spells she knew. When they approached a campfire and heard the guttural gurgles of darkspawn breathing nearby, she cast Mind Blast, stunning them and revealing them from their stealth. The other warden recruits cut them down quickly after that. Though she did not possess an arsenal of spells, she was efficient with the few she had learned in the Circle. It was frustrating to feel so powerless, so limited in her knowledge when there were whole schools of magic she hadn't practiced in. The Circle limited its mages but their apprentices even more so.

After the battle at Ostagar, Serenity was in a daze. In the span of a week, she had undergone her Harrowing, betrayed the Circle of Magi by helping a blood mage, met the King of Ferelden, survived the Joining ritual of the Grey Wardens, fought and killed darkspawn -- monsters she had never given any thought to before meeting Duncan, experienced a mass battle against a horde, and lost the very man who saved her life four days earlier. She could almost believe she'd failed her Harrowing and was suffering at the hands of some demon, warping the Fade around her into some sort of nightmare.

Running across that bridge when the battle started had been the most frightening experience of her life. Up until the moment they faced an ogre, anyway. And taking two arrows to her chest and one through her stomach had been more painful than she could have imagined. It was a relief to have lost consciousness so quickly. And to have woken up completely healed, it was almost as if it hadn't happened at all. It made accepting her new reality that much harder. Her feet carried her, but her mind was still back in the Circle, trying to catch up.

It brought her some comfort to hear Morrigan and Alistair bicker on the way to Lothering. The loyal mabari she'd saved in the Korcari wilds imprinted on her and found her on the road. She fondly named him Cullen. Her Mabari-Cullen.

"I'm glad you're here," Serenity said to Morrigan, breaking the long and comfortable silence that had fallen between her and Alistair.

Morrigan looked at her surprised and stammered, "I... well, that makes one of you."

"Do you really want to bring me into this?" Alistair shot back.

"Both of you," Serenity corrected herself. "It's a comfort to have another mage with us. For me, anyway."

"Even one that is an apostate? A witch of the wilds?" Morrigan asked.

"Yes." Serenity hardly knew Morrigan, but she could see that she had come into arcane knowledge that the circles didn't teach. Morrigan had survived in the woods without a Chantry looming over her. She was a confident and independent hedge mage. "I hope to learn something from you."

"Oh?" Morrigan asked with subdued surprise. "You grew up in the Circle of Magi, did you not?"

"I did."

"Tis strange that you should want to learn something from me. I would have thought you'd know everything there is to know about proper magical technique," she said, her sarcasm not going unnoticed.

"I only just passed my Harrowing," Serenity admitted. "But I know that the Chantry's libraries are limited. You have done things I've not seen any enchanter teach. In fact, I find your magic extraordinary."

"Oh? Tis not unheard of in the remote corners of the world. There are traditions of magic outside the Circle of Magi, despite what those mages would have you believe. But perhaps you felt a little like a caged birth, as well, caught within that dark tower?"

"I... yes, I did. More often than not," Serenity confessed. It was a life she had broken herself into, one she was forced to accept as it were.

"And what is it you wish for me to teach you, Grey Warden? How to become a shapeshifter? I was not born such. Tis a skill of Flemeth's, taught over many years in the wilds." She smirked, "I could teach you, if you wished to learn. I am not sure you are ready to undertake such a task, however."

"Perhaps not," Serenity said. She wasn't sure that was a talent she wanted to dedicate herself to learning. She imagined it was trying enough to will herself into another shape in the Fade, if anything Mouse said was to be believed. She was still trying to master the Cold tree, which was where her natural talent lie.

"You look upon the world around you and you think you know it well. I have smelled it as a wolf, listened as a cat, prowled shadows you have never dreamed existed. But my life is as a human. I am under no illusions to the contrary."

"Creepy," Alistair muttered.

"Tis not as creepy as when I slither across your throat as a snake while you sleep and squeeze the life out of you," she threatened.

Alistair audibly shuddered.

"It must feel freeing," Serenity said. The thought of soaring through the clouds as an eagle made her anxious, but it would certainly make her feel alive.

"Indeed. You do not think me an unnatural abomination to be put to the torch?"

"Of course not," Serenity said, looking at her. "You are not possessed by any demon. You have a kinship with nature I only hope to dream of."

"You are simply full of surprises, little elf," Morrigan chuckled, "I had expected your mind to be a locked door, the key buried beneath your tower. How nice to find it ajar."

Serenity wasn't sure what it was she wanted to learn from Morrigan, but she had the feeling her lesson had already begun. She was taught that all apostates were a danger to society, not that she entirely believed it.

"I never thought I'd be travelling alone with two mages," Alistair said and his face fell. "I always thought Duncan would be with us."

"Oh, don't start with that again," Morrigan sighed.

Serenity had gathered her wits about her, at least some since they left the wilds. "Morrigan, have some compassion."

"At least Cullen likes me," Alistair said, patting the mabari on the head. "Who's a good boy?"

Mabari-Cullen barked happily.

"That mangy animal smells like he rolled in a dung heap," Morrigan grumbled, to which the mabari whined. "Oh, don't cry at me. You probably did, didn't you?"

On the way into the village overrun by refugees, Serenity chased off the bandits and took what money they'd stolen. Inside, she resolved some of the conflicts that threatened the townspeople and found an ally in a chantry sister. An unexpected but welcome surprise. There was something about Leliana that drew Serenity in. She was like a flower amidst the rubble. There was some gentle comfort about her presence, especially her voice. Alistair and Morrigan both seemed to think she was delusional, speaking about her dreams of the Maker, but Serenity was inclined to believe her. Perhaps it wasn't the Maker who sent her a sign but a spirit. She herself had met the spirit of Valor and knew other benevolent spirits existed in the Fade, and the Fade was the realm of dreams. Whatever the case, she was grateful for her help.

Even more surprising was the Qunari she'd rescued from a slow death in a cage. She didn't trust him. He'd admitted to slaughtering innocents. She knew little of his kind, but she knew that he was a proud warrior. And as she well knew, Grey Wardens were not above recruiting criminals. They were in need of whatever help they could find, and despite his crimes, she didn't feel as though he were an imminent threat to her. Taking him with them was her first questionable decision as Grey Warden, but she knew she would make many more. She had already assisted a blood mage to save his life. Why not a Qunari as well?

It was still another day's walk to Redcliffe when night fell. They set up camp outside Lothering with Bodahn Feddic and his son. It was still dark when Serenity stirred from a vivid nightmare of a dragon in the darkness, roaring above an army of darkspawn. Even upon waking, she had trouble shaking the feeling of terror it evoked.

“Bad dreams, huh?” Alistair asked. He was sitting up, tending to the fire.

“It felt real," Serenity answered, sitting up, watching him from across the flames.

“Well, it is real, sort of.” He sat back on his blankets and said, “You see, part of being a Grey Warden is being able to hear the darkspawn. That’s what your dream was. Hearing them. The archdemon, it… ‘talks’ to the horde, and we feel it just as they do. That’s why we know this is really a Blight.”

“Wonderful," Serenity sighed. "I value my beauty sleep... and not hearing voices in my head or having intrusive thoughts."

“It takes a bit, but eventually you can block the dreams out. It was scary at first for me too.”

"Is that why you're awake?"

"What? No, I just wanted to make sure we didn't freeze to death. Or fall under attack by wolves. Or bears."

"I think Cullen would alert us to any intruders," Serenity said, looking over at her newfound friend with his head resting between his paws. She had never imagined she would be allowed to keep a dog. “Are there any other surprises I should know about?”

“Other than dying young and the whole defeat-the-blight-alone thing? No, I’m all tapped out for surprises.”

"Wait. Dying young?"

"Oh..." Alistair realized they hadn't exactly given her a detailed explanation of all of the changes the Joining incurred. "If you survive the Joining, it gives you the power to sense the darkspawn and slay the archdemon. But it also shortens your lifespan. After drinking their blood, it's like you've contracted a disease. It's not contagious or anything. But it kills you slowly. Not exactly a happy ending for us wardens. Thirty years down the road, give or take, we succumb to the sickness, start going mad. That's why wardens go into the Deep Roads at the end, to take out as many darkspawn as they can on their way out."

“Great.” She hugged her knees to her chest, watching the flames flicker. Thirty years. She had a chance still to live a fulfilled life in thirty years. But she also dreaded thinking of the end and what it would entail. There had to be some way to fight it. There was so much she didn't know about the Grey Wardens. She only knew what was written in the history books in the Circle library, which served to prepare her for meeting Duncan and not sounding like a complete ignoramus. But they did not prepare her for joining their ranks.

"Not the best way to start the day," Alistair said. "I apologize."

"No. I needed to know that," she said. "Alistair, I... I'm really glad you're here. I can't imagine doing this alone."

"Me neither," he said. "I'd always had Duncan to lead me. And I'm not exactly used to being listened to."

"You're telling me," she said. Mage. Elf. Woman. She wasn't exactly highly regarded. "What I mean to say is, I think we make a good team. I, a mage, and you, a templar. I would have died countless times if you did not stand in front of me, ready with your shield."

"Former templar recruit," he corrected her. He didn't particularly like being considered of the order, even though he was recruited for the abilities he learned from them. "Had I not been conscripted into the Grey Wardens, I probably would have turned into a drooling lunatic, slaughtered the grand cleric and run through the streets of Denerim in my small clothes."

"I'll remember not to get it wrong again," Serenity chuckled.

"But you're right, you know. We do make a good team. When you do that thing where you freeze them and I bash them with my shield? They shatter like glass. I'd hate to be around when they melt into gooey bits."

"Eww. That's disgusting!"

"Well, darkspawn are pretty gross whether they're whole or in pieces. Have you heard the way they gurgle when they breathe? And the smell! Like rotten turnips, dead things, and what I imagine Sten's boots smell like."

She chuckled, "Better not say that loud enough for him to hear you."

He glanced over at Sten's tent. "You're right. I rather like having my head attached to my body."

"You know, before fighting alongside you, I had never used a spell on a living being before. I'd only ever practiced my spells in the classroom, where they could do no harm."

"You could have fooled me," he said. "I'm glad to know you have my back, too. The spells you cast, they really do come in handy. For all the Chantry drilled it into our skulls that magic is evil, it does have its uses." He mocked, "But then, I guess that's why they say, 'Magic exists to serve man--'"

"'And never to rule over him,'" Serenity finished. "If I have to hear that one more time..."

Alistairs raised his hands up, "Sorry. Sorry. Don't get any ideas about turning my pillow into a snowball."

"You have a pillow?" Serenity asked, tilting her head look past him.

Alistair bumped his fist against his palm disappointedly, "Oh, right. No. No, I don't."

Serenity chuckled and stretched her legs toward the campfire, bending forward to touch her toes. "So, these treaties. You mentioned the Dalish, the dwarves, and the Circle of Magi."

"Eager to get back to the Circle?"

She groaned, bending her knee to massage her foot, "No. I was hoping we might be able to go there last."

"Whatever you think is best."

"Well, I don't know. We should probably look at a map and see what the fastest route is between all the places we need to go," she said uncertainly. If it made sense to go the Circle first, she'd rather not waste time walking back and forth across Ferelden. Her feet were already sore, unaccustomed to so much travelling.

“Should we wake the others and pull up camp?”

“It’s still dark. Let them sleep. You wouldn’t want Morrigan to turn you into a frog, would you?”

He glared in the direction of Morrigan’s tent and answered slowly, “No…”

“So, why have you remained a templar if you hate the Chantry?” she prodded.

“Have you seen the uniform? It’s not only stylish but well made. I’m a sucker for good tailoring,” he grinned.

“Oh? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wearing it,” she challenged.

“I keep it hidden under my pillow. Sometimes I take it out just so I can hug it fondly and remember the good old days.”

“Right, your non-existent pillow. Don’t they wear plate armor?”

“That’s just in public. In private we have these yellow and purple tunics, right? Much more comfortable, and you don’t break the beds when you jump on them during a pillow fight.”

She laughed at the very thought of it. She remembered Oliver and Bran and imagined them having a pillow fight. She was pretty sure Bran would win. “You had lots of these pillow fights, I take it?”

“On confession day, we could go all night. Being a templar isn’t all about chasing men in skirts and hiding behind priests, you know.”

“Do all templars make these jokes? Or just you?” She would have loved to have heard Cullen let his guard down enough to joke with her. She had the feeling Bran was full of them, though he only let his sarcasm sneak out in small doses.

“Oh, you know… between all the guilt and the hours spent in solemn prayer, any good templar or priest is just bursting to tell a few good jokes when the opportunity arises.”

“I knew it!”

“You don’t really want to know about my being a templar, do you? It’s really quite boring.”

“I do really want to know, yes.” She stretched her legs out and brushed the folds out of her skirt. “I grew up surrounded by the templars, but none of them would ever speak to me candidly.”

“All right, if you insist. It’s not like we have anything better to do, right?"

"I suppose we could kill some darkspawn, but I'd rather wait until I can see them."

Alistair chuckled and rubbed his hand over his head, "I honestly hated going to the monastery. The initiates from poor families thought I put on airs while the noble ones called me a bastard and ignored me. I felt like Arl Eamon had cast me off and I was determined to be bitter. But I took some solace in the training itself, I guess. I was actually quite good at it. I mostly learned about discipline and training my mind to use the abilities templars have. It was difficult but rewarding."

She couldn't help her mind wandering back to Cullen as he spoke, imagining him training and dedicating himself to his studies. She wondered if he thought about her now too. Likely with disappointment and disdain. She only hoped he was not one of the templars tasked with searching for Jowan. She then couldn't help wondering if Jowan had settled down on a farm somewhere yet.

"I never really felt at home anywhere though until I joined the Grey Wardens," Alistair continued. "Duncan felt my templar abilities might be useful for when we encountered darkspawn magic, so I kept it up. What about you? Do you have anywhere you consider home?”

“The Circle of Magi’s tower was my home for a long time. But I guess my home is with the Grey Wardens now. With you.”

“It is? I… didn’t know you felt that way.”

"I'm grateful to Duncan for saving me and giving my life a greater purpose as a Grey Warden. Considering what you said about dying young, I will have to form my family through bond," she said and looked toward the horizon as the sun began to rise.

He followed her gaze, “We won’t always be travelling like this you know. Once the war is over, a time will come when we’ll have to think about having a real home again.”

“I don't expect I'll ever settle down," Serenity said. "I told Duncan I would live for his cause. The Grey Wardens need to be rebuilt. Without them... without us," she corrected herself, "the whole world would be blighted. This is the fifth blight. There were seven old gods. This won't be the last."

“I suppose you’re right," he said, inspired by her dedication to Duncan. He, too, owed Duncan his life. "We can create new Grey Wardens, but we’ll never get back those we lost. I wonder if it would ever feel the same?”

"I wouldn't know," she said.

Morrigan approached the fire from behind Alistair. “Oh, good, you’re both awake. Let us go, lest the dust gather on us.”

Alistair looked over his shoulder, “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I was not sneaking,” she glared down at him, crossing her arms.

"What do you call it when you silently approach someone from behind and surprise them? Oh, right, sneaking."

"If I were to sneak up on you, Alistair, you would only hear the sound of my spell being cast as I turned you into a frog."

Serenity grinned, “Let’s get a move on.” She looked over at Sten, whom she hadn't noticed emerge from his tent to sternly watch and listen. He nodded his approval at her order.

They packed their tents and bedding and made their way to Redcliffe. When they reached the village, the situation was more dire than they had imagined. Not only was the Arl ill and cut off from contact, the village faced nightly attacks by a horde of undead. They had nearly lost hope.

Chapter Text

In Redcliffe, Serenity and Alistair met with Bann Teagan and agreed to help him fend off the monsters before seeking entrance into the castle. With the few men left alive in the village, they fought the undead without any casualties on their side. After the battle, which lasted all through the night, Teagan led Serenity and her party to the secret passageway through the windmill into the castle.

“Look, can we talk for a moment? I need to tell you something I, ah, should probably have told you earlier,” Alistair said, walking behind Serenity down the narrow stairwell in the dark.

“Interesting time to want to talk," she said, stepping carefully and keeping her hand on the side of the dank wall. "What's on your mind?"

“I know, I know," he said. "Don't get so distracted by what I'm about to say that you go tumbling down the stairs. You know how I told you before about Arl Eamon raising me, right?"

"Yes," she said, "Go on."

"The reason he did that was because… well, because my father was King Maric. Which made Cailan my… half-brother, I suppose.”

She stopped after the last step, and he bumped into her back. “Why did you wait to tell me this?”

“I’ve never talked about it to anyone. Even Duncan kept me out of the fighting because of it. I didn’t want you to know for as long as possible because I didn't want you to treat me differently." He sighed, "I’m sorry.”

She thought about it for a moment and continued walking through the narrow passageway under the mountain. “It's fine, Alistair. You are perfectly capable of handling yourself on the battlefield and keeping me alive too for that matter. I'm just glad you don't expect me to jump in front of an arrow for you, Your Highness.”

“Yup, knew I'd regret telling you," he quipped. "I’ll just pretend you still think I’m some… nobody who was too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens.”

“What does that make me?”

“Some nobody who was too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens,” he smirked, “Welcome to the club.”

"I have a wonder, Alistair, if you will indulge me," Morrigan said from behind them.

Alistair groaned, "Do I have a choice?"

"Of the two of you that remain, are you not the senior Grey Warden here? I find it curious that you allow another to lead while you follow. In fact, you defer to a new recruit."

"What do you want to hear? That I prefer to follow? I do."

"You sound so very defensive," she smirked.

"Couldn't you crawl into a bush somewhere and die? That would be great, thanks."

"I was just looking for some of your father in you," Morrigan said.

"Leave me alone." If she could have seen him glower at her in the dark, he would have given her a dirty look.

Serenity had wondered the same thing, but she figured Alistair was mourning and needed guidance. Irving had always seen the potential for her to lead, but she had no experience actually doing so. She was not yet a worldly person, though that was quickly changing. All she knew was that she had to carry on where Duncan left off. She would not break her vow to him.

They made their way into the dungeon past a steel door and killed three shambling corpses in front of one of the jail cells. A familiar voice called out to them, “Hello? Who's out there?”

Serenity ran over to the cell, gripping the bars in both hands. “Jowan!”

“By all that’s holy… Serenity! I can’t believe it…”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” she answered, still reeling from the sight of him. "What are you doing here? You should be on a ship to the Free Marches by now!"

“The Free Marches? I don't even know where that is. I never had any reason to study geography!" He sighed, "How did you get in here? I never thought I’d see you again. Of all people... I expected maybe Ivan.”

“Of course you wouldn't expect me after you left me in the hands of the templars,” she frowned.

“I… I’m sorry about that,” he started. Of course he'd realized after he fled that she was going to suffer for his choices. It was stupid to give away that he truly was maleficar, if only for her sake. There was no other way to save himself though. "Truly, I am. You've been a friend to me for... as long as I can remember. You risked everything. I know that. I shouldn't have lied. I shouldn't have lied to you, but I knew you agreed with the templars about maleficarum. I was afraid you would react how Lily did. I thought..."

“You thought I would turn you in?"

"I don't know. I knew there was a risk. But I really did love Lily. I really did want to give up magic and just live a normal life with her. Isn't that what we all want?"

Serenity was angry before, but seeing him a broken man now, she still believed him and her heart still hurt for him. "What have they done to you?” she asked quietly, noticing how shallow his cheeks were and the dirt carving out the wrinkles in his face.

“What they do to all traitors and would be assassins.”

"What do you mean assassin?"

"I poisoned the Arl," Jowan confessed. "For all I know, he's dead already."

"That was you?!" She groaned and punched his shoulder through the bars of the cell door. "What the hell, Jowan? You're making some really poor life choices. You had a chance to get away and you try to murder somebody?" She threw her hands up in the air and paced in a circle.

“Ow!" He rubbed his shoulder, surprised at how strong she was. "There was somebody at Lake Calenhad. I took a job through the Mages' Collective. Isolde was looking for an apostate to tutor her son because he was beginning to show... signs."

Alistair, who struggled to keep his mouth shut before, blurted out, “Connor? A mage? I can’t believe it!”

Jowan continued, "But I was apprehended by one of Loghain's men. I came directly over after that. And they took care of the templar that was after me. I thought I was safe by helping him. I didn't know..."

"Loghain is behind this?" Serenity was not surprised. "The Arl isn't dead. Not yet, anyway."

"He’s not? That’s a relief," Jowan sighed and rested his back against the wall. "I know I'm being blamed for everything else happening here. And you probably suspect the same because I did blood magic, but I swear it's not my doing. I didn't consort with any demons."

"How much magic did you teach Connor?" Serenity asked.

“Some. But he’s still very young. He can barely cast a minor spell, never mind something more powerful. At least, not intentionally. I have thought about it, and it’s possible Connor could have inadvertently done something to tear open the Veil. With the Veil to the Fade torn, spirits and demons could infiltrate the castle. Powerful ones could kill and create those walking corpses.”

Serenity sighed, closing her eyes, and pressed her fingers against her temples. “This is why we have the Circle and the templars. And this is why senior enchanters do the teaching, not apprentices. Now, many innocent lives have been lost. Oh, Jowan, why...”

“I… I know. Maker, I’ve made so many mistakes,” he whimpered and covered his face with his hands, ashamed. “I wish I could go back and fix it. I just want to make everything right again.”

"Why did you risk everything to learn blood magic?" Serenity asked, gripping the bars of the cell to squeeze them in frustration.

"I... I just wanted to be as good as you," Jowan admitted. "I thought it would make me a better mage. Irving was so proud of you, and I just felt... like I was a disappointment."

"You've got to be kidding me," Serenity groaned, rocking on her heels. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have helped you."

"No, you couldn't have," he said. "You were studying frost, and I was studying fire. It would have been a waste of both our time." He asked hesitantly, "I know you have no reason to be my friend anymore, but I have to know... please tell me. What became of Lily? They didn’t hurt her, did they?"

She knew he would believe what he wanted to hear and that he was already tormented with regret. She didn't think he could handle the truth. He had clearly been physically tortured already and broken down emotionally. She lied to him. “She’s fine, Jowan. Don’t worry about her.”

“Oh, thank… thank the Maker. For small mercies, at least. And thank you for telling me. It’s good to know I haven’t ruined everything I’ve touched,” he said sadly. “So. Here we are again, the two of us. What happens now?”

“I say this boy could still be of use to us,” Morrigan interjected. “But if not, then let him go. Why keep him prisoner here?”

“Hey, hey!” Alistair started. “Let’s not forget he’s a blood mage! You can’t just… set a blood mage free!”

“Better to slay him?” Morrigan argued, “Better to punish him for his choices? Is this Alistair who speaks or the templar?”

“I’d say it’s common sense,” he argued back. “We don’t even know the whole story yet.”

"I've heard enough," Serenity said. Perhaps Alistair preferred to hear a second perspective, but she believed Jowan's story.

"He wishes to redeem himself," Leliana said. "Doesn't everyone deserve that chance?"

“Give me a chance, please!” Jowan pleaded.

“How do you intend to make things right?” Serenity asked.

“I’d… well, I’d try to save anyone still up there. There must be something I can do.”

“And after that, what happens?”

“Afterwards? I assume I’ll be arrested. Or executed. Or… whatever people like me get. A part of me knew right from the beginning that I’d have to face the consequences one day. I knew I’d be caught, eventually.”

"You probably didn’t think it would be so soon,” she muttered.

“Everything I’ve done has just delayed the inevitable. I’m done with running and hiding. I need to account for what I’ve done.”

Serenity knew he was contrite and still the good person she'd always known him to be. “Jowan, I have never stopped being a friend to you. It was you who stopped being a friend to me." She turned to Leliana. "Can you pick the lock?"

Leliana knelt down in front of the cell door with her lockpick.

“You’re letting me out?” he seemed surprised. “And what then?”

“You escape,” Serenity said, looking back from whence they came.

“No, I... I can't just leave. I have to try to fix the mess I've made."

“No. I will help you fix this, but you are going to run away. I did not risk my life for you before so that you could throw it away and ‘face the consequences’ now. If my friendship means anything to you, you will leave and you will do something good with your life. If you go up there with me, it's over for you. I will not see you die. Not after everything we've done.”

“Are you truly suggesting just… letting him go?” Alistair asked. “A dangerous blood mage?”

“You can hunt him yourself if you like,” she replied sharply, unable to help feeling irate.

“That’s not what I… oh, never mind.”

“Then…” Jowan hesitated, “then, I’ll go. I’m sorry things ended this way. I hope to see you again one day, under better circumstances. I promise not to disappoint you again. I won't do blood magic or let Loghain manipulate me. I'll just disappear.”

She watched him leave then continued upstairs with the others. She knew she would have to apologize for snapping at Alistair, but for now she had to concentrate on the task at hand. After fighting a revenant in the courtyard and opening the gates, they entered the main hall, where they were shocked to see Bann Teagan acting the part of a court jester. They found what Serenity had feared since hearing Jowan's story -- Connor was possessed, slipping in and out of lucidity as the demon dominated his spirit to control his body. Isolde stepped in the way of Serenity from pursuing the abomination after it fled the main hall and begged, “Please! Connor is not responsible for this! There must be some way we can save him!”

“He is an abomination,” Serenity said softly. “He made a deal with a demon. There is only one way this can end.”

“He is not always the demon you saw. Connor is still inside him, and sometimes he breaks through. Please, I just want to protect him!”

“Isn’t that what started this?” Teagan asked. “You hired a mage to teach Connor in secret to protect him.”

“If they discovered Connor had magic, then they’d take him away! I thought if he learned just enough to hide it, then…”

“That is not a decision for you to make,” Serenity frowned. Her chest felt tight, pained by Isolde's love for her son. She had only wanted to keep him. Many nights of her own childhood, Serenity had wondered how her mother could let her go. As difficult as it must have been, Serenity could see now that her mother had done what was right, no matter how wrong it felt.

Alistair added ruefully, “I wouldn’t normally suggest slaying a child, but… he’s an abomination. I’m not sure there’s any other choice.”

“Clearly the child is an abomination,” Morrigan agreed. "And the demon must be slain. Killing the child is the quickest course, but to say there is nothing else possible would be a lie. We can confront the demon in the Fade, though not easily. We can follow that connection and do battle with its true form.”

“So you can enter the Fade? And kill the demon without hurting my boy?” Isolde looked hopeful.

Serenity shook her head, "Entering the Fade requires lyrium. A lot of it."

"As well as numerous mages to perform the ritual,” Morrigan said.

"We would have to seek help from the Circle of Magi. That's at least two days away. And there is no way Knight-Commander Greagoir would agree to help me. Even if Irving still trusted me, the Chantry would never approve such a ritual,” Serenity sighed. “They would more likely send the templars to kill him. Otherwise, why not save every abomination instead of striking them down?”

“I do not know,” Morrigan replied defensively. “Perhaps because they’re barbarians who fear magic and it is easier to kill one than risk the others?”

"But they would not be helping you, necessarily," Leliana said, "They would be helping the Arl's son."

"You underestimate just how little templars care about politics when it comes to abominations," Serenity said. "Even if we did somehow get the Circle of Magi's help, we would be leaving the village in the hands of a demon for four days. We've used up all of the oil stores. How much fight do you think they have left in them? What about the women and children hiding in the chantry?"

"There must be some other way," Leliana said softly, "He's only a little boy. Demon, or no demon, please tell me we're not considering that!"

Isolde clutched at her chest and turned to Teagan desperately. “What about the mage? He could know something of this demon! If he still lives, we could speak to him!”

“No, you can’t. He’s gone,” Serenity stated solemnly. “I released him.”

“You… released him? Why would you do such a thing!?” Isolde shouted, disgusted. "He was locked up for a reason! He was a blood mage!"

“He is not entirely to blame for this. You allowed it to happen,” Serenity said and regretted her cutting words. Isolde did not need to be reminded of her own fault in this tragic turn of events. She would blame herself for as long she lived. "Forgive me. I should not have..."

"How dare you! You are blaming me for this!? I was trying to protect my baby! The blood mage corrupted him somehow!" Isolde wailed, guilt ridden for how many lives her mistake cost Redcliffe.

“We will fight the demon here,” Serenity decided. “It would take too long to go to the Circle and return, and the First Enchanter abides by the Chantry’s laws. It would be a waste of time and too much of a risk to put you all in.”

“Please… don’t! It isn’t his fault. He just tried to help his father. Why must he pay with his life?” she cried.

“Do not make this any harder than it is, Isolde,” Teagan spoke softly. “She has made her decision.”

Serenity felt horrible. She never in her life thought she would have to make a decision like this. Not just against a mage but a child. She regretted sending Jowan away, wondering if somehow his presence could have prevented this course of action. Even with him there, they wouldn't have enough lyrium to enter the Fade. And she didn't think he was well versed enough in blood magic to undo whatever was done. If anything, perhaps he would have been able to make an exchange -- his life for the boy's. But the demon would have known it was a trap. The demon had to know it had a higher chance of survival in the boy's body than Jowan's. She knew her choices would haunt her. But they were choices she had to make. “I am sorry,” she said, knowing her words held no consolation for the weeping mother.

“No-ooo!!” Isolde screamed and sobbed. “No! I won’t let you do this! It isn’t right! It isn’t right!”

“Go and do this quickly,” Teagan said to Serenity. “We must save Eamon and restore the castle. I’ll make Isolde understand.”

Serenity knew there was no way Teagan could make her understand, but she only needed him to provide enough time for her to finish it. She led the others upstairs to the second floor where they were ambushed by a swarm of shambling corpses. Connor stood in the hallway outside of Arl Eamon's bedchamber. Serenity approached him cautiously, staff in hand.

“Go away,” the boy said meekly. “She won’t like you being here. She’ll just try to hurt you.”

“Is this Connor?” Serenity furrowed her brow. “The real Connor?” She knew she could not find the power to kill a child, not when he was lucid. She would have to provoke the demon into coming out.

“I’m always me, but sometimes the scary lady takes over. I feel like I’m sleeping, but I guess I’m not.”

Serenity felt her heart ache. She imagined no templar would ever have to go through this. Killing an apostate mage or an apprentice that failed their Harrowing was one thing, but killing a child, a child who was not always under the demon’s control, was too heavy a burden to bear. But it had killed so many in Redcliffe, and it had to be stopped before it killed more. If they left Redcliffe in the demon's hands, how many would die just to save one? It wasn't fair. His life couldn't be worth more than the lives of all those hidden away in the Chantry, no matter his social standing or age.

“I tried to stop her, but I can’t,” Connor continued with a sniffle. “She said she’d help Father. I didn’t think she’d hurt everyone, honestly I didn’t.”

“I…” Serenity’s voice trembled, “I want to stop her, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

“But somebody has to stop her from hurting anyone else,” he said, looking up at her. "You can do it."

Serenity swallowed. She wasn’t sure she could. "But..."

“She won’t let you near Father. She’ll just come back again, and then…" He wrapped his arms around himself and choked back a snivel, his voice breaking, "Just tell everyone to stay away, especially Mother. I don’t want her to see me like this.”

Serenity stepped back, losing her resolve. She could not be weak, not in the presence of a demon. She was too susceptible to its power that way. “You are very brave, Connor. Everything is going to be okay.”

“She’s closer now… I can hear her whispering to me.”

“Connor, how did this happen to you?” Serenity asked, kneeling down in front of him. She couldn't be weak. She couldn't cry. No matter how much it hurt.

“After… after Mother put Jowan in the dungeon, I snuck into his room. I found his books, the ones he wouldn’t let me read. I wanted to help Father. I shouldn’t have tried, I guess. But Mother was so sad and I wanted to make her happy. Then the bad lady started talking to me in my sleep. It’s all my fault.”

She tried to console him, but she could hear the tremble in her voice. "You tried to do good, Connor. You didn't know. You couldn't have known."

“You should go. She’ll come back soon,” he warned.

She turned away from him, her breath hitching in her throat as she fought the emotions that weighed on her chest. She forced herself to take a deep breath, looking up at Alistair, Morrigan, and Leliana. They said nothing, but she could see the sorrow in Alistair’s eyes and Leliana had turned away. She had no time for second thoughts. She turned back toward Connor and without looking at him, walked past him to the Arl’s room. For the sake of so many innocent lives that resided in the village below, she could not walk away from him.

Maker, help me.

“No!” Connor cried. “Don’t go near him! She’ll get angry! She’ll get—“ he choked on his words and convulsed, landing on his hands and knees on the floor with a darkness about him as he transformed. The demon came out, closing and sealing the door before Serenity could enter. She turned around to face the desire demon as she summoned corpses and lesser rage demons to her aid.

The group focused on her minions while Alistair held her off and Serenity protected him with a force field. They overpowered her. When her body crumpled to the floor, it changed shape back into its host’s form. Serenity approached Connor’s unconscious body.

“Stop! Stop! Don’t hurt him!” Isolde cried, running into the room, frantic.

Alistair crossed his arms and watched the scene unfold with disdain. Leliana and Morrigan averted their gaze. None of them wanted to be a part of this. Least of all Serenity. But it was her decision. She had to carry out her own order.

“Please, have mercy on him. He’s just a boy. He doesn’t deserve this!” Isolde begged.

“You would rather the demon keep your family hostage?” Serenity asked, meeting her eyes.

“I… no, of course not, but… this is my son’s life! There must be another option. The Circle must know some spell, or… we could bring him to the cathedral in Denerim! They could exorcise him…"

Leliana shook her head sadly. "The Chantry cannot exorcise him..."

"Maker, help me! There must be some other way!" Isolde fell to her knees and grasped Serenity's hand in both of hers, pleading, "DON’T KILL MY BABY! I’M BEGGING YOU!”

Serenity felt her heart drop into her stomach like an anvil. “We may not have time for another solution. What about your husband? What if Arl Eamon dies?”

“Don’t ask me to choose between them. I can’t do that… You… you’re a woman. What if this was your son? Tell me you wouldn’t move mountains to save him!”

“I…” She couldn't find her voice. It was true; she might risk the lives of all to save her son if she had one, but that was not a wise decision. “I can't save him.”

“You’re just like Teagan," she spat, releasing her hand in disgust. "Standing there grim-faced and telling me my son has to die. It doesn’t have to be like this. I order you to stop!”

“I am truly sorry,” Serenity forced the words out of her mouth and held up her staff.

“No, please! I…” Isolde began to stand but stumbled and collapsed on the floor into a deep slumber.

Serenity bit the inside of her cheek and tried to steady her breath and her hand from shaking. She closed her eyes, taking her knife from her belt as she knelt beside Connor. Though he was unconscious, she spoke to him, “Draw your last breath, child. Cross the Veil and the Fade and all the stars in the sky. Rest at the Maker's right hand and be forgiven.” She opened her eyes and looked at his peaceful features and the pale freckles on his cheeks. She wanted to close her eyes again, but she could not look away as she sank the blade into Connor’s heart. “Maker keep you,” her voice trembled. She wiped the blade clean and hooked it in her belt, then stood up to face the others. Morrigan was the first to turn away and leave the room, and Alistair followed beside Leliana in silence.

She would never be sure if she’d made the right decision. She followed them with the mabari at her side. He whined and she placed her hand upon his head as they walked into the adjoining hall, finding some small comfort in his presence. Alistair leaned against the wall in brooding silence. Serenity turned at the sound of dragging feet behind her and faced Isolde, whose face contorted in agony.

“What have you done?” Isolde cried and fell to her knees. “He was just a boy… He didn’t…” she crumbled. “I tried so hard to save him. And what am I left with? Nothing.” She tried to gather her composure, taking a deep breath, “I wonder just how long Eamon will survive, now that the demon cannot sustain him. Will I lose my whole family, do you think?”

“No. I will not let that happen.”

“Enough," Isolde snapped, disgusted at the very sound of Serenity's voice. "I wish to mourn my son now. Give me that, at least.”

Serenity left the castle in silence and stayed at the Chantry overnight. The following morning, she watched as they sent the dead off to sea, setting the boats aflame. Afterwards, she returned to the main hall with her companions to meet with Bann Teagan.

“Whatever the demon did to my brother, it seems to have spared his life, but he remains comatose. We cannot wake him.”

“Would magic not heal him?” Serenity asked.

“It has been tried and we will continue trying. Perhaps the demon’s absence will make a difference. However, the relic is another option,” Teagan answered. "The Urn of Sacred Ashes."

"A waste of time," Sten said.

"Shh!" Serenity turned sharply toward him. He was callous. He hadn't been present for what happened with Connor, but his remarks were unwelcome in the presence of the grieving mother. "We will find it."

Sten didn't say another word, but judging by the look he gave her, she suspected he questioned her sanity for hushing him.

“My husband funded the research of a scholar in Denerim—a Brother Genetivi,” Isolde said, her voice hollow. “He has been studying the inscriptions on Andraste’s Birth Rock. When Eamon fell ill, I sent the knights to speak to Genetivi. They were unable to locate him.”

“I will go to Denerim and follow whatever lead I can find. I will look for this relic myself,” Serenity said. Even if it was a waste of time like Sten thought, she owed it to this mother to try. And it wasn't as if helping Arl Eamon wouldn't benefit the wardens. She doubted the archdemon would come out of hiding in the time it took to save his life. They left for Denerim immediately, but it was not long before night fell and they set up camp.

Serenity went to sit beside Mabari-Cullen, and Alistair approached her. “I want to talk about what happened. At Redcliffe.”

"I don't want to talk about it right now," she said, leaning into Mabari-Cullen.

"We're at camp," he said pointedly. "This is as good a time as any."

"For you, perhaps," she muttered.

“You killed Connor,” he glared. “You killed him. A little boy. How could you do that?”

His words were like a dagger in her gut. She stood up. "What choice did I have? I didn’t enjoy it, Alistair. I expected you of all people to understand.”

He growled, “I’m not saying you did! But there must have been something else we could have done! Something. Anything that didn’t involve killing a child! This is the Arl’s son we’re talking about here. What do you think he’ll say when we revive him?”

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, her eyes burning with the threat of tears. She could only do what she was raised to believe was the right course of action. She knew that Greagoir would send the templars to destroy the demon and Connor in the process. The duties of a templar were not enjoyable. But they were necessary. And if she had asked the Circle for help, it was the templars that would have stepped in.

“I just don’t know how you could do it, how you could make that decision! I owe the Arl more than this.”

"And why was the decision left to me?" Serenity shouted back. "Why does it have to land squarely on my shoulders?! Why didn't you offer to run off to the Circle yourself? I did the best I could! I did the only thing I knew how!"

"Did you?" he challenged her, but he felt the fight leave him, seeing how heavily it weighed on her. She was shaking with adrenaline. It was unfair of him to blame her. "Just… forget I brought it up. I’m the one being the arse here, right? Forget I said anything.”

She would have told him it was okay, that he had every right to be upset with her, but she sat back down beside Mabari-Cullen and willed herself not to cry. She couldn't let Alistair see her cry. Everyone had been so sullen and quiet. Leliana and Morrigan hadn't said a word since it happened. She imagined the Chantry sister thought her a monster. Sten was the only one she wasn't worried about hating her for what she did. No, she figured he was more likely to groan and abandon helping them if he saw her cry. She was constantly under the impression he didn't respect her and only tagged along because she'd saved his life, like some kind of code of honor, if that was how the Qunari worked.

She thought perhaps she could sneak off to speak with Morrigan and sleep under her tent with her. Of everyone in camp, she had expected the 'former templar recruit' to be the most understanding of the situation, but she sensed Morrigan may be the more empathetic one now.

Serenity sighed and pet her mabari. “You’re not mad at me too, are you?” He whined and nosed her hand. “I’m glad you’re here, Cullen.” Serenity looked up to see Morrigan approaching. She must have heard Alistair yelling.

“You know, I never took you Grey Wardens to be the types to give in to the simple minded teachings of the Chantry.”

Serenity sighed. Perhaps she was wrong about Morrigan being the compassionate one. “I was a mage of the Circle before I was a Grey Warden,” she reminded her.

“Yes, a captive of the Chantry,” she said, folding her arms in front of her. “I suppose they told you it was ‘for your own good’, did they not?”

“Yes and 'for the good of others,'” Serenity answered.

Morrigan sighed, “I do not know how you can be so content with it, but that is on you, Grey Warden."

"What makes you think I am content?" Serenity asked, raising her eyes to meet hers.

"You have done nothing to change it. Perhaps if the Chantry weren't so ignorant of magic and set up schools for the children to be taught in, mothers wouldn't have to seek out the aid of apostates to keep their children.”

"How am I supposed to change anything? I have barely been free of the Circle a month, and I am newly recruited to the wardens. What power do I have?"

"You are right," Morrigan said, admitting her mistake. "You haven't the power to change the world yet, Grey Warden, but you will. You will see."

Serenity sighed, “If there was another way, if I could have been free of the Circle, then I would have been glad for it. But there is no other way.” She looked down at Mabari-Cullen and petted him, picking stray hairs from his collar. “In some regards, I am thankful for the Circle. I think I learned more with their guidance than I would have on my own. And I do believe that without them, if people were left to their own devices, we would face many more abominations.” She looked up at Morrigan, the words causing her heart to ache as she spoke them, “Like Connor. He read a book that he was not supposed to and he tore open the Veil. Had he been under the supervision of a senior enchanter, no such thing would have happened.”

Morrigan argued, “So then you agree that it is right to take a child from their parents and strip them of their freedom? You speak of learning and what would happen without the Circle, but what of those who have proven themselves competent? Not even the head of your Circle can say he has the same freedom that you do.” She spoke softly, “’Tis a sad thing really.”

"I never used to think it was right to take a child away, not until meeting Connor," Serenity admitted. "I do not think magic evil, but it is inherently dangerous. While I wish that the mages who do prove themselves competent would be allowed more freedom, I understand the fears surrounding such freedom. It is the fault of the few that abuse blood magic and impose their will on others that there is such mistrust of mages. Were it up to me, I would do as you say, reform the Circles into schools. But it is not up to me."

Morrigan looked down at her and replied sternly, “You are a Grey Warden. You have the power to influence and bring change. All men are able to wreak great destruction upon each other, mage or otherwise. It is this ignorance that perpetuates discrimination.” She let her arms drop to her sides as she prepared to leave. “All I ask, Warden, is that you think for yourself. Lest we begin locking up everyone we feel might cause harm. I was not raised in your tower and I have no desire to burn whole cities to the ground.”

“Nor do I.”

Leliana, who stood near the fire came over and knelt down beside Serenity. “I see what Morrigan is saying, but you did what you could with the knowledge you have.” She placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You were put in an unfair situation, and you saved many more lives as a result.”

“I fear you are the only one who sees it that way,” Serenity said and covered her hand, desperate for her friendship.

“We all care about you. Alistair, myself, Morrigan,” she said and looked over at the Qunari standing under the tree. "Probably even Sten. Well, I can't read Sten."

Mabari-Cullen barked.

“And Cullen,” Leliana giggled. “I think Morrigan just wants you to live your own life and free yourself from the mindset of a Circle mage."

“Thank you, Leliana," Serenity said and put her arms around her shoulders, feeling some of the weight lifted off her back with that hug. "I should try to rest. Tomorrow is a new day."

“Yes, it is," Leliana smiled and stood up to return to her tent. "Good night, Serenity.”

She curled up beside her mabari to rest, haunted by the image of Connor’s pallor and limp body. She pushed the flap up on her leather satchel to glimpse the lettering on the spine of the tome she found. The one Jowan left behind. The book of forbidden magic Connor found that led to his possession. Though fear crept through her just at the sight of it, she couldn't bring herself to throw it in the fire. She wasn't ready to open it and peruse the knowledge Jowan had mastered, and she accepted that she might never be. But if that knowledge could have prevented Connor's death, perhaps it might be worth learning. She just couldn't be a complete idiot about it like he was.

Chapter Text

As much as Serenity was happy to be free of the tower, she was tired from so much walking. It was still another day's walk to Denerim, and they set up camp as night fell again. Her feet were in a constant state of soreness, which she hoped would go away with the daily practice, but she also noticed, as she sat in front of the fire, how shapely her calves had become. It wasn't all bad, she supposed.

She hadn't spoken with Alistair since the night before, but she hated the heavy air between them and felt the need to clear it even if he didn't. "Alistair?"

"Hm?"

"Can we talk?"

"Oh, is now a good time?" he asked and looked over at her, realizing again his blunder. Why was he antagonizing her? The crestfallen look she gave him made him feel like an even bigger ass than he already did. He sighed and went to sit beside her in front of the fire. "I'm an ass," he said. "Two kinds of bastard."

"Stop," she said, resting her head on his shoulder. "I'm sorry for lashing out at you yesterday. When I freed Jowan. And after... in camp."

"I just wish there had been another way," he said. "I know there wasn't anything we could do, not without great risk, anyway. I shouldn't have taken it out on you the way I did. And, maybe it's not even about you. Maybe it's about me and the Arl, you know?"

Serenity lifted her head and pulled her pack closer, opening the flap to retrieve something. "Here. This is yours," she said, taking his hand and placing it in his palm.

"This... this is my mother's amulet," he said and looked at her. "But why isn't it broken? Where did you find it?"

"I found it at Redcliffe, in the study," she said. That was also where she had found Jowan's tome.

"In the Arl's study? Then he must have found the amulet after I threw it at the wall. And he repaired it and kept it?" he thought aloud, turning it in his hands. "I don't understand. Why would he do that?"

"You said he raised you," Serenity said, watching him as he examined it. "Perhaps he was not only like a father to you, but you were like a son to him. He had to know you didn't mean it."

"I... guess you could be right," he said quietly. "We never really talked that much, and then, the way I left... Thank you. I mean it. I thought I'd lost this to my own stupidity."

"So," Serenity bumped him with her shoulder. "Does this mean you're not mad at me anymore?"

"No, not mad anymore," he said and smiled. "You actually remembered me mentioning this? Wow. I'm more used to people not really listening when I go on about things."

"Sorry? Did you say something?"

"Ho, ho, ho," he rolled his eyes and smiled at her.

Serenity used his shoulder to help herself stand and brushed off her skirt. "We had better get to sleep if we want to reach Denerim in the morning."

"Yeah... Thanks," he said again, "for everything."

Serenity had no memory of Denerim, despite spending the first seven years of her life in the alienage there, and it was much larger than she imagined. She wanted to go the alienage to see her mother, but she understood the importance of seeking out Brother Genetivi before all else.

They spent most of the afternoon exploring the Market district, much to Sten's annoyance. He was eager to move on and kill darkspawn, finding no value in seeking out the Urn of Sacred Ashes or saving Arl Eamon's life. A fool's errand, he said.

As soon as they'd entered the city, Serenity's first stop was at the chantry to check the chantry board and receive the Mother's blessing. She took great pleasure and curiosity in her conversation with the curator, Sister Justine, but to her surprise, the chapel was closed.

"In the name of Andraste, bride of the Maker, be welcome in this house," a young templar greeted her, standing beside a withered old man with bright blue eyes. She had never seen a templar so old, but he looked like he could be the younger man's father. "While the cathedral is closed, if you need to make wedding or funeral arrangements, you'll have to talk to Sister Olma."

"Did someone die? I remember a funeral..." the old man said, his voice as withered as his face.

"King Cailan died, remember? Along with most of the army at Ostagar. Maker guide them all."

"Why is the cathedral closed?" Serenity asked without taking her eyes off the older templar. It was rude to stare, she knew, but there was something off about him.

"That which you fear... living in the shadow of death alone, I have seen it is only a cloud... passing before the sun," he said, meeting her gaze.

"The death toll at Ostagar was staggering," the younger templar said. "We've had a funeral every day for a lost son or daughter of Denerim, and we've many more yet to hold."

Serenity couldn't help herself. She had to know, manners be damned. "What's wrong with your friend?"

"Are they singing the Chant now? It's a funeral, isn't it?" the old man asked, looking up toward the sky.

The young templar looked over at his fellow soldier and said, "He should have retired to Val Royeaux years ago, but he wanted to stay and serve the remainder of his days in his homeland. It's the lyrium that does this."

"Lyrium does this to him?" Serenity asked, puzzled. "Why doesn't he stop taking it?"

"He wouldn't be a templar anymore," he said and realized he'd said too much. "It's... complicated. Forget I said anything."

"Blessed are they who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter," the old man said, more to himself than Serenity.

"He doesn't forget who he is, even if he can't remember anything else."

"I will come back later," Serenity said and turned away to leave the small courtyard.

"May the light of the Maker guide your steps."

"Alistair," Serenity said, pulling him aside after they passed the bickering chantry sisters.

"What, what?"

"What was that about? Lyrium? Templars have to take lyrium?"

"Ah, yeah, he let the cat out of the bag with that one," Alistair said. "Essentially, templars are trained to fight. The Chantry would tell you that the templars exist simply to defend, but don't let them fool you. They're an army. The other main purpose for a templar is, of course, to hunt mages. To that end, we train in talents that drain mana and disrupt spells. The Chantry keeps a close reign on its templars. We're given lyrium to help develop our magical talents, you see... which means we become addicted."

"That's..." Terrible, she thought. But she didn't want to be so insensitive. "So, were you... are you addicted to lyrium?"

"Thankfully, no. I was receiving small doses of lyrium as a recruit, but I hadn't used it enough to develop a dependency. It was used to help develop my abilities, but since I hadn't yet taken my vows, I wasn't given the kit or the full dose on a regular basis. I didn't go through withdrawals when I left. Others... are not so lucky."

"I see." She thought of Cullen again, imagined his eyes turning that unnatural shade of blue, becoming a sad husk of a man with no memory of his younger years. He was a great templar, but was it worth the sacrifice?

"Come on," Alistair said, nudging her out of her daze.

In trying to find Brother Genetivi's house, Serenity traveled a back alleyway and noticed a shady man standing in an alcove, waving her over. She looked around anyway, even though she was sure he was signaling her. "Yes?" she asked, cautiously approaching.

"You're the mage Warden, aren't you?"

"I... yes." She wasn't sure what she didn't like more, that he knew her as a mage or as a warden by sight. Surely the templars would be watching her. But then, she was carrying a staff on her back.

"I'm with the Mages' Collective," he said and explained the way the secret guild functioned. Though it didn't entirely sound above board, he did assure her they enacted the Chantry's laws. After all, maleficarum would ruin what they had going, so it didn't benefit them at all to protect blood mages.

She read through the requests, intrigued and suspicious of the request for the Scrolls of Banastor. The client, Jubasto, claimed the intention of bringing blood mages to justice by learning their secrets, but it didn't sit right with her. She thought he sought the scrolls for his own power. If maleficarum truly were committing devious acts, he shouldn't need to understand the rituals of blood magic to see the end result of their actions. She repeated the name in her head... Banastor. Banastor? and recalled an ancient text she'd glimpsed in the Senior Mages' quarters of the Circle tower. But of course, she already knew the Circle housed forbidden literature, seeing as how one such book had fallen into Jowan's hands. She accepted the request, though she had no intention of handing the books over after she found them.

She found herself disappointed a second time by this liaison of the Mages' Collective. How peculiar that a Knight-Commander from Redcliffe was implicated in one of the requests. "Alistair," she said, holding up the parchment for him to read. "A Knight-Commander from Redcliffe," she emphasized, "is taking briberies in the form of lyrium. What if he overdoses?" After asking it, she wondered how silly it was to worry herself over the man's health before his corruption. But she couldn't help blaming the Chantry for his weakness.

"T'would be a service to us all," Morrigan said.

Alistair gave her a disapproving look. "This isn't a matter for joking."

"Oh? Who said I was joking? He will get his lyrium one way or another. 'Tis his choice to do it."

"He is helping mages, isn't he?" Serenity asked, weighing her options. "I don't want to turn him in. Maybe we should confront him about it?"

"No, no, no," Alistair said, shaking his head. "He knows that there are heavy consequences if he is found out. If we try to talk to him about it, he could take it as a threat or coercion. He could go into hiding, or worse, attack us."

"We could make some gold, and it is on the way," Morrigan said. "But if this is going to weigh on you so much, Warden, perhaps we should just leave it for somebody else to take care of."

Alistair sighed, "It kills me to say this, but she is right. And if we do turn him in, he will talk and they will hunt down each and every single one of those mages."

Serenity rolled up the missive and tucked it into her satchel. "We will find him when we are back in Redcliffe," she said.

After stopping in Wade's Emporium to look around, Serenity crossed the bazaar to another street that led to more houses and taverns. She was apprehended by Ser Landry, one of Loghain's loyal knights. He challenged her to a duel, but she didn't intend to fight him if she could avoid it. She didn't give a damn whether she appeared to be a coward. She did not want him to waste his life on a lie. As it happened, when he stalked off, she found herself standing in front of Brother Genetivi's house. After getting a lead from the imposter inside, they left, and Serenity noticed a lone flyer fluttering in the breeze, tacked to the stone wall. She tilted her head as she walked over to it. "Alistair, look at this."

He read it aloud, "Don't believe the lies. Friends of the Grey Wardens assemble. The hidden pearl holds the key to resistance. The griffons will rise again."

"Well, that couldn't sound any more like a trap."

"They will have to try harder than that to lure you in," Morrigan said.

"We should go and kill whoever is waiting for you," Sten suggested.

"Really?" Morrigan asked, crossing her arms. "You want to give them what they want?"

"If what they want is death, then yes."

"T'was not what I meant. We would deliver our wardens into their hands."

"No, we would arrive and kill them," Sten said, annoyed.

Serenity exchanged looks with Alistair. "What are the chances they might actually catch someone who wants to join us?"

Alistair rubbed the back of his neck as he stared at the flyer. "We're kind of public enemy number one right now. You heard Ser Landry."

"Still," she said, "maybe Sten is right."

Sten turned his head, subduing the surprise at hearing her actually agree with him. "Then, let us not keep them waiting."

"Well, what's this hidden pearl?" Alistair pointed at the flyer.

"Probably the brothel," Serenity said. "I heard the sergeant of the guards complaining about it. Let's go talk to him." She stopped as they started walking back ahead of her. The flyer had been posted at the entrance of the alienage. Had it been purposely placed there because of her?

She walked over to the guard near the closed gate. "Excuse me? I'd like to go inside the alienage."

"By order of the new Arl of Denerim, no one is to enter the alienage."

"Does that mean no one can leave either? You're trapping everybody inside?"

"Maker, don't be so melodramatic. It's a temporary lockdown, not a performance of Dane and the Werewolf. The Arl's ordered the gates sealed until order is restored. No more than a day or two, I'd wager."

"What happened?"

"They were rioting. Killed the Arl's son. With the whole Urien family dead, the regent appointed Rendon Howe of Amaranthine the new Arl of Denerim. First thing he did was lead a purge of the alienage."

"A purge?" she said, placing a hand over her stomach as if she'd just been punched in the gut. "You mean a massacre."

"It's not as if there won't be any elves left," he said. "I'm sure your friends and family are fine, as long as they didn't take part in the fighting. It's a mess in there. When things are put back in order, the gates will be reopened."

"Things?" she hissed, "They're people!"

"All right, all right, you need to calm down and move along. Come back in a couple of days. You don't want to start any trouble over this, not if you don't want to end up like them." He held up his hands and said, "I'm not threatening you, elf. Just warning you. Be on your way."

Serenity cast one last long look at the closed gate and went to join Alistair and the others, though her mind was no longer on the trap in the Pearl but on whether her mother still lived.
"Where did you go?" Alistair asked. "They're going to pay us to deal with some riff raff in the Pearl. We're killing two birds with one stone going there. Hey, what kind of broth do you think they sell?"

Morrigan chuckled, "Oh, silly little man."

"No one asked you," he sneered back.

Serenity welcomed the distraction and headed for the Pearl. After walking the hallway and trying each door, they came to one that was locked. A voiced called out from the other side, "What's the password?"

"The Griffons will rise again."

"Come in," the man answered, his voice closer to the door as it unlocked. "Quickly."

Serenity counted four altogether, which meant her group had the upper hand, unless the Qunari warriors counted as two men each. She looked back at Sten. "They have Qunari with them," she whispered, wondering what it meant. He had been the first she'd ever met and now there were two more.

"They are not Qunari," he said, glaring at them. "They are Tal-Vashoth. Vashedon mercenaries."

The man in charge smirked, "Another Grey Warden supporter."

"Not just a supporter, Paedan. That's a Grey Warden," the dwarf woman standing beside him said, studying Serenity up and down. "She's the one Arl Howe is looking for."

"She... me?" Serenity looked at Alistair and back at them. "What about him?"

Alistair felt slighted. "Yeah, what about me? I'm a Grey Warden too!"

Morrigan chuckled, "Ever so smart, Alistair, outing yourself as such."

"Great. Our trap didn't just land one but two Grey Wardens. You've got one chance to surrender. We're Howe's elite. Shaevra, Tennant, Jarvy," Paeden said, gesturing toward his companions.

"Ashkost kata," Sten said, his eyes shifting toward Shaevra, the Tal-Vashoth on his left. "You have found it."

"Meravas," Shaevra smirked, picking up his battleaxe.

Serenity backed up when Sten drew his sword. It was a wonder how they could all maneuver in such a small room, with three massive men swinging a giant sword, a giant hammer, and a giant axe at each other, while the humans and dwarves ducked under them and moved past them to strike. Serenity opened the door behind her to step out into the hall and assisted Sten with her ice spells from a distance, staggering the two Tal-Vashoth that tried to take him on together.

As Paedan fought Alistair, Leliana circled around him to stab him in the back. While they were busy with him, the dwarf warrior, Tennant, charged Serenity. In a panic, she nearly cast a force field around herself, but Mabari-Cullen caught the dwarf by the ankle, tripping her and tearing at her leg. Serenity used the force field on her dog just as Tennant's sword came down on his neck, unable to penetrate the magical shield. The room grew quiet as one body fell after another. Alistair drove his sword into Tennant before she could get up, and it was done.

"Do you think they'll set another trap?" Serenity asked on the way out.

"Maybe," Alistair said, cleaning his sword.

"We won't be here," Sten said. "It does not matter. We should move on."

They dealt with the group that called themselves the White Falcons before leaving and met the dualist, Isabela. Serenity played six games of Wicked Grace with her, losing worse each round. Finally Isabela told her that she was the worst card player she had ever met. When Leliana sat down for a round, however, Isabela lost.

On their walk back to the Market District, Serenity gave Sten's arm a playful punch and said, "You were pretty badass in there, Sten."

He cocked an eyebrow. "What was that?"

"A compliment?"

"No, it felt like a fly landed on my arm."

"Oh, ha ha," she chuckled, "funny. I'm a mage, not a warrior."

"Clearly."

"Oh, I see how it is."

"Do you?"

"We're not friends yet," she said, "Is that it?"

He looked down at her and said, "You are smarter than you look."

"Ouch," she said, "I'm going to ignore the last part of that statement."

"You need a better weapon," he said. "Saartoh-bas tic eva. Find one. It will make you more powerful. Less wasted mana."

"I don't know what you just said, but what do you know about wasted mana?" she asked, challenging him.

He pulled the staff from the fastener on her back and held it out to her. "This stick is vashedon like a blunt sword. You are a tic bas saarebas."

"What is tic?"

"What you make with your hands."

"Magic?" she asked, looking at her hands.

"Cold."

"Bas saarebas?" she asked, "Mage?"

"Yes," he said, handing her staff back. It pleased him that she tried to understand Qunlat and that she could emulate the nuances of the language well.

She understood now. Her staff had a nature enchantment like Morrigan's, only Morrigan was more in tune with nature and she with ice. So, he had a point. "I will take your advice," she said. "Thank you."

"Shall we leave and make camp?" Morrigan asked.

"I thought we would stay in the city tonight."

"With Arl Howe after your head?" she reminded her.

"I'll take my chances in a real bed," Alistair said and led the way to the inn. "Before we turn in for the night, do you think we should look at the Chantry board again?"

"If you want to fight gangs in the back streets," Serenity said.

"Are you afraid of a few thieves?" Alistair teased, "I'll protect you."

"We should be hunting darkspawn," Sten said, "not wasting our time hunting down animals."

Morrigan interjected, "You said yourself Serenity needs a new staff. How is she going to afford one without any gold?"

"It would be helping the Chantry," Leliana added. "I will come with you."

The group worked well into nightfall, finding it easier to draw out the delinquents in the dark. After dealing with the third gang, Serenity picked up a journal that indicated maleficarum working out of a deserted building. Confronting them was much more difficult than any of them had expected or experienced. Not one of them had ever faced a blood mage in battle before, let alone ten of them.

With Leliana's help, they avoided triggering any traps, and Serenity collected the open book from the table displaying dozens of bottles and vials of foul smelling ichor. After fighting the first three maleficarum, she knew the best way to stop them before they could start, but she was not yet well practiced enough to cast Mana Clash. If she ever faced down a blood mage again, she would be sure to end the fight before it started. When they had time, they were far too powerful.

By the time they'd cleared out the building and defeated the leader, Serenity was nauseous and dizzy by how many lyriums potions she had consumed. Her stomach was burning, her skin tingling, her vision blurry. She hadn't realized how many she was drinking in the moment, desperate to keep up with the maleficarum. They seemed to have an endless supply of magic, but of course, she knew that was because of the blood they had at their disposal.

"Are you okay?" Alistair asked, noticing her inability to walk straight as they left.

"I feel sick."

"Was it all that blood?" he asked, "I was starting to feel a little squeamish when they'd throw bottles of the stuff at us. That's unsanitary. And how did they get so much of it?"

"You would rather not know," Morrigan said. "What are you doing feeling squeamish over a little bit of blood, Grey Warden? Haven't you encountered worse with your darkspawn?"

"Oh, yes, much worse," Alistair said, without mentioning the part about drinking the darkspawn's blood. Ugh. "I was just trying to make her feel better. You're not hurt, are you?"

"No," Serenity said, "I'm okay."

"You drank too much lyrium," Morrigan said. "You can sleep it off. You will be fine in the morning."

"Ah..." Alistair understood. Just the small doses of lyrium he had taken as a recruit reminded him of the worst cough syrup on an empty stomach, the way it tingled and burned. He hadn't been watching how much she drank, but he had never seen someone so sick from the stuff. "What about a healing spell?" he asked. "Would that make you feel better?"

"Do you know one?" Serenity asked.

"I, uh... no. I thought you might."

"No, I do not."

"And of course the wicked witch of the wilds wouldn't, would she?" Alistair asked, looking at her accusingly. "Just how to turn people into frogs."

Morrigan chuckled, "She will be okay with a good night's rest. Calm yourself, templar."

"Don't call me that," he muttered and held the door open to the inn.

Serenity trudged upstairs and slept fitfully for a few hours until the morning sun came through the window to rest directly over her eyelids. Despite the clean bed, she was not well rested and she hardly felt better than she had the night before. Until Alistair came to her room to wake her, she decided she would read. She opened the flap on her satchel to retrieve Jowan's tome.

Chapter Text

On their way to Lake Calenhad from Denerim, Serenity was ambushed by a group of travelers and an Antivan Crow named Zevran. Against Alistair’s better judgment, Serenity accepted the elf’s offer to join their group because she knew he would be a powerful asset to their team, should he be true to his word. She also had the feeling if he tried to kill her again, he wouldn't escape from Mabari-Cullen.

It was a few days before they reached the lake. Serenity learned more about Sten's culture, including the importance of his lost sword, his asala. She also tried to get to know Zevran a little better. She knew close to nothing about Antiva, about as much as she knew about Seheron, but she liked Zevran's charisma and took his flirtations with a grain of salt. She was unaccustomed to that kind of attention.

After the morning fog lifted, Serenity could see the Circle tower in the distance. She expected to feel a sad sense of nostalgia, but instead she felt a sense of dread about returning. It wasn't her home. Not anymore. She had resigned herself to it before and had even pictured a future there once. But looking back, it seemed so dreary. She had second thoughts about the necessity of crossing the lake herself when Alistair could go. But she knew she would regret not going herself and seeing First Enchanter Irving. She also wanted to inform Knight-Commander Greagoir of her good deeds. She knew he would likely never fully trust her -- and she knew his opinion shouldn't matter to her, but it did.

The purpose of their going to Lake Calenhad was in pursuit of Brother Genetivi. But it didn't make sense not to take the ancient treaties across the lake while they were there. The ferryman stood outside, but he wasn't at the dock.

“Greetings,” she said.

He smiled back, “Well, look at this. I remember taking you across when you left with that fellow Duncan. And now you’re a Grey Warden. My pap used to tell me stories about them.”

“Hello, Kester.” She looked back over her shoulder at the docks, “Why aren’t you manning the boat?”

“Templars took the boat.”

“Why would they take your boat?”

“I don’t got a clue. They wouldn’t tell me."

“Is there no way to get across?”

“You could try swimming, but I don’t recommend it. Nasty things in that lake. I reckon it’s all them potions they dump in there. Greagoir’s told me to stay here 'til it blows over.”

She turned to Alistair and Morrigan. “I thought we should cross the lake with the treaties while we're here, but it seems there might be trouble at the Circle. I want to investigate.”

“But… Arl Eamon…” Alistair started.

“I know,” she stopped him. “But we are already here, and if there is something wrong, then I have to help fix it.”

“The mages would make powerful allies in the coming battle with the darkspawn,” Morrigan added.

Alistair sighed, “Right, the darkspawn are our primary concern…”

Serenity walked down the hill to the docks and approached the templar, Carroll. She didn't recognize him.

“You! You’re not looking to get across to the tower, are you? Because I have strict orders not to let anyone pass!”

“What's happened?” she asked, concerned.

"It's none of your beeswax," he answered and tried to wave her off. "Go on. The tower is off limits to all!”

She knew she wasn't going to get any answers from him, but she would get across, even if she had to push him into the lake and row herself. "I'm a Grey Warden," she said, "and I have official business at the Circle."

“Oh, you’re a Grey Warden, are you? Prove it.”

She opened her mouth to speak but paused, “’Prove it’? What are you, five?”

“Kill some darkspawn. Come on. Let’s see some righteous Grey Wardening.”

She looked around and set her hands on her hips. "Well, you should be glad there aren't any darkspawn here for me to kill for you. Because if there were, they would try to eat your face."

"Oh, well, too bad!"

"For who?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "Fine, if you don't want to obey the orders of a Grey Warden, perhaps you would like to capture a mage. I happen to be one of those too."

"Well, then, I guess this is your lucky day," he shrugged. "Because I am under strict orders to not let anyone across. That includes mages. Enjoy your freedom for the time being."

"Are you serious?" Serenity asked and held up her staff to frost his feet. "See? Magic."

He was completely unfazed by having a spell cast on him. "My feet were sweaty, so I guess I should say thank you? I'm still not taking you across. I have one job and one job only, and by the Maker's shiny gold cutlery, I will do it."

Morrigan chuckled and crossed her arms, "Do you know this man, Alistair?"

Alistair regretted asking already, "Why would you think that? I was only a recruit."

"Because you are both idiots. You seem like you would share a brain."

"I would have liked him if he were in the tower," Serenity admitted. "I think he's funny."

"If a bit dimwitted?" Morrigan asked.

Carroll was used to standing idly by while people chatted, although he wasn't always the topic of conversation. His stomach rumbled, drawing their attention back to him. "I am feeling a bit peckish," he confessed. He'd been standing guard all day.

"Parshaara," Sten grumbled, "Here. Munch on these if you like."

"Ohh! Cookies!" Carroll grinned.

"I am content to part with them if it saves us from this fool."

"Wha..." Serenity looked back at Sten, surprised. "Where did you get those?"

"There was a child -- a fat, slovenly thing -- in the last village we passed. I relieved him of these confections. He didn't need more."

"Unbelievable," Alistair muttered.

Serenity couldn't help but laugh, "You stole cookies from a child?" She had only just learned last night how Qunari children were raised by the Tamassrans, but imagining Sten accost a child for his sweets was something she wished she had witnessed firsthand. The child was probably frozen stiff with fear. Even when Sten was in a good mood, he was intimidating.

"For his own good," Sten added.

"Mmm!" Carroll wiped the crumbs from his mouth. "All right, all right. You scratched my back, I'll scratch yours. Don't be too disappointed when you get to the other side." He hopped down into the boat first and held his hand out to assist Serenity and the others. As they piled in, Sten stood back.

"This is your boat?" Sten eyed the small thing disapprovingly. "It will sink." With so many people, including two heavily armored men as it were, the boat was weighed down quite a bit already. His own weight added to the rear would be problematic.

"Oh, well, I guess you're staying here then," Carroll said cheerfully. "Bye!"

"Wait!" Zevran pushed past Sten and lowered himself off the dock into the back of the boat. "There's always enough space for an elf," he grinned. "Oh, that didn't sound as good as I thought it would."

Leliana crossed her arms and looked up at Sten. "I will keep you company, Sten." He grunted and turned back to the Spoiled Princess.

As they entered the Circle tower, Serenity overheard a familiar voice barking orders. “…and I want two men stationed within sight of the doors at all times. Do not open the doors without my express consent. Is that clear?” Greagoir turned around when he felt the draft from the front entrance and face palmed. "Maker's breath, Carroll. He had one order!"

The energy in the tower had shifted. If her eyes were closed, Serenity would not know where she was. It was heavy with fear... and death. "What's happened?" she asked, looking for familiar faces.

“Well, look who’s back,” Greagoir responded sardonically. “A proper Grey Warden now, are we? Glad you’re not dead.”

“Are you truly glad I’m not dead?” she asked, uncertain how to interpret his tone. He was under a lot of stress, but she knew he wanted to see her severely punished for her part in Jowan's escape.

“Perhaps,” he answered dubiously. “Now we’re dealing with a situation that doesn’t involve you, Grey Warden.”

“I am a Grey Warden, but I am also a mage. This tower was my home.” She looked up at him sternly and said, “I want to know what’s happened. Please.”

“The tower is no longer under our control. Abominations and demons stalk the tower’s halls,” he said, pacing. “We were too complacent. First Jowan, now this.” He stopped and glowered at her, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten your role in Jowan’s escape.”

“Of course," she said. "I knew you wouldn't. But I have news of Jowan."

“Do you?” his eyes lit up. “That’s… surprising.”

"Teyrn Loghain hired him to poison Arl Eamon,” she said, "in exchange for killing the templar pursuing him." She'd hoped to bring Greagoir's attention to Loghain's treachery, but she could tell all her was interested in was Jowan's whereabouts.

“And now?” he asked.

“I cannot tell you where he is," she said, "but I can tell you he is atoning for what he has done."

“Hmph. And I can no longer compel your cooperation," he said. "I can only hope that someday Jowan gets what he deserves. But right now I have other pressing concerns.”

She looked past him and around the room, then asked, “What has become of the First Enchanter?”

“We don’t know,” he answered. “We saw only demons, hunting templars and mages alike. I realized we could not defeat them and told my men to flee. They took us by surprise. We were prepared for one or two abominations—not the horde that fell upon us.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Nothing. I have sent word to Denerim, calling for reinforcements and the Right of Annulment.”

"The Right of Annulment? How can you think of annulling the entire Circle?!”

Alistair interjected softly, “The mages are probably already dead. Any abominations remaining in there must be dealt with no matter what.”

“This situation is dire,” Greagoir continued. “There is no alternative. Everything in the tower must be destroyed so it can be made safe again.”

Serenity felt her cheeks burn, enraged at Alistair’s comment. He disapproved of her actions eliminating the abomination because it took the form of a child, but he approved the mass murder of her friends, her family, because they were probably already dead. “The mages are not defenseless! Some must still live! And the templars! They will not just lay down and die!"

“If any are still alive, the Maker Himself has shielded them,” Greagoir said, his eyes downcast and his tone heavy with emotion. “No one could have survived those monstrous creatures. It is too painful to hope for survivors and find… nothing.”

“I will look for survivors,” she said firmly. "It is not too painful for me to hope."

“I assure you, an abomination is a force to be reckoned with, and you will face more than one!"

“I have faced an abomination before,” she said, lifting her chin to look him in the eye.

He was given pause, studying her almost in disbelief. "Have you now? Did you manage to put it down?”

“Yes… It was a desire demon who possessed a child.”

“If you have fought an abomination, then you understand their evil,” he said, seeming to commend her on her actions. “You know what they are—madness and cruelty made flesh. You think you can deal with them when even templars are loathe to enter the tower?”

“I must try.” She had her doubts, but she would not go inside alone. She knew there were many children housed in the apprentice quarters. There was a chance she would not only have Connor's death on her conscience but the death of a dozen more little ones that had been taken over. She wasn't sure if Alistair could handle it, but if any of them truly were untouched by the demons still, she had to save them. Killing dangerous abominations was one thing, but innocent children? She could not see any other way. It was a risk worth taking. “It is the right thing to do,” she said.

She would not leave any survivors in there to the hunger of the demons. She looked back at Alistair, Morrigan, Zevran, and Mabari-Cullen, who immediately responded to her attention with a wag of his tail. "Will you all come with me?"

"I am yours to do with what you will," Zevran said. "But have you heard the saying 'Let sleeping abominations lie'? Now would be the time to consider it."

"These abominations aren't sleeping," she said. "They're destroying everything I've ever cared about. We will slay them all and save whoever is left. Perhaps we shouldn't have left Sten on the dock."

"He would have caused that little rowboat to sink," Alistair reminded her. "But it's not too late to go back and get him."

"And Leliana as well," Zevran said. "That lovely flower could make dying to a demon a little more enjoyable."

“A word of caution," Greagoir interrupted. "Once you cross that threshold, there is no turning back. The great doors must remain barred. I will open them for no one until I have proof that it is safe. I will only believe it is over if the First Enchanter stands before me and tells me it is so. If Irving has fallen, then the Circle is lost and must be destroyed."

"But..." Serenity started. When she saw Greagoir's expectant stare, waiting for her to voice her concern, she cleared her throat and said, "First Enchanter Irving is quite old. What if he had a heart attack?" She heard Morrigan chuckle behind her and felt her cheeks burn.

"I have stated my conditions. If anyone is to survive, it would be the First Enchanter. May Andraste lend you her courage, whatever you decide.”

"I understand." She looked at the faces of the templars that had made it out safely and approached one still wearing his helmet.

"Never thought I'd see you again," he said.

She recognized his voice. "Oliver. You must have still been guarding the door?"

"Yes. Guess you got to go outside that day after all," he said. "But you come back at the worst of times."

"So I heard. Did any other templars make it out?" she asked, glancing around again, "Or mages?"

"Neither," he said.

Cullen was not among them. All the more reason not to waste another moment. "I have to go."

"Maker watch over you."

They entered the tower. Among them, only Serenity was familiar with the place, and she knew who she expected to find where, at least on the first two floors. She was relieved Jowan had escaped when he did as she passed through the apprentices' quarters, recognizing many of the faces of her fallen friends. She also recognized mages by their golden robes and the tranquils by their brands. They must have tried to flee downstairs but hadn't made it before the doors were barred. Her heart raced as she approached the first corpse of a templar in the hall and knelt down to remove his helmet.

Not Cullen.

She moved on, afraid to find the children in the next room, and sighed with relief when she found Senior Enchanter Wynne with the Circle's youth. They were safe near the entrance to the repository with a barrier separating their room from the rest of the tower.

When Wynne insisted she join them, Morrigan protested. "You want us to assist this preachy schoolmistress? To rescue these pathetic excuses for mages? They allow themselves to be corralled like cattle, mindless. Now their masters have chosen death for them, and I say, let them have it."

"I was one of these pathetic excuses for a mage," Serenity reminded her with subdued anger. She wanted to tell her to hold her tongue or leave, but she needed her help and she did tell her when she welcomed her along to speak her mind. She would not silence her. "Why do you treat the Circle with such scorn? How can you have no compassion for those less privileged than yourself?"

"Privileged?" she asked, eyebrows raised.

"You were raised by a powerful witch who knows more about magic than most," Serenity said. "My mother was a poor elf who had no magic to teach me or protect me. Many here were taken from their homes as children. Do you really think children can fight back trained soldiers, that they shouldn't allow themselves to be taken? You didn't grasp the gravity of your situation as a child, thinking it all a game."

"I... uh..." Morrigan faltered. Her mother was hardly kind, but she did protect her from the templars and teach her powerful magic even Serenity had never heard of before. But she shook her head, "They allow the Chantry to brainwash them. Their bodies may be confined, but their minds could still be their own. They lack respect for themselves and their power, repeating Chantry dribble about their sin and being to blame for everything wrong with the world. Why should I respect them?"

"Because they are people, not cattle," Serenity said. "Everyone deserves respect."

Morrigan clicked her tongue and conceded, "Have it your way."

They made their way further into the tower together, eradicating all of the abominations and demons they encountered along the way. Each time Serenity encountered a templar's body, she would remove his helmet to examine his face, always relieved it was not his.

When they encountered maleficarum in one of the Senior Mage's quarters, they fought and defeated them, but one survived. The mage begged for her life. Even though the blood mages might be responsible for what happened there, Serenity could not execute the woman. It surprised her when Alistair did not protest letting her go, but perhaps he expected his voice to fall on deaf ears. Like Jowan, this mage had been misled by Uldred, manipulated to push his Libertarian agenda. More than that, Serenity would have felt like a hypocrite to punish somebody for their magic when she was reading the same books herself.

She steeled herself as they climbed the stairs to the third floor, where they faced groups of possessed templars in the Great Hall. Some of them resisted her Sleep spell, but even if she had succeeded, she could not have stopped her companions from killing them in time to check each and every one of them. She did not want to fight Cullen.

In the templars' quarters, they encountered a single possessed templar, the toy of a desire demon. It pained Serenity to end his life when he was living out his fantasy, a life he could never have. But she could not let a demon live, draining and using his body for its vessel until it was time to take another.

When they entered the central chamber on the fourth floor, they encountered a powerful sloth demon. With seemingly no effort at all, he lulled them into a deep sleep so they would dream contentedly while he drank their energy.

In the Fade, Serenity faced many trials and demons, finding strength she did not know she had in her victories against them. She had always had someone's help in battle, but she had to become self-sufficient and resourceful. Armed with only her will and with the help of other dreamers already lost to the demon, she freed her friends from their nightmares, learning of their innermost fears and desires from the fantasy world the demon portrayed to them. When they awoke, they took the pages of litany from Niall’s body and made their way through the templars' quarters toward the stairs.

When Serenity saw Cullen kneeling in prayer, she ran over to the magical barrier encasing him and pressed her hands against it. It was like glass, humming against her fingers. "Thank the Maker," she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. She had been so scared. Even after everything they'd faced and all the dead they left behind, she felt relief wash over her.

"It's a templar," Wynne gasped. "He's still alive, I think. Not possessed."

"Cullen," Serenity said softly, kneeling down in front of him. "Can you hear me?"

“This trick again? I know what you are. It won’t work. I will stay strong…” He kept his eyes closed and his head bowed against his clasped hands. "Don't touch me! Stay away!"

"Cullen?" she asked again, pulling her hands away from the barrier. "Don’t you recognize me?"

“Only too well… How far they must have delved into my thoughts…”

Wynne stepped forward and spoke, “The boy is exhausted. And this cage… I’ve never seen anything like it.” Addressing him, she spoke softly, “Rest easy, help is here.”

"T'would seem we are not the only ones these demons enjoy tormenting," Morrigan muttered.

"He's been tortured and probably starved," Zevran said. "Why is he the only one left alive? A trap, perhaps?"

“Enough visions. If anything in you is human… kill me now and stop this game. You broke the others, but I will stay strong… for my sake, for theirs…” His voice lowered with despair, “Sifting through my thoughts… tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have… Using my shame against me… my ill advised infatuation with her… a mage, of all things. I am so tired of these cruel jokes… these tricks… these…” his voice trailed off as he fought back tears.

"Warden, you were quite the heartbreaker as an apprentice," Zevran smirked.

Serenity blushed, sinking to sit with her legs folded under her, "Oh, Cullen... I..."

“I’ll not listen to anything you say! Be gone!” he yelled, standing up. He waited a moment and furrowed his brow, frightened. “Still here? But that’s always worked before. I close my eyes, but you are still here when I open them.”

“I'm real," Serenity said and stood up after he did, "and I’m going to help you."

“Don’t blame me for being cautious," he said, his eyes moving past her to scan the faces of her companions. "The voices… the images… They're so real… Why have you returned to the tower? How did you survive?”

“Why I came back doesn't matter right now," she said. "When I arrived, Greagoir told me what happened. I thought I could help. I had to know if anyone still lived. I had to find you. This was my home--"

“As it was mine. And look what they’ve done to it!" He scowled, "They deserve to die. Uldred most of all. They caged us like animals… looked for ways to break us. I’m the only one left… They turned some into monsters, and there was nothing I could do.”

“You must stay strong, Cullen,” she urged. "Your spirit and your will is stronger than any demon's."

His hands were clenched into fists. He was shaking, not with fear but with anger. "To think, I once thought we were too hard on you. Only mages have this much power at their fingertips. Only mages are so susceptible to the infernal whisperings of the demons.”

His words cut through her. "Cullen, please--"

“This is a discussion for another time!” Wynne interrupted. “Irving and the other mages who fought Uldred. Where are they?”

“They're in the Harrowing Chamber," he said and grimaced. "The sounds coming out from there…”

Wynne turned to Serenity and placed her hand on her shoulder to take her attention away from Cullen. “We must hurry. They are in grave danger. I'm sure of it.”

“You can’t save them! You don’t know what they’ve become,” Cullen glared.

“I'm a mage too, Cullen,” she reminded him softly, wondering if he would have her die as well.

“But you haven’t been up there! You haven’t been under their influence! They’ve been surrounded by blood mages whose wicked fingers snake into your mind and corrupt your thoughts!”

Alistair pitied the templar before him. “His hatred of mages is so intense… The memory of his friends’ deaths is still fresh in his mind.”

“You have to end it now before it’s too late,” Cullen urged. "You don't know what's been going on up there! They're using blood magic and turning into abominations! I could hear it!"

“I want to save everyone who can possibly be saved,” Serenity answered.

“Are you really saving anyone by taking this risk? To ensure this horror is ended, to guarantee that no abominations or blood mages live, you must kill everyone up there!”

“Absolutely not!” Serenity shouted. “I would rather spare maleficarum than harm an innocent!”

“Thank you,” Wynne said softly. “I knew you would make a rational decision.”

“Rational? How is this rational? Don't you understand the danger?” Cullen growled. "You've come this far and it will be all for naught!"

“I know full well the dangers of magic," Wynne said, "but killing innocents because there might be maleficarum is not justice. I know you are angry—“

“You know nothing!” Cullen shouted, infuriated. “I am thinking about the future of the Circle! Of Ferelden!”

Serenity shook Wynne’s hand off her shoulder and stepped forward. “It is not as bad as you make it out to be. Templars were not the only innocent lives lost here. Mages died too, and now you want me to kill more? I will end Uldred’s life and destroy any abominations’ up there, but I will save Irving and any other survivors. There are children on the first floor, protected by what few survivors we have left. They will only make it out of here alive if the First Enchanter lives.”

"Children were the first to be made abominations," he said, his voice heavy with sadness. "They were too easily tempted by their desires, promised to them by the demons."

She knew then that he had to bear the same burden she did. As she would see Connor's face, so would he see the young apprentices'. "Some of them got away," she assured him.

Cullen shook his head, “I am just willing to see the painful truth, which you are content to ignore.”

“You are blinded by rage!” Serenity snapped.

He quieted down, taking a step back. “As you can see, I am in no position to directly influence your actions, though I would love to deal with the mages myself.”

She wondered just how he would try to directly influence her actions if he were free, if he would force her hand to defend them, if he would turn his templar abilities on her. She was relieved that he was safely caged by magic for the time being. "I will deal with Uldred, then we will find out how to dispel this magic."

“My cage is Uldred’s doing, or one of his mages'. Once they’re dead, I will be free.”

“Then, stay safe... and remain calm," she said pointedly. If the cage was broken, she did not want to have to fight him. "It will be over soon.”

“No one ever listens, not until it’s far too late,” he shook his head, glowering. “Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your compassion hasn’t doomed us all.”

Serenity led the others up the stairs into the Harrowing chamber, where Uldred turned another mage into an abomination while Irving was forced to watch. She did not give him a chance to try to influence her. He took the demon’s form and charged their group with his abominations in tow, but with the litany, he was powerless to create more allies, and his death came quickly. After it was over, Serenity helped Irving downstairs to meet up with Greagoir. Cullen was freed from his cage and followed behind them, still shaken and disturbed.

“Irving? Maker’s breath, I did not expect to see you alive,” the Knight-Commander said, watching the First Enchanter weakly walk into the main hall with his hand on Serenity’s shoulder for support.

“It is over, Greagoir,” Irving said weakly, his voice raspy and tired. “Uldred is dead.”

“Uldred tortured these mages, hoping to break their will and turn them into abominations. We don’t know how many of them have turned,” Cullen interjected.

“What? Don’t be ridiculous!” Irving raised his voice.

“Of course he’ll say that! He might be a blood mage! Don’t you know what they did? I won’t let this happen again!” Cullen shouted.

Serenity opened her mouth to defend the First Enchanter but held her tongue as Greagoir spoke. “I am the Knight-Commander here, not you.”

Serenity looked up at Greagoir and asked respectfully, “What does the Knight-Commander think, then?”

“We have won back the tower. I will accept Irving’s assurances that all is well.”

She was relieved to hear Greagoir was a man of his word, and she pleased to find that despite all that had happened, the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter had a mutual respect for one another that was not compromised.

“But they may have demons within them, lying dormant, lying in wait!” Cullen argued.

“Enough,” Greagoir silenced him. “I have already made my decision.” He turned to Serenity, considering his words carefully. He had known her since she was a child. He, of course, kept his distance from all of the mages and apprentices, but he knew them well, all the same. And he had always known her to be more accepting of the rules than most. Although she made a grave mistake in aiding Jowan, he understood why she did it just as he understood why Duncan conscripted her into the wardens' ranks. “Thank you. I admit I didn't know what to expect from you getting involved. But you have proven yourself a friend of both the Circle and the templars.”

“You’re welcome,” Serenity answered guardedly. She hesitated, tempted to ask if she was forgiven for her past misdeed but decided to let it rest. "There is another matter I must address."

"I suppose it has to do with your Grey Wardens," Greagoir said.

"Yes. We require your aid in fighting against the archdemon."

"With the Circle restored, my duty is to watch the mages. They are free to help you, however. Speak to them,” he said and turned to the First Enchanter before taking his leave. “And Irving… it is good to have you back.”

“Ah,” Irving smiled, “I’m sure we’ll be at each other’s throats again in no time.” He turned to Serenity looking older than she remembered and said, “Here we are, the tower in disarray, the Circle nearly annihilated… though it could have been much, much worse. I am glad you arrived when you did. It’s almost as though the Maker Himself sent you.”

She forced a smile, subduing the grief over all that was lost. “I'm glad I could help.”

“The least we can do is help you against the darkspawn. I would hate to survive this only to be overcome by the Blight.”

“Irving,” Wynne interjected, “I have a request. I seek leave to follow the Grey Warden.”

“Wynne, we need you here. The Circle needs you.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Irving, but the Circle will do fine without me. The Circle has you. This woman is brave and good and capable of great things. If she will accept my help, I will help her accomplish her goals.”

“I would be honored to have you join me, Wynne,” Serenity smiled, moved by her confidence. She couldn't help thinking of Duncan again. He had been in her dream. If only he were really there in the Fade to advise her. He had seen something in her too.

“Then I give you leave to follow the Grey Warden but know that you will always have a place here.” Irving sighed, “There is much to be done here, and I must go. You must forgive me for not being a proper host.”

“I understand. Til we meet again,” Serenity resisted the temptation to hug the old man, the closest thing she’d had to a father in her life.

“Let us go, I do not want to stay here any longer,” Morrigan said, with a look of revulsion on her face as a templar walked by.

By the time they’d crossed the lake again, it was dark. They decided to stay the night at the Spoiled Princess and continue their manhunt the following day. Serenity shared a room with Wynne, insisting the elder mage sleep in the bed while she took the floor. She dreamt of the archdemon again and woke with a start, her skin dampened by a cold sweat. She sat up and looked out the window to see the moon high in the sky. Restless, she snuck out of her room and tiptoed down the stairs, taking her staff with her. She left the Spoiled Princess and approached Kester at the docks.

“Welcome back, youngster,” Kester smiled. “That boy sure was happy to be relieved. Looking to go across to the tower?”

“Please.”

He rowed her across, and she gave him a silver for his trouble, though it wasn’t customary to do so. She could tell he was losing sleep. She entered the Circle tower, pleased to see Greagoir was still awake.

“You’re back,” he said, surprised. “Forget something?"

"No. I couldn't sleep," Serenity admitted. "There is work to be done. I'll help."

"My men have scouted the tower. It is a mess, but the abominations are gone. You were very thorough. I’m impressed,” Greagoir commended her. “And I am grateful you arrived when you did.”

She sighed ruefully, “I only wish I would have come sooner.”

“What’s done is done. It’s a grim task, disposing of the bodies,” Greagoir watched her face discerningly. “Perhaps you could help with the stains on the walls.”

“I’ll go find a rag." She felt as though a burden had been lifted from her shoulders, having attained the respect and thanks of the Knight-Commander. Now if he said he was glad she wasn't dead, she would believe him.

She entered the hallway, stepping over the bodies that had been dragged there and tried not to look at their faces. She walked past the apprentices still waiting outside by the basement, into the apprentices’ quarters.

“Maker, there are so many bodies…” she overheard one of the templars say. He turned around at the sound of her footsteps. “What they said about Grey Wardens is true. You proved that,” he said.

“Bran? Is that you?” she asked, recognizing his voice.

“Yes,” he sounded surprised.

“Don’t you remember me?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“Of course I do. You asked me about jumping out windows, then aided a maleficar, then became a Grey Warden,” he said.

“I did not ask you about jumping out windows!”

“No, I remember, clear as day. ‘Is this big door the only way out? Can I jump out a window? How often does it work?’”

“I never said those things,” she said, pretty sure she actually had.

Oliver stood up from the floor and shook his head at Bran, “Come on, then, back to work.”

Bran shrugged, “Is there something you needed, Warden?”

“No, I came to help you, actually.”

“Oh,” he sounded surprised again. “One day I’m watching to make sure you don’t escape from a window, and now you’re cleaning up demon filth and corpses with me, as a Grey Warden no less. I’m beginning to wonder if all this time in the tower has driven me mad.”

She followed the two templars to where the trail of corpses continued in the corridor and commented, “I’m glad you are not one of them.”

He was silent for a moment. He'd never allowed himself to converse too freely with her or become emotionally attached, no matter how often she pestered him to talk. It was one of the reasons he never removed his helm. If they didn't know his face and remember that he was human, he was just a templar. The mages hated templars, or at least they were supposed to. Serenity knew his shifts, however, and knew his voice too, apparently. He'd heard what transpired on her last day at the Circle. He had been as disappointed in her as Greagoir was, but it was a fleeting feeling. He had to remind himself not to dwell on those things. Seeing her now, however, he felt better about it all. She was the same person she always was.

“How is it being a Grey Warden?” he asked.

“It grants me my freedom, but it is not without its drawbacks,” she said, kneeling down to grip one of the apprentice’s ankles.

“Drawbacks?” he asked, kneeling down to hook his hands under the corpse’s arms, lifting him up.

She helped him carry the body back down the hallway as she spoke, “Perhaps you haven't heard, but being a Grey Warden nowadays puts a bounty on your head. So, in addition to darting into battle with the darkspawn, there are men trying to take my head to Loghain.” She struggled with the weight of the body but tried not to show it. “On the bright side, it’s very exciting.”

“Also on the bright side, you don’t have me chasing after you every time you cast a spell… or an army of templars for that matter.”

It was instinctual for her to reassure him, “I have not cast anything that would land me in trouble, nor do I plan to.” She smirked, “Of course, that does not seem to stop me from finding trouble elsewhere.”

"I'm not much for running, anyway," he said. They set the body down with the others and walked back to pick up another. They stopped beside one of the slain templars, his eyes open and lifeless. “Maker…” Bran breathed as he knelt down.

“I’m sorry,” Serenity tried to console him.

“I wonder if we would have stood a chance had Greagoir not pulled us from the tower. If you could defeat the abominations and Uldred and come out unscathed, why couldn’t we?” He was confused... and angry. It was what they'd trained for.

“I was not alone,” she said. “The sloth demon that stole us in its web had taken the lives of many mages and templars. They helped me to slay it in the Fade."

"Templars helped you in the Fade?"

"Yes. He had learned one of the demon's powers and bestowed it upon me."

"What kind of power?" he asked, standing up.

"It's a little hazy now. But I was able to change into this man with a long sword and I burned with fire. It helped me pass through the trials."

"That sounds really confusing," he said. "But I guess anything can happen in a dream, right? And you mages... I don't know how you do it. Controlling dreams the way you do."

"Becoming aware is not easy," she said, "which is why, I suspect, so many were lost to the dreams. They were pleasant dreams. I could see why they would not try to wake up."

"So, at least they went out happy, I guess."

"By retreating, Greagoir saved more lives than he would have lost otherwise,” Serenity assured him.

He sighed and gripped the templar beneath his arms, lifting him. She gripped his feet, struggling with the heavy greaves, and helped Bran carry the body back to the other room. She broke the silence that fell between them. “Both the templars and the mages lost many brothers and sisters to Uldred’s treachery. I hope you don’t lump all mages in with his ilk.”

“I do not,” he said.

She hesitated, “I wish Cullen could see it that way.”

“I can’t say I blame him for being suspicious,” he said, setting the body down with the others.

“Paranoid, you mean.” She walked back with him, holding her tongue, though there were many more thoughts she wanted to share. She yawned as they approached another templar. “I should probably rest. I wouldn't want the darkspawn to catch me unaware as I am half asleep tomorrow.”

“Maker smile on you, Warden."

“And you.” She crossed her arms and watched him as he turned to go help another templar. "Bran? Why don't you ever take off your helmet?"

He stopped and turned to face her as he removed it then and shrugged, "You never asked."

She gasped, shocked that asking actually worked this time, and genuinely smiled. "Finally."

He put it back on before any other apprentices could see and went back to work. Serenity found her old cot in the apprentice chambers. Despite the smell of death and the occasional clamor of armor outside her door, she found comfort in her old room and slept peacefully until morning.

“If you wanted to sleep in the bed, you could have told me," Wynne said.

“Oh, no. I slept too late,” Serenity groaned and sat up groggily. “Where are the others?”

“Waiting across the lake,” she answered. “We shouldn’t keep them."

“I’ll meet you at the boat in a few minutes.” Serenity stood up, feeling more refreshed from her slumber than she had in weeks. Before Wynne could speak again, she nodded to her, “Thank you for waking me. I’m sorry if I worried you."

"Are you all right, child?"

Serenity looked around, saddened by the empty quarters. "I should have come sooner."

"And perhaps you would be dead now if you had," Wynne said. "Thinking such things is neither productive nor good for your soul. You can agonize about how you should have been at the tower, or you can imagine that you weren't here because you had to be elsewhere."

She was right, of course. She needed to be at Ostagar. She needed to find Eamon at Redcliffe. And if she hadn't fought those maleficarum in Denerim, she would have been unprepared for battle here. She had gained so much experience, so much knowledge, and so much practice just in the few months that she was away from the Circle. Perhaps Wynne was right that she arrived exactly when she was supposed to. It didn't make the losses any easier to mourn.

"Thank you, Wynne. I'll meet you at the dock in a few minutes. I have something I need to do.”

Wynne smiled softly and took the hint not to pry.

Serenity made her way down toward the second floor, surprised to find Cullen in the study at the end of the hall. “Cullen.”

“Grey Warden,” he returned her greeting with a hint of bitterness.

“I wanted to speak with you,” she mumbled, unsure of where to begin. His new perspective on the mages was one of the points she wanted to address but wondered if she should give him time to heal before trying to change his mind. She decided it would be better to start with the thought that was nagging at her most.

“What about?” he asked shortly.

“Those things you said, when you thought I was a demon…” Serenity started.

He cut her off, “I am beyond caring what you think. The Maker knows my sin, and I pray that He will forgive me.”

She opened her mouth to speak but was taken aback by his reaction. “Why does it cause you so much pain?”

“You are a mage and I a templar. It is my duty to oppose you and all you are.”

She frowned, “There is nothing wrong with liking someone.”

“It was the foolish fancy of a naïve boy. I know better now.”

“Thinking of you has always brought me comfort," Serenity confessed. "Not only when I was living here but after I left. I would have liked to have been friends,” she said, knowing anything more than that was never possible, just as he did. “I always thought of you as such. You were kinder to me than most, mages and templars alike. I... thank you for that.”

He paused, disarmed by her words, and looked away, “I am not your friend, Serenity.”

She shook her head, her mind flooded with thoughts and no appropriate way to voice them. “Goodbye, Cullen," she said sadly. He didn't answer and avoided looking at her. "May we meet again under better circumstances.” She left him to his thoughts, none of which were nice, she presumed.

She met up with Wynne and Kester outside the tower and they rowed across the lake. Meanwhile, at the Spoiled Princess, Alistair had decided they’d wasted enough time and asked the bartender about Brother Genetivi himself. When they all walked outside to meet Serenity and Wynne at the dock, they were ambushed. They fought off half a dozen armored attackers. Wynne and Serenity could see the battle from the boat, though they were too far away to be of any help.

When they reunited, Alistair asked, "We should go to Haven next, right? That's where Genetivi's research said to go?"

"Yes," Serenity said, "but first..."

Alistair and Morrigan both groaned and looked at each other, disgusted that they'd just echoed each other's sentiments in unison. Alistair cleared his throat and asked, "What now?"

"I got a lead on a Qunari sword."

Chapter Text

"I'm curious," Alistair said as they walked toward Haven. "What did you dream about when we were trapped in the Fade?"

"I suppose it's only fair you know," Serenity said, seeing as how she had intruded on a very private fantasy of his own. She discovered his desire for family and acceptance. "I dreamt of Duncan."

"Duncan?" he asked, surprised. "Really? I... had no idea you had grown so close to him."

"He saved my life," she reminded him. "Gave me freedom and a purpose, a life beyond the Circle."

"How did he save your life, exactly?" He added quickly, "If you don't mind my asking."

"You remember Jowan?" she asked, "The blood mage from Redcliffe."

"Yes..." he muttered, none too fond of the memory.

"I helped him escape the Circle. They were going to make him tranquil."

"Ah, I see," he said. "So, you have a habit of aiding maleficarum."

She glanced over her shoulder at him, unsure how bitter he was about it or if he meant the jab lightheartedly. "Yes, I suppose I do."

"Do you regret it?"

"No," she admitted. "He is a good person. What he did was wrong, but he was used by Loghain. What choice did he have?"

"Oh, I don't know, he could have not poisoned the Arl," Alistair said. "Maybe if he had told him of Loghain's plan, he could have protected him."

"He was hired in secret by the Arlessa," Serenity reminded him. "And just how might you have responded to an assassin telling you they're an assassin hired to kill you?"

"You were not too keen on letting me join," Zevran interjected in her defense.

Alistair rolled his eyes and waved his hands dismissively, "Fine, fine. So maybe it wouldn't have worked. But if he hadn't been freed, the Arl--"

"Would likely have been poisoned by somebody else," Serenity said.

"Probably me," Zevran said and held his hands up when Alistair glowered at him. "Well, I'm not saying I'm going to go do it now."

"The point is..." Serenity said, "Duncan saw something in the choice I made. He saw something in me. That is why I don't compromise my beliefs for yours or anybody else who screams 'maleficar!' He was my friend. And to Jowan and I, tranquility is worse than death. I would rather die free and cross the Fade than be severed from it and made a slave."

Alistair hadn't thought of Tranquility that way, but it was true that the Chantry used them like tools. He sighed. She was right. Duncan had been there, and of all the mages he could have recruited, he'd chosen her. And she had proven herself a powerful adversary, learning quickly and adapting to a world she was so unfamiliar with. He had to respect that. "I think Duncan would be proud of you," he admitted.

She glanced back at him and smiled, "You too."

They headed south along the River Dane and followed the road west along the shore of Lake Calenhad. They would pass through Redcliffe on their way to the Frostback Mountains and deliver the lyrium to Knight-Commander Herrith there. Along the way, they came to a small encampment with a dilapidated tent and the body of a mage nearby. As they approached to investigate, they were attacked by an abomination, which they quickly disposed of.

Serenity knelt down beside the victim’s body and took the leather bound journal from his hand. She flipped through the pages to his last entry and found out the abomination was his apprentice. From her pouch she pulled the parchment from the collective and checked the name on the request form. This was the missing man she had been asked to find. She shook her head, her doubts about the collective coming to fruition. Though she hated to think that the Chantry’s rules and the templars' dominion were necessary, this was proof that it was so.

After leaving Redcliffe, they began their hike into the Frostback Mountains.

"Do you intend to keep going north until it becomes south and attack the archdemon from the rear?" Sten asked bluntly.

"It'll never see us coming," Serenity smirked, looking back at him.

"Truly," he said. "It would surprise me if my enemy counterattacked by running away and climbing a mountain."

"We are not running away," she said. "We're getting the ashes to help Eamon to help us deal with Loghain."

Sten eyed Serenity. "You were not bred for your purpose, but you have found it. Now if you would only act like it."

"What do you mean by that?"

"You are a Grey Warden, but you still act like a mage. You do not seek the archdemon in the Deep Roads. That is your duty, is it not?"

"We're not ready yet. We need allies for the coming battle. You would not have me fight an archdemon alone, would you?"

"You are not alone."

"Well, we need an army for the horde," she said, "and we need Loghain out of our way."

"Perhaps," he grumbled.

"Picture this. We run into battle against the darkspawn, and out of nowhere, Loghain and the Ferelden army appear so we're surrounded on all sides. As much as the darkspawn and the army want to kill each other, they really want to kill us first. How are we to accomplish our duty, knowing what stands in our way? We remove our obstacles first."

No matter that there was a civil war going on and she exaggerated Loghain's threat. She hoped her point was made. They needed the Ferelden army, and Loghain would not offer the Wardens his forces to battle the darkspawn.

"Then send the elf to poison Loghain like he said he is capable of and then we can return to our mission."

Zevran chuckled, "It is not that easy, my qunari friend. The man who hired me has seen my face and has the crows in his employ. They would kill me on sight."

"Then you too are not following your purpose."

"My purpose now is to help the Grey Wardens with theirs."

"Which is not being done."

"Oh, boy..."

Before reaching Haven, they met a merchant with a control rod for a golem, and they took it off his hands, though Serenity was sure it was just taking up space. When they found Haven, they were met with hostility and soon discovered the village's inhabitants were cultists that believed themselves to be disciples of a risen Andraste.

Serenity found Brother Genetivi in the church, and, against her better judgment, allowed him to accompany them. His foot was worse for wear and she knew he might lose it after their journey into the mountains, if he did not lose his life to the violent cult members that hunted them. But he insisted on coming. She could not deny his request, seeing as how it was his life's work that led them that far.

When they reached the temple, Genitivi stayed in the main room by the front entrance with Mabari-Cullen, while Serenity, Alistair, Sten, and Leliana explored the caverns. Serenity came across two scrolls of Banastor along the way, tucking them into her satchel to study later, surprised to find them in the temple of Andraste. It seemed odd for there to be ancient blood magic texts in such a sacred place. She also discovered a book on Discovering Dragon's Blood: Potions, Tinctures, and Spicy Sauces.

Leliana peeked over her shoulder at the dusty tome. "What is that? Spicy sauces?"

"I'll bet there's something useful in here." Serenity turned to Sten and asked, "Hey, do qunari cook with dragon's blood?" She thought it might explain their size and strength.

He grunted, eyeing the cover, "No. We do not drink blood."

"I didn't mean drinking it straight," Serenity said and flipped through the delicate pages, coughing as dust plumed around her. "But that might have its benefits too."

"Eww," Leliana crinkled her nose. "That sounds unsanitary."

"You have no idea," Alistair said. "Come on, let's keep moving. Are you taking that with you? Really?"

"Yes. I like to read," Serenity said. She had to pass the time somehow on their long treks across Ferelden, and she couldn't openly read the scrolls of Banastor or Jowan's book in front of him. There was only so much I-Spy she could take. "Besides, maybe we'll come across a dragon."

"Yes, coming across a dragon is one thing, taking its blood for your stew is another," Alistair said. "Wait, a dragon? I don't want to fight a dragon. Not unless it's the archdemon, and then you're just getting more darkspawn blood."

"It could be good practice," Leliana said.

"We do not need practice," Sten said. "We need to find the archdemon."

When they reached the last wide open room of the cavern, leading out to the mountaintop, the cult leader, Kolgrim, asked Serenity to defile Andraste's ashes with a vial of dragon's blood. "Whatever magic was held in the Ashes will come undone, and our great Lady will be freed from the shackles of her past life," he said.

Of course Serenity had no intention of defiling the prophet's ashes. But she did want to avoid a fight. And she also wanted that vial of dragon's blood. She wasn't sure yet what she would do with it, but she looked forward to finding out from the book in her pack.

"I don't know if I like the idea of us helping this Kolgrim," Alistair said quietly.

Obviously, Serenity thought. He couldn't seriously think she meant to go along with him. At least she hoped he knew her better than that. But then again, she did have a history with helping maleficarum. And this cultist was basically just that.

"And what? Encourage the worship of a large lizard?" Sten said, crossing his arms. "Consider your actions carefully."

Sten, on the other hand, Serenity was sure might actually think she would go through with it. But she also didn't think he cared much either way. He didn't believe in Andraste. "I have made my decision," Serenity said, giving him a look she wasn't sure he would be able to read into. If she tried to make it any more obvious, she would have to give him an exaggerated wink, and then, she thought, he would probably ask her if something was in her eye.

"Take this," Kolgrim said, pleased, and handed her the vial. "You know what you must do."

She was quite pleased with herself, having tricked him into giving up his treasure and letting her stroll right into the temple of sacred ashes. She had always been very honest when she lived in the Circle, but she was beginning to understand the advantages of deception. She could be a blunt force and take lives and treasure with greater risk to herself and her friends, or she could manipulate and evaluate. She had no idea how many more cultists lay beyond this room. But she did know they would find a dragon.

Alistair groaned quietly, "Ohh, bad. Bad idea. Remember the last time you had to drink blood? Only worse."

"It's going to be all right," Serenity said, turning to give him a look of reassurance. "I know what I'm doing." Honestly, Alistair, Serenity thought. Don't ruin this. Please just trust me.

"Now, I shall beseech the Holy Andraste to let you pass safely into the inner sanctum," Kolgrim said and led his men out ahead of them.

"I'm just going to assume you have something amazing and tricky up your sleeve," Alistair whispered into her ear from behind her.

Serenity turned her head, surprised at his closeness and smirked, "Don't worry so much, Alistair." She followed Kolgrim out to the mountaintop and gripped her staff when the thunderous flapping of wings sounded over head and a high dragon perched upon a crumbled arch before them.

"Now, that is ataashi!" Sten roared, in awe of the beast. Serenity had never heard him sound so excited.

"They say music soothes the savage beast, but I am not going to test that theory," Leliana said, following close behind.

"Try not to look too appetizing," Alistair said. "That dragon looks hungry. What do you think they feed it?"

"I don't know. Cattle?" Serenity guessed.

"I suppose so. I did see some dead cows in the cavern with the dragonlings," he said. "I only saw one cow in Haven though."

"Maybe the rest were in a field outside the village," she suggested.

"What does it matter?" Sten interrupted, "You are wasting breath speaking of such nonsense."

“And resist any temptation to run up and hit that gong,” Alistair added as they passed by it. “I imagine it’s like saying ‘supper’s ready!’”

Just then, the high dragon flew up from its crumbling archway and circled above them to swoop down and land with a threatening breath of fire. "Andraste's tits," Serenity cursed, jumping back as the wave of heat blew past her. The dirty look Kolgrim gave her made her feel ten times smaller. If Morrigan had been present, she might have tried to blame her with a point of her finger. Instead she quickly apologized, "Andraste, forgive me!" That seemed to placate the man, though she couldn't say the same for his dragon.

"Great Andraste!" Kolgrim shouted, falling to his knees before the high dragon. "I pray You stay Your wrath! I bring before You Your champion, who will fall upon Your enemies as a cleansing flame, paving the way for Your glory! O, beloved Andraste! O, holy Andraste! We praise Your name!"

Serenity watched, on guard, as the dragon jumped from one mountainside to the next and climbed up the wall to go back to its resting position. How had he talked Her down? Was it blood magic? Perhaps he had ingested the dragon's blood, giving him some power over it, some power to communicate with it? Or, perhaps it was just smart enough not to eat him, seeing as how he provided Her with a steady supply of cattle... or outsiders. Some of those bones on the ground looked like human remains.

"I have spoken to the beloved Andraste. She will let you pass."

"Great," Serenity said, relieved. "She's, uh... glorious, indeed."

"Succeed in your task and you will share in Her glory."

Serenity led her companions into the ruins of the temple and looked back at Alistair, "Amazed yet?"

"That we weren't eaten? A little bit, yeah."

"I mean, I tricked him into helping us. It was all part of the plan, see?" She was a little bit surprised it worked herself. But then, she thought, people see what they want to see. That is something she learned in the Fade. Something she learned from demons. They were masters of deception, after all. Though she had no intention to consort with them, she knew they were always watching, always testing her. True tests never end.

"That's a relief," Leliana said. "I did not think you would actually desecrate Andraste's ashes. That is why I did not say anything."

When they entered, Serenity saw a guard standing at the end of an open room before a doorway. “I bid you welcome, pilgrim,” the spirit greeted her as she stepped forward.

“I am here for the Urn of Sacred Ashes,” she said.

“You have come to honor Andraste, and you shall, if you prove yourself worthy. I see that the path that led you here was not easy. There is suffering in your past—your suffering and the suffering of others. Jowan was discovered by the templars. You were helping him. Tell me, do you think you failed Jowan?”

“I have spent many nights thinking about it, wondering if there was some way I could have prevented what happened. I know that it wasn’t my fault. His fate was not in my hands after he escaped.” She sighed, "No. I don't think I failed Jowan."

“Thank you. That is all I wished to know.”

“You are too hard on yourself,” Alistair said quietly. “It’s easy for others to judge what you’ve done in hindsight, but it does not make it any better.”

“And what of those that follow you?” the spirit asked. “Alistair, knight and Warden… you wonder if things would have been different if you were with Duncan on the battlefield. You could have shielded him from that killing blow. You wonder, don’t you, if you should have died and not him?”

“I… yes. If Duncan had been saved, and not me, everything would be better. If I’d just had the chance, maybe…”

"Alistair," Serenity interrupted him. "I will try to change the way you feel. You have worth. Here. Now. Please don't think it should have been you. You may not have Duncan's years of experience as a Grey Warden, but you bring with you your own gifts and talents. I could not do this without you." It pained her that he truly felt he should have died on the battlefield.

"I..." His voice softened, "Thank you."

“And you…” the guardian spoke to Leliana, “In Orlais, you were someone. In Lothering, you feared you would lose yourself, become a drab sister, and disappear. When your brothers and sisters of the cloister criticized you for what you professed, you were hurt, but you also reveled in it. It made you special. You enjoyed the attention, even if it was negative.”

Leliana shook her head, offended, “You’re saying that I made it up for… for attention? I did not! I know what I believe!”

"Demand whatever answers you want, spirit," Sten said impatiently.

"You came to this land as an observer, but you killed a family in a blind rage. Have you failed your people by allowing a qunari to be seen in that light?"

"I have never denied that I failed."

"He locked himself in a cage for it," Serenity said.

"Parshaara," Sten said. "It is answered."

The guardian nodded, “The way is open. Good luck, and may you find what you seek.”

They entered the Gauntlet, a room haunted by the spirits of those closest to Andraste, and answered their riddles. When they finished, the door opened, leading further into the ruins, and Serenity was greeted by an apparition that looked and sounded like Jowan.

“Had fun with the riddle game?” he asked.

"What is your purpose here?”

“To speak to you and to offer advice. You have wondered many times whether what happened to me was your doing. Perhaps if we had taken another route or we’d been more prepared, things would be different. But it is too easy to obsess over ‘what if’ and ‘what could have been’. Those thoughts will eat away at you if you let them. Forgive yourself, just as I have forgiven you. You have come so far since I saw you last. The last vestiges of your shackled life in the Circle have all but fallen away. You are free of the past and nothing will hold you back. Be strong, my friend. Do not falter.” He smiled, “It makes me happy, knowing you will be the mage that I never could.”

She wondered then if the spirit only delved into her own unconscious thoughts to reflect her memories of Jowan, or if part of it knew Jowan too. The last part about being the mage he never could? She wasn't sure if she really thought that way about herself or Jowan. She had never really thought she was a better mage, even though Irving treated her as his star pupil. After all, Jowan had proven himself adept at blood magic when she still only knew a few basic spells. She turned to Alistair and asked, “Did you see him too?”

“That creepy blood mage friend of yours? Why, yes, I did.”

"He's not creepy," she muttered.

They entered the next room where they had to battle mirror images of themselves, which proved to be more difficult than most of the other battles they had fought before. Then, they moved onto the next room, where the floor was missing and there were runic symbols carved into the floor.

“Uh oh. I’m terrible at puzzles,” Alistair said, looking around the room. “Hey, you see those… thingies over on the side of that huge chasm? I bet they’re used for something. Maybe I should touch them or stand on them?”

Leliana smiled, “Alistair, normal people tend to avoid strange looking sections of floor-‘thingies’, as you say. They tend to be traps.”

“You, er… don’t really think they’re traps, do you?” he asked.

“We won’t be sure until you stand on one,” Serenity grinned.

“Oh, all right, I guess I already volunteered, didn’t I?” he said, cautiously approaching one of the tiles. He pressed his foot against one lightly, but with enough pressure to make a platform appear across the chasm. “Ooh, look at that. I don’t think it’s solid enough to stand on, but it’s a start.”

"Tell me what you would have me do here, kadan, and it will be done," Sten said, watching as Leliana and Alistair tested the different tiles.

"What was that?" Serenity asked, perking up. "What is kadan?"

"Nothing," he said defensively and put his foot upon a tile so a translucent walkway appeared. "Does your Andraste have such an excess of followers that she is willing to lure them to their deaths with ghosts and lies?"

"Oh, come now, we're not going to stand on it until it's solid," Serenity said.

"When we move, the floor changes," Sten said. "Who shall go first? Leliana?"

"What? Why me?"

"You are not a Grey Warden."

"Neither are you."

That was true. Though his mission was more important than hers, he had already failed it, and he still did not possess his Asala. "Parshaara. I will stand upon the stone. Do not drop me," he said, glowering at Alistair.

They went around the room, testing the different platforms, standing on them until they understood the pattern so the path solidified, two stepping stones at a time. After Sten crossed safely, the stones created a solid walkway all the way across.

“That was fun!” Leliana smiled, “Can we do it again?”

"No," Sten answered sternly. He had never expected to put so much trust in a basalit-an, but he trusted Serenity with his life. There was a moment where Alistair couldn't recall the pattern, and Sten was sure he was about to drop to his death, but he did not move or say a word.

“Maker’s breath,” Alistair sighed, “Andraste only favored the clever, it seemed.”

After passing through the corridor, they reached a wall of flames behind an alter. The alter was little more than a dusty stone slab, but Serenity read the inscription carved into its face. “Cast off the trappings of worldly life and cloak yourself in the goodness of spirit. King and slave, lord and beggar; be born anew in the Maker’s sight.” She mumbled, “Cast off… we have to remove our clothes?” she blushed.

“What?” Alistair leaned over to read the slab. “That’s… what it looks like. You go first.”

“Go first? “ she scoffed. “We’re all going together.”

“But if we read it wrong and you catch on fire, that would be a warning to the rest of us,” Alistair joked.

She sighed and began removing her gear, trying not to think about it. No one, save her sister apprentices, had seen her bare flesh. “Just don’t stare,” she warned.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Alistair remarked. Well, he might dream of it, but he wouldn't actually do it. "Look, I'm closing my eyes, see?"

She approached the fire quickly, wanting to get it over with. The flames flickered hot, but as she walked through them, they didn’t burn.

The spirit approached from behind the wall of fire, “You have been through the trials of the Gauntlet; you have walked the path of Andraste, and like Her, you have been cleansed. You have proven yourself worthy, pilgrim. Approach the Sacred Ashes.”

“Can I put my clothes back on now?” she asked, her cheeks burning hot. The spirit disappeared, and with him, the flames dissipated. They returned to their piles of equipment and put their gear back on, though only Alistair and Serenity tried to avert their eyes from one another. Leliana and Sten were not bothered by nudity.

Serenity was almost reluctant to disturb the Urn, but carefully, she lifted the lid and took a pinch of ashes, placing it in a small leather pouch. Just enough to save Eamon's life. The moment she touched them, she felt something wash over her, but she wasn't sure what the feeling was. Relief, perhaps? She believed in the Maker and Andraste, but leading up to this moment, she had felt somewhat dissociated from herself. It was as if she found herself standing upon the step before the altar.

She thought of Andraste's words and let them empower her:

You who stand before the gates,
You who have followed me into the heart of evil,
The fear of death is in your eyes; its hand is upon your throat.
Raise your voices to the heavens! Remember:
Not alone do we stand on the field of battle.

"The Maker is with us," she mumbled, taking a step back. She had to believe it was true, that Leliana's dreams, her visions delivered by spirits of the Fade, were true. The Grey Wardens would stop the Blight, they would be the light against the darkness, beating it back into the Deep Roads.

Leliana smiled, pleased Serenity felt the same way, but said nothing, only enjoying the peace she felt in the presence of Andraste.

On their way out, they met with Brother Genitivi, attentively guarded by Mabari-Cullen. They parted ways and returned to Redcliffe, relieved the Arl was still alive. It was a few days before Arl Eamon gathered them and explained his plan to call a Landsmeet. And to put Alistair on the throne.

"We need someone with a stronger claim to the throne than Loghain's daughter, the queen," he said.

"Are you referring to Alistair, Brother?" Teagan asked, "Are you certain?"

"I would not propose such a thing if we had an alternative."

Serenity glanced over at Alistair, whose face was hardened with disdain. "Alistair?" she whispered. Perhaps he didn't hear her.

Eamon could see the familiar look of subdued anger on Alistair's face and insisted, "Teagan and I have a claim through marriage, but we would seem opportunists no better than Loghain. Alistair's claim is by blood."

"And what about me?" Alistair scowled, "Does anyone care what I want?"

"You have a responsibility, Alistair," Eamon urged him, "Without you, Loghain wins. I would have to support him for the sake of Ferelden. Is that what you prefer?"

"I... but, I..." Alistair hated the thought of being King. He'd been trying all his life to bury that little bit of heritage he knew he possessed but had never known. He felt more connected to his poor mother, though he didn't remember her at all either, only the idea of her. He had always thought himself an inconvenience on whoever was burdened with his presence until they too dumped him on somebody else's lap. He had only learned to get by, not how to be a leader. He would be a terrible King, and he did not care for the political maneuverings that required dumping him onto Ferelden's collective lap to be the nuisance of the entire Kingdom. Maker, help us all, he thought.

"Alistair," Serenity said, her voice loud enough for him to hear this time. "If Loghain wins, Ferelden will fall to the Blight."

"No," Alistair said at last, his voice flat with defeat. "I do not want Loghain to win."

"I see only one way to proceed," Eamon said. "I will call a Landsmeet, a gathering of all of Ferelden's nobility in the city of Denerim. There, Ferelden can decide who shall rule, one way or another."

After leaving Redcliffe castle, the group set up camp south on way to Honnleath, where they would seek out the golem the merchant spoke of. Serenity sat down beside Alistair in front of the fire as he roasted a hunk of meat on the end of his sword. "Are you okay?"

"With becoming King? No. Not at all," he said, pulling his sword back from the flame to check the tenderness of the morsel before deciding it was not cooked enough. "And what do you think?"

"Oh, I think you'd look dashing in a crown," she smiled, hoping a joke might lift his spirits. It did not, but she could see his forced smile. "I think you should do it. If for no other reason than it will help us stop the Blight. That is our duty."

"I know. I know..." he sighed. "I just... I can't even begin to imagine..."

"And you can help change the world," she said. "You will have the power to influence people. You are a good person, not corrupted by the desire for power or riches. You are kind and compassionate. That is what is needed by the people."

He wasn't sure he liked the power to influence people. It was all so much responsibility. "I just want to fight darkspawn and honor Duncan's memory."

"If you are made King, you can honor Duncan's memory in many ways you cannot now," she said. "You could erect a giant statue of a griffon in his name. Or, I don't know, establish an orphanage in Denerim for refugee children whose parents were killed by darkspawn."

"I don't know if it would be that easy," he said, but the thought did comfort him some. He did want to help people. "My half-brother was King. His wife will hate me."

"She will come to understand," Serenity assured him, though she truly could not know for sure how the queen would receive him. "You will grow on her, I'm sure."

He chuckled, "Like a fungus."

"That is not the most attractive comparison you could have made," she smiled.

"Yes, but that is how she will see me," he said. "If I'm lucky."

"Come now," she patted his shoulder, reminding him that she had her hand on him this whole time and causing his cheeks to redden. "Cheer up."

"Oh, crap," he said and withdrew his sword from the flame. He'd forgotten he was cooking. "It's all shriveled up now," he whined.

"Appetizing," Serenity said, wrinkling her nose at the meat. More like crispy jerky now. "I need to go speak with Morrigan. Let's talk more later, yes?"

"I would like that," he said and watched her as she stood up and walked away, absentmindedly plucking the meat from his sword and burning his fingertips.

Serenity smiled at Bodahn Feddic and Sandal on her way to Morrigan's tent. "You would have gotten a kick out of Haven," she said, standing next to Morrigan by her little firepit.

"Oh, would I have? 'Tis a shame you left me to watch the camp. With the assassin and that nagging old woman."

Serenity could tell she was angry at being left behind, though she downplayed it with her snarky attitude. "I thought perhaps the two of you could learn something from one another."

"I have nothing to learn from that old bat, and she is too narrow minded to listen to me," she said.

"You don't think you sound a bit narrow minded yourself saying that?"

"She is used to having apprentices hang on her every word," Morrigan said, waving her hand dismissively. "She thinks she is better than I because I am an apostate. I am not bound to the same rules she is. She believes all of the Chantry's teachings, regurgitating them for her little caged birds. I have no taste for that dribble."

Serenity crinkled her nose at the analogy and said, "Well, do you care to hear about Haven?"

"About what I missed, you mean? If you insist."

Serenity smirked, "Oh, well, if you aren't interested..."

"I did not say that," she said, studying her. "I heard about the cultists. And how Sten thought the entire trip was a waste of time."

Serenity nodded. All true. "There was a boy singing a nursery rhyme. And he kept a human finger bone in his pocket." Serenity grinned, "Alistair thought he might be a distant relative of yours, a cousin perhaps."

"Oh, is that so? Because he found the child creepy? Is that it?"

"Yes, well... he got away before the fighting ensued, I think."

"To become a witch of the wilds, no doubt."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

"And from what I understand, Alistair should be more concerned with his own relatives."

"Go easy on him," Serenity said, nudging a rock with her foot.

"I did not say anything to him," Morrigan said. "I am speaking to you."

"I just thought you would like the boy. Precocious child. Brainwashed by cultists, but he did not try to kill us and take our fingers, at least." Serenity hesitated, "I have been meaning to speak with you about something... private. You are the only one I trust to listen to me."

Morrigan's face softened, piqued with curiosity. "You have my ear and my interest."

"I have been reading... books," Serenity said, narrowing her eyes. Why was it so hard to say?

"If you are not comfortable talking about this with Wynne, then these books must be really naughty."

"Naughty?" Serenity chuckled, "That is a word I would ascribe to a different kind of literature, the kind I suspect Zevran has stashed away in his bag of tricks." She hesitated, looking over her shoulder, and said, "I, uh... I have collected four scrolls of Banastor. And Jowan's tome. The one that Connor found. I've read them all."

Morrigan couldn't help the smile that spread across her lips, entertained by the thought that even Serenity could not resist the allure of the forbidden arts. The little bird was learning to fly on her own for once. "So, 'tis blood magic. Are you sure you wish to meddle in such things?"

"Yes, well, I don't intend on using anybody else's blood but my own, and I only wish to use blood magic to fuel my spells in place of lyrium, should I run out of mana in the midst of battle."

"And you are right to assume blood magic would help you with that. Blood magic, after all, just uses a different source of power than mages normally use."

"But my using blood magic would not go unnoticed," Serenity sighed, "I should tell Alistair. Warn him so he isn't taken off guard."

"You would have a lot of explaining to do to a lot of people, Warden. Too many fools have given blood magic an ill name through misuse. 'Tis a shame, really. If you wish me to join you in telling them, then I shall."

"Thank you, Morrigan, but I must speak with Alistair alone." Serenity knew the only thing that could make telling him worse was bringing her along to do it. "Oh! I have something for you. I meant to give it to you sooner, but my mind was... preoccupied," she said and reached into her pack for Flemeth's grimoire. "I found it in the Circle. I would have given it to you then, but we were being attacked by abominations. There wasn't really a good time."

Morrigan took it from her and ran her hands over the cover, eyes widening. "This is..." She opened it and turned a few pages. "Tis Flemeth's grimoire." She was surprised that Serenity retrieved and held onto it for her. "You have my thanks. I will begin study of the tome immediately."

Serenity smiled back, "You're welcome. I did not read it, knowing it is yours. Or, your mother's... It is yours now, either way. I am curious to know what you find in it, if you care to tell me when you're done."

"I do not intend to squander this opportunity to learn more than Flemeth wished me to know. This should be... interesting."

Serenity left Morrigan to her new reading material and went to stand beside Wynne as she tried to figure out how to approach Alistair. She would have to tell the elder mage eventually too, but the person whose opinion mattered most to her was her fellow Warden's. "How are you feeling?"

"You ask me that each time you come to talk to me, young girl. You needn't worry so much about this old bird."

Serenity subdued a chuckle at that comparison again to a bird. "I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect."

"I know, dear Warden. You mean well. But if you are trying to protect me by keeping me out of the fighting, you needn't worry so much. Is that why you left me at camp?"

"No. I just thought perhaps you and Morrigan could learn something from one another."

Wynne chuckled, "Oh, that young woman has no interest in speaking to me, much less listening. And we were both the subject of Zevran's flirtations while you were gone. What a silly young man. What is the purpose behind speaking to me as if I were his age? I could be his mother... or grandmother."

"Maybe that is how they make friends in Antiva."

Wynne chuckled again, "Oh, I doubt that. I've been meaning to ask, can I give your dog a bath? I can smell him from here."

"I'll ask him, but I can't guarantee he will let you."

"If he won't, perhaps he can sleep on the other side of camp, by Alistair. With any luck, that will keep all the stench confined to one small area."

Serenity grinned, "You and Morrigan do have something to bond over."

"What's that?"

"Oh, talking about Alistair and his stink cloud."

Wynne smiled, "He is a good boy. He just needs to have another change of clothes handy, I think. He insisted on wearing that filthy sock I found in my bedroll. Put it on right in front of me, even after I told him not to. Oh! It was dreadful. He could throw it at a darkspawn to stun it."

"There's an idea. Perhaps he should save it for something that doesn't already smell like death though. Save it for the next group of bandits that try to rob us."

"That's just cruel."

Serenity smiled, "I had better go speak with him. I'll see about convincing him to do his laundry."

"Oh, don't tell him I said anything. He's a sensitive boy, and he already calls me grandmother. Right now he says it endearingly, but it could turn into 'old hag' before long."

"If anyone ever says such a thing, I'll freeze their breeches," Serenity said and walked back to the fire. She knew Alistair was very fond of Wynne and doubted that would change anytime soon. Especially after she patched his shirt for him. "Alistair? Can we talk... in private?"

"Oh? Sure." He followed her to stand beneath a tree, out of earshot from the others. "Are we going to gossip?"

"Uh, well, that wasn't what I..." She was losing her resolve and suddenly didn't feel like blood magic was something that needed to be discussed right this moment. She could go another day without it, especially when they had a lot of walking ahead of them. She would have to tell him before they entered another cave or dungeon, that's all. She didn't want to add to the amount of stress he was already under with Eamon calling the landsmeet. "You know, funny thing, I forgot what I wanted to ask you," she lied.

"Well, then, I'd like to ask you something. About the things you said earlier, about me... Did you mean them?" Alistair asked.

"Every word. Why do you think so lowly of yourself?" she asked.

"I... I don't know. But you are helping to change the way I feel... about a lot of things."

"I am?" She wasn't sure what he meant, but she hoped perhaps she was opening his mind to the idea of apostates not all being dangers to society. "What are a lot of things?"

"Well, I, uh..."

She could see he was beginning to blush, even in the dark, and prepared for him to deflect the question with a joke. Of course it would have nothing to do with apostates. Nothing she did actually helped anybody but the apostates.

"Given the circumstances, things could have been so much worse. I'm so grateful that you're you, instead of... some other Grey Warden," he said. "Umm... that sounded so much better in my head. I just mean to say that I can't imagine having done this without you. And... what you said earlier made me think you felt the same way too."

"I do."

He smiled, feeling rather silly for being bashful and hoped it wasn't too obvious that he was nervous. "Now we just need to be rid of that pesky archdemon and everything will be back to normal, right?"

Normal. She wasn't sure what normal was anymore. But nothing would ever go back to normal for her. She supposed it was the same for him, but at least everyone else could go back to whatever their sense of normal was. Lothering could be repopulated, for starters.

Curious, she asked, "What is normal for you?"

"I... I don't even know anymore. I suppose there won't be a normal for me if Eamon has his way."

"Your normal will no longer be dirty socks and gray sludge for dinner," she smiled. "And mine will no longer be living in the Circle tower."

"I'm barely any good at being a Grey Warden. How could I possibly make a good king?"

"You'll have a queen and advisors," she assured him. "And friends in the Grey Wardens."

"We'll have to rebuild the order."

"Yes," she said, "And we will."

"Do you think you'll ever go back to the Circle?" he asked, wondering if it was a stupid question.

"I doubt it. Certainly not to live there. Perhaps to study or just to visit old friends," she said. "I'm a Grey Warden now. There will always be darkspawn to fight, even after we defeat the archdemon, right?"

"Yes, well... You won't be expected to fight darkspawn every day down in the Deep Roads. You will have some time to yourself after this is all over."

"Time to myself?" Serenity felt a pang of anxiety at the thought of being alone. After everything was over, Alistair would be made King of Ferelden, and all of her other companions would go their own way. She hadn't ever been alone before.

"Of course, you could stay in Denerim... with me," Alistair offered. He wasn't even sure what he meant by that proposal. But the thought of her leaving him alone with the crown scared him just as much as the crown itself. Her reassurances helped him through everything, and something about the taking the throne scared him even more than the archdemon.

It was comforting to think she might be able to stay with him, perhaps as some kind of ambassador for the Grey Wardens. But perhaps one of those already existed and was on their way from the Anderfels or Orlais. She didn't know enough about the Order to say. "A Grey Warden would be a neutral advisor," she reasoned.

Alistair smiled, relieved at the thought, even if it was just a fantasy for now. He was grateful that she played along. "Can I ask you something about the Circle?"

"Wynne probably knows more, but I'll try to answer."

"Well, it's more about you, I guess," he said, correcting himself. "I've heard you talk with Morrigan about it. You describe it as a prison, but you don't seem to hate it. You even defend it."

"The Circle needs reform," she said. "It was lonely, even with Jowan there. And there was no hope of ever being free. Not until Duncan took me away, at least. Some of the people did make living there bearable, however. It is the people that I miss."

Alistair thought of the templar she had saved at the top of the tower, the one she'd named her mabari after. But he didn't want to mention him. Not now. "Like Wynne?"

"I didn't know Wynne before Ostagar. I had met her once or twice, but she remained in the mages' quarters while I was an apprentice. First Enchanter Irving was like a father to me though."

"I could tell he cared a great deal about you too. You could go back to visit him, you know. Without being locked up again, now that you're a Grey Warden."

"That's if we survive the battle against the archdemon."

"Right, yeah, that." Alistair heaved a sigh, "So, you mean I might not have to be king after all? I could just die a hero?"

"Don't even joke about dying," she said, giving his arm a push.

"All right, all right," he said, raising his hands in surrender. He could see the idea bothered her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I will absolutely not die fighting an old god in the body of a fire breathing dragon. It'll just add to my royal reputation. King Alistair, the archdemon slayer. Do you think that sounds better than dragon slayer? Would most people know that archdemons look like dragons?"

"Archdemon slayer, for sure. Plenty of people have killed dragons," she said. "That's all still a long way from now, isn't it? We had better get some rest. I want to be in and out of Honnleath before nightfall tomorrow if we can manage it."

Chapter Text

"Duncan?"

The Grey Warden turned around with a softness in his eyes as they crinkled at the corners with his smile. "Serenity," he looked down at her, holding the book she'd given him in the library, Dane and the Werewolf. "I liked the book. The wolf walked among men after ages of being kept to the forest. Is that how you felt, confined to the Circle?"

"I would not liken mages to werewolves," Serenity said.

"Yet now that you are free, you are reading about blood magic," he said nonchalantly. "You don't think you are a beast among men?"

"No. Is that what you think of me?"

"Do not mistake my curiosity for judgment, young mage. Grey Wardens do whatever it takes to make sure the darkspawn are driven back and the Blight ended. If it takes blood to succeed in your task, so be it," he said. "And if it takes demons, so be it."

"Demons?" Serenity asked, the illusion of the Fade flickering around her. They were not at Ostagar, were they? No, Ostagar had fallen. And Duncan had died. "You are one such demon, are you not?"

Duncan's voice changed with a familiar guttural chuckle as he grew, taking the form of a Pride demon, one whom Serenity was sure she had met before. During her Harrowing. "I have been watching you, mage. You are free of the Circle now. The templars will not cut you down. I can give you power unlike any you have ever known. I can help you fell the darkspawn. If you would just share your body with me so I can experience your world."

"No," she said. "Do not ask again. Do not stalk me in my dreams. You are not welcome here."

Pride shook his head disappointedly and circled her. "If you change your mind, I will be waiting. I can be your friend, mage. I understand your plight, your pain. I will protect you."

"No," she said. "I will not become an abomination."

"I will not change you into a monster," Pride reassured her, moving closer and causing her to take a step back. He knelt down to bring himself closer to her eye level. "I would lie dormant, experiencing your world through your eyes, and come out to play only when you need me."

"No," she said again. "My answer will not change."

"You have learned a lesson from me already, mage," Pride laughed, standing tall. "I can read it in your spirit. You are changing. Take your time. I have all the time in the world. I am your werewolf, eager to be free of this forest."

"Some things cannot be repent," she said and willed herself to waken.

True tests never end.

She sat upright and rubbed her eyes, aware of the light on the horizon. Soon, dawn would come and the others would be ready to walk the rest of the way to Honnleath. She noticed Alistair lying on his back, his arms crossed behind his head as he stared up at the sky.

"Alistair?" she asked.

He lifted his head to look at her, surprised she was awake so early. "Did you have another nightmare?"

"Not about darkspawn," she said.

"Ah. I dreamt about the Deep Roads. I don't look forward to going there. But that's where we're headed next, isn't it?"

"Yes, I think so. We can go to the Brecilian Forest on the way to Denerim, but we'd have to double back to go to Orzammar if we went there first."

He groaned, "It's going to be a long walk from here."

"My feet are finally getting used to it," she said. "But I'd prefer not to hike the Frostback Mountains again."

"Me neither. Or run into more crazed cultists for that matter. What do you think the chances are this golem is worshipped by cultists?"

Serenity groaned and stood up, "Don't even joke about it."

"They'd be a cult of dwarves, wouldn't they? Because the dwarves made golems, right?" he grinned. "They could hold hands and dance in a circle around it."

"I don't think..." she murmured, trying to picture it. No, she couldn't. All of the dwarves she had seen were burly, hairy men, often with facial tattoos and large sharp weapons. "I don't think they'd hold hands, but maybe they'd sing and drink ale."

When they came upon the once quaint village of Honnleath, it was under attack by darkspawn but hadn't yet been razed to the ground. Villagers hung from beams leading into the village. Always an unsettling sight. Serenity didn't understand the purpose behind it, unless it was simply to unnerve, in which case, the darkspawn succeeded in their goal. She always had to look away.

They fought the darkspawn until the village was cleared and then they searched for any remaining survivors. They found them in Wilhelm's cellar, where his son Matthias kept up his magical defenses to protect the last of the villagers, but he had lost his daughter deeper inside.

Serenity led the others through the expansive tunnels, battling demons trapped beneath the house by the powerful mage that once lived there. When they found Amalia, she sat beside a cat that Mabari-Cullen took an immediate disliking to.

"Nothing you say will convince Amalia to go with you. I am her friend, while you are just a stranger," the cat said, licking her paw. "She loves only me now."

Serenity had never heard of animals being possessed by demons. "How did you possess a cat?"

"I am a cat," the demon said. "Really."

Wynne suggested softly, "It was likely possessed during this mage's experiments he wrote about in his journal. He could have somehow instilled the demon in the cat. We must be careful."

Serenity would not allow another child to be turned into an abomination, but she suspected the cat would prefer to be human.

"I have been bound to this chamber for decades, cut off from all contact. It has been maddening," the cat said, stretching. "Release me, mortal, and let me have the girl. Let us return to her father and leave this place forever."

Serenity could not risk challenging the demon. It stood too close to Amalia. She would have to play its game of deception. Judging by the sound of her voice and the way the purple aura around her eyes glowed, Serenity suspected a desire demon desperate to escape. Her power probably dwindled down from decades of containment. "What will I gain in return?" Serenity asked. She did not want the demon to suspect her if she offered to help without something in return. That is how deals worked.

"What do you desire?" the cat asked, arching her back in another stretch. "Love? Power?"

"Knowledge," Serenity said.

"Ah... Yes, I can help you. I know many things from living in the Fade. I will pass this knowledge onto you... after you free me."

"I will free you," Serenity said, "and I will let you have the girl so long as you take care of her."

"Thank you," the demon said, her voice full of hope, "You are very gracious. The mage's wards hold me in this chamber and only a mortal may approach them. There is a trick to disarming the wards, but I do not know it."

"Another puzzle?" Alistair groaned.

"I will do it," Serenity said. "Stand back."

Wynne was uneasy, but she trusted Serenity. She knew that all she did was with the girl's safety in mind. "May I help?"

"Yes," Serenity said, accepting her direction in solving the puzzle. A few times, the fire from the puzzle singed the hem of her robe, and she would hop back with a yelp, using her frost covered fingertips to sooth the burns. Before long, the puzzle was solved.

While the demon was distracted by the wards disappearing, Wynne pulled the girl away from the cat, putting herself between her and the demon.

"What are you doing?" the cat hissed.

"You will not take the girl, demon!" Wynne shouted, holding her staff out to defend her.

"Betrayal! She is mine!"

"No, Kitty! I won't let you in!" Amalia cried, frightened by the word 'demon', and clung to Wynne's hip.

As the cat she took the true form of a desire demon, Serenity circled around her to block the exit. The demon attacked desperately, but she was far too weak to stand a chance against them. Alistair scarcely drew his sword before Wynne and Serenity killed her.

"Kitty..." Amalia lamented.

"Come, child," Wynne said, "Your father is worried about you."

After delivering Amalia to her father, they were given the code words to wake the golem from its slumber. And so they gained another ally in Shale.

Serenity was not sure how much she could trust the golem, given it was no longer a machine to command but a sentient being with its own free will and enough power to squish her like an overripe piece of fruit if she angered it. But she also knew it would set records for how many darkspawn a single entity could kill if they cared to keep count. She would just try to stay on its good side.

There were still enough hours before nightfall to begin their journey to Orzammar, heading northeast through the Frostback Mountains toward the Imperial Highway. Sten walked ahead of them all, probably due to his longer stride more than his desire to lead, while Serenity walked in the back of the group with Zevran and Wynne.

They still had another hour before they planned to stop to set up camp, unless they found Bodahn Feddic and his son's wagon sooner. Sore and tired of the uphill trek, Serenity thought a devious thought as she slowed her step behind Zevran. "Sten?" she called out and began faking a limp when he stopped and turned around to wait for her to catch up to him.

Sten impatiently watched her limp toward him and met her halfway. "You are hurt?" He looked over her head at the road behind her, seeing nothing in the path, no body or boulder or anything else that could have injured her. "If you injured yourself along this trail, I do not know how you will be able to fight an archdemon. Do you plan on falling as it breathes fire above your head?"

Serenity chuckled, "No... I think I twisted it while I was... fighting that desire demon earlier."

"The one you killed with two spells? I do not recall it laying a finger on you."

"Uh... that puzzle was in my way and... it was a tripping hazard." Serenity noticed Wynne watching her with a knowing look, seeing as how she had been walking behind her the whole time. Serenity cleared her throat and asked Sten, "Can you give me a piggyback ride?"

"Why not kindly ask Shale to carry you instead?" Wynne suggested.

"Oh, like its master did before it squished him to death? No. No, I don't think so. Besides, Shale has pokey shoulders."

"Good," Shale said, "I am not some form of steed you can hop on to like the many birds I will crush."

Alistair knew what she was up to. "Yeah, Sten, think about it. Would you prefer she hop all the way there and not be in fighting shape should it come to that? It would also take us muuuch longer. If anyone is the most suited for the job, it's you."

Sten grunted, "I do not like the implication that I am some sort of pig that carries things."

"What if you thought of it as you're carrying a pig?"

"Excuse me?" Serenity asked, leaning to the side to look past Sten at Alistair as he came walking back down the path to join them.

"Well, you know, something I noticed after I became a grey warden was an increase in appetite. I used to get up in the middle of the night and raid the castle larder. I thought I was starving. Have you noticed anything like that?" Alistair asked with a subtle grin.

Serenity scoffed, lying, "I haven't felt anything like that."

"Really? Because I was watching you wolf down food the other day and thought, 'Ooh, it's a good thing she gets a lot of exercise.'"

Serenity's jaw dropped. "Y-you're calling me a pig!"

"Not at all. I've never seen a pig eat like that," Alistair laughed, "I jest! I jest! Don't hit me, I bruise easily!"

Serenity smiled and looked up at Sten, hoping Alistair's distraction worked. "Pretty please, kadan?"

Sten sighed, "Fine, but only because we cannot afford to waste any more time than we already have." He took his sword from his back and handed it to Alistair. "Do not lose this."

"Or else I'll lose my head?" Alistair asked, already looking for someone else to dump it on.

Sten knelt down for Serenity, and she hopped on his back, grinning at Alistair. It was a relief to rest her feet, at least for a little while.

When they set up camp on the Imperial Highway, Levi Dryden, a travelling merchant and descendant of the infamous Warden-Commander, Sofia Dryden, sought out Serenity and Alistair to tell them what he had told Duncan. About Soldier's Peak and its lost history.

She agreed to investigate the old fortress after they conclude their business in Orzammar. She was determined to carry on Duncan's duty and fulfill his promises, but she was also quite curious about what history of the order she could uncover there.

Chapter Text

The imperial highway was a long and windy road that kept Lake Calenhad in sight most of the time. It was a scenic route to Orzammar, and no doubt safer than cutting through the forest. As they veered off the path at the fork in the road to take Gherlen's pass through the mountain, Alistair broke the silence.

"So... Cullen," he said.

Mabari-Cullen heard his name and barked, tail wagging.

"I don't mean you. Well, I do mean you, sort of, but not really."

The mabari tilted his head, confused, and Serenity withheld a groan. She didn't expect anyone to find out about her dog's namesake when she'd called him Cullen.

Morrigan butted in, "Are you jealous, Alistair? Upset you aren't a special snowflake templar this mage pines for?"

"Please, stop," Serenity whined.

"No, no," Alistair grinned and teased, "I think it's cute she had a crush on a templar."

"Andraste's knickers," Serenity huffed.

"Did you spy on him from the hallway?" Alistair chuckled, "Or... did he... ohhh." He thought about what he suggested and thought maybe it wouldn't be so cute to have a templar looking in on her bedroom from the hallway.

"No, there was no spying."

"That's good. I mean, that would be creepy, wouldn't it?"

"You would know all about being creepy, watching her while she sleeps," Morrigan said.

"Quiet, you," Alistair glared. Sure, he'd watched her sleep once or twice, but they both slept near the fire. It wasn't as if he poked his head inside her tent and stared at her.

"I should have picked up on that sooner, the way you ran to him when we found him and after all he said to you in the moment," Wynne said, "And that next morning... did anything come of it?"

"What? No, of course not," Serenity blushed. Wynne had spent little time in the Apprentice's quarters and there were many mages and apprentices living in the tower, so it did not surprise her that Wynne knew little about her before meeting her at Ostagar.

"Your secret is safe with me," Wynne said. "I won't tell Irving." Of course, Wynne knew that Irving could keep a secret just as well. But seeing as how the only person that would be at risk in such a situation was the templar, she would not speak of it.

"Cullen took his duty as a templar very seriously," Serenity said, "He would never... you know."

Wynne chuckled, "Ah, young love. You would be surprised what young men will do for love."

"Or for lust," Morrigan said.

Zevran's ears perked up and he moved a little closer to the group. "I have some very interesting lust stories to tell. One involves a barrel of oil."

Wynne clicked her tongue, "Nobody wants to hear your depraved tales, young man. I was speaking of romance."

Morrigan raised her eyebrows and shook her head, "No, no. By all means, share the depravity. I would love to hear how a barrel of oil comes into play."

Zevran grinned, "Well, first you have to be able to touch your own toes... because--"

"Please," Alistair interrupted, "do not continue."

"Hmm." Sten asked, "A barrel of oil? Do you mean to set your partner on fire, elf?"

"Oh!" Leliana giggled, "When I was a bard in Orlais, I was witness to many affairs. In Orlais, women wear intricate wigs that are coated with a flammable liquid to hold it all upright... This man thought it would be romantic to whisk her away to a dark room lit only by a single candle. But they could not see each other, so they moved closer to the light, and poof! Her hair went up in flames! The entire room lit up!"

Zevran laughed, "I must go to Orlais more often."

"Did she die?" Sten asked.

Leliana answered, "Oh, no, he yanked off her wig and stomped on it. She was so embarrassed, she ran out without it and had one of her servants bring her a hat where she hid in the closet."

"Unfortunate."

Zevran looked back at Sten, studying him, "Aren't the Qunari into strange sex too?"

"It is not strange to Qunari. But it would be unpleasant for your kind."

"Unpleasant?" Morrigan asked, "Unpleasant how? Now I really am interested."

"Deadly."

Shale groaned, recalling, "There was a time in Honnleath when two filthy wretches rubbed together right beneath me--unbearable. I would have made them dead if I could move."

"By the Maker, why are we comprised mostly of deviants?" Alistair asked, looking around, shocked.

Serenity laughed, relieved the attention was off of her and her crush on Cullen, but Wynne still watched her with interest. She knew the topic would come up again when they had a moment alone, but she wouldn't mind so much if the others didn't overhear. They closed in on the entrance to Orzammar, where traders and merchants had been barred entry. Fortunately, the guard at the entrance recognized her right as a Grey Warden to be there.


Serenity didn't know what to expect Orzammar to be like, only that it was inside a mountain and underground. She expected perhaps for it to be cold and dark like the caverns on the way to Andraste's temple, except lit by torches, but it was quite the opposite. It was hot and uncomfortably humid, the stone walls appeared orange from far below the city, where lava flowed. She would be more miserable living in Orzammar than the Circle tower just based on what she felt walking around the place, let alone the barbaric politics the dwarves ran their society with.

Though she hated to involve herself, the only way she would be able to use her treaties was to sway the council in favor of one leader over another so they could get on with naming a King and lend her their troops. She didn't like either of them, truth be told. The more honest and honorable of the two, upon speaking to their seconds, seemed to be Harrowmont. However, in wandering Dust town and the Diamond quarter, she felt those that would benefit from his rule were only those sitting at the top. As despicable a man as Bhelen seemed to be, perhaps he could actually do something to help his people at the bottom. She hated playing their game. It made her feel dirty.

She helped Brother Burkel open a Chantry near the tavern and found one sweet, optimistic dwarf that stood out among the rest like a diamond in the rough. Her name was Dagna, and she bubbled over with an energy Serenity hadn't seen from a dwarf... ever. Not that she had met more than a few, all of which were merchants. She promised Dagna she would put in a good word with Irving for her. Though Dagna would leave caste and clan to move topside, she truly felt she would be free in doing so, even if she moved to the Circle. It was her choice to make.

When Bhelen sent Serenity into the Deep Roads in search of Branka, the angry drunk from the warrior caste asked to join her. She had heard about his insistence over the last two years in finding Branka. It would have been cruel to exclude him when he had been trying for so long to find her. She admired his tenacity and his loyalty, though Alistair was not so keen on having yet another tag along.

Seeing as how Branka was in search of the Anvil of the Void, Serenity invited Shale to accompany them in hopes its memory would be restored or questions about its existence might be answered.

In the Deep Roads, Serenity felt that familiar hum, subtle and buzzing at the back of her skull. It was the darkspawn taint. She had felt it shortly after going through the Joining, but it had been drowned out a few days later. She could barely hear it, but it was more of a feeling than anything else, like a magnetic pull, warning her that they were near. She did not like being so far underground, so close to the darkspawn horde. Exploring the Deep Roads instilled a new sense of admiration for the dwarves however, particularly the Legion of the Dead. Without them, she knew, the surface would truly be in trouble, especially with the wardens' dwindling numbers.

First day, they come and catch everyone.

Though all darkspawn reviled her, Serenity was unprepared for the horrors they found in the Dead Trenches. The walls themselves seemed to be alive and breathing with viscera climbing the walls like vines, smelling of blood and death. She wasn't sure what they belonged to or where they came from, only that if she accidentally stepped on a piece and felt it squish under her foot, she would gag in response.

Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat.

It was a good thing she hadn't eaten anything since they arrived in the city. She was sure she would have expelled her breakfast in that room with Hespith, if not at the sight of the broodmother they later encountered. The sight of that monstrous thing, once a woman, made her stomach twist and wretch, but she had to steel herself to fight it. Her weak stomach was a distraction at first, dizzying her with nausea, but her friends, also horrified by the brood mother, did not stop to throw up as she felt the need to. Together, they killed the thing, putting it to rest.

Third day, the men are all gnawed on again.

After assisting Caridin and killing Branka, whom Serenity deemed far beyond redemption, she could hardly wait to leave Orzammar and never come back... except to bring Dagna good news, of course. She sat through Bhelen's coronation impatiently and left with his promise of aid and some ill begotten gifts. She would probably sell them, having no sentimentality for the dwarf King.

Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate.

She could not shake the eerie rhyme that Hespith had been repeating as a dark mantra, reliving the moments of her house's fall over and over again as she nibbled on the flesh that crawled along the walls and floor. What in the Maker's name was that?

Fifth day, they return and it's another girl's turn.

They carefully trodded downhill through Gherlen's Pass in silence. Serenity shuddered, though not from the cold, as she tried to shake off the gross feeling of being in that place. The Deep Roads. Where every Warden goes to die when they hear the Calling. She couldn't think of a fate worse than that of a brood mother. Could any woman be turned into such a thing?

Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.

What about a Grey Warden? she wondered. Though they were considered immune to the darkspawn's poison because it did not kill them outright like it did those that failed the Joining or those that were bitten by the darkspawn or those like Ruck, who fed on their flesh, the Wardens were not truly immune. That is what was the taint was, after all, a corruption inside them that slowly killed them.

Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.

If, at the end of her life, when the corruption was beginning to tear her mind apart, was it possible her body could transform as well? Outnumbered, a Grey Warden could be taken captive and forced into vile acts that changed them. Forced to feed. Forced to procreate. Nobody could endure that kind of torture and retain their personhood.

Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.

Serenity felt her legs weaken and wobble and reached out for the nearest person to steady herself. Zev caught her arm, curiously, and whispered, "Are you all right, Serenity?"

She shook her head. "I never want to go back," Serenity said, slowing down so the others wouldn't hear, and confessed, "I am afraid of the Deep Roads."

"Yes, I don't blame you," he said, "Despite all the insanity your adventures have pulled us into, this one felt the most claustrophobic and like death awaited us around every corner. I almost wish I'd stayed at the Tapsters and picked a few pockets in the Diamond Quarter instead."

Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.

"Almost?" she asked, grateful for his distraction from her thoughts. He had no idea just how right he was about the feeling of death around each and every corner. She and Alistair could sense the darkspawn. The feeling itself was like a prickle under the skin accompanied by a feeling of impending doom. If she had to go down there alone to answer the Calling, she knew it would lead to panic. The panic was only subdued because of the company she was in.

"Well, think of all the treasures we found," he grinned. "Do you think some darkspawn are hoarders? Like that sad sack gone mad."

"Ruck," she lamented.

"Yes," he said, regretting mentioning him. She was quite too compassionate, he remembered, taking the pain of others and making it her own. It was, of course, one of her best qualities but to her detriment. "Maybe you can clear out a cache full of relics and spend the rest of your days sleeping on a pile of gold."

Now she does feast, as she's become the beast.

"That doesn't sound very comfortable," Serenity said, picking up her pace to catch up to the others before they might notice she had fallen behind.

"It would be cold on winter nights," he said. "But you would be able to afford a blanket."

She smiled, "Thank you for coming down there with us."

"You're welcome," he said, disappointed when she let go of his arm. "I'm just glad I didn't get any darkspawn blood in my mouth. If we have to go back down there someday, perhaps I should wear a mask."

"That might be a good idea," she said.

Now you lay and wait, for their screams will haunt you in your dreams.

As they slowed to find an open space along the side of the road to set up camp, Serenity thought of Cullen. She couldn't help wondering if he still thought about her too.

Probably not anymore, she decided. Now he would be plagued by nightmares, hearing the screams of his brothers and the sounds of possession. She wondered what he had had to endure, what he'd been forced to witness. And she prayed that he would not be broken by the memories. She hoped that he would not become something resembling a human on the outside and a monster on the inside.

The caged us like animals... looked for ways to break us.

"Are you all right?" Alistair asked. "You've been awfully quiet."

"I just need a good night's sleep," she said warily. She doubted she would have one tonight. Being outdoors, inhaling fresh air, crisp and cold as it was, helped to make her feel clean again. It helped, but it did not drown out the incessant hum of the darkspawn and Hespith's haunting voice.

Alistair knew what they saw in the Deep Roads bothered her immensely, enough to make her speechless. It had sickened him too, but he felt oddly disconnected from himself during the entire excursion. It was all surreal. Only after they left Orzammar did he begin to cement himself in reality again. "Do you think...? No, never mind."

"What?"

"Do you think the Grey Wardens knew?" he asked. "About the broodmothers. About how they're made."

"I don't know," she said. "You spent more time with them than I."

"Nobody ever tells me anything," he said. "But I don't think they knew. They would warn the female Wardens about answering the Calling, I think."

"Do you think I shouldn't?" she asked.

"I'd rather not think about it. It's not your only option when the time comes. But the alternatives aren't any less depressing," he said. "Why don't we talk about something else, like, what's your favorite food?"

"I like cream puffs," Serenity smiled. "I haven't had one in ages. We had a tranquil in the tower who would make them for us, but he moved to Denerim years ago."

"Cream puffs are delicious," Leliana interjected, "I used to go to this bakery in Orlais with fancy little cakes and pastries. And the lady there, she made these beautiful little cream puffs coated in chocolate with edible beads adorning them. Oh, I wish I could take you there."

"Perhaps someday you will," Serenity smiled.

"Take me too," Zevran said.

"You would get yourself into trouble," Leliana giggled.

"I can run very fast," he retorted. "I will get myself out of trouble just as well."

Serenity lay down by the fire and fell asleep to the sounds of their voices, comforted by their words, which drowned out that subtle hum in the back of her mind and the fading whispers of Hespith's dark lullaby.

Chapter Text

Serenity shivered as a breeze seemed to blow right through her. It was the first of Matrinalis, All Soul's Day, the day they celebrate the dead and revere Andraste. She wondered what it was like in the big cities, if they lit up at night with a festival, feasting and dancing. In Orlais, she knew from the stories Leliana told her, they wore masks regularly, but in Ferelden, masks were only worn on All Soul's Day. She was disappointed not to be in Denerim now to see it, instead trudging through the mountains with her companions in seclusion. Perhaps after the Blight was over, she could celebrate All Soul's Day in Denerim or even Redcliffe.

Serenity turned back to meet Boddahn Feddic's wagon pulled by an ox behind her. "Do you have any furs?" she asked, shivering.

"Oh, yes!" he beamed and went around his wagon. "We got this from an Avvar." He held up a large bear fur, fastened with a single button to hold it closed. She had the feeling she would quickly grow hot wearing it, but at the moment, her arms were bare, and her teeth were chattering.

"How much?"

"Two sovereigns," he said and held it out to her, pleased when she produced the coin and took it from him to wrap her shoulders.

"I thought you were immune to the cold," Zevran said, chuckling as she buried herself beneath the fur. It was made for someone Sten's size, and it made her look like a bear cub when she lifted the hood over her head.

"Only to my own cold spells," she said, wiggling her shoulders as if to snuggle herself in the pelt. She had acclimated to the weather quickly when she left the Circle with Duncan, but the temperature dropped drastically at night. She knew Ferelden was cold in the winter with the snowfall, but the tower was well insulated and kept warm by magic and fire on colder days. She hadn't truly had to adapt to the weather until she left. She counted herself fortunate that they'd only had a few weeks of rain earlier in the year, back when they'd been assisting Redcliffe mostly, which meant they'd had a proper roof over their heads for the majority of it.

Alistair sidled up next to them and said, "So, I have a question for you, Zevran. You're here, at least in part, to get away from the Crows, right?"

"That is indeed true."

"So, when this is over, what do you intend to do with yourself? You can't go back to Antiva, I assume."

"What I do depends in large part upon your fellow Grey Warden," Zevran said, smirking at Serenity. "I am not a free man, as it were."

"Yes, yes, but what if you could do whatever you wanted?" Alistair asked curiously.

Serenity hadn't been thrilled at being nearly murdered on the road outside Denerim before, but now that she'd learned more about Zevran, about the way he was raised and groomed to be an assassin, the squalor in which he lived, and the simple pleasures of freedom he enjoyed, she found herself wondering the same. What would he do? And when should she tell him he is free to do as he pleases? Now seemed as good a time as any. Sure, she could wait until after the Blight, but he was the only person who technically wasn't there by choice.

"Oh, I don't know," Zevran said after mulling it over for a moment. "Aren't you going to be king? Perhaps you have people you need killed?"

"Is there some reason I shouldn't just kill them myself?" Alistair asked.

"See? It's that sort of talk that is bad for business. Have you no thought to supporting the employment of your subjects?"

"Ha! Not for assassins I don't."

"That's the lovely thing about kings. They make for good business, as the client or the target."

Alistair shook his head. "And people wonder why someone might not want to be king."

"Zevran?" Serenity asked quietly, not meaning to interrupt.

"Do you wish to take me up on my offer to become your personal assassin, Serenity?" Zevran grinned, "Careful, she's stealing the opportunity right out from under you, Alistair."

Serenity smiled, "Well, I will certainly keep you in mind if I am ever in need of your services. What I wanted to say was... that I release you from your oath. I trust you. And I do not want to be like your Antivan Crows, keeping you on a leash."

Zevran looked at her in disbelief. "So, you are saying that, if I desired, I could walk right off on my merry way right now?"

"She's not trying to trick you," Alistair said.

"Forgive me. I am just not used to being released from a contract with no consequences. You do not want me to cut off a finger in payment, correct?"

"Uh, no," Serenity answered. "I imagine you'll be needing those."

"Yes, they come in handy," Zevran grinned.

Serenity shook her head at the pun and smiled, "You are free. You can even leave us now if you do not wish to stay. But I hope you will. Your help has been invaluable, and... I prefer to think of you as a friend, not a slave."

"I have to say that I have come to enjoy the company of everyone. Even the dwarf and his foot fungus. I do not think it would look good if I didn't make sure that you come out of this alive. So, I shall stay for that long, at least. And if we are all eaten by darkspawn, at least I tried to do something good, no?"

"So, can I call you Zev now?" she asked, bumping him with her shoulder. "And will I get a discount when I need some killing done?"

Alistair stared at them. "You can't be serious?"

"My lady Warden, you may call me what you please and you would find my fee very agreeable no matter what the service you ask of me," Zevran winked.

Serenity looked at Alistair and shrugged, "I can't see the future."

"But hiring an assassin..." he protested and sighed. They already had the assassin in their company. He really shouldn't be surprised anymore.

Zevran tried to reassure him, "She will probably use my services to keep you safe. It's better that way. It keeps your hands clean in the matter."

"Exactly," Serenity nodded, "You tell me your problems, and 'I' will make them go away."

"I'm not even king yet and already I am feeling stressed."

Serenity could see the thought truly bothered him and said, "I'm kidding, Alistair! I will always be your confidant though, if you wish me to be." She looked at Zev and gave him a silent, subtle nod.

"Oh, yes, kidding," Zevran added, "She isn't the type to hire assassins."

"Of course..." Alistair mumbled, disbelieving.

After Zevran and Alistair walked ahead, picking up their pace to close the gap in the group, Wynne walked beside Serenity. Having noticed the change in her demeanor since leaving Orzammar, she asked, "Is something troubling you?"

Serenity had tried to push the ugliness of the Deep Roads out of her mind, but her duty as a Grey Warden seemed heavier now. "Yes. A lot of things are, I suppose."

"You can speak to me, child," Wynne pressed softly.

"What happened in Redcliffe. At the Circle. In the Deep Roads." She sighed, "People expect so much of me."

"You are one of two surviving Grey Wardens in Ferelden. You defend all of us, and much rests on your shoulders. It may not mean much to you, but thank you... for having the courage to continue to fight." Wynne smiled when Serenity looked up at her. "You should speak with Alistair. He shares in your plight. He lost his friends in battle, much like you did at the Circle. If anyone will understand how you feel, it would be him."

"I know. But his expectations weigh on me too."

"What expectations are those?"

"To always make the right decision," she said.

"Ah."

"What?"

"I thought perhaps... there were other expectations. Of the romantic variety," Wynne whispered with a smile. "And that perhaps you still had feelings for a certain templar."

"It's not like that..." Serenity had picked up on something from Alistair, but it had never been stated outright. She wasn't sure how she felt about it. But her feelings for Cullen didn't matter, either way.

"Do not torture yourself over what could have been, Serenity. You are still here. Fighting," she said and smiled. "I've been meaning to pick your brain about something."

"Something Grey Wardeny?" Serenity asked, hoping Wynne did not mean to delve deeper into her forbidden desire for that templar in the tower.

"Have you encountered many abominations apart from the ones in the Circle Tower?"

"Just one," Serenity said. "Connor."

"Ah, yes, Connor, of course," Wynne thought aloud, inwardly chastising herself for asking. "The first time I saw an abomination, my blood turned to ice. It was months before the nightmares stopped. It was the knowledge that I could easily become one of them that frightened me most. Do you have nightmares?"

"Of becoming an abomination? No, I do not."

"Or, reliving the memories from the Circle tower or even Redcliffe?"

"More often than I'd like."

"One slip... all it takes is one slip, and everything you are is simply gone... replaced by madness. And there is no turning back. Or at least that's what they say."

"You have doubts?" Serenity asked, surprised.

"Of late, I have begun to wonder if there is some way an abomination can be cured. Or if a mage could be so possessed and still retain their sanity. Their humanity."

"Connor retained his," Serenity answered. "He would become lucid. It is possible to save them if you kill the demon in the Fade."

"How...? How do you know this?"

"Morrigan told me," Serenity said. "Afterwards, I read about it. There are different ways of entering the Fade consciously. If I had known then what I know now, things could have ended differently. But I was inexperienced and I would not risk leaving Redcliffe in the hands of a demon to try to save him."

"You did nothing wrong taking the course of action you did," Wynne assured her. "Had you come to Kinloch Hold to seek help from the mages, you would have been faced with many more abominations and you would not have had the experience of facing one first. It is sad, what happened, but do not let it eat away at you."

"Thank you..." She needed to hear it again and again. It seemed to ease some of the pain she felt, though it never truly went away.


From Orzammar, they traveled northeast, taking the imperial highway around Lake Calenhad through the West Hill Bannorn and the Coastlands. It was nearly a week before they reached the base of a mountain where Levi Dryden had said he would be. He led them through a confusing array of mining tunnels, marking their path as they went, until they came out from underground and met with the sight of the abandoned fortress from the Glory Age.

"Maker's breath. Look at the size of her. What a fortress," Levi gasped. "I told you the map would get us through the tunnels."

They were far enough north and at a high enough elevation that there was snow on the ground here. Serenity was sweating from the uphill walk in the tunnels, but she was not about to remove her fur cloak. "How did you find that path on your own?" It had been well hidden, covered from foliage and overgrowth, long abandoned.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try me."

"It came to me in my dreams," he admitted. Leliana's head turned, but she did not interrupt. "When I was a lad, I tried going through the tunnel by myself. Got horribly lost. But every now and again since, I've dreamt of it."

"I believe you," Serenity said. "It sounds like you were visited by a spirit. Somebody was trying to lead you here."

"Is that...?" Levi wondered and shrugged, "I guess that makes more sense than saying I'm psychic, doesn't it? Can a spirit really visit me in my dreams?"

"Yes," she said, "The Fade is where dreamers go, and that is also the realm of spirits and demons."

"Oh... and here I was afraid to tell you. I thought you'd think I was some moon-addled simpleton. I'll follow you from a safe distance. This place has the stench of death. I expect there's trouble up ahead."

"Tis likely there are demons here," Morrigan said.

"D-demons...?"

After they climbed the steps, they were met with a vision of a battle, like a dream, not quite solid but projected in front of them. After a moment, it was gone. The fortress seemed very much alive one moment and dead the next.

"Like a waking dream," Serenity said. Her skin tingled, even beneath the cloak, but it was not from the cold. "The Veil is thin here. The Circle tower was this way too."

She hadn't noticed the bodies of fallen soldiers and wardens until they rose from the ground, weapons in hand. They were long dead and decomposed, their weathered armor discolored from dirt and snow, but they were abominations now, vessels for demons that came through. They were easy to dispatch, shattering from a single swing of Sten's sword or a pummel from Alistair's shield. Even Mabari-Cullen overpowered one and dismembered it quickly.

"Those are demons?" Levi asked, hyper-vigilant as he glanced over his shoulders. "They seem to die fairly easily."

"That is because they possessed corpses," Serenity said. "If they are strong enough to come through without possessing anything, they will be harder to kill."

"That's Grey Warden armor," Alistair noted, looking down at one of the fallen soldiers. "They were starved by King Arland's men before they were killed."

Inside, they witnessed memories projected from the Fade, relived moments of Sophia Dryden's company of Wardens. They were rebels against a tyrant.

Up the stairs, in the main hall, there were summoning circles near a tall mirror, one that looked like the ancient eluvians of Elvhenan. Serenity had only read about them in old tomes of the Dalish, but she doubted it was one such artifact. They were extremely rare. This was surely just an old mirror. Her fascination was interrupted by another Fade reflected waking dream, in which the Warden-mage Avernus summoned demons to aid in defending the Keep, only to be overpowered by them.

"'Twas a massacre," Morrigan stated, watching the scene unfold, only for the demons in the memory to come to life, rising from the stone floor to attack them.

Levi understood now what Serenity meant by demons coming through the Veil in their true form. They were hideous, terrifying creatures that made unearthly sounds and moved without the restrictions of a human body. He ran back down the stairs, hoping one wouldn't chase him or appear behind him. The others kept the demons occupied, but he wondered how anyone could have survived the siege. And then he remembered, as far as he knew, no one had. Both the Wardens and the King's army suffered heavy losses. But then, how could Serenity and her small group of companions hope to walk out of there alive? Had he led them all to their deaths? He sincerely hoped not, praying to Andraste for divine protection against these evils incarnate.

They weren't too many to handle, but by the time the battle was won, Serenity was fatigued, tempted to drink a potent lyrium potion. She only hoped there weren't as many demons on the other side of the next door. Her hand rested on her pack, ready to draw a bottle from under the flap, or, if she dared, her dagger. She could draw blood to power her spells, avoid the inevitable nausea and headaches that would muddle her concentration later should she take too much lyrium in the fight. She had felt quite ill after their trip into the Deep Roads, which she had mostly attributed to the corruption of the darkspawn below, the filth that scoured the walls, and the... broodmother. But even after she slept, the next day she recognized the buzzing and burning from the lyrium potions she had ingested. Her hands were clammy and her head pulsed with a dull ache. She did not want to drink them any longer.

Behind the next door, there were papers scattered about the room, which Levi carefully collected to study later before following Serenity into the connecting chamber. They would learn something about the Keep, the King, and Sophia from those notes.

Sophia Dryden stood behind her desk in the study they entered and turned only when Serenity approached her. "Step no further."

Mabari-Cullen growled and barked to alert Serenity that this was no human.

"I know," Serenity answered him.

"Get this annoyance away from me," Sophia said, her voice strangely deep and tinny. "This one would speak with you."

Serenity wondered what kind of demon possessed the woman. Something powerful enough to keep her body intact for centuries, recognizable even. From what she learned, most demons would live out their lives in a body and move on to another host when it aged. This one somehow yet lived and in a Warden's corrupted body, no less. It showed signs of the corruption on its face with blackened splotches against its pale skin, its eyes milky white with cataracts. And what kind of demon would refer to itself in such a way? She had studied demons at length, especially in the Scrolls of Banastor, and she concluded it might be a demon of despair. "And what would it have to say?"

"This one is the Dryden, Commander, Sophia. All these things."

"G-grandmother?" Levi asked nervously, shifting his weight.

"Your grandmother is long dead," Serenity reminded him. "This is a demon that has inherited her memories and taken her body. It is a different spirit than hers."

"This one would propose a deal," Sophia said.

Sten interrupted, "The Qun is quite clear in matters of demons. Destroy them quickly, efficiently. Enough talk." He had heard her speak with demons in the past, and it made him uneasy. What was the point, especially when they all ended up dead in the end, anyway?

If he had asked her, she would have answered and explained the benefits of diplomacy and deception. For now, she ignored him and said, "Speak."

"Deal with me now, warrior, and you will thwart many of my kind," Sophia said, addressing Sten. "The Soldier's Peak traps me. For me to be free, into the old mage tower you go and destroy. In return, this one seals the Veil."

Serenity wasn't sure if the demon perceived Sten to be her superior, but it did not matter to her. She answered, "I'm here on behalf of Levi. Tell us about Sophia Dryden."

"This one knows all but will only talk after the tower lies broken."

She hoped it might be as gullible as Kitty was. "First seal the Veil, then I'll do my part. I promise."

"This one smells the sweet stench of lies upon you," it said, narrowing its eyes. "You seek to betray this one."

Shit. This demon was perceptive. Sten was probably relieved he didn't have to play along with the charade. She wondered then if Sophia had sensed his intent over her own. No matter. She was sure there was enough information in one of her tomes to aid in closing the Veil. If there wasn't, she would just have to return with more experience. Either way, she intended on taking back the Keep for the Wardens.

Serenity moved back to put some distance between herself and Sophia, allowing room for Sten to draw his sword and take her place, cornering the demon between the desk and the bookshelf. Alistair flanked her as she drew her sword, and Morrigan cast Winter's Grasp to hinder her in the fight. Serenity stood back, hoping they might not notice she wasn't fighting. She had only enough mana for a single spell and she wished to save it in case of dire need. That moment came when Sophia summoned two possessed corpses to assist her, both of which circled around the desk to close in on Alistair. Serenity's Cone of Cold froze them in place.

She kept her hand on the bottle of lyrium, but she didn't need it. Sten took down the corpses while Alistair had Sophia's attention, and Morrigan shapeshifted into a spider to catch her in a web and slay her.

After Sophia fell to the ground, Alistair looked at Morrigan and visibly shuddered. "Please change back."

Still a spider, Morrigan chuckled, though the sound that she emitted was more of a clicking chitter. She moved closer to Alistair, causing him to back up and nearly slip on one of the open books face down on the floor.

"Maker's breath. Now is not the time!" Alistair said, bumping his shield into the edge of the desk as he tried to right himself. His heart was racing, and he felt utterly mortified, even though nobody else could hear how panicked he felt. Or at least, he hoped they couldn't. He was relieved when Morrigan stopped, but as she slowly reached toward him with one of her hairy, spindly legs, he grimaced in disgust, meeting her black beady eyes. "If you poke me, you're going to lose that arm," he threatened, holding his shield in front of him. "Then, we'll see if you change back with everything attached, won't we?"

Morrigan shapeshifted back, holding her stomach as she threw her head back with an uninhibited laugh.

"You really enjoy torturing me, don't you?" Alistair glared. "We're surrounded by demons and you decide now would be a good time to torment me?"

Morrigan composed herself and said dismissively, "The danger was over. Besides, 'tis best to face your fears. I was merely trying to help."

"I don't want your 'help'," Alistair said, glaring at her.

"Enough playing," Sten said, standing by the door with his hand on the handle. "We must kill every demon in this fortress if you wish to take it back."

"Lead the way, kadan," Serenity said, standing across from him. She quite liked the word, better than referring to him by his rank in the Qun. She moved aside for Alistair to walk out ahead of her when Sten opened the door and noticed Morrigan still had a self-satisfied smirk on her face.

They faced more possessed corpses as they crossed the bridge between the towers, avoiding traps along the way. Serenity followed behind, keeping a watchful eye on Levi as the warriors took point. Five ghouls down. How many more did they have to face?

When they entered the tower, they found a room with more books and papers scattered across a table and a large jug emitting a noxious odor.

"What do you think that is?" Alistair asked, crinkling his nose and turning away. "That's disgusting. Reminds me of something else, too."

"The Joining?" Serenity asked as she knelt down by an open book on the floor while Levi rifled through the papers on the desk with one hand, pinching his nose closed with the other.


Day 32. The subject is not responding to the stimuli. Testing the pain threshold has uncovered nothing. Only three subjects are left.


"Maker's mercy..." Serenity muttered, reading Avernus' research. "He... tortured them."

"Who?" Alistair asked, standing over her to peer over her shoulder.

"Avernus," Serenity said. "He experimented on his fellow Wardens, testing their pain threshold."

"Ugh..." Alistair had the feeling they would find quite a few more possessed corpses behind the next door. "Using blood magic?"

"Probably... among other things," she said.


Day 82. If only I could reproduce last night's extraordinary success. Electricity is only a catalyst. The blood is the key.


Serenity felt her stomach turn. She didn't know how many he had tortured and killed before Day 32, but the others had endured fifty more days of torture. Eighty-two days of agony. Nearly three months of bleeding and betrayal. How could they have survived so long when they had already been starved by Arland? Had he used blood magic to keep them alive longer?


Day 97. Energy and blood. Repeated applications have duplicated the results. I conjecture that success can be induced alchemically. But there are no more subjects left. If only I had one more or a dozen. The things I could do.


"The things I could do," she muttered in disgust. Whatever he had done to them, they could not survive past Day 97. His remorselessness, his cold calculated nature made her skin prick with gooseflesh. How could anyone do such a thing? He had become a monster. Was it possible he had let one of the demons in? Would that make it easier to accept that a Grey Warden could perform such heinous acts on his brethren?

"Look here," Alistair said, standing in front of an open book by the vile potion. "He was trying to harness the taint in some way. To kill demons, looks like."

"He bit off more than he could chew," Morrigan said, "and then he was trying to clean up his mess."

Serenity read from the smudged ink on the worn page:


The longer we survive with the taint in our blood, the more potent it becomes. Unfortunately, this corruption will eventually overwhelm the Warden; over time, it devours both mind and body, leaving nothing. But what if the spread of the corruption could be stopped, or contained in some way? What if the Warden could become more powerful, without having that power kill him?


"He was looking for a cure to the Calling," Serenity thought aloud and eyed the green bottle in front of her, the culmination of Avernus' horrific research.

"Do you think he found it?" Morrigan asked.

"But at what cost?" Alistair sighed.

At what cost, indeed. Serenity picked up the bottle and removed the cork.

"Whoa, whoa!" Alistair said, putting his hands on the bottle to stop her. "Are you seriously going to drink that? You have no idea what's in it or what it will do to you."

"It might be stale," Morrigan warned. "If it's old, its properties could have changed."

"It might cure the Calling," Serenity said. She would not risk becoming a broodmother in the Deep Roads.

"Or it might make you drop dead where you stand," Alistair warned. "Did you see anything in his notes about it curing him or anyone else? Everybody is dead!"

She reluctantly set the bottle back down, and Alistair stuffed the cork back in it. "I suppose I should wait until the Blight is ended," she said. It wasn't worth the risk now.

"You would really take that chance?" Alistair resisted the urge to squeeze his hair in frustration. He couldn't understand why she would willingly risk her life again on some blood mage's ill-gotten mystery potion. "It definitely has blood in it," he said. "You don't really want to drink more of that stuff, do you? What if it's the Wardens' blood?"

She knew he was right. But the thought of answering the Calling terrified her. It was a long ways off yet, though. "Let's go," she said. It had likely been sitting there for over a century as it were, so she would not be any worse off drinking it a few months from now.

They went through the door on the left and walked into the torture chamber. A laboratory of sorts. The air was thicker here, stuffed up with magical energy and the hanging weight of knowing how many lives had been lost here to brutality and long months of suffering.

"I hear you. Don't disrupt my concentration," Avernus said, scrawling notes in his journal as Serenity and her companions walked into the center of the room.

"The Warden mage?" Serenity couldn't believe what she was seeing. He had to be well over a hundred years old. "You're still alive?" When he didn't answer, she looked around the room, eyeing the iron gibbets, some still inhabited by the tattered remains of his fellow Wardens. Other skeletons never laid to rest lay propped up against the wall or in heaps on the ground.

"Only just. I have only a short time left," he answered and turned to walk down the steps to meet her.

"How are you still alive?" she asked, wondering if he'd bled the tortured wardens dry to fuel his spells for decades. How much blood would it take to extend your life beyond its natural longevity? And to fight the darkspawn taint? Unless... unless his concoction worked.

"The Chantry foolishly forbids blood magic, but there are so many secrets to uncover. As my body decayed, I found ways to extend it. But that can only go so far," he said and lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. It had been decades since he'd seen another living person. "And you, Grey Warden. Why are you here? What is your intent?"

"How do you know I'm a Grey Warden?" she bristled. If he was eyeing her like another test subject, she'd turn him into an ice sculpture.

"A combination of my research and blood magic. But even without that, who else would brave Soldier's Peak?"

"Fair enough. I am here to recover the Grey Wardens' base," she said, "and I want answers."

"To what questions?"

His nonchalant tone of voice rubbed her the wrong way. "I know your crimes, Avernus."

"My crimes?"

"You're a monster."

"A monster? For a hundred years I have fought them. Thought by thought. Spell by spell. If I am a monster, it is because I must be one!" He waved his hand dismissively and shook his head. "I thought you had questions. You have only opinions, it seems."

Sten growled, "This is why mages must be bound. This one is like an animal gone rabid. It must be put down."

Avernus scoffed, "The same could be said of your entire people, qunari. Enough."

"I am a mage too, Sten," Serenity reminded him. She wasn't going to get into it with him now. This wasn't about her or the Qun, it was about the atrocities committed by a Grey Warden against the order. "I've seen your experiments, Avernus. How could you do it? How could you torture all those innocent people? Your brothers and sisters in arms?"

"They were necessary."

"Necessary?" Alistair repeated. "Having to relieve yourself after an eight hour ride is necessary. But there's no excuse for summoning demons."

"Charming," Avernus muttered, his voice flat and unamused.

"No," Serenity shook her head, her face grim. "As a Warden, I know we can justify any means of defeating the darkspawn and the archdemon, but demons? Demons you foolishly summoned yourself in a political rebellion? You're a mad man."

"It was survival," he said. "The Ferelden order would have perished from starvation or in the final siege. For months, I prepared the summoning circles, researched the darkest depths of the Fade. That moment was a triumph of demonic lore. Dozens of demons called by my hand."

"You sound proud of yourself," she said, disgusted by the smile that crept across his lips.

"I did it to stop the demonic tide. Blood magic comes from demons. They could counter every bit of lore I knew. But the darkspawn taint. That is alien to them. And it has power."

"So, all of this was for your blood magic?" Alistair asked, not even sure why they still bothered speaking with him. He deserved execution.

"It was for the Grey Wardens. To better the order. To fell the darkspawn," he said. "The Wardens use their blood merely to sense darkspawn. A triviality. My research has discovered so much more--hinted at even greater heights. This knowledge could not only save Soldier's Peak--with it, the Wardens could grow even more powerful."

"Through blood magic," Alistair scowled.

"What do you think the Joining is, boy?"

Alistair's face was grim, but he didn't answer. He hadn't thought of it as blood magic. Of course he knew there was blood involved, but he was no mage, and there was no spell being cast that he knew of. It could hardly be considered the same. Whatever power the darkspawn blood bestowed upon him wasn't magic. It just... was. Or, so he'd always thought.

"And the Calling?" Serenity asked. "Did you find a way to stop it?"

"I... have tried," he said. "I still hear the humming even now, but I was able to quiet it through my research... and magic. But I ran out of test subjects many years ago. And without further research, I cannot provide an end to the song."

Serenity felt a wave of disappointment wash over her. "What is the potion outside this room?"

"It awakens something inside you, in your blood," he said. "You may take it, if you wish. It has been tested. It will not poison you. It will slow the corruption, but it will not cure it."

"Only a monster would sacrifice his fellow Wardens," Alsitair persisted and looked at Serenity. "And you would drink something this blood mage made from torturing them?"

"It was necessary," Avernus said, his voice firm. "It was vital. The few meager years of life they might have spent trapped in this tower were nothing compared to the greater goal. I gave their death meaning."

"Did they consent to you 'giving their death meaning'? Or are you no better than the demons?"

"Worse, even," Serenity added. "The demons would have made their death quick. They would have let their spirits cross the Fade before taking their corpses as vessels. You made them suffer."

"I... I have done what I must," Avernus said, his face falling with guilt. "Some consented in the beginning. Others did not."

"Are you beginning to see now?" Alistair said, glancing at the skeletons in the gibbets.

"Help me undo my greatest of mistakes," Avernus pleaded. "Let me cleanse this place. Then... I will accept whatever justice you feel I merit."

"You can close the Veil?" Serenity asked.

"Yes, but I will need your help keeping the demons at bay."

"Let us not waste any more time," Sten said, turning to go back to the room with the mirror and summoning circles.

Alistair walked closer to Serenity and leaned down to whisper to her. "He deserves to be executed for his crimes. You know that, right?"

She turned her head to look at him and sighed. "I won't allow him to torture anybody else. But if he can find a cure for the Calling through other means..." She grasped his gauntleted arm in her hand. "I don't want either of us to have to go back down there and fight to our deaths... or worse."

As much as the thought of avoiding the Calling appealed to him, he couldn't help feeling it was wrong to let this man, if he could even be called that anymore, live. Her hand on his arm made him lose whatever fight he had in him though. He could argue with her about it later if he could get his thoughts straight.

Serenity slowed, allowing the others to walk ahead of her, and stopped at the table to uncork the bottle. When Alistair turned to see why she had fallen behind, he saw her guzzling the potion with Avernus standing beside her, watching. "Maker's breath," he grumbled. "You just couldn't wait, could you?"

She put the bottle down. She hadn't drank it all and didn't think she needed to. She only had as much as she remembered taking during the Joining. The drink made her skin crawl, and it sounded like she was underwater for a second. A searing pain caused her to double over, shooting through her belly and striking every nerve in her body from head to toe. It was like a electrical shock beginning in her middle, but it was over quickly. She looked up at Alistair apologetically when he helped her to her feet. "I'm sorry. I had to."

He sighed.

"There is enough there for you too, Warden," Avernus offered.

"No, I think I'll pass," he said.

In the summoning room, Levi waited by the stairs behind Avernus as he cast the spell to close the tear in the Veil while Alistair, Sten, Morrigan, Mabari-Cullen, and Serenity fought back the demons that tried to stop him. When it was over, Avernus, sapped from the amount of energy he expended to fix his mistake, said, "It's over. At last... the Veil is strong now. Stronger, at least."

"No more demons will come through?" Sten asked.

"No. They're gone," he assured them and looked to Serenity and Alistair, uncertain which of them would decide his fate. "I said I'd submit to judgment. Can I be left to experiment in peace?"

"What part of your experimenting is peaceful?" Alistair asked, glaring at him.

"You must atone," Serenity said, giving Alistair a sidelong look. "You will research ways to help the Grey Wardens. Ethically. I want to see a cure for the Calling in my lifetime."

"With what time I have left, I will do this," Avernus nodded approvingly. He was glad to see at least one of them saw his worth. "It may takes months or years for my research to reach fruition. When it does, I will send for you."

"Provided I survive this Blight, I will be back to offer my assistance." She quickly added, "Not as a guinea pig."

"Thank you for this, Warden."

Levi asked his questions before they left, disappointed by the lack of evidence to redeem his family's name. But at least he was not left wondering. He would use Soldier's Peak to store his family's trade goods and help clean the place up. Serenity hoped when she returned, there wouldn't be so many bodies lying around.

In camp, Serenity found Alistair warming his hands by the campfire and stood beside him. "Can we speak in private?"

Alistair was relieved she came to him. "I wanted to speak with you too."

She walked with him to stand beneath a tree behind camp and turned to face him. "Maybe you should go first."

He took a deep breath. "Why were you so quick to drink that concoction of his? You didn't even wait until we were done. It could have made you sick or lose consciousness like you did after the Joining."

She hadn't thought about that. She knew she had been impulsive. "You're right... but I was afraid you would try to stop me."

"I might have... or I might not have. You didn't give talking to me a chance."

She knew he was right. Again. It was unfair not to communicate with him. That was one of the reasons she was speaking with him now though. "I'm sorry. I... I was scared." She wrung her hands and admitted, "I am scared."

Alistair raised an eyebrow, curious and concerned. "We've been through a lot together. We've faced men, darkspawn, giant spiders, and demons... You faced them all down. What has you especially afraid?"

She swallowed hard and admitted, somewhat ashamedly, "The Calling." She'd embraced becoming a Grey Warden, welcoming her newfound freedom and the purpose Duncan had given her. Even had she known beforehand what it would cost, she would prefer it over Tranquility, but... it still scared her, nonetheless. If there was a way to avoid it, to save the rest of the Order from the disease, she had to try.

Alistair understood her motivation now, especially after encountering the broodmother, and he felt bad for the way he reacted. He should have tried to talk to her about it, to have made sure she was okay, instead of assuming she was fine. "I've tried to put that out of my mind. And seeing you bravely face all those dangers made it easy to think nothing could frighten you. Underneath all those feats of bravery, you're just a human too." He quickly corrected himself, "Well, an elf. But uh, I... what I mean to say is... it's okay that you're not immune to fear."

Serenity pushed her hood back so it landed between her shoulders. "There's something else that scares me."

Alistair felt his skin grow hot looking at her in the moonlight, now that she was no longer buried beneath a bear's pelt. Something about her vulnerability made him want to hold her. But he didn't dare reach out. "What?"

"We're low on lyrium potions and... and I don't like the way they make me feel. I wanted to ask your permission... to use blood magic."

It took him a moment to process what she'd just said. "You... what? Is this the influence of that mystery potion you drank?"

"No, it's not."

"Which part of what you said has to do with scaring you? Because blood magic scares me."

"When I drink too much lyrium, I feel sick. And knowing the long term effects from prolonged exposure, I thought perhaps blood magic would be a safer alternative."

"Safer alternative? What part of magic that comes from demons seems like a safer alternative?"

"I already learned it," she admitted. "I don't have to deal with demons at all."

"You... already learned it?" He had been with her nearly since Ostagar. Anywhere they went, they went together. Neither of them ever stayed back at camp. She'd collected books from the tower, but he didn't think the tower would have a large collection of forbidden texts. "When did you...?"

"I collected some books. From all over. Two from the Circle, two from the temple, one from Redcliffe..."

"Redcliffe?" he asked and realized immediately which book she meant. The book that cost Connor his life. He tried to subdue the anger creeping into his voice. "So you already learned it and now you want my permission to use it? Why not just do whatever it is you want to do?"

"I'm asking your permission because I want you to trust me. If you cannot trust a blood mage, I won't... I won't do it. I possess the knowledge but not the practice. I just want to safely power my spells. I'm not going to make deals with demons or take away anyone's free will." She knew he was no longer a templar, but he spent years as a recruit and that could be enough to make it impossible for him to accept that not all maleficarum are evil. She couldn't do it without his blessing though. They needed to work together. "Can you trust me?"

Alistair sighed. "There isn't another alive I trust more than you."

"Does that mean...?"

"Yes, fine. I've noticed you not feeling well after particularly trying battles. I didn't know it was because of the lyrium. If... blood magic," he said, feeling dirty just saying the words, "helps keep you alive and well, then... so be it."

Serenity smiled at him, relieved. "I won't be doing it unless I have to. I don't exactly like the idea of taking a knife to my hand. I just wanted to warn you that if the need arises, I can do it. I would rather not have to rely on lyrium at all. Especially after seeing that templar in Denerim. I know I don't use it every day, but even on days we don't fight, when I don't have to drink the potions, I get these headaches. I know it's because of the lyrium."

"I know templars go through it, the addiction and withdrawal, that is... but I imagine mages can too. And I don't want you to suffer the same fate as many have already." He looked back toward camp, wondering how the others would react to her decision. "Are you going to tell Wynne?"

Serenity wasn't seeking approval from anybody else. He was the other Grey Warden. And Wynne, of all the companions accompanying her, was the one she felt she most needed to hide it from. The kind Senior Enchanter could report her to Greagoir. Grey Warden or no, the templars might feel strongly enough about blood magic to try to track her down, and they'd be able to do it too, with her phylactery still in Denerim. She also knew Sten would disapprove, though she couldn't guess to what extent, whether he would turn on her or leave. "Your opinion is the one that matters to me."

"Despite all the headaches you've given me, my opinion of you remains unscathed."

"And what is your opinion of me, exactly?"

Alistair stammered, "Oh... well... I didn't intend to go into details, but I did kind of set myself up to be asked, didn't I? Aside from being the only person besides Duncan who could get me to chase after darkspawn in the Deep Roads, I think you're... incredib...ly... beautiful. And brave," he added quickly, wondering if it was too soon to tell her about his growing feelings for her. "Was that too forward? Oh, Maker."

Being complimented by him felt different from being complimented by Zevran. It didn't make her uncomfortable. "Thank you."

Alistair cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his neck nervously, "Well, it's late now, isn't it? We should get back to our bed rolls, right?"

"Yes," Serenity said, pulling her hood back up over her head to warm her ears. "Good night, Alistair."

Chapter Text

Denerim was only a day's travel away from Soldier's Peak. Now seemed as good a time as any to make the time for Alistair to meet his long lost sister. The others dispersed, shopping in the market district while Serenity, Alistair, and Mabari-Cullen stopped by the Chanter's board.

"By the Maker," Serenity muttered, reading the posted job. She ripped the paper off the board and folded it up to stuff in her pack.

"You can't do that--" the sister standing nearby protested in astonishment. "You must leave the work order on the board, so others can fill it."

"I will take the job," Serenity said.

The friendly young templar standing guard in front of the Chantry's entrance intervened. "Is there a problem, sister?"

"She's taken the order off the board!"

"I would rather others not get in my way," she explained. "I have seen the man this order speaks of. I will bring him in myself."

The templar held up his hand and nodded to the sister. "Give her a week, sister. Then we will write up a new order if need be. This one has been spoken of highly by Sergeant Kylon."

"As you say..."

After they were out of earshot from the Chantry, Alistair asked, "What exactly is this job you got greedy with?"

She took the wrinkled parchment from her bag and handed it to him. "They're looking for Jowan."

He read over the parchment. Jowan had earned himself a reputation as a dangerous blood mage. Word must have reached Denerim from Redcliffe. "Do you mean to bring him to justice finally?" He knew she probably intended to help him flee, but he was hopeful, anyway.

"I don't know yet. All I know is I intend to find him before anybody else does."

"I will help you, of course, but if he has done wrong again, I hope we do the right thing," he said pointedly.

"I will." Her voice sounded firm, but the words felt empty. She dared to hope Jowan hadn't been abusing blood magic or consorting with demons after she released him from his cell. She suspected the rumors of his monstrosity were exaggerated. Granted, his poisoning of the Arl was a heinous crime, but she still placed part of the blame on Loghain for the act. If Jowan made another mistake and squandered his chance for redemption, she wasn't sure whether she could kill him or not. She cared about him, and she'd known him since they were children. While she felt oddly disconnected from that life in the tower, she still felt a connection to Jowan.

She stopped walking as they approached the bazaar at the center of the market district. "You said your sister's house was in the market district, near Wade's Emporium?"

Alistair felt his heart race and turned, looking at the number over the door of the house on the corner. "That's... my sister's house, there. I'm almost sure of it. This is... yes, this is the right address."

"Do you want me to wait outside?" Serenity asked, not wanting to impose on this long anticipated reunion.

"What? No!"

Serenity was surprised at the desperation with which he protested. "Are you okay? You're sweating."

"Do I seem a little nervous? I am. I really don't know what to expect. I'd like you to be there with me, if you're willing," he said quickly, "Oh, I might throw up."

"Slow down, Alistair," Serenity urged him, putting her hand on his arm. "Take a deep breath. We'll go together."

"Or we could... leave, I suppose. We really don't have time to pay a visit, do we? We have to go find Jowan, after all. Maybe we should go."

"We came here to meet your sister. No chickening out now," she said and pulled him closer to the door. She knocked when Alistair hesitated for too long and a voice on the other side called out, 'Come in.'

While Alistair introduced himself to Goldanna, Serenity stood behind him, scanning the paltry dwelling while half-listening to their exchange. Something about this sister of Alistair's bothered Serenity. Her voice grated on her every nerve like the sound of genlocks breathing. If they were going to stay for dinner, she might have to excuse herself. She started thinking of reasons she couldn't stay. Mabari-Cullen could play sick for her. He was a wonderful actor. But she also knew Alistair knew that as well as she did and he would see right through it. No, instead of seeking help in escaping the awkward family dinner from Mabari-Cullen, she would find a reason to help Morrigan with something or other.

"I'm your brother," Alistair said, offering a smile.

Goldanna scoffed, "For all the good it does me! You killed Mother, you did, and I've had to scrape by all this time? That coin didn't last long, and when I was back, they ran me off!"

Serenity bristled, "That's hardly Alistair's fault. He was a baby!"

"And who in the Maker's name are you? Some elf to follow him about and carry his riches for him?"

"Well, that's racist," Serenity muttered. This had taken a turn for the ugly, and she had the feeling that awkward family dinner was off the table.

"Hey!" Alistair interjected, "Don't speak to her that way! She's my friend and a Grey Warden, just like me!"

"Oh, I see. A prince and a Grey Warden, too," Goldanna sneered. "Well, who am I to think poorly of someone so high and mighty compared to me?"

"That's..." Alistair faltered, his voice softening, "that's not what I..."

"I don't know you, boy. I got five mouths to feed, and unless you can help with that, I got less than no use for you," Goldanna challenged, crossing her arms.

"I... I'm sorry, I... I don't know what to say..."

Serenity could hear how hurt and disappointed Alistair was. She had to try to help. "Goldanna, Alistair came here looking to find his family."

"Well, he found it. And what good is that to me? None, that's what, unless he can see to it that his family lives as it should."

"I suppose maybe I could give her some money... for my nieces and nephews?" Alistair suggested, looking at Serenity for permission. "Fifteen sovereigns, maybe? Would you let me give her that?"

Serenity sighed and stood on her toes to whisper, "She just wants money, Alistair. She has no interest in being family to you."

"But..."

"You can give her some money, if you really want to. But that's a bit much, isn't it?" She didn't mind parting with the gold if it gave him peace of mind. They must have spent a month saving up that amount of gold, but it would likely take Goldanna longer than a year charging only 3 bits a bundle. At that rate, she would be lucky to make a silver a week, and with five mouths to feed, there would be no room for her to save. Fifteen sovereigns would feed her and her children until they were old enough to work themselves. Serenity inwardly chastised herself for being greedy.

"Then, here, Goldanna... take this money," Alistair said, counting the coins from the leather pouch. "I know it's not much, but--"

Goldanna took the coins and dropped them into her pocket. "You, a prince, marching in here with your fancy armor and such, and this is all you got to offer? You must think I'm very stupid."

"How dare you!" Serenity snapped.

"No, wait," Alistair started, putting his hand on Serenity's shoulder to stop her. "I don't think that at all! I want to help, if I can..."

"You want to help?" Goldanna glared, crossing her arms again. "You go to whatever high and mighty folks you run with, and you tell them you've got nephews and nieces that aren't living as they've a right to!"

"You ungrateful harpy--" Serenity felt the heat rush to her face and ears, turning them pink.

"Serenity, please--" Alistair started.

"She's a bitter, nasty old woman who doesn't have the decency to even say thank you."

Goldanna shouted, "You say those things about me in MY house? Get out, you dirty elf!"

"Please, stop!" Alistair pleaded, looking back and forth between them. "I'm starting to wonder why I came..."

"I don't know why you came either or what you expected to find, but it isn't here. Now get out of my house, the both of you!"

Serenity looked up at him, ignoring Goldanna's command. "Do you want your money back, Alistair?"

"No..." Alistair answered softly, "No, let her have it. Let's just go."

When they came back out of the house and closed the door behind them, Mabari-Cullen tilted his head and whined, sensing Alistair's distress and Serenity's seething outrage. He raised his head up to meet Alistair's hand when he reached out to pat him.

"Thank you for coming with me," Alistair said, his voice quiet and dejected. "I'm sorry about that. For how she treated you. I'm sorry I gave her money at all. This is the family I've been wondering about all my life? That gold-digging harridan? I can't believe it."

"Are you okay?"

"I... I guess I was expecting her to accept me without question. Isn't that what family is supposed to do? I... I feel like a complete idiot."

"You're not an idiot," Serenity consoled him. "Blood is probably the thing that matters least when it comes to family, Alistair. You don't need her. You have a family already. You have me, Sten, Morrigan--"

"Morrigan? Ugh. No. She's not even like a wicked step sister, she's just wicked. And Sten? Does he even have feelings, you think? No, I don't think any of them... well, maybe Wynne..."

"And me?" Serenity suggested, poking his side with her finger.

"Yes, and... you. I'm glad you came with me. I don't know how I would have handled that on my own."

"I'll always have your back. Whether it's facing darkspawn or greedy peasants." Serenity's face lit up with an idea and she looked down at Mabari-Cullen mischievously. "Cullen, do you have to go?" She tilted her head toward the door.

Mabari-Cullen barked and trotted back over to Goldanna's house and squatted, leaving a steaming pile of excrement on her doorstep.

Serenity grinned, "Good boy."

At first Alistair was shocked, but then he was taken over by laughter, the kind that made him keel over and grasp his knees. "That's barbaric!"

"That's justice," Serenity corrected him, patting Mabari-Cullen's head with approval.

"Let's get out of here before she comes outside," he said, walking away quickly. Once they crossed the bazaar, he stopped and looked around. "So, what should we do now? Who do you think is browsing the Wonders of Thedas?"

"You might think Morrigan or Wynne, but I'm betting on Zevran. He probably thinks it's a brothel."

"I... can see how he might come to that conclusion. Should we go see?"

"Actually, I was hoping to stop by the alienage," Serenity said, rocking on her heels. Since she had the honor of meeting his terrible sister, he could accompany her to meet her wonderful mother.

"The alienage? Do you know someone there? Not that I would assume just because you're an elf..."

"My mother raised me there until I was seven."

A young elf woman with her hair tied back in a sloppy bun stopped as she was passing by and interrupted, "Alienage is closed off. Has been for a month now."

"Still?" Serenity felt a nervous sinking feeling in her stomach. "Do you know why?"

"They won't tell us anything," she said, curling her fingers around the hem of her tunic. "We think there might be a sickness, something contagious. Why else would they keep them contained?"

"I'm sorry, Serenity," Alistair said. "We'll be back this way soon though. We'll find your mother as soon as we are able."

Serenity nodded and started walking toward The Wonders of Thedas. "A month ago the guard said the alienage would only be closed off for a few days." She noticed substantially more elves on the streets since the last time they had been in the city. Locked out of their community, they were homeless, growing skinnier by the day. When their gaunt faces looked up at her, she had to stop and give them silvers. It would at least keep them fed for a few days.

Alistair regretted giving Goldanna so much money when these people needed it more. He could see by their reactions to the silvers that a little would go a long way. He had been far too generous with the fifteen sovereigns he'd given his sister, but he tried not to think on it with remorse -- even though she hadn't shown the least bit of gratitude. And here these elves were so gracious in their acceptance of Serenity's hand outs, even though she was a stranger. Or, perhaps, they felt some sort of kinship with her because they were all elves.

Serenity was too young to remember any of their faces. Aside from her own parents, she remembered Valendrian, but he was the hahren of the alienage. He would not be found outside of it.

As they entered the Wonders of Thedas, Alistair wondered aloud, "Where do you think they get all this stuff? Do you think they, um, have any miniature golem dolls...?"

Serenity couldn't imagine Alistair playing with dolls at his age. "Why don't you just play with Shale?"

"Because then I'd have a broken arm. At the very least. You need my arm. It holds up my shield."

"Looks like I was wrong about finding Zev in here," Serenity said, nodding toward Wynne browsing a shelf in the corner.

"What is that she's looking at?" Alistair asked, walking across the store to investigate.

"Jade carved and polished into the shape of a large..." Wynne gasped and looked embarrassed, especially now that Alistair was going to find her looking at it.

"Oh, no," Alistair groaned, "I'll never look at you the same way again."

"I may be old, but I'm not dead," Wynne said defensively. "And it's not as if I was going to buy it."

Serenity browsed the trinkets protected under glass at the counter in front of the Tranquil proprietor. She eyed the Spellward. She had seen it the last two times they came in, her eye always drawn to it and made to linger thoughtfully. Priced at a hefty eighty-seven sovereigns, there was no way she could buy it without anyone noticing. She pooled her money with Alistair, after all, and now that Goldanna possessed a large sum of their money, she couldn't afford it anyway.

She had to remind herself it would be a waste to buy it now. If it was still there after they defeated the archdemon, perhaps she could return for it.

"I see the Spellward has again garnered your interest," Wynne teased softly.

Serenity crossed her arms and took a few steps to the left to feign interest in something else. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"For whom would you buy it, I wonder?" Wynne smiled, following her.

"I'm not going to buy it," Serenity said. "It costs too much. And we will be fighting darkspawn, not mages."

"Don't darkspawn have emissaries?" Wynne reminded her.

"Not when I use mana clash," Serenity smirked.

"You have learned much since your time in the tower, but don't get too big of an ego just yet."

Serenity smiled back, "I won't.

They left Denerim early the next morning, heading south into the Brecilian forest.

"Where do you think we'll find Jowan?" Alistair asked.

"The order states he was last seen in the Brecilian Forest. Maybe he has a camp nestled in the woods somewhere."

"Do you think the Dalish would be harboring him?"

"No way. They'd be more likely to kill him, I think. But if we don't find him before we find the Dalish camp, we'll look for him after. Maybe they chased him off. Who knows?"

"Do you think Cullen could track him down?"

Serenity's immediate thought was of the templar, skilled in hunting mages, but without Jowan's phylactery, he would have a hard time of it. When Mabari-Cullen's bark resounded behind her, it made her jump, and she realized who Alistair was actually asking about. Serenity leaned forward to pet Mabari-Cullen and asked, "Well, Cullen, do you remember what Jowan smells like? He was in the cell at Redcliffe. Can you help us track him down?"

Mabari-Cullen gave an affirmative bark and ran off.

Serenity followed in the general direction at a leisurely pace. If Mabari-Cullen found him, he would run back to lead the way. It was only an hour before that happened.

When they closed in on a group of people fighting blighted beasts -- wolves and bears corrupted by the darkspawn taint -- Serenity recognized Jowan standing out among them. He no longer wore his blue apprentice robes, but he still looked like a mage and would have even if he weren't holding a staff glowing at the end. Serenity watched the three humans fighting the blighted creatures with Jowan's spells cast from a distance to aid them. Alistair and the others joined in helping put down the mad creatures before somebody got hurt, but Serenity went to stand beside Jowan.

After the wolves and bear lay dead, Jowan turned to Serenity, surprised to see her there. He hadn't recognized the others as they joined the fray, just relieved for the assistance, and he had seen her approach from the corner of his eye but hadn't bothered to look at her until it was over. "Serenity?" He backed up nervously. "Please, don't do anything to me. I've only been trying to help."

"Why would you think I'd want to do anything to you?"

"I know the Chanters' board put up notices to hunt me down. The Mages' Collective liaison has removed it twice already."

"Don't be scaring Master Levyn!" one of the men behind him shouted. "He's saved us three times over!"

"He has?" Alistair asked, bemused. "Really?"

"I've been escorting refugees from Lothering north to take a ship to the Free Marches," Jowan explained. "This is the second group I've escorted. We're here looking for survivors in the Brecilian Forest before we turn north."

Morrigan looked Jowan up and down. "T'would seem that he has chosen to do the noble thing rather than the smart one."

"I'm surprised you don't approve of this," Alistair said, cocking an eyebrow.

"Oh, did it sound like I didn't? I commend him for doing as he pleases."

"How long do you plan to do this for?" Alistair asked Jowan, casting a judging eye over him as he crossed his arms. His mistrust with clear.

"For as long as there are people that need my help."

"You have found only three refugees?" Sten asked. He thought perhaps Jowan was not such a good leader to have found only three in a nation torn by war and darkspawn. He was sure they had passed many themselves, especially outside Denerim. Or perhaps they were just poverty stricken. He had heard accounts of different countries and Ferelden must have been the poorest. He was entirely unimpressed.

"So far, anyway," Jowan said, "The last group was fourteen."

One of the refugees stepped forward, a middle aged man with light red hair, braided at the sides. "He saved us from the bandits, he did."

"You see, Alistair," Morrigan said pointedly, "t'would seem that this young apostate can truly be redeemed."

Alistair could not deny the proof of his good deeds, but it did not erase the past. "He still has a bounty on his head, and it could put them all in danger while templars, soldiers, and bounty hunters all seek him out."

"We won't let them!" the refugee argued. It was clear he was only armed with a dagger. His enthusiasm was commendable, but Alistair knew they wouldn't stand a chance against anyone hunting down a maleficar.

"I don't want to put anyone in danger." Jowan looked at the man that jumped to his defense and said, "If it comes to that, I don't want you to fight. You should run for your lives."

"But Master Levyn..."

"The closer you get to Denerim, the more dangerous it will be," Alistair added.

Serenity knew Alistair was right, and she could see Jowan thinking about a safer way for them to avoid detection. "Jowan, why don't you come with us? The road to Denerim is safe. There weren't any bandits when we came south. The refugees could safely make it there on their own."

"And what of his crimes?" Morrigan reminded her. "Wouldn't we be then harboring a criminal? That would draw more than the attention of Loghain's men."

"No more attention than you or the Antivan Crow who failed to kill me."

"Neither one of our names are on a piece of paper advertising our capture."

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure mine isn't," Zevran chuckled.

Morrigan waved her hand dismissively. "But you will do as you wish. I suggest you find yourself a nice cloak and hood, Jowan."

"If he is conscripted into the Grey Wardens, there is nothing anyone can do about it," Serenity said.

"That is true. She may invoke the right of conscription," Alistair remembered.

"Clever girl," Morrigan smiled.

Serenity stood in front of Jowan and studied his face, aged since they were both apprentices in the Circle. She wondered if she wore her experience in the lines on her face as much as he did. "I've tried to protect you and I've taken responsibility for you twice already. I might as well make it official."

"But I'm doing something good, helping these people--"

"No, Master Levyn," the refugee interrupted. "You should go with the Grey Warden. No templars or city guards will start trouble with us. And if you are with the Wardens, they won't start trouble with you neither."

"He's right, Master Levyn. Thank you for helping us," the woman behind him said, putting her hand on his shoulder.

Jowan turned to face them as the younger man, the third refugee he'd rescued said, "You've been very kind to us. I thought we couldn't trust you because you were a mage, but I was wrong. You saved my life. Thank you."

"I... You're welcome," Jowan said with a hint of melancholy. Just when he'd thought he'd found his calling, he was being taken away again. He was so confused. He looked back at Serenity for guidance. "I... I suppose... but me? A Grey Warden?"

"Yes, well, there's a ceremony involved, but that will have to come later."

"Good bye, Master Levyn. We had better go so we can reach Denerim before nightfall," the red head said and turned to lead the others toward the path leading north.

"Good... goodbye," Jowan answered and looked nervously at the group as they left. He was caught between the feeling of relief at being free of the responsibility of leading the helpless and the feeling of dread at being given a much larger responsibility as a Grey Warden. He knew little of the order, except that they had been labeled traitors and were wanted dead or alive. He was really no better off either way, it seemed. But at least now he wouldn't be going it alone. "I can't believe you're really here."

Serenity smiled and hugged him, glad to have her friend back. She had believed she would never see him again and didn't realize until she found him how much it hurt to lose him again. "Come on. We need to find the Dalish encampment."

"I've been avoiding them. Didn't want to become a walking pin cushion full of arrows. But I can lead you to them."

Morrigan walked alongside Jowan. "Pin cushion? Oh, if only the Dalish would be so kind to you."

"You think they'd do worse?" Jowan had mostly meant to avoid them as a sign of respect more so than out of fear. He knew they had strained relationships with humans from the books he'd read, but perhaps it was worse than he thought.

"They may or may not, but they surely are capable."

"Oh yes," Zevran added. "I once saw the aftermath of what happens to a Dalish captive. Not a pretty sight, my friend."

"Oh, don't let them scare you," Wynne said with a soft chuckle.

Jowan recognized her voice and stopped to face her. "Maker's breath... Senior Enchanter Wynne? What are you doing here?"

"I am accompanying Serenity on her journey, just as you are, helping the Grey Wardens. I'm glad to see you're well and you've been helping people," she said without slowing her pace.

"I've been doing what I can to make up for all I have done," he added, lowering his eyes with shame.

"It may be too soon to ask such a personal question, but if I may... what caused you to turn to blood magic?" Wynne asked, noticing Serenity matched their pace to walk beside Jowan. She hadn't met either of them more than once or twice in the Circle, being that they were apprentices and neither pursued the Creation school of magic.

"I... wasn't a very good mage. I was very weak to be honest. I foolishly thought that I could take a faster path to getting stronger."

"I never thought you were weak," Serenity said.

"I could never compare to you, Serenity. You always had to protect me."

"You protected me too, Jowan," she reminded him. Maybe it was that he hadn't been able to protect himself that he thought himself weak, forgetting that he'd helped her too. She understood that feeling of helplessness.

"I see," Wynne answered softly after letting a long silence pass. "And was Uldred your teacher, by any chance?"

"Uldred gave me a book on blood magic," Jowan sighed, "I should have known better, but he preyed on my desperation."

"He made you believe you would fail without it, but that was not the case, was it? Look at all you've done, how far you've come, how much you've learned. You are still alive... and you don't need it, do you?"

Jowan felt his spirits lifted by their encouragement. "After Redcliffe, I haven't touched a blood magic spell... I guess I have come a long way. Thank you both. I really needed to hear that. Especially from you two."

"I'm glad the incident at the tower didn't escalate and nobody was seriously injured or worse," Wynne said. "What happened at Redcliffe was... unfortunate, but Serenity insists you are not entirely to blame."

"I can't blame anybody else for what I did to Arl Eamon. I wasn't forced to poison him. I just thank the Maker he's still alive," Jowan said.

"It's good that you take responsibility for your actions," Serenity said, "but I do blame Loghain at least a little bit. He manipulated you. You were coerced."

"It's true he didn't leave me much choice in the matter... He promised forgiveness for my crime or threatened to let the templars kill me. I suppose I felt obligated to carry out my end of the agreement after his men saved me from the templar that found me," Jowan said. "But I didn't hesitate when the opportunity came."

"A templar?" Wynne asked, "What became of him?"

"I... I don't know. I'd never seen him before. They took him away."

"What's done is done," Serenity said. "Eamon lives, and you are safe now."

"Safe, perhaps, from the templars, if they honor the right of conscription," Wynne said, "But always be wary of the demons that lurk in the Fade."

"If they don't... honor the conscription, that is, you have to let them take me," Jowan said.

"Mm... no," Serenity shook her head thoughtfully. "I'll do no such thing. It is my right. If they attack a Grey Warden, then I will fight them."

Jowan was touched by the sentiment, but he hoped no blood would be spilled on his behalf. "If it comes to it, I do hope your negotiation skills are on par with your magic."

"She talked her way out of fighting a dragon," Alistair interjected from behind them. "You'll be hard pressed to find a better negotiator."

"She... what? Really? A dragon? How did you do that?"

"Uh, long story," Serenity chuckled, "Basically, there was this cult, and the leader was really gullible."

"Well, the templars are like a cult. So there may be a chance yet."

"The order is many things, but it is not a cult," Alistair said disapprovingly. "Despite any flaws it may have, it is important still."

Jowan remembered Alistair from the dungeon in Redcliffe and realized too late he was a templar. He knew now why Alistair seemed to glare at him any time he looked his way and tried to backpedal. "I, um... I didn't mean anything by it."

"I see the Dalish ahead," Serenity said, counting three blocking the path toward the aravels. She assumed they were hunters by the bows they carried.

"Thank the Maker for small mercies..." Jowan muttered. He could feel Alistair staring a hole through the back of his head.

After being led by the hunters to their Keeper, Zathrian, and speaking with he and Lanaya until twilight, many of Serenity's companions joined the Dalish around their campfire. Though the mood was somber from the attacks by the werewolves, those that weren't tending to the sick and injured gathered round the fire with meat from a hart brought back by the hunters. They welcomed the strangers with cautious hospitality. When, at Wynne's urging, Oghren shared his stash of ale with the clan, they seemed to let their guard down.

Hesitantly, Serenity stood alone beside Zathrian. She wasn't sure what to make of his longevity, but she suspected blood magic over seclusion from the humans. It didn't make sense to her that he would be the only Dalish elf to maintain his immortality while all others were lost. She had also seen from Avernus the power that blood holds. Regardless of how he lived so long, she felt sorry for him, having to see his children and his clansmen die while he lived on. She was afraid of dying, but more than that, she was afraid of losing.

"There is something I have been wondering," she said.

"I was wondering when you would ask. I thought there must be a reason you did not join the others."

"My father was Dalish, but he was captured by humans and taken to Denerim as an indentured servant. His name was Ufen. Did you know him?"

"I am sorry to disappoint you, da'len. He was not of our clan."

"I see." She barely remembered his face, let alone which clan he hailed from. She had been young when her mother spoke of him, younger still the last time he held her in his arms. But she thought perhaps even if he weren't from this particular clan, the Keeper might have met him before. After all, clans do meet, especially in marriages, trade, and in sharing their mages. "He had the tattoo revering June," she said.

"The master of crafts," Zathrian smiled. "And your mother?"

"A city elf."

"Ah."

Zathrian did not voice his opinion on the matter, but Serenity wondered at the ambiguity of his acknowledgement. Was it an 'ah' of disapproval or simply one of understanding? She wondered if he thought of her as a lowly flat-ear. She had overheard the term spoken by one of the hunters, uncertain of its meaning, only that it was a debasing slur. It did not matter much to her though. She had never met the Dalish before and knew almost nothing of their customs or their gods, only that they believed in seclusion and were left to rule themselves without interference from the Chantry or its templars.

"Humans can be very cruel in their treatment of our kind. City elf and Dalish alike," Zathrian said thoughtfully. "What can you tell me about your mother?"

"I don't remember much about her," Serenity frowned. "I was taken to the Circle eleven years ago. I just remember how much she loved my father and how often she cried herself to sleep missing him."

"I am sorry to hear that. If I may ask, does she still live?"

"I don't know. The alienage in Denerim has been locked down since the uprising."

"What is her name? I shall make an offering to the creators and pray for her safety."

"Kyna Surana. I thank you for your kindness, Keeper."

Zathrian bowed his head courteously. "You should join the others around the campfire. I'm sure you must be hungry and will find the stories of interest."

Serenity saw Jowan standing off to the side, listening in, and pulled him by his sleeve to follow her as she sat on the bench beside Alistair and nudged him to make more room. Wynne and Oghren sat on the bench across from her, wedged between elf children and elders, and Zevran sat comfortably in the dirt at her feet. They were all settled in around the campfire, listening to the tales of the Creators as they ate hunks of deer meat seasoned with salt and rosemary. Morrigan, Shale, and Sten were absent, having left to set up camp just outside the Dalish settlement, where Bodahn Feddic and Sandal had stopped.

The fire crackled and fireflies lit the edge of the woods, making the camp bright and peaceful, even with the unknown threats in the darkness surrounding them. Serenity leaned over to rest her head on Jowan's shoulder, glad to have her friend back and relieved she no longer had to wonder about whether he still lived or whether he'd killed anybody else. The gesture of affection only lasted a short moment before she sat upright again, attentive at the storyteller's mention of June.

When her hands were free and she'd wiped them clean, Serenity sat on the edge of the bench and leaned forward to braid Zevran's hair.

Zevran turned his head slightly to look back at her and teased, "Braiding my hair, Serenity? You must feel really close to me to be able to commit such an intimate act."

"You're still here, even if it's just for the treasure," she said, pulling one of the ties from her hair to hold the braid she'd tied in his. He already had two braids, one on each side of his head, pulled back into a half-ponytail. She would give him two more. "I could do your hair like Sten's," she offered, winding three more strands together.

"I am afraid having the same hair as him might have him issue a blood challenge of some kind to me," Zevran half-joked.

"Has that ever happened before?" one of the young elves across the fire asked.

"Not from a Qunari," Zevran answered, "but once, I decided to style my hair in the same fashion as a senior member of the Crows. He felt his hair was a signature of his and that I was insulting him by daring to steal it. Of course I was insulting him, but it was only meant in jest."

When Serenity tied off the second braid, Alistair thought now seemed as good a time as any to ask her away from the camp. He had felt a spark of jealousy when she'd rested her head on Jowan, wishing she'd leaned into him instead, and he felt foolish for feeling jealous at all. But he needed to tell her how he felt.

He leaned over and asked quietly, nudging her thigh with the back of his hand, "Serenity?" When she turned her head, he continued, "Can I speak with you in private?" He looked behind them and gestured toward an aravel. "Maybe under that tree over there?"

Serenity nodded and followed him to the tree, not finding it particularly private, at least as far as being out of sight was concerned. They were, however, out of earshot of those around the campfire. Not that any of them would be listening in. "Is something the matter?"

"What? No, I, uh..." Alistair cleared his throat and handed her the rose he'd been carrying in his bag.

Serenity took it and stared at it for a moment before smiling at him. It was a little wilted now, but she noticed him holding it two days earlier. Perhaps it took him all this time to work up the nerve to give it to her. "For me?"

"I picked it outside Soldier's Peak. I remember thinking, 'How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?' I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn't. In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you."

"You think of me as a gentle flower?"

"A gentle flower?" Alistair chuckled, "No, I... don't know that I'd put it that way. I just thought... here I am doing all this complaining, and you haven't exactly been having a good time of it yourself. I thought maybe I could say something, tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this... darkness."

Serenity smiled, "I think it's sweet. I've never been given a flower before." She raised the rose to smell it. The scent was still faintly sweet, though it was giving way to decomposition after being in his pack so long. "Thank you."

"I'm glad you like it. " She noticed when he started fumbling with his hands, squeezing his palms nervously. "I know it... might sound strange," he started, "considering we haven't known each other for very long, but I've come to... care for you. A great deal. I think maybe it's because we've gone through so much together, I don't know. Or maybe I'm imagining it. Maybe I'm fooling myself. Am I? Fooling myself? Or do you think you might ever... feel the same way about me?"

Serenity felt a constricting feeling in her chest, her thoughts immediately drifting back to Cullen. She had only known him for a year before she left the Circle, and she knew she had cared for him a great deal by then. And she still did. It was hard to relinquish those feelings, but she wasn't sure how she felt about Alistair. He was attractive in his own way and a trusted friend, one she would give her life to save. It would be dishonest to say she had never considered that they might have something more than friendship between them, but it didn't feel the same as how she felt for Cullen.

"I think I've made a mistake, haven't I?" Alistair said gently, "You're quiet. That's probably not a good sign, is it?"

"No, I... I care a great deal about you too, Alistair. I'm just not sure what I feel. I've thought about it before too. Like you said, we've spent a lot of time together, relied on each other through all of this chaos and helped each other through it. It's just... too soon for me to say."

Given hope and feeling bold, Alistair took a deep breath and stepped closer. "Is it too soon... for this?" He leaned down and kissed her lips, hooking his arm around her waist to pull her closer.

Surprised by his advances, Serenity closed her eyes and reciprocated his kiss, clumsily at first and then it felt more natural. When he broke the kiss and slowly pulled away, he left her in a daze.

"Was that... okay? Should I have waited?"

"No, it... it was nice. I... I've never been kissed before," she said, idly turning the stem of the rose in her hands, lucky the thorns had been pulled off before he'd given it to her.

"Neither have I," he smiled sheepishly. "So, where do we go from here?"

"I... I don't know. I guess we find Witherfang tomorrow and save each other from dying some more."

"Not quite what I was asking," he chuckled and hesitated, "Maybe, if you don't think it's silly, I could hold your hand?"

Serenity giggled because she thought it was sweet and she was reminded of the apprentices in the Circle when they were still discovering themselves as adolescents. But it was never something she had done, and she knew just as well Alistair hadn't either. She saw the look of embarrassment pass over his face and took his hand, reassuring him. "I'm not laughing at you, I promise. I think it's cute."

Alistair smiled with relief, but his heart beat faster when she took his hand.

"So, you've never..." she trailed off.

"Never... never what? Never ate jellied ham? Have I never licked a lamppost in winter?"

"Now you're making fun of me," she blushed, giving his hand a squeeze.

"Make fun of you, dear lady? Perish the thought." He teased, "Well, tell me, have you ever licked a lamppost in winter?"

She could tell by the suggestive inflection in his voice that this was a euphemism for something sexual, but she hadn't meant to ask about that. "I... no, I haven't. What I meant to ask was whether you'd ever kissed a Chantry sister. Or held her hand. I think it's safe for me to assume you've never licked any lampposts either." She realized lampposts were clearly phallic and amended, "Or, you know, whatever the equivalent is..."

Alistair chuckled, "No, I have not... I think the Chantry sisters probably likened me to some kind of pet dog."

"Because you were raised by flying dogs?" she asked, recalling his weird dream.

"Well, I guess it's a little bit of a relief you haven't kissed any Chantry sisters either. This way you have no one to compare me to."

"You have nothing to worry about," she said and looked back, noticing many of the elves and their companions had dispersed from around the campfire. "Looks like story time is over."

"I'm pretty sure when it concerns us the story time has only just begun for this little group of ours."

"First smart comment and I feed them to the darkspawn."

Alistair chuckled and led her back to camp, his heart swelling with affection he tried to keep control over. Morrigan and Leliana had already turned in for the night, Oghren lay unconscious on the ground, and Sten was nodding off where he stood propped up against a tree. "So, I shall see you in the morning..." Alistair said, turning to face her by the fire. "And we will hunt werewolves because that's apparently what Grey Wardens do now."

"I never thought I would actually meet a werewolf. I wasn't even sure they really existed. Zathrian made them sound rabid, but werewolves have the minds of men, don't they?"

"I... don't know. Perhaps reality is different from the stories," Alistair said, reluctant to let go of her hand as he did.

"We'll find out tomorrow. Good night, Alistair."

Serenity dragged her bedroll closer to the fire and retrieved her bear pelt to curl up under. As she lay on her back, looking up through the trees at the starlit sky, she wondered if Cullen was okay. And whether or not she would ever see him again.

No, she reminded herself, he hates me now. I overruled him. I took control of the situation where he had none. I made him feel powerless. How could he care for me after that?

She wished she would stop thinking about him, stop feeling for him. Why couldn't she just have feelings for Alistair? That would be so much easier. Or would it? He was to be made King. She would still only be an elf, a mage, and a Grey Warden. Though her heart pulled in two directions, they were both dead ends.

With her gaze flitting from star to star, she prayed under her breath: Maker, hear me, for I pray to you not for myself but for another. See that your light remain forever present, for the darkness threatens to engulf him. I pray to you to guide Cullen through this turmoil to continue down your path. Let your light and your love console him and fill him so he is not lost. So let it be.

Chapter Text

The morning was spent wandering the Brecilian forest and running errands for a giant talking tree in order to dispel the mist that kept Witherfang's ruin hidden. Serenity was right that werewolves possessed the minds of men, though they were just as violent as the Dalish made them out to be. Serenity surprised Jowan when she talked her way out of fighting Swiftrunner and his pack.

Jowan was having second thoughts about following the Grey Wardens into the lair of the werewolves. It was unbelievable how far he and Serenity had come. But inwardly he chastised himself for his cowardice and kept pace with the group, learning how each of them fought as they faced werewolves, reanimated corpses, and revenants. He had never faced any such creatures before, only having fought bandits and corrupted wildlife in the past. He had been fortunate enough to avoid running into any templars, aside from the one Loghain's men saved him from.

He admired Serenity now more than ever, seeing how many new spells she had learned, even more than he had since they'd left the Circle, and how quickly she could switch between the schools of magic in rapid succession. He felt invisible, aiding them with lightning and fire from where he stood beside Leliana taking aim with her bow. Watching the way Serenity fought made him uneasy. Why did she insist on standing so close to the monsters? She used a staff, after all. She could stand back by him and avoid being struck more easily.

But she was leading, walking out in front, instead of having her fellow Warden walk ahead of her to shield her from arrows. And she moved nimbly around Alistair and Sten, freezing their opponents to be shattered by their heavy blows, standing close enough to the enemies to stun them with Mind Blast, a spell he had never bothered to learn but now wished he had.

Jowan had always measured his accomplishments against hers, always feeling inferior. He knew now he would have to let that habit go. She was more than he could ever be, but she was his friend, not his opponent. So, what did it really matter? Why was it so important that he feel as capable as her? He thought he'd let those feelings go when she'd freed him from his cell in Redcliffe. After all, wasn't his goal in becoming a better mage just so he could pass his Harrowing? That was what he had always told himself, anyway. He was ready to give up magic and never learn how to cast another spell if he had only found that farm with Lily.

But this was what he was. He could not change what he was born to be. And it was okay to be different. It was better that way, in fact. They could complement each other's spell work, rather than him trying to imitate her. He just needed the time to learn how everybody fought and how best to aid them. She had spent months fighting alongside her companions. It was no wonder they could predict what the other would do.

Mabari-Cullen barked, wagging his tail at Serenity as she entered the crumbling library. "What have you found?" she asked, kneeling down to inspect the gem amidst the rubble. It was a phylactery unlike any she had ever seen before. "I'll bet a revenant is going to pop up as soon as I touch this."

"Then, why are you touching it?" Jowan asked, trying to peer past Sten's giant shoulder in his way.

"This isn't like the others. The blood hasn't dried," she said, lifting it to show the others.

"It looks elven, all right," Zevran said. "Considering that what I know of my ancestors you could fit into a gem half that size, that's all I could really tell you."

Alistair sighed, "There must be magic involved to keep the blood from drying up after so long. I wonder whose it is."

"Hmph," Sten grunted. "Elf magic. You should put it back where you found it."

"Oh!" Serenity let out a startled yelp when her mind was suddenly bombarded with visions and memories from a life not her own.

"What? What?" Alistair moved forward, concerned.

She held up a hand to stop him and held the gem gingerly in the palm of her hand. She wasn't sure how but she could sense that there was a consciousness, a presence within the phylactery that was alarmed by her. She wondered if there was a spirit bound to it on the other side of the Veil, standing near. It was difficult to visualize, but it was easy to feel. It... No, he was frightened. He had endured countless centuries of loneliness and imprisonment. "Did I wake you?" she asked. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you."

"Who is she talking to?" Jowan whispered, unable to see past Sten. He wondered if there was a spirit, a faded apparition standing on the other side of him. Was it a benevolent spirit? It must be, if it was not trying to possess her.

The presence she felt calmed, the crackling warmth against her palm giving way to a smooth coolness.

Sathan, tel'dara...

She only knew the common tongue, but somehow the words held meaning. Please, stay.

More memories flashed through her mind, similar to the waking dreams she had witnessed in Soldier's Peak, reflections of the Fade, except... these were images shared only with her, behind closed eyes. The presence was not a spirit of the Fade, a will made manifest. It was the spirit of one who once lived in her realm, an elf who lived centuries before her and entered Uthenera. He was trapped within this phylactery, driven to madness between centuries of slumber.

She felt a deep ache of compassion for him. "What is your name?"

Ma melin silaima.

He was an elf. A mage. In silver armor shimmering from the moonlight reflected on the lake. Long strands of silken white hair cascaded over his breastplate.

"What happened to you?" she asked gently. She could feel the presence grow heavy and slow as it tried hard to remember. If he couldn't even remember his name, how could she expect him to remember more? She felt a pang of guilt for asking, but she was curious. She had had brief encounters with spirits and demons of the Fade but never an ancient entity.

If Zathrian had found him centuries sooner, perhaps he might have retained enough of his memory to lend the Dalish more insight. Whatever wisdom he passed to her would be hard for her to put into words, but she would try to share what she could with Zathrian and his clan. If she could get anything out of him.

An image seeped into her mind of a place more beautiful than she ever could have imagined. There, the Eldest would slumber and visitors would offer tribute to the gods on their behalf. Water trickled from the fountain where sunlight filtered in through the open roof, lighting the marbled hall and the tree which sprung from the pool. Was it this place before it was ravaged by time?

The serene memory was abruptly punctuated by memories of war, violence that shook the foundations of the sanctuary. She couldn't see who was fighting. "Was this a war with the humans?" She had read about the Exalted March of the Dales and she had vague recollections of the war with the Tevinter magisters centuries before, in which they laid siege on Arlathan. But that was all very far north.

The presence could remember very little, but he offered her a glimpse of his purpose in life, his duty as Dirth'ena Enasalin, an arcane warrior who could channel his spells into his strength to protect his charges. He was a guardian, a protector. She glimpsed his image in an eluvian mirror. He had white vallaslin that marked his dedication to Mythal.

Ar elana ghi'la ma.

Though she could not deconstruct the language, she understood his intent. With his wisdom, she could learn to become an arcane warrior, a specialization she had never even heard of before, and she could teach it to others. Who knew how old this ancient magic was and whether records of it still existed? His knowledge would be priceless to the Dalish.

"What do you need to me to do?" she asked, standing up.

Ma'revas.

The image of the altar to her left with the gem placed upon it flashed through her mind. The gem would be destroyed and the presence freed. The emotion that accompanied the fuzzy memory was one of desperation and hopelessness. It hurt to feel.

She wished she could free him without killing him, but after how many lifetimes he had endured alone, she knew the greatest mercy she could show would be to give him his end. "I will help you."

The last of his memories were shared with her, many of them buried so deep she couldn't consciously find them yet, especially with the dull headache that rocked her skull after he flooded her with his energy.

Ma ane fel'ala.

She carried the gem to the altar and felt her face contort with an overwhelming emotion. He felt relieved. Grateful. At peace. It was almost as if she could feel him smile.

"Ma serannas, my friend," Serenity said, trying hard to keep her voice steady. "Rest in peace. With honor." She placed the phylactery upon the altar and watched the gem vibrate and shatter as lines of magical energy climbed up from the stone like vines and dissipated with the ancient's blood. When all was left were a few clear shards of glass upon the slab, Serenity braced herself against it, holding on tight with both hands. Why did it hurt so much? Was it pain or just a surge of emotion she hadn't expected to feel?

"Serenity?" Alistair asked, breaking the silence. "Are you okay?"

She nodded, her breath hitched in her throat as she tried to regain her composure. After they left the ruin, she would have to obtain a journal and write out everything she had learned. It would take hours, maybe days or even weeks to sort through the memories he shared with her. She would have to make sense of them and teach herself the techniques like she had already learned them and forgotten. It was such an unusual method of learning. She had learned from instruction, watching her teachers model spells and techniques, and from reading detailed tomes, but learning from what seemed like a dream? How strange. But it was a challenge she would gladly undertake and share with the Dalish if they would listen.

"What was all that about?" Jowan asked. Everyone had stood there watching her without interruption as if Serenity speaking to thin air were an occurrence they had come to expect.

"Does it matter?" Sten asked, turning around to leave. He looked down at Jowan, waiting for him to notice he stood in the way of his exit.

Jowan stumbled back and stood in the hallway. "I couldn't see past you."

Serenity took a deep breath and followed them out into the hallway. "An ancient elf taught me how to become an arcane warrior."

"In exchange for his freedom," Alistair added, gathering that much from listening.

Jowan resisted asking, 'An arcane what?' and followed in silence.

As they traversed the ruined temple and moved deeper into its underbelly, Serenity grounded herself back in the present, for the time being burying the drifting memories shared with her. They were there for Witherfang, she reminded herself.

When they found the spirit of the forest, however, their resolve changed. Serenity had suspected Zathrian was not honest about the source of his longevity, and she was right. He had cursed the humans who murdered his son and defiled his daughter, but even after they died, the curse continued to spread, infecting human and elf alike -- neither of which, centuries later, had any part in the fate of his family. Ending the curse was the right thing to do, even if it meant the death of a Keeper.

Betraying Zathrian and risking the trust of the Dalish was not an easy choice to make, however. Serenity knew that the Blight had to be put before everything else. But even Alistair voiced his view on the matter, calling the curse unjust and asking Zathrian how many innocents he had infected through his deep-seated hatred. That was the little push she needed to press Zathrian, to defend the werewolves and fight him for the cure. It was after he was defeated that he came to see reason and willingly lifted the curse.

When Zathrian lay dead and the werewolves walked away as humans, Serenity returned to the Dalish camp to inform Lanaya of the truth. She would still have their forces against the Blight, but that gave the clan little time to recover from the loss of their Keeper.

"She has her work cut out for her," Alistair said, feeling a little guilty for how heavy a burden Lanaya had to carry now.

"She will be a good Keeper," Serenity assured him. "Zathrian prepared her for this."

"Tis almost nightfall," Morrigan said, noting the orange hue of the sky and the glinting sunlight piercing through the leaves from the west. "Tomorrow, we return to Redcliffe, yes?"

"That's right," Alistair said with a sense of dread. "To call the Landsmeet."

"Would it be too much to ask we stop by the Korcari Wilds on the way?" Morrigan asked, reminding Serenity of the favor she had asked of her weeks before.

"What for?" Alistair asked, that sense of dread even heavier now.

"To kill Flemeth," Serenity answered.

"You wish to kill your own mother?" Alistair looked at Morrigan in disbelief. "What kind of monster are you?"

"Tis something you would not understand nor should you trouble yourself trying to."

"You wish for me to participate in murdering someone who saved my life. Witch of the Wilds or not, I need an explanation!"

"My mother is not what she appears to be, Alistair. You have to trust that this is not a decision I make lightly."

"Believe me, I am not thrilled about killing someone who saved my life, either," Serenity sighed, "Nor am I eager to see what a powerful centuries old witch is capable of. We may not even have the opportunity to kill her if she shapeshifts into a dragon and flees."

"She will not flee," Morrigan said.

"You realize you're doing the opposite of convincing me," Alistair said.

"Morrigan showed me the grimoire I gave her. It details a ritual that would allow Flemeth to live beyond her natural life. The tales of Flemeth and her many daughters may have some truth to them. If she uses the ritual, she would take over Morrigan's body."

"Still not convincing me," Alistair joked and held up his hands at the sharp looks they both gave him. "Kidding. Are you sure that she cannot be talked to?"

"You have met my mother," Morrigan said, "She is only as reasonable as her manipulation of you requires her to be."

"This still doesn't completely sit right with me, but I will go along with this insanity."

"I would suggest asking somebody else, but I have to admit... your skills as a templar-recruit could come in handy against her."

"Was that a compliment? You must really be desperate for my help."

"Or, perhaps not. Many templars have gone missing chasing down the Witch of the Wilds in the past. I wonder how many..."

"Okay, creepy. You can stop now."

"We'll go tomorrow," Serenity said.

"I will not be coming with you," Morrigan reminded her. "I will stay back at camp. If I return with you, she will go into hiding."

"Of course," Alistair groaned, "You have us do the dirty work for you. And are we to expect her to turn into a fire-breathing dragon?"

"Yes, probably."

"Wonderful..."

Wynne joined them in front of Morrigan's tent and placed her hand on Serenity's shoulder. "Warden, may I have a word?"

Serenity followed Wynne away from the fire pit and sat on a nearby tree stump. On the way into the forest that morning, Wynne had fainted, giving them all a scare. Alistair had even offered to carry her back to camp, but she'd insisted he stop fussing over her. Leliana and Shale escorted her back instead. "Are you feeling better?"

"Yes, but... you should know that something happened to me at the tower before you came along. Had I not intervened, a demon would have killed my apprentice, Petra. I saved her life, but I did not survive the encounter with the demon."

"But you're alive," Serenity said, confused. She knew, of all people, Wynne would never resort to blood magic, even to save her own life.

"I remember my life ebbing away; everything receded from me. Sound... light... I remember being enveloped in complete, impenetrable darkness."

"It sounds like you fainted," Serenity said uncertainly. She hoped death was not as empty as the void Wynne described. The dead were supposed to pass through the Fade to return to the Maker.

"It was not that," she said, "I was aware. I sensed a presence, enfolding me and cradling me, whispering quietly to me. The sensation is impossible to describe."

"A spirit," Serenity said. "Do you think you were lingering between the physical realm and the Fade?"

"Perhaps," Wynne said thoughtfully. "I was being held back, firmly but gently, as a mother would a child eager to slip from her grasp. I felt life and warmth flowing through my veins again."

"So, it brought you back from the brink of death."

"Yes. The Fade contains spirits both benevolent and malicious. The benevolent spirits seldom make themselves known, because they want nothing from mortals, unlike the demons," Wynne explained. "It was one of these spirits that saved me. Without it, I would be dead. And it has not left me. It is with me, even now, bonded to me."

"A spirit is bonded to you?" Serenity repeated, concerned. "But... it doesn't possess you?"

"No. We are together as one. I am supposed to be dead. It is the spirit that is keeping me in this world. Perhaps the spirit did not expect this, but it is weakening gradually. I am living on borrowed time."

"I did not know a spirit could inhabit a person's body without turning them into an abomination," Serenity said. "I knew there were benevolent spirits in the Fade, but I guess I never thought they would cross over."

"Neither did I," Wynne admitted. "Do not worry about me though, Warden. I can feel when the spirit weakens, so I should have fair warning. I will be sure to tell you if I think my time has come."

"Like you warned me before you fainted?"

"I promise if I feel faint, I won't keep it to myself next time," Wynne assured her and noticed Alistair watching them from across camp where he stood by the fire and he quickly averted his eyes. "You're quite taken with each other, aren't you?"

"What?" Serenity followed her gaze.

"It's hard not to notice the doe-eyed looks he gives you, especially when he thinks no one's watching," she said. "And last night, under the tree, you two had a kiss. It's almost too sweet for my tastes. I've noticed your blossoming relationship, and I wanted to ask you where you thought it was going."

"I don't know," she said earnestly.

"Alistair is a fine lad, skilled in battle, but quite inexperienced when it comes to affairs of the heart. I would hate to see him get hurt."

"And what about me?" Serenity certainly had no more experience than he did.

"Don't you still have feelings for a certain templar?" Wynne raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, but... it's not real." Serenity hadn't realized before that she loved Cullen. She knew she fancied him, but she didn't know what love felt like, what it was supposed to be. Even now, she wasn't sure. Wasn't love supposed to be more than wanting to be with someone? That seemed too simple a definition. It made more sense that love be defined by honesty and actions, by being true to oneself and to each other.

As much as she enjoyed speaking with Cullen and admired him for his strength and compassion, she knew she could never bare her soul to him. She was something he could never trust or love. She had crossed the line when she became a blood mage. Yet, Alistair still accepted her for all her flaws. So, why couldn't she feel the same way about him?

Perhaps it was that Cullen had given her hope for her future in the Circle and had brought her a happiness in that place that she had never known. And now, she felt pain unlike any she'd ever felt, worse than any arrow. Alistair helped hold her broken heart together.

"What do you mean it's not real?"

"He is a templar," Serenity reminded her, "who would probably rather never see me again."

"Just because he is a templar does not mean he is incapable of loving you." Wynne sighed, thinking about her past love affairs and her one true love. She confessed, "In my youth, I loved a templar, and he loved me."

"You... really?" The initial surprise ebbed away quickly as Serenity considered what kind of person Wynne was. Aside from being a beautiful woman, even in her older age, she was a spirit healer. She would have had more interactions with the templars, healing their wounds, and she would have been sent out on missions as a representative of the Circle. She was the least threatening kind of mage there was. She wondered then if the templar knew she set a boy on fire and if it would have changed the way he thought of her at all.

"Irving promised not to speak of it, and I am grateful that he never did. I... had a child with the templar... He was taken from me by the Chantry when I was too weak to stop them," she said, taking a deep breath. "His name is Rhys, and what his father and I had was real."

Serenity felt like her whole world turned upside down at the revelation. A child between a mage and a templar? That was unheard of. A well kept secret of the Circle. She wondered how often such secrets were swept under the rug. The baby had been taken away probably as soon as it was born if Wynne was too weak to stop them. Raised by the Chantry, she guessed. "What happened to him? Your son?"

"He is now a mage in the White Spire."

Since mages were prohibited from marrying or having children, Serenity didn't know whether magic could be hereditary or whether some were simply born with the gift. Neither of her parents possessed magic, but perhaps it was lying dormant in their genes, passed on from some great-grandmother. She had no idea how coming into magic worked, and the Chantry didn't have a scientific explanation for it. All she knew was some people were born with it and others were not. "Have you met him since he was taken from you?"

"He knows not of his true parentage."

"You should go meet him. While you still have time."

"Perhaps after we defeat the Blight, I shall. The White Spire is in Orlais, and I do not imagine Loghain's men will be so kind as to let us travel across the border."

"Not a Grey Warden, but an innocent old woman? They would have no reason to stop you."

"I am not going off on my own when you need my help, Warden."

Of course, Serenity still needed her help, and they were going to call the Landsmeet soon. In a month's time, she hoped, Loghain would have no more power in the court. And the archdemon was growing bolder, singing its song louder, interrupting her dreams more often, and calling on its mindless followers. Soon, they would wage war against the darkspawn again and hopefully end the Blight before it really got started. She only hoped Wynne would still have the strength to travel after it was all over.

"Thank you for sharing with me, Wynne. I'm afraid I'm even more confused about my feelings now though," Serenity smiled ruefully.

"You and Alistair are both Grey Wardens, and he is the son of a King. You have responsibilities which supercede your personal desires."

"I am aware of our duties."

"Love is ultimately selfish. A Grey Warden cannot afford to be selfish. You may be forced to make a choice between saving your love and saving everyone else, and then what would you do?"

"If you are asking about whether I would step in the way of Alistair taking the throne, I would not."

"You may want to consider the consequences of this relationship... on both of you. It could save you both unnecessary anguish later on."

"We'll take it one day at a time. I don't think breaking our hearts today will do either of us any good. I know that our future together may end with the Blight. He will be made King if we succeed in ousting Loghain. But let us have today."

"Well, I thank you for hearing this old woman's concerns. I know that you both have to make your own path in this world, and all I can do is try my best to support you with what little time I have left."

Alistair wasn't one to eavesdrop, but he watched Serenity and Wynne from where he crouched in front of the camp fire, curiously trying to read their lips to discern the topic of their discussion. That was not a skill he possessed either. "That looked like wart. She has a wart? Maybe she wants Serenity to freeze it off?" he thought aloud to himself.

Jowan cautiously approached him from behind, decidedly standing a safe distance away from the fire in case Alistair wanted to push him into it. He cleared his throat, "Um... hello."

Alistair stood up and turned to face him, hoping he hadn't overheard him talking to himself. "Hello," he said, his voice harder than he meant it to be. "Jowan, was it?"

"Yes, and you're... Alistair, the other Grey Warden?"

"Yes, the 'other Grey Warden,'" Alistair answered flatly. "If you're wondering if I'm going to sneak up on you and try to murder you, I won't."

"I... didn't think that," Jowan denied it. "Why would I think that?"

"Because I used to be a templar-recruit and I haven't exactly been hiding my disapproval over Serenity giving you so many chances. But I respect that you stuck around to help those refugees. I thought you might have run away to Tevinter when she let you out of your cell."

"I thought maybe you were a templar," he admitted. "Anyway, I wouldn't know what to do in Tevinter. I had to try to make things right here."

"You are on the right path," Alistair admitted. "So, tell me, how long have you known Serenity?"

"Ever since she was brought to the Circle. Ten... no, eleven years now."

"No wonder she wants so much to give you a chance at redemption."

"I know it's more than I deserve. I lied to her and to Lily... I was so stupid," Jowan heaved a sigh. "And I'm... sorry about the Arl. I'm glad he's all right. I... I shouldn't have..."

Alistair's expression softened. He could hear his contrition in his voice. "You are pledged to the Wardens now. That means a second chance to do right by all of Ferelden." He looked around to make sure no one would hear and leaned in to whisper, "Also, considering the company she keeps, you are probably not the worst of us."

"That big guy is pretty intimidating," Jowan said, nodding toward Sten. "What's his story?"

"Sten is a Qunari," Alistair said, looking past him at the grim faced giant. "He slaughtered a family and turned himself in. He was kept in a cage to die of starvation until Serenity freed him. Good luck getting more than a grunt or a threat to your life if you do talk to him."

"Maker's breath!" Jowan hushed himself, lowering his voice. "He's a murderer? But she seems so close to him. Earlier, she was walking with him, and I even heard her telling him a joke."

"Yes, well, Serenity has earned his utmost respect. He calls her kadan. I don't know what that means, but he doesn't try to skewer her after saying it, so it must mean something good. And accompanying us is his way of atoning for his sins."

"Does he ever smile?" Jowan whispered.

Alistair chuckled, "Serenity claims she's seen him smile before, but I don't believe it. Next she'll be telling me she saw a real live griffon!"

"Oh, Maker, he just looked at us," Jowan said, quickly turning toward the fire. "He's not coming over here, is he?"

"I pray he doesn't. I do not think I could stop him from popping your head like a grape if he felt your staring was an insult."

Jowan's eyes widened. "D-does he do that? Is that how he murdered that family? Have you seen him do it to a darkspawn?" Jowan glanced back over his shoulder and noticed Sten staring at him still. "Oh no. Now I've done it. How does one apologize to a Qunari?"

Alistair chuckled, "Sten won't do anything without Serenity's say so. At least not for something like staring. Don't worry about it."

"Are you sure?" Jowan looked back and noticed Sten was more interested in the golem now. He breathed a sigh of relief. "I'd rather not get on anybody's bad side... more than I already have."

"Trust me when I say you have little to worry about," Alistair said.

"So, um, you and Serenity...? Are you two together?"

"Yes. We are," Alistair smiled, scanning the camp until he saw where she had stopped to speak with Oghren. "As together as we can be in all this madness."

"Good. I'm glad she's happy."

"I hope I can always make her happy," Alistair said, his smile fading. There was no telling how long it would last if Arl Eamon had his way, let alone the archdemon. "Get some rest. We may need your help in the fight against Flemeth tomorrow."

"The Flemeth?" Jowan withheld a groan. What in the world had he signed up for?

Alistair couldn't follow his own advice. Not yet, anyway. His heart was racing at the sight of her, even as she just stood there talking to Oghren, her expression relaxed and amused, not holding the same intensity it did in battle. She was softer now, allowing herself to smile in spite of everything they'd been through in the last few days. It seemed like it might all be coming to an end soon. He wasn't sure whether he wanted it to. The blight had to be stopped and the archdemon slain, but he didn't want to think about what came after that.

He waited until she finished speaking with Oghren before intercepting her, in case she wasn't finished making her rounds. "Serenity?"

"Yes?" She noticed him fumbling with his gloves like he did when he was nervous and noticed how pink his cheeks were. She didn't think it was due to standing so close to the fire. "Are you sweating?"

"No! I mean... yes. Well, I'm a little nervous, sure. Not that this is anything bad or frightening or... well, yes."

She took his hand and walked him away from the campfire, out of earshot of the others. "What has you so nervous?"

"Oh, how do I say this? You'd think it would be easier, but every time I'm around you, I feel as if my head's about to explode. I-I can't think straight."

She smiled. "That's sweet."

"Here's the thing... Being near you makes me crazy, but I can't imagine being without you. Not ever."

Her smile dwindled. 'Nothing bad,' she reminded herself. He hadn't had the same talk with Wynne. But she knew he was thinking about what came after the blight. Their future. Or perhaps the absence of one.

"I don't know how to say this another way. I want to spend the night with you. Here, in the camp. Maybe this is too fast, I don't know, but... I know what I feel."

It felt like her heart dropped into her stomach. Why was she so nervous now?

"I..." he continued hesitantly, made all the more nervous by her silence, "I wanted to wait for the perfect time, the perfect place... but when will it be perfect? If things were, we wouldn't even have met. We sort of... stumbled into each other, and despite this being the least perfect time, I still found myself falling for you in between all the fighting and everything else. I really don't want to wait anymore. I've... I've never done this before. You know that. I want it to be with you... while we have the chance. In case..."

She took his hand to stop him and comfort him at the same time. "I love you, Alistair," she said, the words spilling out of their own accord. "But I can't. Not tonight."

"You... love me?" he repeated, the blow of rejection softened by the power of her words. She had never said that to him before.

She searched his face, her hand beginning to tremble. Did she love him? Surely, she did. She hadn't been sure a moment ago, but she was thinking too hard about it. "Yes," she answered, pulling her hand away. "I'm just not ready yet."

"I understand," he said. He did not mean to pressure her, only to tell her how he felt. He just hoped they would still have time before chaos intervened. "I love you too."

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Ma melin silaima =My name is lost to time.
Ma'revas. = Release me.
Ma ane fel'ala = You are the last of the order.

Chapter Text

                Flemeth, as far as they knew, was dead after her dragon form lay slain in the swamp water. When the group arrived in Redcliffe, while Alistair went to the castle, Sten accompanied Serenity to meet Dwyn in the village. The dwarf begrudgingly handed over the Qunari sword he'd collected, instead of trying to sell it back to them. Serenity noticed a change in Sten then. Something overcame him when he held his sword in his hands. A sense of calm. He called it completion.

                Meeting with Arl Eamon, they agreed to hold the Landsmeet at once. Eamon wished to travel together, but Serenity insisted on traveling separate. She needed to stop by Kinloch Hold on the way. It would only put her four days behind the Arl's entourage if they left on the same day.

                Serenity crossed the lake alone to Kinloch Hold, insisting Alistair keep Oghren out of trouble. She needed to convince First Enchanter Irving to allow Dagna to study at the Circle, but she knew Oghren wanted to find his long lost lover, Felsi, at the Spoiled Princess. When she crossed back at nightfall, Alistair gave her all the details of the awkward exchange.

                "Dwarves have an interesting way of flirting with one another," he said. Name calling, feigned hostility, and disinterest. It was confusing. He'd tried his best to make Oghren sound like a heroic warrior, but Felsi called his bluff each time, or so he thought. She did seem disappointed when they said they had to go.

                Serenity noticed Oghren was more cheerful than she'd ever seen him before. "Why aren't you inside drinking?" she asked.

                "Oh, Felsi's inside," he grinned, "Eh heh, I told her I had to go meet the queen and kill some darkspawn. ‘Course, I didn't know you'd keep us waiting all sodding day."

                "It takes a long time to row to the Circle tower and back," Serenity said, crossing her arms. "So, how did it go?"

                "Oh, it went great," Oghren grinned, beaming with pride. "When I come back, she won't be able to keep her pants on."

                Serenity had a hard time imagining anyone so eager to climb into bed with someone as foul as Oghren, but she did find his unwavering loyalty charming. He did spend two years trying to find Branka, but he wasn't so blinded by his feelings for her that he couldn't see how mad she became in the Deep Roads. "And when do you plan to come back?"

                "After we defeat the archdemon, of course," he said. "I'll be a hero, and she'll have all this time to think about me and miss me. She's gotta stew in it for a while, eh heh."

                "Maker," Serenity muttered, trying not to think of what exactly she was stewing in. "Well, let's get moving. We don't want to keep the archdemon or your sweetheart waiting for too long."

                "Good on you, Warden."

                When they arrived at Arl Eamon’s estate in Denerim, Serenity didn't have enough time to unpack her bag or test the softness of the guest room's bed before she was called upon by the queen's handmaid, Erlina. Even though it sounded like they were walking into a trap, Serenity went along with Erlina's plan to infiltrate Arl Howe's estate with Alistair, Leliana, and Zevran in order to rescue Queen Anora.

                "I'm shocked, Serenity," Zevran said, "You are leaving both Sten and your mabari behind? Have you ever gone anywhere without them?"

                "I thought about bringing Cullen along," Serenity admitted. "People tend to be distracted by dogs. They would pay more attention to him than me. But then I thought, he would also draw attention. People can't help looking at dogs."

                "That is true," Zevran conceded. "And what about our Qunari friend? He would draw attention too, no doubt."

                "Exactly. I am already too short to pass for a soldier. I don't need him towering over me making me look even smaller."

                "So, you bring me along instead, another elf to make them think they have not one short soldier but two?"

                "I brought you along for your stealthy expertise, but I won't complain about how it may help me blend in," she smiled.  

                "It is good they allow women to be soldiers," Leliana said, looking over the armor Erlina procured for their disguises. "But these breastplates are entirely impractical."

                When Erlina led the guards away, Serenity and the others donned their disguises and snuck inside the estate. After nervously passing through the dining room and the main corridor which led to barracks and training rooms, they found the queen sealed behind a magic barrier. They would have to kill the mage following Howe, which meant they would have to face Howe himself.

                Serenity continued downstairs, horrified by the things she found there. She had expected the estate to be similar to Eamon's, but it was much larger with dungeons and torture chambers. She didn't know why Arl Howe held prisoners or what they were guilty of, but she released them as she discovered them, finding many to be opponents of Loghain. It made sense then that he would have any who oppose him disposed of or left to rot in a cell. What he expected to get out of the torture, however, she wasn't sure.

                "Maybe he really believes all the lies he's spinning," Alistair said. "He's paranoid. He probably thinks everyone is in cahoots with Orlais, getting ready to invade or some other such nonsense."

                "Hopefully all these prisoners attend the Landsmeet to reveal what a madman he's become."

                When they came to the Grey Warden, Riordan, Serenity was surprised that he still lived and wondered if he had fallen for that pathetic ruse at the Pearl. She expected Loghain would have killed any Grey Wardens, not imprisoned them, but it was a relief to find one of the Order. As much as she wished to ask him questions, here was not the place and now not the time. Her questions would have to wait.

                "Go to Arl Eamon's estate," Alistair told him. "We will find you there after we free the queen."

                "To Arl Eamon's then. We will speak in good time." Riordan would have offered his help if he weren't already so weakened by starvation over the last week. "Good luck, sister, brother."

                As they walked deeper into the dungeons in search of Howe's mage, they came across other prisoners withering away in their cells, including one who might have been corrupted by darkspawn, his mannerisms bringing to mind poor Ruck. When Serenity came upon a man knelt in prayer in his cell, she unlocked the door. "You are free," she said, prepared to continue in her search for Howe.  

                "Maker have mercy on Your faithful servant. Grant me a place at Your side. Grant me the cleansing flames," he prayed, seeming not to take notice of the open door.

                Serenity exchanged looks with Alistair and rapped the end of her staff against the metal to catch his attention. "The door is open. You can go now."

                "Andraste, Bride of the Maker, have mercy on me," the man said, looking up at her from his hunched position.

                "He looks very sick," Leliana said and offered him her waterskin. "Are you thirsty?"

                "Who knows how long he's been kept here? He looks like he hasn't seen food in weeks," Alistair said.

                "Alfstanna... is that you, little sister?" The man stood, taking the water with a shaky hand, and drank until he sputtered in a fit of coughs.

                "No. I'm Serenity, a Grey Warden," she said, handing the bag back to the Leliana.

                "No... I don't know you... do I? Are you real?" he asked, holding onto the stone archway to weakly keep himself upright.

                Serenity knitted her brows, perturbed, and reached out to touch him, resting her hand against his bare shoulder. "It's okay now. They won't hurt you anymore."

                The man sniveled and caught himself, halting the display of emotions in an attempt to remain strong. "You... you are real... and you... you... aren't one of the Teryn's men?"

                "No, I am a Grey Warden," Serenity assured him. "What is your name?"

                "I am Irminric, Knight-Lieutenant of the Denerim Chantry."

                "A templar?" Serenity asked in disbelief.

                "I thought he sounded like he's in lyrium withdrawal," Alistair said. "He's got all the signs. Confusion, weepiness... he probably suffered hallucinations, which is why he didn't think you were real. He's not all there. He probably doesn't even know what he's saying."

                "This is what happens when you stop taking it?" She was relieved she stopped using lyrium when she did, but she couldn't help thinking of that old templar in front of the Denerim chantry, his mind worn down by the years of using. She wondered if there was any alternative between the two. Perhaps if Cullen tapered off his usage, he wouldn't have to suffer losing his mind one way or the other, if he ever chose to leave the order, as it were.

                "It's a wonder he still lives, considering these conditions. If the Grand Cleric knew he were in here, she'd be spitting hot coals. Nobles don't have authority over templars."

                "Then, we must tell her right away. We should inform the Knight-Commander too."

                "Yes..." Irminric lamented, "Inform him that I failed... in my duties. Maker... forgive me... I failed and there's no telling what he's done..."

                "Who? The Knight-Commander?"

                "The maleficar. He had turned blood magic upon templars and Circle mages to escape from the tower. Near Redcliffe, I cornered him... but the Teyrn's men took him from me and brought me here."

                Serenity's eyes widened with realization. "Jowan. You caught him, but you didn't kill him?"

                Irminric groaned, settling back down in the corner of the cell to bury his face in his hands. He was breathing harder, exhausted just from standing. "We were spread out, trying to find him. I was alone. He surrendered... I had no need to shed blood. He surrendered and they took me... and I know not where he is. I have failed."

                "It's not your fault,” Serenity consoled him, keeping her hands on his shoulders to hold him upright. She wanted to comfort him, to assure him the blood mage hadn’t done any harm – but that would have been a lie. What mattered most was returning him home. “Loghain is behind this," she muttered with disdain.  

                "I... You are real, aren't you? My dreams are... so strange now."

                "He probably suffers from nightmares," Alistair said sympathetically.

                "The dark never used to scare me, but now..." Irminric sighed, shivering. "Please, if you're not a dream giving me false hope, help me."

                "It is not safe to escort him," Leliana said. "He can barely stand. We will have to send help."

                "Please... take this ring to my sister Alfstanna," Irminric said, holding out the engraved gold band. "Tell her... tell her I'm sorry.  Please ask her to pray for me."

                "Stay alive, Ser Irminric," Serenity answered, taking the ring. "You will be taken care of soon, I promise."

                 "Thank you... Maker smile upon you."

                Serenity hated to leave him there, afraid he would lose the battle to withdrawal and starvation before she could inform the Chantry of his whereabouts. But they moved on, fighting Howe's guards until they found him and his mage. She wasn't aware of his history with Loghain, so she couldn't understand why he supported the Teyrn's corruption. What she did understand was that he was in the way and he had committed atrocities against innocents. There was no sparing him, not that he gave her the opportunity to make such a choice.

                "You should have left when you had the chance, Warden. Slunk off to the Anderfels to hide with the rest of your kind."

                "And let the Blight destroy Thedas? You are so caught up in your politics, you forget our sole purpose," Serenity argued.

                "This Landsmeet is a farce. Loghain will triumph, and you will die."

                Serenity stepped back when he drew his sword, immediately honing in on his mage with Mana Clash and Winter's Grasp. He went down before he had a chance to cast a single spell. Alistair kept Howe from cutting her down, and he had tried. Leliana and Zevran dispatched the rest of his men with her help before they came to Alistair's aid, crippling Howe before Alistair made the killing blow. She retrieved the keys from his belt and kept walking.

                Passing through the next dungeon chamber, she discovered the son of the deceased Arl, the rightful heir, Vaughan Kendells. Had she known of his sadistic habits toward elves, she would have left him to rot in his cell. She had a bad feeling about him, and she knew if Mabari-Cullen had been with her, he could have confirmed her suspicions with a growl. But alas, she knew nothing of him as a person, only of his station, so she let him go in exchange for his support in the Landsmeet.

                "Did anyone else get a bad feeling about him?" Serenity asked as they made their way back up to the ground level.

                "I've killed many men like that one," Zevran said. "If, after the Landsmeet, you decide you want him dead, I'm your man."

                "We should focus on gaining the court's favor," Leliana reminded him. "Most nobles have dirt on them if you look for it. But we need their voices in the months to come."

                "That's why I said after the Landsmeet," Zevran said.

                "The man was rude, I'll give you that, but he's been kept in a cage for Maker knows how long," Alistair said. "Surely you can't be serious about killing a man because he looked at you funny."

                "I said no such thing," Serenity said. "I just asked if anyone else had a bad feeling about him, that's all."

                "Something I have learned," Leliana said softly, "is that your intuition is almost always right."

                When Howe's mage died, his spelled barrier disappeared, allowing Erlina to enter Anora's chamber with the extra set of armor she brought along for her to sneak out in. Serenity was surprised at how tall the queen stood, even taller than Morrigan and Leliana and nearly matching Alistair in height. "Your highness," Serenity greeted her.

                "Please," Anora said, "until we reach Arl Eamon's estate, do not address me as such. It is too risky."

                "Oh, right. Of course," Serenity stammered, "Let's get out of here before they notice."

                In the foyer before reaching the courtyard, Ser Cauthrien and a dozen of Loghain's men stood guard. "Andraste's ass, that's a lot of bows and arrows," Serenity muttered. She'd been shot a few times before, and Wynne was not accompanying her now to ease away the pain and prevent scarring. This battle was one they could win if they were careful, but she had the feeling no one would walk away unscathed.

                "Warden!" Ser Cauthrien called out, pointing at her where she stood in the doorway. "In the name of the regent, I am placing you under arrest for the murder of Rendon Howe and his men at arms."

                Serenity turned to Zevran and kept her voice low. "Take the queen and escape. Alistair and I will hold them off."

                "But--" Leliana started.

                "Go." Serenity gripped her staff and walked into the room to meet Ser Cauthrien.

                Cauthrien gestured for three of the guards to check the corridor, and Alistair blocked their path, buying just enough time for the others to make their way out of sight.

                "Stand down," she warned. "If you surrender, you may be shown mercy."

                "Alistair," Serenity motioned for him to join her. She had no doubt Zevran and Leliana could handle three guards.

                "Fine," he said, lowering his shield.

                "We surrender," Serenity said, feeling dirty just hearing the words spill out of her mouth. Ugh. It was a good thing she hadn't brought Sten along. He would never have let her live it down.

               

                "Oh, you're awake. I was starting to worry," Alistair said, cradling her head in his arms.

                "What...?" Serenity was confused, her thoughts interrupted by the dull ache that pounded inside her skull, but she didn't try to move. She looked up at him, wary of their surroundings. She remembered surrendering to Ser Cauthrien and then nothing.

                "Well, I guess they didn't trust us when we said we surrendered," he said, stroking her hair. "They knocked us out cold."

                "Ugh. I feel like I'm going to throw up," Serenity groaned as she sat up, suddenly aware of the humid air on her skin. "And they had to take our clothes?" She leaned her weight on him, blushing when he wrapped his arm around her.

                "Yes, well, you won't find any other prisoners in anything but their small clothes," he said. "You're not feeling shy, are you? We've seen each other naked, sort of. At the temple of sacred ashes."

                "So you did peek," she said.

                "No, I... well, I might have accidentally seen... you didn't?" he stammered.

                Her looking hadn't been accidental. She confessed with a guilty smile he couldn't see, "I did."

                "Well, it's a good thing I was deemed worthy. Really would have been embarrassing if I was rolling around naked on the ground trying to put the fire out."

                "Not to mention what permanent damage fire could do to your... manly parts," she said, wobbling to her feet.

                "My manly parts are all in working order," he said, standing up after her and keeping her steady with a hand on her elbow.

                 "What about you?" she asked, "Are you all right? You don't feel like someone bashed you over the head?"

                "I've been worse. I'll be better still when we get out of here."

                "If we get out of here," she said. "Loghain has us right where he wants us."

                "Well, aren't you the optimistic one? I thought surely you would have had it in your mind that somebody was on their way in here now to rescue us."

                "You're right. They wouldn't leave us here to be tortured and starved. And judging by the empty cell beside us, Loghain's men didn't catch Zevran or Leliana."

                "Do you think they'll be the ones to rescue us?"

                "That would make sense, but Sten is going to come barreling in here. Just watch."

                "Really? Sten?" Alistair cocked an eyebrow. "I know you two are extra chummy since you found his sword, but wouldn't Leliana be better suited to the job?"

                "You want to bet on it?" Serenity smirked, turning to take his hand from her elbow, and intertwined their fingers.

                "Oh, I wish I could see that. One person assaulting Fort Drakon all alone. But if anyone were to do it, it would be him," he said.

                "Well, Cullen will probably come too."

                "I hope you're riiight," he teased. "Fine. What do you want to bet? I think Leliana will come."

 

                Zevran and Leliana escorted the queen and her handmaiden back to Arl Eamon's estate. "The Grey Wardens were apprehended by Ser Cauthrien," Anora informed the Arl when she walked into his study. "They will be taken to Fort Draken for questioning."

                Oghren was the first to see them return without the Wardens and had the feeling it wasn't because they were off getting down and dirty in a closet somewhere. He collected Wynne, Sten, Morrigan, Jowan, Shale, and even Mabari-Cullen before joining the others in Eamon's study.

                "Maker's breath," Eamon sighed at the sight of them all. "You've already heard, I take it?"

                "We ain't heard nothin' yet," Oghren grunted. "Where are our Grey Wardens? We can't well bloody fight an archdemon without 'em."

                "They've been taken to Fort Drakon," Eamon answered.

                "What?" Oghren growled, "Where's that? Let's go bust some heads."

                "It would not be that easy, my dwarf friend," Zevran said. "But I think I can sneak in there."

                Sten protested, "Serenity went with you once and she did not come back. I should go."

                "Because you are going to kick down the front door and kill every single soldier by yourself?"

                "If I have to."

                "I'll go too," Jowan offered. "I can cause a distraction for somebody, draw the guards away while they sneak in."

                "That is a foolish plan. You will die," Sten said dismissively.

                "He's right," Leliana said. "We need to sneak in. I still have my Chantry robes. I can go in as a sister--"

                Morrigan chuckled, "Oh, wonderful. And you will take me with you, yes?"

                "You? Pose as a Chantry sister?"

                "Oh, the Maker is great and wonderful, and Andraste is the light that lights the pantry," Morrigan mocked. "See? That wasn't so hard."

                "The... the pantry? No, no, absolutely not," Leliana shook her head.

                Zevran continued, "Leliana and I are the best qualified to-- Sten, where are you going?"

                "We are wasting time arguing. Do you wish to talk about it until their bones are breaking upon the racks?"

                "Maker's breath, they're going to be tortured?" Jowan lamented.

                "That is... likely," Eamon admitted.

                "Well, I could go with him then," Oghren shrugged, stepping forward. "We'll have the place up in flames in no time."

                "In flames?" Leliana sighed, "No, no, no. We are staging a rescue mission, not a siege."

                "And you will still be vastly outnumbered," Zevran reminded him. "Let me go. I will bring poisoned darts. While Sten confuses the guards with his presence, I will tranquilize them."

                "No. You all talk too much," Sten said.

                Morrigan rolled her eyes, "Will you take Oghren along as your special dwarf assistant then? If you don't succeed at first, his pungent odor may very well kill them."

                Oghren grinned, "Hey, eh heh, it's my musk. The ladies love it."

                Seeing the opportunity to offer her own assistance, Wynne chimed in softly, "Perhaps I should come along. They would not suspect an old woman of any wrong doing."

                Listening to all the fleshy ones argue amongst themselves, Shale knew she could probably go in alone and the guards' arrows would ricochet off her stone body. But she wasn't about to join the cacophony. She chuckled when the mabari barked. "Ah, even the dog wants to join in."

                "Yes," Sten said, "I will take the dog."

                "You can't be serious," Leliana breathed.

                Wynne had expected Sten to see her logic and agree. "You really think he is better suited to this task than I am?"

                Mabari-Cullen growled at the lot of them and looked up at Sten with a wag of his tail before he started walking. Without another word, Sten followed him.

                "Looks like he was serious," Morrigan said and smirked at the look on Leliana's face. "Are you trying to catch flies or do you think you want to pick your jaw up off the ground?"

                Zevran sighed and stood beside Leliana. "I think we should come up with a backup plan."

               

                Sten passed the guards outside the front gate and entered the giant stone building. He immediately noticed the smell of sweat. There was not enough ventilation in this fortress. He hoped the dog knew what it was doing. It seemed to be taking the lead, walking ahead of him. He was not going to argue with it.

                "What's your business in Fort Drakon?" the soldier halted him with a hand up as he approached.

                Before Sten could say anything, Mabari-Cullen stumbled around and gagged before collapsing on his side dramatically.

                "What's wrong with him?" the soldier asked, eyeing the giant warhound as his side rose and fell rapidly with his heavy breathing.

                "I know nothing of beasts," Sten answered. "You are Ferelden. Don't your people all keep dogs?"

                "I'm not poking and prodding no mabari to see what's wrong with him. I like not bleeding."

                The second guard sighed, "All right, all right. Take him into the side room there. I'll go get the Captain to let you through."

                Mabari-Cullen appeared to struggle to his feet and limped his way to the other room where Sten was already waiting for him.

                "This is pointless," Sten grumbled, "We should simply go in fighting."

                Mabari-Cullen whined. His plan was working. It was not pointless.

                "And now I'm talking to an animal. I've been in this country too long."

                Mabari-Cullen gave him a happy bark and wagged his tail. When the Captain walked in, he greeted him enthusiastically.

                "Is that a pure bred mabari?" the Captain asked. "Very well. Take him through. And tell Neville I want a word with him when you get there."

                Sten silently led Mabari-Cullen through the open doors, surprised at how easily the dog manipulated them. If he had tried to go in alone, they would have seen a hostile giant, nothing more. Somehow they had completely overlooked the fact that a foreigner was escorting this mabari into their fortress. "You know your worth among the humans, don't you?"

                Mabari-Cullen barked in affirmation. When Sten slowed his pace, examining the ballista and thinking about how it could be used to shoot through the door guarded by the soldier, Mabari-Cullen gave him a low warning growl.

                "What? It would work."

                Mabari-Cullen trotted ahead of him and sat down in front of the guard. Sten grunted and followed him. A woman.

                "State your business," she said.

                "Tell me. Are you a soldier or an ornament?"

                "What is that supposed to mean?" she shot back defensively.

                "Here you stand. There is no battle to fight. Hardly even any purpose to set a watch inside one's own fortress. Perhaps you are meant to be decorative."

                "I hadn't... thought of it that way."

                "Boredom is likely the worst foe you will ever face."

                "You know, I joined the army to follow in my father's footsteps. To make him proud. And what I do get? Barracks detail. I'm going to live my life before it's too late. Let somebody else guard their stupid door," she said, stalking off to presumably resign.

                Sten looked down at the mabari and shrugged, "Fine. You were right. That was just as easy."

                On the other side of that door, the soldiers recognized they did not belong and attacked. Even outnumbered, Sten and Mabari-Cullen were too skilled and too powerful to be stopped. They'd fought side by side for months, just as they had with Serenity. Sten knew when the mabari was barking at their enemy versus barking for his attention. It didn't dawn on him until now how strange it was that he could differentiate the dog's language. Qunari did not keep dogs, but he was fond of the mabari. It was not a pet, but it could not hold rank in the Qunari. If it could, it would be Sten, like him.

                When they found the prison cell, Sten unlocked the door and pushed it open. "The irony of this moment is not lost on me."

                Serenity sprung up and gave Sten a hug before turning to Alistair. "Now I get to see you wear a dress and dance the Remigold."

                "Has your time in prison warped your minds?" Sten asked. It had only been hours. He had been caged for a week and still retained his mind.

                Alistair answered, "No, it was a bet that she eerily got completely correct."

                "I'm sure Leliana wanted to come," Serenity said consolingly.

                "They all did," Sten said. "While they argued about it, we took action."

                "I would have thought Zevran and Leliana were going to come for us. Seeing as how they were the ones that left us."

                "I am here now," Sten said, confused. "What are you waiting for? Do you enjoy standing around naked, waiting for the torturers to flay you?"

                 "What? No, of course not," Alistair started. When Mabari-Cullen barked from across the room, pawing at a heavy chest, Alistair walked past Sten and opened it. "Well, that's convenient."

                After they dressed and looted the rest of the possessions stored there, they escaped the fortress and met Zevran and Leliana just outside before returning to Arl Eamon's estate.

 

Chapter Text

                Once they were back at Arl Eamon’s estate and Queen Anora thanked them for rescuing her, Alistair found Serenity in the hallway to speak with her alone.  

                "So, I'm guessing someone told Anora I was planning to steal her throne," Alistair said. "She has a nasty glare. She wants to be queen, I get it. I don't trust her any more than her father, but I get it."

                "Do you think you would be a better ruler?" Serenity tried to think of the ways in which Alistair would make a fine king, but she knew he did not feel comfortable leading. All this time, he had been following her lead, but perhaps if he ruled jointly, had somebody more experienced in such matters, he could grow into the role.

                "I... Maker, I don't know. The thought terrifies me, to be honest. But if it means taking away power from Loghain..."

                "You can't see them as the same person, surely."

                "No, I don't," he said. "Her face doesn't look like a melted candlestick like her father's. But that doesn't mean they don't think the same way. Well, what do you think? When the Landsmeet comes, you might even have a say."

                She confessed, "I think she is a dutiful queen... and I do not wish to depose her."

                "You... really?" Alistair wasn't sure what to make of that. Did she doubt his ability to lead as much as he did?

                "But I also think you should take the throne," she said, melancholy reaching her voice.    

                "You don't mean... marry her? As in marriage? As in be her husband?" His mind was reeling at the suggestion. He hadn't expected it to come from her of all people.

                "I know... I know," she sighed. "It's just something to consider. This is important. It's the future of Ferelden."

                "I already know what Arl Eamon would have to say about it," he said. "He'd only be too happy to send for a tailor to get my measurements."

                That didn’t stop Serenity from running it by him. When she asked Eamon what he thought of the proposal, he said, "With Therein blood on the throne and Anora's wisdom and popularity, Ferelden could present the most united front against the Blight."

                If they married, not only would the Grey Wardens benefit from the arrangement, Serenity had no doubt Ferelden would be better off for years to come. Alistair was a fair, kind man. She did not know much about Anora, but she knew she had the political savvy Alistair lacked. Her heart hurt at the thought of letting him go, but she kept telling herself it was the right thing to do.

                When Serenity met with Anora per her request, she decided to bring up the idea with her. She appreciated the queen's candidness and her willingness to help take away power from Loghain. Of course, the power she took away, she wished to bequeath upon herself.

                "Let me say this,” Anora said thoughtfully, “If Alistair is willing to stand back and allow me to continue governing the nation, then I would be willing to have him as my king. It is my understanding that governing does not appeal to him anyway. If that is so, this is a compromise I can live with."

                "I would say that's accurate," Serenity sighed. It was not a relationship of equal standing when she put it that way, but she had the feeling Alistair would prefer it to having more power than she. If they did marry and rule Ferelden together, she hoped that Anora would learn to trust him and have patience in teaching him so that they could rule as equals. Serenity feared Alistair would come to resent her for pushing him into a political marriage where he would be treated less than he deserved. "I will speak with him."

                "I would be interested to hear what he has to say."

                As Serenity walked back down the hall to Arl Eamon's study where Alistair waited, she stopped. She wasn't ready to convince him. She still needed to convince herself. She was acting on her sense of duty, on her instincts as a Grey Warden, but now her heart was interfering, screaming at her from inside not to go any further. She could still stop this.

                The inner conflict was giving her a headache, in addition to making her stomach turn and her chest feel tight. She needed a distraction. And she remembered that that poor templar was still sitting in his cell with the door left open, too weak to leave. She needed to inform the Chantry at once.

                Alone, Serenity left Arl Eamon's estate and crossed the Market District to the Chantry, where she was greeted by the same two templars that stood guard months before.

                "Is the Knight-Commander in the Chantry?" she asked. "It's about Ser Irminric."

                The senior templar with dementia hummed, "Of those fallen in the Maker's service, let me sing, Lady of Sorrows. Carry their names to the ear of the most high."

                The younger man sighed, "Are you kin of his? He fell in service to the Maker against maleficarum. There was never a better sword."

                "You are mistaken, ser. He is not dead."

                "We were informed of his murder by the reagent's men. Perhaps I am not the best person to speak to. There are priests inside better qualified to counsel you about your loss. If you'll allow me, I can bring one out to you," he offered.

                Serenity knew she was wasting time trying to convince him of the truth. He was not the Knight-Commander or the Grand Cleric. "No, thank you. Do you know where I could find his sister, Alfstanna?"

                "Alfstanna Eremon is the Bann of the Waking Sea," he said, "She is here for the Landsmeet, but I wouldn't know where to find her. Perhaps you would try the local inns or taverns."

                "Thank you, ser." She took the gold band from her pocket as she walked toward the Gnawed Noble Tavern. The barkeep there was well informed. When she walked inside, she overheard talk of different noble houses and the losses they suffered as the blight spread north.

Serenity found Alfstanna seated at the back of the establishment and interrupted their conversation to present her brother’s ring to her, along with the explanation for what happened to him. She would have the Waking Sea’s assistance at the Landsmeet.

                Serenity sat at the counter after the Bann and her acquaintance left. She couldn't help feeling responsible for Ser Irminric. She had helped Jowan escape, causing a ripple effect. But she thought it must have been fate that it was Ser Irminric, a templar with a Bann for a sister able to upset the balance of power in the Landsmeet, who found Jowan outside Redcliffe. It was fate that Ser Irminric was alone in that moment, when ordinarily templars worked in pairs. It seemed cruel if the Maker painted this picture and watched it unfold.

                "Miss?" The barkeep tapped the counter in front of her to get her attention. "Can I get you a drink?"

                "No." Serenity wasn't sure why she sat down. She didn't want to drink alone. But she didn't want to return to Arl Eamon's estate yet either, and the more she thought about broaching the topic of a political marriage with Alistair, the harder she found it to even will herself off the stool.

                It would be easy to tell him not to marry her. He would probably be relieved and take his chances ruling Ferelden alone if it meant they could still be together. She thought he might even prefer if she chose to support Anora, so they could continue the work of the Grey Wardens together. Just a week earlier he had professed his love to her and said he couldn't imagine not being with her. Not ever.

                Alistair might have feared the idea of being king, but he would surely live a better life as royalty than wandering Thedas as a Grey Warden. It was not a life he was accustomed to, but she imagined he could become fat and happy living in the royal estate. He would not have to launder his own clothes. He could have as many dogs as he wanted. He wouldn't go hungry. And perhaps he could even fall in love with Anora.

                She wasn't sure about her own future, but she had avoided thinking about it as much as she could. Since Arl Eamon stated his intention of putting Alistair on the throne back in Redcliffe, she'd accepted that as what would be. She had already been imagining her life after the blight without him in it, and she'd always thought he did the same. She was an elf and a mage. Even if she were only one or the other, she could never hold a position of nobility.

                She returned to Arl Eamon's estate and stood in the hallway outside his study for a long time, steadying the shaking of her hands. She knew what she had to do. She hadn't lied when she told Alistair she loved him. But she still wasn't sure how she loved him. It seemed the kinder thing to do, to urge him to take the throne. With a deep breath, she walked inside.

                "So, I just saw Anora not long ago. Strange story," Alistair said, narrowing his eyes at her. "She gave me the strangest look, like she was sizing up whether the cow was ready for slaughter. I asked her why. You know what she said? 'It would be like marrying his twin.' I misheard that, right? Tell me I misheard."

                "You don't look that much like Cailan," Serenity muttered. Wrong answer. After all of her mental preparation, she managed to put her foot in her mouth.

                "You... Why would you do that? What about us?"

                "Alistair, I care about you, I do," Serenity said, taking his hand. "I want you to do what you think is right. But you have to consider the options."

                "Why do you think I should do this, then? Tell me," he said, his glare giving way to a look of sadness as he glanced down at her hand holding his.

                "She can rule while you lead. I think this is the best compromise for peace. You're not comfortable with all the responsibilities ruling entails, but you'd be an asset to the country on the throne. You would still have power, but you could let her take the reins. I thought perhaps that was something you would be more comfortable with."

                "More comfortable with than ruling alone, maybe, but not more comfortable with than not ruling," he said. He sighed, hearing the words come out of his mouth, and took his hand away to run his fingers through his hair. He knew it was selfish, maybe even childish, to be so adamantly opposed to taking the throne. Most people would be thrilled to find out they had royal blood, that they could be pampered and live in luxury. He knew there was more to it than that though. He rather liked the freedom of being a Grey Warden, even when it involved fighting darkspawn, so long as he was fighting alongside her. But if she didn't want to fight for them to be together, he thought, perhaps she didn't feel as strongly about it as he did. Or perhaps she was just a better Grey Warden, able to put duty over personal desire.

                It was aggravating. He wanted more than anything to be selfish. But he thought of Duncan. Duncan would have told him he was a Grey Warden above anything else, not a templar, not an orphan, not a king. And being in a position of power could help the order. At least, that's what he expected Duncan might say. He also knew Duncan would say he didn't envy kings one bit.

                "I suppose the Landsmeet would like the sound of 'compromise,'" Alistair said at last, his voice hollow. "All right. If it comes to that, I'll agree to marry her. Maker help us all.”

                Serenity could tell he was giving her another chance to stop it from happening. He was non-committal, but she had to be.

                "Me, I think I need a drink," Alistair said. "You don't think Oghren's dried the place out already, do you?"

                Serenity bit the inside of her cheek and shook her head, not confident enough to speak without her voice wavering. She turned and walked away, leaving him there alone in Eamon's study. And she hated herself for hurting him.

                She was on her way to her guest room to compose herself again when Anora interrupted her in the hallway.

                "Well?" Anora tilted her head, concerned by the Warden's downtrodden gait. "Have you spoken to my lucky betrothed yet? Or will we be reduced to passing notes?"

                "He's agreed to your terms," Serenity answered, looking up at her.

                "He has? I wasn't expecting that, to tell you the truth," Anora sighed and pressed her hands together. "And what of you, Warden? What will become of you once I am married?"

                "What do you mean?" Serenity thought there was only one answer to that question. She would go on with the order, perhaps to Weisshaupt, while Alistair stayed in Denerim.

                "Cailan had his women. He was thoughtful enough to keep them discreet, but I always knew," she said quietly. "Am I to have yet another husband whose eyes lie elsewhere? If so, I would appreciate knowing now."

                "I'm sorry," Serenity said empathetically. Perhaps it had been naive to think Cailan and Anora were in love and monogamous. It made her sad to imagine being in Anora's position.

                "Then, you mean..."

                "I mean I am sorry Cailan strayed," Serenity said quickly. "Alistair isn't like that. We haven't... It's not going to be a problem. I won't be in the picture. And you should speak candidly with him about your concerns. He will be uncomfortable talking about it, but he will be honest. You may think them similar by their shared resemblance to Maric, but I think you will come to find they are completely different."

                Anora wasn't sure what to think of that, but she did not resent the Warden for pitying her, even if her sympathy was not wanted. She had loved Cailan, and she wasn't sure she had room in her heart to love Alistair. She only wanted to know where they would stand. "Is this it then? I agree to marry Alistair to retain my throne and in exchange, I give you my support?"

                "Yes."

                "Then, we have a deal, Warden."

                Serenity nodded, "If you'll excuse me." She kept her composure until she stepped inside her room and found it empty. Relieved that Morrigan and Sten had moved elsewhere, she closed the door behind her and let her walls crumble down. She didn't make it all the way across the room to collapse on the bed before falling to her knees, wracked by sobs. She was finally alone, able to let her tears fall freely. She felt like a child, crying uncontrollably as she tried to catch her breath. Why did it hurt so much?

                She took a deep, shaky breath as she rose to her feet and climbed into bed to bury her face against the pillow. She wanted to sleep, to stop feeling until morning, and hoped to wake up refreshed. It felt like hours, even if it was only excruciatingly long minutes that passed, before she fell asleep.

 

                Why are you sad?

                She turned to face Duncan and sighed, "Alistair is to become king of Ferelden."

                “Isn't that for the best?”

                She was silent, confused as she turned in a circle to take in her surroundings. Where was she?

                "You are frightened," he said observantly. "What are you afraid of now?"

                "I don't know," she said. Her thoughts and feelings were muddled, like looking at a picture under running water. She was having trouble making sense of her own thoughts.

                "The templars?" he asked, reminding her, "You are free of the Circle now."

                "I'll never be free of being a mage."

                "Are you afraid of yourself, then?"

                "No. I only mean to say, Grey Warden or not, people will fear me for what I’m capable of. Templars will keep their hands on their swords if they know."

                "And what about being a Grey Warden?" he asked. "Does that scare you?"

                "Sometimes," she admitted. "I know what happens toward the end. I'll grow sick, lose my mind to the Calling, and die. Likely sooner than I'd imagined."

                "I can take away your fear," Duncan said, putting his hand on her shoulder. "You would never have to go back to the Deep Roads. I can silence the Calling for you. I can cut out those cancerous nightmares the archdemon pulls you into."

                Serenity brushed his hand off her shoulder and stepped away from him. "Stop trying to fool me, demon."

                Duncan held his hands up in surrender and smiled, "I only mean to make it easier for you. I can be your friend."

                "You are not my friend," she said, her voice waning. She wanted very much to speak with the real Duncan. She wasn't sure if he would have the patience to console her, but she knew she'd trusted him and respected him. And he had been a Grey Warden far longer than she had. She wondered how he had joined and what he had lost.

                "I will never force you," he said. "I see you more often than you remember. We have had many long talks in the Fade. It is only when I ask that you remember who I am. If you need my help fighting the archdemon or saving your life when you are hunted by templars, I will be here waiting. If you don't want to become a broodmother birthing shrieks, I will save you. Until then, I'll be watching over you."

                Serenity woke and sat up in bed, unsettled at the ebbing thought of the demon stalking her dreams. The pride demon had been summoned to the Harrowing chamber and sealed there for the trial, but it was following her now. Perhaps what happened in the Circle tower with Uldred had broken the spell and freed him. Of all the apprentices and mages he could have followed, after being introduced to all of them in the Fade for their Harrowing, Pride chose her.

                She wondered if it was because she was too proud. She had been praised as Irving's brightest pupil, destined for great things, and she'd believed it. She tried to sound modest, not to come off over confident, but maybe the demon saw her pride. She believed him when he said he wouldn't try to force his way in. As chaotic as her life was, there were plenty of opportunities for her to slip up, to rely on a demon to save her life. All she had to do was ask. But she wouldn't.

                Mages already struck fear into the people. If she wanted to help the plight of the mages, she couldn't consort with demons -- she shouldn't even practice blood magic. She did what she had to to survive, but she still had boundaries.

                Serenity rolled out of bed warily and trudged to the kitchen, her sadness still weighing on her. She stopped in the doorway and backed up to eavesdrop when she saw Alistair seated at the table with his back to her, across from Oghren. 

                “It's not the end of the sodding world,” Oghren said, pouring him another mug of dwarven ale.

                “I know, I know,” Alistair said, rolling his head back and slurring his words. “That's what the archdemon is for, my little bearded friend.”

                “Have another drink. Maybe it'll help you see things differently. Heh.”

                Alistair took a swig of the stuff and said, “Nope, I still hate it. I still love Serenity.”

                “Yeah... well, she loves you too, kid. Ahhh, enough with the sorrows! Listen, you just got to roll with the punches! Why do you think it's so hard to keep me down?”

                “I thought you just had a really thick skull.”

                “Eh heh, lotsa things thick about me,” Oghren grinned.

                Alistair grimaced, “Not drunk enough to pretend I didn't hear that.”

                Leliana saw Serenity start back to her room and sidled up next to her. “I heard what happened.”

                “Does everybody know?”

                “No. I overheard Alistair talking to Oghren. How are you fairing, my dear?”

                “I've been better. But I'll be okay. I could use a distraction,” Serenity said, looking up at her.

                “Then I shall do my best. Did you like playing Wicked Grace? I can teach you how to beat anyone. Come.” Leliana led her back to her room and set up the game at a table.

                Serenity noticed a chess board across the room and said, “I saw Sten looking at that earlier. I wonder if he plays.”

                “It would not surprise me if he does. He has a mind for military strategy.”

                “I used to play with Jowan,” Serenity said. She remembered Cullen watching their games intently. She’d always wanted to play with him, but of course, that would have never been allowed. “Teach me Wicked Grace so I can give Isabela a run for her money.”

                “When we’re done, you will be able to take all of her money,” Leliana smiled. “You know, I am grateful to have met you. Of all the adventures I have had in my life, this has been one of the most amazing experiences.”

                "You're enjoying all the horrors we face?”

                “I am enjoying the company and the cause that we are fighting for. You have given me a new purpose.”

                Serenity smiled and reached across the table to hold her hand. “I enjoy your company too. I'm glad you joined us.”

                “Are you trying to steal one of my cards?”

                Serenity grinned, caught red-handed. It had been far too obvious, especially to an accomplished cheater. “I have to work on my sleight of hand.”

                Leliana giggled, “I once taught a few of the younger chantry sisters to play. Some of those girls are slier than you might expect.”

                “You certainly are,” Serenity said and played a hand. “Do you think... Alistair will be okay? Do you think he'll be happy?”

                “In time,” she answered. “But... will you be okay? It's not too late to change your mind.”

                “I'd rather not think about it. This is what's best for everybody else.”

                “Oh, Serenity... Sometimes it is okay to think about what's best for you,” Leliana said softly.

                “I'm more worried about Alistair's feelings than my own,” Serenity admitted. She had become comfortable with Alistair and knew she would miss him, but she didn’t really know what she wanted. She knew she had made many friends, most of whom she could possibly follow after the blight ended. Perhaps she could accompany Leliana to Orlais, or visit Antiva or Rivain with Zevran, or even help Sten in Seheron. She had choices. She could even stay in Denerim as Alistair’s advisor, which she had already offered herself as. But she knew that might only make the transition harder. It might be easier for them both if she just disappeared.

                “I will always be there for the both of you,” Leliana assured her.

                "What will you do when the blight ends?” Serenity asked curiously.

                “I have given thought to joining Genitivi's expedition to the urn of sacred ashes.”

                Serenity didn’t particularly wish to be involved in another trek through that mountain. “You'll write me, won't you?” Serenity asked as she played a winning hand with one of the cards she stole.

                “Of course!” Leliana looked at the cards and clapped her hands. “You are as crafty in this game as you are in battle.”

                “I learned from the best.”