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The Enigma

Chapter Text

    The moon was nearly full, a chalky oval in the starry sky. In the distance Kirkwall rose high and white in the moonlight, ghostly above the black stone cliffs. Beside and slightly behind the city, its own white walls seeming to ripple with the moonlight reflecting off the lake, stood the Gallows; there he had first declared his intention to raze the accursed city. He had read often that Kirkwall had always been strangely prone to blood mages and abominations and violence. Perhaps it truly was cursed; perhaps his destiny had been to purge that evil, to cleanse the magisters' legacy with purifying flame.

    Certainly it had been the Maker's will that he take control of Starkhaven, deposing his idiot cousin with no trouble. It had been the Maker's will that he rouse the people of his city-state to a singular fury at the horror that had taken place in Kirkwall at the hands of an apostate. His army had grown exponentially on the march south through the Wildervale and across the Vimmark Mountains; with every town and village and farm they had passed, volunteers had joined their ranks, all eager to serve.

    And now, as he looked at the gleaming white city in the distance, missing the beautiful sanctuary that had once stood at its centre, he knew he had been right to forswear his Chantry vows and assume the role he had been born to play.

    His army rested now, sleeping by turns around low fires. At dawn they would wake and continue their march toward Kirkwall; they would camp just beyond the city tomorrow night. They would attack the following morning only when the sun was high, when the streets were fullest; innocents would die for his cause, in exchange for those who had died unwillingly for Anders' cause, and they would continue to die until the apostate was brought out in chains to receive the justice he deserved.

    Sebastian smiled to himself, turned his back on Kirkwall, and headed to his tent. His squire waited there to see if he needed anything; Sebastian dismissed him, removed the bulkier parts of his armour and lay down on the hard bedroll. He closed his eyes and slept the sleep of the righteous, and he dreamed of victory.

    It felt good to be back inside the Gallows, to be wearing the armour and bearing the shield. It felt right; it was where he belonged. He liked overseeing mages, liked knowing that his work was of value.

    He knew his motives would be questioned for a long time. That was all right; he knew his own heart. Anyone who cared to make assumptions about him was welcome to do so. Cullen had been willing to give him a second chance, and he would not let the Knight-Commander down.

    Samson walked slowly around the courtyard, watching as the first enchanter trained some of the youngest mages—one was only four years old, barely old enough to have been taken from her mother. Solona was good with the little ones, didn't expect them to be able to concentrate for long, and made their training into little games to entertain them as well as teach them. It was an unusual method, but he couldn't dismiss her results. Even the four-year-old was able to make a softly-glowing orb of light appear between her palms, and she squealed and clapped as it floated serenely away on a late afternoon breeze.

    Solona watched as well, then smoothed the little girl's hair and spoke something softly to her, kindly. She called all the children to her, and sent them across the courtyard to where Paxley was waiting to lead them inside. The little one reached up without any qualms to grasp one of Paxley's gauntleted fingers in her hand, and Paxley looked down at her with some amusement, slowed his pace to allow her to keep up.

    When they had all vanished inside, Solona turned to look at him. "I'm going to do some gardening," she said. "If that's all right. In the other courtyard, the one we dug up."

    "That's fine," Samson agreed, and walked with her into the Gallows corridors, in the direction of the north-facing courtyard.

    The flagstones in that courtyard had been lifted to reveal gravelly dirt beneath them; Kirkwall was built on cliffs, and the ground all about was rocky. Somehow Solona had managed to get some rich soil brought in, so she could plant a garden in there with herbs and flowers. The herbs, of course, were useful in the making of potions and poultices, but she also used the garden to teach the youngest mages about life and growth and sustenance and death. He liked that about her; she didn't lie to the children about anything, even as she presented it in a way they could understand.

    She was very, very different from Orsino. Where Orsino had been resentful and secretive, she was outgoing and cheerful and open. She chatted with the templars fearlessly, got to know their names and even a little bit about them. Meredith would never have put up with her, he knew. But Cullen was a different sort of knight-commander. He didn't believe in giving mages free rein, but he didn't see blood mages around every corner.

    "I'm sure watching the children is dull for you," Solona said solemnly as they walked. "You must have seen much more exciting training sessions."

    He glanced down at her, thoughtful. "In this job, First Enchanter," he told her gravely, "we prefer things a little dull."

    That made her smile. "Fair enough."

    "And in any case," he went on, "I like to see the little ones learning. They're not afraid of you, and you seem to be teaching them not to be afraid of their magic."

    "Well, it's no more to be feared than having a talent for painting or sculpture."

    "Can't set a city on fire with sculpture."

    "No, but you could kill someone with a palette knife, or a chisel."

    Samson smiled a little. "I suppose that's true." He cocked his head to one side. "I met some folk I understand are cousins of yours. Named Hawke, but their mother was Amell."

    "Oh." Solona seemed uninterested. "Did you know them well?"

    "The younger was a mage here in the Gallows. Pretty, and talented as I understand. Orsino liked her." He shrugged. "Her brother was the Champion of Kirkwall."

    "I've heard that. What was he like?"

    "He was all right," Samson said. "It was he helped get my commission back, for something I did on behalf of the Order."

    "I didn't know you'd lost your commission," she said. "May I ask what happened?"

    They passed through the doors leading to the northern courtyard. Samson took a look around to ensure all was well. "I got caught passing messages between a young mage and his sweetheart," he said. "Meredith gave me the boot."

    Solona pulled off her gloves, tucked them into the belt of her armour. "I'm sorry," she said. "How long did you have to go without lyrium?"

    He stared at her. "Too long," he said.

    "Do you still have the nightmares?" she wondered, sober.

    Samson frowned. "How d'you know about that?"

    Solona shook her head. "I've seen the effects," she told him.

    "Now and again," he said. "They're not so bad now."

    She nodded, knelt beside the garden and began to pluck out little weeds. Samson watched her work.

    Above them, a familiar figure appeared and leaned on the balustrade. Samson inclined his head respectfully, received a nod in return, and the knight-commander returned to watching Solona care for her garden. At last she noticed the scrutiny, and brushed dirt from her hands as she stood and looked up.

    "Knight-Commander," she said boldly.

    "First Enchanter," Cullen said.

    "Is there something you need?"

    "I'm just enjoying some fresh air before I turn to the day's paperwork. Don't forget that we have a supper meeting tonight, to discuss your latest reports."

    "I will not forget, Knight-Commander."

    "Carry on, then," he said. He straightened and, with a last look down at her, turned away and vanished into the Gallows.

    Samson watched Solona thoughtfully as she returned to her weeding. The knight-commander's study was on the other side of the building; there were plenty of opportunities for him to get some 'fresh air' in other courtyards, but he'd made the effort to come to this one.

    Solona finished her weeding and stood. "I'd better wash up before I meet with the Knight-Commander." She made a face and waggled her dirty, weed-stained fingers, and Samson turned to escort her back inside. At the door to her chambers he wished her a pleasant evening and turned to leave, made his way to the dining hall to get some supper.

    By the time Cullen had returned to his study, Elsa had opened his correspondence and organised it according to importance. She sat motionless nearby, waiting for Cullen to read through it and provide her with further instruction.

    He had to admit that though he hadn't initially cared to have a Tranquil assistant, Elsa made his life considerably easier when it came to administration; she forgot nothing, and was relentless in completing her work as quickly and efficiently as possible. He never had to ask for something twice, and more often than not she provided him with what he needed almost before he knew he needed it.

    The first six pages in his pile were completed applications for entry into the Order. That was excellent. Though a number of mages had been killed in the battle, the Gallows was still a functional Circle, and templars were needed, to replace casualties and the attrition of those templars who had refused to serve under him. Cullen handed the applications to Elsa. "Contact them and set up appointments for initial interviews. Notify the guard-captain as well. Any that aren't suitable for the Order may be qualified for the city guard." Elsa took the pages wordlessly and waited.

    The next letter was from the knight-vigilant in Val Royeaux, reminding Cullen that a viscount needed to be appointed in Kirkwall, as the day-to-day affairs of the city were not the concern of the knight-commander. Cullen shook his head; if the knight-vigilant had been reading his reports, he would have known that Cullen very gladly left the day-to-day affairs of the city in extremely capable hands. He turned to Elsa. "My appointment with the seneschal is tomorrow morning, is it not?"


    Cullen nodded, set the knight-vigilant's letter aside. Beneath it was a beautifully-illuminated letter from the Divine herself, advising him that she was sending a new grand cleric to Kirkwall, to re-establish Chantry presence, and expressing her hope that Cullen would assist in making the transition a smooth one and, more importantly, a safe one. Cullen re-read the letter a couple of times and then set it atop the knight-vigilant's letter.

    The next page was filled with Solona's meticulous script: her report on the mages and the moves she had made within the living quarters to facilitate her 'emergency procedures'.

    She had come to him less than a week after her arrival in Kirkwall, and had presented him with a proposal for what to do in the case of said emergency. It involved the non-combatant mages—the youngest apprentices, the Tranquil, and those mages whose abilities were negligible—leaving the open living quarters and heading into a secure space that had no doubt once been used to protect cowardly magisters. Cullen had seen the logic of such a plan; too many innocents had died on the day Hawke had slain Meredith—

    No, he reminded himself, she had done that to herself.

    —the day Hawke and his companions had stormed the Gallows. So many more would have been spared had it not been for Hawke urging them on—or if those not ready for combat had been in a safe place, rather than slaughtered in their cells by his fellow Templars. Orsino had made the rest go out to fight, and then—

    Cullen shook his head. He didn't want to think about that. He put Solona's report aside to be perused later.

    The next letter bore a seal that was familiar to him; it was the heraldry of Starkhaven. Cullen sighed. No doubt the Prince hoped that without a viscount and with Cullen now in Meredith's place, he would be able to receive the aid from Kirkwall he had already requested several times. He tossed the letter aside.

    There was a knock on the door and Cullen looked up. "Hugh," he said, to the templar standing there. "Come in."

    Hugh stepped into the study and saluted. "The revised duty rosters, ser," he said, and handed Cullen a sheaf of paper.

    "Thank you, Hugh," Cullen said. "Elsa, please review this and ensure there are no conflicts between it and my schedule." He handed the stack to her, turned his attention back to Hugh. "Did you have any difficulty?"

    "None at all, ser," Hugh replied. "I've put the new templars coming from Ostwick in shadowing positions based on what you've told me about them, so that they can get used to our routine before taking on patrols and duties of their own. I put them in from tomorrow onward, but if they don't get here for a day or so the schedule will still work out."

    "Excellent, thank you. Any other issues?" Hugh's mouth twitched slightly, and Cullen gestured to him. "Speak your mind, Hugh."

    The templar made a face. "Ser," he said, "when is the first enchanter going to start wearing proper robes?"

    Cullen raised his eyebrows. "You're bothered by her armour?"

    "Not me, ser," Hugh said, flushing. "But I've noticed she's rather distracting to some of the other men."

    "Ah." Cullen eyed him a moment. "Well, Hugh, I can speak to her about it, but I cannot force her to wear robes."

    Hugh frowned. "I thought it was—you know, prescribed."

    "Clerics of all kinds have always worn robes, and since mages are effectively scholars of a sort, it's long been tradition—but there's nothing in Chantry law or Circle rules that indicate a mage must wear robes." He smiled faintly. "She has done a great deal of military work, and she has grown used to wearing armour."

    "Military work," Hugh repeated. "I thought she was a spirit-healer."

    "Oddly enough, the military tends to get itself into situations in which healing is necessary."

    Hugh opened and shut his mouth, turned an even brighter shade of red. "Right, ser."

    "Is there anything else?"

    "No, ser." Hugh saluted and left the study.

    Cullen turned his attention to Elsa. "I think I'll call it an evening," he said.

    "It is evening," Elsa pointed out.

    "Thank you, Elsa."

    Cullen stood and stretched, grabbed his gauntlets from his desk and tried not to look too eager as he made his way up to his quarters. He met only templars on the way, all of whom were on duty or on their way to the dining hall, and so was obliged to do no more than acknowledge them as he passed.

    He let himself into his apartment and locked the door. He could smell hot food; one of the Tranquil had already brought supper up, then, and had laid it out in the little dining nook. He headed first to his dressing-room to remove his armour and rack it.

    He had just stripped down to his smallclothes when he heard a sound from somewhere else in the apartment. Cullen frowned, grabbed his sword, and stalked out into the great room in his bare feet. He glanced into the dining nook; the table had been set and the dishes were still covered, but no one was there. He heard the sound again and he chuckled as he recognised it this time. Still carrying his sword he headed toward the bath room and stood in the doorway.

    Solona had filled the bath—more likely, she had once again informed the Tranquil that the knight-commander wished a bath, and had them fill it for her—and lay stretched out in it now with her ankles crossed and one heel resting on the edge of the tub. A glass of wine, half-drunk, sat beside the tub. Solona, her hair piled atop her head, was lazily reading a book. She looked up at him and smiled and he felt warmth spread through his belly. "Good evening, Knight-Commander," she said.

    "How did you sneak in here this time?"

    "Sneak," she scoffed, and looked back at her book. "I just told Lucas that I had a meeting with you, which is true, and he left me alone in your drawing room to wait."

    "I see."

    "And I told him that you would like a bath, so he filled it before he left. And since I needed a bath after my work in the garden—" She shrugged and looked sideways up at him.

    "Mm-hm." He leaned against the door jamb. "So the bath in your apartment is broken?"

    "Yours is just a little bit bigger," she said. "I miss my big bath." She used her fingertip to draw a glyph on the page to mark her place, shut the book and set it on the floor beside her wine; she picked up the wine and drank it down, set the glass on the floor. She leaned on the edge of the tub and watched him.

    "I kind of miss it, too," Cullen told her with some amusement. "But we've made our choices, haven't we?"

    "Indeed we have," she agreed. "Have you come here to smite me?" She nodded to his sword.

    "I thought I heard an intruder," he said drily.

    "So you came decked out in your smalls."
    "They allow freedom of movement."

    Solona laughed at that. "I'll bet."

    Cullen let his sword lean against the door jamb, moved to kneel beside the tub and took Solona's damp face into his hands. He kissed her tenderly, pulled back and looked into her face. "Do you regret it?" he asked.

    Solona blinked. "Regret what?"

    "Coming here. Giving up your freedom, your titles, your big bathtub." He drew his thumbs across her cheeks, traced her mouth with a fingertip. "There, you could come and go as you please, could order everyone about, had prestige and honour and no one watching over your shoulder all the time. Here, you can't even go to the market without supervision."

    The dark eyes watched him frankly. "Even a privileged position comes with limits," she said, softly. "There's a war coming, Cullen. Not just skirmishes between mages and templars, but a war that will devastate Thedas."

    "As a Warden, you could have fought."

    "As a Warden, I wouldn't have been permitted to fight. I wouldn't have been permitted to take sides, because Wardens must always be politically neutral. I wouldn't have been able to protect my friends, or stop someone from coming to kill you, because Wardens have got to be neutral, have got to be focused on darkspawn and the Blights." She shook her head, reached up and caught his hand in hers, pressed her cheek to his palm. "This way, I can fight at your side, if I have to fight." She turned her head and kissed his wedding ring, pressed his hand to her cheek again and smiled, the dreamy smile that had made him fall in love with her in Ferelden.

    "Let's hope the fighting never makes it here," Cullen said, and kissed her again, enjoyed the taste of sweet wine in her mouth, her soft breath on his face. He felt a sudden pulse in his groin. "Get out of there, and come have supper with me."

    Her expression fell. "Aren't you going to join me?" she asked, plaintive, and her eyes nearly engulfed him. His cock leaped to full attention.

    He tweaked her nose. "Away with you, temptress," he said sternly. "A man needs fuel in him before he can take you on."

    "What does that mean?" she demanded.

    "It means that any man who plans on loving you needs to ensure he feeds himself first, lest he wind up a puddle of jelly on the floor and you yet unsatisfied."

    Solona's jaw dropped in shock he knew she was not feeling. "Are you saying I'm—"

    He kissed her again. "Yes, darling, I am. I'm going to go get dressed and wait for you to join me at the table." He stood and turned swiftly, grabbed his sword as he left the room.

    "It's mean to tease me, you know," she called after him. "Stalking around undressed with your sword out."

    Cullen laughed softly to himself, sighed and shifted his traitorous cock for comfort. "You don't have to do that every time," he informed it, futilely. In the dressing-room, he put his sword in its place and pulled on his houseclothes, stepped into his soft-soled shoes, then made his way to the dining area.

    "I think he likes it. I think he likes watching her, and I think—" Hugh frowned. "I think he's taking advantage."

    "No," Paxley said, and shook his head. "Not Cullen. He's—he's honourable." They sat across from one another near the end of one of the long tables set out in the dining hall. The hall was not even half full, yet, but the supper rush would soon begin.

    "He's still a man, Pax," Hugh said sharply, then glanced quickly around to ensure he had not been heard. He shifted closer to the table, leaned toward Paxley. "Remember the rumour we used to hear, how he was once in love with a mage in Ferelden, and she didn't love him back? Now he's in power and he made her come here."

    "But she came from Nevarra."

    "But she was originally from Ferelden."

    "There are lots of mages in Ferelden. And she's a lot younger than he is."

    "And he's not as old as he looks," Hugh pointed out. He prodded at his stew with his spoon.

    "And anyway, didn't Meredith give everyone shit for passing on that rumour, or even asking about it?"

    "She probably didn't like to think that her Knight-Captain was the type to fall for a mage," Hugh said. "But don't you think it's strange that out of all the enchanters he might have gotten to come here, he got one he knew in Ferelden?"

    Paxley looked up from his supper. "You don't know he knew her."

    "I do know," Hugh said triumphantly, and sat back in his chair, folded his arms. "He was actually at her Harrowing."

    "What?" Paxley stared.

    "He told me so himself, a couple of days after she got here. Said it was the fastest Harrowing he's ever seen."

    "Huh." Paxley let his spoon rest in his bowl, reached up to wipe his face and took care to ensure his moustache was clean. "That is interesting."

    "I thought so."

    "It still doesn't mean he's doing anything to her." Paxley frowned.

    Hugh sighed. "He's always showing up where she is, always staring at her. When I mentioned that some of the others look at her—you know the way they do—you should have seen his face. His eyes. I thought he was going to lunge at me or something."

    "Really? What did he say?"

    "He just shrugged it off, said something about her working with the military." He shook his head. "I want to find out for sure if he's—you know, dirty. If he's turning out like Karras—"

    "No," Paxley said, sat back and shook his head vehemently. "I refuse to believe that. Karras was—" He made a face. "I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but that man was evil. That poor kid Alain—" He shook his head again. "No. Cullen's not like that. Even if he is doing anything with her, it's because she wants it too. Cullen wouldn't take advantage."

    "He's the knight-commander. She's a mage—"

    "First enchanter."

    "He's still got authority over her. That's not a healthy relationship."

    "Sex doesn't require a relationship," Paxley reminded him.

    "Ooh," said a smooth female voice, as Ruvena sat down next to Paxley, set a bowl of hot stew on the table. "Who's having sex?" She unfolded a napkin, dug a spoon into her stew with relish, and looked from one to the other as she ate.

    "No one's having sex," Paxley informed her.

    "Shame," Ruvena said, once she had swallowed. "Everyone should be."

    Hugh rolled his eyes at her. "We're talking about the knight-commander."

    "Oh, gossip," she said. "Are we devoted templars, or are we bored schoolchildren?"

    "Bored schoolchildren," Hugh snapped. "I think he's taking advantage of the first enchanter. I think he might even be hurting her."

    Ruvena stopped with a spoonful of stew halfway to her mouth. "What."

    "I saw her come out of his study once, and she was—rumpled. And she was walking stiffly, and—" Hugh reddened. "And she kept her eyes down. She didn't look up at all, just went across to her own study and shut the door. I think he's taking advantage."

    Ruvena frowned. "She seems so cheerful," she murmured, and let her spoon fall into her bowl. "Maker, do you think he would—?"

    "No," Paxley told her firmly. "I don't."

    "We need to find out for sure," Hugh said. "I need to know. We're starting over in Kirkwall anyway, right? Since Meredith. If he's corrupt things'll turn out just as bad."

    "If you're wrong," Paxley said, and leaned forward again, "you could get us all into a lot of trouble."

    "If I'm wrong," Hugh said grimly, "I'll take all the blame for it. But if I'm right, we can head off another disaster."

    Ruvena frowned a little at that. She wasn't the type to question authority, Hugh knew; she had insisted on following Meredith to the end, and the revelation of the depths of Meredith's madness had shaken her considerably. He leaned forward and rested his hands on the table, looked from Ruvena to Paxley.

    "Listen," he said quietly. "I like him, too. I like that he wants the mages to have a decent life here, and he's even taken steps in that direction. But every man has a weakness. His might be the first enchanter. He might still be sore if she rejected him back in Ferelden. Maybe it's just that she's his type, and because she's a healer instead of a war mage, he finds it easier to pressure her. Or maybe I've gone nutters and I'm the one seeing depravity around every corner. But since she got here something's changed about him, and as far as I can see, it's to do with her. So I want to know for sure." He took a breath. "Spirit-healers are more apt to get possessed, too, 'cos they're so often in contact with the Fade. If he pushes her too far—"

    "If he's pushing her at all," Paxley interjected.

    "—things might get drastic."

    "What do you think we should do?" asked Ruvena.

    Hugh pointed at her. "You're a woman."


    "A woman's more apt to talk openly to another woman. Right? So if you can talk to the first enchanter, and find out from her if something's going on—"

    "How am I supposed to do that? Just waltz up to her and say, 'hey, is the most powerful guy in this nice little prison you're living in shagging you against your will?'"

    Paxley stared at her. "That's not going to work."

    "I don't know what you two think," Ruvena said, crossly, "but just because I have tits doesn't mean I have some strange power to talk to all women. I'm a templar, for the love of Andraste. She's a mage."

    "I put you on the schedule for the next month to watch her when she takes the children out," Hugh said. "She always talks to whoever's watching, so you'll have plenty of time to talk with her."

    Ruvena scowled. "You did what?"

    "Cullen had me revise the duty rosters, to accommodate the new templars and mages that are coming from Ostwick. So I took the opportunity—"

    "I don't want to work for a man who pulls something like this," Hugh informed her, emphasising his words by tapping a finger on the table. "I need to know whether or not it's so. I don't care what it takes."

    "And apparently you don't care what either of us thinks," Ruvena countered. "Or if we even want to be part of your little scheme."

    Hugh sat back and sighed, looked from one to the other. "Look," he said, "I thought that since we're friends, you'd help me on this. It's important to me."

    Paxley sighed. "I'll keep my eyes open," he said. "I don't know what else you want me to do."

    Hugh looked at Ruvena. She rolled her eyes and made an aggravated sound. "I think you're out of your bloody mind," she snapped. "But I'll see what I can do."

    "Thanks, Ru." Hugh smiled at both of them, relieved. "Now, who wants to take me on at twos and sevens after supper?"

    "You're such a cheater," Paxley accused him. "I swear you mark those cards."

    "Never," Hugh laughed, and sat forward to finish eating his stew. "I'm just good at what I do."

    Paxley looked at Ruvena. "He cheats," Ruvena assured him. They grinned at one another and also resumed their meals; when the three of them had done they convened in one of the common rooms where Hugh gallantly allowed Ruvena to deal the cards, to ensure that he wasn't cheating.

    They had retired to what served Cullen as a drawing room; it was little more than a cozy den with a couch and two chairs, and a few tiny side-tables. Solona sat curled up next to him on the couch to read her book while Cullen read one of Kirkwall's papers. She loved these quiet times, their bodies warm together, their spirits at peace; it was her favourite way to spend an evening with him.

    Second-favourite, she corrected herself. They had already done her favourite almost the second they'd both finished eating, and in doing so had discovered that the little table in Cullen's dining nook was surprisingly sturdy. Cullen had found it quite scandalous to fuck her on the table, among the dirty dishes, but had boldly risen to the task. Solona always thrilled to see him struggle between his gentlemanly nature and his darker lust, when she seduced him in odd places, coaxed him to do things he'd never thought to do before. She knew he thought her terribly worldly and more than a little kinky, but he seemed to take great delight in trying everything she suggested, and that pleased her as much as anything he did to her. Or for her. Or on her.

    She suppressed a pleasant shiver and forced herself to think of other things.

    The book she was reading was one she'd found on one of Cullen's shelves, in among the very few fictional tomes he owned. It was entitled The Appalling Misadventures of Hawke and Sunshine, and was apparently a semi-fictional, humourous telling of her cousins' exploits in and around Kirkwall. Whether or not the stories were true—she couldn't quite believe that anyone had taken on an ogre alone—the fellow who had written them had a real gift with words, and Solona was enjoying the tales.

    Cullen turned the page of his paper, folded it for easy reading. "I've got an appointment with the seneschal tomorrow morning," he said. "Want to come with me?"

    "What's he like?"

    "Shrewd. A little haughty, but he was born and bred in Hightown, so it's no surprise. Still understands the value of work, even as he understands all the intricacies of noble life, so I forgive him the attitude."

    Solona looked up at him with a frown. "Does he treat you as inferior?"

    "Not particularly, no, though he still resents the Order for the way Meredith treated him after Dumar's death." He shrugged. "He isn't particularly nice, but his job doesn't require nice."

    "Why do you want me to meet him?"

    Cullen looked down at her and smiled faintly. "Not just to meet him, but to go into the city. I want people to see the new first enchanter, for one. I want them to know that things are changing around here."

    She smiled back. "That's a good plan," she told him.

    "I try to be a good knight-commander," he assured her, joking, and leaned down to kiss her nose. He looked back at his paper.

    "And maybe while we're out, I can find a new staff in the market."

    Cullen looked down at her again. "Who said we're going to the market? I said we'd be meeting with the seneschal."

    "Well, we'll be going past it, anyway, and I need a new staff."

    "What's wrong with your staff?"

    "There's something wrong with the crystal." She shrugged. "It's not working right." She had noticed tiny spidery cracks in the crystal the last time she'd examined it to determine why some of her directed spells had become a little inaccurate.

    "There is an entire market in the Gallows courtyard for you to shop for magical items," Cullen reminded her. "Why don't you look there first?"

    She shook her head. "I have looked there, darling, and they don't have anything suitable."

    He raised a dubious eyebrow. "And how will you be paying for this new staff, messere? Or are you expecting me to chip in for it?"

    Solona smiled up at him. "I was hoping you'd buy it for me as an anniversary gift."

    Cullen stared. "Is it our anniversary?"

    "It is, tomorrow," she said. "Fifteenth of Solace."

    He shook his head, looked into middle distance for a moment. "The time goes by so fast," he murmured.

    "Can I at least look?" Solona said hopefully.

    "Yes, of course you can look," he told her, and leaned down to kiss her mouth, affectionate. "But don't pick something out just to have something. Get one you really want."

    "Of course." She reached up and skritched the whiskers under his chin, and Cullen smiled down at her again.

    "I'm not a cat, you know," he said drily.

    "But it pleases you as though you were," she told him. "It always makes you smile. That's why I do it." Cullen made a face, returned his attention to his paper. Solona smiled to herself, and rested her head on his shoulder, resumed reading her book.

    When she had finished another chapter, she looked up to see Cullen had fallen asleep, his chin on his chest. She marked her place in the book and closed it, slipped Cullen's paper from his hands, and slid her fingers into his. His eyes half-opened and focused blearily on her; Solona pulled him gently to his feet and led him to the bedroom. She drew back the covers and Cullen stepped out of his house shoes. She helped him take off his tunic and trousers, took a moment to admire his chest and shoulders, ran her fingers down his solid arms, over his ridged belly. He watched her still sleepily.

    "Like what you see?" he murmured.

    "You know I do," she told him, and kissed his collarbone. She pushed him gently and he climbed obediently into the bed, allowed her to draw the blankets over him. She moved to the other side of the bed and climbed beneath the blankets as well, dimmed the lamp, and settled back against her fluffy pillow, to resume reading her book.

    Only an hour later, Cullen shifted closer to her, slid an arm up and over her lap; Solona looked down to find him watching her sleepily. "Is the light bothering you?" she asked.

    "No," he said. "What are you reading?" She read him the title and Cullen snorted softly, closed his eyes.

    "I'm pretty sure it's all made up," she told him.

    "The facts are mostly true," he said, and yawned,"but they are greatly exaggerated."

    "Ah." She reached down and smoothed his hair.

    "Have you gotten to chapter twelve yet?"

    "With the overworked and world-weary Knight-Captain Coulson?"

    Cullen smiled, drowsy. "That's the one."

    "He sounds like an incredibly attractive man. A little tired, though."


    "Does he want the light out?"

    "Doesn't matter," Cullen told her, dozing again already. Solona watched his face a moment, then marked her page in her book and set it on the bedside table. She doused the lamp and squirmed down beneath the blankets, turned so her back was to Cullen. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back to spoon with him, sighed contentedly into her hair and relaxed.

    Solona closed her eyes and savoured the heat of him, the tempered strength of his body, the slow and steady rhythm of his heartbeat against her back, and she did not for one second miss the life she'd had as a Grey Warden; it was one she hadn't chosen. This, here and now, was everything she wanted: fulfilling days, conversation over the evening meal, spontaneous lovemaking, and the warmth of her husband in her bed.

    Well, his bed.

    Seven years married. She needed to find him something in the market while she was looking at the staves. Something small and unobtrusive, something that would be meaningful to both of them but would be unnoticed by anyone else.

    She fell asleep while thinking, and dreamed her usual dreams.

    One more night.

    One more night to watch and wait.

    The city loomed over them now as his army placed itself strategically around it, swiftly built the catapults and loaded them with the special ammunition that he had commissioned. It had been very expensive but if it worked as planned it would have been worth every single copper he had invested.

    And he was sure it would work as planned. Dwarves took pride in their craft, after all, and left very little to chance.

    Kirkwall would be flattened, its magical influence quashed, and all the abominations and blood mages put to death. All those residents who had allowed it all to happen would die. If they were innocent, they would wake at the Maker's side. If they were not, they would wander the Void. No matter what, they would all be given their just rewards.

    And he would see Anders die slowly, painfully, for what he had done.

    Sebastian smiled to himself as he considered, not for the first time, not for the last, how he would make the apostate beg for his life, before taking it from him.

    This is wrong, Sebastian.

    Elthina's voice came to him, soft and insistent in his mind; he clenched his fists and refused to listen. He was doing this for her, after all; of all the people who had died as a result of Anders' actions, she had been the kindest, the holiest—

    Only the Maker and his bride are holy, she said in his mind. We may only strive to achieve a measure of that before we reach the Maker's side.

    Sebastian shook his head crossly. Elthina would be avenged in the morning, and from her place at the Maker's side she would see that he was right to do it, right to remove the bloodstained stone of Kirkwall from the face of Thedas.

    He turned and stalked back to the fire where his officers awaited his commands.

    Bran scrutinised the mage the knight-commander had brought with him to the Keep. She was tall, and she carried herself well. Her dark hair was long and the front of it braided away from her face. Her equally dark eyes were politely expressionless but he had the feeling she was quietly absorbing all she saw, categorising and labelling for her own purposes.

    Instead of robes she wore a form-fitting suit of padded armour that was woven with some sort of silvery metal that reflected light with each movement; over the padded suit she wore a dark chain skirt and capelet, attached with an intricate set of sturdy leather straps. It seemed practical, he decided; it would not inhibit her movements, and it would afford her a decent measure of protection. But why did a Circle mage in Kirkwall need armour?

    "You're looking well, Knight-Commander," he said, turning his attention to Cullen. It was no lie; the man looked like he'd finally gotten a few decent nights' sleep since their last meeting over a month ago. "And this is—?"

    "This is First Enchanter Solona," Cullen said solemnly. "She was sent here from the Cumberland Circle to take Orsino's place."

    "Ah, yes, I had heard of the new arrival," he said, and inclined his torso, just so, to the mage; enough to show respect, but not too much. "It is a pleasure to meet you at last. I am Bran, seneschal of the Keep."

    She bowed slightly in return. "It is a pleasure to be here," she said, "and to meet you, messere."

    Bran narrowed his eyes. "You sound a little Fereldan," he noted.

    "I was raised at Kinloch Hold, in Ferelden," she told him, "from the time I was a small child. But I was born in Kirkwall."

    "A homecoming, of sorts, then."

    She smiled faintly. "My home is the Circle, no matter the city."

    Bran looked up at Cullen, who watched him patiently. "Will the first enchanter be joining us in our meeting, then?" he asked, cautious.

    Cullen shook his head. "I had simply hoped that she would have a chance to meet you, Seneschal," he said. "In an attempt to improve relations between the Gallows' inhabitants and the city in general."

    "Indeed." Bran glanced at the mage again. She did not fidget, did not stare, simply stood patiently waiting. He wondered if her manners were natural to her, or if she had been schooled. "If you would care to take a seat, First Enchanter," he said, and indicated the comfortable chairs in the drawing room outside the Viscount's office, "I am sure our meeting will not be over long. There are matters of some—sensitivity that we need to address."

    She inclined her head. "Of course, Seneschal." She moved immediately to sit down, her back straight and her knees and feet together, her staff resting across her lap.

        Bran found himself oddly pleased. He had seen mages far too often—men and women alike—who dropped themselves into chairs and sat with their knees to either side in vulgar fashion. It didn't surprise him to know she'd been born in Kirkwall, no matter that she'd been raised among the southern barbarians. Blood and breeding always told.

    Thoughtful, Bran turned and led Cullen into the Viscount's office, shut the door behind them both. He sat down in the Viscount's chair and Cullen sat facing him over the desk. Bran folded his hands atop the desk and they watched one another for a long time. "I suppose," Bran broke the silence, "you have come once again to convince me to accept the role of Viscount."

    Cullen smiled faintly. "I have come to press the matter, yes," he said.

    "There has been no vote," Bran pointed out.

    "The city is still recovering," Cullen told him. "But the people of Kirkwall have come together to rescue and rebuild in the wake of what happened." He sat forward. "Under your command the cleanup in the aftermath of the Chantry explosion is all but complete. Homes are being rebuilt. The market in Hightown and the bazaar in Lowtown are both open for business. The city is beginning to resume its life. The people need leadership, and you are already providing it. It would be a change in title only."

    "I am an administrator," Bran informed him. "And there has been no vote."

    "Do you truly think a vote is necessary? You have been doing the job for years, now." Cullen spread his hands. "You have effectively been Viscount since Dumar's death—"

    "I was a tool of your Order for three years," Bran snapped, then took a deep breath to calm himself. It had not been by Cullen's orders, he reminded himself; he needed to channel that resentment in another direction.

    "I have no interest in ruling Kirkwall," Cullen told him mildly. "I would rather someone competent and proven take on the role. You are more than competent, as proven by the last four years' service."

    "Even if I accepted," Bran said, "I could not perform all the administrative tasks as well—"

    Cullen lifted a hand. "Accept, and appoint someone seneschal in your place. It's as simple as that."

    Bran stared at him a moment. "You aren't going to let this go, are you?"

    "I dare not. I am being pressured by Val Royeaux to ensure that a Viscount is named soon, and I can think of no one else who has the best interests of Kirkwall in the forefront of his mind—no one else who knows its workings quite as you do."

    "There is no need to flatter me, Knight-Commander."

    "I am only stating the reasons I know you are the best choice for Viscount. You know I'm right."

    Bran sighed. "This is not how I envisioned my career," he said drily.

    "None of us can know the future, serah," Cullen replied. "Name a seneschal for yourself and we will arrange for a ceremony to install you as Viscount. Have you anyone in mind who could serve?"

    Bran shook his head slowly. "My son, I suppose," he said. "But if I am to be Viscount, he will need to be groomed to take over that role in the event of my demise."

    "As seneschal, he would learn all he would need to know in order to do so."

    That was true. Bran looked into Cullen's serious eyes. "Give me a day," he said. "Let me discuss it with him and consider for myself. I will give you an answer first thing tomorrow morning."

    Cullen smiled and stood. "Thank you, Seneschal," he said. Bran stood as well, and Cullen reached between them to shake his hand. "I appreciate your time."

    "It is always a pleasure to speak with you, Knight-Commander," Bran told him.

    In the drawing-room outside the office, the first enchanter sat still in her place, as though she had not moved. She rose at their appearance, swung her staff to rest against her back, and waited.

    "It has been a pleasure to meet you as well," Bran told her, and reached for her hand, lifted it in gentlemanly fashion. Her index finger, he noted, bore an intricately-forged, jointed armour ring that extended the full length of the finger and covered the nail; its tip was sharp and delicately curved, like a talon. "That could be dangerous," he noted.

    "It is protection as well as decoration," she told him with a smile.

    "It is a lovely decoration, and perhaps its danger is in its innocuous beauty." He released her hand and allowed himself a small smile. "Very appropriate." He released her hand and watched as she turned to descend the stairs with Cullen. She looked up at the Knight-Commander and said something softly, and Cullen looked down and replied in kind. Both remained perfectly sober, their faces giving nothing away. Bran stood near the upper balustrade and watched them walk to the doors. Cullen pushed them open and allowed her to pass through; once through, she paused and waited for him.

    Bran turned and walked back through the sitting-room and into the office, and turned his thoughts to his work.

    The streets of Hightown were crowded and busy but people moved out of the way when they saw Cullen. Solona saw various expressions on their faces, ranging from fear to disgust to simple unease; it saddened her to think that anyone would fear their own protectors. But then, she supposed, they had been given little reason to perceive templars as protectors, in the last few years, if Cullen's descriptions of Kirkwall in his letters to her had been any indication.

    Cullen ignored the looks, kept his head high and looked around as though nothing was out of the ordinary. "Is there anywhere in particular you want to look?" he asked her quietly.

    "I received an invitation to visit a little shop that might have what I need," she said, "but I think we need to go into Lowtown to get to it."

    "This way to Lowtown," he said, and gestured. Solona resisted the urge to reach up and take his hand as they walked, and settled for letting their arms brush against one another.

    "The seneschal," she said, "likes my ring."

    "Mm-hm." He seemed amused.

    "He didn't seem as haughty as you said he is."

    "You were on surprisingly good behaviour." He looked sideways at her.

    "Are you saying I'm not normally well-behaved?" she asked, humourously.

    Cullen made a sound that was not quite a laugh. "Being with the Wardens," he said, "certainly did have an effect on you."

    "I don't hear you complaining."

    "I didn't say it was a negative effect," he told her. "But you did learn how to misbehave."

    Solona laughed, and that drew the sudden stares of several people. "Well," she said, "the twins are a bad influence."

    "To say the least."

    They began to descend the stone steps leading to Lowtown, and Solona paused. Her skin prickled and she frowned, looked up and around. No one was doing any magic that she could see, but it felt like magic. Already a few steps below her, Cullen stopped and looked back at her, curious. "Something wrong?" he wondered.

    "Yes." The prickling sensation was growing intense. She rubbed her arms through her armour. "I think someone is casting," she told him quietly.

    Cullen frowned, turned to face her. "Where?"

    She shook her head. "I can't tell." She looked up the stairs toward Hightown.

    "Knight-Commander!!" It was Hugh, leaping up the stairs from Lowtown, two at a time, breathless. "Knight-Commander, we've been looking for you—" Cullen turned and took a step toward him.

    The prickling sensation on her skin turned into a burning one and Solona felt suddenly nauseated. She looked up just in time to see a bright blue comet streaking toward her.

    In slow motion she drew her staff and summoned a protective spell; she tapped the base of her staff on the stone step to activate her shield.

    The crystal in her staff cracked audibly and the spell failed. She heard Cullen say her name, and from the corner of her eye she saw him turn toward her, saw him grab his sword and shield. She summoned a weaker sphere that would—she hoped—deflect the worst of the attack, but which would force her to stay in one place.

    Cullen was too far away for her to extend the sphere to protect him. Behind him Hugh was still running up the stairs, his face pale, his mouth open in a shout. Solona turned her head to look at Cullen, to warn him away.

    The fiery blue stone slammed into the steps between them and the world shattered.

Chapter Text

    Hugh opened his eyes and saw blue sky above him. He rolled himself to his knees and looked around. He had landed on the street near a seller's kiosk, along with a couple of other people who were just coming to, and picking themselves up. He could not hear their voices though he could see their mouths moving. He wondered if he had been thrown the whole distance, or if he had bounced down the steps; he ached everywhere, and presumed the latter.
    He stood carefully, was jostled by a merchant running past him and staggered, but managed to keep his feet. He looked up the steps; about two thirds of the way up to Hightown was an enormous crater filled with what looked like blue fire. Beneath it, a single body lay where it had fallen on the steps. Hugh climbed up slowly, his arms and legs impossibly heavy.

    Cullen was motionless, face-down on the stone, and Hugh knelt beside him, struggled to roll him to his back. Cullen's face and head were bloodied; beneath the plate armour Hugh could not tell if he was breathing. He worked off one of his gloves and pressed his fingers to Cullen's neck to feel for a pulse, and was relieved to find one, though it was weak and thready.

    Hugh looked around but the first enchanter was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, he thought, she had been struck by whatever had caused the crater. Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps that was the Maker's mercy, to save her from whatever Cullen had been doing to her.

    For now, he needed to get to the Gallows, where he and Cullen could both be healed.

    He lifted Cullen to a sitting position, ducked his head and shoulders beneath Cullen's body and attempted to stand—but Cullen was a strong and heavy man, and wearing full plate. Hugh was not going to be able to carry him.

    He grasped the back of Cullen's chestplate instead and stood, and began to drag the knight-commander down the stairs, one at a time. Any further injuries Cullen sustained along the way would be fixed by the healers. Hugh kept this in the forefront of his mind as he walked slowly through the streets, in the direction of the docks. He was aware, to an extent, of people moving around him. They did not stop to speak to him; he could not hear them anyway. He was aware that every few minutes the ground shook beneath him; he was aware that his hands and face were growing numb, that each step took greater effort than the last.

    At the top of the steps leading down to the docks he paused. The bottom was too far away for him to see, at the end of a long tunnel. He sagged to his knees, to rest for just a moment before continuing. Hugh closed his eyes.

    His own bed felt fit for a king, after so long away from home, and Varric lay in it longer than he needed to, enjoying the comfort and the distinct lack of weather.

    The decision to return to Kirkwall had been easier than he had imagined.

    The others had taken their own paths. Isabela had fled to the sea, Merrill in tow, determined to find a ship and "to show the kitten what living is really like". Fenris had vanished one night, a silent ghost, without a farewell. Bethany had, despite her brother's arguments, submitted herself to the Circle of Magi in Markham.

    That had left just the three of them, and Hawke had been so focused on Anders that Varric might as well not have been there. It hadn't taken him long to realise why: Anders' time was short. He would hear the Calling and head to the Deep Roads, or the demon would subsume him entirely and Anders would be no more. Hawke simply wanted to spend as much time with his love as he could, before he lost Anders forever.

    So Varric had known it was time for him, too, to follow his own path. He'd bidden Hawke a quiet good-bye, one night while Anders had slept. Hawke had accepted it sadly, had wished him well. He and Anders, he'd said, would be heading to the Tirashan; it would be a peaceful place for them to live incognito. Varric knew what Hawke hadn't said—that the Tirashan was far enough away from the Deep Roads and the darkspawn that Anders might not hear the Calling for a while, and it was far enough away from people that if and when Vengeance devoured the last of Anders, Hawke could kill him without risk to anyone else.

    Varric had left that very night and walked back to Kirkwall alone.

    Not entirely alone, he amended; Bianca had been with him every step of the way. He rolled to his side and reached out to stroke the smooth wooden stock. Bianca hummed softly at his touch and Varric smiled.

    "Good morning to you, too, darling," he said wistfully, and at last he sat up and slid out of bed.

    He took his time washing and shaving. It had been too long since he'd had enough hot water for both, and he even sang a little to himself in the bath. He dressed in clean clothes, swung Bianca to his back, and headed down into the Hanged Man to get something to eat. Norah was happy to heat up a bowl of the Hanged Man's famous stew for him, and joined him at the table as she drank her morning tea.

    "It's good to have you back, Varric," she said with a smile. "What made you return?"

    Varric swallowed a mouthful of the stew, thoughtful. "Well, I missed you something terrible, Norah."

    She laughed. "No one's set foot in your suite while you were gone," she told him.

    "I could tell. You're a doll, and I owe you."

    "You do," she assured him with a smile. "Back for good, then?"

    "I can't imagine living anywhere else." It was true; as crazy as Kirkwall was, it was home.

    "How's your brother?"

    "Haven't checked on him yet," Varric said. "I'll head over there to—" The floor shook and made the dishes on the table rattle. Norah sat straight up in her chair, startled, and stared at him. "What was that?" he asked.

    "Earthquake?" Norah wondered.

    From outside they could hear shouts. "I don't think it was an earthquake," Varric said. "Stay here." He jumped to his feet and headed to the door. With Bianca ready, he peered outside.

    People ran past, panicked, though he could see no one in pursuit. Varric frowned, glanced back at Norah, who sat clutching her mug and watching him. "I'll be back," he promised, and let the door fall shut behind him. He walked cautiously in the opposite direction of the fleeing people, who were all, it seemed, coming up from the bazaar. He made his way to the stairs and stuck close to the walls, alert, as he descended.

    In the bazaar two city guards were calmly directing stragglers to return to their homes or to take refuge in nearby shops, and Varric made his way to them. "What's going on?" he asked.

    "The city's under attack," said one of them, grimly, and he braced himself as another thundering rumble shook the ground beneath them. "Please get indoors and into your cellar if you have one. We'll take care of things out here."

    "Where's the guard-captain?" Varric asked.

    "Don't worry about that," said the guard. "Get inside, serah, and be safe." With the bazaar cleared out they turned and headed deeper into Lowtown. Varric continued on his way toward the Hightown steps. He didn't imagine Aveline would stay in the Keep if the city was under attack, but it was as good a place as any to start looking for her.

    As he approached the steps leading to Hightown he stopped short and stared at what was left of them, at the shimmering blue tendrils rising from within a deep crater that had rendered them impassable.

    Lyrium, was his first thought; very little in the world glowed quite like it. Why is someone firing lyrium into Kirkwall? was his second. It was drifting on the breeze and settling on the stone steps, a thin carpet of blue dust.

    On the intact lower stairs he saw a bloody trail through the dust, leading toward the docks. "That's not good," he murmured, and turned to follow it. Anyone that badly wounded, he knew, would not get very far.


    Something startled him awake and Paxley inhaled, opened his eyes. He blinked until his vision cleared, and he smiled sleepily at the mirror installed over the bed. Curled facing him with her head on his arm was Ruvena, her athletic body bare, her face flushed and sweet in sleep, her hair mussed.

    Behind Ruvena, one strong arm draped over her middle, was Reed, broad and brown and smooth all over. Once a month, when their leave time coincided, Paxley and Ruvena pooled their coin and spent a night and a day with Reed at the Rose. They had been officially on duty until midnight the night before, so had come to the city rather late. It was never too late for Reed, though; he'd been more than pleased to see them, and he had given them a delightful couple of hours before they'd all curled up together to sleep. Reed lifted his head now and smiled lazily at Paxley over Ruvena's shoulder. He cocked his head, beckoning, and Paxley rose to one elbow; Reed leaned over Ruvena, cupped the back of Paxley's head with one hand, and drew him forward for a sweet and lingering kiss. Paxley closed his eyes and sighed.

    The bed—no, the whole building—shook, then, and from outside there was a sound something like an explosion. Ruvena sat up between them, startled and immediately alert. "What was that?" she said. "Did I dream that?"

    "No," Paxley told her, and they heard shouts from outside. "Something's going on." He swung himself out of the bed and reached for his clothes, dressed rapidly and pulled on his armour. Ruvena climbed over Reed and did the same on the other side of the bed. Reed stretched languorously and stood, reached for his robe and tied it on, stood near the door and watched them dress.

    There was another explosive sound and the floor rocked beneath them. "Shit," Ruvena exclaimed. "Are we under attack?"

    "The guard would have notified us, if they'd seen anyone coming." Paxley ran his fingers through his hair, smoothed it down, reached up to ensure his moustache was neat. They grabbed their swords and shields and stopped short as Reed blocked the door. "No time, Reed," Paxley said impatiently as he sheathed his sword on his back.

    "Pay up," Reed demanded. Paxley sighed and turned his face up and Reed leaned down to kiss him again, deeply, hungrily. Andraste's flames, Paxley complained silently. Why does this have to happen now? They were supposed to be off-duty. It wasn't fair. Reed pulled back and licked his lips, beckoned to Ruvena and extracted the same 'payment' from her, then stepped away from the door. "Go on, then, mighty templars," he said with a smirk. "Save the day."

    "Joke all you want," Ruvena told him sternly. "We may be doing just that."

    "It's probably just some arsehole got hold of some Qunari powder," Reed said. "You paid for the day, so come back when you're done rescuing Kirkwall from idiots." He smiled lazily and leaned against the door jamb.

    Paxley raced down the carpeted stairs, past confused and anxious staff and customers, and out the front door of the Blooming Rose, Ruvena on his heels. They had just turned the corner and were heading toward the square when something struck a nearby pillar and exploded. They raised their shields and ducked and the shock of the explosion knocked them nearly off their feet. Paxley peered over his shield and saw a blue cloud billowing outward from the shattered pillar. His skin tingled. "Is that—lyrium?" he asked.

    Ruvena scowled. "Who's throwing lyrium around like that? The stuff's bloody dangerous."

    "That," Paxley said, "is probably why they're doing it." She shot him a dark look; they straightened and ran around the broken stone, dodged the bulk of the lyrium cloud as well as they could.

    They neared the steps leading up to the Keep just as the guard-captain was heading down, followed by a number of guardsmen. "What's going on, Captain?" Paxley asked her.

    Aveline eyed them grimly. "The city is being attacked," she said. "Whoever did it, managed to hide themselves very effectively, and have surrounded the city on the landward side."

    "We thought it was odd you hadn't warned us," Ruvena said. "How did they manage to hide?"

    "Apparently they used magic. My man on the wall said he literally saw nothing until they started firing this shit over his head. Where's your Commander?"

    "He should be in the Gallows," Paxley told her.

    "I've instructed my guards to keep people indoors. Anyone who's badly injured can be brought to the Keep, and we'll need healers to come from the Gallows. I want the streets cleared of all civilians. If you spot anyone who's a part of this attack, take them alive—I want to question them. Otherwise, just do your job."

    "We're off duty," Ruvena said, "so our first step is to get to the Gallows for instruction. We'll tell the knight-commander what's going on."

    "Do that. And be careful." Aveline pushed past them, began issuing commands to her guards.

    "Let's go," Paxley said, and he and Ruvena headed for the exit to Lowtown and the fastest way to the docks. Along the way they saw more damage where the lyrium projectiles had exploded on impact; a very few had struck walls and stuck there without detonating, while some had smashed flagstones and pillars. The two paused to mutter quick prayers over the bodies they passed.

    At the top of the stairs leading to Lowtown they stopped and stared at a massive crater that shone bright with lyrium dust, and prevented passage. "Andraste's tits," Ruvena swore. "Now what?"

    Paxley swallowed. He was not a leader; he wasn't good at making decisions. "I don't know," he murmured, and looked around. "Wait—is that—?" He descended the first several steps. Lying in shadow against the black stone wall, her body partially obscured by rubble, was the first enchanter. "Ru, come here," Paxley called, and crouched beside Solona. Ruvena moved swiftly to join him; they pulled away the broken stone and Paxley removed a glove to check Solona's wrist for a pulse. "She's alive," he said. "But what was she doing in the city?" He withdrew his hand and realised there was grit on his fingers; his fingertips tingled a little with contact with the lyrium dust. He brushed it away and replaced his glove.

    "She had to have been accompanied," Ruvena said.
    "And Cullen wouldn't have let anyone go with her but himself," Paxley noted. He lifted the limp body as carefully as he could.

    "So he isn't in the Gallows. Maker—you think he got caught in that?" Ruvena pointed to the burning crater.

    Paxley didn't want to think about that. He carried Solona up the stairs. "Let's take her to the Keep for now, until—"

    A whistling overhead made them look up in time to see another glowing projectile approach the market. Ruvena cursed and raised her shield; she and Paxley crouched beneath it, covered the first enchanter's body with their own. The concussion threw them and they tumbled down the stairs.

    Ruvena slammed her shield into the cracked stone, held fast and swung her legs out to block Paxley's fall. He managed to keep hold of the first enchanter with one arm around her waist, and he and Ruvena lay on the stairs, panting. Ruvena's face was cut and bleeding. Paxley felt suddenly dizzy and he realised that lyrium dust was falling softly, silently, all around them.

    "Shit," he muttered, as the tingling sensation made him shiver. "We're breathing it in."

    "We have to get inside," Ruvena said. With an effort they got to their feet; Ruvena helped him support the first enchanter's weight as they dragged her unceremoniously up the stairs, and limped toward the Keep.

    Solona opened her eyes, sat up, looked around and frowned.

    She was in the Fade, in the familiar area inhabited by the spirits of Valor and Pride. This was the place she'd been Harrowed, and where she had realised that she was destined to remove the darkspawn taint from her blood. It was where she found herself each time she entered the Fade awake.

    She stood, looked down at her armour; it was intact. Absently, she summoned a staff and swung it to her back. Valor would never attack her, but there were plenty of others in this realm who would. Solona made her way determinedly along the familiar path to Valor's forge.

    He looked up as she approached. "Welcome," he greeted her, his deep voice slightly muffled by his helmet. "Have you another question?"

    Solona put her hands on her hips, shook her head. "I shouldn't be here."

    "Yet here you are, so there must be a purpose to your presence."

    Heavy footsteps sounded behind her, deep hot breaths, and her skin prickled with the proximity of barely-controlled power. "The stone must have had lyrium on it," she said thoughtfully, more to herself than to Valor. "Lots of it, to bring me here like this."

    "Come to play again?" spoke a second voice behind her, deeper and rougher, and from a much greater height.

    "Not this time, Mouse," Solona said. "I need to wake up."

    She could fairly hear him bare enormous needle-sharp teeth. "That's no fun."

    "If you'll recall, it wasn't terribly fun for you the last time you tried something."

    He snorted rudely but Solona felt the heat of him dissipate as he transformed. As a bear he padded around to sit to her left, to Valor's right. He reached up and scratched at one ear and cocked his head at her. "How's your precious templar?" he asked, mocking.

    "Probably hurt," Solona informed him. "I need to wake up, and find him."

    Mouse shrugged, an un-bearlike motion. "He's right, you know," he said, indicating Valor. "You are here for a reason. No one comes to the Fade, like this, without purpose."

    "I didn't come here of my own accord," Solona pointed out.

    "Nor did you, truly, on your very first visit to this place." Valor was solemn, his eyes gleaming behind his helmet. "It was at the whim of your superiors, was it not? On threat of death."

    "You could put it that way," Solona said. "But at least I knew it was going to happen."

    "Still, there was purpose then, and there must be purpose now."

    Hands on her hips once again, Solona shook her head and turned to scan the horizon, which changed significantly each time she visited the area. "What's that over there?" she asked, and pointed to some odd not-quite-square structures in the distance.

    "That is Kirkwall," Valor told her.

    "Why is Kirkwall here?"

    "Perhaps you should tell us," he said. "This is your dream."

    "I'm no somniari," Solona assured him. "I have no control over this environment."

    "Yet it has transformed for your sake," he noted, "as it did the last time you were in need of guidance. Shall we go and take a look?" He gestured in the direction of the Fade-distorted city. With a grunt, Mouse rose to all fours and waited. Solona joined them, Valor to her right and Mouse to her left, and they traversed the twisted landscape.

    He thrashed awake from a dream of demons but warm hands on his shoulders held him down. "It's okay, kid. You're all right."

    Hugh tried to focus, blinked up at a broad dwarven face, searched his memory for a name. "Varric Tethras," he croaked. "Thought you left with Hawke." His throat burned as though he'd swallowed scalding liquid.

    "I came back," Varric told him cheerfully. He released Hugh's shoulders, tucked a hand beneath his head. "You're lucky I did, too. Bleeding out your ears like you were, you probably would have died if I hadn't found you." Varric held a vial to Hugh's lips and he drank obediently, grimaced at the bitter taste of elfroot and coughed a little. "That'll help a bit," Varric assured him. "You probably sucked back a lot of lyrium while you were out there."

    Hugh frowned. "Lyrium?"

    "Yeah, whoever's attacking is launching lyrium bombs over the walls. They're spreading the dust everywhere." Lyrium dust; breathing that in would burn more than his throat. He was lucky indeed that Varric had found him.

    "Cullen—?" he asked.

    "He'll live. Again, thanks to me." Varric grinned. "And Corff. He helped me get you two here." He sobered. "Cullen's sleeping it off in the other room. You were both pretty badly injured. All I have is regular potions, so you'll have to rest a bit while they take effect, unless I can find something stronger, or we can find a healer."

    "First enchanter," Hugh said. "Did you find her?"

    "Didn't know you had a new one. I only got back last night."

    Hugh closed his eyes. The potion was making him feel warm and drowsy, but now it was easier to speak. "She was with Cullen when the stairs got hit."

    "I didn't see her," Varric said quietly. "I'm sorry."

    Hugh sighed. "Where are we?"

    "My place, at the Hanged Man. The attacks don't seem to be hitting Lowtown, for now. That strike on the steps seems to be the closest, so I'm hoping we're safe here."

    "Thank you."

    "Hey, helping people is what I do. I'm going to see if I can't find the guard-captain. It's still Aveline Hendyr, right?"

    "Yes." Hugh opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Varric. "There's an army," he said. "Just outside the walls, landward."

    "That makes sense." Varric watched him soberly. "You know that for sure?"

    Hugh inhaled and sighed again, closed his eyes. "Yesterday," he began, "we sent out hunters. Cullen learned of a mage child, outside the city, and dispatched a team to bring her here."

    "Standard procedure."

    "This morning only one of them came back."

    "I assume without the mage."

    "Yes." He looked up again. "He told me—on their way back they saw an entire army camped outside the walls. The hunters were spotted and attacked, and the mage was taken prisoner. The other hunters were killed." He shifted for comfort, now that he had a little strength. "Leavitt's specialty is stealth, and he managed to get away. He said when he looked back—he couldn't see the army. It was like they vanished completely."

    "A glamour," Varric said thoughtfully.

    "The other thing he said was that there are a lot of mages with the soldiers. A lot," he stressed. "Half again, maybe, the number of soldiers."

    Varric frowned. "They've been covering Hightown with lyrium for at least forty minutes, and they brought a whack of mages along with," he said, and sighed. "This is not going to end well."

    "I was on my way to find Cullen and tell him."

    "Tell him when he wakes up." Varric stood, and looked down at Hugh. "I'm going to find Aveline. I don't recommend you get up, but if you do, take it easy. I'll see if I can't send a healer this way, or at least get some stronger potions brought over."

    "Thank you," Hugh said again.

    "You owe me one," Varric assured him. "I'll collect when you're feeling better." He grinned, and then was gone.

    Hugh closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.


    The stairs to Hightown had been destroyed; every open area had been struck with the glowing explosives, and a layer of lyrium dust was settling over everything. Aveline was sick with worry imagining the reasons anyone would want to fill Hightown with lyrium.

    She had seen neither hide nor hair of Knight-Commander Cullen, nor any templars but those off-duty who had been in Hightown already, and this made her blood boil. The templars were Kirkwall's army; why weren't they on their way? Why weren't they already defending the city? She needed to get to the Gallows one way or another and find out.

    With her neckerchief wrapped around her face as a sort of mask—and instructions to her guards to do the same—she gave Donnic orders and left him in charge while she made her way determinedly to the Amell estate. She still had the key that Hawke had given her, so she didn't have to break in. The place was empty, anyway. And this was an emergency.

    Why are you rationalising?

    Aveline scowled. Because it still felt like Hawke's home; he hadn't even been gone a year. Sometimes she still expected to turn around to find him slipping into her office, turning on the charm and asking her to help out with something that was not quite within the bounds of the law. She missed his easy smile, his inappropriate humour, the way he had gathered a motley band of strays and kept them together despite their drastically opposing points of view.

    She put her key into the lock of the front door and took a deep breath, half-expecting Bodahn to be there to welcome her cheerfully. But the foyer was dark and empty and the mansion was silent, and Aveline shut the door quietly behind her.

    In the drawer of a side table near the door she fumbled for where she knew Hawke had kept candles and matches; she found both and lit a candle, and headed for the stairs leading to the wine cellar.

    She had descended just a few steps when she heard movement and muttering below her. Aveline scowled and quietly drew her sword with her free hand. She stepped down slowly, carefully, listening intently for more sounds.

    There was a loud thump and a crash and a sigh. "Maker's breath," said a familiar voice, "you'd think I'd have thought to bring a torch. Or a mage with fire. Or maybe a mage on fire. Heh."

    Aveline stopped, hardly able to believe her ears. "Varric?" she called.

    There was silence below her a moment, and then, "Aveline?"

    "Varric, what are you doing down there?"

    "What are you doing here?"

    "Heading to Darktown," she said. "Ultimately to the Gallows." She sheathed her sword, pulled down the neckerchief. "The stairs to Lowtown—"

    "Yeah, they're wrecked, I know." He moved again, and as Aveline continued down she could see his face faintly in the light from her candle, could see the flame's reflection on Bianca's polished stock. Varric looked up at her, hands on his hips. "I was coming through this way to find you, actually."

    "How long have you been in Kirkwall?" she asked him. "Is Hawke with you?"

    "Would I have to sneak in through the cellar if he was? I got home last night."

    "Why were you trying to find me?"

    "To find out what I should be doing to help, for one," he said. "For another, to tell you that Cullen is currently sleeping off a couple of potions at my place."

    "Blood and flames," Aveline sighed. "No wonder the templars haven't shown their faces. They've got no one to tell them what to do, the fools. What happened to him?"

    "He was on the stairs when they got hit, along with one of the templars—you remember Hugh? Apparently the new first enchanter was there too, but I didn't see her."

    "Then I need to parley with whoever is out there," she said grimly. "We've no viscount, and without the knight-commander—"

    "Wait for me," Varric said. "I'll come with. You never know when you might need a devastatingly charming dwarf."

    "Or his well-oiled crossbow," Aveline retorted. "Which might come in handier than the charm."

    "Bianca's always ready to dance. The charm is just part of the package." Varric laughed and climbed the stairs behind her. "So," he said, "did I infer correctly, that Cullen is knight-commander now?"


    "It's obvious?"

    "Who else could do it?"

    "I guess. Who's knight-captain, then?"

    "There isn't one," she told him. "After you and Hawke left and Cullen took over as knight-commander, a lot of the more experienced templars left Kirkwall. They refused to serve under him."

    "What?" Varric snorted. "They couldn't handle a commander who's not insane? The Order's better off without them, then."

    "I agree. But it's left Cullen in the peculiar position of having no one qualified or sufficiently experienced to act as knight-captain. Which means if he's out of the picture, no one's currently in charge at the Gallows."


    They climbed up into the house and exited into Hightown. Aveline doused the candle and stuffed it into her pouch, lifted her neckerchief up over her face again.

    "You're looking well, Aveline," Varric told her.

    "As are you," she said. It was true; though his hair was a little longer, Varric had hardly changed since she'd last seen him. "What brought you back to Kirkwall?"

    "My own two feet," he told her. As they walked slowly through the blue-dusted streets, they tried to disturb the lyrium as little as possible.

    "Tired of following in Hawke's shadow, were you?"

    Varric chuckled softly. "No, it wasn't that." He sobered, and his eyes suddenly grew a little sad. "It was just—time. For me to come home." He shrugged and the mischievous twinkle returned to his eyes as swiftly as it had gone. "And anyway, all my stuff is here."

    "Mm-hm. It might not be for long, at this rate." She gestured toward the street.

    "Whoever's firing lyrium in here," Varric said, serious, "has brought enough mages with them to be able to hide an entire army just outside the wall."

    She shot him a look. "And just how do you know that?"

    "Aveline," Varric scolded, "since when am I the last to know anything, ever?"  

    Aveline sighed, shook her head. "I've missed you, Varric," she said, "and I haven't."

    He grinned, then sobered again. "Do you think it's Sebastian?"

    Aveline stared at him. "What?" It hadn't even crossed her mind, and it should have. She cursed herself silently.

    Varric shrugged. "He did say he'd come back and avenge the grand cleric," he reminded her.

    She scowled. "But Anders isn't even here anymore," she said. "He needs to know that."

    "I doubt it would make a difference," Varric said, and shrugged again. "He said he would raze Kirkwall, not just hunt Anders down."

    "Wonderful. I ought to have kicked Hawke's ass over that fool mage the first time they ever kissed."

    "Did you see it?" Varric wondered.

    "See what?"

    "The first kiss." He grinned.

    "Varric, we have more important things to deal with right now."

    He chuckled. "Yes, Captain." He followed her up the stairs to the Keep.

    That was Varric, Aveline sighed to herself; no matter the severity of a situation, he was always looking for a way to make a profit out of it.

    They drifted through the misty streets of the Fade-Kirkwall, and Solona looked around her. "This is supposed to be my dream," she reminded Valor.

    "And it is."

    "But that's the Chantry." She pointed at the high building. "I've never seen it. It was destroyed before I came to Kirkwall, and even the rubble was cleaned up by the time I got here." She felt a slight pang of regret; Cullen had described the Chantry to her many times in his letters, and she had always hoped to visit it.

    "That is irrelevant," Valor told her, and turned to face her. "It was there when the magisters had the city built to their specifications."

    "But I've never seen it. How can it be here if this is my dream?"

    "How could you have seen the Gallows the last time you were here, when you had never seen it?" he countered gently. "In any case the presence or absence of the Chantry is a minor factor."

    "Factor in what?"

    Mouse houghed softly. "She cannot see anything from here," he intoned.

    "No," Valor agreed. "But she must first stop envisioning Kirkwall as it is in the other world."

    Solona frowned. "What does that mean?"

    "You must stop perceiving it as a city. As dwellings, and shops, and places of worship."

    "But that's what it is."

    "That is what it appears to be," Valor said, softly. "But that is only its façade, as his form is only a façade."

    Solona looked thoughtfully at Mouse, who lifted one paw and examined the long, razor-sharp claws there. He had appeared to her variously as a rodent, as a human male, as a bear; but his true form was large and hideous and powerful. It had taken her a while to recognise it during her Harrowing; but her own strength of will had ultimately forced Mouse to reveal himself for the demon of Pride that he was.

    She looked around at the hazy buildings. Whatever they were hiding, Mouse had said she could not see it from here. From where, then?

    Solona closed her eyes and willed herself to drift upward into the sky. As she rose she felt Valor and Mouse beside her. She opened her eyes and turned to look down at Kirkwall, drifted in a circle until she faced 'north', with the harbour toward her feet.

    "What do you see now?" Valor asked her.

    Solona studied Kirkwall's streets, thoughtful.

    "That's all of them, Highness," said the captain.

    "All placed precisely?

    "As near as we can tell, yes. Without an aerial view we're dependent on the dwarves' calculations."

    Sebastian nodded. "The mages can remove our camouflage," he said. "The city knows by now that we're here, and there's no sense wasting energy." The captain turned to his lieutenant and passed on that order; the lieutenant sped up and down the ranks, barking commands. Sebastian looked up at the wall again. The air shimmered slightly as the glamour faded.

    "Highness," the captain said, "are they not going to respond?"

    "I don't know their strategy," Sebastian said mildly. "The city guards are a small and contained unit, and though they're skilled, I doubt Captain Hendyr will send them out here, rather than have them serve as defenders within the city walls. The templars will be the ones to attack, if there is to be an attack, but if all has gone well they haven't an easy means to enter Hightown. We will continue as planned."

    "Of course, Highness."

    "What of the little one that was captured last night?" he asked, thoughtful.

    "She's nine, Highness," said the captain. "She's had no training. Just an apostate child, probably only just come into her magic."

    "Bring her to me," Sebastian said, his eyes still on the wall, still seeking movement, a reaction, anything. "I'd like to talk to her a moment."

    "Right." The captain strode swiftly away and returned in a moment with the girl. She wore rough peasant clothing; her long fair hair had probably never been cut, and had been braided down her back. Her eyes were a deep blue, clear and watchful. She had not been crying, Sebastian noted as he turned to see her, and that surprised him. "Mind your manners," the captain warned the child. She pulled her shoulder away from the captain's hand.

    "Good morning," Sebastian greeted her kindly. "Did you sleep well?"

    "No I did not," she snapped, and she pushed a stray strand of hair from her face. "First those templars came and stole me from my mum, and then your men stole me from the templars. And killed the templars."

    "For a greater purpose," Sebastian assured her. "It's why you were brought here to me." He dropped down to one knee in front of her and took her hands in his. "I am Sebastian, the Prince of Starkhaven, but I am also a servant of the Maker. Several months ago an apostate, hiding behind a politically powerful friend, used his magic to destroy the Chantry in Kirkwall. He killed the Grand Cleric, who was herself a devoted servant of the Maker, and he killed all the faithful who happened to be in the Chantry at the time, and anyone who happened to be near it. It is my task now to ensure that the people of Kirkwall are punished for their heresy, for their evil acts, for allowing this apostate to roam free and take the lives of innocent people. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

    "I'm not stupid."

    He laughed softly and squeezed her hands. "No, it's apparent that you're not. Tell me your name."

    She eyed him suspiciously a moment. "It's Kenda."

    "A pretty name." Sebastian told her. "Kenda, you're a mage."

    She frowned. "I—don't know what you're talking about."

    "You don't need to feign ignorance. It's why the templars captured you yesterday," he went on. "Your magic is a gift from the Maker, and it's also a curse. Do you know why?"

    "I'm not cursed."

    "Unfortunately, because of your magic, you are. Demons in the Fade are always looking for a way into this world. That way is invariably through the body of a mage. They don't care if the mage is a man or a woman or a child, human or elven, trained or completely unaware of their gift. The templars are tasked with taking mages to the Circles in Thedas, to keep them safe, to protect them from demons, and to allow them to live their lives peacefully as Andraste wanted, using their magic as a tool to serve man. But the templars here in Kirkwall have failed in that mission. They are themselves corrupt, and harm those they are supposed to protect, and because of this the mages resort to blood magic—which gives the demons an even easier path into this world. Do you understand that?"

    "I don't care."

    "You should care," he told her. "If you were to be possessed by a demon, your spirit would be doomed to wander the Void, rather than travel through the Fade to the Maker's side. You would kill everyone around you, even the people you love. Your family."

    "I'm not going to do that."

    "No," Sebastian told her with a gentle smile, and squeezed her hands again. "You're not going to do that."

    His head pounded; his body tingled. He had felt this way before, long ago—

        —before Solona

    Yes, before Solona had found him and saved him and had given him life anew.

    Had he fallen again? Was that why he felt this way? Worse—had it all been a dream in the first place? He yanked off his left gauntlet, worked off the glove and stared, infinitely relieved, at the ring on his index finger. He pressed it to his lips and closed his eyes in fervent gratitude.

    It was real, then, and not a dream; he squeezed his eyes tightly shut and tried to remember what had happened.

        —Solona's face, troubled as she sensed magic that should not have been there, as danger approached, as the crystal in her staff cracked—

            —Solona's dark eyes, shining with fear for the first time since he'd known her—

                —Solona's body flung away from him by the blast that had thrown him down the stairs

    Cullen sat up, swung his feet to the floor and stood. His armour was intact, though smeared with blood and dirt. He patted himself all over and then, satisfied that he was not too badly hurt to continue, he took in his surroundings. He had been lying on a cot; he could see into the next room, could see someone lying on the bed there, and he headed into the bedroom to see who it was. Hugh was sleeping lightly; his hair was matted with blood but his face appeared to have been wiped at least perfunctorily.

    Cullen bent over him, rested a hand on his shoulder. "Wake up," he said.

    Hugh's eyelids fluttered, then opened; he saw Cullen and sat up. "Commander," he said, his voice rough. "I'm glad you're all right."

    "Where's Solona?"

    "I didn't see her. Commander, Kirkwall is under attack. There's an army outside the walls."

    And they had fired something at Solona that may have killed her. His gut clenched, as did his fists, but Cullen kept his fury and his fear in check. Solona would not appreciate him having a breakdown, and failing in his duties. He pressed his lips tightly together. "Then we need to do battle," he told Hugh grimly. "We'll need to get to the Gallows and rouse the men."

    Hugh rolled off the bed and stood. "I was on my way to the Gallows with you," he said, "after that thing hit. I guess I passed out." His ears turned red but he kept his eyes steadily on Cullen, his back straight, his shoulders square. "Varric Tethras found us in the street and had us brought here. He gave us potions to heal us, and now he's gone to find the guard-captain."

    "Come with me now," Cullen said, "and fill me in on the details, on the way."

    "Ser." Hugh followed obediently as Cullen marched out of the Hanged Man and toward the docks.

    Varric looked around the Keep's foyer, where a few wounded people had been brought by family and friends. There were no healers present, so the healthy were soothing the wounded as best they could, with damp cloths and comforting embraces. Some of them looked up briefly when he and Aveline entered, then looked away, disappointed.

    "I'll be right back," Aveline told him. "Wait here." She climbed the stairs and headed in the direction of the viscount's office.

    Varric spotted two faces he knew, and moved to greet Ruvena and Paxley, who sat to either side of a young woman Varric assumed was a mage. "Hello there," he said. "Your friend Hugh got caught in one of the blasts. He's sleeping off a potion at the Hanged Man."

    "Shit," Paxley exclaimed. "Is he going to be all right?"

    "No doubt," Varric assured him. "He wasn't hit the worst. Worst was Cullen—"

    "What?" the templars said in unison.

    "He was there with Hugh, and your first enchanter."

    "This," Ruvena said, and pointed to the unconscious mage, "is the first enchanter."

    Varric crouched next to Ruvena and looked at the mage's face. She looked familiar to him, somehow. "Where's she from?"

    "She came here from the Cumberland Circle," Paxley told him. "But I think she's from Ferelden."

    Varric frowned. The Ferelden part made sense, but not Cumberland. "What did you say her name was?"


    That was too much of a coincidence. When this crisis was over and before the next one started, he would have to find a way to talk with her himself. "What's she like?"

    "She's—very different," Paxley said. "The mages seem to have taken to her."

    "That's good," Varric mused. "Was she badly hurt?"

    "Not that we can tell," Ruvena replied. "But she isn't waking up."

    "She was covered in lyrium dust when we found her," Paxley said, "and she probably breathed a lot in. So—"

    "So she's probably dreaming," Varric finished for him.


    "So you can't leave her, in case something—happens."


    Above them, Aveline stalked away from the viscount's office, crossed behind the pillars and made her way toward the barracks. Seneschal Bran sidled out of the office after her, looked down into the foyer over the railing. Varric nodded a greeting to him and received a scathing glare in return.

    "I hope," Bran said quietly, "that your presence here does not indicate that Hawke, too, has returned."

    "Have no fear, Seneschal," Varric replied. "It's just me."

    "Hardly reassuring."

    Bianca hummed angrily. "Hush, sweetheart," Varric murmured. "He's like that with everyone."

    Aveline returned from the barracks with a few fully-armed guardsmen in tow. "Donnic will have the archers on the wall by now," she told Varric as she descended the stairs into the foyer. "And the others ready to attack on the ground if necessary. I—" She paused and frowned. "Is that the first enchanter?" She pointed at the mage.

    "Yes," Paxley told her. "We found her in Hightown, brought her here."

    "Is she going to be all right?"

    "As far as we can tell."

    "Good," Aveline said. "Come along, Varric." She gestured to the guardsmen, who moved promptly to obey, and stalked out of the Keep.

    Varric looked at Ruvena and Paxley. "Who can say no to that?" he said apologetically, and rose to trot after Aveline.


    "Ready the rest of the mages," Sebastian ordered his captain. The command was passed down and spread throughout the ranks. The catapults were withdrawn and swiftly disassembled; the soldiers stepped back and the remaining mages—the ones who had not been casting the glamour spell—were brought forward.

    Once he had retaken Starkhaven, Sebastian had requested the mages from Tantervale, Markham, and Ansburg—ostensibly to reestablish the Starkhaven Circle. He knew all three Circles were full to bursting with mages, and that they would be glad to send some to him. The mages had no doubt all travelled to Starkhaven in the hope of a fulfilling scholarly life.

    Sebastian had had other plans for them.

    The mages had been immediately collared and cuffed, and locked in prison cells. Once a day they had been given a chance to relieve themselves and to wash; then they were fed, and returned to their cells. They spoke to no one save the templars who escorted them on their brief trips to the wash room; they saw no other mages. Months of this had broken them more swiftly even than Meredith's methods had, and he was pleased with his results. The mages stood blank and obedient now as the templars walked up and down the line, unlocking cuffs and handing each mage a staff; they waited for orders and not one made a move.

    Sebastian looked up at the wall again, and waited.

    "Not...that one," he murmured, and watched as the boy moved his hand to the right, touched another staff. "That one...yes." It was made of carved ebony and rosewood, the two spiralling around one another to form a single smooth shaft, bound with iron. At the top had been set a large cluster of clear crystals, veined with pink; strong tendrils had been coaxed from both woods, to twine around the crystals and secure them in place. At the bottom of the staff was a small metal mace. Even a mage, after all, might need to resort to physical attacks.

    The boy lifted the staff with both hands and moved to stand before him.

    " in the Keep. Do you know where that is?"

    The boy nodded solemnly.

    "You must...cover...your face. Do not breathe the dust." The boy let the staff lean against a table, and pulled a large handkerchief from his pocket. "That will do. Be careful it...does not...touch your skin." He sighed. "And swiftly as...possible." The boy tied the handkerchief around his face and picked up the staff once more. "Be safe."

    The boy walked swiftly away—or did it only seem so swift, because he could not himself move? He sighed again. The mage had been on her way to accept his invitation, when all this nonsense had begun. He supposed it had been meant to happen this way; he simply wished he had foreseen it.

    No matter; it would be soon rectified in any case.

    Xenon waited and watched, untiring.

Chapter Text

    "Been a long time since I've been in here," Varric mused, as they walked the narrow corridor inside the massive stone wall, followed by the dozen guardsmen Aveline had collected at the Keep.

    "Why would you ever have needed to be in here?" Aveline asked him, with a stern look.

    "Oh, I've never needed to be in here," he assured her. "But I've been."


    "Aveline," he said reproachfully, "you know I was born in Kirkwall, right?"

    "Yes, you've said so."

    "Well, I also grew up here."

    Aveline rolled her eyes. "And?"

    "And—human, elf, or dwarf, kids are kids. I haven't always been the mature and responsible adult you see now."

    "When you say 'mature', I assume you're referring to your age."

    "I'm wounded, Captain," he told her, with a hand over his heart. "But to continue, my friends and I used to love sneaking past the guards and getting inside the wall. It was easy to hide, particularly in the older parts."

    "Older parts?"

    "Yeah, well, these aren't the original walls. Kirkwall's been conquered a few times in the past. These walls are new in the grand scheme of things. The work was completed within my lifetime, you know." Varric trailed his fingers along the stone and mortar, and smiled wistfully. It had been fun, placing stones in the new sections, carving their names into the mortar before it set, returning to see if the masons had found them out and erased the evidence of their presence.

    "You were never caught?"

    "We were always caught, eventually. The game was to see how long we could get away with it before we were." He grinned. "My friend Baidur got lost for nearly a week, once. None of us ever beat that."

    Aveline shook her head and sighed. "Here we are," she said quietly, as they reached a set of stone stairs that had been built as part of the wall. "Brennan and the others should be ready up top." She turned to the guardsmen, pointed out two of them. "You two will stay with me," she told them. "The rest of you, go up and provide support to the archers." The indicated guardsmen headed obediently up the stairs toward the top of the wall, and they all flattened themselves against the wall as Donnic descended past them, tall and imposing and silent.

    "Captain," he greeted Aveline, when he reached the bottom. He eyed Varric and nodded once to him, but said nothing.

    Aveline inclined her head. "Donnic. Report." It always amused Varric how perfectly professional the pair were in their work together.

    "Brennan's ready with the archers," said Donnic. "The enemy's no longer camouflaged. The soldiers have stepped back, and they've brought a line of mages to the fore."

    "We knew about the mages," Aveline nodded. "I take it they've made no other move?"

    "Nothing yet," Donnic agreed. "Just brought the mages forward, and had them unchained—"

    "Unchained?" Aveline scowled. "What d'you mean?"

    "Their hands were cuffed." He shook his head. "Their feet are still shackled, and it looks like they're all wearing collars."

    "That doesn't sound like Sebastian," Varric cut in. "I mean, he always toed the Chantry line pretty hard, about that 'magic is to serve man' stuff. But he never seemed—" He frowned up at Aveline. She raised an eyebrow. "Cruel," Varric finished.

    "Perhaps," Aveline said, "something has happened we don't yet know about." She looked up at Donnic. "How many soldiers, other than the mages?"

    Donnic shook his head. "Looks like more men than we've got guards and templars combined," he said. "They're bearing the Starkhaven standard."

    Aveline gritted her teeth audibly. "Then it is Sebastian," she growled. "I'm going to have to parley with him," she told Donnic. "The knight-commander is currently out of commission, and there's no one else of authority who can speak on behalf of the city."

    Donnic nodded. "You're not going to go out alone, I hope."

    "Of course not," Aveline replied. "If anything happens, you'll move forward as soon as the archers begin providing cover." Donnic inclined his head respectfully.

    "Be careful, Captain," he said quietly.

    "You too, Donnic."

    Donnic turned and disappeared within the walls to join the rest of the infantry guards. Aveline gifted Varric a scathing glare. I'd better not see this in a story, he knew she was thinking, and Varric raised his hands defensively.

    "Please, Captain," he said. "Not everything makes a good tale."

    She made a dubious noise. "Let's go." She turned and led Varric and the two guardsman to a heavy door. The door was officially called The Emissary's Way; it was positioned in the middle of the wall, and was the only opening in the wall clearly visible from the outside. It was intended for the purpose they were about to use it: to go outside in order to approach the enemy, for negotiations—or surrender. Aveline grabbed the handle and took a deep breath, looked down at Varric.

    Bianca hummed an anxious note. Varric took a deep breath as well.

    Aveline opened the door.

    He disliked being unarmed. Even with his armour on, he felt helpless without his weapon, without his shield. He hated feeling helpless. It reminded him too much of—

    "—mages," Hugh was telling him, as they walked. "Lots of them."

    "If Varric is correct and they've been covering the city with lyrium," Cullen said, "then having mages along makes it quite clear. They intend to destroy the city with magic."

    "But who would sneak-attack Kirkwall like this?" Hugh wondered. "We're not in any sort of dispute with the rest of the Free Marches."

    "It seems we are now," Cullen told him grimly. "We need to mobilise before things escalate too far. Enough lyrium to cover the city—" He paused, and his skin grew cold. "Starkhaven," he said slowly, "might have that kind of coin."


    "Let's hurry," Cullen said, though they were already walking briskly.

    At the end of the dock they found the boat crossing the harbour from the Gallows side. "Odd," Hugh said. "What was it doing over there?" They folded their arms and waited.

    At last the boat docked, and Cullen experienced a swell of mixed emotion as templars spilled out onto the dock, all prepared for battle. Leading them, he was surprised and pleased to see, were Samson and Agatha. Samson moved swiftly to stand before Cullen, while Agatha directed the knights into formation.

    "Ser," said Samson, and crossed his chest with his fist. "I hope you don't mind my presuming—we saw the attacks start, from the tower." He gestured behind himself toward the Gallows. "Absent your command," he continued, "we felt it best to act rather than wait for anything drastic to happen."

    Cullen returned the salute. "Something drastic has already begun," he said. "Someone has been firing lyrium into the city, and has brought a number of mages along with him. The landward wall is besieged." He gestured behind him. "The stairs to Hightown have been rendered unusable. Take the men to the wall through the tunnels. If you find the city guard, support them. Neutralise the mages first."

    "What will you be doing, Commander?" Samson asked.

    "I need to arm myself," Cullen replied. "I lost mine in the attack. I will organise the rest of the men and join you as soon as I am able."

    "Good luck, ser," Samson said, and bowed. He and Agatha turned and commanded the troops to move out. Cullen watched them leave, then beckoned to Hugh and stepped on the boat.

    It was only a few minutes' ride across the harbour but it felt like an eternity. As they approached the Gallows docks Cullen could see the other templars waiting, alert and armed, lieutenants at the fore. The boat had hardly landed before Cullen jumped off and sped up the steps, two at a time. He gave rapid instructions to the lieutenants not to cross without bringing battle-ready mages with them. Confident his orders would be carried out he continued through the courtyard, Hugh silently on his heels, and all the way up the stairs to his office.

    Elsa was there, calmly sorting through the day's correspondence. She lifted her head as he entered, and paused her work. She glanced up and down at him, stood and crossed the office, to the weapon stand that held his old Fereldan 'sun' shield, and a longsword he'd been gifted in honour of his service to Kirkwall.

    "The letter," Cullen said to her, "from Starkhaven, yesterday. What was it about?"

    Elsa brought the sword and shield to him. "It was a request," she said in her even monotone, "the ninth such request, from Prince Sebastian Vael, for financial and martial assistance in regaining the throne of Starkhaven." She stepped back and watched him, waiting.

    Relief shrouded him in a cold embrace and Cullen sighed. "Thank you, Elsa." He sheathed the sword, swung the shield to his back.

    "Why would he be requesting assistance," Hugh asked, "if he'd already gotten the throne? And why didn't we hear about it if he's back in power?"

    "It may not be Sebastian Vael out there," Cullen said grimly. "As far as we know, Goren is still on the throne." He turned to Hugh. "You will go with the rest of the men," he said. "Give the enemy a good taste of your skills." He was surprised to see sudden defiance in the dark blue eyes.

    "I'm staying with you, ser," Hugh told him. "You shouldn't go anywhere alone in a combat situation."

    "I've got to find the first enchanter," said Cullen. "You'll be of more use on the field."

    "Begging your pardon, ser," Hugh said, "it's not protocol for you go to anywhere unguarded, and especially in this kind of situation."

    Cullen's jaw tightened. "Fine," he said at last. It was easier than arguing. He glanced at Elsa, who was still watching him. "Elsa," he said, "so far there has been no attempt to enter Kirkwall. However—should Kirkwall be overrun and the Gallows attacked, I want you to follow the first enchanter's instructions on keeping the children and yourselves safe."

    "Very well, Knight-Commander," Elsa replied unemotionally.

    "Thank you, Elsa."

    As they headed back toward the dock, Cullen and Hugh encountered a string of excited mages, flanked by a few templars, on their way to join the troops. They fussed with their robes, with gloves, with their cowls, ensured their faces could be covered against breathing the lyrium dust. Some held out their staves with a few experimental swings; others simply marched, heads high, pleased to be of use at last.

    Thus had Wynne and Uldred and the others left the Tower in Ferelden, on their way to Ostagar. Cullen pursed his lips, forced himself to think rationally.

    Uldred, he reminded himself, had had ulterior motives, had been fooled by Teyrn Loghain's empty promises of mage freedom. Uldred's hubris and anger had brought him down, had made him believe he could summon and control a demon. But these mages were not Uldred. These were mages who had surrendered willingly to the Circle, who were faithful to Andraste, and to—

    Cullen pushed his way through to the front of the troops, stepped up to the top of the ramp leading into the boat, and he waited until he had the attention of both templars and mages. "Kirkwall is under attack," he told them all. "It is our duty to defend her, and to defend her citizens. The enemy has come with stealth and unscrupulous methods, but we will not fall to them." He took a deep breath. "Know that no matter the enemy's actions, you are all servants of Andraste. Templars, your role is clear. Take out the enemy's mages, and prevent them from using the lyrium that has covered the streets of Hightown. Take down all the officers you can find. Strike chaos in their ranks—you are the Free Marches' greatest army, and today they will know the grave error in judgment they have made." He paused and looked out over the crowd. "The first enchanter was struck in the initial attack and is still missing." A ripple of dismay passed through the gathered mages. "Do not let this cause you to falter—take strength from it instead, and know that she would wish for you to remain true to the Maker's Bride as you fight these enemies who claim to come here to kill in Andraste's name." He saw movement as backs straightened and shoulders squared. "And know that should any of you fall, there is a place for each of you at the Maker's side. His smile upon you all." He crossed his chest with his fist and bowed.

    The templars saluted him in return and even the mages inclined their heads and shoulders to him; Cullen stepped aside to let them board. Hugh hovered near the ramp and boarded last of all. He stood next to Cullen as the boat slid away from the dock to cross the harbour.

    "Nicely said, Knight-Commander," Hugh told him quietly.

    "So, what's made you decide I need a bodyguard?" Cullen asked bluntly.

    "It's protocol," Hugh repeated. "And I'm capable of doing it."

    Cullen could not deny either point. Despite his size Hugh was blindingly swift with his blades, silent and lethal in combat. He could have someone much less skilled determined to remain at his side, Cullen mused.

    It would be better to have Solona, said the small cold frightened part of him.

    The Keep's doors creaked open and Paxley looked up. It was only a child, his face obscured by a large kerchief. He carried a mage's staff in both hands, horizontally, as though he was using it for balance. He stood in the foyer, looking calmly about him. Paxley frowned, nudged Ruvena. "Who's that?" he murmured.

    Ruvena glanced up. "No idea," she said. "Can't see his face."

    "He's not one of ours," Paxley said. "Not from the Gallows, I mean."

    "You know them all?"

    "All the kids, yes. Be on your guard."

    "What do you expect him to do?"

    "He's carrying a staff, isn't he?" Paxley shifted and stood, and the movement caught the boy's attention. He crossed the foyer in their direction and when he had drawn close he looked down at Solona. "Hello there," Paxley greeted him. "Are you lost?"

    The boy glanced up at him, shook his head, moved to crouch beside Solona. Gently, he lay the staff next to her, its crystalline head cradled against her shoulder. He watched her a moment, and then stood up, bowed to Paxley, and turned to head back toward the doors.

    "Hey," Paxley called after him. "It's dangerous out there!" The boy ignored him and left in silence. Paxley looked down at Ruvena.

    "This isn't her staff," she said. "Hers is branchy, and its crystal is smaller, and kind of purple-brown."

    "Then why'd he bring it to her?" Paxley examined the staff, spotted a tag tied to the middle of it, crouched and lifted it to look. "Please come see me," he read aloud, "when Kirkwall's current troubles are over. It's signed 'Xenon'. Who in the Void is Xenon?"

    "Never heard of a Xenon," Ruvena said. "Let me see." She reached for the tag and read it. "Weird." She looked up at Paxley. "How does he know she's here?"

    "He knows somehow, if he sent her a staff."

    "Weird," Ruvena repeated.

    "Very," he agreed. He sat down again next to Solona and sighed. "When is she gonna wake up?" he wondered.

    "Give her a nudge."


    "Give her a nudge, see if she's really in the Fade or just sleeping."

    Paxley made a face. "And if she's in the Fade, and I inadvertently shock her back—"

    "If she's in the Fade, a little nudge won't shock her back. She won't even notice it."

    "Then you do it."

    Ruvena shook her head, looked down at Solona. "I just hope she's—" Paxley followed her gaze; Solona's fingers curled, slowly, around the shaft of the staff the boy had set beside her. Ruvena looked sharply up at Paxley.

    "I didn't do anything," he protested.

    Solona's eyes opened; she blinked, turned her head from one side to the other. She sat up, the staff still in her hand; she looked at it with a little frown, then stood with it. She twirled it slowly in her hand, tapped the base of it on the floor and nicked the marble with the sharp points of the mace at the end. The crystals at the top shimmered with energy, and Solona watched them a moment, thoughtful. She looked down at Ruvena, then at Paxley. "Templars," she said at last, her voice rough—with sleep, Paxley wondered, or from the lyrium and stone dust she'd breathed? "Thank you, for watching over me."

    "It's what we do," Paxley said, and shrugged. "Are you all right?"

    "I will be," Solona said. She twirled her staff again and struck the floor a second time, this time causing marble chips to bounce up; a swirl of blue-white energy surrounded her, briefly engulfed Paxley and Ruvena, and when it subsided all the bumps and bruises Paxley had sustained that morning had been healed. Though dried blood still stained her cheek, Ruvena's face had been healed as well.

    "Thank you, First Enchanter," Ruvena said. "We should brief you on the situation—"

    "I know the situation," Solona told her. She glanced around the foyer, turned to walk among the people huddled there, and as she passed them she healed the wounded. The joyful exclamations of thanks from those healed as well as from their friends and family drew the attention of Seneschal Bran, who exited his office once more to stand on the balcony overlooking the foyer.

    "First Enchanter," he called down, "the city is under attack."

    Solona looked solemnly up at him. "I know, Seneschal," she said. "But Kirkwall has prevailed in the past and she will prevail today." Bran looked doubtful, but inclined his head to her and said nothing more. Solona turned to face Paxley. "I will need you to protect me," she said, "and to strike me down if I should fail."

    Paxley frowned, glanced at Ruvena and back to Solona. "I don't understand, First Enchanter."

    "What I must do," Solona said, "is extremely dangerous. If I fail, you will need to strike me down, just as you would if an apprentice were to fail her Harrowing."

    "Are you saying," Ruvena interrupted, "that you might become possessed, First Enchanter?"

    Solona turned slowly to look at her. "All mages are at risk of it," she said, softly. "Always. Even Harrowed mages are at risk, though the risk is minimised by their strength of will." She twirled her staff slowly.

    "What do you need to do?" Paxley asked.

    Solona turned her attention to him. "There is lyrium outside, if I'm not mistaken."

    "Yes," he said. "Dust, everywhere—"

    "You will need to cover your faces," she said. "Where are your helmets?"

    "We were off duty," he said, apologetically. "We didn't bring them with us."

    "But—maybe the Guardsmen have some in the barracks," Ruvena suggested.

    "Get them," Solona said.

    "I'll go," said Ruvena, and moved swiftly up the stairs and through the door leading to the guards' barracks. Paxley watched her, then turned his attention to the first enchanter.

    "So," he said. Solona raised an eyebrow, absently twirled her staff, waited. "Our friend Hugh," he began, then hesitated. This was, perhaps, not the right time.

    "He dislikes me," Solona noted.

    "I don't think he does," Paxley laughed. "He's a little cranky, that's all."

    "He glares."
    Hugh did have an intense stare, Paxley knew; it had unnerved him when they'd first met as raw recruits. Now, he knew that it was simply the way Hugh looked when he was thinking hard about something. "He glares at everyone," Paxley told her.

    "He doesn't glare at you."

    Paxley laughed again. "He's got me figured out," he said. "I'm easy to read. You're not." He reddened, suddenly. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything by that."

    She shook her head. "I inferred nothing from it. Cullen says I'm terribly easy to read. He says it's all in my eyes." She shrugged.

    "I see," Paxley said slowly. "You get along well with him, it seems."

    "Of course I do." She spun her staff to let it rest on her back. "It is my duty as first enchanter to work hand in hand with the knight-commander, to ensure that the Gallows is a safe and productive Circle."

    "Yes, well, it was Orsino's duty, too, but he didn't get along with Meredith."

    Solona smiled faintly. "I suppose they were not temperamentally matched."

    "I guess not." He cleared his throat. "You knew him—Cullen, I mean—back in Ferelden?"

    She cocked her head to one side. "Who told you that?"

    Paxley reddened again. "We—hear rumours. And Hugh said that Cullen told him that he was at your Harrowing."

    "That's true," Solona said with a nod. "He was chosen to kill me, should I have failed and become an abomination."

    He stared at her a moment. "You didn't resent him for that?"

    "I would have expected no less from Cullen." Her tone grew dreamy, her eyes distant. "He is devoted to the Maker and it is his role as a templar to defend against magic, to protect mages from the world and from themselves."

    "You admire him," Paxley said.

    Solona blinked and focused on him. "He is a stalwart knight, worthy of the title he has earned, and I can imagine no better commander for the templars here in Kirkwall."

    Paxley opened his mouth to speak but Ruvena leaped down the stairs to rejoin them, two full-face helmets in her hands. He snapped his mouth shut and turned to face her. She handed him one of the helmets. "They have lots," she said, "but these seemed sturdiest."

    "Wrap your faces," Solona advised, "with kerchiefs, or some other cloth. Then put the helmets on over top."

    "We don't run around with kerchiefs, First Enchanter," Ruvena told her, reproving.

    Solona glanced around the foyer, pushed past Ruvena and approached two women sitting together on the stairs; she spoke quietly with them and they eagerly untied their headscarves and handed them to her. She returned and gave one to Paxley, one to Ruvena. Paxley shook out the scarf and folded it, tied it around his nose and mouth, and jammed the borrowed helmet down over it. "Can you breathe?" Solona asked him.

    "Yes," he replied, "but it's going to get hot in here."

    "Hot is better than dead," she assured him. When Ruvena had tied her kerchief into place and donned the helmet, Solona nodded and turned toward the doors. "Let's go," she said.

    The door in the wall opened. Sebastian beckoned to his personal guards and they moved obediently to surround him as he stepped forward to meet Aveline Hendyr, who was accompanied by just two guardsmen, and the dwarf Varric Tethras.

    Odd, Sebastian thought, that Hawke was not with them.

    Their faces were serious, and the two guardsmen actually seemed a little frightened. That was good; they understood the severity of their situation. Sebastian kept his head high, his expression calm and confident, as he'd been trained to do as a boy.

    When Aveline and Sebastian stood just out of arms' reach of one another, both groups stopped. "Sebastian," Aveline spoke first, "what are you doing?"

    "Guard-Captain," he replied, "I believe I promised to return, did I not? I am a man of my word." He glanced past her at the guardsmen, up once more at the wall, and back. "I have come for Anders, of course."

    "Anders isn't here," she told him.

    "You'll pardon me," he said, "if I don't believe you."

    Varric cleared his throat. "It's true," he said. "Anders left with Hawke, after Meredith was—" He hesitated. "—defeated."

    "Hawke had no reason to leave Kirkwall," Sebastian said. "Particularly if he managed to defeat the knight-commander."

    Varric shook his head. "He had no reason to stay," he said quietly.

    "Hawke has every reason to stay," Sebastian countered. "He is as ambitious as any noble, and I am surprised he has not yet simply declared himself viscount."

    "Sebastian," Aveline cut in, "when a viscount is finally elected, it won't be Hawke, because Hawke is not here."

    He narrowed his eyes. "Where has he gone, then?"

    "After the fight with Meredith," Varric began again, "the templars let us leave the city—"

    "Yet here you stand, both of you."

    "I never left," Aveline growled. "My life is here."

    Varric sighed. "And I just got back last night, lucky me, in time for you to start firing shit into the city. If you want Hawke and Anders, you've come a long way in the wrong direction, Choir Boy."

    "He's right," Aveline insisted. "We haven't seen Hawke, or Anders—or any of the others for that matter—since that day. Hadn't seen Varric until today."

    Sebastian searched her broad freckled face, the frank green eyes. Aveline had always been a good sort—not a believer, but respectful of others' beliefs, and she had always stood up for what was right. She had never shielded Hawke, not that Hawke had needed shielding; she would not have shielded Anders. That had been Hawke's crime.

    Hawke's sin.

    Aveline had no reason to lie to him. But Varric lied every time he opened his mouth. Sebastian eyed the dwarf. "And why wouldn't Hawke have come with you? This is his home, too."

    A flicker of shadow crossed Varric's face. "Hawke," he said quietly, "won't leave Anders. And Anders can't come back here, obviously." What was it Varric wasn't saying? He was hiding something—and a lie of omission was still a lie.

    Sebastian shook his head and looked up at Aveline. "I wouldn't put it past Varric to have fooled you entirely in this matter, Guard-Captain. I mean no offense, but lies are his stock in trade. I have no good reason to believe that Hawke and Anders are not here—"

    "And you will not take my word, as captain of the guard? Don't you think I would know if they had remained, or if they had returned?"

    "If he is here," Sebastian went on, "then Anders will die today. If he is not, then once the city has fallen I will have him found and at that point he will pay for his crime."

    "That's insane," Varric told him sharply. "Are you going to walk through Kirkwall and examine all the bodies to see if one of them happens to be Anders?"

    "I should hope," Sebastian said, "that once the people of Kirkwall realise how very serious I am, they will find him for me, and turn him over to me."

    "That's not going to happen," Varric said with an aggravated sigh. "Anders is with Hawke. And they're not in Kirkwall."

    "Where, then?"

    "I promised I wouldn't tell."

    Sebastian watched him a moment. Varric seemed genuinely unhappy about the situation, but he supposed that was due as much to fear of impending death as it was about not knowing the whereabouts of Hawke and Anders—if indeed he did not know, which Sebastian doubted. Varric had always been a font of information; he had bragged often that his specialty was finding out things he wasn't supposed to know. Sebastian looked up at Aveline again, cleared his throat. "Guard-Captain, if you've nothing else to add to this conversation, then I would suggest you make your peace with the Maker, for all who support Kirkwall today will die with it."

    "Sebastian," Aveline said, "you can't do this—you can't kill thousands of innocent people for the crime of one person."

    "Can I not?" he retorted. "Anders' actions killed only innocents, for a cause that was selfish and evil. My cause is just. Innocents who die today will simply find themselves at the Maker's side sooner rather than later."

    "And you consider that worth killing them?"

    He ground his teeth and took a step toward her, lifted a warning finger. "I need no justification beyond Elthina's death. Anders—"

    "This isn't about Anders, though, is it?" Aveline took a step forward as well, unafraid. "Not anymore. You're going to punish all of Kirkwall for something Anders did—"

    "All of Kirkwall," he said through his teeth, "was complicit in allowing an apostate to roam the city without censure, in allowing him the freedom to do what he did."

    "Sebastian, if any of us had suspected he would do something like that—"

    "You knew he was an apostate, Guard-Captain. That was his first crime, yet you did not turn him in to the templars. You are not blameless in this." Aveline stared at him. "You allowed your friendship with Hawke to overcome your better judgment, your common sense, and that means that you, too, had a hand in Elthina's death, however indirectly."

    Aveline's lips tightened. "I won't deny that, Sebastian. Hawke saved my life a long time ago and I have always felt I owed him. I admit I allowed him freedoms that I wouldn't have permitted anyone else."

    "It is good that you acknowledge your part." Sebastian nodded. "This city is an open wound, festering on the body of Thedas, and today I will purify it with fire and allow it at last to heal. Nothing you can say, Guard-Captain, will prevent it from happening. You may wish to be with your husband when it does." He spun on his heel, flanked by his guards, and marched back through the lines to his secure position. When he turned back he saw Aveline return through the door in the wall with her entourage.

    Sebastian watched the door for a long time. Though he was no longer dedicated to the Chantry, he wondered if he should accept Aveline's words as confession. He shook his head slowly. She may have regretted her actions, but she had not repented of them; in any case, it was not his place to hear confession. Not anymore.

    He hadn't seen a templar yet. He had calculated correctly, then, that the city guard were the only defenders remaining in Hightown now. They had no means to defend against magic and they were far outnumbered by his men. By the time the templars crossed the harbour the city would be ablaze and they would be able to do nothing to stop it.

    "Get the mages started," he said softly.

    The order went out and the mages began, one by one, to summon their magic, to focus their power. He wished, not for the first time, that he had some sort of a high perch whence he could watch it all in safety.

    This is wrong, Sebastian.

    Her voice was softer now, less insistent. Sebastian smiled to himself.

    Templars flowed through the tunnels beneath Kirkwall, and the people living in the Undercity began to grow alarmed. Normally the things that happened above did not affect them directly; this many templars in the stench-ridden, darkened corners seemed to portend something that would.

    The squadrons divided and vanished into the tunnels, leaving Cullen and Hugh to make their way up to Hightown together. Cullen headed for a specific corridor that would take them out almost beside the Keep. As he and Hugh climbed winding steps crudely carved into the stone, he was aware of Hugh's dark stare on him. "What," he said through his teeth, "is on your mind, Hugh?"

    "Permission to speak freely," Hugh requested.

    "You have always got that permission," Cullen informed him.

    "I find it curious, ser, that with the city under attack, you are almost entirely focused on finding the first enchanter."

    Cullen scowled. "Why is it curious, Hugh?"

    "She may be dead."

    "She is not dead."

    "She may be dead," Hugh repeated, "or she may be injured and convalescing somewhere—"

    "She's a spirit-healer," Cullen reminded him. "She doesn't need to convalesce."

    "Ser, I just want to know why you're so focused on her at a time like this."

    Cullen stopped and turned to him. "Shouldn't I be? She is a mage under my care," he said, "and she is the only mage under my care whose whereabouts are currently unknown."

    "Yes, ser," Hugh said, and frowned. "But—"

    "But," Cullen went on. "You think I should be out fighting with my sword and shield, right now, taking down the enemy."

    "Yes, ser."

    "The first enchanter has military field experience beyond what most mages have had, even those older than she, even many of our own templars. She is an excellent strategist, on top of which she is an extremely powerful and talented mage. Much more so than any others in the Gallows. She can fight as you have never seen a mage fight before."

    "You've seen her in combat?"

    "I have seen it," Cullen said firmly. "And with the city under attack, do you really want to stand here and waste time questioning my motives?"

    "I have other questions, ser," Hugh told him frankly, as they resumed their climb, "but they can wait."

    "Indeed." Cullen stopped at what was apparently a blank wall and pushed open the hidden panel; he and Hugh slipped through the narrow opening and out into a short stairwell that led to down to a small dead-end landing, and up into the streets of Hightown. The panel slid shut, its outline hidden by carvings in the stone. Cullen leaped up the stairs and looked around.

    The silent streets in front of the Keep glittered silvery-blue in the sunshine. Footsteps had disturbed the dust in some places but otherwise it remained a soft thin blanket over the white stone. Cullen stepped carefully forward.


    Her voice yanked him around with a string tied to his heart.

    He had never seen Solona more beautiful as she descended the Keep's stone steps, flanked by two templars. Her hair had come undone and the energy of one of her sustained spells made it float up and fan out behind her. The glow of the lyrium around her gave her an ethereal appearance, like something drawn from the Fade.

    "First Enchanter," he said softly. "I was looking for you."

    She smiled as she stepped down to the street and moved to face him. "I knew you would be," she told him. She lifted a black-and-red staff that he had not before seen, and Cullen closed his eyes as Solona's healing magic swept through him. He looked down at her again, and her wide dark eyes shone with the confidence he was used to seeing there. "So," she said, "what's your plan?"

    "As you can see, the city is covered with lyrium dust. I've sent the men to the wall to neutralise the enemy's mages and then to fight. What's your plan?"

    "These templars will watch over me while I neutralise the spell the enemy intends to cast on Kirkwall."

    Cullen frowned. "What do you know of it?"

    Solona searched his face. "All this lyrium," she said quietly, and gestured to the street. "I came into contact with enough of it to put me in the Fade for a while. I spoke with—them. They showed me—he intends to burn Kirkwall down to its foundations. That's why he brought so many mages."

    He nodded grimly. "I suspected as much. You think he can?"

    "If we don't stop him, he will, absolutely."

    "What can you do against so many?"

    She let the base of the staff rest on the stone, pivoted her arm loosely back and forth. "It is not what I can do, but what I must do, Knight-Commander." She looked up at Hugh, who was staring at her now the way he'd just been staring at Cullen. She looked up at Cullen again. "May I speak with you privately?"

    "Of course." Cullen glanced at Hugh, who moved to stand with the two other templars; he and Solona walked a few steps away. "What's wrong?" Cullen asked in a low voice.

    "Besides the city under attack?" she said with a wry smile.

    "Besides that, yes," Cullen sighed.

    Solona sobered. "I've told you that there are old magics, older than the Chantry and not recognised by the Chantry."

    "The apostate you travelled with," Cullen nodded. "The hedge-witch."

    "You could call her that," Solona agreed. "But she is much more than that, and her mother even more. Theirs is a tradition older than time. None of it blood magic, but unacknowledged by the Chantry nonetheless."

    He frowned again. "Are you saying you've got to resort to this sort of magic?"

    She took a step toward him, stood closer than was appropriate for colleagues to stand, looked up into his eyes. "Kirkwall," she said softly, "was designed and built by a magister. Its very foundation is drowning in the blood of countless sacrifices—even now, that blood remains, untapped, unused, for the Imperium was defeated before they could complete their plan."

    He shifted uneasily. "What plan?"

    "The very streets were designed to make use of that power," she went on, and absently began to rub her arm. "Designed for use in a spell to bring forth a great evil to be controlled by the magisters—for they were no slaves to the demons, but masters of them—"

    He resisted reaching out to catch her shoulders, to shake her. "Solona, what are you getting at?"

    Her eyes were clear and focused on him. "They showed me," she said. "In the Fade, they showed me how that could be used—"

    "You can't use blood magic."

    She smiled, reached up with her free hand and touched his cheek. "No," she said. "What would Cullen think of me? He would be so disappointed."

    "He would," Cullen agreed, "but more to the point he would be devastated to lose his beautiful wife to a demon."

    Her eyes roamed his face as though memorising its features. "I never would," she murmured. "If it meant I could save the world I would know the Maker wanted the world destroyed because saving the world through blood magic would be cursing my own soul."

    "Then tell me what you're going to do."

    Solona lowered her hand but her eyes did not leave his face. "Not just me," she said. "We are all going to save Kirkwall."

    "Are you sure Hawke didn't follow you?" Aveline said crossly. "This sort of catastrophic bullshit is what usually happens when he's around."

    Varric shook his head slowly. She was right, of course; Hawke did tend to draw the crazy to him. "I wish," he said. "If Hawke was here, he'd probably be out there charming the robes off those mages, and have Sebastian swooning."

    "Sebastian never had a thing for Hawke. For Bethany, maybe."

    "Everyone has a thing for Hawke," Varric pointed out, "whether or not they admit it."

    "Even you?"

    "I went off with him, didn't I? A thing doesn't have to be lust, you know." He sighed, reached back and comforted himself with the touch of Bianca's smooth stock. "Shit," he said, and sighed again as he turned to follow Aveline through the stone corridor to where the guardsmen had gathered, awaiting the order to fight.

    Instead of the guardsmen wearing the understated colours of the city guard, however, they came upon a sea of steel and red and gold, of heavy plate armour and faces obscured by helmets—and scattered among the templars were robed mages, all armed with gleaming, glowing staves. "How in the Void," Aveline began.

    "The tunnels," Varric laughed suddenly, and his skin prickled with relief. "They came through the tunnels, of course. Like I did."

    Aveline grabbed the first officer she could find. "Is the knight-commander here, then?" she demanded. "He was injured this morning."

    "He seemed fine," said the lieutenant. "He's gone to look for the first enchanter."

    "She was at the Keep," Varric said. "Your mages will fight without her?"

    "The knight-commander has told them to fight on her behalf," was the reply. "Guard-Captain," he went on, "I've given your men limited amounts of magebane to use on their weapons. If they end up having to fight, it'll assist with stopping the mages."

    "And what about the non-mages?"

    "If they get hit with a sword," said the lieutenant wryly, "they're still hit. But I recommend you let your men be a backup only. It's our place to go to war for Kirkwall, and yours to police within its walls."

    "Agreed," Aveline said. "We'll be here if you need us."

    Varric stared at the sea of templars—he'd been in the Gallows before, of course, but so many gathered all in one place was a truly impressive sight. "There are a lot of them," he mused.

    "There are a lot of mages," Aveline reminded him. "Come, Varric, you're with me." Varric moved obediently with her through the shifting mass of warriors.

    "Can you feel that?" he heard one of the mages whisper. "They're starting to cast."

    "Whatever it is," whispered the mage's companion, "it's going to be big."

    They found the guardsmen at the rear of the templar horde, still in formation. Donnic greeted Aveline with a faint smile. "Our knights have arrived," he noted.

    "Indeed," Aveline said. "Are there any upstairs?"

    "Yes, Captain, I saw several armed with bows heading up there. I've just been trying to keep order here."

    "With luck," Aveline said quietly, "that's all we'll need to do today."

    "We're not that lucky," Varric told her humourously, and this earned him a glare from both Hendyrs. Varric grinned. It made him feel better, seeing Aveline annoyed rather than anxious. "Listen," he went on, "Bianca and I will be most useful up top, with the archers, so we're going to head up there and do what we do."

    "Be careful," Aveline warned him.

    "Of course."

    Hugh turned to face Ruvena and Paxley, who removed the incongruous guardsman helmets and peered at him over brightly-coloured scarves. "I see you two are all right," he noted gravely.

    "We found the first enchanter," Paxley said, "in the rubble near the top of the stairs. She healed us when she woke up."

    "It must have struck between us," Hugh said thoughtfully. "It looked like it had hit her directly."

    "Luckily it didn't," Paxley said. "Are you all right?"

    "I took a bit of a tumble down the stairs," he replied.

    "You look like shit," Ruvena informed him.

    Hugh scowled at her. "Thanks a lot," he muttered.

    "You really do look—" Paxley hesitated. "Your head is all covered in blood," he told him. "I guess you got healed, too."

    He put a hand to his head, remembered the dried blood in his hair, and Varric's description of blood coming from his ears. "Ah," he said. "Well, I did take a fall down the stairs. I just happened to land on my head, I guess. I took some potions, though, and I'm all right. You two were already in Hightown, right?"

    "Right," Ruvena nodded. "The attack—we both woke up when it started." She gestured around at the lyrium dust. "I'm kind of worried what this is for."

    "Magic," Hugh responded bluntly.

    "Well, yes, of course," Ruvena rolled her eyes. "But if the enemy's outside the walls, they aren't using this lyrium, are they?" She kicked at it with the toe of her boot. "Unless they're going to magic themselves inside—" She fell silent.

    "Maybe that's been their plan all along," Paxley murmured.

    "Maker," Hugh said, and turned to Cullen and Solona. They stood facing one another, still speaking, their words too low for Hugh to hear. Cullen nodded, then, glanced up at Hugh, and raised a querying eyebrow. "Commander," Hugh called out, "there's a possibility—"

    The first enchanter inhaled sharply and turned, as a mage appeared in the street behind her. His feet were shackled together and he wore a heavy metal collar; his hands were free and in them he held a smooth staff. He ignored their presence and began to draw power to himself through the lyrium on the street. Immediately, instinctively, all four templars drew their blades and rushed to quell his magic; stricken, the mage fell to the ground, twitching and helpless. With regret Hugh drove one of his blades into the man's chest and he grew still.

    Another mage appeared on the stairs to the Keep; Hugh spun about as mages began to appear all around them, all similarly chained, all casting without seeming to notice anything around themselves. At least one of them, he noted, was barely old enough to have been Harrowed.

    "They were bait," he muttered, and felt the blood drain from his face. "To lead the templars out of the city, so they could come inside to cast their spells—"

    "I need to begin, Cullen," Solona said quickly.

    "I'm going with you," Cullen informed her.

    "You need to get the templars back inside," Solona said. She tapped her staff on the ground and summoned a protective sphere around herself. "You need to stop these mages."

    "I'll pass on the order, ser," Hugh said to Cullen. "I can get down there faster than you."

    "Do that," Cullen said, and 'shook hands' with his sword to get a better grip on it.

    "We'll stay here, ser," Ruvena said, "and take out as many as we can until reinforcements come." Cullen's response was lost to him as Hugh sped away to reach the wall, to warn the guards and the templars that the true threat had shown itself.

    He was halfway through the door leading to the interior of the wall when all of Hightown burst into searing flame.

Chapter Text

    Sebastian watched with grim satisfaction as a number of mages vanished from the field, and returned his attention to the top of the wall; soon smoke rose white, then black, over the city of Kirkwall, and the air began to ripple with heat.

    The outer wall opened then, and templars poured out, armed and silent. He remembered a discussion with the knight-captain—an eternity ago, now—about the way templars approached battle. They covered every inch of themselves, head to toe, even their faces obscured, and they shouted no war cries as they approached an enemy. It made them appear terrifyingly inhuman and could often, in the case of an apostate mage, negate the need for any real combat. It was eerie and, he had to admit, a little intimidating to see them thus, and in such numbers.

    He hadn't expected the templars to have made it to the wall so soon—but of course he hadn't brought an entire army with him simply for appearances. Sebastian inhaled deeply, lifted his head; he called out a command to his officers, who relayed it rapidly to all the men on the field. His men swept forward and the battle was entered. The sounds of clashing metal, of grunts as bodies slammed together or fell to the ground, began to rise and fill the air. There was movement near the top of the wall, and Kirkwall's archers rained arrows down. Sebastian narrowed his eyes and drew an arrow from his own quiver. He was sure he could hit at least one of the crenels, even from here—

    "Highness." Sebastian glanced back. Dederick had moved on silent feet to stand behind him and to his left, focused on him with one eye; the other was obscured by a dark patch. "Yours is not to do battle today," Dederick went on in his gravelly voice. "Let the soldiers do their work."

    Sebastian smiled ruefully. Dederick was an old general, had lost his eye in defense of Starkhaven long ago, and when Sebastian had taken the throne from Goran and declared his intentions against Kirkwall, it had been Dederick who had stepped forward first to support him. His wizened body could no longer withstand the rigours of physical conflict, but his wisdom and strategic skills had proven invaluable. His had been the suggestion to use lyrium and mages in their tactics. "I feel like I'm doing nothing," Sebastian confessed.

    "You have done much already in retaking Starkhaven as you have," Dederick informed him. "You have proven the strong and resolute leader the city has needed since your family's—unfortunate demise. I do not doubt your martial prowess, having seen it, but if your Highness will allow the impertinence—" He paused.

    "Of course."

    "Let the men fight, and die if necessary, Highness. Let them tear down the walls, let them crush the enemy. Once they have done that, and you have marched home in victory, honour their sacrifices."

    "I had hoped to get a few shots in," Sebastian said, disappointed.

    "When you find your apostate and his friend," Dederick promised, "you will have your chance." A flicker of a smile touched his lips, and Sebastian could not help but return the smile.

    "I wouldn't have been able to do this without you, Dederick," he said with genuine warmth. He thrust the arrow back into his quiver, and slung his bow over his shoulder. "I won't stop taking your advice now."

    "I am honoured, Highness," Dederick grunted, and looked out over the battlefield.

    Exultation tickled Sebastian's chest and the sensation rose up over his throat, made his ears burn. He folded his arms and watched the battle from his safe position away from the fray, and he played over in his mind the things he planned to do to Anders.

    "Maker," he heard someone cry out, "the whole city's on fire!"

    Reed finished combing his just-washed hair, examined himself in the mirror. The little templars liked him to comb it a certain way, but they had never told him who he was supposed to be for them. Just be yourself, they'd told him. It was interesting—most people with specific fantasies had very specific requests, sometimes even down to particular words and phrases to be used. He made a face at his reflection. He supposed the man they were using him for was irreplaceable. That made him smile; if they felt that way, they wouldn't miss him too much.

    He would miss them. They were cute and sweet and funny, and had always treated him very well. Some of the templars who came to the Rose wanted companionship and sympathy as much as sexual release; his two simply wanted a little fun, with no entanglements.

    "And look at you," he scolded himself,  "getting misty about it!"

    He shook his head and stood. The city was apparently on fire, and if Kirkwall was genuinely under attack, it was time for him to leave.

    Reed opened the drawer on the bedside table, reached into the back of it and fiddled a moment until a hidden compartment sprung open. In it was a leather pouch; he pulled open the drawstring on the pouch, withdrew a vial, uncapped it and drank its contents. Then he selected one of the several jars in the pouch, and opened it. The contents smelled acridly like flint and smoke; he dipped his fingers into it and began to rub the balm all over his body. When he had done the jar was all but empty, and he grimaced at the greasy feel of the stuff in his hair.

    He crossed the room to the wardrobe and pulled open its doors. No one cared what a whore kept in his wardrobe. In fact, it was preferable that he have several unusual styles, to satisfy a customer's whims.

    He was pleased to find that his tight leather trousers still fit him, after living so long in relative indolence. His shirt clung to his skin because of the balm and Reed sighed. He would need to wash everything, himself included, afterward, but it was necessary for now. Leather armour, boots, gloves and hood covered him from head to toe; he buckled on his belt and to it he tied the leather pouch that held his balms and salves and lyrium vials. He reached up to a small concealed shelf in the wardrobe to retrieve his daggers, and sheathed them at his hips.

    He took a last look around the room to ensure he had forgotten nothing, straightened his shoulders and prayed, briefly, for guidance and safety. He made his way downstairs. Clients and employees huddled around tables in the common room; Quintus and Porfiria served them drinks, which seemed to be keeping them relatively calm. Reed met Serendipity's watchful green eyes, and nodded once.

    "Where are you off to, dressed like that?" she asked.

    Lusine turned and saw him, scowled. "Yes, Reed, what are you doing?"

    "Tendering my resignation," Reed told her pleasantly. "Stay inside and remain safe."

    He reached the door and pulled it open only to be staggered by flame and hot air; the balm and the several enchantments worked into his armour protected him, so though he could still feel the heat he was not harmed by it. Reed pulled up the cowl of his hood to shield his lungs from the stifling air, and he pushed his way out into the inferno, shut the door firmly behind him.

    A mage stood in the back alley, casting, seeming unaware of his presence. Reed drew his blades and cut her swiftly down; the intensity of the heat and fire in the area was almost immediately reduced, though it did not vanish entirely. That meant other casters were maintaining the spell, and that did not bode well for Kirkwall.

    But the safety of Kirkwall was not his concern, and Reed continued toward the nearest set of stairs to take him out of Hightown.

    Hugh cursed repeatedly, vowed to move to a small town that had no Circle, and twisted about to see that he had in fact doused all the fire that had momentarily clung to his armour and singed his hair. Satisfied, he turned and sped through the walls in the direction he knew the templars would be.

    He rounded a corner to find himself face-to-face with Agatha. Behind her was a full squadron, mages and all.

    "Hugh," Agatha said, startled. "Are you all right?"

    "Lieutenant," he said, "you need to come in to the streets."

    "We assumed so," she replied grimly. "The mages started vanishing, and we guessed they were coming inside to use that lyrium."
    "Then I guess I wasn't necessary."

    "It's good you thought to," Agatha assured him. "We should have anticipated it from the start, though. You seem a little scorched, Hugh. And your hair—" She put her hand to her own head, with a concerned frown.

    "Hightown's on fire," he interrupted. "Cullen and Paxley and Ruvena are out in it. And the first enchanter."

    "Surprised you left them," Agatha noted.

    "Had to come looking for you. Yours is the only squad coming?"

    "Tristan's got his coming 'round the other side. The rest are outside."

    His gut tightened. "They've engaged the enemy, then?"

    "Soon as the mages vanished."

    Hugh glanced back at the squad. "Everyone's got protection against fire?"

    "We have," Agatha agreed. "Is it that bad?"

    "I said Hightown's on fire, didn't I?"

    "How should I know you weren't exaggerating?" she retorted. She turned to the squad, ordered them to apply warmth balms. The mages within the squad worked swiftly to assist the templars and the confined space was filled with the sound of rustling armour and complaints, and the sharp odour of the warmth balms. "Well, shit," Agatha sighed as she finished and waited for the squad to be done. "And here I thought my worst day had already come and gone."

    Hugh flashed her a weak smile, smeared the last of his own warmth balm over his singed hair. "You and me both. What was yours?"

    "Had to challenge my lieutenant," she told him. "Ended up running him through. You?"

    "I dared question one of Meredith's orders." He shrugged.

    "I remember that, come to think of it. I was surprised at the time Meredith didn't have you whipped at the very least."

    "I don't think Cullen reported it to her. He did give me a very public reprimand, though, and no one would speak to me for ages after that." Well, almost no one.

    He folded his arms and tried to turn his mind away from darker thoughts. They were strong and capable, as well-trained as he was. They would be fine.

    He hoped.

    The warmth balms applied, their armour rearranged, all the templars and mages stood ready once more. Agatha gestured to Hugh, gave the command, and the squadron continued up into Hightown.

    Some of his elven friends had told him they could feel magic—not the specific spell being cast, but simply the fact that magic was being used. They'd described it as a ticklish, itchy sensation, like tiny ants walking on their skin. But elves were descended from people who had all had magic as a matter of course, and even humans came from magic-bearing stock.

    Varric was a dwarf, and dwarves had lived so close to lyrium for so many generations that magic simply didn't register; though he'd been born on the surface, he'd still gotten the immunity from his parents. In all his battles he'd never felt anything when Anders or Bethany or Merrill had cast. He'd felt the pain when an enemy's spell had hit him, of course, had felt the slight warmth of a healing spell, but he'd never sensed the casting itself.

    Now he felt an awful creeping tickle on all the skin of his body—more like eiderdown brushing over him, than insects crawling—and he turned uneasily away from the crenel through which he'd been firing down at the battlefield. He folded Bianca swiftly and let her rest against his back. She hummed a question that Varric could not answer, and he murmured an apology. He made his way rapidly past the focused templar archers to the end of the wall, through a concealed, dwarf-sized doorway; he descended a helpfully-placed ladder to a narrow catwalk. He jogged the length of the catwalk and climbed a second ladder at the end of it, to another small doorway. This led to one of the oldest standing parts of the wall, one that had no battlements—the magisters had had no need of them, after all—which would allow him a clear view over Hightown.

    As he unlatched the door, part of his mind registered that the surface of it was warm, too late for him to re-latch it. Hot air blasted in, flung the door back, and it struck him full in the face. Momentarily stunned, Varric rolled off the narrow ledge. He caught one of the ladder's rungs just in time and dangled there a moment, suspended above the catwalk, until he caught his breath. Blood dripped down his face from a cut across the bridge of his nose. He grabbed the ladder with his other hand, got his feet on a rung, and looked up. The air rippled with heat, but he saw no actual flame. Jaw set, he began to climb up again.

    "No one," he snarled softly, "but no one sets my city on fire and lives to tell the tale."

    How in the Void had Sebastian had managed to move an entire army all the way from Starkhaven to Kirkwall without attracting attention? Even all those mages could not have done that easily. Had he bought even more lyrium than what he'd tossed into Hightown, just for the trip? Or had Sebastian gotten help from somewhere else? No matter; Varric had other concerns at the moment. He would deal with Sebastian later.

    He crept through the little door, squinted against the hot wind and crawled to the edge of the wall. He lay flat on the stone so the wind could not knock him over, and he had to blink frequently. The blood on his face dried and flaked away.

    Hightown was a whirl of flame that consumed everything in the streets that was not the stone streets themselves. The wall beneath him was already growing warm; if the fire was not stopped all the walls of all the buildings would crack and crumble and the people inside would be crushed in their homes and places of business.

    He squinted through the flames and was able to make out a dark form standing in place, arms up and gesturing: unmistakably a mage in the midst of casting. "Let's dance, baby," Varric murmured, and drew Bianca. He took careful aim and fired. The tempered metal of the bolt was not harmed by the flame and found its target; the mage stiffened and collapsed. Almost immediately the fire in that area lessened in intensity. Varric grinned without pleasure. All he needed to do now was find all the mages in Hightown and put bolts through their bloody necks.

    But another dark form appeared in the midst of the flame and Varric scowled. He fired; and the second mage died almost before he could raise his arms to begin casting. A third mage appeared, and Varric ground his teeth. How many had Sebastian brought? More to the point—how many had he decided were sufficiently worthless to throw away like this? Varric rose to one knee and fired into the air; a thousand bolts descended, and the whole of the area seemed to grow just a degree or two cooler.

    He didn't have enough energy to keep firing that way for very long. What was needed was templars, to stop the magic and take down the mages all at once.

    But the templars were all on the battlefield.

    Varric fired into the air again, his teeth clenched.

    Aveline's long legs covered a great deal of ground with each step. She could hear the jangling of armour as guards trotted behind her, but did not slow her pace for them.

    Donnic kept abreast of her easily.

    The templars had leaped into action when they'd seen mages vanishing from the battlefield, and had sped outside to attack Sebastian's soldiers. Two templar squadrons had turned immediately to make their way into Hightown to stop the mages, and Aveline now led one of her own squads in that direction as well. The remainder of the guard, under the command of her lieutenants, remained behind to support the templars on the battlefield.

    "What's the plan, then?" Donnic wondered. "We're not exactly magic-proof, like the templars are."

    "First, we need to check out what the mages are actually doing. Maybe we can get to the Keep. The first enchanter was there earlier—she was hurt when Sebastian started firing the lyrium into the city. If she's back on her feet, maybe she can counter some of whatever the mages are doing. There were a couple of young templars with her, too. They can help."


    "No heroics, though, from you or anyone." Maker, she thought. Kirkwall hasn't had time to breathe between disasters. She reached the door leading from the wall into Hightown, stretched out a hand and hesitated. "It's warm," she said.


    Aveline wrestled off one of her gloves, reached out again to touch the door handle, and snatched her hand back. "It's hot," she amended, and pulled her glove back on. "Stand back, all of you." Donnic gestured to the guards, and they all moved obediently back; he stayed just out of Aveline's arms' reach. Aveline lifted her shield with her left arm, high enough to protect her while she peered over it. Carefully she reached again for the door handle; she took a deep breath and pulled it open.

    A burst of hot air and flame struck her shield hard and she nearly staggered backward. Donnic said something that she could not hear over the roar of the wind and fire. She exhaled behind her shield, inhaled deeply, closed her eyes and prayed to a Maker she was not quite sure existed.

    When Hawke had left with the others she had stayed behind, for Donnic's sake and for her own. Together, she and Donnic had worked with the guard to restore order to the city, had helped the people clean up the city and mourn the dead and move forward and rebuild. There had been, for the first time in years, light in Kirkwall's future.

    And now Sebastian had come as he had promised—

    I swear to you, I will come back and find your precious Anders. I will teach him what true justice is!

    This was not about justice, even if Sebastian had fooled himself into thinking it was; it was about revenge. It was about his desire for retribution over Elthina's death, and about his anger at what he perceived as Hawke's betrayal, in allowing Anders to live.

    He had left the city months ago, and still Hawke managed to bring the crazy to Kirkwall. It just wasn't fair. Aveline smiled grimly to herself. Life wasn't fair; she had experienced too much to imagine otherwise.

    She looked back at Donnic. "Keep everyone safe until I get back. No one goes out into this, understand?"

    "Are you sure you want to go into it, Captain?" he asked. "It seems more appropriate for the templars."

    "I've been through worse," she assured him, with a wry smile.

    "Please be careful, then," he said gravely. "I'll remain here with the men until the fire abates."

    "Thank you, Donnic." Aveline squinted over her shield, could make out the murky form of a mage in the midst of the fire, and she drew her sword. With another deep breath she ran unerringly in that direction, her shield up and growing warm to the touch with each step she took.

    When this was over, she decided, she would put her own fist through Sebastian's smug face.

    Maker preserve us! he prayed.

    Solona cleared her throat. "It's hard for me to cast when you're squashing me, love." Cullen opened his eyes. She managed to smile ironically up at him, her cheek distorted against his chestplate. He'd wrapped his left arm around her, clutched her to him, his shield raised to protect her from behind; in his right hand, his sword was ready. He lifted his head and looked about at the flame that surrounded them—outside the protective sphere that Solona had summoned. He loosened his grip, and Solona dropped her head from one side to the other to stretch her neck.

    "How did I get in—?" he began.

    "You shattered the first one," she told him drily, "leaping all templar-ishly to my defense. I had to raise another one."

    "I'm sorry."

    "Don't be. We're both all right."

    "You did it quickly," he noted.

    "It's an easy spell," she assured him. "I'll have to let the barrier go completely in order to start my summoning, though. I'll work as fast as I can." Gently, she drew away from him. There was very little space within the sphere. "You have some protection against the fire with you." She gestured to his hip, and Cullen reached into his pouch to pull out a warmth balm.

    She helped him to rub it on all his exposed skin—little enough, of course, in his full armour—and over his chestplate and gauntlets. He lowered his head and let her massage it into his hair, over the back of his neck; he looked up at her and Solona kissed his lips gently. Cullen caught her to him and kissed her again, deeper. He lifted his head and searched her face earnestly. "Please be careful," he murmured. "It's very dangerous, what you want to do."

    "Everything I do is dangerous, Cullen." She looked up at him a little sadly, and she cocked her head to one side. "Is that what it looks like," she wondered, "when you say you'll drown in my eyes?"

    "Does it feel like someone's ripping your soul out of your body?"

    "A little, yes."

    "Then that's what it's like," he told her, and released her at last, with reluctance.

    "No matter what happens," she said, and raised the black-and-red staff, "know that my heart has always been yours." She flashed a playful grin. "And all the rest of me, too." Despite the danger around them, the severity of their situation, his ears tingled and his groin reacted to her mischievous smile. He straightened his shoulders and tightened his grip on his sword. "I love you, Cullen," she went on seriously, "and I trust you to do what is right in the sight of the Maker."

    "I will," he promised her.

    Solona closed her eyes and murmured softly, gestured with her staff and her free hand. The barrier vanished, and heat engulfed them; the warmth balm protected Cullen from being burned. He remained focused on Solona.

    She opened her eyes and rose to her toes, turned slowly around, once, then dropped her heels and tapped the base of her staff on the stone. She raised it again and repeated the series of motions twice more. Once more she gestured with the staff and a bright blue-white glow surrounded her.

    Cullen tensed, his sword still at his side but at the ready. He prayed he would not have to use it.

    He'd managed to clear a small area near the wall. No more mages appeared in that particular corner, and the fire had died down, but Varric was breathing heavily. He had used up his meagre store of stamina draughts, and hoped that it hadn't been for nothing. He apologised over and over to Bianca; this heat was doing her no good, and he feared her wooden stock would need refinishing when this was over. She'd never had more than an easily-repaired scratch before, and this concerned him.

    The heat wasn't doing him any good, either; he was dehydrating quickly.

    When he had caught his breath at last, Varric swung Bianca to his back again, gave her an extra pat, and he peered over the edge of the wall. He was no child any longer—not for decades, he laughed softly to himself—but he still remembered the pattern of bas-reliefs in the walls. He swung himself gingerly over the edge, lowered himself by his fingers and felt around with his right foot until he found a a very slight toe-hold. He moved his left foot just less than an arm's span to the other side, and found a second one. Carefully he lowered his left hand and found a grip near his waist; at last he lowered his right hand and felt for an indentation that was barely there.

    He eased himself down slowly in this way, his face pressed tight to the wall, grateful that dwarves stopped growing upward before they reached their teenaged years; it meant the grips he could find were spaced as perfectly for him now as they had been when he and his friends had used them to scramble to the top of the wall in their evasion of the guard.

    "Though it's much easier going up," he complained to himself, "than going down. No wonder cats get stuck in trees."

    Two-thirds of the way down he slipped and his own weight was simply too great for the tenuous holds he had on the stone. As he fell he twisted instinctively, lest he land on Bianca—not just for her sake, but for his own. Wood and metal could still puncture dwarven skin, after all.
    He landed on one foot and one knee and ground his teeth against the pain. He swore loudly and waited for his vision to clear. "I am getting too old for this shit," he muttered. He groaned and stood, checked himself all over; other than pain and bruising, he seemed fine. "Fine is relative," Varric sighed. At least nothing was broken, but he would be plenty sore in the morning.

    Provided he survived until morning.

    That made him laugh; since when had he not presumed his own survival in any of his stories?

    "Well," he confided to Bianca, "this chapter is still being written, and I haven't uncovered the end yet. Haven't even met all the major players, I think." Bianca was distracted, suspicious. Varric lifted her from his back and made her ready.

    He scanned the fiery wall ahead of him, uneasy. Dark shadows approached and he raised Bianca and aimed.

    He made out the 'sword of mercy' symbol before any other detail and relief cooled his skin briefly. Varric lowered Bianca as a group of templars and mages pushed out of the fire and stared at him. "Well, hello," Varric greeted them. "I see you realised the danger and came back inside."

    The lieutenant at the fore of the group eyed Varric, looked around at the scorched stone and the fallen mages stuck through with metal bolts, then returned his gaze to Varric. "This is your handiwork?" he asked, solemn, as he swung his shield to his back and sheathed his sword. One of the mages cast healing magic over the group; a second cast a protective spell.

    "Mine and Bianca's, yes," Varric said, and grinned. "Wasn't easy." He let Bianca rest against his back.

    "I see," said the lieutenant, thoughtful. "What do you plan to do now?"

    "I hadn't gotten that far," Varric admitted. "I was hoping to find the knight-commander."

    The lieutenant nodded. "Well, I must commend you," he said, and held out a hand. "You've done some fine work."

    Varric reached for the man's hand in order to shake it and just as the templar's fingers closed over his Varric realised that Bianca had not stopped alerting him. He looked past the templar and saw that the mages accompanying the squadron all wore thick metal collars. Too late, he found his hand in an iron grip; he was yanked forward sharply and a thin blade punched into his gut. The shock made him see bright sparks a moment; then the pain registered, and Varric exhaled. The templar withdrew the blade and released Varric's hand, beckoned to his men; as Varric sank to his knees, one hand over the wound, the templars marched away.

    He looked down at himself, or tried to. That, he thought, is a lot of blood.

    His arm shook beneath him. With the last of his strength he turned his body so he was sitting, and edged himself toward the wall until he felt it behind his back. He let his head fall against it and he watched as the fiery world swirled grey and then black.

    Bianca fell silent.

    It seemed that no matter how many mages he killed, the fire was not lessening in intensity. Hugh reached up to wipe non-existent sweat from his forehead—the heat was evaporating it almost before it could form. He looked down at the mage he had just killed, a boy barely old enough to grow a beard. It was a terrible thing to have to kill someone so young.

    But his sworn duty was to the Maker and the Chantry, and part of that duty was to defend the helpless against those who would use magic to oppress them.

    He ducked his head against the flames and fought his way through the hot wind toward the square where he had last seen Cullen. Ahead of him he saw movement, readied his blades, then stopped short and stared as Paxley came into view, his own sword and shield up. Paxley stopped as well and lowered his shield, stared at Hugh.

    "You're all right," he exclaimed, and moved swiftly to stand before him. "Thank the Maker!"

    "I'm glad to see you, too," Hugh said, loud enough to be heard over the inferno. "Where's Ruvena?"

    "Haven't seen her since this started," Paxley shook his head. "I'm sure she's fine."

    "Where's Cullen?" Hugh glanced around, then returned his attention to Paxley's anxious face.
    "Haven't seen him, either," Paxley said. "He's still with the first enchanter. Ru and I've just been trying to get rid of the mages. Whatever they're doing, killing them doesn't seem to be stopping the spell."

    "It's like it's one gigantic spell," Hugh told him. "Each mage is just powering it a little more. We have to take them all down before it'll stop."

    "Let's get going, then," Paxley urged him. "I'm afraid I'm going to melt out here."

    "We all might, if we don't stop it soon," Hugh said unhappily. He spun his blades and the grips settled perfectly into his hands. Paxley turned to move with him and they both pulled up as a shadow approached through the fire. The first thing Hugh saw was a templar shield and he nearly relaxed. But the lieutenant at the head of the squad was not one of the Gallows templars, and he led a squadron aggressively toward them. "Shit," Hugh muttered, and dropped into a defensive pose.

    "Oh, Maker," Paxley said uneasily.

    "Prince Vael did warn us," said the lieutenant with a smile, "that Kirkwall is rife with corrupt templars." He gestured to Hugh and Paxley with his sword. "We take no prisoners today," he said, and the squadron moved obediently to attack.

    She had lost count of the mages she'd killed, and didn't want to think about it in any case. It was her duty and no more; she derived no pleasure from taking life. She was hot and she was sore and she was more than a little angry, and she hoped the first enchanter had a bloody good plan, whatever it was she had confided in Cullen and hadn't bothered telling the rest of them.

    She heard footsteps and Ruvena turned in time to see Aveline speed past her. "Captain!" she called, breathless, and jogged toward her. Startled, Aveline halted, turned and spotted her, waited for Ruvena to catch up.

    "Weren't you in the Keep with the first enchanter?" she asked.

    "I was," Ruvena agreed. "She woke up, and then as we were heading out we ran into the knight-commander—"

    "Where is he, now?"

    "He's with the first enchanter, still. She's got some plan, I understand. The mages started coming into Hightown and Hugh went to find the other templars—"

    "They've come inside," Aveline interrupted. "At least, two squads were on their way last I knew."

    "Oh, that's good," Ruvena said. "Pax and I have been taking down any mages we find, in the meantime."

    "Where did you last see them? Cullen and the first enchanter."

    "In the square, in front of the Keep."

    "Then we should get there," said Aveline. She beckoned to Ruvena to follow. "I need to coordinate with Cullen, and there's strength in numbers."

    "You think two is a strong number?"

    Aveline shot her a look that Ruvena could not quite read. "You're not secretly an Amell, are you?"

    Ruvena turned and pushed through the fire beside Aveline. "No," she said. "My family are all alive and well, and no mages. So far."

    "You know about that?"

    "I've lived in Kirkwall all my life," Ruvena told her. "My parents know everything about everyone. You pick up on the scandalous things as a kid."

    "I suppose you would." Aveline paused to peer over her shield, scanned the immediate area, gestured to an alcove. They ducked inside and were momentarily protected from the fire, though the heat still made the air pulse. Ruvena pulled off her helmet, leaned against the wall, and the two women stood in silence for a long minute or two, catching their breath. "I've got a canteen with me," Aveline went on at last, "though the water's probably boiled."

    "Water's water," Ruvena said with a weak smile. "You have some first, Captain."

    Aveline shrugged, opened the canteen, drank a little, and made a face. "Yes," she said, "boiled."

    "No germs," Ruvena pointed out.

    "Small mercies." Aveline shook her head and drank more water, then handed the canteen to Ruvena. "So," she said, "how did you come to be a templar?"

    Ruvena sipped from the canteen, held the water in her mouth a moment, then swallowed. "You think it's strange for a woman to want to be a templar?"

    Aveline laughed, a beautiful throaty sound. "No stranger a thing than a Fereldan as the captain of the guard in Kirkwall." She shook her head. "No," she went on, "I'm just curious. My first husband was a templar and I learned from him, and from the knights here too, that each of you has different motivations for joining the Order."

    Ruvena sucked on her cracked lower lip a moment, took another swallow from the canteen and handed it back. "You're right," she said, and rested her head against the wall. "I wanted to be a templar from the time I was a little girl. My parents always hoped I would change my mind and be affirmed as a Sister instead, but—" She looked at Aveline. "That's not the life for me. I have younger siblings, two sisters and a brother, and all I ever wanted to do was protect them." She smiled faintly. "They're not mages or anything, and they're not even really children anymore, but I still feel that in a way I'm protecting them, you know?"

    "Of course you are," Aveline told her firmly. "The Order is tasked with the protection of all in Thedas, and that is exactly what you are doing today." She replaced the cap on the canteen, hooked it on her belt. "Shall we be on our way?"

    Ruvena raised the heavy guardsman's helmet. "Why did you want to know?"

    "Making conversation," Aveline replied wryly. "I've spoken with you often since you were a recruit, but I've never really known anything about you."

    "Well, we can always meet up and talk over drinks," Ruvena suggested, as she tamped the helmet down over her sweat-soaked hair. "Once this is over."

    "I'll definitely need one. Or three."

    "I'll buy the first round," Ruvena promised.

    "It's a deal."

    They pressed out into the flames once again.

    Thinning the Veil, stepping just halfway into the Fade, made her giddy—as many times as she had done it, the sensation was never diminished. She could see Cullen before her, tall and much broader in his armour than he was without, trying to hide his feelings and looking angry as a result. In the glow of magic his eyes shone grimly blue-grey. Beyond him she could make out the shadows of the nearest buildings; that was all.

    She turned her focus to the Fade, and to the spirits moving toward the parted Veil. Some of them took no time at all to notice an opening; they were constantly seeking an opportunity to pass through. Others were drawn out of simple curiosity. It was an easy task to keep the shy ones away, for they had no real interest in crossing over. The more aggressive ones needed to be firmly and decisively rebuffed, sometimes more than once.

    Swiftly she discouraged the smaller ones—elemental sprites, wisps, inquisitive animal spirits. None of them had the power she needed today; if they were pulled into her summoning they would be obliterated. Once the small ones were out of the way, the larger, more potent spirits would take their place.

    Solona waited, and as she waited she watched shapes appear on the ground before her.

    The Fade was the realm of dreams, after all. Her own thoughts and memories took ephemeral form and drifted in and out of her view.

    Irving paced back and forth in his study, explaining the nature of spirits, gesturing with his hands as he did so. There were benevolent spirits, who could be coaxed into helping mages, and there were malevolent spirits, whose main goal was to cross the Veil and experience the physical realm for themselves. These were the ones who hunted mages relentlessly...

    She sat on a window ledge and Jowan sat cross-legged on the floor beneath her, a book in his lap, and they discussed the nature of spirits as Irving had described them. Jowan disagreed with Irving, said that just as mortal people were neither purely good nor purely evil, spirits had their own wants and desires, their own strengths and weaknesses, different methods of going about achieving their goals...


    She hoped that somehow he wasn't dead, because she wanted to tell him that now she understood what he had meant. That he had been right, and she had been a foolish and haughty child...

    The enchanters patted her on the head and told her over and over that her spellcasting was excellent, that her control was beyond reproach, that she was smart and talented and sure to be a great mage one day. She accepted these compliments as nothing more than her due, for she was an excellent student, was she not? Greagoir told her grimly that she was arrogant, and that it would trip her up one day...

    Duncan led her from the Tower and as they travelled with the other Wardens she was nonplussed to learn that as smart and as talented as she might have seemed in the Circle, she was truly nothing more than an untested and ignorant mage, thrust out into a great world filled with wonder and beauty and danger and deceit. No one knew her or cared about her; no one admired her skill or congratulated her on a successful casting. To the Wardens she was a living weapon, valuable in the fight against the darkspawn...

    The beacon was lit and darkspawn rushed her, pinned her full of arrows, and darkness overcame her. When she woke she remembered that she was not especially talented or powerful nor even particularly smart. She stood with Alistair and looked out over the Wilds and she knew that she was, like everyone else in the world, just a tiny piece of a greater whole, and she could neither survive nor thrive entirely on her own...


    She had not bid him farewell, had not let him know that she would not be there to manage things when he left the castle for his next adventure. He would be hurt and he might be angry with her but she hoped he would understand. She tried not to look at his face as he drifted out of sight because he was her best friend and she couldn't bear to see him look at her that way...

    Cullen stood in the hall and watched her with admiring eyes, stammered as he spoke to her, flushed and smiled and shifted his weight, and she longed to touch him but could not, should not, was not permitted to do it. You've always been so confident, he told her, and she knew he was wrong and Greagoir was right, that she was not confident but arrogant, and at that moment she decided that she would become everything that Cullen thought of her because her heart hurt a little whenever she looked at him...

    In her travels she learned much about the nature of magic, about her own limits, about her own identity. She watched Zathrian die, watched the Lady vanish, and knew that though tragic, death was sometimes necessary in order to permit new growth. She watched Wynne refuse to give in and learned that strength could not always be gauged by physical prowess, but was just as often fuelled by understanding, acceptance, by faith and forgiveness...

    Cullen watched her through the rain she had summoned...
    "You are vain and proud, mage," she heard, "and that struggle with your nature will never end."

    Solona blinked and looked up. "It may never end," she returned, "but I will always win."

    "Pride," he chuckled softly, and drifted into her view, his human form ephemeral because she was only half in the Fade herself. "Arrogance."

    "Confidence," she countered, serene.

    "How's your precious templar?" He stopped close to her, folded his arms and eyed her scornfully.

    "He is waiting to slay you, should you attempt to cross." She glanced past Mouse as Valor made his way toward her.

    "And I, too, would be slain, I presume," Valor said gravely.

    "Of course," Solona said, more gently.

    "It is good, then, that I do not care to enter your world." He rolled his shoulders as though to stretch them, and his eyes glowed through the slit in his helmet. "Let us begin."

    Solona inclined her head. "I thank you," she said. "Both of you."

    Mouse lifted his head, startled. "What? I didn't—" He threw up his arms, looked down with surprise at the glyph beneath his feet that kept him from moving, from transforming.

    "The real dangers of the Fade," Solona reminded him, "are preconceptions, careless trust—pride." She swung her staff in a wide arc toward him and Mouse snarled and struggled as he was bound. "You taught me that." Solona yanked back with her staff, let the focusing crystals 'pull' a trail of energy from Mouse's body to her own. She turned to Valor then, who held out his hands and volunteered his own energy.

    The sudden influx of power was exhilarating. Solona turned and looked up at Cullen. "I'm ready," she told him, and her voice sounded strange and hollow to her own ears.

    "Be careful, love," he warned her softly.

    Solona smiled. "Of course."

Chapter Text

    There were only a dozen guards left at the Keep, but Bran rounded them up and had them lead those taking refuge in the Keep to the throne room for safety. The throne room was far enough away from the streets of Hightown that the air inside was still cool. He had the guards remain in the throne room, and shut the doors, and he stood in the hall outside.

    The guards were very calm, he mused, almost preternaturally so given the current state of the city. It was good to see that the considerable coin expended on their training had not gone to waste. They would in turn keep the citizens calm, and that was always for the best in any situation.

    Bran made his way slowly through the hall and out to the foyer, and shut that set of doors as well. The air in the foyer was hot and dry, and rather uncomfortable to breathe. He hoped that the first enchanter, whatever she had been  planning earlier, would get it over with. He didn't care to have people—noble or common—just draping themselves all over the throne room, and the sooner they were out of there, the better.

    The Keep's doors swung open and Bran watched as a group of seven templars entered, followed by a burst of swirling fire that retreated behind them as they shut the doors. All seven looked calmly about the foyer, assessing their situation. He wondered for just a moment if they had entered the Keep to escape the fire; then he noticed their insignia and colours, which marked them as having come from Starkhaven. Bran narrowed his eyes and realised that from their position he was hidden from their view by a pillar.

    "No one here," one of them said. "Shouldn't there be guards at least?"

    The lieutenant at the fore of the group shook his head. "They're probably protecting Hawke. The prince says he'll be here or in his family estate. We'll search the Keep first, top to bottom. If we don't find him here, we search the estate. When we find Hawke, we find the apostate." He directed the templars to climb the stairs.

    Bran stepped from behind the pillar and leaned slightly over the balustrade; they all stopped, and all eyes turned to him. "Hawke," he said clearly, "is not here. He may be in Kirkwall but I can assure you he is not in this Keep, nor would he be welcome here."

    The lieutenant raised his sword, pointed it at Bran. "And who are you, then, serah?"

    "I am the seneschal of the Keep."

    "Where is the viscount?"

    "There has not been a viscount in Kirkwall," Bran advised him, "since nine thirty-four, when Marlowe Dumar was murdered by Qunari in an attempted coup."

    The lieutenant shook his head. "Prince Vael has informed us that Garrett Hawke will have taken the throne following the defeat of Knight-Commander Meredith Stannard. Where is Hawke?"

    "I am pleased to report," Bran said drily, "that Hawke is not here, and I do not know where he might be. He was last seen leaving Kirkwall several months ago with his companions, including the apostate you appear to be seeking, after the aforementioned defeat of Knight-Commander Meredith."

    The lieutenant watched him for a long moment. "Continue," he ordered his men, and they climbed the stairs swiftly. Three templars ducked into the offices, and three entered the barracks, to search for Hawke. The lieutenant climbed the stairs at a more stately pace and then stopped before Bran, his eyes glinting behind his helmet. "Who has been ruling Kirkwall in the meantime, I wonder?"

    Bran could actually hear the man's lips part in a vicious grin.

    "Plan C," Hugh said through his teeth.

    "Plan C," Paxley agreed, and raised his shield.

    Hugh stepped back, let a shroud of darkness cover him, and sped through the group quite before they realised he had moved. Paxley shouted invectives and taunts regarding the templars' parentage, hygiene, and possible sexual proclivities, in order to draw their attention to him. While the templars slammed their weapons against Paxley's shield and armour, Hugh grabbed a tiny flask from his pouch and smashed it on the stone beneath the templars' feet. Pungent smoke rose from the shattered flask and the templars were briefly staggered. Hugh turned to the nearest of the three mages, who raised his staff and attempted to dispel the effects of the flask's confusing contents. As the mage fell to Hugh's daggers, Paxley stopped defending and attacked the templars, some of whom had begun to turn on one another.

    For all that Paxley was teased in the ranks of the Gallows for being soft-hearted, he was descended from a family of warriors, and combat was in his blood. He was not as quick as Hugh or even Ruvena, but he was solid, and he was powerful, and a little frightening when he was focused. Hugh took a moment to watch his friend plough through the disoriented templars, using his sword and shield as weapons both. Paxley's face was grim, his blue eyes narrowed, his mouth a thin line.

    But he could not stand watching all day; Hugh turned his attention to the second mage, who had also begun to summon dispelling magic. He sank a dagger into the mage's back and the spell dissipated before it could be completed. The last mage was attempting the same magic and Hugh stopped her swiftly.

    The templar lieutenant alone remained on his feet when his squadron had fallen, and he seemed to have shaken off the effects of the flask. He threw himself fiercely at Paxley who was forced to defend again.

    Hugh straightened and spun his bloodied daggers, launched himself at the lieutenant just as the lieutenant's blade slipped past Paxley's armour. Paxley stiffened and made the tiniest of sounds; Hugh clamped a hand on the lieutenant's helmet, yanked back his head and slashed his throat with a swift motion. He leaped away as the man fell, then jumped over the body and caught Paxley about the waist with one arm to keep him from falling to the street. "Pax," he said, anguished, and jammed one dagger into its sheath. He took the second dagger from his other hand, awkwardly sheathed it on the other side, then lifted Paxley's arm over his shoulders and pulled him upright.

    "I'm okay," Paxley muttered, and puffed out his cheeks as he exhaled. He lifted his sword and let it rest on his back, and fumbled for a potion. He grinned weakly and lifted it toward Hugh as though in a toast. "It's why we bring these along, isn't it?" He broke the seal on it with his gloved thumb and drank the potion down, grimaced at the taste and tossed the vial aside.

    "It's my fault," Hugh admitted. "I should have been watching more closely."

    "No," Paxley said, and patted Hugh's cheek. He straightened, shifted his chestplate, and adjusted his shield on his arm. "You were watching too closely again, I think. You focus too tightly." He grinned again, impishly. "I know I'm awesome, but you have to remember to see the whole field."

    Hugh swiped a hand toward him and Paxley pretended to be struck, laughing. The relief that swept through Hugh made him suddenly cold and he shivered. Paxley reached up and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go."

    Together they turned toward the square. As they moved they felt the ground tremble slightly beneath them and Hugh ground his teeth. "What now?" he muttered, and stared at the blue-white glow emanating from the stone beneath their feet.

    "And that," she heard Cullen say, "is how your mother saved Kirkwall, when Starkhaven attacked." Solona leaned against the jamb of the door leading into the sitting-room, and watched him a moment. Cora, cradled in one arm, beamed up at Cullen and clasped her hands together in delight. At three, she still talked very little, but Cora loved to listen.

    Beside Cullen on the couch, her bare feet braced against his hip and a book in her lap, Beatrice glared at him. "Mother doesn't do things like that," she said severely.

    "She doesn't have to anymore," Cullen agreed mildly. He put a hand on Beatrice's foot, and squeezed. "But she has always been a fighter, and quite a powerful mage."

    Beatrice rolled her dark eyes. At thirteen, she knew everything. "Doubtful," she intoned. "I've never seen her cast anything good."

    "That is because your mother doesn't do magic for your entertainment."

    Cora reached up to pet Cullen's beard and he turned his head to kiss her fingers, caught them between his lips. Cora giggled, pulled her hands away and snuggled against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, looked up and saw Solona watching him, and Solona's heart constricted as he smiled at her, the slow shy smile that had never stopped making her fall in love with him. "How was court?" he asked.

    "Tolerable, as usual," Solona said with a shrug. "Telling stories about me behind my back, are you?"

    "He's telling tall tales, yes," muttered Beatrice.

    Solona pushed away from the door and entered the sitting room, ruffled Beatrice's curly red hair and moved to sit between her daughter and her husband. Beatrice drew her knees up to make room; Cullen wrapped an arm around Solona's shoulders, leaned in for a kiss. Beatrice sighed, aggrieved. "Where's Aron?" Solona wondered.

    "He's out in the yard, practising." Solona opened her mouth and Cullen said, "Stefan is with him."

    "All right." She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed, closed her eyes. As the only one of their three children to show an inclination toward magic, ten-year-old Aron was always closely watched. Those who didn't care to have a mage as Viscountess sought any excuse to oust her, and would gladly use her children against her. "I should go and check on him."

    Cullen kissed her hair. "He'll be fine for the moment."

    Cora crawled into her lap, rested her cheek on Solona's breast and stuck her thumb in her mouth. Cullen turned to kiss her again, over Cora's dark head.


    Solona laughed and shook her head and the vision crumbled away; she turned slightly and rebuffed the desire demon who had drifted close. "Nice try," she murmured. "But that's not what I want."  

    Cullen paced around her, cautious, watchful. Solona focused on him for a moment to ground herself, then returned her attention to her surroundings. Ultimately it didn't matter in what order she activated things; the end result would be the same.

    She turned to face the Keep and concentrated on the Tevene words that Valor whispered into her mind even now to remind her. The glyph for power consisted of strong curved lines seeming to reach upward and outward. The streets and alleys in that part of Kirkwall began to glow—just a faint shimmer at first, and then a brighter flare.

    A column of energy shot toward the sky and remained briefly visible. When it had dissipated the affected streets and buildings continued to shine with magical light.

    Cullen stared in that direction, his expression still grim, his mouth tight. He turned at last and looked at Solona, a question in his eyes.

    "That's what it's supposed to do," she assured him. Cullen said nothing, only nodded curtly.

    Solona turned to face away from the Keep, then. She took a deep breath and exhaled, and raised her staff as she began the second part of her summoning.

    "Varric," Hawke said, "what are you doing in the middle of the street? It's not like you to get that drunk."

    He forced an eye open, then another. Hawke crouched in front of him, his elbows balanced on his knees, his hands dangling. Behind him, the flames slowly killing Kirkwall were reflected in Hawke's gleaming sword. He grinned, and his teeth shone past his thick dark beard.

    "Hawke," Varric said. "Thought I'd never see you again."

    "What are you doing in the middle of the street?"

    "Bleeding to death," Varric told him calmly. "I thought it was obvious."

    Hawke rolled his eyes and laughed again. "You've been hurt far worse before," he said.

    "I think the blade was poisoned," Varric explained. "The bleeding hasn't stopped, and this heat isn't helping anything."

    "What, that?" Hawke thrust a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the inferno. "Cakewalk."

    "Maybe for you, Hawke, but I'm not in top form today."

    "That's obvious. You must be getting old, Varric. I should think you would have recognised an enemy before he got close enough to knife you."

    It was Varric's turn to roll his eyes. "It's not like he had a big glowing red sign that said 'Warning! Enemy!' on him, or anything."

    "Still, Varric, it's not like you to let something like this happen. What are you going to do?"

    "I'm not sure," Varric said facetiously. "Perhaps my friend can do something, since he's just hanging around making smartass comments. Or maybe my friend's boyfriend can help, since he's—" He hesitated and frowned. "Is Anders—with you?"

    "Come on, Varric," Hawke said. "You need to get on your feet and get moving."

    "Moving will make the blood flow faster," Varric reminded him. "You didn't answer me about Anders."

    "Tie it up with your sash," Hawke suggested. "You have bandages, right? What about that emergency kit of yours, that you keep in your coat? Or does that have a flask in it now, for the other kind of emergency?" Hawke laughed, and his brown eyes gleamed with the playful humour that had served him so well all his life.

    Varric felt immediately even stupider than he had for letting the templar shank him in the first place; of course he still had his emergency kit. It was the only thing he hadn't given to Cullen and Hugh, because he'd forgotten about it. He hadn't had to use it in years—not since he'd met Hawke, in fact. He hoped the stuff was still effective after all this time. Varric winced as he lifted his arm and fumbled inside the coat for the concealed pocket, took a moment to remember the sequence of threads and snaps that needed to be manipulated to unfold the soft leather that protected it. Inside was a small, flat-packed injury kit and a single vial containing a strong elfroot potion.

    With shaking hands he unwrapped the injury kit and peeled away the sticky fabric of his tunic to reveal the wound in his gut; at least the rest of his insides were staying inside, even if the blood was not. He applied the healing bandages and while they did their work he broke the seal on the vial and drank down the elfroot potion. Almost immediately he felt better, and he rested his head against the stone wall behind him.

    When he looked up again, Hawke was gone.

    Dwarves weren't supposed to dream, and they weren't supposed to enter the Fade when they died.

    How, then, had he seen Hawke?

    Why are you worried about that?

    "Good point," he said, and pushed himself up. He patted himself all over to make sure he wasn't hurt anywhere else—though the potion would have taken care of that, he knew. He reached for Bianca and was startled by the slight shock he received through his glove when he closed his hand around her stock. "I'm sorry, baby," he apologised with a sigh. "Let's just get out of here."

    Bianca was quiet and resentful, and Varric tucked her beneath his coat to protect her from the fire as he pushed forward in search of—what?

    It didn't matter. Allies, he supposed. Aveline would be good to find. Or Donnic. Or anyone, really, who wasn't trying to kill him.

    The street beneath him began to glow with an ethereal light and Varric paused for just a moment. Whatever Sebastian had planned, Varric decided, it would end with a bolt through his bloody neck. He clenched his jaw and pushed on.

    Forget the lyrium, he whispered into her mind. It's mostly gone, now, anyway.

    Solona ignored him.

    The power is right there for the taking, he went on. If you don't use it, someone else will.

    "Let them," Solona told him through her teeth.

    Why waste it? he cajoled. You could save the city, destroy the enemy, make the mortal world realise your power—this would never happen again.

    "This never will happen again," she assured him.

    She had activated four glyphs at the cardinal points in Kirkwall, and the city shone with magical light that penetrated the fire that continued to heat the stone to cracking. All that remained was to activate a fifth glyph, the master spell, the one that would incorporate the others into a single powerful summoning.

    Cullen had not moved from her side for even a moment; he was sweating and his face was red but he had not flagged. He kept his shoulders square and his head high, his sword and shield ready for the absolute worst. Solona had seen others speeding by, obscured by the fire, Paxley and Ruvena and some other Kirkwall templars; it was good to know that no matter what happened to her, the city would be taken care of by Cullen and his faithful men and women.

    You could be taking care of the city yourself, Mouse insisted. You should be leading these weak and powerless mortals.

    "Magic," Solona recited, "is to serve man, and never to rule over him."

    Your Maker is not what you think, he told her, more harshly. And your beloved prophet Andraste was a mage herself.

    Solona hesitated, glanced through the shimmering Veil. Mouse stood with his arms folded, pleased with himself for distracting her. Solona shook her head. "Then it makes sense that she knew the dangers posed by mages, and the reason for the rules imposed upon them." She swung her staff and yanked back on it again, intensifying the stream of icy power she had been slowly draining from him. Mouse flinched visibly and bared his teeth at her.

    If you do not use the blood, he snarled, as soon as you falter I will make use of it, and tear you to pieces in front of your precious templar!

    "You are free to try," Solona assured him. "But Cullen has slain his share of Pride demons, and I think he will not take kindly to you threatening to harm me."

    Concentrate, mortal, Valor said quietly. Pay no heed to this one's idle threats. He has not posed a genuine danger to you since your Harrowing, and the summoning will take all your will.

    Cullen cleared his throat. "Is everything all right?" he asked.

    "It's fine," Solona said. "Just a little argument."

    "You said it was threatening to harm you."

    "You heard that, did you?"

    "Only your side of it. You're sure it's all right?"

    "Positive," said Solona, and inclined her head and shoulders to him in a mock formal gesture. She straightened and met his eyes again. "I don't quite know what to expect from the summoning," she confessed.

    "What exactly is it you'll be summoning?"

    "Not a thing. A force, an energy. Something that will drain all the mana from all the mages within the city walls, temporarily, and disrupt the fire entirely."

    "So it will affect our own mages as well."

    "Only those inside the walls. Those in the Gallows should not be affected."

    "And you?" Cullen pushed his shield slightly toward her.

    "Valor says not. I get the impression that it'll all be drawn to me instead."

    "That's a lot of mana," Cullen said, and frowned.


    "How will that affect you?"

    "I'm not sure. I think a mage can only contain so much, and the rest just—overflows."

    "When it overflows, what will happen?"

    Solona shook her head. "I don't know. It may just return to the mages, but in any case by that time they won't be able to restore the fire." Cullen nodded slowly, and opened his mouth. "I know," Solona said, and laughed. "Be careful." Cullen twisted his mouth wryly, then schooled his expression again. He lifted his sword toward her in a go on with it motion, and he waited.

    A templar squadron had appeared out of nowhere and attacked, and Aveline and Ruvena were obliged to defend. Aveline was impressed by Ruvena's style; she was light on her feet and quick with her sword and shield, and despite the circumstances she did not seem to be tiring. It was too bad she was already a templar; she would have made a wonderful guard.

    With a powerful sweep of her blade Aveline forced the enemy to step back; it gave the pair of them a bit of breathing room. She kept her shield high and defended easily, lashed out with every opportunity to strike. Her back to Aveline's, Ruvena was doing very much the same. Their disadvantage was that the squadron had mages to heal its members, and Aveline and Ruvena had no time to stop and drink a potion.

    "Hold on," Ruvena shouted over her shoulder, as she blocked a heavy but slow-moving blow from a greatsword. She side-stepped and Aveline was surrounded, with nothing, no one at her back. She braced herself for the assault, blocked and parried as she could, but she was just one warrior and there were at least a dozen templars around her.

    On the other hand, she had faced much more powerful enemies than a bunch of idiot templars, and she had emerged if not unscathed, at least victorious. And, more to the point, alive.

    From the corner of her eye she saw Ruvena raise her sword to activate a templar spell. Aveline spun and called out to the templars, drew their attention away from Ruvena, braced herself against their attack. She bared her teeth, her whole being on edge and thrilled with the excuse to put all her skills to the test.

    It had been a few months, after all, since the battle with Meredith, and though she'd not been inactive, she had missed real combat.

    A wave of cold energy swept through them all, then, and the squadron's mages shuddered and fell, unconscious. Aveline stopped defending, then, and Ruvena waded back into the fray. Between the two of them they dispatched the entire squadron, one templar at a time, and when they were done, they stood breathing heavily a moment. Aveline pointed to one of the still-unconscious mages.

    "What do we do with them?" she wondered.

    "Tie them up," Ruvena said with a grimace. "I'm tired of killing shackled mages."

    They found metal cuffs on the bodies of the Starkhaven templars and they cuffed the three mages together, more or less seated in a circle, balanced upright with their backs against one another. "They won't be going anywhere for a while," Aveline said, approving. "Are you injured?"

    "I'm all right," Ruvena said. "You?"

    "I'm good. You have a superb set of skills."

    Ruvena removed the guardsman's helmet she'd been wearing, tossed it on the street and reached up to wipe her sweaty face with her glove. "You no less, Captain," she said, and grinned.

    "Let's move on, then," Aveline suggested, and they turned to enter the square just as the streets beneath them began to glow with magical light. "What is this, now?" Aveline asked, and she turned back to see the mages. They had not moved.

    "Maybe," Ruvena said, "this is part of the first enchanter's plan."

    "You don't know what she's planned?"

    "She only told Cullen."

    "That's odd," Aveline said.

    Ruvena shrugged. "They've got an odd relationship."

    "How so?" They resumed walking together. Aveline noted that the glow affecting the stones was growing more intense as they progressed, and that the fire had lessened considerably.

    "Hard to explain. She's different from most mages I've known, really. Has other things on her mind besides hating templars, you know?" She shrugged again. "But Cullen—" Ruvena shook her head. "Cullen is really weird around her, sometimes. Follows her around the Gallows, watching her. Has her in meetings all the time. Always escorts her personally when she leaves the Gallows to go to market."

    "What are you thinking?"

    "I didn't think anything of it at all, until Hugh brought it up. She's the first enchanter, he's the knight-commander, they have to work together. Now I'm not sure if I actually remember seeing him act strangely, or if I just think I do."

    "Say that it's true. How does she seem to feel about it?"

    "She seems to like him just fine." She frowned, then. "But Hugh's afraid that he's—" She glanced up at Aveline. "Forcing himself on her."

    Aveline felt her eyebrows hit her hairline. "That doesn't sound like Cullen," she said.

    "No, it really doesn't."

    "There's no possibility Hugh's misreading their interactions?"

    "Exactly what I thought." She paused and raised her sword to point and Aveline looked where she indicated.

    In the middle of the square, Cullen stood with his head tilted back. In front of and above him, the first enchanter hung suspended in the air, her back arched slightly and her face to the sky. Her long hair drifted around her, fluttering with whatever magic she was using. She held her staff in front of her, both hands clasped tightly around its shaft as though in fervent prayer.

    "What is she doing?" Aveline murmured.

    "No idea," Ruvena admitted. "Cullen doesn't seem concerned."

    Aveline frowned. "What is she doing?" she repeated, louder, and Cullen glanced over his shoulder.

    "Stay back, Captain," he said. "I'm not sure what to expect." He acknowledged Ruvena's presence with a nod, then returned his attention to the first enchanter.

    Aveline and Ruvena waited and watched.

    "If you are asking," Bran said coldly, "who has been maintaining the administrative aspects of the city, then you are addressing the correct person. I am not, however, Kirkwall's leader, and have only performed such tasks as are necessary to keep the city functioning as it should. There will be a vote soon, and a viscount appointed."

    The templar lieutenant snorted, not quite a laugh. "Where is Hawke?" he asked.

    "I have no idea where he is," Bran replied. "As I have already explained, he is not in Kirkwall, and Maker willing he never will be again. His criminal actions—" He pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head. "But that is in the past." He folded his arms and looked calmly up through the slit of the helmet. There was no point, of course, in attempting to fight; he was no warrior, only a political advisor. "Perhaps you will find a clue to his whereabouts in the Amell estate."

    From the barracks came the sound of a scuffle, a low cry, and then silence. The lieutenant looked in that direction and then back at Bran. "Who's in there?"

    "I'm sure I've no idea," Bran told him honestly. "I ensured that all the guards were out of the barracks—"

    "We'll see," snapped the templar. "You stay here."

    "You mean to say Ser won't permit me to race outside in order to burn to death?" This earned him a sharp look before the lieutenant continued to the barracks.

    Bran suppressed a sigh. The three templars who had gone into his and the viscount's offices made their way out, looked around and spotted Bran. "Your lieutenant," he informed them, "has gone—"

    A chilling scream erupted from the other side of the Keep and the templars raced to the barracks, weapons drawn. Bran watched them go, curious. Had the guards put some sort of trap in place, to deter robbers and assassins? He would have to commend the guard-captain for her foresight, if so.

    He waited, but heard nothing more. With a frown he took an uneasy step toward the barracks, just as a familiar figure appeared at the top of the stairs leading to the barracks.

    "Really, Father," called the dark-skinned young man, his tone disapproving. "Allowing foreign templars to invade the Keep? Doesn't that rather conflict with your duty?" He wiped his hands with a handkerchief, hid the handkerchief somewhere inside his impeccable suit, and stood with his hands on his hips, regarding Bran with a reproachful expression.

    "My skills do not include wielding a weapon," Bran reminded him. "And my duty ends at administration. What are you doing here, Dren? You're supposed to be at school."

    Dren shook his head. "A dozen guards in the Keep and you came out here alone—for what? Contemplation of your lot? You should have a guard with you in times like this."

    Bran sighed, reached up with one hand and squeezed the bridge of his nose. When he looked up again Dren had crossed the balcony to stand near him. It was eerie how swiftly and silently the boy moved.

    "You haven't missed any stragglers, have you?" wondered Dren. "I'd hate to just get deep into a lecture from you on 'behaviour fitting', et cetera, only to be interrupted by the need to defend you."

    "I believe you have seen all of them," Bran said. "May I assume—?"

    "All dead," Dren assured him. "So, to answer your question, it's actually the summer break, and I thought I'd spend the week at home instead of studying. The ship came in early this morning but I was stuck on the docks while the paperwork cleared, and then all this." He gestured in the air. "Has Reed come to see you?"

    "He has not," Bran said cautiously.

    "Ah," Dren said with a raised eyebrow, "but you did know he's been in town."

    "I have been—made aware, yes." Serendipity had mentioned in passing that Reed had turned up in Kirkwall, knowing that Bran would want to hear of it, but in the months since he had been at the Blooming Rose, Reed had not once attempted to contact him.

    "Maybe the three of us can have supper, then," Dren suggested.

    "The city is under attack," Bran reminded him. "We have more pressing matters to attend."

    "Nonsense, you're safe enough in here with me. Surely we can make plans at least."

    "Have you seen what is going on outside?" Bran wondered, with a gesture toward the doors.

    "Had to get through it to come here." Dren looked around the Keep, his dark eyes taking in everything in turn, and at last he flashed a hint of a smile. "The place itself hasn't changed much," he noted, and the smile vanished. "But it must be strange for you, with all the other changes going on here."

    "What do you know of it?"

    "You always think I'm so terribly isolated," Dren said with a shake of his head. "It's a university, not a cloister. We get all the news as soon as it becomes news." He clasped his hands behind his back, and looked out over the foyer. "No viscount yet, hm?"

    "How did you even get into the Keep without anyone seeing you?" Bran thought to ask.

    "Servants' door, out the side. And in any case, nobody can see anything out there. The fire makes it nearly impossible unless you're right on top of something. You didn't answer my question."

    "There's been no vote."

    "They'll probably vote for you, you know. As I understand it, you're quite popular these days."

    "That," Bran said, "is news to me."

    Sebastian summoned one of his captains near and the man stood at attention.

    "Why haven't the templars stopped whoever is casting spells of that magnitude?" He pointed to the top of the wall, where four bright pillars of light had appeared and then vanished, one at a time.

    "I don't know, Highness," the captain replied. "We have no means of seeing into the city from here, to know what the templars are doing at all."

    Sebastian ran his hands through his hair and smoothed it, paced a moment. He looked up at Dederick. "For all we know it's Anders. As an abomination, he has access to power we can only imagine." He gritted his teeth. "I have to ask her to scry," he said.

    Dederick inclined his head. "She did ask to be brought along in the event something like this happened, Highness," he agreed.

    Sebastian nodded unhappily and turned to the captain. "Have her brought to me. If she so much as stumbles on a pebble on the way, I will feed you your own genitals."

    The captain saluted and backed away the appropriate distance, then turned to obey.

    "She assists because she wishes it," Dederick told him. "Not because of obligation or compulsion."

    "I know."

    "Then if your Highness permits the impertinence again, you should not feel any guilt in allowing her to assist."

    "I will not permit you to dictate how I should or should not feel, General."

    "A thousand apologies, Highness," Dederick said with a humble bow.

    Sebastian sighed and waited.

    He smelled plumeria, closed his eyes and breathed her perfume a moment before he turned to see her.

    Led by the captain and flanked by two templars, she walked fluidly toward him, her whole body utterly at ease. Of all the mages that had been sent to Starkhaven, this one was unique; she was guarded heavily at all times but not kept chained. She had been about to be made Tranquil, when Sebastian had discovered her. He had made discreet inquiries of her knight-commander; a great deal of money and lyrium had changed hands and before the Rite of Tranquility could be enacted she had been swiftly transferred to Starkhaven—not to the prison, but to the royal estate, where she had lived in as much comfort as Sebastian could provide her, for the past several months.

    She looked calmly around her, then up at Sebastian. He took her hand in his and kissed the backs of her fingers, kept her hand enveloped in his. "I hope I didn't disturb you," he said.

    "I was just reading," she assured him. "How goes your war, then?"

    "It is currently at a stalemate," he replied, and gestured toward the field. "But someone is casting powerful magic inside the city—"

    "Yes," she interrupted. "I can feel the Veil shifting even from here." She withdrew her hand from his and stood hipshot, arms at her sides.

    "You don't suppose it's Anders?"

    She shook her head. "He's not stupid enough to show his face here. He'd be ripped apart by the citizens if the guards or the templars didn't get him first."

    "I don't suppose you can tell who's doing it, then?" he said.

    "Give me a little lyrium and I can find out."

    Sebastian smiled. "Anything you wish," he promised. She returned the smile, and his chest pained him.

    One of the templars produced a pouch and she turned to take it from him, stuck just a finger inside and pulled it out, glimmering with lyrium. The templar took back the pouch.

    She drew on her free hand with the lyrium dust, chanted a few words; the templars shifted their stances, ready to attack should anything attempt to pass through the Veil while she worked.

    The scrying took only a minute or two, and her brown eyes opened wide, then rolled back into her head. Sebastian leaped forward to catch her before she fell.

    "What did you see?" he asked, anxiously.

    "I don't know her," she murmured, and put a hand to her head. "I've never seen her."

    "Her? It's definitely not Anders, then."

    "No," she said. "I don't think he's anywhere near Kirkwall."

    He scooped her into his arms and she draped one arm around his neck, rested her cheek on his shoulder. He pressed his cheek to her forehead. "I'm sorry, love," he told her. "Will you be all right?"

    "Tired, that's all. Something—something—" She fainted a moment, exhausted, and then her eyes flickered open again.

    "I'll take you to your tent." He glanced at Dederick. "Call the captains." He turned and, followed by the templars, carried her to the large tent that had been intended for him, the one he had insisted be hers. He ducked inside and lay her down on the featherbed that had been made for him as well, smoothed her dark hair away from her face, and let her twine her slender fingers through his. "What can you tell me about the mage you saw?" he asked her softly.

    "Nothing," she told him. "I saw her face, and then—nothing. Like I was being blocked. I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm so tired." She closed her eyes again.

    "Do you need more lyrium?" he asked her.

    "Just a little sleep," she murmured, and her face grew slack. Sebastian tucked her hands close to her, drew a finely-embroidered sheet over her, and left her to rest. Outside the tent the templars stood guard already.

    "Nothing happens to her," he informed them. "If she wakes and wants to speak with me you will bring her without question." They inclined their heads in silent unison. They had heard this command many times before.

    He returned to the spot where his captains had begun to gather at Dederick's word.

    "No more playing at war," Sebastian said tersely. "Anders isn't here, so we'll finish up. Kirkwall will fall today."

    They ran into Varric Tethras, almost literally since they were not looking down as they jogged toward the square. The dwarf had obviously been badly wounded but when Hugh asked about it, he waved it off as though it had been nothing.

    "Took down a few mages," he explained, casually, "then got jumped by a squad of Starkhaven templars. Bianca and I scared them off, but not before I got a little scratch." He grinned. "Still, better me than Bianca. She's much more delicate. In any case, some bandages and a potion later, here I am."

    "Come with us," Hugh said. He beckoned and the three of them made their way onward.

    "Fellas," Varric spoke up cheerily after a moment. "Does it seem to you that this is a lot easier to get through than it was earlier?"

    Paxley considered a moment. "It does," he realised. "I guess we've been doing a good job getting rid of the mages."

    They saw the first enchanter, then, floating in the air above Cullen, in the middle of the square in front of the Keep. Just past them, Guard-Captain Hendyr stood with Ruvena, and Paxley suppressed a little exclamation of joy. It was good to see she was well. She spotted them, and Paxley was sure he saw her eyes light, but she made no move to greet them except to nod professionally. He returned the nod and quelled the knot of pleasure in his belly.

    Both hands clasped tightly around the shaft of her staff, the first enchanter held it slowly outward as far as she could reach. She let go with her right hand and swept the staff in a wide arc; she twirled it rapidly, switched hands and did the same with her right hand. When she had brought it in front of her again she held it up over her head and spoke a word that Paxley did not recognise. It was a harsh word and it made his skin crawl and it made his bones ache and suddenly he wanted to be back in bed with the covers drawn over his head.

    Beside him, Hugh shifted his weight uneasily, and Paxley knew he felt the same odd sensations.

    Hugh drew his blades.

    "What are you doing?" Paxley hissed at him.

    "My duty," Hugh replied, his eyes locked on the first enchanter. "Our duty."

    "But Cullen—"

    "Cullen," Hugh said, "may be too close to the situation. We need to back him up."

    "I can hear you," Cullen growled, without looking at them.

    "Then you know I am right, Commander."

    "We will discuss it later," said Cullen.

    The first enchanter began to turn in mid-air, slowly at first; she began to spin faster, arms out to her sides. She continued to speak strange words that made Paxley feel frightened and a little ill.

    Her body shimmered as though she was passing physically through the Veil and her voice grew distorted, but still she spun and spoke the magic words, over and over.

    The air around her began to move counter to the wind that had been generated by the fire, and it grew cold; ice crystals formed on her skin. As she continued to turn, to cast, nothing less than a winter storm took shape around her, spreading outward and enveloping them all in refreshing cold air.

    Paxley had never before been so grateful for snow.

    As the storm spread rapidly, still centred on the first enchanter, it seemed to devour the flames that had turned Hightown black. Around them the sound of cracking stone pierced the fierce winds of the competing antipodal magics.

    "Shit," exclaimed Varric, "it's cooling things too fast."

    "Any longer in this heat and the citizens will be baked in their homes." Hugh's gaze was still fixed on the first enchanter. "Better the stones need replacing than people."

    The ice storm moved on, left them in its silent center, the cracked streets covered in snowdrifts. Paxley turned to watch the wall of white move away, gaining strength as it absorbed the fire.

    And as the storm moved out of view toward the outskirts of the city there was near silence around them. No wind, no fire, no freezing storm; there was only the sound of the first enchanter's voice as she continued to speak her magical words.

    The blackened stone around them was nearly unrecognisable as Hightown. Here and there they could see bodies—mages, and here and there a templar, some in Starkhaven colours, some in Kirkwall gear. Paxley's gut tightened again. He hated losing friends and colleagues.

    "Solona," Cullen said, "it's done." Paxley looked back up at her. She was spinning rapidly now, her staff clutched tightly to her breast. "Solona!"

    Her eyes opened, unseeing, though she did not slow down.

    A flash of brilliant white light caught him by surprise and Paxley squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. He heard a series of cracking sounds, louder than the fracturing stone, a massive rustling, and cries from the others—Cullen calling the first enchanter's name again, Ruvena and the guard-captain and Hugh shouting incoherently, and then a terrible, soul-chilling, inhuman shriek that echoed abominably throughout Hightown.

    Paxley forced his eyes open, blinked rapidly to clear the spots that still blinded him. When at last he could see again he froze in place.

    He had died, he was sure; else he was unconscious and dreaming. He turned slowly and stared, disbelieving. He looked at Hugh. "Is this real?" he whispered. Hugh's blue eyes were a little frightened. Paxley had never seen him afraid.

    "I think so," Hugh whispered back.

    "Sweet Andraste's cleanest knickers," Varric snapped, startling them all. Paxley heard a tiny intake of breath, unmistakeably Ruvena's. The guard-captain was silent, her face stern.

    The first enchanter drifted slowly down, and Cullen sheathed his sword quickly, caught her and held her against his body; her legs did not support her. The staff fell from her hand and clattered to the ground, and the sound made Paxley jump. Cullen made no move to retrieve it.

    They all moved a little closer to Cullen then, their backs to him, instinctively finding comfort in one another's proximity while remaining ready for battle if necessary.

    "What now?" Ruvena's voice was small in the echoing silence.

    No one had an answer for her. They simply stood staring around them.

    Perched on the high walls, on the roofs of the city's buildings, on the snowy remains of the broken streets and statues, an entire pride of griffons looked unconcerned as they preened or sat thoughtfully lashing their tails. Now and again one would make some low ratcheting sound, and another would answer, and then they would lapse once more into silence.

Chapter Text

    He'd been in only one major conflict before, one that wasn't simply hunting down defiant mages: he'd fought on Meredith's side, when she'd stormed the Keep after Guylian had been hanged. That had been a brief but brutal affair; in comparison, this battle seemed too easy.

    It felt as though the invading army was there for practise, and not for any real attack. Some of them bore makeshift armour, linen gambesons and wooden shields, and wielded weapons that had seen better decades. Very few of the Kirkwall templars were falling to the Starkhaven onslaught; all that kept them busy was the sheer number of men and women launching themselves into the fray.

    Samson worked his way carefully back toward the wall, broke away from the combat and moved to where three lieutenants stood watching over the field—three he called young'uns, for they'd joined the Order long after he did, not long before he'd been reinstated. He knew their names only—Cowden, Ansel, and Rodic. "Sers," he said, just as a brilliant flash of light appeared over the wall. The lieutenants spun and Samson looked up; what looked like snow drifted down from the top of the wall and as a sudden burst of steam cleared away he made out sinuous tails and enormous wings.

    "Is that—Grey Wardens?" murmured Cowden. "Has to be, if they came on griffons."

    "Can't be," said Ansel. "Griffons are extinct."

    "Yet I'm looking at griffons," said Rodic. "Has to be Grey Wardens."

    "I don't see anyone riding 'em," Samson intoned. "Maybe it's just an illusion." He thought of the first enchanter. He supposed she had the power to make a bunch of griffons appear—though why she hadn't made just one big dragon, he wondered. It would have been more intimidating. In any case, the griffons did not seem interested in anything outside the walls; they did not seem interested in anything at all. Some of them preened as though a battle was not taking place around them. Others sat lashing their tails, and looked thoughtful. They were causing no harm, so he cleared his throat.

    "Sers," he said again, to get the lieutenants' attention. "Does it seem to you that this attack—" He waved at the battlefield. "—is really more of a nuisance than a danger?"

    Cowden frowned, looked out over the field once more, then looked down at Samson. "What's on your mind, then?"

    "I'm thinking that if we're being distracted out here, what's going on in there?" He pointed to the wall.

    "Agatha and Tristan took their men inside already, to deal with the mages that disappeared from the field."

    "Right, ser," Samson agreed. "But what if it wasn't just the mages that went in? What if they took others in with them? We mightn't have seen everyone. We attacked as soon as we saw action, and when everything gets going in a fight it's hard to tell who's where and who's not."

    Rodic scowled, scanned the field again. "They do seem rather a poor lot, given Starkhaven's power."

    "There's a solid core there," Samson agreed. "But the majority out there seem to be common folk—conscripted, maybe. Not proper trained soldiers."

    "What are you suggesting, Samson? You want us to pull out and head inside?"

    He shook his head. "Not everyone. We can leave enough out here to keep this lot at bay. it shouldn't take much."

    "And what if they're counting on that? What if they're waiting for us to leave just a bare minimum of men here, before they pull out their best knights?"

    Samson snorted. "If they were going to do that, ser, they'd have done it. A drawn-out battle does no good for any side, and a fast victory would look better on them."

    The lieutenants looked at one another, then back down at Samson. "And if you're wrong?" demanded Rodic.

    "So what if I'm wrong?" Samson shrugged. "If there's nothing to worry about inside the city, everyone can come back out and rejoin the fight. But if I'm right, and this is a distraction so that something worse can happen inside—" He shrugged again.

    The three lieutenants ducked their heads together and conferred rapidly in low tones. At last they straightened. "You," said Cowden, "will take one team inside, with at least one mage. If you're wrong and nothing's going on, get back out here. If you're right, and the city's been infiltrated, send up a signal."

    Samson nodded. "What signal, ser?"

    Cowden shook his head. "Let the mage figure that out. Something obvious."

    "Ser." He crossed his heart with his fist and bowed, and strode rapidly away to gather a team.

    The whole of the city seemed to shake, and there was a sound of howling wind, unlike the roar of the inferno that had dominated the air for what felt like forever. The wind stopped suddenly, and Donnic frowned and waited, listened to the silence; finally, he reached for the handle of the door and pulled it open just a crack. Cold fresh air seeped in, and the sun was shining. Donnic flung the door open.

    "Come on, then," he said to the squadron behind him. "And no one does anything stupid. Captain's orders." This elicited a few grins; the guards seemed confident and eager, and Donnic led them into Hightown.

    The streets were drifted here and there with snow, which was melting quickly in the warm summer air. Beneath the snow and all around them the white stone had been charred black, and the city seemed peculiarly gloomy despite the bright sun and blue sky. Bodies lay here and there, dusted with snow, unmoving.

    Behind him Donnic heard several guards murmuring to one another. "Minds on the job," he reminded them. "We look for survivors first."

    The guards began their grim duty, and marched through the broken streets.

    War was one thing; fire was another; an enormous summoning using the ancient magics that the Tevinters had used to build the city was quite another thing altogether. Reed had turned back the moment he'd seen the columns of light rise up over Kirkwall. Regardless of his immediate orders it was his duty, after all, to protect the people of Thedas from dangerous magic used irresponsibly.

    Not just people, was the thought that drifted through his mind as he pushed back through the fire, dodged bodies and the sharp edges of broken flagstones. Family.

    He hadn't told his father he was in town, but Serendipity had done it for him. He worries, she'd told Reed apologetically, though he tries to pretend he doesn't.

    That was his father, diplomatic and distanced to the last.

    Reed wasn't prepared for the winter storm that struck suddenly and vanished just as swiftly, leaving the city and Reed ice-rimed and briefly chilly; he was less prepared for the concussive burst of magic that staggered and blinded him for several seconds. When spots had vanished from his eyes, Reed continued forward in the suddenly clear air and silent streets, cautious.

    A low creaking sound made him stop and he looked up at the arch above him. Leaning over it, watching him intently, was a shimmering black creature.

    Reed hesitated, blinked, stared. Griffons were aggressive predators, he knew, but they were not prone to eating humans. Unless, of course, there was nothing else around to eat.

    And there was, at the moment, nothing else around to eat.

    The griffon's beak opened just slightly and it made another creaking sound; it leaped down before Reed could move, landed on silent padded feet to face him, its sinuous tail swinging back and forth. On the ground, now, it seemed smaller than it had above him—smaller indeed than he'd always read that griffons tended to be.

    Even so, he knew that beak could crush a man's skull with very little trouble, and the claws could slice through just about any armour. Reed swallowed and tried to think of everything he had ever read about griffons—most of which had been in adventure tales and, he realised, not particularly useful.

    The griffon vaned its wings slightly and Reed saw they were ragged and uneven; before he could get a closer look the griffon shrieked at him.

    Reed closed his eyes. "Please don't eat me," was all he could think to say.

    Was this a sign from the Maker? Could it be that his campaign had been blessed?

    How else could the appearance of so many griffons—symbols of the most noble warriors in all the lands, thought extinct—be interpreted?

    He had once wondered why Anders had left the Wardens; it had not taken him long to realise that it had been pure selfishness. Anders was not willing to think of others before himself, and so he could not bear to serve in that capacity.

    Yet he is not the only one to have left the Order, Elthina assured him.

    Sebastian scowled. He had thought her gone, or at least silenced.

    He is only one that you have met. The King of Ferelden is no longer a Warden, she went on. Is he selfish for doing one thing over another?

    "Perhaps," he murmured. "After all, a king lives in much greater comfort than does a Warden."

    Does one, having once saved the world from the ravages of a decades-long Blight, have an obligation to continue being selfless? Does not ruling a kingdom require a modicum of selflessness? How selfless are your actions today?

    "I am not doing this for myself," he snapped.

    I can see that you are doing it for no other.

    "I am doing it for you—"

    I am dead, Sebastian, and none of this can affect me for good or ill.

    "—to avenge your wrongful death—"

    Had it been the Maker's will that I live, I should not have been in the Chantry when it was destroyed. Turn away from this, Sebastian.

    "Not until I see Anders' lifeless body with my own eyes, and punish Hawke for having allowed him to walk away from his crime."

    If you tear Kirkwall to its foundations, Sebastian, if you choke the life out of the apostate with your bare hands, if you destroy the man you once called friend, you will never be free of this hatred. Give up this madness—

    "You said it was madness when I wished to avenge my family—"

    And it was, was it not? It did not bring them back, and it did not bring you peace.

    "I will know peace," he informed her, "when this is over."

    You will have slaughtered countless innocents in your campaign for revenge, Sebastian, and when it is over and you find there is no peace in your heart you will simply find another thing to destroy.


    He looked down at Dederick. "Yes?" he said, rather more sharply than he intended.

    The old man gestured to the walls. "What do you make of this?" he wondered.

    Sebastian looked up at the griffons. They were riderless; not Grey Wardens, then. Abominations, creatures pulled from the Fade in order to create the illusion of griffons. "They are no impediment," he said shortly. "Send up the signal." Dederick nodded once and turned to gesture at one of the nearby captains.

    In turn the captains signalled their lieutenants, who gave orders to their men. In a moment several archers fired into the air, their arrows glowing magically green, bright enough to be seen even in the bright sunlight. At the same time several ear-shattering horns sounded, echoed from the walls of Kirkwall and faded into the sky.

    Sebastian waited until the last ringing note had dissipated. "How long will it take?"

    Dederick shook his head. "It will depend on how many were able to get into position. If even just half are set off successfully, the city will not be able to recover."
    "Maker willing," Sebastian said softly, "they will all succeed and the people will not have to suffer much." He folded his arms and watched.

    "They aren't attacking," Hugh noted. "Maybe we can just—" He glanced back at Cullen, who had dropped to one knee and held Solona with her head against his shoulder. "—get moving," he finished quietly.

    Cullen worked off one of his gauntlets and drew the backs of his gloved fingers over the first enchanter's cheek, but she did not respond. Beside Hugh Paxley turned to look as well, and gave Ruvena a tap with his elbow to get her attention. Varric glanced back and then, startled, turned around to stare.

    "Oh, that's interesting," he said in a low voice. "How long did you say she's been here?"

    "Few months," Paxley replied, with a glance up at Hugh.

    "Imagine Meredith doing that," Varric chuckled, "with Orsino." Paxley snorted rude laughter and Hugh shot them a reproachful look. It was not the time for jokes.

    Cullen withdrew and uncapped a potion, held it to Solona's lips; she swallowed reflexively but did not otherwise move. Cullen gave her one of his lyrium potions, then a second one, and smoothed her hair back from her face. Hugh sheathed his daggers silently.

    Had Paxley been right about Cullen? Was this display of concern genuine, or did Cullen simply refuse to lose, as he had described her earlier, a mage under his care?

    "Commander," Aveline spoke at last. Cullen did not respond. "If she summoned these griffons, we'll need her awake to tell us what to do with them. None of us are mages."

    "I know," Cullen said roughly.

    Above them, one of the griffons stared down from the broken column on which it perched. Its wings and fur were brilliant white in the sunlight. Its tail twitched slowly as it watched them, and it lifted its wings a little, giving it a slightly larger appearance.

    "Give her another potion then," Aveline suggested. "Something. Anything. That beast looks hungry."

    "They don't eat people, do they?" Paxley wondered.

    "You're probably as tasty as any sheep," Varric spoke up. "Dwarves are pretty gristly, so he won't want me, but you templars would probably go down well. Lean meat and crunchy bone. And armour. It'll take him a bit to get that off you, give me time to run."

    "Planned it all out, have you?" said Paxley.

    "Just popped into my head," Varric promised him.

    "Didn't occur to you that even armed, I have longer legs than you? Don't have to outrun the enemy, just the dwarves." Paxley grinned.

    "You got a point there, junior," Varric chuckled.

    "Do you two mind?" Ruvena cut in. "We're in the middle of a situation."

    "That we are," Hugh agreed grimly. "Commander, if you can't wake her, we'll have to find another option."

    "I am open to suggestion," Cullen informed him.

    Aveline made an exasperated sound deep in her throat, sheathed her sword and moved swiftly to where Cullen knelt. "Here's one," she said, as she reached down to grasp the front of Solona's armour. Before Cullen could react, Aveline hauled Solona upright and smacked her cheeks, each in turn, with her gloved hand.

    Solona inhaled sharply and her eyes flew open; she stared blearily at Aveline a moment, blinking. "Guard-Captain," she croaked.

    "Welcome back, First Enchanter," Aveline said, and set her unceremoniously on her feet. "You have summoned a flock of griffons to Kirkwall, and we need to know what to do with them."

    "Pride," Solona said, her voice still rough. "A group of griffons is called a pride."

    "I don't bloody care what you call them," Aveline assured her sharply. "Just tell us what to do with them."

    Solona reached up to touch her face, her head; she patted herself all over and exhaled. She looked at Cullen, and as she did Hugh looked at Cullen, and all the anger and fear in Cullen's face vanished, replaced with relief and something Hugh had never seen there.

    "The fire's gone," Solona said. "That's good."

    "Yes," Cullen agreed. He tore his eyes from her long enough to reach down for his gauntlet and her staff, and he stood and held the staff out to her. She took it with a nod and then looked around the walls at the black and grey and white wings and furry bodies that were beginning to move about the walls and the roofs of Hightown.

    "Oh dear," she sighed, and shook her head. "I don't remember doing that."

    "Well, you did," Aveline assured her.

    "Hm." Solona twirled her staff absently as she turned slowly, looked around at the roofs and walls.

    Hugh cleared his throat. "What do we do, then?" he asked.

    Solona shook her head. "I suppose we need to find the alpha," she said slowly. "If we can get him to submit, the rest of the pride will submit."

    "Submit," Cullen repeated, as he fastened his gauntlet. "How?"

    Solona did not immediately reply, but looked up at the white griffon that still stared menacingly down at them. "Not that one," she mused.

    Hugh looked from the griffon to her. "How can you tell?"

    "The alpha will be higher than the rest," Solona said. "They are hierarchical. If the alpha will agree to help us, then the others will fall in line without question." Cullen moved to stand beside her and they scanned the griffons on the walls, on the roofs; at last Solona raised her staff and pointed up at the Keep. "There he is," she chuckled. "Of course."

    Atop the Keep, above one of the decorative brass falcons, sat a steel-grey griffon. In the sun its fur and feathers shone nearly blue. Its wings rested against its back; its tail, curled around its legs, twitched just slightly. As soon as they all turned to look at it, the beast rose to all fours and vaned its wings, lashed its tail several times, raised its head to utter a piercing shriek. It leaped into the air and circled once, twice, three times, before it descended slowly and landed on the roof of a nearby mansion.

    "Hawke's place," Varric murmured. "Fitting."

    "It doesn't seem too aggressive," Cullen noted hopefully.

    "It's still a wild beast," Hugh reminded him.

    "Wild," said Solona, "but not savage." She crossed the square, Cullen on her heels, to look up at the blue-grey griffon. "Hello," she called up, and bowed formally. "I am Solona, first enchanter here in Kirkwall, and it was by my magic that you were brought here." The griffon lay down on the roof, let its front paws dangle over the edge as it watched her and listened. Its tail swept back and forth and its ears swivelled; otherwise it remained motionless.

    "I didn't know griffons could talk," Hugh said.

    "Maybe they're like mabari," Varric said. "Able to understand language, but too wise to speak it."

    Hugh shook his head, but caught himself following as Varric slipped closer to Solona to eavesdrop. Paxley and Ruvena and Aveline trailed behind, cautious.

    "We have need of your help," Solona called up to the griffon. "Our city is under attack by powerful enemies."

    "Does it even care about that?" Hugh wondered.

    "Wherever it was originally, it's here now," said Varric. "So it should have at least some interest in what's going on."

    "You think they're real griffons?" Paxley whispered.

    "Why wouldn't they be?" Varric shrugged, and glanced back at him. "What are you thinking?"

    "Constructs, maybe. The apprentices summon constructs that look like real things. Sometimes we have to kill them."

    "The constructs or the apprentices?"

    "I meant the constructs."

    "She's no apprentice," Varric said.

    "Well, no, she's the first enchanter," Paxley agreed. "But I'm just saying that they might be constructs."

    Their attention was drawn by movement as the griffon rose to its feet and dropped lightly from the roof to stand in front of Solona, its hindquarters facing the door leading into the estate, flanked by Amell heraldry. It stretched its head out toward Solona, who stood easily, unafraid, and reached out with one bare hand. The griffon allowed her to touch its head, to smooth the feathers around its ears, and it sat back on its haunches to watch her with glittering yellow eyes.

    "Thank you," Solona said with a faint smile.

    "Shit," Varric muttered. "I missed what she said to it."

    "Make something up," Aveline said drily.

    "I guess I'll to have to," he said with a grin over his shoulder.

    The destruction inside the walls was worse than he had anticipated, and Samson gritted his teeth against the smell of sulphur and burnt flesh. He had brought two other templars, older ones whom he trusted, and three mages; they had divided into pairs and split up to search the city rapidly for signs of the enemy's true intent. He winced as he was obliged to step over the bodies of his templar cohorts, and he was grateful that Agatha and Tristan were not among them.

    He pulled up sharply and the mage, Devin, nearly ran into him. Samson stared at the peculiar procession that was, he assumed, heading for the Keep.

    Guardsman Donnic spotted him at the same time, turned and spoke to the guards immediately behind him, jogged forward to meet Samson. "How goes the battle?" he asked solemnly.

    "It goes strangely," Samson told him. "I got permission to come in and see what the enemy's been up to in here." He glanced past Donnic to the chained row of Starkhaven templars and mages being led by city guards. "Maybe we're not needed, though," he said thoughtfully.

    "I'm not sure how many others there are," Donnic told him frankly. "We found these ones laying out a couple of odd devices, look like dwarven make, and maybe more powerful than what was launched over the walls. I have a number of men out looking for the rest of them in the meantime, but this lot isn't talking."

    Samson glanced back at Devin. "Think you might be able to help out?"

    "I might," Devin replied, and his eyes gleamed mischievously.

    Samson looked up at Donnic again. "This one," he said, "is into a little bit of torture."

    Devin chuckled. "Samson, you make it seem like a bad thing." He glanced up at Donnic. "All legal and above board, Chantry-approved entropy spells."

    Donnic did not smile but his own eyes narrowed slightly. "That might work faster than what I had in mind," he said. "Certainly cleaner." He gestured to the templar prisoners. "See what you can get out of them, then. Whatever those devices are that they're putting around the city, aren't there for the health of our citizens."

    "Happy to be of service, ser," said Devin. He cracked the knuckles of one hand simply by flexing his fingers, and he sauntered toward the row of prisoners. He held out a hand toward them as he walked up and down the row—there were about fifteen templars and mages, all told—as though offering a benediction. "Low on lyrium," he said, approving. "That'll make this even easier."

    Samson drew his sword as Devin began to cast. Donnic raised a questioning eyebrow. "Precaution," Samson said quietly, with a shrug. "Nothing more."

    They turned and watched as the templars struggled to resist Devin's spell.

    He moved swiftly toward the Keep, sticking to the alleys and back streets of Hightown, accompanied by the black griffon. It pranced playfully around him when there was room, bumped its shoulder against him and nearly knocked him over several times. When there wasn't room it padded behind him and swatted now and again at the leather straps of his armour skirt.

    "Stop that," Reed scolded. "You'll tear it."

    The griffon creeled sadly at the reprimand, rammed its head between Reed's shoulderblades in apology, and Reed was briefly winded.

    The servants' entrance to the Keep had never before looked so welcoming.

    "I have to go in there and get my father," he said, as he paused at the door and looked back. "You can't come inside."

    The griffon sat back on its haunches and stared at him, not understanding.

    "You're too big to be wandering around in there," Reed said, and then realised he was explaining something to an adolescent griffon. He shook his head. "I'll be back, all right?"

    The griffon shifted its weight, turned to preen one ragged wing, and Reed slipped in through the door, greatly relieved. If he was lucky, the griffon would be easily distracted and wander away on its own.

    If he was unlucky—

    He shook his head and took the stairs two at a time, climbed swiftly to the second floor of the Keep, where his father's office was next to that of the Viscount.

    "This is a disaster," he heard Bran say in his dry tones. "Templars and mages and now these beasts—"

    "Griffons, Father, they're not just random beasts." That was Dren. What was Dren doing here? Reed scowled and slowed his pace as he approached his father's office.

    Dren sat in Bran's straight-backed chair, his heels resting on the polished wood of the desk; his face lit up as he saw Reed. "As I live and breathe," he said, "if it isn't big brother come to rescue us all." He swung his feet to the floor; behind him, Bran stopped his rapid pacing and stared. "You did come to rescue us, didn't you?" Dren went on.

    "I had no idea you were here," Reed admitted.

    "Oh, so you just came for Father." Dren cast a sly look back at Bran. "And you thought he didn't care."

    "I have never said any such thing," Bran informed him coldly. "Reed, why are you here?"

    "It's nice to see you, too," Reed countered.

    "We have no time for pleasantries," said Bran. "The city is under attack—"

    "I know, and someone is calling on magic that you don't want to see," Reed interrupted him loudly. "I came back to get you out of the city."

    "I will not abandon my responsibilities."

    "What responsibilities?" said Reed. "What is more important than your life?"

    "Should I flee selfishly, when there are citizens taking refuge here in the Keep?" Bran demanded to know. "Should I flee when the guardsmen and templars and even the mages are fighting for the safety and lives of Kirkwall's citizens? I think not."

    "You'll come," Reed told him, "or I'll take you, one way or another."

    "You'll respect my wishes," Bran said, "as I have respected yours."

    "What?" Reed stared at him. "What wishes?"

    "I have not contacted you in the time you have been working at the Blooming Rose, as it was clear you did not care for such contact."

    "I was working as a whore," Reed snapped. "It's not exactly the sort of thing you want to discuss with your father over dinner."

    "I am aware that your role often requires you to perform tasks that might be thought distasteful," Bran told him. "I have no issue with that."

    Reed threw up his hands, shook his head. "Can we talk about this another time? We need to leave the city."

    "Take your brother," Bran told him briskly. "Return when it is safe, and we can talk then." He grabbed the back of his chair and tilted it to deposit Dren unceremoniously on his feet.

    "Hey," Dren complained, "I killed a bunch of enemy templars for you." He folded his arms and stood facing Bran, a scowl on his face.

    "And I am eternally grateful," Bran assured him. "Go with your brother."

    "If you're not going," Dren said, "I'm not going."

    "I'm not leaving here without you two," Reed declared.

    "Then," Bran said, "I will bring in another chair, as it appears we are none of us going anywhere." He stalked past Reed, entirely unruffled, to fetch a chair from the sitting room outside the office.

    She woke from what felt like a fever-dream, strange creatures and unknown faces, and she stared up at the top of the tent as her vision cleared.

    She sat up and pushed aside the lovely embroidered sheet Sebastian had drawn over her—really, he treated her too much like a princess—and reached up to drag her fingers through her hair, to separate the tangled curls. Beside the featherbed was a small box, which she opened to reveal several healing potions and a few lyrium potions. She drank one of each and felt immediately better. She sighed, closed her eyes, rubbed her face; she dropped her neck from one side to the other and winced at the gruesome cracking sounds that resulted.

    She rested her head in her hands and tried to remember the dreams—

    —wide dark eyes in a round face

        —the sight and stench of darkspawn despoiling all they touched

            —jingling armour in blue and silver

    She lifted her head. It had flashed blue and silver only for a moment, but then had changed to brown and black. "I've never seen that armour," she murmured. She didn't know any Grey Wardens, but—

    But her cousin had been a mage, and had been recruited to the Wardens, before becoming the Hero of Ferelden.

    Bethany laughed softly and shook her head. She had never known her cousin. It was a dream, and nothing more. Her mind had made up faces and stories that didn't make sense. That was the nature of the Fade, after all.

    Still, she felt uneasy. She stood and peered out through the tent's opening and the templars inclined their helmeted heads to her. "I am going to Sebastian," she informed them.

    "As you wish," said one of them, and gestured with his hand.

    She slipped out into the shaded area where the tent had been set up, far enough away from the battlefield that the air was still and quiet. The templars walked on either side of her, enormous and intimidating in their armour.

    She was not intimidated. She knew how to take down templars, if necessary. She'd done it before.

    The noise of combat, clashing steel and shouts and thumps and screams, drifted to her on the thick summer air as she drew close to Sebastian's post. Sebastian stood glaring at the walls of Kirkwall, his weaselly general at his side. Dederick didn't like her, and made no secret of it when Sebastian wasn't around to hear. The dislike was perfectly mutual; she found him twitchy, and always felt he was hiding something, lying to her, lying to Sebastian. Dederick turned now and glared at her out of his single eye. "She's come again," he muttered, and Sebastian wheeled, the glower on his face melting in a heartbeat.

    Her brother would have disapproved, she knew, but her brother was no longer here. He had made his choices, and now for the first time in her life she had the freedom to make her own. Sebastian had saved her life and made it comfortable, and he adored her; who wouldn't want that?

    Sebastian reached out for her now, took her hands in his, blushed as she leaned up to kiss his cheek. "You should be resting, love," he murmured, and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. "It's almost over, anyway, and we'll be back in Starkhaven before you know it."

    She glanced past him, past the battling army and up at the walls, at the city that had for a short time been home. Her heart skipped a moment. "Are those—griffons up there?" she wondered. Had her dreams been prophetic?

    "They are demonic beings drawn from the Fade, that only appear to be griffons," he explained. "Summoned probably by the mage whose mind you encountered earlier."

    She was not relieved by this. "Did you—find out who she is?"

    He held her upper arms with his gloved hands, rubbed gently as though to warm her. "No," he said. "And we won't. She has dallied with the creatures of the Fade in a way that is forbidden by the Maker, so she will die with the others in this accursed city."

    Bethany searched Sebastian's clear blue eyes, found comfort there. "I suppose it's all for the best," she said.

    "That it is." He smiled as well, his pupils dilated as they always were when he looked at her. "It won't be long now. The signal has gone up. Kirkwall will be shaken to its foundations and it will crumble to dust, and by the Maker's will this part of Thedas will finally be permitted to heal."

    She had her doubts about that. What little she had learned of Kirkwall in the time she'd spent in the Gallows libraries had made it seem that the corruption was firmly entrenched in the very land itself.

    Of course none of that mattered now; she no longer lived here, no longer had an interest in the welfare of the city. "I look forward to going home," she told him, and leaned against him. He blushed again and shifted his weight subtly so that there was once more space between their bodies.

    "As do I," he murmured. "Do you need anything?"

    "No, thank you," she said. "I had some unsettling dreams, and when I woke I wanted to be here with you, that's all."

    He frowned. "What sort of dreams?"

    She shook her head. "Just—strange images. It happens sometimes, when I'm—especially weary."

    He drew the backs of his fingers along her cheek, sober. "If you're sure." He waited for her to confirm this, and she managed to smile reassuringly at him. "Go back and rest a little more, and I'll come for you when it's all over," he said gently. He took her hands in his again, lifted them and kissed the backs of her fingers with all tenderness. Behind him, Dederick shifted impatiently.

    "I'm going to stay here with you," Bethany said.

    "It will not be a pretty sight," Sebastian assured her. When the walls come down and the people perish—" He shook his head. "I would spare you that."

    "I'm no child, Sebastian," she said. "And there is no one in Kirkwall who matters to me, anymore. I will stay here with you."

    He smiled then. "I know better than to argue with you," he said. "But if anything dangerous—"

    "I have been in combat before," Bethany reminded him firmly. "I will be fine." She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and as they turned to look over the battlefield together Bethany did not miss the gleam of something unpleasant in Dederick's one blue eye.

    Donnic hadn't had to run so far, so fast, in years. Jogging, certainly, in the course of patrols; even a short sprint now and again to catch a criminal. But nothing like this, nothing like this terrified race across the city to where he had to hope Aveline—

    But of course Aveline would be all right. She had to be. She was Aveline, for the love of Andraste, and nothing could take her down.

    Nothing but this.

    The mage's spells, whatever mental horror he had conjured up, had caused the templars to break down rapidly, and they had revealed everything, the entire plan that had been put in motion by Starkhaven's prince. Distraction after distraction until the city' guards and templars were all looking in different directions and the city was effectively unprotected while its guardians wasted time fighting insignificant battles.  

    It had been absolute dumb luck that Donnic had stumbled across that group setting down the last of the dwarven-made charges; just a fluke of timing and presence that he and his squad had entered Hightown when they did and where they did and had turned left instead of right when they did. Just a minute or two later or a wrong turn and they wouldn't have known anything, wouldn't be able to warn anyone.

    Would he even be in time?

    They were dwarven-made, but the charges were not made of lyrium as had been the first wave of attack. There was a black powder in them rather like the powder the Qunari used, the stuff they used in their dreadnoughts to take down enemy ships with a single blast. There were a lot of them, and the prince had used his knowledge of the city—culled during his time in exile to Kirkwall—to have them placed strategically where they would do the most damage. Not just in Hightown, but throughout Lowtown and Darktown. The Darktown charges were timed to go off first, to collapse the structure of the tunnel maze beneath the city; Lowtown would be next, ensuring that no one in Hightown would be able to escape alive.

    Whatever remained of Hightown at that time would be last. He might have time. He had to have time. If only—

    If only he could see Aveline's beautiful face and know she was all right he could believe the rest of them would be all right because Aveline had survived the betrayal at Ostagar and she had survived the Blight and she had survived the Deep Roads and war with the Arishok and even that horrifying battle against Meredith—

    Donnic ignored the stares of the silver and grey and black creatures that he passed. It was strange that they had appeared, but they were not attacking anyone, so he had no time to worry about them. They would take flight when they sensed danger, he was sure.

    It crossed his mind as odd that they hadn't already left. Kirkwall had never been the safest place in Thedas, by far.

    He reached the square in front of the Keep. That's where we'll meet up, Aveline had said, if ever we're lost and need to find each other.

    And that was where he found her, in front of the old Amell estate, calm and composed and standing with three templars and a mage and Varric Tethras, and an enormous blue griffon that sat flicking its tail and looking around the square with haughty disinterest.

    "Donnic," Aveline said, and her fine eyebrows pushed together just slightly. "What's wrong?"

    The residents of Darktown—the homeless and impoverished and hungry and helpless, the criminals and runaways and refugees—had nowhere else to go, and so there they remained when the charges began to go off.

    The walls collapsed around them, ceilings fell in massive chunks of stone and dust and human waste; many who were not crushed to death would soon suffocate. One after another paths to the surface were destroyed, all the way around the city, and then the rest of the tunnels began to give way.

    "Get the boy to safety," Xenon commanded the golem. "You know I will survive this, but the urchin requires more air than you or I." Obediently Thaddeus picked up the urchin—unused to this sort of handling, and more than a little anxious—and left the Emporium. Rockfalls were of no consequence to the golem, of course; it simply thrust rubble aside and continued on its way.

    It picked up some followers, survivors happy to scramble in its wake, guessing rightly that the boy it carried against its shoulder was being taken out of the tunnels. Once outside the golem set the urchin on his feet in the middle of a grassy patch. The boy patted its stone arm gratefully. Thaddeus turned back to re-enter Darktown, in search of its master.

Chapter Text

    "How much time?" Aveline asked.

    Donnic shook his head. "Not sure, Captain," he said. "The templar told us that a signal would go up, one that the mages would see, and they'd relay that."

    "What kind of signal?" Cullen said sharply.

    "Didn't say," Donnic replied. "It was all we could do to keep them from pissing themselves, Knight-Commander. Something that mage did to 'em."

    "Devin," Solona said quietly. "He likes the fear spells." She glanced up at Cullen. "I'll have a talk with him, when this is over." Cullen nodded once to her, turned his attention to Aveline.

    "Guard-Captain," he said, "what will you do?"

    "Evacuate," Aveline told him grimly. "As many as we can, as quickly as we can."

    "I already had the men start on that," Donnic told her.

    "Thank you, Donnic."

    "Getting everyone out of Hightown isn't going to be easy," said Varric, quietly. "The stairs are gone."

    "And if the templar was telling the truth," Cullen said, "Darktown will be collapsed first. There will be no escape that way."

    "We can't stand here discussing it," said Solona. "Do all you can, Guard-Captain, and be safe." She tapped her staff on the street. "Knight-Commander, what will you do?"

    Cullen took a deep breath and exhaled. "Assist with evacuation," he said. "And then join the men on the battlefield." From the corner of his eye he saw Hugh and Ruvena and Paxley shift alertly. "You three," he told them, "go with the Guard-Captain. Get as many out as safely as you can. You know all the fastest ways."

    "There are people in the Keep," Solona pointed out, with a swing of her staff in that direction. "Including the Seneschal."

    "Maker," Aveline muttered, "if he dies, the city will fall apart."

    "It's kind of falling apart already," Varric pointed out, which earned him a sharp look. "Well, it is," he added. "Rather literally."

    The streets rumbled faintly. "Shit," Donnic said, and looked up at Aveline. She nodded once and the two of them turned in unison and jogged away.

    The three templars looked at Cullen. "Go," he said. "Evacuate the Keep and then assist the guard." Ruvena and Paxley saluted and turned to obey. Hugh stood with his hands at his sides and made no move to leave. Cullen scowled. "You have a question?" he asked.

    "No, ser," Hugh replied calmly. "But we already discussed the fact that you should not be in the middle of a combat situation without protection."

    Solona made a noise beside him but when Cullen looked at her, her face was serene. He looked back just in time to see Hugh fire a dark look at Solona.

    "The safety of the city," said Cullen, "is better served by your not trailing after me."

    "Ser." The blue eyes turned to him, the mouth and chin obstinate.

    Cullen sighed, glanced down at Varric. "And what of you, serah?" he demanded.

    "Oh," Varric said with a grin. "Bianca and I go where the action is." He tilted his head in Solona's direction.

    Cullen gave him as scathing a glare as he could but the dwarf was unaffected. He turned his attention to Solona. "First Enchanter?"

    "I wish you hadn't sent Paxley away," she mused. "I may need protection."

    "I will not leave you as long as you need me. What are you planning?"

    "I suspect—" The ground shook a little again. "—that I will need to consult the spirits again to know what can be done." She looked at Varric. "Have you ever had to deal with spirits, serah?"

    "More than I ever wanted to," Varric agreed. "I travelled with the Champion of Kirkwall for a while, and he sort of attracted a lot of weird shit to him."

    "Indeed." She smiled faintly.

    "I guess it runs in the family," Varric said with a meaningful look.

    "I wouldn't know," Solona told him. "I've not met the Champion, nor his family." She looked up at Cullen again. "The glyphs are still active. I may be able to stop the explosives, somehow."

    "They're blackpowder," Cullen reminded her, "or something like it. No magic involved at all."

    "That doesn't mean magic can't stop them. And when they've been stopped—" The ground shook rather violently beneath them and she thrust her arms out for balance. She looked up at Cullen. "I will go and face this man who is attacking the city."

    "His name's Sebastian," Varric said. "He's got a grudge against one of your Wardens, goes by the name of Anders."

    Solona's head whipped around and she stared at Varric. "Anders," she said. "Anders is here?"

    "Anders is long gone," Varric shook his head.

    "There was a man with him, a—dead man. In Warden armour."

    "Justice," Varric clarified.

    She swung her staff to point at him. "Yes! You've seen them?"

    "Circumstances changed, Commander," Varric told her. "Anders let Justice possess him, you see, and everything around you now is happening more or less as a result of that."

    Her mouth tightened and she stared at Varric. "He let Justice possess him," she repeated slowly, and looked up at Cullen. "They were—avoiding me, before they vanished from the Vigil. Wouldn't talk to me. Then they vanished together. I knew they were up to something, but this—"

    "If it helps," Varric said gently, "I don't think destruction was Anders' ultimate goal. Or Justice's, I don't know. But things were getting very bad under Meredith, and sharing his head with a spirit wasn't helping. Blowing up the Chantry was Anders' last resort."

    She stared at Varric again, then looked up at Cullen. "You said it was an apostate who blew up the Chantry."

    "Anders," Cullen told her, "was an apostate. Is, if he continues to live." He shot a questioning look at Varric.

    Varric shrugged. "Last I saw."

    "He's a Grey Warden," Solona snapped. "I recruited him myself. I invoked the bloody Right of Conscription to save his life." She twirled her staff rapidly, angrily. Cullen took a slight step to one side, to avoid being struck.

    "He left the Wardens," Varric said. "Said they made him get rid of his cat. Ser Pounce-a-Lot?"

    "I gave him that bloody kitten," Solona said angrily. "He insisted on taking it everywhere with him, even down to the Deep Roads. I didn't make him get rid of it. I told him he couldn't take it into combat. He was focusing on the cat and not on the battle. Endangering the rest of his team."

    Varric shrugged. "As he tells it, he gave it to a friend in Amaranthine."

    "So bloody selfish," Solona said. "First our swimming privileges—"


    "—and then that stupid cat—"

    Cullen cleared his throat. "We can discuss Anders another time, First Enchanter," he said. She looked up at him, her cheeks pink.

    "You're right Knight-Commander," she said with a sigh. "If you will watch over me, I'll scry as quickly as I can, and see if I can find a way out of all this."

    "Of course," he said, and without thinking cupped her elbow in his hand. "Do you have enough lyrium?"

    "I think so," she said. "I didn't have to use much for the summoning."

    "Be careful, then," he said. "The mages here can't afford to lose you."

    Solona smiled at him and it was sunshine on his face, in his soul; it broke through the terrible darkness of this day. He felt something on the side of his head and turned to see Hugh staring intently at him. "If you're going to stay here," Cullen told him sternly, "you may as well help me oversee the scrying." He looked down at Varric.

    "I've never seen a proper scrying," Varric said hopefully. "Anders and Bethany never did it, and Merrill's scrying was always a little creepy." He looked up at Solona and in a stage whisper said, "Blood magic." Solona raised an eyebrow, looked up at Cullen again, then turned to walk back to the center of the square, directly in front of the Keep.

    The blue griffon, silent and still all this time, rose and padded beside Solona, its head high and alert, its wings tight to its back. When Solona stopped it paced a circle around the four of them and then sat down, expectant, just the tufted tip of its tail moving.

    Solona took a deep breath and began to summon her mana. Cullen drew his sword, Hugh his twin daggers. Varric held his crossbow easily and caressed its wooden stock as though soothing it.  

    Cullen cleared his throat softly and spoke in a low voice to Hugh. "You seem to have a problem with the first enchanter."

    "I have a problem with the way you act around her," Hugh said tightly, "ser."

    Cullen scowled. "Have I acted inappropriately?" Solona lifted her arms and a glowing haze began to surround her.

    "You have been acting inappropriately about her since she arrived at the Gallows, ser," Hugh said. "She's a mage, and you—" He clamped his lips together.

    "What he means to say, Knight-Commander," Varric interrupted with amusement, "is that he thinks you're sleeping with the first enchanter."

    Cullen stared deliberately at Solona, gripped his sword tightly, kept his shield up. His face burned.

    "Well?" Hugh said. "If you are, ser, you know why it's a problem, don't you? We're not to have dalliances with them for a reason—"

    "She's my wife," Cullen said through his teeth.

    Hugh shifted uneasily, turned his head to look at Cullen. "Ser?" he muttered, plainly taken aback.

    "He said," Varric laughed, "she's his wife."

    "That's impossible," Hugh said. "The Chantry—"

    The blue griffon stood and faced Solona, ducked its head, spread its wings, and shrieked. Cullen tore his eyes away from Solona to look at it, just as the street fell out from beneath him.

    "Shouldn't we be signalling the others?" Devin asked as he jogged after Samson.

    "To do what?" Samson countered. "To come in just to get killed with the rest of us?"

    "We can't get everyone out on our own. We need their help. Better yet, we can leave and survive and come back and help anyone else who survives."

    Samson halted, turned to face Devin, who pulled up rapidly, alarmed. He tapped the mage's chest with a gauntleted forefinger. "I didn't swear to uphold Chantry law just to throw aside a greater one," said Samson. "Part of my duty as a templar is to help those who can't help themselves, from whatever might threaten them. You don't have any such duty," he went on, "so if you want to return to the Gallows and hide with the children and the Tranquil, you can bloody well do that. Otherwise, you'll come with me and be a half-assed decent person. Understand?"

    Sullen, Devin shrugged. "Fine," he muttered.

    "All right, then." Samson swung back around and jogged up to the door of a merchant's home. He pounded on the door and waited for a response; receiving none, he tried the door and found it unlocked. He opened it and stuck his head inside, called out but got no response.

    "No one home," Devin said.

    "Might've taken refuge in another part of the estate," Samson pointed out. He strode quickly in and began to call out. "You look that way," he told Devin, and pointed to a doorway leading in another direction. With a scowl the mage obeyed and Samson searched his side of the estate rapidly.

    In a corner of the kitchens he found the family huddled together. The merchant and his wife had wrapped their arms and their bodies around their small child to protect him, but all three had succumbed to the heat. The merchant's face and hands had been badly burned, his clothes scorched; he had probably attempted to go outside, looking for a way out for his family. Samson prayed for their safe passage through the Fade, stood and made his way back to the foyer. Devin jogged out at the same time, and shook his head. "They're—gone," Samson told him. "Let's go to the next one."

    "It's when mages do shit like this," Devin complained as he followed Samson back outside, "that people fear us. No one ever thinks about the mages who don't run around setting shit on fire."

    "You're right," Samson agreed. "But all of you have the potential to do it, and that's why the fear is there."

    "First Enchanter says that we've got to set examples of ourselves, show the world that we're not all power-hungry magisters-in-waiting."

    "She has a good point."

    "No one else has to prove themselves in advance," Devin said. "It's not fair."

    "That it is not." Samson paused in front of the next door and knocked. The door was locked. He knocked again, louder, but no one responded. He beckoned to Devin and they jogged on to the next.

    "Why are you agreeing with me?" Devin asked suspiciously.

    "Shouldn't I? I'm a templar, not a monster."

    "Sometimes they're one and the same."

    "That's true," Samson said.

    "Stop that. You're supposed to tell me—"

    "I know what you think I should tell you," Samson interrupted. "But the fact is I've seen the whole thing from a few angles. I've seen corrupt templars and I've seen blood mages, and I've been in and out of the Order to have seen it from both sides. I've helped mages flee Kirkwall, boy. I don't think mages should rule us, but I don't think it's right how you get treated at times." He turned a corner and led Devin down another street. "There's got to be a different way, and I think maybe the first enchanter's got the right sort of idea. And maybe the knight-commander too."

    Devin fell silent.

    From beneath them sounded a roar unlike anything Samson had heard in his life, and he was sure it was his turn to meet the Maker.

    We're not going to make it, Aveline thought grimly. It had survived a thousand years of attack and capture and rebellion and rebuilding, but Kirkwall would not be able to recover this time.

    Now and again she and Donnic crossed paths with other guards in the act of evacuating groups of survivors, and she passed more than one templar accompanied by a mage, apparently doing the same thing.

    They had collected a small following of children and were leading them to one of the lesser-used city exits, when an explosion rocked the street and they both pulled up to regain their balance.  A moment later a wall crashed down in front of them, where they would have been in just two or three more steps. Aveline cursed and coughed, and she and Donnic pushed on, into the building that had just lost a wall, and looked around to see if anyone still survived inside. Two boys, about ten or twelve, huddled near the fireplace; Donnic helped them to their feet and they joined the impromptu parade.

    "Where are all the adults?" Donnic muttered.

    "Maybe dead. Or stuck in another part of the city. They wouldn't all have been home in the middle of the day."

    "Maker," Donnic sighed. The exit was visible now, crates stacked to either side of it, sunshine visible through cracks in and around the door.

    A thick purplish haze surrounded them. Aveline found herself unable to move, her arms and legs suddenly lethargic. She looked up at Donnic, tried to speak; he was frozen mid-step, and she could not quite make out his features.

    Varric picked himself up, coughing, and dusted himself off; he checked Bianca for damage and was relieved to find she was fine. The air had taken on a peculiar quality, and he wondered if the quake had perhaps released some sort of gas. Not chokedamp; that was clear and colourless. This was a thick smear blurring everything in his vision. Varric cleared his throat one last time and swung Bianca to his back.

    He realised he was alone in the square save the blue griffon, which stood perfectly still, its back arched and its head down, beak open mid-shriek.

    "That's weird," Varric mused. He turned to look around at the city. Where had Solona and Cullen and Hugh gone? Bianca was peculiarly silent again, too.

    Was this the Fade? Was he dead? Was it untrue, then, that dwarves didn't enter the Fade when they died?

    He thought of Hawke, and the vision he'd seen.

    If this was the Fade, then this was twice in one day, and he needed to document it for posterity.

    A shimmering globe drifted toward him and Varric tensed; it bobbed in the air around him, like a curious cat. After a few moments of watching it, he reached out with one gloved finger and touched it. The globe melted, shifted, grew larger; Varric stepped back and pulled Bianca from his back, readied a bolt.

    The globe began to take form, stretched and pulled and squashed in places; a head formed, then hands and feet, arms and legs and a solid torso. Fine fair hair moved in a non-existent breeze and blue eyes blinked rapidly, looked around and settled on Varric.

    "You shouldn't be here, Varric."

    "Yeah," he said with a sigh, and lifted his crossbow to rest on his back again. "I kinda got that impression."

    There was pain and the scent of dirt and blood, the sound of names being thrown at him, sharper and harder than the stones. Whoreson, they called him, bastard son of a whore!

    He swore he would get back at them, every single one of them, when he got bigger. He would get bigger and faster and stronger and he would cut all their heads off with a sword.

    That would show them!

    A broad strong hand reached down to take his, enveloped his hand entirely, lifted him to his feet. He looked up and saw shining armour, a kind face, a warm smile.

    He was in a new home, one with no leaks and no rats—and no mother. He wanted his mother but the man with the kind face told him gently that his mother wouldn't be coming back. Other children with him had no mothers either. None of them called him names.

    He had grown bigger and faster and stronger as he had vowed to do but the man with the kind face had shown him a different path than the one of revenge; instead he had become a defender of the weak, a protector against evil.

    Hugh woke on his back in the street for the second time that day and recalled his conversation with Agatha, a lifetime ago. Worst day of his life.

    He rolled to his knees and stood, surprised that he was in no pain. Not far away he saw Ruvena and Paxley, their heads close together in intimate conversation. He took a few steps in their direction and paused when they looked up at him. Ruvena smiled coldly. "Whoreson," she said. Hugh pulled up and stared at her.


    "She said," Paxley spoke louder, "your mother's a whore. I told her. Thought she had a right to know."

    Hugh laughed and shook his head. "Weak," he said, and pointed at them each in turn with the dagger in his right hand. "They know, and they don't care. Half the Order is filled with prostitutes' children, abandoned to the Chantry."

    Paxley and Ruvena dissolved in an angry swirl, replaced by a youngish woman, her fair hair bound loosely at the back of her head. She wore a cheap imitation of a noble's gown, and too much colour on her lips. Seeing her made his heart hurt, but he kept himself calm. "Have it your way," she snarled. "I knew there was a good reason to drop you off."

    His mother had never been so unkind to him. She had never been bitter or angry, that he recalled; only terribly sad and alone.

    Hugh turned his back to the spirit and looked around the city. Was he alone save a single demon attempting to upset him with knowledge of his own past? Inaccurate knowledge, at that.

    He hadn't been confronted by a demon on his own before. Was this something the first enchanter had cooked up, to get him away from her? No, that didn't make sense; she was the one in trouble.

    She's my wife.

    The Chantry would never have married a templar to a mage; what had Cullen done to her or said to her to make her think they had?

    It was Cullen who had said so, not Solona.

    This was all too strange.

    He felt the demon approach and kept his shoulders relaxed; at the last moment he spun and thrust his daggers into its middle. Its fingers clawed at him, helpless, as it sank to the ground. At least some things made sense in this place.

    This place.

    He was in the Fade, then, a twisted version of the real world; that made sense, too, since everything looked like Kirkwall but not quite like Kirkwall. It explained why he had found himself suddenly alone. Was he dead? Had Cullen killed him for his insolence?

    No. Cullen wasn't like that.

    he isn't like that

    When Hugh had balked at an order, had suggested Meredith's priorities were skewed, Cullen had given him a severe tongue-lashing and had let it rest there. He could have—and should have, in Meredith's Gallows—reported Hugh for his insubordination and allowed him to be whipped. But Cullen had not done so. He wanted templars to think for themselves.

    he's honourable

    If he wasn't dead, why was he in the Fade? Surely he hadn't just fallen asleep in the middle of watching the first enchanter scrying.

    He heard footsteps and turned away from the body of the demon. Paxley and Ruvena again.

    "Is that him?" Paxley asked, as he pulled up close to Hugh.

    "Looks like him," said Ruvena, cautious.

    "Last one looked like him."

    "It's me," Hugh said, eyes narrowed.

    "Are we in the Fade?" asked Ruvena. "I think we're in the Fade."

    "What are you doing here?" Hugh said flatly.

    "We were on our way to the Keep and—this." Paxley gestured around. "Where did everyone go?"

    "You woke up here together?"

    "No, we found each other," Ruvena told him. "Then we came looking for you."

    "Why?" He watched her closely.

    Ruvena blinked. "Because it's always the three of us."

    Paxley glanced at Ruvena, then up at Hugh. "Always has been."

    "I've already come across the two of you," Hugh pointed out, "in the form of a demon trying to get into my head."

    "Yeah, we saw you too," Paxley nodded. "But we knew it wasn't you." He grinned. "We know you."

    "It's how we found you," Ruvena said drily. "We knew you'd still be here, analysing everything, before you decided to go anywhere or do anything." She smiled, just a little, and Hugh felt his chest constrict.

    "Focusing too tightly," Paxley reminded him. "I keep telling you—"

    "Look at the whole field," Hugh interrupted, and he sheathed his daggers. "What's in the whole field, then?" He gestured to the square. "Cullen and Varric and the first enchanter should be here, and they're not."

    "And the griffon," said Ruvena.

    "We're in the Fade," Paxley reminded him. "Of course it's not real life."

    "But in the Fade, the will has power," Hugh said, thoughtful. "Mages can come here and make things happen. Bring things into existence, just by wanting them there."

    "We're not mages," Ruvena said.

    "No. But as far as I can tell, we're here and we're not asleep."

    Paxley and Ruvena looked up at him, then, expectant. "What do you want us to do?" Paxley asked.

    Cullen frowned and turned to take in his surroundings. He had seen this before, more and for longer than he had ever wished to. Somehow, he had been brought to the Fade in a waking state. He looked down at his feet, realised he was standing over the chasm that had opened beneath him in the square. He sheathed his sword and swung his shield to his back, and took another look around himself.

    "Very brave," said a familiar voice, and Cullen wheeled, hand on the hilt of his sword.

    "Aunt Sabra," he said, thoughtful. She looked as she did in life, tall and smiling, with bright red hair showing no hint of grey, and freckles dotting all her skin. She wore a beautiful dress of her own eccentric design.

    "Here you are in the Fade with your blade sheathed and your shield uselessly on your shoulder. It is a brave stance."

    "My aunt is not dead, spirit," he went on, "and she does not live in Kirkwall, so your taking her form is a useless attempt at trickery."

    She smiled gently. "Perhaps I do not wish to trick you, templar. Not all of us have a desire to see the mortal world."

    "Yet many of you do, and would resort to tactics such as this to throw me off my guard."

    "Yet here you stand," she said, as she cocked her head to one side, "with your sword in its sheath."

    "I can draw it rapidly enough," he assured her.

    "Of that I have no doubt." She paused, out of his reach.

    "What do you want, then?" Cullen asked her, quietly.

    "I am not sure why I have been drawn here," she told him. "I felt a rend in the Veil and I came to see who had done it."
    Cullen nodded and looked around again. He needed to find Solona. If she had done this, she would be able to lead them out of it. If someone else had done it—

    "You want your mage wife to help you defeat whoever may have done it."

    Cullen glanced at the spirit. At best, a spirit could be neutral; mages communicated with them, however briefly, all the time. At worst, however—

    He had seen their worst, and survived.

    This one showed no inclination to antagonise him, at least. Perhaps it simply was curious. As long as it kept its distance, he decided, he would conserve his energy.

    "What is physical energy here, templar?" wondered the spirit. "You know that it was your will alone that saved you when Uldred imprisoned you half in the Fade."

    Cullen scowled. "Do not read my mind, demon," he growled.

    The spirit smiled his aunt's loving smile. "Your mind is what is here," she said. "Your thoughts are to me what your voice is to you in your world."

    He ground his teeth. "Do not think I will trust you," he told her.

    "You do not need to trust me," she said with a shrug. "I am not pretending to offer you anything."

    Cullen shook his head. "Maintain your distance."

    She inclined her head. "As you like."

    "Do you know where Solona is?" Cullen demanded.

    "She is not far."

    "Then show me. And if you attempt any tricks, know that I will kill you."

    "I have seen what you have done to others of my kind," she said with another shrug. "I truly have no interest in seeing your world. It seems an ugly, heavy place, and not worth the risk of losing my existence."

    He had never thought of the world as ugly or heavy. It simply was, as the Maker had created it, in the image of His own realm, easily modified by the human children within it.

    The spirit beckoned to him. "Come, we will find her."

    "I am watching you, spirit," he intoned.

    "Of course."

    He had never dreamed, but he had talked to people who dreamed—humans and elves. They had described to him how things in dreams felt normal though they did not quite make sense, and how only upon waking did they seem absurd.

    He checked around Hawke's estate and saw no one, and seconds later was across the city but found no one else there. He headed toward Lowtown, and the trip took forever.

    Bianca moved with him, quiet and watchful, her eyes a little sad whenever they met his. Was it really her, though? Demons could take just about any shape, he knew, in order to fool people. But why would anyone want to fool him? He was always willing to deal, and he wasn't so afraid of demons as to need the consolation of a familiar face.

    He stole a look at her, his heart aching. "Why are you here?" he said at last.

    "I'm not sure."

    "Why am I here?"

    She shrugged and a hint of her mischievous smile shone through despite her overall mood.

    Varric sighed. "Dwarves aren't supposed to go to the Fade," he reminded her. "Are you you, or are you just something that looks like you?"

    "I think I'm me," she said. "I just woke up here."

    "So did I, baby," he sighed again. "I can't help but think that the only unusual factor in this whole thing is Solona."

    "She's the Hero of Ferelden," Bianca told him thoughtfully.

    "Yeah, I got that. She's also supposed to be leading the Fereldan Wardens from Amaranthine, but Paxley told me she's been here for a few months. So what's going on?"

    "She is sleeping with Cullen," she confirmed.

    "No one's disputing that."

    "She's the mage he loved in Ferelden," she went on. "Remember that rumour?"

    "Yeah." Varric frowned. "Interesting that she came here."

    "The Wardens do what's necessary, no matter what, to get rid of the Blight. And she killed the Archdemon."

    He eyed her a moment. "You know that for sure?"

    She nodded. "For sure."

    "All right, so what does that all mean?"

    "She's probably learned magic that she wouldn't otherwise have learned if she'd stayed in the Circle. Explains why you and I are here." She gestured around them both.

    "You think she's torn the Veil, and we're in the Fade because of it."

    "I think she might have cut it open deliberately, to serve her own needs, yes." The blue eyes were steady on his.

    "You seem to know an awful lot about it," Varric noted.

    Bianca nodded, slowly. "It helps to be in this form," she said. "I can remember what we've seen and done."

    His gut twisted. "I'm sorry, baby."

    She shook her head. "Don't be. I promised to be with you always, didn't I? And I will be. It's just hard to be—me. When I'm her." She nodded to his shoulder, where the crossbow rested in silence.

    Varric reached out to take her hand—small, for a dwarf's hand, even for a female, deft and quick and ideal for thievery. Bianca smiled wryly at him and he lifted her hand to his mouth, kissed it tenderly. He wished just for a moment that they could be like this, now, forever, remembering and touching one another, and never having to worry about the Guild or templars or mages or demons—

    "Oh, Maker," Aveline said breathlessly. She could move now, as could Donnic, but the world around them was still and silent.

    "What is this?" Donnic wondered.

    "This is the Fade," Aveline told him. "We've been brought to the Fade."

    "We're asleep?" Donnic turned slowly in place. "My dreams usually don't look like this."

    "No, Donnic," said Aveline, and she drew her sword. "We are awake in the Fade."

    He paused and stared at her. "Isn't that—isn't that what caused the Blight?"

    "No." The children were gone, Aveline noticed; she and Donnic were alone in the crumbling street. How strange. "No," she went on, "the mages went physically into the Fade, and when they returned they were the first darkspawn. Or so I understand it. We're not physically here. We're just not asleep."

    "I don't understand."

    "It's not easy." Aveline shook her head. Donnic drew his own blade. "This is probably something the first enchanter's done."

    "Why would she do that?"

    "I'm not sure," Aveline said. "Let's go and find out."

    "What about the children?"

    "Well," Aveline said with a sigh, "they're not here. Until we get out of the Fade, we can't do anything for them. Let's go find the first enchanter and we'll figure things out from there."

    Donnic sighed as well. "When you woke me up this morning," he said, "I was thinking it was going to be a wonderful day."

    Aveline made a rude sound. "Plainly that didn't work."

    "We'll have to try something else tomorrow."

    Aveline rolled her eyes at him and shook her head and Donnic's brown eyes sparkled. Even in the midst of chaotic circumstances, it pleased him to lighten her burden even a little. She nudged him with her elbow and in unison they turned to head in search of the first enchanter.

    He stood with his feet apart, his arms out for balance, and he waited; there was no pain, no concussion, just sudden still silence. Samson blinked, looked up.

    Devin glowed faintly purple, and he seemed to have grown a little taller, his robes a little fuller. He tilted his head to one side. "You're all right," he said quietly. "This is the Fade."

    "Is it," Samson said, and straightened. He looked around, uneasy. "So I'm dreaming?"

    "We're both awake," Devin assured him. "Someone tore the Veil, and pretty badly. I'm not sure if they meant to do this, or what."

    Samson scowled. "We shouldn't be here, awake."

    "You shouldn't be," Devin agreed. "I come here all the time." He shrugged. "To the Fade, anyway. Not to this particular part of it."

    "Still looks like Kirkwall," Samson said, with a nod to the building behind Devin.

    "Well, we're still in Kirkwall, if that makes sense. We're just on the other side of the Veil."

    "I'll take your word for it."

    "Thanks," Devin said, and twirled his staff lazily. "I don't mean to be bossy, but you should be careful here. Things aren't what they seem, and all that."

    "You should be careful, too."

    Devin grinned. "I'm used to playing around here," he said. "I know what's what. Just stick with me, old man, and I'll get us out safe."

    Samson permitted himself a wry smile. For all that he was a young jackass, Devin was a Harrowed mage; and mages did indeed see the Fade more often than templars. "So, what now, mighty mage?"

    "I don't know," Devin admitted. "It's usually either a mage doing something stupid, or a demon, that tears the Veil all at once." He shrugged. "I'm guessing mage, since the enemy threw so many over the wall."

    "Let's see if we can find that mage, then," Samson suggested.

    "Just so you know, you can still use your sword to kill anything that attacks us here."

    "You anticipate we'll get attacked?"

    "Probably." Devin shrugged. "There's always one or two that try."

    Samson nodded slowly, patted the hilt of his blade. He turned and Devin turned to walk beside him, alert.

    "Templar..." The rasping voice sounded familiar, and sent chills through his body. Samson paused and turned back.

    Meredith had never seemed so tall and foreboding. Her eyes and skin glowed black and red, and magic shimmered around her. She carried her sword at the ready.

    "Unfaithful," she hissed. "Seduced by demons."

    Samson stared up at her, paralysed.

    They found her atop an arch overgrown with thick vines, her feet dangling over the edge. Next to her sat the blue griffon, its front paws folded beneath its chest, complacent. Cullen knew the vines had burned away in the waking world; in the Fade they had returned.

    "They are in someone's dream," the spirit advised him. "Probably hers."

    Cullen frowned. "Is this all her dream?"

    "I think not," she said.

    Cullen looked up to the top of the arch. The griffon eyed Cullen sternly. Solona did not move.

    "Solona," Cullen called up to her. She turned her face to him but kept her head against the griffon. "Solona, why did you bring us to the Fade?"

    There was pain in her voice when she spoke. "I failed you, Cullen. I'm sorry." She turned and hid her face against the griffon again.

    "How have you failed me?" He moved closer to the wall. "Come down and talk to me."

    "We are in the Fade," Solona said softly, "because you are dead and I will not live without you."

    Cullen blinked rapidly, glanced over his shoulder at the spirit. she watched him thoughtfully from her safe distance. He looked up at Solona again. "I don't understand. You said I died?"

    "I won't live without you, Cullen. Without you I've got nothing. I gave up everything for you."

    "Solona," he said, softly, "please come down to talk to me."

    "I can't," she said. "I can't lose you, Cullen. But we can be together, here, forever."

    "If I have died," he told her, "then I will find my way to the Maker's side, and wait for you there. It's what we've always promised one another, isn't it?"

    "There is no Maker," she said.

    Ice water trickled down his spine. "Solona?"

    "We were never created by Him," she went on. "He is the trickster of the elvhen legends, and He sealed away the old gods and the creators in order to rule us by Himself. But He has grown bored with us and that is why He is silent. He seeks a new game, and we have to fend for ourselves."

    "And what of Andraste?" Cullen demanded, bristling. "What of the prophet so beloved of the Maker that he empowered her to overthrow Tevinter?"

    "She was a mage," Solona said wearily. "She used old magic against the Imperium. Drought and wildfires took care of the rest, destroyed their crops and their animals and left them weak and starving. It must have seemed miraculous to them, but it wasn't. It was coincidence, and it was magic."

    "Solona, come down here and talk to me."

    "I can't."

    "Please. Whatever these demons have told you, it's not true. None of it is. You and I affirmed our faith together—"

    "Our faith is a sham, Cullen, and I'm surprised you can't see it."

    Behind him the spirit grew suddenly restless and Cullen shot a look over his shoulder; she paid no attention to him, but stared uneasily up at Solona. He swung back just as a form materialised behind Solona and the griffon; Cullen drew his sword, looked frantically for a way to reach the top of the arch. Solona looked up, her face suddenly fearful. The griffon raised its wings and the two of them stood and turned to face the attacker.

    It was a templar in full armour, its gleaming sword shining with holy light, and it strode swiftly toward Solona in silence.

    "Stop!" Cullen shouted at the templar, but it moved inexorably forward.

    "Cullen, help me!" cried Solona, and she raised her staff. But she had no room to swing it, no room and no time to cast a spell, and Cullen watched in helpless horror as the templar's blade pierced Solona's body from front to back. She made a choking sound and sagged; the templar flattened one hand on her face and pushed, and at the same time yanked back with the sword.

    Solona swayed for a brief second before she collapsed at the templar's feet.

Chapter Text

    "Remember," Devin spoke behind him, as Samson watched Meredith approach with the dwarven sword in her hand. "We're in the Fade. That's not really her."

    The Fade. Right.

    Samson raised his sword and shield—he didn't like the new shields that Kirkwall had begun using, had kept his old 'sun' shield. It felt like a friend to him, something he could trust. A barrier between himself and evil. Devin had said that his sword would still work here; so would his shield, then.

    Meredith was closer now. "Traitor," she hissed. "All of you, seduced by spirits, succumbing to blood magic—"

    —in the end, after the battle in the Gallows, she had seemed chipped out of some fragile stone, portrayed by the sculptor with none of the vitality that had thrust Meredith up through the ranks of the templars to become the Knight-Commander. She had died because of her own seduction by the corrupted power in the sword she had wielded. She had been blinded to her own depravity, had turned on her most faithful templar when Cullen had stepped forward in defense of the weak—

    It was his duty to protect the mages in his care, even the smart-mouthed ones; he checked to ensure Devin was out of harm's way. This spirit, this demon that had taken Meredith's form, might prove a threat to the boy if it got too close with that sword. Samson steadied his grip and adjusted his stance. "Back off, demon," he warned her. "You are not my former Commander—"

    "Do you doubt that you would find me here in the Fade, after my betrayal and murder?"

    "It has been nearly a year," said Samson, "since Meredith's death. Her spirit is with the Maker, or it's already lost in the Void. You are not Meredith." He felt warmth at his back, suddenly, felt the tingle of Devin drawing on his mana, on the energy that flowed so freely around them here in the Fade.

    The creature that had taken Meredith's form seemed to grow larger, then, lifted the sword and swung it down toward him. Samson raised his shield to deflect the blow, thrust the great glowing blade aside and struck at the creature with his own sword, just as Devin let loose with a spell. He felt icy magic pass around him, through him, sensed impact as it struck the creature—solid in this realm, susceptible to a stronger will. It bellowed in pain, a sound no living human could ever have made. Samson dodged as the demon slashed out desperately with razor claws, and the claws raked his armour but did him no real harm. He had never been fast but he had always been accurate and Samson turned to plunge his sword between the demon's shoulders. With a shriek it shuddered and sagged to the ground. Samson twisted his sword, hard, then pulled it away and watched the twitching body, alert.

    "Thanks," Devin said, as he moved to stand at Samson's right. "I've never seen you fight before. You're pretty good."

    "They don't just slap the armour on random people," Samson told him, his eyes still on the demon; it no longer looked like Meredith, and that relieved him. "We get trained for years before we take our final vows and take up our arms." The body grew still, began to dissipate into the misty air of the Fade. Samson looked up at last. Devin was pale. "You all right?"

    "I've never had to fight one before," Devin admitted.

    "What about your Harrowing?"

    "That's different," Devin told him. "The biggest threat there wasn't a demon trying to kill me."

    Samson raised an eyebrow. "What, then?"

    "It—" Devin blushed. "We all have our weaknesses, right?"


    "Well, it—tried to seduce me. And it's not easy to resist, here, because you know it's not real, that it's not happening to your body. The Harrowing is to prove that you can resist up here." He tapped his temple. "That you're stronger than a demon that's determined to use you to reach our world." He cocked his head to one side. "I thought you'd know all about it."

    "I only know what I've seen," Samson said. "And we don't see into the Fade while a mage is being Harrowed. But if it's as you say, I suppose the First Enchanters keep it secret for a reason."

    Devin twirled his staff, thoughtful. "But the templars know that a demon is being drawn in, right? That the mage has to resist it? That's the Harrowing."

    Samson shook his head. "We know that much, yes," he said. "But I always assumed it was a fight." He shifted his shield on his arm. "I guess it makes sense that they bring something that will act on your weakest point. If you can resist that, you're strong enough."

    "It's still ridiculous," Devin told him. "Some mages just don't want to be forced to face a demon. It's not fair that they get made Tranquil just for that. There's no guarantee that even a Harrowed mage will never be possessed."

    "I suppose that's true, too," Samson said.

    Devin eyed him suspiciously. "You're doing it again."

    Samson shook his head again. "You don't like it when I agree with you."

    "Makes it harder to hate you."

    "Maybe you don't need to hate me." He sheathed his sword and looked around. "Any idea where this mage might be, that put us here?"

    "None," Devin admitted. He turned suddenly as two forms drifted into sight. "Oh, hey," he said.

    Samson turned to look. One of the newcomers was a knight in all-black plate that glistened in the watery Fadelight; the knight's face was obscured by a heavy helmet, and it carried a massive greatsword on its back. The second form was unmistakably a demon of desire, its shoulders broad and hips narrow, twisting horns and whiplike tail marking it as distinctly inhuman. Samson reached for his sword. Devin glanced back at him and shook his head.

    "Don't," he said. "I know these ones."

    "Know them," Samson said with a scowl. "What do you mean?"

    "They're my—" Devin hesitated. "I've met them before." The knight and the desire demon stopped close to Devin. "This," Devin said, with a gesture to the knight, "is a spirit of Honour. And this one," he went on, indicating the desire demon, "is Guile."

    "You have brought another mortal with you," intoned the spirit of Honour. "One without magic of its own. Why?"

    "He was forced here, same as I was," Devin replied. "You two wouldn't know who's torn the Veil like this, would you?"

    "How badly do you want to know?" wondered Guile.

    Devin thrust the head of his staff toward the demon. "No bullshit today, Guile. We have to get out of here and back to Kirkwall. Things are going to the Void there and we have to stop it." Samson stared at him a moment, then looked up at the demon, who scowled petulantly and folded its arms.

    "Quid pro quo," Guile snapped. "You don't give me anything, I don't give you anything."

    Devin rolled his eyes. "Ser," he addressed Honour. "Anything?"

    The knight was quiet a moment. "Something that was bound has broken its chains."

    "So this thing that was bound, was it something big?"

    "A most malevolent being," Honour agreed. "But it has been bound for so long that no one can recall who placed the bindings."

    Guile lifted its chin. "They were growing weak in any case."

    "Is it something you're afraid of?" Devin asked.

    Honour hesitated. "I would take pains to avoid it, if at all possible," it said solemnly.

    "Shit," Devin said, and sighed, and looked at Samson.

    "Is there any way we can get to wherever this thing is?" Samson asked.

    "It is no longer here in the Fade," Honour said, tilting its head in Samson's direction. "It is in your world."

    "Shit," Devin repeated. He turned to face Samson, his back to Guile and Honour, and he began to twirl his staff again. "Look," he said, hesitant, "there's something I know how to do, but I'm not supposed to do it, because it's technically not an approved spell."

    Samson eyed him. "Is it blood magic?"

    Devin shook his head. "It's not dependent on anyone's pain, or anyone's blood, or any sacrifice but my own mana."

    "Where'd you learn it?"

    Devin hesitated a moment, then let the end of his staff touch the ground. "First Enchanter taught me. It's something she learned from—a hedge-witch. An apostate who's never been in the Circle."

    Samson considered a moment. He knew there were such mages out in the world; the literature was filled with tales of the Rivaini seers and their magic, of the Witch of the Wilds and her untamed daughters. He knew that there were remote corners of the world where the Chant of Light had never been spoken, where old magic was still practised. She was young for a first enchanter, but Solona was no child; it was not impossible that she'd learned things outside Chantry approval. Still, he knew her aversion to blood magic, and he trusted her. Devin, he was not so sure could be trusted, but—

    "Why did she teach you?"

    Devin sighed and looked away. "Because I needed something new to learn. I get bored practising the same old spells. She knows so many that aren't in the books." His head down, he looked back at Samson through his eyelashes.

    Samson wetted his lower lip with his tongue. "First Enchanter," he said, "is a devout woman as well as a powerful mage."

    "She really is," Devin agreed, and wrinkled his nose a little.

    "Nothing wrong with devotion," Samson said drily.

    Devin shrugged. "I guess. It doesn't stop her from being good at what she does."

    "That it does not." He glanced past Devin to the two spirits. Honour stood upright, unmoving; Guile never stopped moving, swaying, examining its hands and running them over its body as though to confirm that it was all still there. Samson looked back at Devin. "This spell," he said. "Does it involve these two?"

    "What? No," Devin shook his head. "They just show up whenever I'm here." He straightened. "They won't come through with us, if that's what you're worried about."

    "It is," Samson admitted.

    "I have no interest in your world, mortal," Honour informed him coldly. Guile turned its head and stared off into the distance.

    "They won't come through with us," Devin repeated. "I'll make sure of that."

    Samson watched him a long moment. "Then tell me about the spell," he said.

    "I don't like this," Donnic said quietly. "There's no one here."

    "The Fade is always changing," Aveline reminded him. "It plays on our thoughts and fears. Keep focused."

    "Shouldn't we be running into someone?" he wondered. "Demons, even? Not just a big empty city."

    "Perhaps," she agreed, and scanned the area ahead of them. "But we haven't the ability to do anything about it right now. Just keep vigilant."

    "It's what I do," he said with humour.

    "It's why I love you," Aveline assured him.

    "The only reason?" His eyes slid sideways.

    She laughed despite her mood. "Stop it," she scolded him. "This is a serious situation." Donnic flashed an apologetic grin, then sobered.

    "What's that?" he said, and gestured with his sword. Ahead of them, where they should have seen the Viscount's Keep, where they should have found Cullen and the first enchanter at least, was—nothing. Not the weirdly-detailed replica of Kirkwall through which they'd been travelling; not even rubble, which they might have expected, given the circumstances. It was simply a void.

    Aveline squinted and slowed her pace as she approached. "What in the—"

    "We should go," Donnic said softly, and nudged her elbow with his.

    They turned in unison and Aveline inhaled; the blackness was behind them. They stood back-to-back and turned about, their shields up and swords at the ready, as the void crept toward them from all directions, surrounded and swallowed them. There was no light, no shadow, no sound; only blackness and cold and silence.

    "Donnic?" Aveline said, and there was no response. She spun and realised he was gone.

    The creatures of the Fade played and preyed on one's emotions, one's desires, one's greatest fears, and whatever was toying with her had chosen to separate her from Donnic, to leave her alone in the darkness.

    Too bad, she thought, that the creatures of the Fade didn't know her at all.

    Aveline clenched her teeth, kept her shield high, and began a grim march through the void.

    "It's changing," Varric noted. It was starting to look less like Kirkwall, more like enormous rock walls—cliffs, perhaps? Was he outside Kirkwall now?

    "It's been changing all along," Bianca agreed with him, troubled.

    He glanced up at her again, and away. He knew in his head that she wasn't real. Anders, and others, had told him that the creatures of the Fade were able to draw out a human's thoughts and wishes and fears and make them seem real.

    But he wasn't human, so he didn't understand how this was happening. How the spirits—or demons, as the Chantry insisted on labelling them—had known about Bianca, had known just how to make her look and act.

    He'd heard of a dwarf in Ferelden who'd gone to the Circle, not because she was a mage, for that was impossible; she had gone because she had wanted to study how magic functioned, how lyrium could affect humans and elves the way it did. Maybe she would discover, if she hadn't already, something about dwarves and the Fade that the dwarves had forgotten in the centuries of fighting darkspawn—knowledge that had been lost with the thaigs.

    The thaigs...

    He realised suddenly that the buildings of the city hadn't become cliffs but cave walls. He had somehow wandered into the Deep Roads.

    Varric turned swiftly and he was alone and it was dark, the air foul with darkspawn taint. Around him he could hear infernal whispers. He drew his crossbow—still silent, he noted—and loaded a bolt. He held his breath and turned to retrace his steps.

    The further he went the darker it grew until he could no longer see.

    He was lost.

    What use was a dwarf with no stone sense, who couldn't even fumble his way through the dark of a cave?

    What good was he, who shied away from business and family in favour of ale and cards at the tavern?

    He was a thief of the worst kind; even his tales were stolen from the adventures of those who went out and took action. He simply followed and watched and listened and maybe shot a few bolts to make himself look good, and then he went home to his comfortable room and he drank and he wrote stories that never happened about people who were braver and stronger than he. Those who weren't afraid to take sides.

    Those who weren't utterly amoral.

    Varric frowned.

    The real crime had been his father's. Fixing the Provings—that was what had gotten the family turned out of Orzammar. Varric hadn't even been born then. He had no ties to Orzammar, no reason to hold to their old ways. No desire to. It was why he insisted on shaving his face instead of growing a beard, thick and luxuriant, and maintaining the requisite number of braids to indicate his rank in the family—

    You have no rank in the family.

    There is no family.

    There's Bartrand.

    In the sanatorium, Bartrand had swiftly deteriorated to a point at which he could no longer care for himself physically; rather, his mind was lost in lyrium dreams, and he did not bother to care for himself physically. When Varric had last visited he'd watched as the nurses had helped Bartrand bathe, had distracted him with gentle chatter, had washed and dried his hair and beard and tied his hair away from his face. They hadn't braided his beard, and it had bothered Varric because it would bother Bartrand.

    Why did he give a shit about Bartrand?

    Because despite all they had been through together, despite Bartrand's lunatic betrayal, he was still Varric's brother. The only family he had left after their mother had drunk herself to death.

    So Varric had sat down without a word, meticulously combed and braided Bartrand's beard, and he could have sworn he saw something warm in Bartrand's eyes as he'd reached up with clumsy fingers to feel the plaits, to count them. He had said nothing to Varric, but then he wouldn't have been Bartrand if he'd offered thanks or appreciation.

    Even before his madness, Bartrand would have seen such things as his due, not deserving of thanks because they were simply duty. He'd been an asshole long before the Deep Roads, before that disastrous trek that had left them stupidly wealthy, had allowed Hawke to reclaim his family's estate—

    Maker's breath, but he missed Hawke. Hawke, who could make a joke about anything, whose laughing adventures had added to Varric's wealth—and not just the money he'd acquired through the serials. He'd told Hawke often that he attracted the crazy, and that hadn't been a euphemism, and it hadn't been an exaggeration. But Hawke had simply taken the crazy in stride, had soothed it with his easy smile and sparkling eyes, had slept with some of it, tamed some of it, bought it drinks and took its money at Wicked Grace.

    Hawke would have made a wonderful Viscount for Kirkwall. He had the temperament to deal with Kirkwall's inherent bullshit. But Hawke didn't love Kirkwall, and he loved Anders, so Kirkwall had been left to its own devices and the crazy had gotten worse without someone strong and laughing to keep it together.

    And while Varric been gone the Hero of Ferelden had shown up in Kirkwall, and what did that mean? She had the same brown eyes as her cousins—a little darker, maybe—but they were not perpetually crinkled in a smile, like Hawke's, nor were they always a little sad like Bethany's. She was as powerful with her magic as Hawke was with his sword—maybe more, if the tales of her killing an archdemon were true—but she didn't go looking for trouble.

    Didn't she?

    He couldn't say that he knew.

    He hated not knowing.

    He pressed on through the darkness, determined to find out what had brought the Warden to Kirkwall of all places, to be with Cullen of all people, and to pretend she wasn't exactly who he knew her to be.

    Something had failed in the city—the charges had stopped going off and a brilliant light had shot up to the sky. The templars on the battlefield drew strength from this and he watched in helpless rage as they slaughtered his army and marched mercilessly toward him.

    He was overcome, beaten and forced to his knees, his hands bound behind him. First he was made to watch as Dederick was killed, the frail body run through by a dozen blades when just one would have sufficed.

    Then Bethany was forced to kneel and she was bound and a collar snapped around her neck. Two templars held two chains attached to the collar, preventing her from doing more than turn her head. Two more templars put their swords to her temples. Yet another brought forth the brand and Sebastian thrashed against his bonds, cursed and wept as the hot lyrium drew closer to Bethany's beautiful face. Her golden-brown eyes were wide with fear but she made no sound.

    He had fought this, had paid the templars in Markham to ensure she would not be made Tranquil; he had brought her to him in Starkhaven in order to keep her safe.

    He had failed. He had broken his promise to her.

    She would live, but she would no longer be Bethany.

    "I told you this was wrong." Elthina bent down to look into his face, her dove-grey eyes as gentle as ever. "This attack on Kirkwall, this unending search for revenge—a love affair with a mage, Sebastian? Of all things." She moved to one side and rested a hand on his head, held him still and forced him to watch as the brand was inexorably pressed to Bethany's forehead. The brown eyes flew wider for just a moment, then fluttered shut, and Bethany's body sagged, held up only by the templars' grip on the chains that held her collar. The templars let her fall to the ground. One of them unsnapped the collar.

    Elthina moved once more to stand in front of Sebastian, searched his face. "You understand why it had to be done, do you not, Sebastian? The presence of a demon would have prevented the Rite from succeeding. That she has become Tranquil is simply proof that we have prevented one more innocent from being possessed, from becoming an abomination. We have protected her, and in doing so have protected you. It is why the Order exists—to protect Andraste's faithful."

    He looked up into her face, saw the truth in her eyes, felt tears on his cheeks. Elthina brushed them away with her fingertips.

    "Yes, Grand Cleric," he whispered.

    "Now she can no longer tempt you, Sebastian." She smiled, a little sadly. "Because you are an affirmed Brother of the Chantry, I will have to insist on penance."

    "Yes, Grand Cleric," he murmured, and lowered his head.

    He brought the chair back to the office, but Dren and Reed were gone. Bran raised an eyebrow; they had played like this as children, and it had amused him somewhat at the time. They were hardly children now, and this was not an appropriate situation for games. He set the chair down.

    There was only one entrance to the room. They had no reason to leave and he would have seen them. Wouldn't he? Bran spun on his heel and headed back out of the office, only to find himself on the streets of Kirkwall. He turned again; the Keep was behind him. Rather, what was left of the Keep was behind him. He stared at the miserable pile of rubble. From the city behind him he could hear distant wails; the people of Kirkwall, grieving.

    "This is your fault, you know."


    She approached him from behind, her footsteps almost silent on the broken stone. "You have failed the Viscount, failed Kirkwall, because you would not accept help when it was offered."

    Bran closed his eyes.

    "You think you're above it all," she went on, her voice a low purr in his ear. "Above the lowly commoners, even above the nobles of the city. Look what your arrogance has wrought, Bran."

    He opened his eyes, turned to face her. She wore battle-armour, marked with the sun-circled eye of the Seekers of Truth. Her long hair was braided away from her face, bound at the back of her bare head; her face was smooth and brown and perfect, her cheekbones high and her eyebrows arched sardonically. She flashed Malena's cool and distant smile, and Bran gritted his teeth.

    "You," he said icily, "are not Malena."

    The smile vanished. "What do you mean?"

    However the illusion had been formed, he would give it no fodder. "I am no ignorant peasant to believe all that is before my eyes," he snapped. "Ply your trickery elsewhere."

    She rested her hands on her hips and scowled. "Bran, I am not trying to trick you."

    "You are not Malena," he repeated, with a sweeping gesture. "Begone."

    She bared her teeth and before he could react she had caught his throat with powerful hands. She thrust her face close to his as she began to squeeze. "Does this feel like trickery?" she hissed.

    Bran grabbed her gauntleted wrists and pulled, though he knew it was futile; she had always been stronger than he. "You—are not Malena," he said through clenched teeth.

    She stared at him but did not release her grip. "You are but a dreaming mortal," she told him. "What do you know but what I show you?"

    He was beginning to see spots. "I know Malena," he managed to whisper.

    "Release him, spirit," said another voice, high and clear and confident.

    The demon turned, dragged Bran around with it, and from the corner of his eye Bran caught just a glimpse of black and brown. With a loud hiss the demon flung him aside; Bran staggered but managed to keep his feet.

    The first enchanter stepped forward, spun her staff dramatically and tapped it on the ground, and it crackled with energy.  "Do you care to fight me and die, spirit," she said, "or will you leave this place and keep your pathetic semblance of a life?"

    The demon hesitated. It looked from the first enchanter to Bran and back, and snarled. Malena's form vanished; her armour dissipated into ragged robes. In its true, twisted shape, the demon hissed again and fled.

    The first enchanter watched it go, then swung her staff to her back and moved to stand before Bran. "Are you hurt, Seneschal?"

    "No." He rubbed his neck gingerly and hoped he wouldn't bruise. That would be difficult to hide, more difficult to explain.

    "You may wish to come with me," she said solemnly. "The Fade can be dangerous for those who are unfamiliar with its workings."

    "The Fade," he repeated. "Am I dreaming, then?" He had been in the Keep with both his sons—  

    the Keep

    He looked behind himself; the Keep was restored, and still flew the standards of House Dumar. He looked back at the First Enchanter. Her dark eyes were sober and met his without fear.

    "Something has torn the Veil, Seneschal," she said. "We have been dragged into the Fade while awake, very much against our will."

    Bran adjusted his jacket, reached up to ensure his hair was presentable. "I see," he said, and looked around. The air seemed peculiarly thick, as though a storm was brewing. He folded his arms. "Since the demon has been chased away—for which I thank you, by the way—should we not be returned to Kirkwall?"

    She smiled faintly, briefly. "That was just a little one, Seneschal, and not the cause of this. Despair, if I'm not mistaken. It would likely have shown you your loved ones' deaths soon enough, tormented you with guilt, done all it could to make you give in. They're very cowardly, but they've got no real strength if you don't allow them any." She watched him a moment. "Was that your wife? Whose form it took, I mean."

    "I do not believe that is relevant."

    "Of course not." Another flicker of a smile touched her mouth, and vanished. "But you weren't fooled by its façade," she went on. "That's rare here." She tilted her head to one side. "Have you had experience in the Fade, then?"

    "I dream, the same as any human," he said. "If that is what you are getting at."

    "I meant, the way we are now." She gestured around them. "Awake, in the Fade."

    "Not that I know," he admitted. "Would I recall such a thing?"

    "As you would any other waking experience, yes."

    "Then I have not."

    She nodded slowly. "Interesting." She beckoned to him to join her.

    "Where are you going?" he asked.

    "I need to find Cullen," she said.

    "The Knight-Commander is here, too?"

    "The entire city of Kirkwall is here, Seneschal," she told him quietly. "Luckily, perhaps, most of them are unaware of it."

    He frowned. "What do you mean?"

    "Most people do not remain awake in the Fade. Their bodies shut down as soon as their minds connect."

    "They fall asleep, in other words."


    "What's happening to them in the meantime?"

    "I don't know, Seneschal," she said softly. "That's why I need to find Cullen, and get back across the Veil." She turned again.

    Bran noticed suddenly that she had brought with her a templar and what appeared to be a large bear. The templar glowed slightly; the bear was wearing some sort of harness and muzzle. They waited patiently as the first enchanter approached them. "This is the Seneschal," she said to them, with a gesture toward Bran.

    The bear lifted its lips to show white teeth. The templar inclined its head to Bran, then returned its attention to the first enchanter. "Your templar is near, mortal," it said. "But others are now with him."

    "What others?"

    The templar shook its head. "They offer him assistance, and intend him no harm."

    She nodded, relieved. "Good."

    "Who are these—?" Bran demanded with a gesture at the templar and the bear.

    She turned patiently to him. "This is Valor," she said, and indicated the templar. "And this is Mouse." The bear growled deep in its chest. The first enchanter rested her hand on the bear's head and skritched the thick fur.

    "Are they demons?" he demanded.

    She smiled faintly. "They are spirits, as any other in the Fade. But they will cause you no harm." She patted the bear's head and smiled down at it. "Right?"

    This caused the bear to lift its lips again in a snarl, all it could manage with the muzzle on. Bran stared at it a moment, then up at the first enchanter. "I would like to be out of this place as soon as possible," he said.

    "As would I, Seneschal," she agreed. She looked up at Valor. "Let's go, then," she said. There seemed to be no question of who would lead the group; Valor and Mouse walked at the first enchanter's heels and Bran was forced to follow. He gritted his teeth. There were times one had to accept one's circumstances, he supposed, and allow someone else to take control.

    They had gone no more than a few paces when a wall nearby burst as though struck from the other side. The guard that stood there looked around, settled his gaze on the first enchanter. "First Enchanter," he said solemnly. "It's good to see a friendly face."

    She smiled up at him. "Donnic Hendyr," she said. "if I'm not mistaken."

    "You are not," he said. "I seem to have lost the guard-captain, though."

    "If all I know about her is correct," she said, "the captain will be just fine." She glanced at the fallen wall behind him.

    Donnic looked back, looked at the first enchanter, shrugged. "I got a little lost. Aveline—err, Guard-Captain Aveline—says this is the Fade, and things aren't real."

    The first enchanter smiled again. "She's right," she said. "You didn't panic when you got lost?"

    "Panic does no one any good, I guess," he said. "And I realised after not too long that the creatures here succumb to a sword strike as easily as any other."

    "You haven't been hurt, have you?" she asked.

    Donnic shook his head. "None of them seemed particularly serious about attacking me."

    "Good. You'll come with us, then?"

    "My sword is yours, First Enchanter," Donnic said solemnly, "as long as we are here."

    "You may call me Solona," she said.

    "Solona, then," he agreed.

    Bran cleared his throat. "Ought we not to get moving, First Enchanter?" he said.

    She turned and looked around at the foggy crooked buildings, lifted her staff from her back and began to twirl it. "You know, Seneschal," she said, "if I know Cullen, he'll be looking for me." She looked up at Donnic. "And the guard-captain will be looking for you."

    "I expect she might," Donnic said slowly.

    "Perhaps it's best if we stay still, then," she went on, "and wait for them to come to us."

    Bran folded his arms and set his face in a neutral expression, and shifted just a little closer to Donnic.

    He paid his penance over a period of weeks—six lashes once a day, a diet of bread and water, nothing but a hard roll to sleep on in a tiny dark cell. When next he saw a friendly face the rough-woven robes he had been given were soiled and ragged and hung from his frame like old laundry.

    He was given a comfortable room in the upper chambers of the Kirkwall Chantry. A servant had brought him hot water for a bath and he was about to undress and step into the water when a knock sounded on his door. He opened the door to find Elthina there, and Bethany behind her. The skin on her forehead had healed but the mark of the lyrium brand was still livid, and he knew it would never go away.

    Elthina spoke gently. "Bethany will assist you in—your healing."

    Bethany stared at him with unfeeling eyes and when Elthina had left them alone, she allowed Sebastian to guide her into the room, to sit in his comfortable chair. He knelt at her feet, took her hands into his.

    "You still know me, don't you?" he asked her.

    "Of course I know you," Bethany told him flatly.

    "You remember what we are to one another?"

    "We were lovers," Bethany said.


    "We were going to have a child together," he reminded her. "Is it—well?"

    She continued to stare at him, disinterested. "It was not practical to bear a child whose future was unknown. I would not be permitted to care for it, and it could not be recognised as yours."

    Ice trickled along his spine. "Bethany, what are you saying?"

    "The unborn child is dead," she said, with as much emotion as she might use to indicate that the weather was clement.

    He sat back on his heels, stared up at her through tears. She withdrew her hands from his. "Why?" he whispered.

    "I have already told you why," she said. "If you wish another explanation I cannot give you one."

    He stood and moved away from her, his head spinning with anguish. He had brought this on himself; it was merely a continuation of his penance. That was why Elthina had allowed Bethany to come to him—not as a reward, but so he would be continually reminded of his failure. Failure to secure Kirkwall, failure to find and kill Anders, failure to protect Bethany—

    He heard her stand, felt her approach, but she did not touch him. "Shall I fetch you some tea?" she said quietly. "It always soothes you when you are in distress."

    She knew him; she remembered him. It doubled the pain, to know that she knew but that she no longer cared.

    He turned to face her, cupped her cheeks in his hands. Bethany would not want to live like this; being made Tranquil had always been one of her greatest fears. He would do right by her in this at least.

    Cullen was at the top of the arch with simply a thought, his sword and shield ready. As he stormed forward the templar straightened, its sword low, and made no move to attack him, nor even to defend; Cullen paused. The other templar stood easily head and shoulders taller than he, shoulders half again as wide as his own. He was suddenly not sure he could defeat it in straight combat. Cullen glanced down at Solona only to see the body shrivel into something grotesque; he looked up at the templar again, frowned. "You knew it wasn't her," he said.

    The templar inclined its head slowly. "Yes..." The word was strangled, as though the templar was struggling to speak.

    Cullen sighed, lowered his sword. He should have known as well; Solona had never begged for help. Not like that. He felt his ears redden.

    "Do you know where she is?" he asked.

    This elicited a slow shake of the helmeted head.

    Cullen glanced down at Sabra in the street. She looked solemnly up at him. He returned his attention to the other templar. It swung its greatsword to its back and Cullen realised it was carrying two of them, massive blades each. "Are you friend or foe, then," Cullen said, "or neither?"

    The templar hesitated for just a moment. At last it thrust out a hand in a gesture that Cullen recognised; he sheathed his sword and shook the proffered hand, cautiously. The templar nodded once, pleased, and stepped back.

    When Cullen turned to leap off the arch to the street below he found himself already on the street. He hated the Fade for its unpredictability. It wasn't that he couldn't adapt; he simply liked knowing his position.  

    He glanced back over his shoulder; the templar had followed him and stood silently near. Cullen shook his head and turned his attention to Sabra. "You know this one?" he asked.

    She tore her eyes from the templar and looked at Cullen. "It is neither spirit nor mage that I should know it," she said. "It is strange and undreaming."

    Cullen tensed, turned so he could see both of them. "What does that mean?"

    The templar moved closer and Sabra took a step backward. "The creature is not of the Fade," she explained. "It means you no harm, but it does not feel so kindly toward me."

    Cullen held a hand up to the templar. "I have agreed not to kill this one," he said, "as long as it keeps its distance from me. Should it attack or attempt to sway me in any way, it will be slain." He hoped his words held weight; this was not one of his lieutenants, nor a raw recruit to be ordered about. Nevertheless the templar hesitated, inclined its head to Cullen, and stood straight, alert. Cullen suppressed a sigh and turned to Sabra. "Continue," he said. "I need to find Solona."

    With a last look at the templar, Sabra turned and drifted toward the Lowtown stairs. Cullen followed her, and without a word the other templar moved to walk slightly behind Cullen, and to his right.

    She saw a light, and moved toward it, unafraid. As she approached it she felt icy hands grasping at her armour, attempting to hold her back; she swung about with her sword to dislodge them, sure the light would vanish before she turned back.

    But there it was, burning bright and welcoming, and Aveline stretched her legs to walk faster. The light did not grow larger, did not seem to be getting closer; with a frustrated sound Aveline began to run.
    She tripped over something and was sent headlong; she heard a yelp and a curse as she rolled swiftly to her feet, ready for a fight.

    "Bloody void," muttered the other, and Aveline straightened.

    "Varric?" she said.

    There was silence a moment. "Aveline?"

    They fumbled in the dark to one another and their hands found one another and Aveline squeezed. "Varric, you're real." She laughed weakly.

    "And you're crushing my hand, Captain," he said agreeably. She could not see him in the dark but she was sure he was grinning at her.

    "I am not letting you go," she told him.

    "All right, all right," he said gently, and she felt him move, heard the creak of his leather duster and the way Bianca twanged slightly when she was rested on Varric's back. "We seem to be running into one another at the worst of times, in the absolute dark," he noted with amusement.

    It made her laugh again, and Varric chuckled. "On both sides of the Veil, too," Aveline said with a sigh. "Donnic is here, somewhere."

    "I was following a light," he said.

    "I was following one, too," Aveline exclaimed, and she turned. The light was still there. "That's the one."

    "That's the one."

    "Let's go."

    "Do you really need to hold my hand?"

    "I said I'm not letting you go," Aveline reminded him. "And this had better not show up in any of your ridiculous stories."

    "Perish the thought."


    Varric chuckled and Aveline dragged him with her toward the light. Now and again the whispers and cold hands tried to stop them but Aveline slashed them away and walked faster, forced Varric to jog beside her.

    "So this light," Varric said.

    "It's something."

    "Sure it is. But what if it's a trap?"

    "At least it's something that's not this damnable nothingness," she said.

    "That's a point."

    Without warning—without any real logic—the light expanded suddenly, began to devour the darkness, and as swiftly as it had overcome her and Donnic, the black void vanished, left her standing in the market of Hightown, holding Varric's hand. She looked down at him. Varric raised an eyebrow. "Not a word, dwarf." She released his hand.

    "I said I wouldn't," he assured her, and rubbed his hand as though restoring sensation to it. He tilted his head. "That's where it's coming from." Aveline looked in the direction he indicated and saw a bright glow. "I'll bet you a sovereign it's the Warden doing that."


    "Ah—Solona," he said. "First enchanter."

    "You called her 'Warden'," Aveline said, suspiciously.

    He raised his hands defensively. "She's the Hero of Ferelden," he said. "She won't admit it, but she is."

    Aveline frowned. "Nonsense. If she was a Grey Warden, she wouldn't be in Kirkwall as the First Enchanter. She'd be off fighting darkspawn."

    Varric shook his head. "I don't know how or why she's here, but she is. I know she's got a thing with Cullen—he says she's his wife—"


    "That's what he says."

    "Templars aren't permitted to marry mages," she said. "And it would be a conflict for her to be first enchanter in Kirkwall since he's the knight-commander."

    "Maybe when we get out of here," Varric suggested, "we can ask them. I just know what I know. And I'm positive that it's her doing that."

    "What makes you so sure?"

    "Who else would? She's the first enchanter, the best of all the mages. If anyone could guide two separate people to find the same light source in the middle of nothing—"

    "Then perhaps Donnic will be following it as well," Aveline said.

    "Maybe so."

    "Let's go."

    In the city of Kirkwall, the inhabitants were still and silent. Only the griffons still moved about, following orders from their alpha, pulling unconscious survivors from the rubble and carrying them to safety.

    The alpha sat near the Keep, its tail lashing and its golden eyes alert as it watched the enormous creature that had emerged from the Fade. When it had found itself unable to move away the creature had turned in place to stare down at the griffon, had spoken with it several times, to no effect. The griffon had already made a pact on behalf of itself and its pride, after all; it would not change its allegiance no matter how the beast roared and thrashed its many limbs. The creature was bound in any case, and could not harm anything, so the griffon was unconcerned by its rage.

    The alpha griffon looked to its left, where the mage lay still sleeping. It made a sound in her direction but she did not move. It lifted one paw, swiftly groomed the fur there, and resumed its vigil.

Chapter Text

    "Ah," said the spirit, and turned to Cullen. "It seems your mage has taken her own steps to guide you." She gestured into the distance, where Cullen could see a bright stream of sparkling light stretching upward.

    "What is that?" he asked, and squinted at the light.

    "It is what it appears to be," the spirit told him. "Simply a beacon of sorts."

    Cullen looked suspiciously at the spirit. She—it, he reminded himself—smiled vaguely.

    "You are made uneasy by my presence," it went on, "but you have no further need of my guidance in this place. Your mage will show you the way."

    "And what will you do?" Cullen asked.

    "I will observe," the spirit told him. "I told you I was drawn here by the rend in the Veil. I wish only to learn what you and your mage will do to repair it." It began to fade slightly, became translucent. "I will not need to be close, so you needn't fear a sudden attempt to cross over." The slender form of his aunt shimmered and spread into a soft pinkish haze; this haze rose up through the murky air of the Fade and was soon gone to his sight. Cullen pressed his lips together, looked at the other templar.

    "Let's move," he said. The templar inclined his head and moved once more to walk at Cullen's right, slightly behind him.

    The sparkling light cut through the murk like a knife through warm butter, beckoned to him, and he could have sworn he heard Solona's soft breath in its summons. He wondered if the other templar could hear it, and glanced back at him. The other cocked his head to one side, questioning. Cullen shook his head and continued forward.

    When they returned to the mortal world, he asked himself, what would they find? He knew time passed irregularly in the Fade. He had been there for weeks, starved and tormented, while Uldred had attempted to break him; it had felt like years. Years of being presented with Solona's form—broken and bleeding and begging his aid, one day; sweet and soothing, a balm for his pain, the next. Was it any wonder he had been so sure she'd been yet another demon, when he had encountered her in the hills near Amaranthine?

    Cullen suppressed another sigh. He had been fooled once again, here, had grown complacent in the time he'd had Solona at his side. He could not afford to be. Perhaps Hugh had been right, that there should be no dalliance with a mage—

    But Solona was his wife, not simply a temporary amusement, and he was the man he was because of her, in part if not wholly. There had never been a question of integrity in their respective roles. He would never give anyone reason to question his motives.

    But Hugh had questioned him. Hugh, who had questioned Meredith and who had been right all along about her. The boy—no. He was not a boy, had not been for years now. He watched people, watched and listened and learned, and his judgment had been proven sound more than once.

    Was he right, then, about Cullen?

    He hadn't suspected that Cullen and Solona were married. He'd seemed shocked by the revelation, in fact. For all his observational skills and good judgment, Hugh had concluded that Cullen had been—

    He lifted his head. That one of his templars would think that he would force himself on a mage was untenable. But it did demonstrate that he and Solona hadn't been as discreet as they'd thought.

    Perhaps they would simply have to come clean with the fact of their marriage. It wasn't, after all, as though they'd deceived the Chantry; they'd married legitimately, and neither of them could have guessed that Solona would end up in Kirkwall.

    The light had grown brighter, closer, and Cullen looked around. They were close to the Keep again; had they simply circled the city? He hated the Fade for its ever-changing nature. The light was still ahead of him and now he could hear a faint susurrus, as though of many people gathered together.

    With the silent templar still at his shoulder, Cullen climbed a short flight of stairs and stopped.

    Milling about the open space, talking softly to one another, were all the mages of the Gallows. Their concomitant spirits were present as well, which made the courtyard seem fuller; they hovered near the mages, shifted restlessly or stood upright, each according to its personality. The mages and spirits nearest him turned to see him and they moved aside to allow him to pass, and as Cullen walked the crowd continued to part before him. The other templar followed him, head high.

    At the other side of the square stood Solona, her staff at her side; the beacon emanated from the crystals at the top. Surrounding her were Varric Tethras, Guard-Captain Aveline and Donnic Hendyr, Samson and Devin, and Seneschal Bran. Cullen did not see the other templars, Hugh and Ruvena and Paxley; perhaps they were patrolling this enormous gathering of mages.

    He stopped in front of Solona. She tapped her staff on the stone street and the beacon dissipated; a few lingering sparks bounced on the ground before vanishing.

    "Knight-Commander," Solona said with a smile that turned his guts to jelly.

    "First Enchanter," Cullen greeted her. "I might have known yours would be the brightest light in the Fade."

    "It had to be," she told him, "in order to lead you here."

    "Oh, Maker," Varric said with a chuckle. "This is gold. Warden, if I write something in my book here, will it still be there when I wake up?"

    "You are not sleeping, serah," Solona reminded him, her eyes still on Cullen's. "Your body is doing nothing at the moment."

    "So that's a no."

    "And you may recall that my name is Solona."

    Varric watched her with all of innocence. "Wasn't that also the name of the Hero of Ferelden?"

    Solona twirled her staff with a flourish and Varric was forced to step aside lest he be struck by it; she let it rest on her back, glanced around at the mages, then up at Cullen once more. "What now?" she wondered.

    Cullen shook his head. "This was your doing, was it not?"

    Solona frowned. "Of course not," she said. "I was simply scrying—that would no more cause this than looking out a window would make the whole outdoors sprout inside your house." She glanced around again, took his wrist in one hand and drew Cullen slightly aside. "But the damage done to the Veil—by the deaths related to the attack on Kirkwall, I think—that has allowed something very big to pass through. While we were waiting for you, I talked with some of the others, and the spirits are all saying the same thing."

    Cullen tensed, looked over his shoulder at the crowd of mages and spirits, then back at Solona. "I—was told of the tear, but not of what had passed through. While we're standing around here, something is loose in Kirkwall?"

    "Not loose," she assured him. "But it is there, nevertheless." She took a deep breath. "When I activated the city's glyphs, I included the ones for dominance and obedience, just in case something did come through while I was summoning."

    "What does that mean?"

    "It means whatever it is will remain bound by the glyphs, until I return and give it instructions."

    "Why is it waiting for you?"

    "Because the glyphs were activated by me."

    "I see." Cullen considered a moment. "Well, then. What do you propose we do?"

    "First of all," Solona said, "before we go back, we have to deal with that." She indicated the silent templar who stood tall and unmoving behind him.

    "I don't know him," he said. "He's said but one word to me since we met."

    She raised an eyebrow. "Yet you do know him, though not in this form." She eyed the two greatswords on the templar's back, and drew her staff; she stepped around Cullen and stood in front of the other templar. "I suspect," she said to the templar, "you didn't realise how difficult it would be to undo."

    The templar shifted slightly, said nothing.

    Solona shook her head and smiled faintly. "This will hurt," she went on. "Just bear it a moment." She twirled her staff and summoned a sparkling flow of mana.

    "Solona?" Cullen frowned.

    "It won't take long," she said, and thrust her palm toward the templar's middle with a swift burst of magic. He doubled and a terrible grinding sound emanated from within the closed helmet. With her staff Solona began to tap him lightly about the head and shoulders, and her brow furrowed. She gave him a poke to his armoured chest and her expression lightened. "Ah, that's it," she said.

    She took a step back and held her staff with both hands over one shoulder.  She braced her body and swung the staff with all her strength, slammed it against the templar's chest, and the templar made another sound, like retching and tearing flesh. A searing light emanated from his body and Cullen was blinded a moment.

    There was a sudden rustling among the gathered people nearest them. Cullen blinked rapidly to clear the spots from before his eyes.

    "Sweet Maker!"

    "Shit, I better remember all this when I wake up."

    "You aren't sleeping, serah. You will remember."

    "Knight-Commander, if your mages are done with their parlour-tricks, I would like to return to Kirkwall, lest we find it reduced to rubble by the time we do."

    "They aren't parlour-tricks!"

    "Don't talk to the Seneschal unless he addresses you first."

    "That's better, old man. It's easier to hate you when you're being an asshole."

    At last his vision cleared and Cullen stared, his lips tight. On the ground where the templar had fallen, Ruvena sat stunned, her legs splayed and her hands on the ground behind her for support.

    Hugh lay on his back, his head and shoulders resting on Ruvena's lap.

    On his knees, straddling Hugh's body, Paxley blinked rapidly and looked up at Solona.

    Solona watched them with a complacent smile, and swung her staff once more to her back. "If they'd crossed back while they were all jumbled like that," she told Cullen confidentially, "they might have awakened in the wrong bodies."

    Cullen shook his head, disbelieving. "How did you know it was them?"

    "I could see it."


    "I have had a great deal of experience in the Fade, Knight-Commander," Solona reminded him. "I can tell the difference between a dreaming human and a spirit. Or three humans, as the case may be." She seemed amused by the situation.

    He sighed, looked down at his templars, who seemed still disoriented. "What were you trying to do?" he demanded.

    Ruvena looked up at him. "We wanted to help," she said. "We didn't realise what would happen."

    "That will teach you," Solona told her wryly, "not to try magical things without supervision."

    "Please get off me," Hugh gasped.

    Paxley stood unsteadily, patted himself all over and looked relieved. He reached down and helped Hugh to stand, then Ruvena. The three of them seemed uneasy and could not meet one another's eyes.

    "If you're all well," Cullen said sternly, "stand by for instructions. We will face a battle when we return to Kirkwall." They nodded in eerie unison. Cullen turned back to Solona. "Do you know how to get us back?"

    "Yes," she said slowly, "but the Veil is badly torn. What we need to do is get back, keep anything from returning with us, send back the creature that escaped, and mend the Veil."

    "All in one go?"

    "It would be best, yes," she said, but she looked doubtful. She turned and scanned the throng of mages. Cullen watched her face, could fairly see the calculations taking place behind her eyes.

    "You can't do it alone," he said quietly. "That's what you're thinking."

    "Not something this big, no," she said. "I don't know what's going on, on the other side, so we need to be prepared for that, too." The dark eyes flicked up to him. "The spirit on the other side will need to be temporarily freed in order to be sent back here."

    He frowned. "You said that it's bound by dominance and obedience," he reminded her. "Why do you need to free it to send it back?"

    "Putting it back behind the Veil while chained would be cruel, Cullen," Solona told him simply.

    "It's a demon," he said. "Would it give you the same consideration?"

    She rested her hand on his arm. "What would I be, Cullen," she said, "should I stoop to that level?"

    His chest tightened as she searched his face. Cullen twisted his arm to catch her hand in his gauntlet, squeezed it gently and lifted her fingers to his lips. "As ever," he murmured, "you remind me of the man I should strive to become."

    "I need to write this down," Varric muttered. "Even if it's not in my book when we get back, it might help me to remember it." He fumbled in his coat pockets, withdrew a pencil and a small book and began to scribble.

    "Varric," Aveline scolded. "There is a time and place, and this is neither."

    "You heard them too," Varric reminded her. "I wasn't listening to anything that no one else could overhear."

    "That's not the point."

    "You're distracting me, Guard-Captain."

    Cullen shot Varric a warning look; it was ineffective, as the dwarf was focused on his notes. Aveline shook her head.

    "You can't really stop him," she said, rueful. "At least he doesn't use real names."

    "I am all too aware of his oeuvre," Cullen told her drily, and returned his attention to Solona. "Tell me what you need," he said.

    Solona took a deep breath.

    He couldn't bring himself to do it; she was not Bethany but she was still Bethany, and he still loved her more than anything. She remained in his room, silent and uninterested, and spoke only when he spoke first. She did not respond to his kindnesses except to thank him in her detached tone. She did not react to his touch except to stand or sit or lie down when he wished her to.

    He refrained from touching her. It felt wrong.

    Death would be a preferable option, for him or for her; yet he could not kill himself, lest he be denied a spot at the Maker's side. He could not kill Bethany, not even out of mercy, lest he be unable to bear that guilt. He was to spend all his days with Bethany an ever-present reminder of his loss and failure.

    One night, one of the templars guarding the Chantry told Sebastian the truth while in his cups: that a Tranquil mage could be reconnected to the Fade by contact with a spirit. It need not, the templar told him, possess the mage, simply connect with the Tranquil mind long enough to overcome the scarring of the lyrium brand. It was, of course, not something the Chantry wanted known.

    That was what he needed to do, Sebastian decided; he needed to draw a spirit to Bethany, allow it to touch her, to heal her. Bethany could once more be whole, and he would have done right by her. He would have helped Thedas to be a better place, with Bethany's smile once more in it.

    At last, on the night of a full moon he donned his old armour, slung his bow and a full quiver to his back, led Bethany from the Chantry and out of the quiet city. He didn't know how to call a spirit, but Kirkwall was perpetually plagued by them. He was sure it would not take long for one to find them.

    They climbed the winding path toward Sundermount, where countless elven deaths had left the Veil eternally thin, a temptation for spirits. How many times had he climbed this dangerous trail at Hawke's heels? How many abominations, revenants, shades had they fought and slain together? He stole a look at Bethany, her face pale in the moonlight as she walked beside him, unquestioning. That two so very different people had come from the same lineage had once surprised him, until he had compared himself to his own brothers. They had been fit to rule, had been taught to be princes from birth, had pleased their parents—

    —and for all that, they had died at the hands of the Harriman family, and he yet lived.

    If this worked, if he managed to spare Bethany a lifetime of being cut away from the Fade, if he could have his beloved returned to him—

    No. He would not return to Starkhaven. Not again. He had failed his people and they had a new ruler now. A new ruler...


    He tried to think, tried to recall. He was too tense, anxious about this thing he was to do.

    What thing?

    To help Bethany; yes, that was it. To make Bethany not be Tranquil.


    He looked at her and she turned her face up to him and her brown eyes were flat and unfeeling. Yes. He was doing the right thing, to bring her up here. He smiled at her, encouraging.

    "We're almost there," he said.

    "I know," she said. "I have been to the summit of Sundermount."


    "When my brother and I were discharged from Athenril's service, we had the opportunity to deliver an amulet to Keeper Marethari, that we had been given in exchange for our lives."

    "The witch," Sebastian said, thoughtful. Varric had told him the tale once, over drinks at the Hanged Man.


    "Was she truly a dragon?"

    "She was in that form when we encountered her, yes. I do not know if that was her true shape."

    "I see." Interesting. Bethany would not—possibly could not—lie to him as she was. It meant that the tale, however implausible, was true.  

    They climbed the last steep section of the trail, and arrived at the ancient elves' resting place. Near the sheer mountainside, as close to the edge as possible, was a broad stone altar. Atop the altar a small lamp shone with a dancing blue flame.

    Fairy fire, Sebastian thought, and wondered where he had heard of such a thing. In the nursery, perhaps; it seemed a childish notion.

    Bethany stood and waited while Sebastian cast about the area. There was still a short distance to the true peak of Sundermount, but this area was as good as any other.

    As he had expected, it did not take long for something to stir. A few weak skeletons rose from the dirt, and he was able to dispatch them with little trouble. Skeletons were not the real threat, however, and Sebastian continued to wait.

    At last a shadow twisted up out of the earth and hovered a moment, seemed to turn and focus on him. "You," it noted, its voice ethereal, "have come here with purpose."

    Sebastian nocked an arrow. "If you know why I have come, then you will do what I wish you to do."

    "Or what? You will kill me? I am not like these undead things you can strike down so easily." Part of the shadow swept over the remains of the skeletons.

    "And I am no callow boy to fear you. I have killed many of your kind and I can do it again."

    The spirit hovered, formless in the moonlight. "I can heal your mage, human," it said at last. "But I want something in return."

    "You may not have her," Sebastian said firmly. "What else do you wish?"

    "I need a human body," it said. "Yours will do as well as hers, for my needs."

    "You may take mine," Sebastian promised. "I am willing to die for her sake. But you will heal her first." He glanced at Bethany. She stood perfectly still. "Bethany," he said softly, and she turned her eyes to him. "I love you. Please remember that."

    "I will remember it," she said.

    "Do it," he said to the spirit, and it moved toward Bethany, slid behind her, seemed to reach around as though to cover her eyes with shadowy hands. As it moved away, Bethany stumbled and gasped, and Sebastian lowered his bow.

    He had never anticipated just how easily a spirit could enter a mortal body, nor how painless the transformation was. He felt his body change shape, expand; he encompassed all of the world, experienced joy and exultation as he had never done before. As he shrank back down to the size of a normal human he peered through his peculiar new eyes and saw the face of the restored mage.

    She held the human's bow in her hands, and she had enchanted an arrow. "I am sorry, Sebastian," she said softly, and released the arrow. She was not strong but the arrow flew true and the human's body, weakened by the possession, collapsed in on itself—

    The first enchanter began to organise the mages, though Hugh could not tell immediately what criteria she was using to divide them. He watched a moment, then glanced to his right. Paxley stood with his feet apart, arms folded, and stared straight ahead of himself, unseeing.

    To his left Ruvena shifted her weight from one foot to the next, fussed unnecessarily with her armour.

    Hugh sighed. "We need to talk about this."

    "Later," Ruvena murmured.

    "When we get back," Paxley said, and he did not look at Hugh.

    "We will have to fight together when we get back," Hugh went on.

    "When we get back," Ruvena began.

    Hugh shook his head. "We've been friends a long time," he said. "We can't let things get weird."

    "They're already weird," Ruvena interrupted, and her cheeks flamed.

    He sighed again. "Look," he said. He extended his hands to either side, caught an elbow in each and yanked them close, forced them to turn to face him. Paxley kept his eyes down; Ruvena looked everywhere but at Hugh. He released their elbows and caught their chins with his gauntleted fingers, turned their faces toward him, looked first at Paxley and then at Ruvena.

    Did he see fear there, in the lyrium-blue eyes? Shame?

    Were they ashamed of their thoughts, of their feelings? Or of their behaviour, the things they'd done to relieve those feelings?

    He suspected the latter.

    Hugh let go their chins and hooked his arms around their heads and pulled them both close to him, forced their foreheads to touch his. "Idiots," he sighed. "Both of you."

    Ruvena laughed then, shakily, and Paxley's broad shoulders sagged and they wrapped their arms around him and squeezed.

    She had never feared the Fade. Her father had taken her into its confusing landscape on numerous occasions, had trained her in resistance and in recognition, had taught her to discern between an indifferent spirit and a malevolent one.

    She had been forced there by Orsino and the Gallows templars, when Cullen had first dragged her from Gamlen's hovel.  Her Harrowing hadn't been particularly arduous; she'd been offered comfort and safety that she'd known a demon simply couldn't provide, and she'd walked away from it easily.

    Now she had been forced to the Fade again, no doubt by the same mage who had repulsed her during her attempt to scry. Whoever this mage was, whatever her purpose, Bethany would make sure she did not get away with attacking Sebastian's army.

    The sparkling blue beacon had vanished, but Bethany knew where it had originated. She hadn't spent a year running the streets of Kirkwall for Athenril only to forget its layout. She made her way swiftly to Hightown.

    As she passed through the market she heard voices, and as she climbed the steps into the courtyard beyond she slowed her pace, stared around her. The mages were gathered in groups, and they turned to look at her.

    Some of them whispered her name; they knew her, and Bethany recognised them from her years in the Gallows. It hadn't been that long ago, after all. She moved forward, wove around the seemingly haphazard groups, and in the center of the courtyard she spotted a too-familiar form.

    "Knight-Captain Cullen," she said quietly.

    He turned to see her, frowned. "Serah Hawke," he said quietly, and glanced at a mage that stood nearby. The mage moved to stand beside him, and her dark eyes narrowed.

    "She," said the mage, "is the one who attempted to interfere with my summoning."

    "Then you are the mage," Bethany retorted, "who is practising dark magic within the city walls. I felt you parting the Veil. What did you summon?"

    "Only a source of energy," said the mage. "You are not of Kirkwall, nor are you one of my mages. Who are you?"

    "Your mages," Bethany repeated. "What does that mean?"

    Cullen cleared his throat. "Serah Hawke," he said, "allow me to introduce you to First Enchanter Solona. First Enchanter, serah Bethany Hawke, of the Amell family."

    Solona stared at Bethany a moment longer. "I see," she said. "I understood you to have fled the city with your brother."

    "We didn't flee," Bethany began.

    "Sunshine? Maker's breath, it is you!" Varric hurried toward her, and Aveline was on his heels. Bethany turned to greet them, relieved to see friendly faces.

    "Bethany," Aveline said, and wrapped her up in a powerful hug, lifted her bodily off the ground. "Maker, but it's been so long!" She set Bethany down. "Varric told me you went to Markham, though. To the Circle there. Why are you here? Or is this just another trait of the Fade?"

    "No, I am here," Bethany said, a little breathless from Aveline's embrace. "I came—with Sebastian."

    Aveline took a step back, shook her head slowly. Her green eyes flickered through a multitude of emotions. "But Sebastian is here to destroy the city," she said.

    "I know."

    Aveline stared. "Did he—kidnap you? The way he did those other mages? Has he hurt you?"

    "No, Aveline. I have been living with him for several months now."

    "Then why? Why would you accompany him in this? Kirkwall used to be your home."

    "Kirkwall was never really my home, though, was it?" Bethany said bitterly. "A year in Lowtown, hiding from templars, and six more in the Gallows. And then on the run once more with Garrett."

    "Sunshine," Varric said quietly, unnerved, but he had nothing more to say, and he just watched her, his eyes sad.

    Bethany drew herself up. "When I submitted myself to the Circle at Markham," she said, "the Knight-Commander ordered me made Tranquil, simply because I admitted I'd lived in Kirkwall. No one defended me, not even the first enchanter there. But Sebastian saved me from that, took me away and returned my life to me. I owe it to him—and more than that, I am happy, for the first time in a very long time."

    "And what of your friends here?" Aveline said harshly. "You would let us die in the name of a man who promised to destroy your own brother?"

    "I knew that you of all people, Aveline," Bethany retorted, "would find a way to save as many innocents as possible, and survive."

    Aveline shook her head again and took another step back, and Bethany's heart constricted. "If you are with Sebastian," Aveline said softly, "you are against us. I do not want to harm you, Bethany, but if you interfere with our safety, with the safety of the people of Kirkwall, I will do what must be done."

    "I am not against any of you," Bethany told her. "Only that mage—" She pointed at Solona, who stood in silence next to Cullen. "She has interfered with what should have been a quick and painless procedure."

    "You cannot destroy a city as easily as removing a bandage," Aveline said sharply. "Already countless people have suffocated or succumbed to the heat of the fire that Sebastian's mages started. Some have no doubt been crushed by stone since he started setting off his explosives. And good men and women have died defending Kirkwall from Starkhaven templars. We have had to kill mages in defense of our home, Bethany. Mages younger than you were when you first came to Kirkwall. Can you call that swift and painless, any of it? Can you sleep at night knowing that blood is on your hands?"

    "I have done nothing," Bethany snapped.

    "Haven't you." The green of Aveline's eyes had faded to a grayish tint and Bethany's chest tightened again. Without another word Aveline turned away and returned to stand next to her husband, who looked at her with concern but said nothing.

    "Aveline—" Bethany moved to follow her, found her feet bound in place by a shining glyph. She looked up at Solona, who stood still watching her. "You—?" The mage nodded, once. "Nicely done," Bethany said. "Taking advantage of my distraction. Do you think I can't undo it?"

    "I am not concerned." Solona looked up at Cullen and said something Bethany could not hear. Cullen nodded and spoke to one of his templars, who made his way unhurriedly to stand near Bethany.

    A young mage followed the templar, who looked over his shoulder. "No cause for you to come along," said the templar, and Bethany recognised the slow drawl. Samson. He'd come along when the blood mages had kidnapped her—

    "Yeah," agreed the mage, "but if something comes to attack us, I know what side my bread is buttered on."

    Samson grinned at that, shook his head and sobered. He looked at Bethany, his eyes passing no judgment. "Serah Hawke," he greeted her. "Been a while."

    "And better circumstances," Bethany agreed. "So, what, are you to kill me now?"

    "That's not the Knight-Commander's way," Samson said. "I'm just to watch over you until we're back in Kirkwall." He drew a pair of cuffs and without twisting her arms, without hurting her in any way, cuffed Bethany's wrists behind her back.

    "Kirkwall will never be a safe place," Bethany said. "It's lain too long corrupted by blood."

    "That may be," Samson agreed, and he moved to stand in front of her again. "But in the meantime, it's still home, and we still intend to defend it."

    "There is no defending it," Bethany told him. "Kirkwall will fall today."

    "Then I suppose we'll just have to do our best to survive," he said mildly.

    Movement caught her eye and Bethany turned to see Varric's back as he retreated, Bianca on his shoulder. He joined Aveline and Donnic and Cullen and—was that Seneschal Bran?—where they stood talking in low tones with Solona.

    "None of this is real," Bethany said, as she turned her attention back to Samson. "This is all in the Fade. As soon as we escape it I will no longer be bound."

    "That's fine." Samson shifted his shield on his arm, drew his sword and stood patiently beside her.

    "I remember you," said the mage, after a moment's silence. "You taught some of the children in the Gallows, years ago."

    Bethany did not recognise him; he was not overly tall, nor broad, and his hair and eyes were of an indistinct murky colour. He mustn't, she realised, have stood out to her during her time as an Enchanter. "Did I teach you?" she wondered.

    "No," he said. "I was never one of Orsino's favourites. Name's Devin."

    "So, Devin, now you want to take advantage of my current position to vent your adolescent frustration over not being treated as the special boy you are?"

    "Hardly," Devin shrugged. "Unlike all the other boys in the Gallows, I never had a crush on you."

    "Then why the crack about favourites?"

    He stared at her a moment. "I meant nothing by it," he said at last. "I was just making conversation until we get started." He thrust a thumb over his shoulder toward the first enchanter, who was now giving direction to a handful of mages, none of them very old.

    "Where did she come from?" Bethany asked. "Your first enchanter."

    "Cumberland," Devin said. "Though I heard someone say she was born in Kirkwall."

    "Grew up in Ferelden," Samson cut in. "Transferred to Cumberland, then here."

    Bethany fiddled with the cuffs around her wrists. Garrett had tried to teach her how to slip out of them, but she'd never learned. It didn't matter here, anyway; once she returned through the Veil the cuffs would be gone. She wondered where Sebastian was, why she hadn't been able to find him. She hoped he was all right, that he was simply dreaming, that he would wake up perhaps confused, but unharmed. He was no mage that a death in the Fade would sever his connection. Not like all of these.

    So many mages, so many spirits, so much temptation for a demon. So much life, all in one spot, from which to feed.

    Solona nodded to Cullen, then stepped away from the group. Seneschal Bran and Varric and the Hendyrs and the templars had no magic, of course, no means of finding their own paths through the Veil; Solona would ensure their passage. Devin would take care of bringing Samson, along with Bethany. Bringing non-mages into the Fade awake was much more difficult than taking them back.

    But what will you find when you go back?

    What, indeed.

    How much time would have passed? Seconds? Hours? Weeks or months? That was unlikely, she reasoned. If their bodies had died while they had been in the Fade, they would have felt the disconnection. That was something, at least.

    And the beast that was waiting for them—what was it? Something so great that its passage through the Veil had created a tear large enough to encompass all of Kirkwall; she did not look forward to greeting it.

    She looked out over her mages, who milled in their groups, each ready for the spell. The children who could not yet cast reliably had been partnered with mages and Enchanters, for guidance. She would bring them all home safely, she—

    Pride. Arrogance.

    Solona tapped the base of her staff on the ground, her lips pressed together.


    She couldn't do this alone, and she was not ashamed to need help. With her mages, with all of them working together, they would get home safely, would protect Kirkwall, would continue to make the city and even the Gallows a better place. It was why she was in Kirkwall, after all, by the Maker's will.

    Whatever He would require of her after, she would abide by that as well.

    The mages watched her, expectant.

    She made no speeches; everyone in the courtyard knew his or her purpose, his or her role in this spell.

    Solona raised her staff.

Chapter Text

    Solona woke to golden eyes in a blue furry-feathered face. "We made it," she said. The griffon snapped its beak at her and sat back on its haunches as Solona sat up. Her throat was dry and her skin tight; her armour was covered in a thin layer of dust.

    She checked her body, swiftly healed the minor bruises and cuts she'd received, and she stood, dusted off her armour as best she could. At last she straightened, and as she took in her surroundings her stomach plummeted.

    Kirkwall was gone.

    Not literally, of course. But where it had been standing only minutes before—defiant and blackened by fire—it was nothing recognisable now.

    All the mansions of Hightown stood in crooked mockery of the fine estates they had once been; walls had fallen, roofs had caved in. The streets had opened up to swallow the city and its people, and no doubt all that had prevented the white stone of the city from vanishing altogether was the enemy's inaccurate calculations.

    Solona pressed her lips together as she surveyed the destruction around her. "We were sent to the Fade," she murmured. "Before I could figure out how to stop this." She clenched her fists. "I failed."

    The griffon made a creaking sound, rose to its feet and shook out its wings. There was still the matter of the thing that waited behind her.

    A sudden chill made Solona bite down on a shiver, and she turned slowly to see the undulating form that loomed over the center of the city, as tall as the Chantry had been, shadowy and not quite real. It stared at her now with too many eyes and waited.

    Solona swallowed an exclamation at the spirit's proximity. "Well," she said at last, and made an effort to keep her tone careless, "I've got some things to do, so I suppose you'll just have to keep waiting a bit."

    The spirit roared suddenly, furious, and slashed toward her with dark tendrils; Solona blocked it with a rapid shielding spell and struck back with arcane bolts, which caused it to recoil in pain. The griffon stood at Solona's side, its hackles raised slightly, unafraid.

    The thing could not move from its place; it had tried many times but was prevented by the magical wards. It simply stood railing and demanding, smashing the stone around it with its limbs, but had not proven a true threat—yet.

    Solona nodded slowly, her eyes still on the writhing spirit. "No," she murmured. "It hasn't taken a solid form yet. We'll get rid of it before the wards fail."

    Beyond the spirit's dark appendages she could see white, and her eyes narrowed a little. "The Gallows still stands," she said, with some surprise.

    The enemy, of course, had not crossed the harbour. The griffon cocked its head at her.

    Solona turned to face it, searched the glittering yellow eyes. "Would the others be willing to carry the people of Kirkwall? Would they carry them to the Gallows, to safety?"

    The griffon reached up and rubbed the side of its foreleg against one feathery ear. It could certainly be done...

    "It would not be without recompense," Solona hastened to add. "I gave you my word we would not expect you to assist us without care in return. That is the pact the Wardens have always kept, yes?"

    The griffon eyed her a moment. The pride was growing restless, and in need of a hunt; they would do this, but food would be necessary—soon.

    Solona nodded. "I understand. Thank you." She bowed and straightened.

    How did Solona intend to defeat the thing?

    She considered a moment, reached up to push some hair out of her face. She thought a moment and rapidly separated her hair, plaited it down her back, and tied it in a thick knot at the end. "Have the pride bring back with them the mages at the Gallows—all the Harrowed ones. And any mages still alive within the walls, and any still alive on the battlefield. We'll need them all. They'll need to be brought here, so that we can circle this thing and banish it." She tucked a few stray strands behind her ears.

    The griffon batted at something on the ground; it was the red-and-black staff that had somehow found its way into her hands. Bemused, Solona bent to pick it up. The griffon crouched and lowered its wings, and waited.

    Solona inclined her head. "I apologise if I do it wrong," she said. "Grey Wardens have had no mounts in a long time, and I've never done this." She placed her hands on the furred shoulders, hopped and swung one leg up and over; the griffon stood and vaned its wings experimentally. Solona clutched at the thick blue fur with her free hand and finally settled on her knees, straddling the griffon's shoulders.

    The griffon leaped into the air as though Solona's weight was negligible. The trapped spirit snarled and reached up with one long, curling tendril; Solona shot an arcane bolt at it, and the spirit recoiled again.

    The griffon made an approving sound as it rose higher; it circled the city and with a long clear call summoned the pride into action. One by one they all took flight, and in a few minutes the air over Kirkwall was filled with wings.

    The mages had been singing—no, not singing, chanting—words that Bran had not been able to understand. The very air itself had become saturated with sound and colour, and it had grown somewhat difficult to breathe. Then the ground had disappeared beneath his feet and he had fallen—

    He inhaled sharply, tasted dust in his mouth and coughed; he attempted to push himself up. Pain shot through his left arm, made him dizzy and nauseated; he collapsed and lay gasping a moment. When he had caught his breath he moved his right arm gingerly, found it was sore but functional, and he rolled slowly to his right side and pushed himself to sit. His left arm hung useless at his side, and the pain threatened to make him faint. He took several slow, deep breaths and looked around himself.

    He was still in the Keep, or what was left of it. Around him were broken walls and furniture, and the floor beneath him was tilted dramatically. A wall that had not quite toppled loomed over him, and there was nothing beneath it; it had probably prevented him from being more badly wounded by the remains of the ceiling that lay scattered about. He moved out of its shadow with an effort and no small amount of pain. Once more he had to pause and breathe deeply, until a second bout of nausea passed. He supposed he had struck his head when the building had collapsed. He would have to find a healer and get that looked after; in the meantime, he needed to find his sons.

    Bran turned slowly to orient himself. They had been in his office—


    That was Dren's voice. Bran looked around, cautious, and stared rather stupidly as a large grey griffon descended toward him. It landed gingerly on the slanting floor, dug its talons into the stone, and as it closed its wings and lowered its head Dren slid carefully to the stone floor.

    "What are you doing on that thing?" Bran snapped.

    "Thank you, Dren, for coming back to find me," Dren said, mocking.

    "Where's your brother?"

    "He's all right. He's hurt, but he'll be all right. The griffons are taking everyone they can find to the Gallows." Dren reached into his jacket—torn and dirty, now—and pulled out his handkerchief.

    Bran frowned. "The Gallows?"

    "It's the only building still standing," Dren told him. Carefully he took Bran's left wrist in his hand and lifted the arm to cross Bran's chest. Bran gritted his teeth against the pain and his vision swam for a moment as Dren looped the folded kerchief around his wrist and fastened it around Bran's neck. The sharp pain faded and was replaced by a slightly less sickening ache.

    "Thank you," Bran said quietly. "How long have I been unconscious?"

    Dren shrugged. "I'm not sure. I was out, too, and I can't really get a straight answer out of anyone. The sun's still high, so I guess not long." He turned and moved to stand beside the griffon again.

    "Where is the first enchanter?"

    "I'm no mage, Father," Dren reminded him. "I wouldn't know a first enchanter if he stepped on me."

    "She is a woman," said Bran. "A mage, in armour. She'll be with the Knight-Commander, wherever he is."

    "Probably at the Gallows, then." Dren patted the griffon's neck and it twisted its head about to see him, crooned softly. "I'll stay here and you—" The griffon raised its head and let out a short, sharp cry, and Dren looked up. A second griffon flew a slow circle in the sky above them before it dropped swiftly and landed; the uneven floor shifted a little and Bran nearly toppled.

    "This is really unstable," Dren noted unnecessarily. "Climb on, and we'll get out of here before it slides away completely."

    "With a broken arm," Bran told him through his clenched teeth, "I can hardly climb on anything."

    "I'll help." Dren moved to help Bran to the second griffon's side. It was a pale grey, like ash. Appropriate for the day, Bran thought, before pushing such romantic silliness out of his head. Dren laced his fingers and lowered his hands to form a sort of stirrup for Bran to use. Bran stepped on his son's hands with his left foot, used his right arm to help haul himself up to the griffon's back as he swung his right leg over the beast.

    Dren stood back once Bran was seated, helped him arrange his legs. "How," Bran grumbled, "did Grey Wardens do this while wearing full armour?"

    "They stood," Dren told him. "Balanced themselves between the wings. If you're settled, then, go on to the Gallows. Someone there will fix your arm." Dren moved around to the griffon's face. "Take care of my father, now. He's hurt, and can't hang on well." He leaned conspiratorially close. "Getting on in years, you know."


    The griffon shook itself gently and Bran was forced to cling to the pale fur with his good hand, but he was not dislodged. Dren chuckled and mounted the other griffon, which took off before Bran could say another word.

    "Maker," he sighed. First the Chantry, and now the rest of the city. How many had survived? How was he to restore order this time?

    The griffon crouched and leaped into the air, its broad wings lifting it in stages with every flap. Bran looked down and felt queasy again, closed his eyes.

    How much longer would this day last?

    It had been a awesome thing to have experienced.

    He would have to draw on all his resources to be able to describe it later. First, Solona had raised her staff, followed by all the other mages. She had then begun to chant a spell, and each group of mages joined in at equal intervals, until it seemed the whole of the Fade was filled with the magical song. Colour and light had begun to form in the air around them, and Varric had tried to touch one of the vibrant streaks; his fingers had passed through without disturbing it.

    The colour splashes had begun to swirl about the courtyard, to meld into one another. As the myriad colours had become a single bright light, Varric had looked up and caught Bethany watching him. Her face had been tight, her eyes sad—more so even than they'd been when he'd first started watching her and Hawke going about their business for Athenril.

    Bethany's sad eyes were still on his mind when he opened his own eyes and met a familiar pair of golden-brown ones. Varric blinked, pushed himself up and stared a moment.

    "I would appreciate it, serah," said Cullen through bloodied teeth, "if you would get off me."

    Varric rolled obediently away, winced as everything hurt. He got to his feet, reached back for Bianca, and his stomach sank as his hand found nothing but his own coat. He cast about the area and discovered they were at the bottom of a hole. He remembered, then, Solona beginning to scry, and the explosive charge that had gone off beneath them.

    Charred stone and dirt covered the ground; one side of the hole was almost vertical, and through the dirt Varric thought he could see the outlines of carefully-placed stones. It looked like it might be part of an ancient wall. Possibly from the time before the magisters. Interesting.

    The rest of the hole had been blown in a sort of half-funnel shape, just a touch too steep for climbing. Bits of broken flagstones and gravel slid down now and again to settle at the bottom.

    Cullen sat up with a rustle of chain and plate and he made a pained sound. Varric glanced back at him; Cullen spit blood, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, pushed himself to stand. He stooped to pick up his sword and shield. "The first enchanter is not here," he said grimly.

    "Haven't seen her," Varric agreed. Cullen stood and stared up at the sky for a moment. Varric resumed his search. "Baby," he murmured, "Let me know where you are." But Bianca was silent and Varric's heart felt as though it would break. Squatted on his toes, he turned to scan the area. The hole was as deep as two humans, but it wasn't broad; she couldn't be far.

    Cullen exclaimed suddenly and moved to stand over Hugh, who lay still unconscious a few steps away from where Cullen and Varric had landed. His body was half-hidden by broken stone; Cullen crouched beside him, removed a gauntlet and glove and felt for breath, a pulse.

    Varric cleared his throat. "He all right, Cap—I mean, Commander?"

    "He will live," Cullen said quietly. He replaced his glove and gauntlet, began to move pieces of cracked stone away from Hugh's body.

    Varric turned his attention once more to his search for Bianca. At last he spotted gleaming wood hidden by dirt and stone and he uncovered her carefully, pulled her free of the rubble and cradled her against his body as he brushed her clean. She was damaged, her polished wooden stock gouged and dented, her brass parts scraped and dull. "Oh, sweetheart," Varric whispered, and pulled off one glove to caress her with his bare fingers. Other than the superficial damage, she seemed all right, and Varric lifted her as though to fire.

    Bianca hummed suddenly, a cold and vengeful tune that matched Varric's mood. "That's my girl," he replied quietly. "This is not over until the Choir Boy sings." He lowered her, checked his stock of bolts, gave Bianca another once-over, then swung her into place on his back.

    He stood and turned to Cullen, who had cleared the debris from Hugh, and was now checking the younger templar's head for injuries.

    "Maker," Cullen sighed. "He's been hit so many times today I can't tell what's what." He shook his head and found a potion in one of his pouches, lifted Hugh's head and poured the vial's contents into him. He set Hugh's head down gently and looked at Varric, then up toward the gaping mouth of the hole.

    Varric looked up as well. "You think we can climb out of here?"

    "Possibly," Cullen said. He stood and looked around at the rubble, calculating. He looked up again and a shadow passed over the hole. Cullen moved swiftly, flattened himself against the stone wall. Alarmed, Varric did the same. The shadow was gone.

    "What was that?" Varric whispered.

    "I don't know," said Cullen.

    A tremor shook their footing and Varric splayed his legs for balance. As dust and chunks of rock were shaken loose, Cullen moved swiftly to crouch beside Hugh, raised his shield to protect them both from the falling debris.

    The tremor was followed by an unholy sound—not a shriek, not a roar, but something in between, and nearly loud enough to deafen. Cullen tilted his face up, his lips suddenly bloodless.

    "What was that?" Varric asked again.

    "The thing that came through," Cullen said. "I have to get out there. She can't face it alone."

    "What about him?" Varric gestured to Hugh.

    Cullen lowered his shield and looked at Hugh. Colour had begun to return to Hugh's lips and cheeks. Cullen eyed Varric a moment. "Look out for him until he wakes, serah." He swung his shield to his back.

    "Wait," Varric said, as Cullen began to scale the sloped side of the hole. "How are we supposed to get out?"

    "Just be safe, serah," Cullen said sternly, over his shoulder. "I'll send someone for you." Varric watched as he nimbly leaped over loose rock, caused a small cascade to slide further into the hole, and vanished into the sunny sky above.

    Varric sighed. "Well," he said to Bianca, "if anyone can afford to buy them when this is over, the stories I'll get out of this will keep a roof over our heads for a while."

    Bianca trilled in agreement.

    "What do you say about Serine, the rebellious Grey Warden mage who fled their ranks in Ferelden in pursuit of freedom and true love, only to find it within the confines of the Gallows in Kirkwall?"

    Bianca hummed, thoughtful.

    "That's true," Varric said. "But maybe they only just got married in Kirkwall."

    Bianca made a dubious noise.

    "You did tell me that," he recalled. "All right. Then perhaps Serine fled the Grey Wardens—"

    Bianca protested.

    "—left the Grey Wardens, to find the templar she'd always loved. But there's no conflict there," he complained. "Not like fleeing responsibility in search of uncertainty, and finding love in unexpected places."

    Bianca was quiet, a little wistful.

    "Yeah," Varric sighed, and reached back to touch Bianca's stock with his bare fingertips. He pulled on his glove once more and wondered if there was a chance in the Void that he could climb out the way Cullen had. How was a man in heavy plate armour and templar skirts so damn light on his feet?

    Determined to be at Serine's side, to fight with her and protect her and to be protected by her until the end came for one or both of them, Knight-Commander Coulson scaled the sheer cliff wall as easily as walking...

    Hugh sat up suddenly and inhaled, coughed, rolled to his knees; he staggered to his feet and looked around himself, bewildered. He focused on Varric.

    "Where am I?" he demanded.

    "In a hole," Varric told him cheerfully. "In the street in the middle of Hightown. Cullen was here, but he left."

    Hugh stared at him. "Where did he go?"

    "Said something about not letting her fight alone, then just ran up the wall and out." Varric raised a finger to the sky.

    Hugh scowled. "He—" He snapped his mouth shut. "She can take care of herself."

    Varric shrugged. "I think it's only natural for him to be worried about his wife. And in any case, she kind of seems to be right in the middle of things." He looked up again. "If I thought I could climb out of here, you can bet I'd be looking for her, too. Seems that family can't help but attract trouble."

    "What family?" Hugh asked.

    Varric grinned and looked at him. "She's an Amell. Cousin to the Hawkes. You didn't know?"

    Hugh shook his head. "Apparently it's not my place to know," he said, rueful. "I didn't even warrant knowing that my Commander is married."

    "Aw, well, that's just tact," Varric said with a dismissive wave. "Chantry's got some odd rules that seem to be in place just to break families up."

    "The rules are in place for a reason," Hugh said, and sighed. "First enchanter didn't end up down here with us?" He twisted at the waist to look around at the charred and broken stones that surrounded them.

    "Not as far as I can tell," Varric said. "Cullen seemed to think she was out there." He pointed up again.

    Another tremor shook the ground beneath them and once again the unearthly scream sounded above.

    Hugh clenched his jaw and waited for the tremor to pass, for the stones to stop falling. He looked at Varric once more.

    "Whatever that is," he said grimly, "we're probably going to have to fight it. Let's get out of here."

    "I'm not the best climber in Thedas," Varric said, hesitant.

    Hugh looked him over, assessing, and Bianca whirred softly, uneasy.

    Another shadow passed over them and they both looked up; it was swiftly gone, but a soft thump told Varric it hadn't gone far. He reached back for Bianca just as an enormous white-feathered head peered down into the hole, gleaming yellow eyes sharp and alert.

    "Shit," Varric breathed, and released Bianca. "Hi, there."

    The griffon looked from Varric to Hugh and back, made a thoughtful sound, and crept forward. It eased itself carefully over the edge of the hole, then leaped down to the bottom, stirring up soot and gravel as its weight struck the ground. It turned around—with an effort, for with its enormous size it nearly filled the hole—and crouched. It looked over its shoulder at Varric.

    "Uh, no, thanks," Varric said. "Dwarves don't fly."

    "What about dwarven Grey Wardens?" Hugh spoke up.

    "I guarantee you there were none on griffons."

    "All Grey Wardens used to ride," Hugh told him. "That's what I've read, anyway."

    The griffon opened its beak and crooned, soothing.

    "Ha ha," Varric said. "No."

    "If it'll get us out of here," Hugh snapped, from the other side of the griffon, "get on the bloody thing."


    "May I, then?" Hugh asked. The griffon turned its head to him and ducked slightly. Hugh placed his hands on its thick fur, pressed lightly as though testing it. He planted his hands, then, and leaped up to straddle the massive shoulders. The griffon made a sound and shifted, and Hugh arranged himself further back along the griffon's body, behind the glimmering wings. "All right, then," Hugh said, and looked at Varric. "Ready?"

    "Have fun," Varric wished him, with a sarcastic wave.

    "Oh, it'll be fun."

    The griffon crouched low as though to pounce and before Varric could move Hugh's hand shot out and grabbed the collar of his coat. The griffon leaped into the air and Varric could not breathe as his feet were lifted from the ground. Hugh twisted to set Varric down behind him on the griffon's back, and Varric gripped the templar's armour as tightly as he could. All he could hear was the beating of the griffon's wings—

    And then the beating stopped, and Varric could feel wind and sunshine on his head. Shaking, he lifted his head to look; the griffon was gliding up over Kirkwall, and the sun struck its wings, made them glow bright white. As terrified as he was of falling, he could not help but take a look down at the city—

    —at what was left of it.

    The city walls were still more or less intact in most places but Kirkwall was shattered—as though it had been dropped from this great height into place. None of the buildings were any longer recognisable. Even the Keep had fallen; its outer wall, which was part of the city wall, was all that remained. Here and there large sinkholes had formed, leading down beneath the city, all the way down to Darktown. Outside the city walls he could see people—templars and soldiers—moving slowly. He wondered which among them was Sebastian.

    Beneath them sounded a terrible roar, the noise that had prompted Cullen to leap up and out to chase after his wife. Near the center of Hightown something large and shadowy moved, undulated. Now and again it would lash out at something Varric could not see, but it did not move from its place.

    "What is that?" he said. "Is that a demon?"

    "It looks to be," Hugh said dubiously. "I've not seen something that large before."

    The griffon turned once more and glided toward the harbour where the Gallows stood tall and imposing, entirely untouched by the destruction.

    Donnic heard soft strains of music, could not quite make out the source. He tried to turn his head and pain shot through his spine, radiated outward to his extremities. He gritted his teeth and waited for the pain to fade. The music faded with it.

    He opened his eyes and saw white stone, blinked and his eyes watered against the grit that fell into them. His lips were dry; he stuck out his tongue experimentally and found it dry as well. At last he moved one arm, then the other, flattened his palms on the ground and pushed his torso up; with an ear-rending scraping sound, something slid off his back and rattled to the ground. Donnic tensed and looked. It was a small piece of a stone wall.

    His legs were still more or less pinned but he managed to work them free. Nothing was broken, thank the Maker, though everything was bruised. He sat on the street and checked himself all over to be sure. He stood, aching, and looked around; the walls in the area had crumbled and fallen. Still within sight was the door leading out of Kirkwall, which hung ridiculously from one hinge, from a portion of wall that remained upright.

    Donnic turned and scanned the area, and spotted Aveline not far from him. He strode swiftly to where she lay, half-buried by stone and brick. He uncovered her rapidly, felt for her breath, her heartbeat; she did not move. The dusty ground beneath her was blood-soaked, and one of her spaulders had been crushed. Carefully, Donnic turned her to her back, cradled her head and shoulders in his lap. He removed his gloves and withdrew a potion—one of two he had left—uncapped the vial and gently let the potion spill into Aveline's mouth. She did not react for a moment and Donnic reached for the second potion.

    Aveline coughed before he could open the second vial and Donnic quickly held her head and shoulders up so she would not choke. She flung out her arms blindly and nearly struck him, but Donnic held her firmly.

    "Aveline," he said. "Aveline, it's me."

    She stiffened and leaned back to look at him. "Donnic," she croaked. "Did we make it back?"

    "Yes, love," he said soberly. "We made it, but not before the charges went off."

    "Maker," she groaned. "Are you all right, Donnic?"

    "I've been better," he said. "You had more wall on you than I did."

    "Wall?" She pushed herself up with an effort and paused to take a deep breath. "Maker," she repeated as she took in the destruction. "Donnic, what of the children?"

    "I don't know," he said softly. Aveline rolled to her knees and looked around them and for the first time since he'd known her Donnic saw tears in her eyes. She blinked and clenched her jaw and her fists tightened, and when she looked up at him again the tears were gone, replaced by grim intent.

    "I will separate his head from his body myself," she said through her teeth. She pushed herself to her feet and Donnic rose with her. "I will make him pay for what he has done. He will suffer far more than he has ever thought possible and I will make it last longer than he ever thought a man could live." She slapped her hip to assure herself that her sword was still there, and it was—the scabbard stained with Aveline's own blood mingled with the white dust of Kirkwall. She found her shield in the rubble and thrust her arm through the enarmes. She straightened once more and turned to Donnic.

    "Let's go," she said. Donnic turned to move with her.

    The shattered street beneath them trembled and from another part of the city they heard a terrible sound, an inhuman sound. They looked up but could see nothing other than the griffons flying back and forth over the city. "They're still here," Donnic noted as he watched them a moment.

    "I don't suppose they'll stay long," Aveline said. "There's nothing to keep them here now."

    "They made a deal with the first enchanter, didn't they?"

    "I'll not count on that. There's nowhere for them to stay, nothing for them to eat. You saw how large they are."

    "True," he agreed, and felt a certain disappointment in the thought that the griffons would leave. He had loved the tales of Grey Wardens and their mighty steeds, when he'd been a boy. He'd chosen to become a guard, to keep the people of the city safe from less fantastical dangers than the darkspawn, and he had never regretted it; nevertheless, seeing an entire flock—no, pride, Solona had called them—in the flesh had brought back a measure of that boyish excitement.

    But those were thoughts for another time. He said nothing, and he kept up with Aveline's angry pace.

    Agatha had never experienced such pain, nor such a disconnection from a part of her body. She could not move her leg of her own accord, though she knew it was attached, bound to her body by her armour and by strips of blood-soaked fabric; cold agony made her want to cut it away so the pain would stop and she could heal.

    Bryce had found her lying twisted at the bottom of a massive sinkhole, had carefully lifted away the rubble that had fallen on her and had done his best not to look horrified when he'd seen the shape she was in. He had cut away a strip from her torn base and tied it around her thigh as a tourniquet, had fashioned a sort of splint with Agatha's own sword and more strips from her base, and had valiantly carried her up and out of the sinkhole.

    To safety? She wondered. Only two members of her troop had survived—Bryce and Holt—and both were injured, though neither as badly as she. The enemy seemed to have won, to have taken down the city; all that remained was for stragglers to be picked off. In her state she could not flee, could not fight—could not even stand—and Bryce could not carry her and defend at the same time.

    But they were not attacked up in the street and Bryce set her gently in the shade of a wall that remained upright. He knelt behind her, let her lean against his chest, and held her arms. Holt crouched within view, her face drawn and anxious, smeared with blood and dust. Agatha took a deep breath, tried to keep her voice steady. "You'll find the Knight-Commander," she told them. "He'll need both of you, to support him in taking down this enemy. If you find any of our mages alive, it is your duty to protect them as well. Take them with you. They can help you in the fight."

    "What are you trying to say, Lieutenant?" asked Holt. "We're not leaving you behind, ser."

    Agatha raised a shaking hand and pointed at her. "If it comes down to me or Kirkwall, Holt, you will step over me to protect the city. Do you understand?"


    "I don't think," said a slow voice, "that anyone needs to be stepped over." Holt turned on her toes, and Agatha tilted her head slightly to see. Samson seemed unharmed, though decidedly disheveled, as he approached. The mage that followed him was alert and also unscathed.

    "You're a welcome sight, my friend," Agatha said, "though I see you've not got the healing kind with you." She indicated the mage. She couldn't remember his name, just that he had an affinity for the entropy school. He liked to frighten people.

    "No," Samson agreed. "He did save my life, though, and because we don't need them right now, we can spare the potions we've got between us."

    "Thank the Maker," Bryce murmured, and his hands tightened on Agatha's arms.

    Agatha shivered. Holt moved aside as Samson crouched and helped Agatha to drink down an elfroot potion, and then a vial of lyrium. As the healing began the pain intensified and Agatha writhed against the burning sensation as the bone and tendon and muscle in her leg shifted and reconnected. She was unable to silence a groan through her teeth, and Bryce's hands tightened again. At last the pain reduced itself to an uncomfortable throbbing and Agatha sighed, exhausted, and sagged back against him. Holt began to cut away the fabric tied around her leg and removed Agatha's sword, released the tourniquet; Agatha drowsed, suddenly only half-aware of what was happening around her.

    "Is it normal for her to pass out like this?" Bryce asked.

    "For an injury that severe, yes," said the mage. "Potions don't do the actual healing, you know. They make your body do it, extremely fast. The worse the injury, the more it takes out of you."

    "I never knew that," mused Holt. "Never seen anyone that badly hurt—at least, not that survived."

    "Shut your mouth," Bryce snapped. It made Agatha want to smile. He was a good templar, but he had yet to learn to hide his heart.

    "I only meant—"

    "I said shut it."

    "Calm yourselves," Samson said. "We've got other fish to fry, haven't we?" Agatha heard the rustle and clank of his armour as he stood. "I figure we should be getting to the docks. You can see the Gallows is still standing. We can regroup there, and anyone who needs to sit out can be safe there."

    "Why would they be safe there?"

    "Enemy's not crossed to the Gallows," Samson said. "Else it would be down too. I have an idea I know why they didn't bother."

    "What's that?"

    Samson inhaled and sighed. "He knew Meredith had called for the Right of Annulment. Knew she had gotten it before—before we had to fight her. I think he thinks the Circle was Annulled. He left before the real fight started that day."

    "So he doesn't realise we still have the mages?" Holt wondered.

    "I'm sure he's figured it out by now," Samson said. "But I don't think he initially planned for them to be here. It gives us some breathing room." They were all quiet for a moment, and Agatha struggled to open her eyes, but failed. "The griffons," Samson said thoughtfully.

    "What are they doing? What's that one got?"

    "Not sure," Samson said. "It looks like they're carrying the wounded."

    "Carrying them where?" Bryce asked. "Are they—going to eat them?"

    "Don't be an ass," snapped Holt. "Griffons don't eat people."

    Samson was quiet a moment. "They're headed toward the Gallows," he said at last. "Let's be off in that direction, then."

    "Agatha," Bryce said, into her ear. "Can you stand?"

    She forced her eyes open. "I think so," she murmured. She would almost rather have slept; her body was warm and her thoughts sluggish.

    "I'll help you," he said. He slid his hands beneath her arms and helped her to her feet. Agatha swayed, and Bryce lifted her arm over his shoulders, let her lean on him.

    Samson's face came into view; he held her chin and lifted her head and Agatha managed a weak smile. "Breathe deep," Samson suggested. "It'll help wake you up."

    "Right." Agatha took a couple of deep breaths, then looked at Bryce and nodded. Samson turned and they all pulled up short at the sight of Cullen climbing over a pile of rock toward them.

    He was bloody and dusty, as were they all; his mouth was a tight line and his eyes blazed.

    "Knight-Commander," Samson greeted him. "What's the word, ser?"

    Cullen slid a little as he descended in their direction, caught his balance and straightened once he was on solid footing. He looked at them all in turn; Agatha straightened as best she could. Cullen frowned at her. "You're injured," he said.

    "No longer," Agatha managed.

    "Got some potions into her," Samson said. "Just in time, too. Think she's lost a lot of blood."

    Cullen nodded. "The fatigue will pass. Have you had lyrium?"

    "Yes, ser," Agatha nodded.

    He nodded again. "You'll all come with me," he said.

    "Where to?" asked Holt.

    "A demon passed through from the Fade while we were trapped there. We will need to destroy it, or send it back."

    "Send it back?" Bryce exclaimed. "Why bother?"

    "Not my choice," Cullen said. "First enchanter thinks that sending it back is safest. Less collateral damage than a battle against something that large."

    Bryce tensed. "How large, ser?" he asked.

    Cullen pointed. "See for yourself."

    They all turned to look, and the warmth that had flooded Agatha's body with the potions she'd drunk vanished entirely, replaced with a cold queasiness.

    Not far away from them rose a shape above the broken city. It was as tall as the old Chantry's highest spire though only half as broad. Enormous writhing limbs extended from all over its body, sharply contrasted against the blue sky, and everywhere else on its body it seemed to have watchful black eyes. The slow movement of its many appendages was almost hypnotic—until one shot out and upward, toward a passing griffon. The griffon dodged and sped away, and the demon's angry shriek made Agatha's spine curl.

    "We have to fight that?" said Holt, in a small voice.

    "We have only to contain it," Cullen said. "It is held fast by magical wards, for the moment. The first enchanter has a plan for sending it back."

    "Where's she?" Samson wondered.

    "She will be nearby," Cullen assured him. "We will be ready when she needs us." He beckoned and marched in the direction of the beast. Samson followed without hesitation, and the mage trotted after Samson, his staff clutched tightly in both hands. Holt took a deep breath and sighed, then seemed to steel herself before she headed after them.

    Bryce looked down at Agatha. "Think you can walk now?"

    She considered a moment, lifted her legs each in turn and set them down. "Not fast," she said, "but I can move." Bryce smiled and let her go, watched her closely for any sign of weakness; Agatha was steady, and she flashed him a smile in return.

    Together they turned to follow the knight-commander.

    They'd been nearly to the Keep when they'd become trapped in the Fade; there they woke as well, collapsed in the middle of the Viscount's Way. The Keep itself had fallen, but the columns lining the Way remained largely intact. Paxley's face had been scraped on the flagstones, but he was otherwise uninjured.

    Ruvena was in considerable pain. She had awakened in a peculiar position—on her knees, her arms at her sides, and her head twisted to one side. She was stiff and sore, and groaned a little as she got to her feet. "How long were we out?" she wondered, and stretched her arms, forced her head to turn against the kink in her neck.

    "Can't tell," Paxley said as he stood as well, and there was a note of weariness in his voice. "Not long, I think." He looked up at the sky. "Griffons are—Maker's spit," he swore, and pointed. "What is that?"

    Ruvena moved to stand next to him and stared at the shadowy form. "Demon," she murmured. "It's bloody huge."

    "The griffons are circling it," Paxley said. He glanced behind them at the fallen Keep, then back at Ruvena. "What—do you think we should do?"

    "Whatever that is, it needs to be stopped," Ruvena said firmly. "Or even more people will die. Let's find Cullen, and go forward from there."

    "Right." Paxley squared his shoulders and a little of the anxiety left his face. As long as he felt someone else was in charge, that he was following orders, Paxley would fight fiercely to the end, and he would be nearly unstoppable.

    Ruvena just hoped someone really was in charge.

    She drew her sword in preparation for whatever might happen, and Paxley did the same. They marched together back along the Viscount's Way, toward Hightown. They climbed over broken stone and fallen walls and discovered that the griffons were not flying aimlessly; they were carrying mages to Hightown, from the Gallows, and depositing them not far from where the demon remained in place. Several templars patrolled the area, spread out in three- to five-pace intervals to keep an eye on the mages.

    Cullen was there as well, and he moved rapidly from templar to templar, mage to mage, ensured everyone knew where to go and what to do. He turned to see Paxley and Ruvena approach and he frowned slightly. "You were not in the Keep?" he said gravely.

    "Halfway there, ser," Paxley replied in kind. "We weren't able to help anyone."

    Cullen shook his head. "I thank the Maker for each and every one of us that has survived. I need you two to move around over there—" He indicated the far side of a circle the mages were forming around the demon, well out of the reach of the lashing appendages. "You see where Whitcomb is patrolling? Take up the area past him. Watch the mages, and keep an eye on that thing." Cullen looked up to the sky, then, and shielded his eyes with one hand. "The first enchanter is distracting it from up there, but she won't have its attention forever." He looked back down at Ruvena. "Be careful. Both of you."

    They saluted him and jogged in the direction he had given them. Whitcomb looked relieved to see them and inclined his head in greeting as they passed.

    They took up their positions, and they watched, and waited.

    The mages were in place, as many as had survived, their staves and crystals ready. The ones that had been brought from the Gallows had brought as much lyrium as they could carry, and they had portioned it out among themselves. The remaining templars in the city had gravitated naturally toward the trapped spirit's location, and had begun to coordinate a patrol, a circle around the mages' circle, watching over the mages and keeping an eye on the spirit itself.

    The mages had shared their lyrium with the weary templars.

    The griffon glided noiselessly, high above the beast, out of the reach of its devastating limbs, and this afforded Solona an excellent view of the area. The mages—her mages, all of them counting on her, trusting her—knew what they needed to do and she had faith that all of them together could return this creature to the Fade, mend the Veil, and preserve what little remained of the city.

    They would not have time to rebuild before the coming war; even with as many people as the city guard had managed to evacuate, even if there were yet survivors in the city, too many had already died.

    Solona clenched her jaw. Everything in its time; she needed to focus on the immediate concern.

    She set off a bright, sparkling spell as a signal to the mages below. Their staves went up in unison and mana flowed around them, glimmering blue almost the colour of the sky.

    The spirit began to shriek as the mages' spells—a combination of suppression spells as well as magic to thrust it back beyond the Veil—closed in on it. It lashed out futilely, and the magic seemed to burn it. It recoiled and its shrieking grew more desperate, its strikes more frantic and less effective.

    Solona took a deep breath and cast Spell Might on herself. The amplifying spell trickled through her veins, made her shiver. The griffon circled around the spirit once more, to give Solona a better position from which to aim. Solona prayed swiftly for guidance, summoned her mana and began the spell that would mend the Veil once the spirit had been thrust back behind it.

    The griffon shrieked and twisted suddenly and Solona was flung from its back; she saw a thin blackish tendril coiled around one slate-blue wing and then could see nothing but the spirit below, watching her with a thousand eyes as she fell toward its waiting limbs.

    "Maker," she prayed—

Chapter Text

    It wasn't true, what they said about one's life flashing before one's eyes, before one's death. She had come close enough on numerous occasions to know.

    With the Wardens, Solona had learned to fight knowing that each battle might be her last—she'd prepared herself mentally for each difficult encounter, to focus on doing as much damage, on taking with her as many enemies as possible, should she fall. Not once during even the most difficult combat, had she contemplated her life choices. That was something reserved for sleepless nights—and those had been fewer since reuniting with Cullen here in Kirkwall.

    Her descent slowed suddenly, as though she was sinking through water, and from the corner of her eye she caught a glimmer of metal as her amulet floated upward. The mirrored back reflected the sun into her eyes and Solona blinked.

    Jowan smiled at her from within the depths of the amulet.

    She had seen his face there countless times. She knew it wasn't really him; the amulet had been imbued with magic—possibly the same magic that had permeated Andraste's ashes. Oghren had called it, hadn't he? In a rare moment of sobriety he had casually pointed out that the walls of the temple were heavily-laden with lyrium, that any special properties of the ashes had probably come from centuries of exposure to that much lyrium.

    By any means necessary.

    It was the mantra of the Grey Wardens. It meant that it didn't matter if the ashes were magical because Andraste was chosen of the Maker, or if they were magical because they had been left to soak up lyrium for hundreds of years. They had worked to save Eamon, and Solona had been able to unite Ferelden to the cause—

    and defeating the Archdemon had earned her the right to want to be away from it all, to settle in with Cullen and live a comfortable life, give him the children he had always wanted, beautiful red-haired children, maybe with a little magic of their own

    Solona shook her head. Why was it always children? Why not just Cullen? He was really all she wanted, all she needed, and he had never expressed a desire for children.

    he was probably badly injured right now, lying in the middle of Kirkwall's ruins; she hadn't seen him since the charges had begun to go off and they'd been thrust into the Fade

    The amulet twisted slightly and Jowan's image seemed to move, to speak to her. Solona strained to hear the words, lifted her free hand slowly to reach for the amulet.

    The metal was cold to the touch, made her fingers ache, but she could not release it. The mirrored back of it began to soften and expand, to engulf her hand, her arm, and she was helpless to stop it as it consumed her, little by little, turned her inside-out and left her bare, all her thoughts and dreams exposed to the icy air.

    "Maker forgive me," she prayed.

    "He has not yet returned His gaze to His second children."

    Solona's feet touched solid ground; she splayed her legs and snatched her staff from her back, ready for any attack. She turned and found herself face-to-face with a woman, tall and muscled, dressed in the furs and leathers of the Alamarri barbarians. Her smile, when Solona met her dark eyes, was fierce and showed the tips of her sharp canine teeth.

    "He may never," continued the woman, "though He hears your prayers daily." She spoke an old Fereldan dialect, harsh as winter, sharp as broken stone.

    "Andraste," Solona murmured, and shivered a little. She lowered her staff.

    The woman smiled again. "Not at all like the pretty statues you have seen, am I?" She lifted her arms, looked down at herself and then back at Solona. She carried two swords, one long and one short, sheathed at her hips. A shield of wood bound with metal hung on her back.

    "No," Solona agreed. "But you led the Fereldan armies against the Imperium, so it makes no sense to portray you as some sort of delicate flower."

    Andraste's laugh was a delightful, throaty sound. "There was no Ferelden then, but you are correct."

    Solona nodded and looked around; there was nothing to see but a thin, swirling fog, and Andraste. So she was in the Fade again. "I have died, then," she mused. "I don't remember."

    "Not yet," Andraste said, with a shrug.

    "Then why did you bring me here?"

    "I did no such thing," was the mild reply. "You came here by your own will."

    Solona looked up at her again. "Why?"

    "Why indeed. Why have you ever reached out to the Fade for counsel? You have need of guidance—rather, you believe you do."

    Solona frowned, twirled her staff slowly. "What do you mean, I believe I do?"

    "I mean exactly what I said. You have no real need of guidance, not right now." Andraste strode toward her, took Solona's shoulders with strong hands and turned her around. "You know exactly what needs to be done."

    Where before there had been nothing but fog, now there was Kirkwall, suspended in time. The mages were still arranged around the raging spirit, held fast in the middle of casting their spells, while the spirit itself was contained by wards and time. Behind the mages, stern-faced and stalwart, the templars had been captured mid-pace, eyes fixed on their charges or on the spirit.

    Solona smiled a little to see Cullen well, and attentive to his duty; he was focused on a pair of mages, one of whom had her hands up to cast a protective spell— the other was, as Solona herself had instructed, simply transferring energy.

    "He is not looking at you," Andraste pointed out, and watched Solona shrewdly.

    "He doesn't need to," Solona replied, as she memorised the lines of Cullen's face. "He knows I can fight and defend myself, and that I will live or die by the Maker's will."

    "The Maker does not turn His gaze to you."

    "Yet it is by His will we are here at all." Solona looked up, once more met Andraste's dark eyes. "What is it you want me to see here?"

    "Why do you think I want you to see anything at all?"

    Solona searched the lined, brown face. Most Chantry depictions of Andraste were of a smooth-skinned and very fair maiden. But Andraste had been hardy and strong, fierce enough even as a girl to flee her Tevinter masters and make her way back to Ferelden. She had married a chieftain of her people and she had had several children with him. She had rallied the Alamarri and led them north into near-victory over the Imperium, halted only by the bitterest of betrayals.

    Her black hair had streaks of silver in it now. On her face and arms and even peeking out above the neckline of her jerkin pale scars stood out against her dark skin, testament to her struggles. She had been human, had been a warrior—

    "Yes," Andraste said, with another smile that showed her sharp teeth. "And a mage, though not as you would recognise one."

    Solona searched her face again. "I have heard that was so, but the Chantry denies it. I suppose to justify the way they treat mages."

    "You object to their treatment," Andraste noted.


    "And you think the Chantry denies the truth of me, to ease their guilt?"

    "They don't feel guilt. Not about that."

    "Perhaps you're right." Andraste smiled faintly. "How do you plan to triumph today?"

    Solona did not hesitate. "With the mages' help I will send the spirit back to the Fade, and mend the Veil at the same time. And then we all have to stop the army attacking Kirkwall."

    "So much for one woman to do."

    Solona shook her head slowly. "Nothing like leading an army against the Imperium."

    "Yet you have led an army already, albeit against a different enemy. And is leading an army not what you have been doing today as well?"

    "Cullen leads the templars," Solona pointed out. "And Aveline Hendyr leads the city guard."

    "And to whom have the two of them been turning for guidance, today? Who has been giving them orders, like a little magic-wielding general?"

    Solona stared at her a moment. "I've told them where there has been need, when I could."

    Andraste chuckled and it made Solona feel warm. "Remember all you have learned from the Grey Wardens, child."

    "Victory at any cost," Solona murmured.

    "Would you pay that cost to save your broken city? To save the mages of your Circle? To save your beloved?"

    Andraste's voice had become faint, her body translucent. Solona turned, felt a cool breeze on her cheeks and gripped her staff tightly.

    As she resumed her fall toward the spirit, as its grasping limbs stretched up to catch her, she twisted to see it, to see the circle of mages and templars facing it without a second thought—

    —not because she had ordered them to do it, but because it was necessary. Because Kirkwall was their home, too. They would fight and they would rebuild, whether or not she was there to tell them to do it. That was what Kirkwall had always done, hadn't it?

    In War, Victory.
    In Peace, Vigilance.
    In Death, Sacrifice.

    A black tendril curled around her waist and Solona sensed the spirit's jubilation.

    She bared her teeth in a threat. "I am a vessel of the Maker, spirit," she informed it, "and if you break me His scorching light will destroy you."

    The spirit screeched, deafening. Solona closed her eyes.

    Greagoir hadn't wanted the mages to go to Ostagar, because once a mage had learned to use her power to its fullest, it was rare she was content to remain bound to Circle rules, when she had returned.  

    She would have loved for Greagoir to see her now.

    She took a deep breath and exhaled, stretched half into the Fade, reached out to the spirit who had been there for her almost since childhood. He was at her right in an instant, as though he'd been waiting for her, and his gauntleted hand closed warmly over her wrist.

    On her other side was Mouse—with her only since her Harrowing—no less ready for her. The spell she had used to harness him remained in place; Solona reached out and grasped the side of the leather muzzle. Mouse snarled softly and Solona smiled.

    Valor gave his strength willingly; Mouse was not given an option. Solona opened her eyes as she approached the escaped spirit, drawn toward it even more rapidly by the pressure of its icy limb around her. She let Valor's strength fill her body, make her enormous and powerful; at the last moment she tore away the muzzle and Mouse roared his freedom—but only for a second.

    Solona drained his energy swiftly, added it to her own and Valor's, and plunged into the body of the spirit.

    "A broken vessel is of no use to me." His voice was warm and honeyed. "I need you whole, mage."

    Solona turned. He was tall and looked a little like Cullen; that was deliberate, she supposed. "I do not fear you, spirit," she informed him.

    "I have just said that I need you whole," he reminded her mildly. "You have nothing to fear from me." He wore a noble's clothing, and it fitted him well. When he smiled his teeth were white and even.

    "You will not take me," Solona assured him. "I am here to return you to the Fade."

    He chuckled softly, moved around a desk that looked like the one in Cullen's study. Solona tapped the base of her staff on the ground, a warning. He paused and smiled again. The air grew warm.

    "You might imagine it to be a simple thing," he said. "But I have been waiting beneath Kirkwall since your ancestors' time, slowly absorbing strength from the blood shed there, growing powerful even as the chains that bound me weakened over the centuries. I will not be bound so very easily again."

    Solona shook her head. Around them, Cullen's study was beginning to take shape; that was her fault, for thinking of it, for giving it form here in the Fade. "Yet Kirkwall's runes were enough to bind you and prevent you from taking a form."

    He dismissed this with a wave. "A minor setback," he assured her. "After all, I have you here, do I not?"

    "You will not take me," Solona repeated. "If I must, I will destroy you."

    "You cannot," he countered sharply. "I am too powerful for one little mage."

    She smiled faintly. "I am not just one little mage," she told him.

    He watched her a long moment, thoughtful. "No," he said at last, "I suppose you are not." He folded his arms, leaned on the edge of the desk. "Perhaps we can come to an agreement."

    "I will make no agreement with you. I am here to return you to the Fade, or to destroy you."

    He sighed. "Then we are at an impasse. I will not be bound again—"

    "It is not my intention to bind you for some future purpose," Solona informed him. "I am no magister to toy with the lives of humans or spirits."

    He raised an eyebrow. "Nor will you be able to defeat me in combat."

    She smiled again. "If I fall, another will take my place. All the mages of the Gallows and all the templars will defeat you."

    This elicited a chuckle. "Not a single one of them has your power. None of them has the fortitude to have slain an Archdemon."

    "But together they are more than strong enough to defeat you."

    He stood, thrust a finger in her direction. "You say that with such confidence. Have you even a remote idea how many magisters it took to bind me, all these centuries past? Your puny lot could never hope to defeat even one of them—yet you believe they could harm me?" He straightened, adjusted his jacket, clasped his hands behind his back. "If you will not give me what I need, I will take it from them."

    "You won't," Solona told him. "They are stronger than you think, and they are faithful—"

    He laughed, loud and mocking. "Your beloved 'Maker' has no interest in you or in your devotion."

    "He hears us," Solona said, "even if he does not respond."

    He wheeled and paced away from her, then turned back to face her. "Faced with the truth of your creator, will you not falter?"

    "You have presented me no truth, spirit," Solona returned calmly.

    He laughed again, a cold and mirthless sound. "The truth is that the Wolf made you from his dung. He placed you in the world to spoil the pretty things within. And you succeeded admirably, did you not? Your very existence stripped the People of their immortality. Your nature caused war and strife with the dwarves and the elves and the qunari—and even amongst your own kind. Given magic, you chose to defile your own creator's palace, and brought the Blights into the world, and the darkspawn. You were created from something foul in order to befoul the world, and you have succeeded mightily, have you not? And now that your purpose has been fulfilled, the Wolf needs nothing to do with you." He grinned, triumphant, and spread his hands toward her. "There is your truth, mage. What say you?"

    Solona watched him thoughtfully a moment. The only reason a malevolent spirit would want to keep her talking would be to distract her.

    From what?

    The wards were weakening; that must be it. He was hoping she wouldn't notice.

    "I have asked you a question," he reminded her, and glided close.

    Solona looked up at him. "Even dung has purpose," she told him. "It cleanses the body on exit, and it breaks down to nourish the earth. The Maker—"

    "The Wolf," he corrected her with a soft smile, and tucked two fingers beneath her chin.

    She lifted her chin, but did not step away. "Even if Fen'Harel and the Maker are one, even if we were not created with reverence and love, we have found meaning and purpose in our lives."

    "Your purpose is destruction," he said smoothly, and he took her shoulders in his hands, the way Cullen had used to do in Amaranthine, his way of initiating a genuine embrace. The study was very warm. "He has discarded you in his boredom, and no doubt plans to destroy you when he decides to create anew." He drew her close in a slow, swaying dance, turned with her so her back was to the desk.

    "If that is what He wishes, then so be it," Solona said. "If we were created in order to destroy, is it not appropriate that our creator becomes our destroyer as well?"

    He chuckled, gently pushed her to lie on the desk, eased himself between her knees, pressed hard against her. "Defy him," he suggested. He tucked a hand beneath her hip, drew long warm fingers along her thigh to her knee; he lifted her leg, draped it around his waist. Solona raised the other, locked her ankles at the small of his back. "Let him know you will not be used and discarded." He leaned down so their bodies were warm together, not a finger's breadth between them. He rocked a little, teasing.

    Solona twisted swiftly, rolled so he lay back on the desk, and she straddled his hips. He grinned, reached up to push one hand into her hair.

    She raised her staff and slammed the twisted wood against his neck, held it with both hands and threw her whole weight against it. She leaned down to look into his startled eyes. "I may be only shit to you," she murmured. "But I will nevertheless defeat you, spirit, one way or another."

    He snarled and his face looked decidedly less like Cullen's now. "I will kill you, mage, if it is the last thing I do—"

    "You may try," Solona assured him.

    He grasped her staff with clawed fingers and lifted it, pushed Solona almost upright. "You haven't the strength to defeat me," he told her, and sat up. Solona hopped to stand on the floor; he did not relinquish his grip on the red-and-black staff. She looked up at him and he bared his teeth. "You have been fighting all day, and several times injured and exhausted. Your wards are broken and your mages spent."

    "Then I suppose I will have to act quickly," Solona said, and she smiled her best sunny smile.

    He hesitated, just for a second.

    Solona released the energy she had been gathering—from her own mana, from Valor and Mouse, from the spells her mages had been casting—and the spirit roared, enraged, as brilliant light burned and then engulfed him. She tore her staff from his hands and struck him through the glare.

    When she opened her eyes she was falling fast—too fast—and the circle of mages and templars was closing rapidly in on the spot where she was about to land. Solona mustered the last of her strength and thrust her palms downward with as powerful a telekinetic burst as she could; she was jolted upward, her rapid descent halted just for a moment, and the others were flung out of the way.

    She closed her eyes again and prayed for forgiveness, knowing that the Maker heard her, even if He chose not to respond.

    She struck the ground.

    The closer they drew to Kirkwall, the more Raines was convinced something was terribly wrong. He ordered his men to be on the alert and drew his own sword. Beside him, Klara held her staff ready.

    By the time the battlements of Kirkwall's outer walls came into view over the scrubby trees Raines knew he had been right. Even from this distance he could tell the walls had been damaged, and something—several large somethings—were flying above the city.

    "Are those—dragons?" Astley wondered, awed.

    "Too small for dragons," Raines said thoughtfully. "Size of drakes, I'd say—but drakes don't fly."

    Klara raised a hand, palm toward Kirkwall, and focused a moment. Raines looked down at her and waited. Klara lowered her hand and frowned.

    "What is it?" Raines asked. "What did you see?"

    Klara shook her head slowly. "Griffons," she murmured.

    "Griffons went extinct after the last Blight," Astley informed her.

    Klara shot him a dark look. "I am aware of that, idiot. But those things flying over Kirkwall right now are griffons."

    "Have Grey Wardens—been hiding griffons for all these years?" Raines asked.

    "Only a few are carrying anyone," Klara told him, "at least that I can see. And they don't look armed. I don't think they're Grey Wardens."

    Raines sighed. The Circle in Ostwick had grown terribly overcrowded with mages and templars, and he had looked forward to this transfer to Kirkwall. He'd heard of the rebellion of the mages against Knight-Commander Meredith, had heard that the number of deaths, templar and mage alike, coupled with the number of runaways, had left the Gallows half-populated. A little bit of room in which to turn around had sounded ideal to Raines and he'd accepted the transfer with pleasant anticipation.

    He hadn't counted on broken walls and griffons.

    "Let's move on," he said grimly, and signaled to the rest of the troop. Before they could begin, one of the templars called an alert; a mage had broken rank and knelt near a little copse of lilacs. Raines left Klara and Astley and headed for the copse, his sword ready. One never knew what innocuous thing would remind a mage of home, trigger memories of a traumatic event—or drive one mad. He couldn't imagine living with the constant temptations of demons whispering false promises into one's mind.

    He slowed his pace as he approached the copse, and frowned. The mage held the hand of a child, whose dead body had been set inside the shady copse with some care. The mage looked up at him—it was Astrid, who still grieved the loss of her own child thirty years before, taken from her by the Chantry as soon as he'd been deemed healthy enough. Raines sheathed his sword and crouched beside her. He pulled off a gauntlet and glove and touched the dead child's arm; the skin was ice-cold. "She's been dead a while," he said gently. "There's nothing we could have done."

    Astrid glared at him through teary eyes. "She was a mage," she said sharply.

    He didn't argue with her. Mages could tell when someone was able to use magic, even after death. He noted that the child had died without a mark on her; an undamaged, unoccupied mage body—even a small one—would be temptation for a demon. "We'll build a pyre," he suggested. "Commend her soul to the Maker's care. All right?"

    Astrid pursed her lips and looked away from him. "Too many of our children are stolen from us," she said. "By you."

    "You may recall that my own children are mages," Raines reminded her sharply.

    "And you just let them be taken away. You may as well have drowned them at birth—"

    Raines replaced his glove and gauntlet. "Watch your tongue, Astrid. You are not the only one who has lost someone." He straightened, and ordered two of the templars to stay behind and build a pyre for the child. Astrid was pulled reluctantly to her feet and the troop resumed its march toward Kirkwall.

    One mage child dead was a disturbing but not uncommon thing; many parents gave their children poison to drink rather than see them taken to a Circle. It was a shame, but also a mercy; the child would never grow up knowing the fear of a demon's touch. That was what he'd been told, at least. He pushed aside the memory of his youngest, her curly fair hair and infectious laughter as he'd tickled her fat belly—

    Raines sighed, forced his mind to the present. The griffons circling Kirkwall had begun to perch on the crumbling walls, and seemed to be staring out at him as he led his templars forward.

    He paused again when they reached the edge of the brush and encountered what was obviously an army's camp; servants were busy tending pots over fires, polishing armour and weapons, chatting quietly to one another. They looked up in surprise and all froze in place to see these new arrivals.

    Odd, he thought, that there was no one left behind to guard the servants, the tents, the soldiers' belongings.

    Raines stepped forward to speak to the nearest servant. The elf lowered his head immediately, cast his eyes to the ground. Raines cleared his throat. "Where are your masters?" he asked sternly.

    "They have gone to wage battle, messere," replied the servant, quietly but clearly.

    "Against Kirkwall?"

    "Yes, messere."

    Raines looked around the camp, spotted a familiar insignia. "You're from Starkhaven," he said.

    "Yes, messere."

    Raines nodded, thoughtful. "Who is leading this attack?"

    The elf did not hesitate. "Prince Sebastian is leading the army, messere."

    Raines scowled. "What of Prince Goran?"

    "I do not know what has become of him, messere. I know only that Prince Sebastian rules Starkhaven now."

    Stranger and stranger, Raines mused. There had been no word of a coup in Starkhaven.

    "When did the soldiers leave to engage in this battle?"

    "They left this morning, messere."

    "That will be all. Thank you." He turned back to his templars, stood with Astley and Klara a moment without speaking.

    "You seem uneasy, ser," Astley pointed out unnecessarily.

    "The soldiers left camp only this morning," Raines replied, "yet we can see the damage done to Kirkwall, from here. I am not sure I want to walk everyone into what might prove to be a futile battle."

    "Our assignment is to the Kirkwall Circle, ser," Astley pointed out. "Shouldn't we at least try to help in any way we can?"

    Raines smiled faintly. "You're right, of course." He sighed again. "I want everyone on high alert. Kirkwall is known for the thinness of the Veil in the area. It can only have gotten worse with more deaths."

    "Ser!" Astley saluted and turned obediently to relay this information to the other templars.

    Klara looked up at him. "We're in danger again, after all," she said quietly.

    "It is my hope that we can settle the conflict quickly," he told her.

    "I hope you can, Lieutenant," she murmured, and turned her eyes to Kirkwall. "Whatever dark will has summoned an extinct creature here is not going to be easy to defeat."

    "Grey Wardens," Raines reminded her, "are not our enemies. The Chantry acknowledges their sacrifices, which enable the rest of us to continue living by the Maker's grace."

    Klara said nothing, only continued to watch the griffons perched on the edges of Kirkwall's outer wall.

    Astley returned with a cheerful salute. "All ready, ser," he said.

    Raines nodded. The troop marched once more toward its destination.

    As they exited the eastern gate, Aveline and Donnic discovered that the battle was effectively over. Soldiers and templars and mages lay dead or dying, scattered about on the rough grass and blood-soaked dirt. Kirkwall's remaining templars—quite a good number, by the look of it—had taken Starkhaven's survivors prisoner, and watched over them as they knelt in several shackled rows. Still others moved about the battlefield, accompanied by mages, healing those who could be healed and praying over those who could not.

    "I suppose they weren't in the Fade like the rest of us," Donnic mused. "They must have just kept fighting."

    "They've been fighting all day, Donnic," she reminded him. "Even if they did end up in the Fade, the battle might have been over before then." She scanned the field, picked out one of the women she knew to be a lieutenant, and made her way toward the officer.

    The templar straightened and eyed her a moment. "How fares it inside the walls, Guard-Captain?" she asked.

    "Not well, I'm afraid," Aveline told her. "I can't say how many my men were able to evacuate."

    The lieutenant nodded and sighed. "We were able to turn the tide out here, at least."

    "How many lost?"

    "We're still taking stock," was the quiet reply. "Something knocked out about half the men all at once—Starkhaven and Kirkwall alike, thank the Maker, so we know  Starkhaven had no hand in it. That was about an hour ago. The rest of us just kept fighting until the rest woke up."

    "The first enchanter inadvertently sent a great number of us to the Fade," Aveline said. "I think we will have to discuss that with the knight-commander."

    "I am sure the knight-commander would not have allowed her to perform forbidden magic, if that is your thought."

    "I am less sure of it," Aveline said, and inclined her head to indicate the conversation was over. The lieutenant returned to her unhappy task. Aveline wandered the battlefield, kept her eyes open for any sign of Sebastian's presence.

    "So," Donnic said, in a light tone. "What's this soon-to-be-headless fellow look like?"

    Aveline glanced at him. "Like a lacquered pilot whale," she said at last.

    Donnic stopped and stared at her. "What?"

    Aveline turned to face him. "Something Varric said a long time ago. His armour is very—white. Very obvious."

    "Should be fairly easy to spot, then," said Donnic.

    "You'll know him when you see him," Aveline said. "He was always with Hawke, when he wasn't in the Chantry. And—he was at our wedding. How can you not remember that?"

    "I don't remember anyone but you that day," Donnic assured her solemnly.

    Aveline rolled her eyes. "You could hardly have missed him. He's a very striking man."

    Donnic grinned. "Have I competition, then?"

    She snorted rude laughter. "He is definitely not my type." They continued their search, moving slowly and steadily toward the far side of the battlefield.

    Seemingly from nowhere a troop of foreign templars, accompanied by mages, appeared at the top of a hill from the east, and descended in a slow march toward Aveline and Donnic. Aveline tensed and drew her sword, raised her shield; Donnic did the same. The templar apparently leading the others raised a hand to his men to stop their forward progress, and he approached Aveline and Donnic alone, no weapon drawn. Behind him, a younger templar and a mage followed at a discreet distance.

    "I am Ser Raines," he said by way of introduction.

    "I am Aveline Hendyr," she said through her teeth. "Guard-Captain of Kirkwall. State your intentions."

    Raines raised an eyebrow. "We have come from Ostwick at the request of the Knight-Commander of Kirkwall, to join the ranks there and serve in whatever capacity we are needed."

    Aveline stared at him a moment and lowered her sword, though she kept her shield up. "Ostwick," she said. "The reinforcements I was told to expect. You're not Sebastian's men."

    "You mean Sebastian Vael?" he said with some surprise. "I wondered if the elf was telling the truth. What of Prince Goran, then?"

    Aveline shook her head. "No idea. You're a little late to help in the battle, but I'm sure you and your men can be put to good use." She sheathed her sword, and Donnic followed suit.

    "If you don't mind my asking, Guard-Captain," Raines said, "what in the Void is going on in Kirkwall?"

    Aveline looked at Donnic. Donnic shook his head slowly, baffled. Aveline flashed him a half-smile and turned back to Raines. "You would not believe me, ser, if I told you."

    Raines seemed puzzled, but accepted this. "We came across Starkhaven's camp," he told her, and thrust his thumb over his shoulder. "No one there but servants, and they knew little enough except that their masters had come to attack Kirkwall. But we did find a sort of outpost between there and here, where we found a few officers and a mage—all out cold, but none injured. On the servant's word that Starkhaven attacked, we took them prisoner. I hope I haven't overstepped my authority on my first day in Kirkwall." His lips quirked wryly.

    "That is not for me to say, ser," Aveline assured him. "My bailiwick is the city proper. You'll have to confer with Knight-Commander Cullen, if he is still alive. But I think he will be satisfied." She hesitated. "Would you—permit me to see these prisoners?"

    "Certainly," Raines said agreeably. He turned with a gesture to her, and Aveline followed him to where the troop stood quietly. The templars and mages separated to allow Raines through, and a row of shackled prisoners was led forward.

    As Aveline had feared, the captured mage was Bethany, her face expressionless and her head high. The gold-brown eyes met Aveline's for just a moment, then flicked away. Aveline moved to stand in front of her.

    "Bethany," she said softly, "why?"  

    Was that a measure of guilt that flashed through Bethany's delicate features? Was it fear?

    "You wouldn't understand, Aveline," Bethany said at last, without looking up. "I do what I must to survive."

    Aveline shook her head slowly. "I have struggled for survival beside you, Bethany, when we fled Lothering—and that first year in Kirkwall, too. We were friends. I think I deserve an explanation. Don't you?"

    Bethany looked up at her at last, and this time she seemed sad. "Even if you deserve one, Aveline," she said softly, "I'm not going to give it to you."

    She suppressed a sigh. "Where is Sebastian?"

    Bethany pursed her lips, searched Aveline's face. "Are you going to try to kill him?" she said.

    "Oh, I'm not going to try."

    Bethany lifted her chin. "He was your friend too, Aveline."

    Aveline scowled. "He was Hawke's friend," she snapped.

    "Sebastian," Bethany said, "came to visit me in the Gallows, you know, while the rest of you were trotting after my brother without question. Did you know that?"

    "How?" Aveline challenged. "The templars turned us away every time we tried."

    "How hard did you try? Sebastian managed." One fine eyebrow rose. "Several times."

    "Some of us," Aveline said, "have never been willing to bribe templars to get what we want."

    "You were willing enough to do it to get into Kirkwall when we came here."

    Anger boiled up into Aveline's throat; only with an effort did she swallow it down. "I don't know what's become of you, Bethany," she said, quietly.

    "Of course you don't," Bethany said with undisguised bitterness. "Your position has always been more important to you than the people around you."

    Jaw tight, Aveline wheeled and returned to Raines, who stood waiting and watching, attended by the young templar and mage who seemed inseparable from him.

    "You know the mage?" Raines wondered.

    "I thought I did," Aveline said. "But obviously I was wrong." She drew herself up, shoulders squared, and sighed. "Have you seen a youngish man wearing bright white armour?"

    Raines's eyes narrowed. "Bright white armour, bearing a symbol of Andraste?"

    "Yes," Aveline said, surprised. "You've seen him?"

    He shook his head. "We found a suit of armour like that not far from where we took the prisoners," he said, "but no one was in it. I thought it odd that something that seemed so valuable would have been discarded."

    Aveline looked back at the line of prisoners. All the men but one were young, though none was Sebastian; the last man was a grizzled elder with a patch over one eye. It made sense that Sebastian had discarded his precious armour in order to be less conspicuous. Even if he had done so, however, his distinct auburn hair and jewel-toned eyes were not so easily-hidden.

    "Maker," she muttered. "He'll not get away with this. Not this easily." She looked at Raines, gestured back the way she and Donnic had come. "Ser, if you don't mind, the templars will direct you into the city—"

    "What's left of it," Donnic murmured.

    "—and if the Knight-Commander lives, he will be pleased to see you."

    Raines nodded and bowed slightly. "What will you and your man do, ser?" he asked.

    "We're going to look for that son of a bitch," she replied curtly. "And I am going to kill him." She turned sharply away and headed for the brush, Donnic at her side, eastward toward the Wounded Coast.

    When the griffon landed in the outer courtyard at the Gallows, Varric slipped gratefully from its back and moved to sit on the nearby stairs. He set Bianca across his knees and leaned back against the wall, comforted by sitting on something that wasn't moving. Hugh dismounted as well, patted the griffon's neck and spoke quietly to it. The griffon folded its wings to its back and promptly lay down in the sunshine, stretched out its back legs and ignored the fact that it was directly in the way of the scurrying Tranquil and templars. The templars were beginning to panic at the growing number of people in the courtyard. The Tranquil were as confused as they could ever truly be; they seemed unhappy with the disorder—though, who could really tell?

    Hugh took charge immediately, began ordering the templars and Tranquil to perform triage on the survivors, then to attend first those with the worst injuries. Citizens who had not been injured were recruited to assist; the Tranquil provided potions and bandages from a seemingly unlimited supply. The outer courtyards leading to the Gallows' docks were opened to afford people more room to move, and shade from the afternoon sun. Before long there was order once more, a rhythm to the movements of the citizens, the templars, the Tranquil and the few mages who had remained at the Gallows. Even the littlest mages assisted, carrying what they could.

    Varric reached into his coat and withdrew his notebook and pencil, and began to write down the things he didn't want to forget. Images from the city, from the Fade; words and phrases that were too brilliant not to be repeated. As he watched Hugh directing the other templars Varric mused that Hugh might in fact warrant his own series. The Extraordinary Exploits of Hunter: Junior Templar. Varric chuckled at the thought of it, and wrote it down. He let himself be absorbed in his writing until a pair of heavy boots approached and stopped next to him. He looked up.

    "I'm going back into the city," Hugh informed him. "See where I can be of use."

    "Good idea," Varric said.

    "If you want to come along—" Hugh shrugged.

    "By air, I suppose." Varric closed his book, tucked it and his pencil into his coat, and pushed himself to his feet.

    "It would be fastest," Hugh pointed out. "And from the air we can assess where there's the greatest need."

    "Right." Varric smoothed his coat, swung Bianca to his back. "Ready."

    Hugh turned to the dozing griffon, which snapped its beak at him and made a displeasured sound. Hugh sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's been a shitty day for us all." The griffon grumbled and rose to its feet, stretched each leg deliberately, then crouched with its wings low. Hugh climbed on and beckoned to Varric, and for the second time in the day Varric found himself up on a griffon's back and being carried into the air over Kirkwall.

    With no harness or reins, of course, the beast was free to fly as it wished, but Hugh seemed to be guiding it with his legs and with a few words. He directed it toward the remains of Hightown, and made a sudden exclamation.

    Varric, clinging to Hugh's armour with both hands, tried to see around him. "What?"

    "The demon," Hugh said. "It's gone."

    "That's a good thing, right?"

    "It's a very good thing." The griffon began to glide in slow circles, and Varric was able to see past its wings to the spot where they'd seen the demon before. The area looked as though an enormous fist had struck it with immeasurable strength, and in the center of the area—

    "First enchanter," Varric said quietly.

    Hugh said nothing but the griffon descended rapidly, landed outside the circle of templars and mages who seemed to have been knocked unconscious. Hugh slid off the griffon's back first, and Varric followed. The templars and mages were beginning to pick themselves up; near the epicenter of the strike, Cullen discarded his sword and shield and dropped to his knees beside Solona's unmoving form.

    Hugh stood in silence. Varric pushed past to see.

    Solona lay still and broken, blood on her face and hands and soaking into her armour. Her black-and-red staff lay beside her, its crystal cluster shattered and its shaft cracked and burned. Cullen's broad shoulders sagged—

    Knight-Commander Coulson removed his gauntlets and gloves and tossed them aside, revealing the inscribed armour ring on his left index finger. It occurred to Hunter only now that First Enchanter Serine wore a very similar ring on her right hand. Coulson took her hand in his, and there was a soft metallic 'click' as the rings touched; Serine did not move.

    Without releasing her hand Coulson eased himself to lie facing her and with his free hand he reached up to push strands of her hair away from her bloodied face. He spoke words to her that were for her ears only and tears sparkled on his cheeks, mingled with the blood congealing on the broken flagstones beneath them.

    Hunter stepped toward his commander, intending to draw him away so the body could be tended appropriately; he paused to listen, for Coulson was reciting from the Chant.

    "My hearth is yours," Coulson whispered, "my bread is yours, my life is yours. For all who walk in the sight of the Maker are one."

    It was an odd choice of verses to recite in commending a soul to the Maker, Hunter thought.

    But then, as though Coulson had spoken magic, Serine's eyelids fluttered a moment and opened, slowly. Her lips moved, and Hunter leaned close to listen.

    "I shall endure," he heard, barely. "What you have created, no one can tear asunder."

    The mages leaped forth in exuberant unison, brandishing lyrium vials and potions...

Chapter Text

    In the span of his life—as a boy running the streets, as a man patrolling them in templar armour—Samson had seen a number of unusual things. He had long since stopped being awed or frightened by anything he saw in Kirkwall.

    The demon had wounded the griffon, had flung Solona from its back from such a height that he had only just been able to make out the shape of a human. Solona had fallen straight down, faster and faster toward the demon, and then—he wasn’t sure what had happened next. There had been a bright flare of magic, and the demon had been torn apart; its limbs and body had burned to dust in midair, leaving Solona still falling. She had stretched out her hands and slammed the ground beneath her with a burst of magic that had knocked them all back, mage and templar alike, and when they had come to their senses she was lying in a heap where the demon had been.

    Cullen was at her side in a moment, his face grim; he removed his gauntlets and gloves and took Solona’s hand into his. With his free hand he began to pour potions into her slack and bloodied mouth. His own supply gone, he demanded more, demanded lyrium; the mages rustled all at once and held out dozens of vials and Cullen emptied these as well.

    Hugh stood nearby, his face oddly contorted with mixed emotion; Samson knew that look. He’d worn it himself, more than once, when he’d been conflicted about his duties in the Order.

    He stepped forward, dropped an encouraging hand on Hugh’s shoulder, then crouched beside Cullen. “What’s the word, Commander?” he asked softly.

    “Take the others,” Cullen said through his teeth. “Take them outside the city and find that son of a fetid bitch who attacked our city, and bring him back here, alive."

    “Ser,” Samson said. He watched Solona’s face, streaked and smeared with blood and dust. It wasn’t fair to lose her, just when she had begun to make positive changes in the Gallows. Then again, life wasn’t generally fair.

    He looked into Cullen’s face, but Cullen was focused on Solona. “Well, ser,” Samson said at last. “You’ll join us when you’re ready, I expect.”

    “Go,” was all Cullen said.

    Samson nodded, stood and looked around; the templars stood stoic, awaiting orders. The mages were tense and anxious. He cleared his throat. “Commander’s given the word,” he said sternly. His voice sounded too loud to his own ears. “We go out and find Prince Sebastian, and we bring him back for a taste of Kirkwall justice.”

    The templars moved at once and Samson turned without a word to lead them to the gates. To whatever was left of them, he amended in his mind. The clank and rattle of armour and the soft scrape of boots on stone were the only sounds in the broken city.

    He grew aware of Devin to his right, staff clutched in both hands. Samson raised his eyebrows. “You don’t have to come,” he said, amused.

    Devin’s face was tight. “I’m not needed there,” he muttered.

    He was frightened, Samson realised; he was just a boy, after all, and Circle mages were not inured to the horrors of war, of combat. They witnessed death, knew it could come for them at any time, knew that it was as likely to come from their keepers as any other cause. But destruction on this level?

    And Devin had been the first of the young mages to have been Harrowed after Solona’s arrival as the Gallows’ first enchanter. She had spent time with him in the weeks leading up to the test, had even taught him spells that were not strictly approved. Samson supposed that as much as the events of the day were horrifying for everyone, the loss of someone who’d gone out of her way to be kind to him—Orsino certainly hadn’t paid him much heed—was a dreadful one for Devin.

    He wished he had some helpful thing to say. “You may be right,” he said at last. “Not much most of us could have done for her.”

    “We can make sure he doesn’t get away with it,” Devin replied through his teeth.

    “That we can,” Samson agreed. He glanced back at the templars who followed him, noted that Devin was not the only grim-faced mage to have come along. That was interesting.

    He nearly stumbled over a chunk of stone in the devastated street; he barely retained his composure and, red-faced, focused on leading his troops safely to the city gates.

    One of the Tranquil had carefully and emotionlessly set Bran’s broken arm; he had gone deathly pale but had remained stoic. A second Tranquil mage gave him a potion to heal the arm.

    In a moment the colour returned to Bran’s face, and a certain amount of tightness left his features. He remained impassive as he thanked the two Tranquil mages for their assistance. He turned and, shoulders square and head high, approached the young templar whose mere presence had brought a sense of order to the courtyard, and who had been directing the triage and healing. The templar listened respectfully to Bran, then nodded and said something in return. He crossed the courtyard to speak to a dwarf who was sitting on the stairs; the two of them approached a grey griffon that had splayed itself indolently in the sunshine. The griffon rose reluctantly and allowed them to climb to its back, and in a moment they were gone.

    Bran, in the meantime, had taken over directing the activity in the courtyard.

    It occurred to Reed that he had never really watched his father working, certainly not in a crisis. Reed had followed his mother’s example in joining the Seekers of Truth, as soon as he had been permitted. He’d always respected her work, and had never given his father’s path a second thought.

    But his father had been effectively leading Kirkwall for years, had a vested interest in its welfare. As Bran dispassionately scooped up a weeping child and handed her off to her father without a word, Reed stood and stretched. The slightly sulphuric odour of the warmth balm he’d applied earlier wafted up with his movement and Reed wrinkled his nose.

    Bran’s golden eyes flicked over him, assessing, as Reed approached. He turned his attention elsewhere, having deemed Reed in no need of assistance.

    “Seneschal,” Reed said quietly. “Or should we name you Viscount?”

    “You,” Bran informed him without looking at him, “may refer to me simply as ser, if you do not wish our relationship disclosed.”

    Reed could not help a smile. “As you wish, Father,” he said. “What can I do to help?”

    “Very little, I expect,” was the reply. “Unless you have developed magical abilities since last we spoke.”

    “Of course I haven’t,” Reed said.

    “Then if you wish to help you could ask the Tranquil where you might be of most use.”

    “They seem to have everything in hand.”

    Bran did not reply to this, and they stood in silence a moment.

    “I’m sorry,” Reed said at last, “for not contacting you. I really hadn’t expected to be so long in Kirkwall.”

    “Ah,” was all Bran said.

    “Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to stay so long, if I had simply come to you.”

    “What information do you need?” Bran turned to look at him.

    “I was sent to determine if the templars here are corrupt. If the knight-commander somehow manipulated events in order to wrest power from Meredith. If, perhaps, the Champion was somehow secretly puppeteering behind the scenes.”

    “And what have you found?” Bran asked, cautious.

    Reed sighed, watched a pair of mage children, each carrying a blanket, as they chattered to one another about griffons. “I have seen templars content with the new regime. All I can determine about the knight-commander is that he never visits a brothel.”

    “Not all of them do,” Bran pointed out.

    “Very true. Nevertheless, many of them do, and of all the ones I’ve seen, not a one has had anything negative to say about the man.” He paused, expectant.

    Bran raised an eyebrow. “What do you want me to tell you?”

    Reed sighed again. “What kind of man he is, I suppose. What kind of templar, of leader.”

    Arms folded, Bran looked out once more over the courtyard, at the refugees and mages and a handful of templars. “Once,” he said slowly, “in an attempt to gain full control over the city, Meredith ordered Cullen to investigate the city guard, under Guard-Captain Hendyr. Her thought was that if corruption and favouritism in the Guard could be proven, the templars would have a reason to take over policing the streets.”

    “Effectively,” Reed said thoughtfully, “becoming the only authority in Kirkwall.”

    “As you say,” Bran agreed.

    “And what did the knight-commander do?”

    “He was only knight-captain then,” Bran reminded him. “He duly investigated and found no reason to depose the guard-captain. She has managed the Guard very well for years, and he had no interest in sending templars to do a job that was entirely out of their purview.”


    “And what?” Bran snapped. “A man who was angling for power would not openly refuse it. He performed his duty, and continues to do so.”

    “And since he was promoted, he’s done nothing by way of seizing more power?”

    A dark expression flickered over Bran’s face but was almost instantly gone. “Absolutely not.”

    Reed watched his father shrewdly. “But there’s something,” he persisted.

    Bran pressed his lips tightly together. “Only that he insists I take the title of Viscount.”

    “That doesn’t imply corruption among the templars, Father.”

    “It is nevertheless a grave annoyance.”

    They stood together in quiet contemplation and watched the goings-on in the Gallows Courtyard. Things were beginning to calm somewhat; the worst of the injuries had been taken care of and the citizens had begun to cluster together for comfort. Now and again a griffon would arrive, carrying survivors on its back or dangling them precariously from its massive beak; the mages would rush to tend to the new arrival, and citizens would crane their necks, hopeful to find another friend, another family member who had survived. The griffon might pause briefly to accept adoring attention from the children who flocked around it before it leaped once more into the air, and the wind from its beating wings would knock the laughing children to their backsides.

    In his mind, Reed began to compose his report to his superiors.

    It was just her bloody luck that the Ostwick group had come along, and Bethany found herself once again in chains. Worse luck, running into Aveline as well. But Aveline was not of immediate concern to her.

    These templars were odd, to say the least; they were cheerful, and talked openly with the mages that travelled with them. For their part the mages did not seem afraid of their templar keepers, did not seem suspicious or tense around them, and the templars walked alertly beside them, protective.

    Very strange.

    Their lieutenant fell back more than once as they walked, to observe his troops, and when Bethany looked up again he seemed to be checking on the prisoners. Dederick squinted angrily up at him but the lieutenant ignored the look, and moved into step beside Bethany. She kept her head high and looked straight ahead.

    “You are a friend of the Guard-Captain,” he noted quietly. “If you are of the Kirkwall Circle, why are you assisting Starkhaven?”

    “I have not lived in the Gallows,” Bethany said, “for a year at least. When my brother attacked I was forced to flee the city with him.”

    “So you are an apostate,” he mused.

    “If you wish to deem me such, yes.” She scowled. “I attempted to turn myself in to the Circle at Markham and they called me maleficar. They were going to make me Tranquil. Which I assume you will, now.” She turned her head and looked up at him.

    He raised an eyebrow. “Are you?”

    “Am I what?”

    “Maleficar. I ask, because it seems to me that if you were, you could easily tear your own skin with your shackles and use that blood to power your magic and escape. But you are not doing any of that, so I have my doubts that you are maleficar at all.”
    Bethany shook her head slowly, returned her gaze forward. “I am not,” she said at last. “My father taught me, as a child, how to resist the lure of a demon’s promises, and I have never been truly tempted.”

    “Some learn blood magic from books, and not from demons. Your father was a mage?"

    “Yes. I was born an apostate in Ferelden, and my family lived there until we fled the Blight.”

    “Ah.” He seemed actually sympathetic. “And your father is—?”

    “Dead,” Bethany said flatly. “Everyone in my family is dead, except my brother Garrett.”

    “I am sorry to hear that. It is difficult enough to live without your families, in the Circle. I can imagine it is only worse to lose them entirely.”

    Bethany sighed. “What is it you want from me, ser?” she asked. “If you are hoping to lie with me, I should warn you I am with child.”

    He blinked, raised his eyebrow again. “Are you,” he said. “Then you should not have been out here in battle.”

    “I was not fighting. What is it you want from me?” she repeated.

    “I am simply making conversation,” he said, surprised. “If you find it bothersome then I will trouble you no further.” He picked up his pace just enough to reach the head of the group once more. There, a mage and a young templar spoke easily with him. He smiled and shook his head and replied quietly to them.

    “Of course he wants something,” Dederick muttered. “Be best if you just gave it to him, then when he frees you, use your magic to free the rest of us.”

    “Shut your mouth, you wizened piece of shit,” she snapped. “I am not a tool to be used for your ends.”

    Dederick snorted rudely and muttered something about Sebastian following his balls instead of his head. Bethany gave him her best scathing glare, which he ignored.

    They reached the gates and encountered a group of Kirkwall templars and mages leaving, led by Samson. The Ostwick lieutenant spoke with Samson for several minutes. They saluted one another and then Samson turned to lead the Kirkwall group away from the city. Bethany did not catch his eye as he passed.

    They would not find Sebastian, if that was their goal; that gave her some small comfort.

    Past the gates, Kirkwall was unrecognisable. Buildings had collapsed; in some places the stone streets had crumbled and sunk down into the sewers. Bodies lay scattered—some killed in combat, some burned in the fire, some crushed by debris. The griffons she had seen earlier still circled and creeled at one another; a few swept close overhead, apparently determined the group was not of great interest, and flew away.

    The smell of blood and soot and cracked stone was sharp and strong in the heat; as the group progressed, magic in the surface of the streets made her feet tingle. The Ostwick mages murmured among themselves and to the templars, who obviously felt it to some degree as well. If she glanced to one side, out of the corner of her eye Bethany could almost see a soft glow emanating from the street, but when she looked it was gone.

    The lieutenant stopped the group with a gesture, and Bethany looked up to see Cullen kneeling on the street next to a body. Standing rather uncomfortably nearby was one of the young templars—what was his name? Garrett had rather fancied him at one time, but the boy had been uninterested. On a slab of stone not three paces away sat none other than Varric Tethras, his whole attention on what he was writing in his little notebook.

    The more things change, Bethany mused. Despite her intention to remain indifferent, she craned her neck to get a better look at the scene.

    She recognised the body as that of the mage who had trapped her in the Fade. First Enchanter Solona, Cullen had called her. Dead, in any case, by the look of her; Cullen would have to explain her death to the Knight-Vigilant the way he’d no doubt had to explain Orsino’s. At least Orsino, for all he’d turned to blood magic, had had the mages’ best interests in mind; this one had been defending a city that did not deserve defense.

    The Ostwick lieutenant saluted Cullen, who looked up at him with impatience, spoke quietly. The lieutenant spoke to the young templar—


    —and then to Cullen. Cullen shook his head; his eyes cleared and he said something before he returned his gaze to the body. The lieutenant turned and looked at Bethany, thoughtful. He spoke to the templar at his side and without hesitation the templar turned, approached Bethany and reached for her shackles.

    “What are you doing?” she demanded, as he freed her from the chains. He took her wrist and led her away from the other prisoners, past the templars and mages,  to where the first enchanter’s body lay.

    "Klara," said the lieutenant, and gestured to Bethany. The mage stepped forward and touched Bethany's arm.

    “Creation,” she said, thoughtfully. “Not spirit healing.” From the corner of her eye Bethany saw Varric’s head rise.

    “Healing is healing,” said the lieutenant, his eyes steady on Bethany’s face.

    “To bring this one back might take more than a little healing,” Klara insisted.

    “We’ll see,” he said, and made a go ahead gesture toward the body.

    “She’s dead,” Bethany said shortly.

    “Knight-Commander says she’s not.”

    “If that blood is all hers, she most certainly is.”

    His face changed only slightly, grew a little more stern. “Do your best,” he said, in a tone that brooked no further argument.

    Bethany scowled, stepped carefully through the blood with a grimace and squatted on her toes next to Cullen. He did not move, did not acknowledge her.

    She took a deep breath and stretched out a hand and touched the first enchanter’s forehead, cold and sticky with blood, and she summoned a little bit of mana, just enough to test whether or not it was worth wasting her time and energy.

    Her body was jolted and Bethany inhaled sharply.

        “…help me.”

        With a frown she leaned down to listen, but the first enchanter was still and her lips did not move.

        “Beppa, help me…”

        Bethany froze. No one called her Beppa, no one but Carver, and Carver was eight years dead. If she was hearing Carver’s voice, it was a trick somehow—Carver had never made it to Kirkwall. If she was hearing Carver’s voice—

        She turned her head. The ogre bared its teeth at her. It still held Carver loosely in one massive hand; Carver’s broken arms and legs dangled, and his head lolled. His body had been shattered with each strike of the ogre's fist against the ground, but his blue eyes were open, looking at her, his bruised and broken face nearly unrecognisable. His lips moved and he said her name again, gurgled as blood filled his throat, spilled from the corners of his mouth.
        It isn’t real, she told herself, even as her heart pounded against her ribs. It isn’t real; Carver is already gone.

        The ogre raised its arms and grasped Carver's head with its free hand and Bethany could not breathe, could not move. The beast watched her while it very slowly and deliberately pulled Carver’s head away from his body. Carver's choking cries were silenced; the ogre tossed his body to a pack of waiting darkspawn and they converged upon it, tore it open and began to eat noisily. The ogre chuckled, held Carver's dripping head high in one hand and grinned at it, then looked at Bethany.

        Her mind was filled with screams and she could see nothing and why hadn’t Garrett stopped it? He had killed the thing so easily afterward, had driven his sword into its chest, into its skull; why hadn’t he done that before it had taken Carver from her?

        "Why didn't you save him, Bethany?" Leandra's critical voice cut through the screams and Bethany could not tune her out. "You could have healed him. You could have done something. But you didn't—"

    stinging pain on her cheek strong hands on her shoulders the smell of blood and stone and lyrium—

        "—didn't even try to save me—" Leandra's voice was a whisper now.

    "—rah Hawke!"

        That wasn't Leandra, and it wasn't Carver.  

    "—n't break free of it, we'll have to kill—"

        Who was going to kill whom?


    "She'll become an abomination—"

    "She won't—"

    "First Enchanter, get out of my—"

    "What's her name?"

    "—way, or I'll—"

    "Bethany." That was Varric's voice, cool and calm like a still pond. "Her name is Bethany Hawke."

        she was cold and lost and sharp icy fingers scraped across her skin


        It anchored her, somehow, and she focused on that voice, on the heat and light from it. She raised her hand, stretched it out and felt warm fingers enclose her own.

    "Follow me."

    "I don't know where I am," she whispered, and fumbled forward with the other hand until it, too, was taken in a firm grasp.

    "I know the way."

    There was safety in the voice, reassurance and strength, more than she had ever gotten from her mother, more than she had ever been given by the Enchanters in the Gallows, and Bethany followed gratefully. The bleak and Blighted landscape of Lothering fell away, and the sound of darkspawn was replaced by that of her own heartbeat in her ears.

    She blinked and gasped, startled by four faces staring down at her: Varric and Cullen, sober; the templar Hugh, scowling fiercely; and the first enchanter, her own face still masked in blood but bearing an expression of concern.

    "Welcome back," she said, and squeezed Bethany's hands.

    "What happened?" Bethany asked. She sat up; the first enchanter, kneeling beside her, kept hold of both her hands.

    "I was half in the Fade when you attempted to heal me," was the quiet response. "The spirit took that opportunity to draw you in with your—" She paused, and made a face. "Nightmares."

    "Carver," she murmured.

    "The Veil is so thin here," Solona went on. "The spirit is in the Fade, but it is looking for an opportunity to cross over." She looked up at Cullen.

    "Is there anything we can do about it?" he asked.

    "Not for the moment," Solona replied. "We must remain vigilant, and when we can gather all the mages again, we will do more."

    "What about this one?" Hugh demanded. "You don't know she wasn't—possessed."

    "I do know," Solona said sternly.

    "How can you know?"

    "It is my job to know."

    Hugh's dark eyes flicked to Cullen, who inclined his head. "I must accept the first enchanter's word," he said to Hugh. "If she says the mage is not possessed, I believe her." He looked at Bethany. "However, serah Hawke, you have come here with the man who attacked our city and killed a great many of our citizens, so I cannot permit you to remain free. You will be once more chained with your compatriots and Lieutenant Raines will see you safely to the Gallows." He turned his attention to Hugh once more. "You'll direct Raines and his men to the Gallows by whatever route remains safe. Get the mages settled into quarters—either Jacob or Elsa will know where the first enchanter wants them to go—and the men to the barracks. The prisoners go into the dungeon. Maintain order until I return."

    Hugh looked as though he wished to protest, but he simply crossed his chest with one arm and said, "Ser."  They all stood, then, and Solona helped Bethany to her feet, but kept hold of her hands and pulled Bethany near.

    "I will come and speak with you," she said softly, so the others could not hear. "As soon as I can."

    Bethany stiffened, suspicious. "What makes you think I want that?"

    "You will soon need more care than the templars can offer you," Solona told her quietly. "They will not harm you, but they have neither the knowledge nor the experience to ensure a safe and healthy delivery." She released Bethany's hands and stepped back as Raines closed in. The templar took Bethany's wrist and led her back to the chained prisoners. Her hands were once more shackled; Raines and Hugh stood talking for a moment before they each nodded in agreement and turned to walk further into the city. The templars and mages moved with them, and Bethany was forced to follow Dederick in line.

    "You should go with them, serah," Cullen said behind her. "You will be safe in the Gallows."

    "Oh, no, there's nothing going on there," Varric said cheerfully. "I go where the action is."

    "Kindly do not refer to the first enchanter as 'the action'."

    "Would 'the Warden' be better suited, then? I've heard—"

    "Hush, dwarf," said Solona. "You hear far too many things."

    "Hey, it's what I do."

    Then they were out of earshot, and Bethany lost herself in thought as she was led for the second time in her life to be secured inside the Gallows.

    As soon as Hugh and the others were out of sight, Varric turned to Solona with a question on his tongue. Before he could speak she put a hand on Cullen's arm and her knees buckled. Cullen caught her easily with an arm around her waist, and held her upright against him. She sighed and rested her palms on his breastplate. "I'm sorry," she said.

    "Come sit," Cullen suggested. He half-led, half-carried her a few steps to sit on the slab where Varric had been perched while he'd been writing, then sat next to her. He laced the fingers of his left hand through the fingers of Solona's right, and there was a distinctive click as the rings they wore touched one another.

    Varric's fingers itched.

    He moved to settle on a nearby stone that had once been part of a decorative arch, and he watched them.

    "You should have said something," Cullen said softly.

    Solona shook her head a little. "I couldn't let them see—couldn't let them see me like this. If the first enchanter can't even heal herself, how can she lead them?"

    "Not all first enchanters are healers, you know." He leaned over to kiss the side of her head. "Irving could barely use a basic heal spell. And Orsino couldn't heal at all." They were quiet a moment, just leaning against one another in the sunshine. "Is there anything I can do to help you? I'm all out of potions, I'm afraid, and lyrium."

    Solona smiled, her eyes closed. "I just need to rest a moment," she said. "Please watch over me."

    "You know I will."

    He had barely said the words when Solona sagged visibly, and her breath grew slow and even. Cullen watched her a long time, his expression sober. At last he looked up at Varric.

    "How long have you been married?" Varric asked.

    Cullen stared at him for a full minute. "Seven years," he said at last. "Today is our anniversary."

    "Happy anniversary, then," Varric said, surprised. "But I thought she'd been here only a few months."

    "That is true."

    Varric waited, but Cullen offered no more information. "So, you were married to her before you ever came to Kirkwall."


    "I didn't know templars could marry."

    "It is not encouraged," Cullen assured him. "There are restrictions."

    "I should think her being a mage might be one of them."

    "She was not under Chantry oversight at the time."

    Varric mulled this over. "So, before or after she killed the Archdemon?"

    "After," Cullen said. "Months after." He considered a moment, his eyes searching Varric's face. "We were reunited in Amaranthine, while she was acting as Warden-Commander there. As she was at the time by law an arlessa, we were permitted to marry, as there would be no question of her ability to support herself in my absence."

    "You knew there would be an absence."

    "I am a templar, and she a Grey Warden. We knew our duties would take us to different parts of Thedas—and death is always a risk, in our work."

    Varric chewed his lower lip a moment. "So why is she here as the first enchanter, and no longer in command of the Fereldan Wardens?"

    "That is her tale to tell, and not mine, serah," Cullen told him. "Why are you so interested?"

    Varric grinned and held out his hands, placating. "I like to be in possession of all the facts," he said.

    "Let me tell you one thing," Cullen said, and his eyes glinted in the sun. "She does not wish to be known as the Hero of Ferelden, while she is here. If that information gets out, it could bring down forces on us that Kirkwall will be unable to withstand. Do you understand?"

    It was Varric's turn to stare. "I'm not sure I do," he said. "Is she in some sort of trouble?"

    "She is not," Cullen assured him. "She simply wishes to remain here more or less anonymously."

    "More or less," Varric mused. "In the time she's been here, no one's recognised her as the Hero?"

    "No one but you," said Cullen, with a meaningful look. "We would prefer you keep it that way."

    Varric nodded slowly. "How long have you known her?"

    "We met in Ferelden, when I was assigned to the Circle at Kinloch Hold. That was well over a decade ago. I was present at her Harrowing."

    "What was that like?" Varric leaned forward, fascinated. "I've heard of the Harrowing, but have never seen it."

    "No one sees the Harrowing save the mage being Harrowed," Cullen informed him. "The first enchanter of the Circle and the Knight-Commander, as well as a few other templars, simply attend and observe, and ensure that if the mage falls victim to the demon, that the resulting abomination is not permitted to live."

    "So you might have had to kill her."

    "My presence at her Harrowing was my knight-commander's test for me." He smiled wanly.

    "So—" Varric narrowed his eyes. "You'd fallen for her before that, and he'd noticed."


    "Did she feel the same?"

    "I didn't know it at the time, but apparently she did." Cullen looked down at Solona's face while she slept, and his expression softened. "When she ended the Blight, I'd thought her gone forever. The Maker had other plans."

    "Evidently," Varric said. "How did you manage to run into her in Amaranthine?"

    Cullen looked up at him again. "That is not a tale for casual telling," he said with a hint of severity. "You will simply have to speculate."

    "All right, then," Varric agreed. "It will no doubt be an epic tale of its own."

    Cullen did not rise to the bait, and instead turned his attention back to Solona.

    In the sunshine, leaning against one another, they were an attractive pair, Varric decided. Aside from all the blood, and the dented and torn armour, of course. It would make for a very romantic story, all in all. Love in the Time of the Siege of Kirkwall.

    Too wordy. And Kirkwall had been besieged many times over the years, so that wouldn't be unique. Plus, this particular conflict had been going on for only less than a day; it was hardly a siege. Varric looked up at the sky, where the sun was making its way steadily westward. It would make for a truly epic story if things got wrapped up by sunset, wouldn't it? Perhaps he would end it that way, regardless.

    It was fiction, after all.

    He withdrew his notebook and looked over what he had written so far. His notes were all scribed in the old runes—his mother had taken pains to ensure that he and Bartrand had learned them as youngsters—for two reasons. The first was, obviously, that few enough people on the surface, many surface-born dwarves included, knew how to read the runes. The second was that the runes took up less space than did writing out the common language. He could get an idea down rapidly and be ready for the next whenever it arrived—and his notebooks lasted longer.

    While Solona slept on Cullen's shoulder, Varric added to his notes. If they pulled through today, somehow, this story was going to be the most heroic shit ever.

   Raines wrinkled his nose at the stench that wafted through the tunnels. Darktown, Hugh had called it, and the young templar had described it as 'half-sewer, half-abandoned mine'.

    "Apostates really would prefer to hide down here," Raines said in wonder, "than be safe in the Gallows?"

    "Until recently, ser," Hugh said quietly, "the Gallows was not particularly safe for mages."

    Raines shook his head. He'd heard rumours about Kirkwall, about the Gallows, but had put them aside as just that—rumours. People who had not seen a place could make up all sorts of tall tales about it, and mages generally saw few places during their lives. "Was it true, then," he ventured, "that the mages revolted against Knight-Commander Meredith?"

    Hugh appeared to consider this question longer than Raines would have thought necessary. "There were a lot of factors," he said at last. "The knight-commander had grown—erratic. She saw corruption everywhere, saw blood mages wherever she looked. Saw their influence, even among the templars—where there was none. She began to have the mages locked in their cells most of the time. Had their staves and grimoires taken away—"

    Beside him, Klara inhaled softly. Raines glanced down at her; her lips were tight. He let his elbow touch her arm gently, and she looked up. Raines smiled, encouraging, and she returned the look, rueful.

    Hugh had not noticed this exchange, and continued speaking. "The first enchanter—Orsino, that was—was doing all he could to thwart her every move, and the worse her paranoia got, the worse he acted." He sighed. "Turned out he'd been using blood magic. But the final straw was an apostate who was friends with the Champion. He destroyed the Chantry with magic. The knight-commander invoked the Right of Annulment, and that was when everything—happened." His blue eyes, dark in the half-lit tunnels, seemed to lose their light altogether. "So many died, and they needn't have." He sighed again. "And then the Champion defeated Meredith, and Knight-Captain Cullen took over as knight-commander. And then a few months ago, we got the new first enchanter."

    "That woman who was nearly dead."

    "Yes, that's her." Hugh's eye twitched slightly.

    "Not fond of her?"

    "She's a good mage," Hugh said. "She's made a big difference at the Gallows. The mages are more content. The little ones don't cry in the night so much."


    Hugh shook his head. "I found out just today—" He pursed his lips.

    Raines narrowed his eyes. "Found out—?"

    "You'll find out too, eventually, I suppose," Hugh said. "She and Cullen are married."

    "Ah," said Raines, and glanced down at Klara again. Klara raised her eyebrows but said nothing. "How long ago did you say she arrived here?" Raines wondered.

    "Just a few months. I don't know all the details, but they have to have been married before she got here, because they definitely haven't gotten married since she arrived." He grew thoughtful. "Which means that they've been married at least seven years, since Cullen's been here that long."

    "I see. And this fact bothers you?"

    "It bothers me only in that—he may be emotionally compromised, when it comes to her. He should be leading the templars against the invader today, but he has spent the entire day looking out for her."

    "And what would happen to the Circle if it lost its first enchanter?" Raines pointed out. "Perhaps his concern is not as single-minded as you fear."

    "I hope you are right, ser," Hugh said rather grimly. He paused in front of a door and carefully pushed it open. Nothing came through so he leaned through and looked around; he looked back and motioned them forward.

    "Will we be reaching the surface soon?" Astley spoke up. "I need some air."

    "Just up these steps," Hugh promised as he led them along a narrow corridor. "This tunnel travels right under the harbour, and leads up into the dungeons of the Gallows."

    "Very convenient," Raines said. "We'll get the prisoners into cells first."

    Hugh unfastened a rather complex lock on a heavy door at the top of the stairs, and led them into the dungeons. Torches were lit on the walls and the air was not nearly as damp as one would have expected from a basement dungeon so close to a lake. Raines looked around; the cells were largely empty, though clean. Each one held a small cot and a chamberpot and nothing more. The few prisoners were in adjacent cells; one of them was reading and two were sleeping on their cots.

    A fair-haired templar marched into view, saluted Hugh and eyed the group that followed him. Hugh saluted him in return. "Keran, these are the templars the knight-commander requested from Ostwick," he explained. "They captured some prisoners when they passed through Starkhaven's camp, who are to be held here until their trials. One is a mage."

    "All right," said Keran. "We'll put the mage on the other side, then." He leaned to one side to look at the group again, and his blue eyes settled on Raines as the obvious ranking officer. "If you'll bring the prisoners out here, ser, we'll get them sorted."

    Raines looked at Astley, nodded once. Astley inclined his head and turned to lead the line of prisoners forward. Together he and Keran swiftly unshackled the Starkhaven officers in turn, led them to cells and locked them in. When they reached the old man who had been captured, Keran froze and stared at him.

    "What?" snapped the old man. "Surprised to see someone like me important enough to be captured?"

    "This man," Keran said, and drew his sword. "This man is possessed by a demon."

    "What?" Raines spun to look at him. The old man stared, uncomprehending. The other templars drew their blades and the mages stepped swiftly out of their way. "He's not even a mage."

    "No, he's not," Keran agreed. "Nevertheless he is possessed—"

    The mage shackled just behind the old man laughed bitterly. "I might have known," she said. "Sebastian wanted so desperately to have his city back, and you just happened to come along and make it possible. Was it you who put the idea of destroying Kirkwall into his head?"

    "It was in his heart before I ever met him, harlot," snapped the old man.

    "Get her away from him," Keran said, and pointed his sword at the shackled mage. "If we kill the old man too close to her, it may attempt to reach her instead."

    "I am not possessed," the old man shouted. He spun to face the mage, one shackled fist raised.

    "Get her away!" Keran shouted and leaped forward.

    The mage screwed up her face, drew back her own fist and struck the old man's jaw before he could move. He staggered, then fell as his feet tangled in the chain between them. An unholy sound shook the very walls and the frail body trembled violently. He rose from the ground, back arched, and terrible grinding sounds emanated from within as his body began to transform. Keran and Hugh moved in tandem; Hugh drove his blades into the twisting torso, and Keran severed the head. With a piercing shriek, the demon fell, and the old man's body began to crumble almost immediately. Hugh looked up at Keran. Keran wiped his sword angrily and sheathed it, nodded once to Hugh.

    "My thanks," he said. "You always have been faster than I."

    "You can still feel them," Hugh murmured.

    "Yes," Keran agreed tersely. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and his face was once more serene. "Ser," he said to Astley, "shall we continue?"

    Raines stared. "Just like that. You kill an abomination and just—continue your work? Without bringing a priest down here to bless the place? Without writing a report?"

    "Ser," Hugh said, as he sheathed his daggers, "if we wrote reports for every abomination we encountered in Kirkwall, we would have no time to deal with the abominations." He flashed an unhappy smile, turned to the mage as she was unshackled. "This way," he said, and guided her away from the others. Raines glanced at Astley, then at Klara, then hurried after Hugh. He wanted to see how the mage would be incarcerated.

    Hugh led the mage to a cell that was superficially not unlike the others, but Raines could sense something magical about it. He raised a hand to touch one of the metal bars that formed the front of the cell. "Lyrium," Hugh told him. "The cells on this side are specifically for holding mages. It damps their magic so they can't escape." Inside the cell the mage ignored them, turned to sit on the cot, her back straight.

    "This one is gravid," Raines said quietly to Hugh.

    "I will mention that to Keran," Hugh said. "He'll arrange for another healer to come down and attend her."

    "I don't need special treatment," the mage informed them coldly.

    "You won't get it," Hugh assured her. "But you will be taken care of in any case."

    Raines did not miss a flicker of disconcertion that showed in the mage's eyes, before she schooled her expression once more. He turned with Hugh and returned to the other side of the dungeon, where Keran had just finished locking the cell door behind the last prisoner. He chatted amiably with Astley, who was no doubt asking cheerful questions about procedures. Raines shook his head with amusement, looked out over his men. They had once more sheathed their swords, and had separated into groups with the mages, some chatting and some silent. Their trip from Ostwick had helped cement tenuous friendships, as he had hoped. If, as Hugh had said, the knight-commander and the first enchanter were married—Kirkwall might in fact be the new start he'd hoped for. If anything remained of it to live in, afterward, he amended his thoughts.

    "Keran and his men will ensure all is well down here," Hugh said, and Raines' reverie was broken. "Let's go upstairs and get the mages settled. If there are any healers among them—?" He looked hopeful.

    "No," Raines shook his head. "but we do have a couple of very fine herbalists, who have concocted some excellent distillations for healing potions. If that will help at all."

    "Every little bit will help," Hugh said. "The Tranquil have been assisting with their own potions, but I highly doubt that every injured person in Kirkwall is in the courtyard right now."

    Raines hesitated. "How many Tranquil do you have?"

    Hugh pursed his lips again. "Too many," he said quietly. "An artifact of Meredith's growing paranoia and the corruption of templars who are no longer here in Kirkwall." He beckoned to Raines, who gestured to his men in turn. Astley flashed Raines a hopeful look and tilted his head toward Keran. Raines nodded agreement; Astley was obviously enjoying himself. He grinned and returned his attention to the conversation, while the other templars and mages moved to follow Raines and Hugh.

    "How many have been made Tranquil since Cullen took over?"

    "Not one," Hugh replied promptly. "He refuses to use the rite as punishment, and we have had three successful Harrowings since the first enchanter arrived."

    "Interesting, that," Raines said. "So—rather a rosy outlook for the Circle."

    "The Circle, perhaps. The city much less so, I'm afraid, after today." Hugh opened another door at the top of the stairs, which led into a wide room where a half-dozen templars sat playing cards. The walls were lined with weapons and armour racks and a few practise dummies were artfully arranged at one end of the room. The templars set down their cards and stood; Hugh saluted them. "These are the templars from Ostwick," he said gravely, "whom the knight-commander requested, to bolster our ranks. I would appreciate it, as would he, if you would make them feel welcome here." The men saluted again, and Hugh nodded. "Carry on." He led Raines through the room and past another doorway to a wide, brightly-lit corridor. "The barracks and mages' quarters are on this floor and the next one up."

    "You house the mages with templars?"

    "Not with," Hugh replied. "But near. Cullen wanted the mages to feel protected, after—what happened. They have access to one another if they need it, particularly the children, since they sometimes have nightmares. And templars are always nearby to watch over them."

    "They don't feel confined?"

    "They are not locked in," Hugh reminded him. "We are here to protect them from demons, and if necessary from one another. If they wish to go out into the city—" He paused. "Well, before today, anyway. They needed only a templar escort. The people of the city are still very suspicious of the mages after Orsino." Hugh sighed. "I suppose I will need to brief you on everything that's happened, in detail."

    A Tranquil mage approached and looked over the group. "Ser Hugh," he said quietly. "Are these the new mages who have come from Ostwick?"

    "Yes," Hugh replied. "Jacob, this is Lieutenant Raines. Ser Raines, Jacob has been told by the first enchanter where she wants your mages to go, and the rooms have been prepared."

    "That is correct," Jacob intoned. "If the mages will follow me—?" He turned and glided slowly away.

    Raines looked down at Klara. She took a deep breath and moved to catch up with Jacob, and the rest of the Ostwick mages separated from the templars to follow her. Raines watched them go. Klara looked up at Jacob and appeared to ask him a quiet question. Jacob inclined his head and replied; Raines could not hear them. They were soon gone from sight and Raines turned to Hugh. "What about my men, now?"

    "I'll show you to the barracks," he said. "We've got baths for them, if they need to wash up, and of course beds if they need to rest."

    "Some of the younger men might want a rest," Raines agreed. "But I'll venture to say the majority of them would prefer just to grab a quick meal and then assist in any way we can." He smiled. Hugh managed a faint smile in return, and a little light showed in his blue eyes.

    "Thank you, ser," Hugh said. "This way." Raines beckoned to the templars, who turned obediently to follow him as he followed Hugh to the barracks.

    He was warm, very warm—too warm. He could hear sea birds creeling and calling. He had thought he was home; but home was not on the sea. Was he still in Kirkwall, then?

    He moved, and his whole body hurt. His head ached with a rapid pounding behind his eyes; when he opened them, he was nearly blinded by late-afternoon sun. He groaned and pushed himself to sit up, looked blearily around. He looked down at himself; he wore a peasant's clothing, rough and soiled. How had he gotten here? And where was—

    Two pairs of heavy armoured boots moved into his sight.

    "Well," said a familiar voice, "look what we have here."

    "You were right," said a second voice. "I owe you a sovereign."

    He looked up into angry green eyes. "Aveline," he murmured. "What's going on?"

    Aveline drew her sword.

Chapter Text

    Be strong, my friend. Do not falter.

        But I have faltered.

    It makes me happy, knowing that you will be the mage that I never could.

    Solona put out a hand toward the image of Jowan she had summoned in the Fade. She was, even now, haunted by his cheerful demeanour when she'd seen him in the Gauntlet.

    She let the image fade.

    Whatever you may believe, Morrigan had said afterward, that was not your friend, who remains in Redcliffe—as you may recall.

    It didn't matter whether or not it had been real. What mattered was how she had treated him. She had betrayed his trust, had gotten him sentenced to death, or worse. She had been a stuck-up, self-centred little prat and—

    "Still seeking peace, are you? Absolution from a god that does not listen?"

    The sardonic tone was unmistakeable.

    "Now I know this is just a dream," Solona said with a laugh. "Because you would never just pop by for tea and conversation."

    "I have not been offered tea," Morrigan said drily as she manifested as though through mist. She wore a gown more opulent than her usual clothing; she still moved with unnatural grace, and her eyes still gleamed yellow, the pupils narrow as she looked Solona up and down. "You do not appear to be in a position to offer it, in any case."

    Solona looked down at herself, summoned a cool flame to burn away the blood that had soaked into the thick quilted fabric of her armour. She looked up and found Morrigan had moved to stand immediately before her, regal and imposing.

    "So you have run back to your Circle," she said with some disdain. "I had thought you more than a sheep, willing to be herded within the confines of a shed."

    Solona braced herself. "I am willingly part of the Circle," she said, "because it assured me a place at my husband's side, in Kirkwall."

    Morrigan laughed, and it rattled Solona's bones. "You married that whinging templar, did you? Has his madness proven an impediment?"

    "He is not mad," Solona assured her. "And he withstood temptation that shattered men considered stronger than he, for weeks on end."

    The yellow eyes were rolled in exaggerated dismissal. "Nevertheless he remains a templar, and a tool of the Chantry."

    "He is a faithful man, a good man," Solona said. "And I wished to be able to fight at his side, when the war comes."

    "When it comes," Morrigan said thoughtfully. "So you have looked beyond the walls of your little shed after all." She tilted her head slightly to one side. "What else have you seen?"

    Solona shook her head. "Only that it is coming, and that many will fall. I have not seen the end of it."

    "And perhaps 'tis best for you that you have not," Morrigan said. "I am glad you have not allowed yourself to be blinded, my friend."

    "I have seen too much already to want that."

    A faint smile touched the narrow lips. "Then you have no need of my warning. The next time I see you will not be in the Fade, dear, and I will expect that tea."

    "If it's soon," Solona said, "you may have to bring your own cup. Kirkwall has been sacked."

    Morrigan laughed again, this time with some warmth. "I am not surprised to hear that," she said. "Wherever you go, some disaster invariably follows." She smiled, and it was a too-rare sweet expression that Solona had only seen once or twice before.  "But the magisters built Emerius out of nothing, worked their magic into the very stone of the region to raise a city. I have no doubt that you are capable of doing the same."

    Solona watched as Morrigan vanished, and stared into middle distance for what felt a long time.

    "Don't even try to feign innocence," Aveline growled, and pointed her blade at Sebastian's throat. He stared up at her with confusion, his eyes wide. He supported his torso with his hands, but his legs were in no position to spring upright; he was unafraid of Aveline, and that in itself was an indication that something was amiss.

    Donnic cleared his throat. "Captain," he said, "I'll restrain him, and we can take him back to Kirkwall."

    "I came for his head," Aveline snapped, her eyes never wavering from Sebastian's. Sebastian's eyes widened further and he paled; there was the fear, the realisation that Aveline did not draw her sword in jest. He looked at Donnic, then back at Aveline. He seemed genuinely alarmed and bewildered—or he was a better actor than Donnic had seen in all the years he'd served in Kirkwall's guard.

    "He will no doubt lose it," said Donnic. He moved to face Aveline, placed himself just slightly between her and Sebastian. Aveline looked sharply up at him, and she frowned.

    "Donnic?" She was able to put a world of question into his name with just her tone.

    "Something is out of place here," he replied in a low voice. Behind him, he heard Sebastian move, and glanced back. The prince—should he even be referred to as one? Donnic wondered—rose shakily to his feet and looked around in confused fashion. "He seems genuinely at a loss," Donnic went on, and returned his attention to Aveline.

    "He's faking it," said Aveline, though she sheathed her sword. "I've seen it a thousand times."
    "We've seen thieves feigning confusion and declaring they didn't know how coin purses got into their pockets, yes," he agreed. "But he's no thief, and I don't think he actually realises why you're here."

    "Sebastian," Aveline said, and leaned around Donnic to see him. Donnic stepped aside. Sebastian looked up at her, his brow furrowed.

    "Aveline," he said slowly, "how did I get here?"

    She bared her teeth. "You fled here, you bastard, you abandoned your army to save your pathetic skin."

    "Army?" Sebastian shook his head. "I dreamed—I dreamed I met Bethany Hawke again." He exhaled. "I must apologise. I don't know why I'm so weary." He looked down at himself. "Nor why I'm dressed like this." He plucked ineffectively at the loose laces of his shirt, touched the dirty trousers with offended fingers. "These aren't my things." He looked up. "Was I drinking? Did someone slip something into my cup?"

    Donnic cleared his throat. "Messere," he said, "you led an army to Kirkwall, and this morning you and your army attacked the city."

    Sebastian blinked, and a slow smile crossed his face. "This is some sort of prank," he said.

    Donnic felt Aveline's rage before she took a step, but he was not fast enough to stop her. She grabbed the front of Sebastian's shirt and shook him until he yelped. "Thousands dead," Aveline roared into his face, "and you suggest it's a prank?"

    Terrified, Sebastian struggled to push Aveline away, to no avail. "I don't know what you're talking about," he pleaded. "Who is dead?"

    "Kirkwall," Aveline shouted, and threw him violently to the ground. "Bloody most of Kirkwall is dead, thanks to you."

    Sebastian looked up at her and slowly his eyes grew clear and angry. "I just left Kirkwall," he said. "If anyone caused the death of so many, perhaps you should look to Anders for answers."

    Aveline stared at him, her face scarlet, her eyes cold and glittering. Donnic kept his arms loose, but remained ready—just in case. "Anders," Aveline said through her teeth, "left the city nearly a year ago, with Hawke."

    "A year ago," Sebastian repeated, startled. "But it was just—" His eyes lost their anger, clouded over. "It was just..." He collapsed on the dusty road.

    Donnic stared at him a moment, then looked at Aveline. She scowled and raised a foot to kick Sebastian's head. "Just a moment, Captain," Donnic said hastily, and she paused. Donnic grabbed the back of Sebastian's arm and pinched, hard; there was no response. "Well," Donnic said, and looked up at Aveline. "He's not faking this, at least."

    Aveline's lips tightened. "I've been itching to kick that smug prick for years," she snapped. "Why don't you tell me why you've twice stopped me."

    Donnic smiled faintly. "Because if this was any other man, any other criminal, you would not be acting on your anger, Captain."

    She ground her teeth audibly, then sighed, and her shoulders dropped. "You're right," she admitted. "Though he hasn't exactly earned fair treatment."

    "No one truly earns it," Donnic said mildly. He drew a pair of manacles from a pouch and fastened them around Sebastian's wrists. "It's still up to us to ensure everyone gets it." He lifted the limp body over his shoulders, stood and shifted until Sebastian's weight was distributed evenly.

    "You're right," Aveline repeated with a rueful smile. "Though I will say I would not at all regret treating him shoddily."

    "Maybe not," Donnic grinned. "But the city doesn't need another reason to be terrified of you." He tilted his head in the direction of Kirkwall, and with a sigh Aveline turned to walk with him.

    "I like them being afraid of me," she grumbled. "Makes them think twice about committing crimes."

    Donnic said nothing, and only just managed not to smile.

    Keran paced the dungeon easily on his rounds, followed by Astley. The latter was energetic and chatty, and seemed eager to learn all he could about the Gallows and its routines, in as short a time as possible. It was amusing, even if it slowed Keran a little.

    "How long have you worked down here?" Astley wanted to know. "In the dungeon, I mean."

    "A few years," Keran said vaguely. Something was making him itch. The demon had not had a chance to possess anyone else; Hugh's swift daggers and his own sword had taken care of it. He paused near the mage's cell and looked keenly at her, to see if she was the source of his unease. She sat still upright on her cot, her hands folded in front of her, heels together, and she stared into middle distance.

    He remembered her from his early days as a recruit; she was Hawke's sister. She had been there when Hawke had defeated Tarohne and her would-be cult; she had lent her voice to Hawke's reassurance that Keran had not been possessed.

    She had been taken to the Gallows not long after that. He hadn't seen her much during her years there; his experience at Tarohne's hands had left him with a peculiar sensitivity to the presence of demons, and Meredith had assigned him to the dungeon in the hope that he would find that she was right about the mages she continually banished there.

    Mages who had invariably been made Tranquil, even though Keran had assured Meredith—and Karras, and Alrik, and the others—that none of those mages had been possessed.

    "Why are you staring at me?" snapped the mage.

    Keran blinked, yanked from his reverie. The mage scowled, and Keran smiled faintly. "My apologies," he said. "I was thinking."

    "Think in another direction, then," she muttered.

    "She's cranky," Astley noted, as they resumed their walk around the prison.

    "She hasn't eaten, I expect," Keran mused. "Would you be willing to find one of the Tranquil mages upstairs, and ask them to bring something down for her?"

    "I can," Astley said. "What about the others?"

    "What others?"

    "Other prisoners," Astley said, with a wave in that direction. "Don't you want them fed, too?"

    Keran raised an eyebrow. "Of course, but not until suppertime."

    "Why does she get special treatment?"

    "Because she's carrying a child and she needs to eat."

    Astley's mouth formed a little 'o'. "I thought mages weren't supposed to—do that—in the Circles."

    "She hasn't been in a Circle for a while," Keran pointed out. "And in any case, even Circle mages end up bearing children now and again. It's inevitable."

    "All right. I'll be back soon." Astley headed up the stairs two at a time, out of the dungeon and into the Gallows. Keran shook his head, resumed pacing the area, absently scratched his cheek lightly with the tips of his gauntlets.

    Perhaps, he mused, it was simply a residual reaction from the demon he'd already slain. He moved thoughtfully to the other side of the prison, to the entrance through which Hugh had led the Ostwick mages and templars.

    Not Ostwick anymore, he reminded himself. They were now from Kirkwall.

    "I could use a cup of tea," called out one of the prisoners—not one of Starkhaven's men, but an ordinary swindler. Normally he would have been held in the Keep's dungeon instead, but this man's particular crimes had been committed against templars, and Cullen had pulled rank to get him imprisoned at the Gallows.

    "You'll get tea with your supper," Keran informed him cheerfully, and continued past the row of cells.

    Something glittered on the floor and he squatted on his toes to examine it. It was a large locket of some kind, shaped like a goblet engraved with several serpentine creatures. Keran stared at it a moment and was certain he had seen the creatures move. He laughed at himself, then, shook his head. He would have to have the thing checked out—it might, he reasoned, belong to one of the new templars.

    Carefully, with gloves on, he picked up the locket by its heavy chain. Almost immediately the itching sensation on his body grew intense—

    Your mother back, it whispered, your father healthy and sober as once he was. Your sister, cared for as she deserves to be...

    Keran smiled, just a little.

    "You're limping," Paxley noted, just loud enough for Ruvena to hear.

    "Am I?" She tried to sound nonchalant. He wasn't fooled.

    "Are you injured?" he asked. "Do you need a potion?"

    Ruvena flashed a half-smile. "I'm just tired," she said. "Been a bit of a busy day."

    Paxley nodded gravely. "I don't relish what's yet to come."

    Ruvena pursed her lips and nodded wearily. Paxley let his arm touch hers briefly as they walked.

    Ahead of them, the group of templars and mages was slowing, and soon stopped moving altogether. Paxley frowned, glanced at Ruvena; together they pushed past the others to see what had brought them to a standstill.

    Samson stood soberly at the fore of the group, speaking with Guard-Captain Aveline. Beside Aveline was the guardsman Donnic, and Donnic held Sebastian Vael, unconscious and shackled, across his massive shoulders. Aveline glanced up and spotted Ruvena, nodded acknowledgement, and returned her attention to Samson.

    "Looks like they've done our work for us," Paxley said thoughtfully.

    "The Keep has been ruined," Ruvena reminded him. "He'll still need to be taken to the Gallows dungeon."


    His conversation ended, Samson looked back at the templars. "Back to the city," he said. "The man is caught."

    Ruvena sighed. "If I never walk another step after today," she said as they turned obediently, "I will be happy."

    Paxley flashed her a grin. "Come now, where's that stamina you're always boasting about?"

    She tapped his shoulder with the back of her gauntlet in mock reprimand. "The stamina is yours, my dear Paxley, and it has always been."

    He widened his eyes, clasped his hands together. "You boast about my stamina to others? I might get famous after all!"

    "Famous at the Rose," Ruvena said drily, "is hardly an achievement."

    He grinned, then sobered. The Rose had no doubt been flattened, like everything else in the city. He thought about the employees, and specifically about Reed. He hoped the staff had all gotten out of the city in time.

    "What will you tell your superiors about this?" Bran asked. Reed started.

    "About what?" he replied evasively.

    "Play coy with other people as you wish," Bran said sternly, "but do not think to feign innocence or ignorance with me. You are not the only Seeker in the family, after all." He was mildly pleased to see Reed's ears redden.

     "I was sent here for a specific task," Reed said after a moment's consideration. "I am able to report only on what I have seen and heard."

    "That," Bran said acerbically, "is not what I asked you."

    Reed sighed and shifted his weight from foot to foot, a sure sign that he did not want to talk. "It's Chantry business," he hedged.

    "It becomes Kirkwall's business if your report triggers Chantry scrutiny," Bran pointed out. "I need to know if I need to prepare for anything."

    Reed folded his arms and rocked from one foot to the other as he looked out over the Gallows courtyard. "I can only report on what I know, Father," he said at last. "What I know is that Starkhaven has attacked Kirkwall. My report will mention that, but it needs be, of necessity, about my assigned task."

    That brought Bran no peace of mind; nevertheless, it was an honest answer. Once Kirkwall was back on its feet—

    He narrowed his eyes, folded his arms. What, he asked himself, makes you so sure it will get back on its feet?

    Kirkwall had seen its share of chaos. Centuries before Bran had ever taken up the mantle of Seneschal, the city had been sacked, and had recovered—more than once. All it needed now was a strong leader and a united populace.

    If only a Viscount had been named...

    Perhaps he would call for a vote as soon as some semblance of order had been restored.

    That thought gave him a measure of satisfaction, and Bran felt tight muscles on his neck and shoulders relax with cooling relief.

    A moment later the tension was back, when a chilling shriek from the direction of the harbour sent a dozen refugees scurrying frantically into the courtyard.

    "Uh, Commander?"

    Varric's voice startled him, and Cullen looked up. Varric pointed at Solona, and Cullen looked down to see her skin had begun to glow softly. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back, but did not otherwise react.

    "First Enchanter," he said, but her eyes remained shut; the glow deepened, turned into silent blue flame that briefly engulfed her, then vanished. Cullen shook her arm, stood and dragged her to her feet, and at last she opened her eyes.

    "Oh, Cullen," she said, wearily. She leaned on him; he felt colour rise in his face and ears, but slid an arm around her waist to support her. Solona turned her face up to him. "Kiss me," she whispered.

    "Not here," he said. "We are not alone."

    "Please kiss me," Solona said, still whispering.

    "Not here," he repeated. "We—" She lifted one hand to touch his cheek with her fingertips, and he felt a tingle of magic. "Solona," he scolded, "what are you doing?"

    She smiled at him, her eyes warm and sleepy. "You gave me a little too much," she told him. "I need to spend it. Kiss me."

    "A little too much what?" He reached up to catch her fingers, and the contact tickled his hand.

    "Please," she whispered, and pushed against him, her lips close to his.

    The tingle spread from his cheek and his hand and travelled comfortably, easily through his body, and Cullen wavered.

    "This is inappropriate," he reminded her weakly.

    "Just once," she coaxed.

    "Using magic is very unfair."

    "I have to use it. You gave me too much lyrium, I think."

    Cullen hesitated. "Are you all right?"

    "I will be," she sighed. "Just kiss me."

    He glanced back at Varric, who was watching them with curiosity, and glowered as best he could; the dwarf was unaffected. Cullen returned his attention to Solona.

    "Just once," he said quietly, and leaned down to touch her lips with his.

    Solona looped an arm around his neck and held him down, crushed their lips together and thrust her devilish tongue between his teeth. Her mouth tasted of bitter elfroot and tangy lyrium, and a sudden warmth flowed through him; the world fell away, leaving only Cullen and his impetuous, beautiful wife.

    He released her hand, cupped the back of her neck with one hand and pulled her body tighter to him with the other. Solona made a small sound into his mouth and looped her other arm around his neck, let him support her weight entirely.

    The flood of heat between them was nearly unbearable, even through his armour; he feared he would do something truly inappropriate, and found to his dismay that he did not mind that thought so much as he should. But nearly as quickly as it had begun, the rush of warmth began to dissipate, and Solona pulled away with a sudden inhalation. Cullen looked into her eyes; she smiled.

    "Thank you, Knight-Commander," she said, and her knees buckled again. Cullen caught her easily, scooped her into his arms.

    "I am taking you to the Gallows," he informed her, "where you will rest."

    Solona pressed her face against his neck. "If you stay with me, Knight-Commander."

    "Flirt," he accused her in a low whisper, and turned to carry her in the direction of the Gallows. Behind him, Varric Tethras made a small sound of surprise and trotted after him.