It all begins with a group of apprentice mages, huddled in the murky, musty corner of the castle hall.
They are supposed to be safe here: safe from the war-crazed templars who are after their blood, and from the villagers with pitchforks who want their arl back. Safe in the care of 'their betters' from Tevinter, where the templars are the ones that cower in fear and used as obedient tools; where magic is a guarantee of wealth and power, not a wretched, cursed existence in a stone prison; where, as Linnea tells them in a feverish whisper, they themselves might rise to greatness one day, and rain fire and lightning on all who ever wronged them.
They should be safe - and they do not feel so. There is something in the air, something sickly and stifling and wrong; their sleep is disturbed by blurred shadows lurking in the Fade, always in the very corner of their eye, never quite coming into view, vanishing when they turn around to look - while a small voice inside their head whispers that these shadows are what is real, and their grim, dreary surroundings are not... And when they wake from dreaming, their every step is watched by intent, unblinking eyes from beneath ornate cowls - hardly a change for the better from the Circle. And Grand Enchanter Fiona, once so bold, so confident, so dedicated to leading them all to freedom, has been reduced to a quiet shade at the heel of a magister. And there are rumours that those of the Tranquil who do not listen to the magister - the magister who hates them and fears them and cannot look at them without his face twisting in a way that makes even a person cut off from emotions take a hint - those of the Tranquil who do not follow the order to get out of Redcliffe, are never seen again.
So no, they do not feel safe. They feel apprehensive, like they have hit a dead end on a mountain path and are watching a gigantic boulder tip over them, unsteady and about to slide off its ledge and crush them any moment now. That is an analogy thought of by someone who actually saw the mountains - and passed on as a tale of warning in a hushed, rustling whisper. Because that is all they have, to make themselves forget about their dismal fate at least for a short while; to pass the time before the boulder falls. Stories.
It all begins with a group of apprentice mages, feeling so small and lost in this cursed castle - sharing stories.
One of them, a wide-eyed elf with spiky hair that looks as if it has been drawn by someone who cannot really draw hairstyles, is from Kirkwall, from the heart of it all, the place that saw the first ripples of what was to become a raging storm. And - at least according to what he tells the younger apprentices, who hang on to each of his dramatic, drawn out words with reverently baited breath - he actually saw Hawke a few times, when he was still a twiggy alienage kid, with no idea that he would come into magic and have to flee the chaos of the war. During their encounters, Hawke was never in the company of That One Mage, however - nor was the little elf actually interested in That One Mage at the time.
'Hawke was friends with a Dalish,' the elven apprentice explains, making his kinsmen stretch out their lips into flute-like tubes, breathing out an awestruck 'Oooooooh'.
'An actual, real Dalish! With face markings and everything! And she came to live right in our alienage, too - the Dalish, I mean; she was a woman like Hawke. Bit of an odd sort, I recall, but in a completely amazing sort of way, least in the eyes of a twelve-year-old - did not even flinch away when she saw a fellow get mugged... Just waved at the crooks, all calm-like, and asked if this was a local custom and they could mug her too... And when they turned around and reached for her, as big and stinky and unshaven as any human...'
He interrupts his exciting narrative with a quick 'No offence' tossed aside to any non-elven mages present (nor do they take offence: they know what sort of humans he means, and know that they would have gotten hurt by their kind just the same as a 'knife-ear'). After that, he continues.
'...She just tapped her staff on the ground, and these slithering, ghostly vines shot out of the cracks that spread from its tip, and wrapped round the muggers' ankles, making them dangle in mid-air like a bunch of very ugly apples, so that all the stuff they'd taken came bouncing out of their pockets: plop... thunk... jingle! And the Dalish smiled and thanked the muggers and left them hanging on her vines until this big ginger human lady came in with the guards and hauled them off. That's what my friends would tell me later: at the time, I snuck after her, because I was all starry-eyed over her fancy Dalish magic, and wanted to find out what else she could do...'
'What did you find out?' a small human mageling squeaks excitedly.
The elf grins, so carried away by his narrative that he no longer bothers to keep his voice down.
'Well, I let her notice me - all part of my brilliant plan, of course; no that I would ever do something as clumsy as trip over an empty bowl and roll around, gasping and yelping and eventually falling. She invited me in and made some tea and crumpets - which tasted like brick dust, but I figured it was some sort of Dalish rite of passage and gobbled them all down with a smile - and we talked a bit. She had...'
He is positively yelling now, and also leaping up and down on the spot and flapping his arms emphatically.
'She had this huuuuge mirror in her room - an artifact from the days of Arlathan, she explained! This mirror used to be infected with the Blight, and she managed to cleanse it, and was working to fix it! Imagine that!'
The audience falls silent - but not due to being struck by the tremendous achievements of the 'actual, real Dalish'. All the sounds in their little corner die down rapidly because one of the elf's hyper-enthused leaps never reaches a landing: instead, the young mage ends up dangling a little way above the floor, almost like the muggers in his story, as a heavy, spiky gauntlet holds him up by the collar, its fingers pulsing with telekinetic magic, and a deceptively silky voice drawls into his ear,
'Tell me everything you know about this Dalish of yours. Her name. What she looks like. Where to find her. Now'.
There have always been slavers prowling the Wounded Coast - a danger as constant as the massive force of the rising tide. Silent figures in grey armour, blending in with the brine-battered cliffs, or creeping into the most poorly lit, odorous corners of the Kirkwall docks. Watching, waiting. Biding their time until a victim stumbles into their lures - someone abandoned and vulnerable, someone unable to fight back or lacking friends that will care enough to investigate why they are gone.
A ragged drunken elf that has spent all of his meagre wages on drowning his sorrows at the Hanged Man, and taken a wrong turn on his way home. A terrified apostate running blindly from the templars, not even realizing where her own stumbling feet are carrying her. Sometimes, even a stray Tal Vashoth, left over from the Arishok's mad escapade, no longer certain in the teachings of the Qun but not knowing what to do outside of it either, gaping blankly at the rhythmic sway of the sea in a sort of half-suicidal daze that makes even a huge ox like this easy to tackle.
And in the recent weeks, the slavers' trade has thrived. The war between the mages and templars has left so many of 'them dumb, bleating refugees' scrambling to get out of danger - and falling right into the open arms of those who can sell them for a fair price. And the fact that the Champion and her glowing elf lover have thinned the slavers' ranks substantially, before vanishing off into the unknown, only means that there will be less competition for those that remain.
Though today, it looks like they will have to share. With a bunch of mages in huge, cone-shaped hoods. Going by their speech, they sound like Vints - the slavers' usual clientele - but they have come from the south, not north, with their boat sped up by some freaky yellowish-green spell. At first, the gang tries to defend its turf against the newcomers - because the hoods made it clear that they are here to hunt, not buy, and this isn't how things work around here; they could have at least paid a fee for using this stretch of the coast - but one snap of the fingers and incinerated thug later, the slavers agree to throw their lots together. And apparently, the target the hoods are after is kind of high-profile. Not one of those sheep-like lost elves and magelings and whoever. But the person that guides them to safety.
She has been the subject of many an inebriatedly exaggerated tale - almost like the ghostly-blue companion of Hawke, with his ability to nigh on teleport across the battlefield, and rip people's hearts out with his bare hands. She may look cute, like this dainty little daisy, all big-eyed and rosy-cheeked and whatnot... But those spiky vines she conjures to pull people apart, and the jagged rocks she pulls deep out of the soil, to bar you in a makeshift cage while she sets you on fire - now that stuff is something you don't wanna mess with, and once she is done with you, you will not look cute at all. When summoned by the frantic screams of the hunted knife-ears, blasted little thing stands like a force of nature between the slavers and the city's rabbit population - but at least now, with the arrival of the cone-head Vints, they actually have an edge to get back at her.
More than that, it turns out that the slavers do not really need to pitch in. They just lead the strangers to the part of the coast where the deadly daisy usually hangs out, gathering healing herbs and making sure none of her kin get into trouble; then, wave their swords some; and finally, stand back and gawk at the show as the black robes swoop upon the thing, just as she reaches down to grab a blood lotus.
Pressing her writhing, struggling little body into the water, a couple of them shoot down a blast of ice magic that locks her in a kinda muddy frozen cube, which they pull upwards with the metal hooks on the tips of their staves. A very neat little truck that the slavers make note of, glaring meaningfully at the one mage they have in their own gang, for not having been able to come up with this on her own.
The ice does not hold for long, though: soon after the Vints position it upright, greyish cracks begin to appear in the block, and as the frosty crust wears thin, the trapped elf helps it along by lighting up a sizzling spark of orange flame, her large green eyes narrowing into intent slits beneath the lumpy, porous, thawing wall that is holding her back.
The slavers exchange a furtive look, and one of them passes his hand, knife-like, across his throat. If she breaks free, the cone-heads may be done for... But it seems that they have seen to something like this happening.
With a fluid flick of their wrist, one of the Vints pulls a pair of handcuffs out of their robe's numerous folds - without actually touching it, as they use a cloud of glittering magic to guide the cuffs through the air. The clanking metal is branded with some zigzagging design - a dwarven rune, most likely, for dampening magic.
The cuffs clast round the elf's pale bony wrists the moment her hands fully emerge from the ice - and her fire spell instantly goes out, making a gloating snicker pass between both the slavers and the Vints, who also clap a crpled rag into the captive's mouth, when she tries to protest that 'this is not fair fighting!', and drag her off towards their boat.
They leave a parting gift, too - a fat leather coinpurse, tossed onto the wet sand. And as far as the slavers are concerned, this is the best conclusion this little expedition could have. Well, apart from one of their own being reduced to a pile of ash by the snap of an impatient Vint's fingers. But eh, he was kind of a useless lout anyway.
At first, Merrill decides that being cross is called for. Very, very, Aveline-level cross. This... This has not been the nicest thing to do to a person! Snatching the said person off, like in Varric's stories but not in a fun way, in the middle of preparing to make a very, very important healing potion, which was supposed to help the second youngest child of that poor widow whose husband was crushed to death by flying debris on the night of the Chantry blast! And then, snuffing out this person's magic, and gagging her, too, to keep her from asking crucial questions - like what kind of spellcraft was making the snatchers' boat cross the waves so fast? Oh, and where they were taking her, she supposes, but that part was a bit less fascinating.
Another not-at-all-nice-thing, on the part of some of her captors, was to turn themselves invisible and flee with her the moment the uncannily speedy boat ground its nose into the mound of gravel (which let out this crunch that made Merrill's stomach gargle, as she thought of candied nuts) on the other side of all the heaving water they had crossed. That was not nice because apparently, those grim and untalkative hooded fellows had a welcome party stationed on the shore in anticipation of their arrival - but hardly had the two groups exchanged a few gestures and curt exclamations in what had to be Tevene (at least, the intonation was the same as Fenris swearing), a band of warriors came charging in out of nowhere, and started landing punches and hacking and slashing in every direction possible. They were not uniformed like the hooded snatchers in the boat and their welcome party - but rather, dressed in all kinds of motley bright armour, a bit like Hawke and friends during the nicer days in Kirkwall. And their leader was a Qunari, as tall and broad and... fetchingly bare-chested as Merrill remembers his kin; he had a battle axe with a handle taller than her entire body (or... or longer; either way does not sound quite right), and its blade fell upon the welcome party like they were carrots you dice for a soup. Given the hooded snatchers' treatment of her, Merrill should have cheered for their fellows being slain - but, as she tried to be fair, she reasoned that her captors needed to come to the welcome party's aid... Which they did not! They melted into the shadows, still dragging her with them, while their brothers and sisters were left to the mercy of the Qunari and his fighters! And those included both those that had been waiting for them, and the stragglers from the boat that had been stricken down by the mage from the Qunari's crew: one of the People, who shaped her charges of arcane energy like arrows.
Oh Creators, this treachery was so very wrong that it makes her most cross of all! Even more so than the fact that the hooded fellows took her away from her responsibilities in Kirkwall! If she suddenly decided to leave it all behind, and cross the Waking Sea again, and visit Ferelden, she would have found a way without being abducted... She... She thinks. She would probably have gotten lost - because getting lost is so very easy... and kind of fun - but she would have managed on her own. With no help from the mean snatchers in hoods who have done so many wrong things.
Oh, and they also stole some mounts.
While making their shameful escape, the snatchers trampled over a recent campsite, with a long banner flapping over it, displaying a curious symbol, like an eye with bushy and unnaturally long eyelashes... More of eye tentacles, really, like on that baby squid Merrill caught once while out fishing with Hawke and Fenris and Isabela (she didn't mean to catch it, the sweet squishy little thing, and let it out back into the sea after it did its cute bouncy dance from Fenris' face to Isabella's chest).
The camp was unmanned (and unwomanned and unchilded), except for a very indignant freckled dwarf who tried to race after the snatchers (now of both persons and animals) - but tethered to poles a little way off, there were three horses and the most majestic, gorgeous hart, which so many Dalish would give everything to just pet... And which these hooded fellows just leapt onto, without a word of thanks for carrying them, or a single gesture of respect! It took much of the enjoyment out of the journey on the back of a regal hart, where Merrill had been plopped in front of one of her captors.
And now that their ride is over (she was not even told what happened to the poor mounts!), Merrill has been towed through the streets of a human village, right into a (really rather pretty) castle, where, sitting on the throne in the largest, brightest if the rooms she has been pushed through, with his fingers locked in front of his face, is a human in a kind of bizarre hood (it looks like a crayfish has crawled onto his head), who introduces himself as Magister... She does not quite catch the second part, because her heart makes a jolt at the sound of that word, and she remembers the only other Magister she has ever met; the cold-eyed, cruel one, who kept hunting Fenris and making his life miserable - and making Hawke miserable too, because Fenris' pain was her pain - until they all came face to face and settled this once and for all.
She frowns and bites her lip. She... She is probably being foolish to think this; she is foolish so often, after all. Not all Magisters are the same! But... But he does seem to command these snatchers in black hoods, who even now let go of her shoulders and remove the gag from her mouth at his gesture, before melting off into the background like the creepy shadows they are... And what is he doing in a Fereldan village? Has he invaded it? Has he turned everyone into his slaves? In which case - she should probably dart towards the door, now that there is no-one restraining her, and figure out how to remove her cuffs, and then free all these poor people! This is what Hawke would have done!
While she has been babbling inside her head (as she often does), the magister has still been talking. He finishes by gesturing to his side, towards another figure that Merrill did not notice before - in a similar crayfish hood, except yellow one. The figure steps forward and pulls the crayfish back, revealing the face of a shyly smiling young man.
He has a bit of that curious human facial hair, and is very pale, purplish almost, obviously touched by sickness - in a way that makes Merrill's chest and stomach hurt - but with warm brown eyes that look like the magister's, except filled with more light... A light that is reflected in the magister's expression when their gazes meet: in this moment, any resemblance he might have borne to Fenris' old master is gone.
'My son, Felix,' the magister says quietly. 'I am told you can cleanse the Blight from objects; apply your skills to his healing - and you shall be rewarded. Otherwise...'
His grip on the throne's armrests tightens, clawed gauntlets chipping at the wood - and as shadows fall over his face again, the vision of the other magister, Danarius, returns.
But Merrill is not afraid - in a sudden flash of realization that leaves her breathless, she tells herself that if she does as she's told, she will honour the memory of her dear lost lethallin, Tamlen - and will help Mahariel, too, as her childhood companion is still somewhere out there, searching for a cure for the Grey Warden Calling. And... Oh, how Isabela would tease her for this... It sort of helps that her patient-to-be, Felix, has the loveliest of names, and softest of smiles.
It is settled then.
She is not headbutting a nearby statue, prying her shackles off with its halberd and hopefully starting a nice enough indoor lightning storm to take care of the magister and cover her grand escape.
She is staying.
She will still be doing her best to help the local folk, of course. Because there still are plenty of things about this village to get cross about.
This is by far not the first time that he sees his genial elven healer at work. But still, stripped down to the waist for a better view of the venous Blighted growths that are breaking through his skin, and perched on the edge of a writing desk in what supposedly used to be the castle owner's private study, Felix watches Merrill with no less alarm than when she first did this. His widened eyes follow her with barely a blink as she flicks a small pocket knife across her palm, and lets the ruby droplets soar up into the air, tracing a complex arcane glyph.
'I am being very careful, I promise,' she reassures him, meeting his anxious gaze but briefly and then hurrying to focus on her craft again, chewing in her lower lip in concentration.
Of course, Felix cannot know this (telling him would be very, very inappropriate!), but on occasion, she finds herself a bit distracted by his looks. Even ravaged by sickness, he is still quite handsome - in Merrill's eyes, at least - and the very inklings of imagining how delightful he will look if... when he is healthy again, make her mouth first go terribly dry, and then fill up to the roots of her upper teeth, so that she has to take care in order not to make her swallowing noises too loud.
'I have always understood that blood magic is dangerous, and in the past few years, I have learned firsthand that if I am not...'
'I... I know you are careful,' Felix interrupts her softly. 'You are nothing like the power-hungry blood mages back home... My father used to tell me these... horror stories about the perils of blood magic... which he used to look down on before... before things changed... I could never have dreamed of seeing a... practitioner of the... the art... that would be... As benevolent and kindhearted as you! I...'
He coughs and lowers his head, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck.
'I mean... What I was trying to say is... Losing so much blood throughout the day must be quite draining! Do you remember to heal yourself?'
The glyph shimmers and skews to the side, its entire upper left corner mangling into a mess of lines that seem to be tracing a simplistic heart shape - whereas the caster herself turns sharply, her hair whipping round her flaring, deep-crimson ears, and stares into Felix's eyes, her own growing enormous like shimmering pools of green.
'I don't remember anyone asking me this in the longest time,' she says, a bit shakily. 'I mean... My friends would always stand by me in battle... And try to make sure I did not awaken any ancient evils... With... Varying success... But... I don't think... They actually... Talked too much about me draining myself'.
'Well, maybe they thought it tactless to pester you?' Felix suggests, evidently taking a shot in the dark. 'I... I was probably tactless myself... It just occurred to me... Because I still remember how I...'
Merrill blinks several times, astounded.
'You have tried blood magic? I did not even know you were a mage!'
'I am not,' Felix rubs at his skin again, this time on his forehead. 'Not really. I dabbled in a few spells... as a very small child... Really basic ones... Like putting out a candle flame... I was never able to learn how to do more... Somehow, I just turned out this way... A runt, my grandfather used to call me... And that...'
He breathes in, long and hard, a lump sliding up and down his throat.
'That kind of hurt... As a young, impressionable boy in Tevinter... Where if you don't have magic, you are nothing... So one day... After my parents took me to some formal... party or something... A Satinalia ball, I think... And the other guests' children made fun of me... I locked myself in at home, grabbed a letter opener, and decided to... to try and use my own blood to turn myself into a better mage...'
His hand moves just underneath his jaw line, while his forehead creases in a pained grimace.
'That did not work, obviously... And I was so angry... I hated myself so much for failing... that I just kept cutting and cutting... Tearfully... Viciously... Until Father rushed in and saved me from myself...'
With a tiny outcry, Merrill knocks her stacks of books and scrolls over and flings herself at Felix, locking him in a hug, not even pausing to think that he is half-naked and she is supposed to be healing him and, oh gods, what if the magister finishes earlier than usual with that 'important research of his own', which takes him away to another part of the castle for hours on end, and comes to join Merrill's experiments, and...
But at this point, it is already too late. She is already patting Felix on the back and chattering, in that Merrill way that annoys so many people,
'I am sorry! So, so sorry! That must have been horrible! Oh, and I was the one who brought those memories to life, wasn't I? In that case, I am doubly, triply sorry? Is triply a word? It sounds a bit off... Ah, it doesn't matter... I... I just... If I hurt you, I wasn't meaning to!'
She rambles herself into a dead end and, falling sheepishly silent, slides off the desk and returns to her books, her head bowed down... Until Felix clears his throat and calls her name, sounding somewhat stuffy, as if he has tears building up and clogging his nose,
'Merrill! Please, Merrill - you didn't hurt me! I get emotional over that... incident, obviously, but it's no fault of yours! In fact, you are the only person aside from my parents that I really confided in about the mess I was when I was younger! You... You inspire candour'.
'Aw, I appreciate you trust then, lethallin,' Merrill perks up.
She takes care to lower her voice when she pronounces the elvhen form address, making it almost completely unintelligible: for she is unsure about the implications of using the tongue of the People to refer to a human from Tevinter - the son of a magister, no less. But somehow, the word fits him. He is so sincere and caring, and keeps an inner light shining through, even in his sickness: one word from him is enough for all of this ice that seems to encase his father, kind of like her captors' spell encased her, to melt away. And she enjoys talking to him so very, very much.
'You... You must have felt lonely at times,' she adds on an impulse, speaking up again.
'Very,' Felix confesses. 'I did not have any friends close to my age until Father took on an apprentice... And when I left home to study at the University of Orlais... I tried to make myself likeable to the other students... But so many of them still preferred to keep me at arm's length... Because, you know...'
He makes a grimace and mimes quotation marks.
His face falls again, and he clenches his teeth a little before continuing.
'I tried to tell myself that it was for the best... But...'
'But it was a lie,' Merrill finishes for him.
Felix starts a little, struck by the tone of understanding in her brief, almost casually spoken phrase. Their gazes lock together again, and this time (although it could just be the reddish light in the room) both of them are blushing.
Assumptions and headcanons that I am writing this under:
Alexius does not know what the Venatori are doing with the Grey Wardens because it's an entirely different branch of the cult, and, given that if the player does Champions of the Just Dorian says that the Venatori killed him for outliving his usefulness, he seems to be more of an asset than a full-fledged member anyway, and not privy to the Grand Scheme (which is why, later on in this story, he will be warned off meddling in the Grey Warden business and off relying on Merrill as an alternative source of help for Felix). Maybe Corypheus would have forced some of his Grey Warden slaves to perform the Joining on Felix as a 'reward' for successfully eliminating the Herald, but all that Alexius was given was a lot of rhetoric and a vague promise to 'find a way' (which he should have seen through as an experienced politician, but you know, desperation and all). And in any case, from Corypheus' point of view, Felix is nothing but yet another husk for potential body-hopping to add to his collection.
The magister is not the most patient of men. Especially during the times when, torn away from his 'other research', he hurries to check on Merrill's progress - and finds his son, though more often than not giggling at something together with his healer, still far from being cured. Whenever that happens, his breath always catches in his throat, and streaks of blue fire course through the veins of his rapidly clenching and unclenching hands. That is something that Merrill is all too familiar with, two times over - but at least, he does not turn into a rampaging carnage machine... Not quite.
He releases the blast of pent-up magical energy onto a nearby wall, the crackling blue splashing against the stone and leaving a huge charred streak. Then, he turns to Merrill, and snaps, the strain of his neck making him look rather like a turtle,
'I sought you out, I diverted resources granted to me by... by a higher power, because I was expecting results! Results! And what do you give me?! The same thing I have struggling with for all these months! Failure after failure after failure!'
At this point, Felix usually speaks up, standing tall between the tiny elf and the glowering magister, his pallid face set into a very stern look.
'She is doing her best, Father,' he says, articulating every word with perfect clarity, not even hindered by a cough that keeps bubbling at the back of his throat.
'And you have no right to talk to her like this! You have abducted her, like some... lowly slave hunter, and are keeping her indentured to yourself - just as the southern mages!'
After these words leave his mouth, his voice usually falters, and the cough begins to break through, forcing him into a brief but violent struggle to steady his breath, Merrill supporting him from the back. When the sharp wheezing noises recede and Felix wipes the smattering of black blood off his lips, he takes to speaking much quieter, while his tone is not scornful any longer, but frightened. And he is asking the same question that Merrill has been concerning herself with, while observing the quiet streets of the village as if they were some ancient glyph for her to decipher.
She has found out that the exceedingly unfriendly Tevinters in over-the top armour - the ones that occupied the castle together with the magister - are called the Venatori, and that as soon as the rebel mages found themselves cornered by the Templars, they showed up out of nowhere and offered 'help'... Which Merrill believes to be pretty similar to the 'help' extended to the People of the Denerim alienage during the Blight (Mahariel was there to stop those scheming slavers, thank the Creators, and who knows, perhaps Merrill will have to do the same for the Redcliffe folk). So far, nobody else has been put in shackles and whisked off gods know where - but that could be because the Venatori are just waiting for something... Or someone. Merrill figured that out when she snooped around using her most cunning and brilliantly simple disguise - a broom in her hands (it really does wonders to make people stop noticing you; so amazing). There are whispers passing among the Tevinter strangers, of someone called 'the Herald'. The magister wants them to come here, like he wanted Merrill to come, to play a role in some plan of his. She does not know the details of that plan, though - but she does ever so want to find out. And Felix wants to find out to.
'Look... Look what you have become, Father,' he whispers, his eyes dark and moist. 'I can scarcely recognize you... Why are you doing all of this? Why are you set on... subjugating or... endangering so many people? Merrill, Fiona and her rebels, and now that... Herald? The Gereon Alexius I know would never have...'
The magister never lets him finish. Inhaling hoarsely, he looks deliberately past his son, and says to Merrill,
'Enough of this. Let us compare notes'.
So off they head, to pore over scrolls and clanking vials and samples of blood, and their research carries them away - as fascinating things often do - and blurs the lines between the reality, where they are a sinister mage and his elven captive, and a brighter, happier Beyond-like vision where they are more like teacher and apprentice, or may even two equals, two scholars, both absorbed in the same project. The blur is strong, but not complete - and Merrill has to remind herself to be wary.
As time passes, the magister eventually squeezes out an apology for losing his temper, muttering that it was 'unworthy of him' (must be a Tevinter catchphrase, because Fenris would always apologize the same way, though hardly ever to Merrill). And Merrill accepts it, her eyes closely studying his lined, care-worn face. And the image that comes to her mind is no longer that of Danarius. It is of Quentin.
Yes, Quentin. The madman that hunted in the dark, and killed so many poor, innocent women - including Hawke's mother, who had meant so much to her, and had been far kinder to Merrill than most humans in the city, only calling her 'odd' instead of the... other words - and then, stitched parts of them together to recreate the likeness of his dead wife.
Once, when she dozed off over her parchment stack, Merrill had a very disturbing vision where the spirits of the Beyond showed her Felix, lying cold and still, strangled by the jagged bolts of black and purple on his throat; and his father, weeping over him, with the warm spark that Felix would light up having completely vanished from his eyes, and his aura of cold having returned. This cold coiled around him, in visible wisps, even brighter than the stinging blue that would take over Anders and Fenris - and when it faded away, the magister was gone, transformed, in a no less bloodcurdling way than poor Enchanter Orsino. It was Quentin staring at Merrill now from beneath the crayfish hood; it was Quentin advancing at her across the green, wobbly ground of the Beyond; leering insanely, holding his fingers up, ready to snap them and command Felix to rise, no longer Felix but an abomination sewn out of the body parts of some poor young men from Redcliffe, some of whom might have his hands; some, his height and posture; and others, his facial features.
After her dream, Merrill awoke in cold sweat, her heart flopping in her throat like a fish leaping upstream - but she thanked the spirits for their warning nonetheless. She is convinced that this is what will become of the magister if neither one of them saves Felix - and that might endanger the poor frightened mages, and the villagers of Redcliffe, and the mysterious Herald, and maybe even more people all across Ferelden. So finding a cure for Felix is not only important for ensuring that Merrill keeps seeing that beautiful smile he has. And if the same techniques she used on the eluvian are not working on a living person, then perhaps...
'I have been wondering...' she speaks up, during one of their 'comparing notes' sessions. 'Have you considered... Contacting the Grey Wardens?'
'I have tried,' the magister responds snappily, slanting his eyes at her while his hands are still mixing healing powders. 'But they have all vanished off the face of the earth, it seems. I stopped trying to reach out to them fairly soon. It is not like they are a lot of good to begin with: where were the Wardens when the darkspawn killed my wife and turned my son into... into...'
He cuts himself off in frustration - and, without thinking, Merrill reaches forth and strokes his forearm as a brief, faltering gesture of comfort. He has not turned into Quentin just yet - and maybe a little compassion will put off that scary transformation for a tiny bit longer.
'The Wardens can be a lot of good,' she says firmly. 'They did to my clan-sister, Mahariel'.
She does not use Mahariel's first name, because no-one ever does, adorable as it might be.
Just before Mahariel was born, her mamae would see the same dream over and over, of a rose blossoming among dry, prickly thorns - so, not knowing the Elvhen word that might match her dream, she named her da'len in the common tongue. Blossom.
Mahariel, who grew up to be a fierce, strong-willed hunter, with a punch that could supposedly knock the teeth out of a wolf's maw, was awfully embarrassed by that, and promised the thrashing of a lifetime to anyone who'd use the word 'Blossom' when talking to her. Later on, when Mahariel sought out the clan in the company of her vhenan, the sweetest human Merrill had ever seen (before meeting Hawke... and Felix), they learned that she had come to terms with her name, because her vhenan had given her a blossoming rose as a sign of affection. But settled habits are hard to get rid of, and so Merrill continues calling her lethallan Mahariel.
'Mahariel was sick with the Blight, just like Felix,' she says, shuddering at the memory. 'Infected by the same mirror I later cleansed. We were certain we'd lose her - but then our guest, a Grey Warden named Duncan... a very human-ey human, with a beard and everything... he said that he could help, and took her away. And Mahariel lived!'
'The price for that being a sworn duty to fight darkspawn until the end of her days,' the magister points out. 'To keep facing the same creatures that almost took my son away from me in the first place'.
'Duncan conscripted Mahariel because a Blight was just about to begin,' Merrill reasons. 'There is no Blight now... At least, I don't think so? We would have noticed, right?'
She laughs nervously, and then adds, in a small voice, while looking at her hands,
'I... I just... I am not making much progress... And I do want to help your son, truly... Not just because you threatened me... Which was not really nice of you... But because...'
'Because I really like him' and 'Because I'm afraid you might become a monster if he dies' both seem like the wrong things to babble, so she just sighs and looks up at the magister in silence.
He shuts his eyes tightly and presses his fingers against their corners, deep in thought. When, a few very weighted, slow-passing moments later, he parts his eyelids again, he gives Merrill a reserved nod.
'Very well. You shall continue your work, as shall I - but I will look into the Grey Wardens again, as a potential last resort. Perhaps the local branch is more accessible. And who knows what doors the Venatori can open'.