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Walking Among Demons

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It was all a dream.

It had to be because it was unbelievable.

Nothing so fantastic has ever happened in Cullen’s life.

Yet, when Cullen opened his eyes as dawn’s stained light streamed through his loft’s dilapidated roof, he realized it was all real.  His left cheek laid against his cotton-stuffed pillow.  His exposed ear noted the song of morning birds circling above Skyhold, while dawn’s rays shined through the birch sampling’s branches rooted in the stone wall.  The sunshine just right to highlight the waves of red and brown frizz that tickled his lips.  Soft breathes pulsed slowly against his bare neck.  The commander’s amber eyes slowly opened, studying the wavy long bangs that masked the being lying beside him. 

A brief moment of anxiety rose up inside the ex-templar, waiting for the form to shift into a desire demon.  He feared the Fade’s nightmares will taint his heart’s desires ever after his nightly templar mental and psychological meditations.  He prepared himself to begin reciting the proper chants to fight the demon’s actions.  It will shift to its true form as soon as it realizes he did not buy into its false form.

It never happened. 

The commander searched his memory for an explanation.  He adjusted his free right arm enough to pinch his side.  Pain.  He was wake.  This was not the Fade.  There was only one woman he will ever want to share his bed with, and those distinctive auburn curls confirmed that person was actually there.  Eve slept peacefully beside him.

With each lethargic blink, Cullen accepted this was reality, a new majestic reality.

Last night was real.  This morning was real.  She was real.

Cullen waited for Evie by a spider thread.  Once she returned from the Emerald Graves, the commander knew she would never treat him the same way ever again.  She did not look him in the eye.  She winced when he spoke.  Anything that reminded her of their shared moments brought anguish.  Cullen concluded he was the worst person in her life, more than he believed before.  The unfeeling and mute Evie was the new norm.  The woman he cared about was dead and beyond help. 

The commander went into self-preservation mode.  Before he drowned in sorrow and disappointment, Cullen needed to pull himself up and serve his duty to the Inquisition and himself.  However, finding his original purpose was extremely difficult.  The waters were muddy and unclear.  Cullen’s urges for atonement mixed with Evie like a whirlpool uniting with the bottom of an abyss.  He felt atonement was unobtainable without her.  His battle with lyrium addiction was unbearable without her presence.  By unconsciously being a part of his life before the Conclave, Evie weaved herself into his goals like a knitted blanket.  To deny her would be rejecting the few years since he turned against Meredith’s instability.  Essentially, Cullen would return to that harden, mage-hating man he wanted to avoid.

That struggle was for not though.  When the fire mage raced into the commander’s office and slammed the reinforced door close, Cullen thought he died and went to the heavens.  She looked a mess, pressing her full body weight against the tower door like she was barring everyone else out.  Her unkempt wavy hair dripped water, gleaming in the torchlight.  Her face flushed like she just escaped an unwinnable battle with no makeup to hide behind.  She wore that alluring sparring outfit from two months ago, his personal favorite.  Her belt was unfastened in front of those tight tan pants.  All her fine tailored dresses and armor were fine, but Maker, that ensemble was perfect, matching her personality and soul completely.

Cullen braced himself for the worst.  Evie only entered his office—especially so late a bell—if there was an emergency, she was hiding, or she required his expertise.  He held his professional demeanor, using that title he hated to say and she loathed to hear.  Her eyes flashed open.  He could not breathe.  Her eyes were bright, shimmering orbs of light that housed the Fade and his dreams.  He could read her expression, her mind through those burning green eyes dyed by the Anchor.  She told him to call her ‘Eve’.  Her voice cracked and stammered.  Those few short words had life.  Maker be praise, Eve was alive.

Evie stared at him for a few minutes just as he waited to wake.  Cullen must have fallen asleep at his desk again.  The Fade, that demonic place, was teasing him.  The desire demons were showing him what he yearned for so long.  Cullen chanted and prayed every night to see Evie’s beautiful eyes again.  He yearned to hear her snorts when she laughed too much, her snarky comments and jabs in the War Room, and constant need to set everything on fire when her fierce temper spun out of control.

Cullen stilled himself when he asked if she needed something.  Maybe it would break the demon and let him wake.  Words poured out of Evie’s mouth, declarations he wanted to hear on the battlements months ago.  Damn the demons.  Damn the Fade.  Leave him alone!

“…I am falling for you so deeply that it scares me.”

A desire demon would never admit it was scared to love him.  It would just state it without panic or sorrow.  This person was begging, searching his face for some confirmation to her hopes.  Cullen took a deep breath, while masking his unsureness behind his commander austerity.  Oranges and cloves.  Evie’s words in Redcliffe rang through his mistrusting mind.  Demons cannot replicate smells.  Maker’s breath, this was Evie!

Cullen’s feet carried him forward, while his mind screamed that it could be all a lie, a dream that betrayed his senses.  The woman before him looked like she was going to run away.  Like so many times before, Cullen automatically reached out for her before she fell or disappeared.  His ink-stained hand grasped her bicep, while the other lifted her chin.  He leaned down with little finesse and pressed his lips to the quivering soft pink lines.

This was Evie.

Evie’s lips tasted better than her lipstick on that Carnel wine bottle.  With each breath, Cullen’s nostrils smelled her glorious familiar scent.  Her sun-kissed chin and cheek felt smooth against his rough hand.  His grip tightened on her arm until he heard the door ring fall out of her other hand.  It moved up his breastplate, to his shoulder and neck, and into his hair.  This felt right.  This is where they belonged in each other arms with their lips pressed together in perfect unity.

Cullen smirked, resting his right arm above his head, taping the headboard with his knuckle and bringing him back to the present.  His other arm tightened beneath Evie’s neck.  She abandoned the spare pillow, using his bicep and shoulder to rest her sleeping head.  Her marked hand rested on his abdomen and gripped his thinning night tunic, while her other clasped his arm wrapped around her shoulders.  She never just rested her hands on him, but clung to him tightly like he would disappear somehow.  Corypheus himself could not drag him away from her now.  

Cullen gently kissed the top of the woman’s head.  His nose nuzzled against her wavy hair, taking a deep breath of her orange and clove scent.  The commander hesitated to allow her to stay last night.  All the other times she slept in his bed, he stayed away just in case he had a night terror.  For the first time in years, Cullen placed his broadsword and boot knife on the other side of the room to avoid drawing the blades to cut down any foe that emerged from his nightmares.  He remembered times in the Gallows’ barracks where he drew his waiting weapon and frightened Samson.  The thought of Samson nearly pissing himself brought a brief smile to the commander’s face, but he definitely did not want to scare the woman he cared for deeply the first night they slept in the same bed.  Thank the Maker, he did not dream during the night.  He forced himself to sleep lightly to avoid the Fade.  Besides, his reality was more pleasant and comforting.  He still felt rested and relaxed despite not sleeping deeply.  Evie always had that effect on him, especially since neither person hid their feelings anymore.

This woman must have read Cullen’s mind.  Evie asked to take it slow.  From her pitch, she was extremely nervous and unprepared for a romantic relationship.  It confirmed Leliana’s observations that she would have never acted on her emotions unless Cullen said his own.  They never spoke about past involvements, only that Cullen never took those silly vows of celibacy.  Maker, this woman loved making him feel and act like an idiot. 

Evie’s blabbering explained she did not understand love, but admitted she cared for him.  Being betrothed to Rian was surprising, but she was a noble.  Their world was messed up.  He heard of cases of inbreeding to keep royal bloodlines ‘pure.’  Learning her lack of sexual past actually relieved him a little.  He knew Circles were tight, restricting walls of sexual tension with little regard to how many partners a person could have at one moment.  However, Evie’s not participating in such affairs should have not surprised him.  Evie never trusted anyone so why would she have a relationship in the Circle. 

However, Cullen could not shake that something happened to her that pushed all romantic feelings back.  How she admitted she was scarred from lashings and her phrase ‘other events in my life’ worried the commander.  She admitted she had more secrets to share.  Maker, there were worse things that happened to this beautiful woman?

Evie’s sealed file flickered through his mind’s eye.

Nausea rose up inside the ex-templar.  Cullen’s imagination flashed multiple incidences of physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse, some he investigated as a knight-captain in the Gallows.  Any of those possibilities nearly caused Cullen to purge.  He pushed the thoughts aside.  Evie was right though.  He had his own secrets that he was not ready to declare.  Some of those possible scenarios he personally committed against mages because Meredith told him it was the right thing to do.  Nothing like rape or murder, but still very serious offences.

Maya Amell flashed to mind.

Cullen kept kissing the top of sleeping Evie’s head, trying to control his panic.  His pounding heart might wake her prematurely.  His first love lived in Skyhold.  It would not take long for Evie to piece together Cullen and Maya knew one another ten years ago.  Evie’s observant nature could piece the most obscure facts together to reveal a disturbing picture.  The woman already knew Cullen served at Kinloch Hold, Maya’s Circle.  The Council of Magi were reviewing all mages’ files that were salvaged from fallen Circles.  They looked for abuse cases where a surviving templar or leader should be trialed and punished accordingly.  If they investigated Maya’s branding, he could be discovered.  What would Evie say?  Could she forgive him?  A part of Cullen just wanted to tell her right then to avoid the fallout.  No.  They just admitted their feelings and agreed to have a slow relationship.  They had not developed a foundation to stand upon yet.

Everything will unfold in time.  Cullen needed to trust the Maker when to unbar the dark battered door in the back of his mind.  Right now, the present is what mattered.  Evie would be leaving tomorrow for the Western Approach.  Blood magic and the Venatori awaited her.  She needed his support and prepare for the worst.  The mage explained she had some experience with that horrible magic, but nothing compared with Kirkwall.  Maybe today he can give her some suggestions to protect her.

A second damning revelation crossed Cullen’s mind:  Veronica Hawke.

“Fuck…” Cullen whispered so lightly his own ears barely heard the words.  His right hand pinched the bridge of his nose, while his gulping Adam’s apple bobbed like a fishing lore.

The Champion of Kirkwall will smell their newfound relationship like a wild mabari in heat.  She vowed years ago to expose everything Cullen ignored and committed.  Hawke declared she will warn every mage who crossed his path of his vicious deeds until she was blue in the face.  Thank the Maker Evie had a good head on her shoulders.  No matter what Hawke tells her inevitably, the fire mage will filtered out the bullshit from the truth.  Even then, the truth will be horrible, specifically about Hawke’s cousin, Maya.  Cullen will not be there to explain himself.  Evie never makes conclusions or judgement without hearing both sides of the story.  Yet, what could Cullen say to convince her?  Once again, Cullen must rely on the Maker support him and Evie.  He could not control other people, but he could show his full devotion and passionate feelings to the woman lying beside him.

Cullen squeezed Evie’s shoulder tightly in a strong hug before releasing and laying his hand on hers against his stomach.  The mage whimpered a little, rubbing her nose against his chest.  His Lady shifted a little.  Her pink tongue wetted her lips as she buried her face into his shoulder.  Cullen grinned, watching her slowly stir awake.  Her fingers pulled at his loose tunic, balling it in her glowing palm.  Her right hand broke free from under his arm and rubbed her bright green eyes.  Afterwards, her hand naturally pushed her untamed bangs out of her face.  She sighed and slowly returned to the Fade.  The man embraced her again so her shoulder nearly touched his chest.  That forced Evie to lift her head and open her groggy shimmering eyes.

Cullen loved those big green rifts that pulled him into her orbit.

“Good morning.”  Cullen smirked as she blinked up at him slowly.

Evie dropped her head, lifted her left arm around Cullen’s neck, and pulled her body close.  She buried her face in the crook of his neck.  Her jaw rubbed against his three-day stubble, lightly kissing his skin.  “You’re mistaken.  Not morning.  Go back to sleep.”  The woman muttered in a defiant childlike voice.

Cullen cackled a few times deep in his chest.  “Unfortunately, yes, it’s morning.  Can’t you see the sunlight through the roof?”

Without looking, Evie gave the roof hole the middle finger, muttering into his neck.  “That’s getting fixed as soon as soon as I get up, which will be in the next age.  We are staying like this until Skyhold falls apart around us.”

“I wish we could.”  Cullen kissed the top of her head, petting her waves and curls down and out of his vision.  “Although, I like the idea of just lounging around with you today.”

“Then it’s settle.”  She concluded, kissing his cheek and wrapping her arms around his neck tightly.

A part of Cullen wanted to follow her lead.  He fought his templar discipline against his personal wishes.  “Eve, come on-“

Without warning, Evie leaned upwards and rubbed both hands through his bed hair rapidly, breaking all remaining control over his untamed curls.  Cullen frantically attempted to stop her, but Evie kept batting his hands away and giggled mischievously like Sera when she played a practical joke.  Without thinking, Cullen used his body weight to roll on top of her to restrain her, while penning both wrists above her head.  His cheeks immediately flashed red as she continued to giggle beneath him happily.  He felt every curve, mound, muscle, and bone in Evie’s body through her chuckles and movements beneath him.  Shocked, he let go of her arms, too embarrassed and highly aware of their close positioning.

Evie grasped where his shoulders met his neck and slowly massaged his tight muscles.  Each time her thumb brushed over his coarse stubble, Cullen quaked with anticipation.  She ignored their very intimate arrangement, focusing her attention on the mess on top of his head.  “You do have curls!  Maker’s arse, they’re crazy!  I thought my hair was wild!”

Cullen whined, resting his head her shoulder and heavily sighing.  “Maker’s breath, Eve…”  He ran his right hand through the blond strains in hopes to settle the wild mess.  He used his left arm to hold himself up enough not to suffocate the beautiful woman below him and to hide his thickening morning length in his cloth pants.  “You couldn’t just leave it alone…”

“I like it.”

Cullen immediately met Evie’s gaze.  Her bangs cupped her cheek while she smiled gently up at him.  Her waves and curling tips covered the pillow like a brown-red sea.  The streaming sunlight highlighted her pale freckles across her cheekbones.  Cullen held his breath, fighting the urge to kiss her passionately because he knew he could not control his desires right then.

“It’s like your coat mantle.  A mane even, like a lion…of course not an Orlesian one.  A Fereldan lion…”  Evie tilted her head to the side a little while her smile grew.  “Difficult to tame, rugged and somewhat uncivilized…but protective of what matters most, never wavering…”  The woman’s marked hand touched Cullen’s cheek, skimming over his thick blond stubble and angular jawline until her thumb touched his upper lip scar.  Her beaming face shifted to one of curiosity and yearning.  “How did it happen?”

Cullen glanced away, pursing his lips.  His earlier thoughts lingered in the dark corners of his mind, pressing on the mental door.  “I will tell you sometime…”  His tone was rough and low, almost a growl.

Evie nodded, leaning forward and kissing above his lip on the sensitive scar.  Cullen felt each plump lip through the scar tissue, sending shockwaves through his whole body.  Her fiery eyes met his with her head hovering above the pillow.  “One day…we will identify each scar, tell their stories…and then kiss them away.  Share our badges of honor, right?”

Cullen turned his face a little and kissed her palm on his cheek, then leaned down.  His left hand cupped the nape of Evie’s neck, lifting her head off the pillow.  His elbow relax and allowed his whole body lay on the mage.  His lips married hers in the way he craved since she awoke.  Evie immediately opened her mouth to invite his taste, his tongue.  Moans escaped her, rattling Cullen’s hungry lips. 

The womanly figure pressed against him strongly.  Cullen understood why Evie stopped and complained about his breastplate last night.  Maker, he felt every inch of her against him, wanting to touch and see each mound and worship it, not as the Herald or the Inquisitor, but as Eve Trevelyan.  Her unbound breasts rubbed against his thin tunic, igniting a dark lust inside.  Her hips grinded into his abdomen.  She slid one leg out from under him so he laid completely on the other and her groin.  Cullen stiffened more with each passing moment, responding to her movement with his own forceful thrusts.

The commander’s right hand grasped her hip, releasing another groan from deep inside her body.  Primal instincts overruled the gentlemen in Cullen’s mind that hollered constantly to stop.  His lips slowly meandered from her lips to her cheeks.  They traveled to her jaw and down her soft, sensitive neck.  Each touch made Evie buckle beneath him, while her hands fisted his tunic. 

His curious hand remembered the silky skin he felt last night as his fingertips glided over her the lashing scars’ small ridges.  However, his callused hand wanted to continue where he stopped, lifting Evie’s tunic a little to reach her side just by her free breast.  Evie responded with great anticipation, jerking into his groin right as his index finger touched a small lump beneath her left mound.  Cullen kissed her shoulder, edging her shirt upward.  His aroused-self wanted to see what this lump was, knowing it was scar tissue by its thick texture.  His lips wandered down her shoulder and hovered over her thin tunic until his dark eyes gazed upon her exposed left breast and the old wound beneath it.  For a split second, Cullen admired her breast as absolutely perfection: not too big nor small, her nipple pink and puckered, waiting for his lips to suckle.  It will fill his palm with a little extra escaping his grip, firm with just a little give.  He will test that assumption in a second.

The scar was long starting at her mid-sternum and cupped her left breast until it dissipated to her mid-right side beneath her ribcage.  Cullen’s amber eyes flicked upwards at Evie, noticing she was panting against his tangled hair.  Her eyes showed terror and apprehension like he will pull away and be repulsed by the site.  The commander prayed his face did not show his surprise and questioning stare, quickly shifting his expression to a reassuring smile.  The man above her did the only thing he thought to do.  He began kissing the full length of the scar from her side to in between her breasts, his soften lips barely touching her sensitive skin.  His stubble created responding goosebumps in his wake.

“One day we’ll trade story about our badges of honor.”  Cullen sang, beaming gently at the frightened woman from between her breasts, one covered by her tunic and the other begging for his grasp.  Evie’s expression shifted immediately to a timid pursed smile.  She nodded once.  Tears welled up in her thankful eyes.

Cullen’s amber gaze shifted back the path he kissed.  More scars became obvious, many at different stages of healing or disappearing.  One specifically caught his attention with its pink hue by her lower hip, knowing too well its origin.  Haven.  He quickly ignored them all.  The man did not want to frighten his Lady again with his searching eyes.  Instead, Cullen kissed the end of the cupping scar between her breasts again, longer than the first peck. 

The swordsman’s rough thumb grazed her left nipple, tweaking it alive.  Evie arched her back and gasped, alerting the man she wanted more.  That curious hand grasped her breast softly first and made a conclusion.  His observation was correct.  It was absolutely perfect.  His experimenting hand then pulsed repeatedly like when Cullen rubbed Evie’s neck that relaxed her months ago.  It had the desired effect, exciting the woman who clawed his lower back and shoulder blade.  She fanatically tugged his tunic upward to explore him.  Cullen’s lips hovered over the rose pink peak, allowing his panting breaths to tickle her nipple and urging the flustered woman to sigh more.

“-Commander?”

Evie tensed beneath him.  Cullen’s face immediately glanced at the shut loft door, mentally cussing at every single thing existing in Thedas.  On instinct, he pulled her tunic down to protect her modesty.  Cullen pulled himself up to Evie’s face, hugging her tightly.  He did not need to see her eyes.  She was shaking, frightened that she would have to become the Inquisitor when she simply wished to enjoy being with him.

Thoughts and facts raced through the commander’s mind.  He locked the doors before he came to bed.  He left a few missives in his specialized mailbox outside the main door so no one would disturb him before he emerged that morning.  He typically was up at this time, but it was common for him not to leave his tower until after everyone had breakfast.  Why would someone be looking for him?

“Commander Cullen?  Are you awake?”

Thank the Maker it was not that damn runner’s voice.  He would throw that nitwit off the battlements.  Cullen pushed himself off Evie and kissed her forehead.  He crawled to a sitting position beside her.  “I’ll go see what is going on.  Stay here.  It will be okay.”  Evie bit her bottom lip, breathing heavily to bury her nerves and concerns.

Cullen grabbed his boots and slipped them on quickly unsure if the person at his door had a set of keys.  He pulled down his tunic, glancing over his shoulder at the woman lying in his bed.  Evie warily smiled at him, leaning forward on her elbows.  The morning sun caught her facial silhouette perfectly.  Maker, she was beautiful with her swollen lips and glowing cheeks.  For a brief moment, the ex-templar just wanted to push his footlocker over the loft hatch and return to her side.  However if he did not respond soon, more prying eyes will find a way in and discover them together.  Reluctantly, he forced himself away.  The commander grabbed the trapdoor handle and jumped down to his office. 

Upon landing, Cullen’s soft nature changed to his harden commanding guise.  He growled deep in his chest, adjusting his throbbing length in his pants.  A few giggles escaped above him.  Evie probably thought about the mabari joke, stale as it was.  Fishing through his desktop covered with stacks of paperwork he wanted to avoid today and Evie’s jacket, Cullen found his key ring and leafed through the skeleton keys for the proper one.

“Commander?  Are you alright?”

Fumbling with the door lock, the commander flew the door open, showing his disheveled state to the Inquisition sergeant knocking on the tower door.  “What?!

The soldier swallowed, bracing himself.  Cullen knew his face demonstrated his frustration and displeasure.  “P-Pardon me, S-sir.  Knight-Lieutenant Hugh requires y-your assistance.”

“Why?”  The commander snapped like a rabid animal.  “What is so seriously that he cannot handle on his own?!”

“T-the tavern, S-sir.”  The lieutenant stammered and pointed below.  His gloved hand shook with fright.  “S-some interlopers angered the Inquisitor’s c-comrades.”

Maker’s fucking breath.  Of course it would be a bar fight.  Immediately, Cullen’s thoughts shifted to protect the fire mage above him.  “Has anyone contacted the Inquisitor?”

The soldier shook his head frantically.  “N-no.  I-I was going there after c-contacting you, C-Commander.”

“Don’t.”  Cullen barked, running his fingers through his curly hair.  Maker’s breath, he can only imagine how its tossed state alarmed the guard more than usual.  “I will do it myself.  Report to Lady Montilyet, Sister Nightingale, and Seeker Pentaghast.  Tell them the Herald and I will meet them there.”

“Understood, S-sir!”  The sergeant straightened his back and saluted.  With a flick of Cullen’s wrist, he took off running across the bridge.

Cullen sighed, closing the door slowly until he heard the door latch click.  He squeezed his eyes tightly closed and pinched his nose.  Of all the things to happen now.  A few moments passed until he heard a thud to his right.  He glanced at the noise, watching Evie tie her unkempt hair back into a top bun.  She had put on her boots and tucked in her tunic into her fastened belt.  Between her perky breasts, hanging out of the tunic’s untied v-opening, was her amber pendant, her signet ring, and now a silver object Cullen had never seen.  She shoved it back inside the shirt, while adjusting the tangled chain.  The mage walked to his desk and retrieved her leather jacket.

“You heard all that?”  Cullen questioned, watching the woman dress properly.

“Iron Bull and Sera at it again, probably.”  Evie assumed, while rolling her head around her shoulders and loosening her tight neck muscles.  “Sera probably played another prank, and the victim is looking for revenge.  Give me five minutes before you come to my tower?”

Cullen blinked.  “You’re not going to get across Skyhold without someone seeing you.  I was just going to escort you like we met somewhere.”

Evie smirked a little, reaching into her jacket pocket.  “A part of me was still ‘alive’ in the Exalted Plains.”  Cullen threw the woman a confused look, wishing for an explanation. 

The mage held a silver ring between her thumb and index finger.  Cullen stared at her perplexed, watching curiously as she slipped the ring onto her middle finger.  Immediately, she disappeared, only noticing her outline if the nearby sunlight from his office windows hit at a specific angle.  “An enchanted ring…”

“I found it on a dead Venatori.  The bastards somehow got their hands on many Circle-restricted objects.  After my red lyrium sickness, I had Dorian test if it was potentially harmful, but he assured me it was completely harmless.”  Evie pulled off the ring, magically reappearing.  “It responses to a mage’s Fade connection.  It uses a small amount of mana to hold the illusion.  Between Fade-stepping and this, no one will know I was here.”[1]

“Thought of everything, I see?”  Cullen chuckled, shaking his head.

“Thus why I did not run away before dawn.”  The woman approached him with a sexy saunter to her step.  Once pressed against his body, Evie stood on the balls of her feet, her arms around his neck, and kissed him fervently like she will never see him again.  She only lowered herself after successfully clearing any wandering thoughts from Cullen’s mind.  His stunned gaze met her sparking rifts.  “I am keeping this secret for us and us alone.  People will discover in time, but I will not let them poison my genuine smile.”

“Gossip spreads like fire throughout the barracks.”  Cullen sighed, kissing her forehead.  “Yet, if there was nothing to talk about…”  No, he will not let their relationship be tainted like their sparring match.

“Good thing I like playing with fire…”  Evie mischievously cooed, taking the key ring from his hand.  “Let’s keep this to ourselves as long as possible, okay?”

Cullen nodded, smiling at the lovely woman in his arms.  “I would rather my—our personal business remained our own anyway.  It’s been a long time since I held anything as important as you.  I cherish every single moment with you, Eve.  I hope I can show you now more than ever what you mean to me. ”

Evie’s genuine smile graced her face, pecking his lips again before she turned to the side door.  She quickly unlocked it.  “See you in a few minutes, Commander.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.”

 

Chapter Text

Evie marched down the Skyhold’s main front stairs with the blankest face she could muster.  Behind her, Cullen’s armor clacked with his boot steps, his scabbard tip tapping the stone stairs every so often.  Somehow, he dressed in that metal shell quickly to still give the air he was not held up by a specific divine leader.  His hair still looked like a tornado went through it.  She was still quite proud of unlocking those wild tight curls.

Riding gloves covered the Inquisitor’s hands, specifically her glowing mark responding to her newfound happiness.  A leather side-button saberist bodice covered her sparring tunic.  In her right hand was her ironbark bladed staff with glowing purple runes, while her left hand held the hilt of her practice arming sword.  At first glances, it looked like the Herald was caught while preparing a training session.  At least, that was what Evie hoped people would conclude.

In actuality, the mage had only been in her room a few moments before hearing ruckus down in the great hall, specifically Josephine’s voice calling for the visiting nobles to remain inside the main castle until the situation was resolved.  Thank the Maker, the typical soldier guarding her tower was called away when the disturbance first occurred or she would have been caught sneaking back into her loft.  Between sneaking in stealth past Chantry sisters in the gardens and fade-stepping down empty halls, Evie’s mind had not figured out how to explain her entering her tower.

Evie knew exactly what her cover would be.  She was already semi-dressed to spar sans her Qunari breast band.  However, she knew she had little time to struggle with that blasted torture device before being called to the tavern fight.  She opted for one of her leather corset vest that only required a tight tug of the draw strings to fasten.  However, one look at herself in the mirror and Evie knew she had to cover her neck.  It was blotchy and red from Cullen’s stubble.  Her saberist bodice had a tall collar that would hide most of the discoloration from prying eyes, specifically Leliana’s.  That meant she needed her arming sword to fool others she wanted to practice swordsmanship instead simple fighting techniques.  By the time Cullen arrived, Evie dressed the part, but neglected her puffy hair.

The first words out of the commander’s mouth as they exited the tower were, “No one has seen your hair like that, you know.”

Evie bit the inside of her cheek, regretting more and more for not drying her hair after her evening bath.  The waves and curls had their own mind that morning, sticking out all directions like a sea creature.  At least they were not as crazy as Cullen’s.  People moved out of her way as she passed the training arena towards the tavern.  Everyone stared at the disheveled mess in its high puffy top bun, surprised.  If one person said anything, all she would say is that she fell asleep with it wet.  It was true.  She just did not need to say in whose bed.

“Inquisitor.”  Leliana called, noticing the two approaching leaders.  Beside her were Cassandra and Josephine.  The spymaster’s eyes glanced over her, then Cullen, assessing their looks and behavior.

Evie kept telling her eyes and face to remain neutral.  As of yesterday, everyone saw her as a dead vessel drowning in its own sea.  They could not see the new life breathing inside her with such happiness and content quite yet.  If they figured out her sudden change of tune, they would immediately look at the commander, ruining her blissful personal life.

“What is going on?” Evie snipped, studying her advisors.  “All the commander told me was that there was a tavern disturbance.”

“Somewhat, Inquisitor.”  Leliana’s ice blue eyes remained studying the mage’s facial features and presence.  Every so often, they would shift to Cullen behind Evie.  “It is better explained as a standoff.”

“A standoff?  Between who?”

Evie gritted her teeth.  That was Cullen’s commanding voice.  How did she act when he spoke before?  Was it pain or indifference?  All Evie felt was the ache in her groin for that man to use that tone on her while grasping her breast again.  She immediately felt her cheeks burn.

“What has Sera done now?!”  The Inquisitor hissed, attempting to cover up her flushed face with a sense of anger.

“She, Iron Bull, Cole, and Dorian are in a standoff with some assailants inside.”  Cassandra huffed, crossing her arms over her breastplate.  “Apparently, a group of malcontents disguised as pilgrims entered the castle early this morning and are holding the tavern hostage.”

Evie’s face shifted to panic.  “Hostage?!  Who else is inside?”

“Just the foresaid mentioned people, your Worship.”  Josephine chimed in.  “Sutherland and his crew are out on a mission in Ferelden.  Flissa and Cabot escaped out the backdoor, while the Bull’s Chargers used the hidden exit in the cellar to leave.  Iron Bull heard the noise first and ordered them to exit, with Krem’s reluctance.”

“And their status?”

Cassandra spoke.  “Patrons from last night stated all four were armed.  Krem pointed out the others had already engaged the interlopers by the time he left.”

“How were they admitted?  Nightingale, Commander:  I thought security were your responsibilities.”  Evie hissed. 

Leliana spoke first, thank the Maker, noticing Cullen about to stammer.  “It is.  Apparently, these bandits had very well forged documentations that allowed them to pass our passage, village, and gate checkpoints.  They knew what to say and who to speak to.  They are professionals.”

“What are their demands?”  Cullen questioned, stepping up to Evie’s left.  His demeanor demonstrated his need to protect her from invaders.  This would not surprise the other advisors because he had always been that way.

“None have been given.”  Leliana explained.

“Let’s clear the courtyard.”  Evie instructed, her mind racing with scenarios and outcomes based on the given information.  “Only those on duty and assisting in the situation should remain.  Do a full security check to see anyone else entered who are aligned with the bastards.  The remaining Inner Circle should report immediately.  I want everyone accounted for.  Any ideas on how to proceed?”

“A security check is occurring now, Inquisitor.”  Leliana explained, while Cullen pointed at runners to summon the other circle members.  Ser Hugh, now a knight-lieutenant, already directed guards and troops to clear the gathering crowd.  “I suggest myself and a few of my agents enter the tavern from above to scout the situation.”

“I will come too.”  Evie started unbuckling her arming sword belt.

Cullen threw her a look.  “E-uh-Inquisitor, you’re most likely who they want.  It is imperative we keep you safe and out of harm’s way!”

The slip up was immediately noticed by Leliana, who scanned both of their faces.  Evie threw him one of her known fire burning looks.  “And they are my comrades, who have entrusted me with their lives.  I will not standby idly while some ingrates threaten them and Skyhold, Commander!”

Cullen blinked a few times, struggling with his desire to argue with her and keeping up appearances.  Evie spoke for him, handing him her arming sword.  She smirked, adding a little sass to her voice.  “Besides, I planned on some pinning and exercise this morning.  I just didn’t have this in mind…”

It had the desired effects.  To anyone else, she meant basic fighting training.  To Cullen’s gapping mouth and reddening cheeks, Evie suggested her true intentions.  “O-of course, Herald.”  He stumbled, accepting the scabbard and belt.

Evie turned away, noticing Cassandra turning towards the dumbstruck commander with her sword and shield ready.  “Cullen, by the Maker!  Your hair…”

That definitive Fereldan groan told the Inquisitor exactly which face the commander was making at the moment.  “Maker’s breath…”  The fire mage walked away quickly, biting her lower lip to conceal her giggles.  To Evie’s left, the Antivan ambassador was snickering behind her hand.  Even icy Leliana grinned briefly.

Leliana pointed to a few scouts standing by the sidelines, hand motioning her orders.  The four agents nodded, running off behind the building or for the prison where the cellar back entrance let out.  Leliana waved for Evie to follow her up the ramparts along with another trusted agent.  Their entrance would be the third floor door beside Cole’s corner.

Evie followed as the middle operative, allowing Leliana to lead with her bow and assassin’s knife and the other scout to cover their rear.  Cullen followed until they climbed the battlements, following his gaze with Evie like a mabari told to stay behind while his master leaped into danger.  The Fereldan hunk was right.  The analogy no longer worked.  It was not a boss and minion relationship, but partners although hidden from their comrades.  Her observation of his untamed curly hair crossed Evie’s mind.  As a child, she thought that the Ferelden’s heraldry were two lions instead of two mabaris because of the strange profiles.  The animals stared at one another, two sides of the same, much like two sides of a Circle.  Templar and Mage, Cullen and Evie.  Therefore, Cullen would be her Lion now.[1]

Leliana stopped aberrantly by the third floor door, motioning commands to the scout and Evie.  It knocked the mage from her train of thought.  Evie had always been able to keep her mind and focus on a mission before.  Why did she allow herself to wander now when her friends were in danger?  As much as being with Cullen now released her from her previous shackles, the Inquisitor must compartmentalize her duty from personal desires.  The pendulum can easily shift the polar opposite direction from her strict leader persona.  Evie needed to hold a fine middle line between her position and her desires if she wanted both to survive.

Reading the redhead’s sign language, Evie nodded, twirling her staff in her right hand.  She motioned for Leliana to study her special Ring of Doubt, slipping it on her right index finger to fall into stealth.  The spymaster nodded, pointing her to go left along the third floor, while the agent and she went right.  Once understanding their orders, Leliana opened the door with as little sound as possible.  Evie crouched and walked in, following the wall to the left out of view.

Cole was not in his back corner.  The spirit could disappear and reappear easily, but Evie could always tell where he was by the gongs in the Fade.  He was on the second floor on the other side of the tavern, visible through the banister with his blades out in front of him, ready to strike a short figure kneeling behind an overturn table.

Evie listened to her Fade connection, sensing Sera was right outside her room, her pan flute blaring at a low tone meaning she was awake and attentive.  Iron Bull was on the ground floor with his bass drum thumping loudly by the bar.  He too was awake and very pissed.  Dorian’s flute was strong, alerting the Inquisitor his magic was close to his body, ready to cast in a moment’s notice.  Wait.  Why was Dorian here?  His room is above the gardens?!  And even he does not drink this early in the morning.

Evie winced, reflecting on her Fade gift from the Anchor.  One disadvantage about the Ring of Doubt is that her fellow comrades could not see her sign language or directives.  Instead of alerting Leliana about everyone’s placement, she watched the advisor edge around the other side of the third floor with the agent, her bowstring and an arrow pulled and ready at a target below.  The agent twirled his dual blades, slipping into stealth to reach the stairwell.  He could not reach Sera because a wall blocked a direct path to her.  He must have the jump on someone below though, acting in tandem with Leliana if need be.

The air was thick with tension.  While out of sight and waiting for direction, Evie listened to the Fade, hoping the symphony could alert her to the assaulters.  One was definitely a mage, most likely Dorian’s opponent.  The person’s oboe screamed throughout the Fade, squeaking and squawking the thick atmosphere held over everyone.  Evie could only sense one other person, hidden somewhere below with a soft tapping marching drum, patient and prepared.  This person was calm and awake, most likely not a mage, but a human who feared little.  This person was also most likely in stealth and waiting for the standoff to break.

“…All I wanted was some good ale, eh?”  A rough, hiccuping voice called from the bar area on the ground floor.

“That’s not just any ale you’re drinking…” 

Iron Bull’s voice.  He sounded calm, but cautiously prepared.  His words echoed off the back wall from beneath the stairs.  He must have met his opponent while emerging from the cellar connected to the back tower, battleaxe ready.  The Qunari must be using his Ben-Hassath training to talk down the interlopers.

“I know, right?”  The alien voice called, hiccupping again.  The bandit took another drink from a flagon.  “It’s the Tapper’s special brew.  A taste of home!”

A dwarf, Evie concluded.  No wonder she could not hear him in the Fade.  Iron Bull’s opponent was a dwarf from Orzammar, sounding nostalgic about that tavern’s ale with its dirt and minerals.  Glancing across the floor, Leliana concluded the same, although the archer’s facial expression shifted a little once getting a view of the speaker.  Leliana’s stolid face never changed so easily before.  From her ice eyes, this person rattled something inside the Orlesian spy.  Suddenly, several hand signs flowed from her hands at both her agent and hidden Evie across the way.  Evie could not read it fast enough.

“You gotta taste this, lady!”  the dwarf called to the second floor.  “Maybe it will burn through that whole death complex you have!”

“Shut UP!” a female voice remarked from the second floor.  This was Cole’s challenger behind the overturn table.  No sound vibrated from the person, meaning another dwarf?  “You got us into this mess!”

Leliana edged herself to the far wall of the third floor, only standing up when in position.  She slowly waltzed to the banister, “Ogh-“

An arrow raced passed her head.  Evie responded quickly, throwing a barrier over the rogue.  The tension broke and all hell broke loose.

“Fasta vaas!”  Dorian hollered, running away from roots crawling out from beneath him.

Iron Bull slammed his prismatic battleaxe down on the tavern bar, sending the drinking dwarf flying over the side and against the wall.  Leliana shot back at her assailant, forcing the stealth man to take off running on the second floor.  Sera yelled, sending her own number of arrows at Cole’s opponent behind the table.  Cole disappeared, reappearing beside Evie with his hat covering his face.  Leliana’s agent attack the man who fired at the Nightingale, getting kicked in the face unconscious.

Evie bit her lower lip, pulling off the magic ring.  Cole nodded in approval.  Cullen was going to be pissed.  She took off running for the banister, skipping over the side and falling to the ground floor with a thud.  She flicked a barrier over her surprised comrades and prepared a fade rift in her left hand.  She held it over her head, screaming at the top of her lungs.  “STOP!”

Cole appeared behind her, both blades ready to strike if someone flanked her.  From the main door, a kick shattered the lock.  In the Fade, Evie heard that beautiful piano drawing strength to strike along with a blaring trumpet.  The commander held his broadsword and shield in formation with Cassandra’s waiting for the attack.

“Hold, Wardens!”

Evie kept her Anchor hand above her head, ready to summon a rift without a second thought as a man slipped out of stealth on the second floor and approach the wooden banister.  His long, straight hair was jet black, tied back from his eyes to show his angular face and goatee chin.  To her right, Leliana dropped down from the third floor, her hands out in front of her.

“Inquisitor, please!”  The spymaster pleaded, showing her urges to dissipate the green alien magic.

Evie slowly lowered her hand, eying both the tall archer above her and the redheaded rogue beside her.  “Start explaining now.”

Leliana nodded, walking across the dance floor towards the broken bar.  “Oghren!  Get your stinky bum out here!”

“Wha?”  A red headed male dwarf called with squinting eyes over the bar.  “Who…By the ancestors’ tits and flings!”  He stood up, chuckling to himself.  His beard and mustache was braided in long lengths down his stubbly chest.  “Robes?  Naked under all those robes, eh!?”

“You never changed…”  Leliana sighed, rolling her eyes.  Her attention turned to the Inner Circle.  “Stand down.  These are friends.”

Evie eyed the archer on the second floor, causing Cullen, Cassandra, Iron Bull, Sera, and Dorian to keep their stance.  “They might be your friends, Spymaster, but they entered my fortress and held my tavern hostage.”  The fire mage huffed, keeping the Anchor sparking in her left hand.

Leliana threw Evie a look, but the Herald ignored it, keeping all attention on the black haired man.  The archer nodded at her.  “Our mistake, your Worship.  Our ally smelled beer and could not control himself.”  The human kicked his legs over the banister and dropped down to the first floor.  In a flash, Cullen held his shield out in front of Evie, keeping his broadsword pointed at the archer.  The man responded by dropping his bow and holding his hands over his head.  “Not the trusting sorts, I take it.”

Evie’s bright green eyes flicked to Leliana again, sensing Cullen would cut down the archer without hesitation.  “Leliana…explain.”

“If you allow me, my Lady…”  The male human called, watching Cullen closely.  “I can explain this whole misunderstanding with a letter.”

Evie glanced back at her spymaster.  The redhead nodded.  The archer reached under his cloak, only to retract his hand holding an envelope.  He held it out in front of him.  Cullen took it first, retreated a few steps until he and Evie were far enough away.  The mage watched her Lion study the envelope, his strong face morphing between sternness and surprise.  His amber eyes flashed to Evie, while lowering his shield.  Cullen’s piano started playing scattered octaves franticly.

The Inquisitor took the envelope from her commander, studying the parchment closely to understand why Cullen responded so strangely.  She then flipped it over.  Her green eyes focused on the wax seal keeping it bound.  A laurel wreath upon a mabari’s head was stamped into the red wax.  Evie stepped back, holding her breath as her mind caught up with what it all meant.

This was Queen Asta’s seal, combining the Cousland heraldry with her husband’s royal coat of arms.  The commander must have noticed Evie’s apprehension immediately, sheathing his sword and placing his shield on his back.  Meeting his amber eyes, Evie knew what he was saying to her:  open it before you explode.

Evie nodded, biting her lower lip.  Her gloved finger slipped between the parchment folds, breaking the royal seal.  She unfolded the letter, preparing herself for the cursed written words.

 

Salutations Inquisitor Trevelyan,

I hope this letter finds you well and in good company.  My dear loving husband, King Alistair Theirin, notified me of the troubles that grip southern Thedas.  Corypheus threatens our world with red lyrium and the Blight, determined to subject us all into slavery and damnation, just like what he and his fellow magisters committed ages ago.  Alas, I cannot return in time to personally assist you on your important mission to bring Thedas out of the darkspawn’s clutches.  I am too far away on my own vital journey that could change my beloved Grey Warden order. 

As Ferelden’s Warden-Commander, I can send you assistance through my faithful comrades, specifically my second, Bann Nathaniel Howe.  When Alistair stated Corypheus can command other Grey Wardens, I contacted my fellow friends and sent them to you so they may be protected under your watch and act in my stead.  I pray you, Champion Hawke, and Senior Warden Stroud stop the order from falling into the ancient magister’s trap.  If we disappear when we are needed most, I fear what will happen if another Blight arises.  Alistair and I both witnessed what happens when the order falls without no one to lead it.  We were fortunate to defeat the Archdemon Urthemiel and survived within a single year.  Nothing like this has happened in all recorded history.  I pray to the Maker for you and your cause.  If Andraste has placed her gift upon you, I know you will be successful.

In faith and great respect,

Asta Cousland-Theirin, Warden-Commander and Queen of Ferelden

 

Evie lowered the letter from her gaze, eying the archer in front of Cullen.  “Bann Nathaniel Howe, son of Rendon Howe who betrayed King Calain and Teryn Bryce Cousland.  You saved Teryn Fergus Cousland a few years ago from an attack and received some land as thanks.  You are the warden-commander’s second?”

The human archer bowed deeply with his hand over his heart.  “Behind Warden-Constable King Alistair, of course.  I act on her majesty’s behalf throughout Ferelden on any Grey Warden matter.”

“I assume the others with you are Grey Wardens?”  Evie questioned, noticing an elven hedge mage, a rogue dwarf, and the dwarf named Oghren emerge from their places.

“Yes, we have gathered on Queen Asta’s orders.”  Nathaniel explained, causing Leliana to glance at the archer.

“Astrid?  Where is she?!”  Leliana called, grabbing the letter out of Evie’s hands, nearly ripping it in two.  “Is she okay?!”

“Yes, but beyond reach at the moment.”  Nathaniel explained, while Leliana read the letter.  “She contacted me to gather her previous loyal members and bring them to Skyhold.  Oghren, our wonderful drunk berserker, ran out of ale two days ago and can sniff it leagues away.  He ran off early this morning, and we gave chase.  My apologies, your Worship, to alert your fortress of a possible invasion.”

Leliana lifted her head, eying the Grey Warden.  “I assume you were the forger then.  Astrid always said you were almost as good as I when it came to making false documents.”

Nathaniel smirked.  “Astrid taught me a few things she picked up from you.  I am surprised you didn’t noticed sooner.”

Leliana nodded, amused.  “I did, just curious who would use them really.”  Her attention turned to the gathered group.  “Inquisitor, I would like to introduce you to Fereldan’s most famous Grey Wardens, its defenders against the darkspawn monster, Mother, nine years ago:  Velanna the former first of the Dalish, Sirgun of the Legion of the Dead, and Oghren my former comrade during the Fifth Blight.”

Oghren grinned at the Inquisitor, sipping from his flagon.  “Hehe…you look like you could use a tumble, eh?”

Cullen stepped in front of Evie, eying the dwarf.  “That’s the Herald of Andraste you are speaking to…”

Oghren turned his head a little.  “Hey, I know you…crazy kid with the curly hair who went apesh-“

Leliana nudged the dwarf towards the door.  “Drink your beer, silly.”

Evie’s world was spinning around her.  She glanced towards the front door, noticing Josephine standing with her tablet.  “Ambassador, please find some rooms for our guests.  They…must be tired from their…journey.  We’ll meet later to discuss intelligence.”

“What about us leaving tomorrow?” Cassandra asked, watching the Inquisitor stumble towards the exit.  Cullen was not too far behind, his piano rumbling everywhere under his own pressures.

“With this…”  Evie glanced at everyone in the tavern.  “…development, let’s hold back out departure until we hear what they have to say.”

Dorian sighed deeply.  “Thank you!”

Sera giggled.  “More parties, no?”

Iron Bull nodded, approvingly.  “Thanks, Boss!  You won’t regret it!”

Evie eyed her friends, while Cole disappeared from her side.  “You could have said something?!”

“No offense, Boss,” Bull started.  “But, you haven’t been the most approachable lady lately.”

Evie gritted her teeth.  “Unless you want a fireball up your rectum, you get the courage to say something, okay!?  Don’t need you all getting stiff on me.”  Evie’s shimmering eyes shifted to the Fereldan who never left her side.  “After this gets cleaned up, I would like to have a word regarding our checkpoints, Commander.”

The mage knew she did not need to explain herself.  The panic and swirling anxiety in her bright green eyes told Cullen all he needed to know.  “Of course, Inquisitor.  I will see you in your tower in a few minutes.”

Evie nodded, turning command over to her advisors.  She stepped over the rumble from the broken tavern door to make her exit.  The Inquisitor envisioned her sacred tower, the same place she once hated only a short while ago.  The situation required her to keep stolid, level expressions to disguise her growing temper and explosive emotions.  She knew once Cullen arrived she could pour everything out safely without damaging any relations. 

The Maker is a fucking asshole sometimes.

Chapter Text

Cullen barely closed the lower tower door behind him when he heard the pacing and constant muttered curses above.  By her quick jerks from one side of the loft to the other, Evie probably worn through the red carpet thrice over.  He noted no clicking from her boot heels when she stepped on the dark wood planks, meaning she probably stripped off her outer clothes and boots to not feel constrained.

The woman had every right to be furious right now.

The exchange in the Herald’s Rest rose dark emotions in both of them, some impacting the Inquisition and most dredging up past wounds.  Thank the Maker Leliana shut up Oghren before he blurted out about Kinloch Hold.  Even all those years ago, the drunk had no filter and sense of empathy for anyone around them.  How in Thedas did strong and admirable Astrid put up with that alcoholic for so many years?  Cullen remembered once seeing the buffoon stumble out of a guest bedroom at The Spoiled Princess a month or so after the Blight ended.  It was one of the few times Cullen left the Circle after Uldred’s coup and before transferring to Kirkwall.  The lady dwarf he was with ended up marrying him after getting pregnant with his child.  As always, Astrid fixed the strained relationship because she wanted everyone to be happy.

The queen’s sentiments were why this whole situation pained Evie deeply.  Once seeing Astrid’s seal on the envelope, Cullen nearly grabbed the fire mage and escaped Skyhold.  Once Evie recognized the author and realized who all those people were, she would fall apart.  If Hawke nearly killed her, these Grey Wardens will murder her regained soul.

All those people supported Anders, protected the apostate even after cutting down Evie’s brother.  Now, just like Hawke, Evie was going to have to work with them against Corypheus.  Only Cullen knew the extent of those people’s relation to Evie’s past and how serious it will be on her fragile heart.  She was surrounded by her living demons.  Her past statement was so true:  not sleeping kept the Fade’s demons from possessing her, but there no escape from the physical ones.

The commander walked slowly up the staircase, using his clacking armor as an auditory signal to the alert the rattled woman.  He knew she would hear his waning lyrium through the Fade, but he attempted to block out his emotion like a stolid templar to avoid frightening her with his own growing anxiety.  More people from his past emerged from the world’s dark corners, just like hers, haunting him to his core.  A few of those Grey Warden knew him during a fragile part of his past that he was not ready to share with the woman he was falling deeply for.

That morning before they were interrupted flashed across his mind.  Maker’s breath, how did Cullen become so lustful that morning?  Both Evie and he agreed to be slow and learn about one another before pursuing more intimate actions, but that was thrown out the hole in his tower wall almost immediately.  The ex-templar should have just kissed the woman beneath him and rolled off of her; held her instead of lifting her shirt and kissing her breasts, gripping them like a barbaric bandit who kidnapped a refined lady.  Yet, she seemed quite happily responsive to his touches and kisses.  Their once flirting game stepped to the next level, no longer bound to shyness and curiosity.  Now, it was expression of those unresolved emotions while growing a warming and loving relationship.  Well, as much as Skyhold’s inhabitants and a war against an ancient magister may allow.

Cullen chastised himself more for his lack of control.  His sexual past waved between complete innocence and random one-night stands that he would immediately regret in the morning.  Uldred’s desire demons destroyed what intimacy supposed to be.  Cassandra, who knew about his torture and abuse, once highlighted what the demons and blood mages did to him was a form of sexual abuse as much as physical and mental abuse.  In their world, the idea of a man being sexual abused was unfounded and rarely discussed.  However, the torture ruined that physical interaction for him.  His memory barely remembered his emotions and feelings from his first and only night with Maya, blinded and stained by both her branding and the torment he endured.

That was why the commander hated his actions that morning, despite Evie’s positive and encouraging reactions.  Internally, Cullen promised himself if he ever romanced someone ever again—which he highly doubted because of his deep inadequacy to deserve anyone especially Evie—he would find a middle between the extremes.  Maybe through patience and understanding, the former-templar could find happiness.

Squeaking and small stubbly steps woke the man from his self-loathing.  Cullen’s head rose out from the stairwell.  Through the top banister, he noticed a brown blur race down the stairs.  Its tiny nails scratched the wood and stone floors.  It ran between his feet and raced into a hole in the crumbling stone work.  “What the-“

“Damn it, Truffles!”

The Fereldan raced up to the loft, seeing Evie flicking pillows off her bed, only stopping when she ran out of ammunition to throw his direction.  “You better be happy it wasn’t a fireball!”

“Eve…?”  Cullen called in a low tone, hoping they could drop the formality and not flame her temper.

The Herald flashed her watery green eyes at the commander, biting her lower lip.  Before Cullen could process what she was doing, Evie raced over to him, jumped into his arms, and wrapped her legs around his waist.  She buried her face into the crook of his neck, hollering into his bear mantle.  Cullen held onto the shaking leader as tightly as possible, fighting the urge to throw anyone who has made her sad out of Skyhold, heck the Frostbacks.  She was not crying, just yelling to release the mixed emotions coursing through her veins. 

Evie was lighter than the knight thought, especially for her flexible build.  When he picked her up last night and spun her around his office, he did not notice, more concentrated on the happiness rippling through his soul.  Yet, the mage felt so far away in his arms because of his breastplate and leather doublet.  The armor chafed on his shoulders because he mis-buckled it in a few places so not to alert the other advisors he was caught unprepared by a specific leader.  Because of Evie tossing his mane, Cullen was unable to put some hair tonic in it to restrain the curls and volume. 

Evie’s own auburn hair tickled his nose and left cheek as he stepped backwards.  He knew somewhere behind him by the banister was a sofa.  His boot caught it a little, allowing him to sit down and hold the breaking woman more securely and passionately.  Immediately, a part of him wanted to remove his metal barrier and hold her against his chest and body, but his gentlemen side reminded him he needed restrain after that morning.

“The Maker’s an arse-shitting bastard!”  Evie yelled into his mantle.  The words were distorted and took a few moments for Cullen to understand.  “Damn you, Leliana!” 

That was not the first point the commander expected the Inquisitor to scream about.

“Leliana…?”

Evie slightly turned her head so her lips skimmed against his neck and jaw.  “She cannot be trusted…”

Cullen did not know what to say.  Was she pissed about the checkpoints and security measures after all or was it the spymaster’s friendliness towards the interlopers?  He decided it was better to let Evie rabble before speaking again.

“…How did Asta know about Stroud?”  Evie began, nuzzling her nose against Cullen’s ear so he could hear her disdain, but also possibly arouse him.  Understanding her, she knew what she was doing as her quickened breath tickled his earlobe.  Maker’s breath, this minx.  “In my letter to Alistair, I purposely said I would not reveal Stroud’s identity to protect him from the other Grey Wardens.  How would the queen know who our informant was?  Yes, he is a senior warden, but how would they know unless someone tipped them off.”

The commander loved how this woman’s thought processes, even though the point worried him.  He read the letter after Evie left, wanting to see what was upsetting the Inquisitor before discussing ‘security.’  Maker, he almost had to rip the letter out of Leliana’s grasp.  The rogue kept reread it, biting her lip with her icy eyes blown wide.  There was only one person who could break the stolid spymaster and that woman wrote the letter.

Cullen knew Astrid was Leliana’s best friend.  It was easy to see during the Blight when they liberated Kinloch Hold and returned multiple times for one task or another.  Alistair admitted the women shared everything like sisters, sometimes worrying the future king about his sex life becoming an open book.  They had a special bond that could not be broken by distance or duty.  The commander wondered if Astrid was made Inquisitor and the Divine survived, who Leliana would be more loyal to:  her Chantry mentor or the Hero Queen of Ferelden.

The ex-templar never fully asked how much the Left and Right Hands of the Divine searched for Astrid.  Cassandra was more focused on kidnapping Varric and recruiting Cullen to the Inquisition at the time.  Leliana was in charge of finding the Hero.  Alas, the spymaster reported little success despite the queen’s husband knowing where she was, but refused to tell anyone. 

Astrid’s disappearance five years ago shook Ferelden.  Cullen was not in country at the time, but Kirkwall’s refugees muttered and whispered that if anyone could bring the blighted kingdom out of damnation it was the king and queen together.  It happened so quickly.  One evening, Astrid said goodnight to her brother, Fergus, following a family visit and the next morning, she was gone.  Alistair showed his pain and concern, but did not send anyone to search for her.  All the king said was, “she will return when it’s all over.”  Whatever Alistair meant, he refused to elaborate.

Evie leaned back, keeping her fingers knitted together behind Cullen’s neck.  Her face was bright red, more because of anger and panic than embarrassment.  After all, she was sitting on his lap with her legs wrapped around his torso.  Maker, this woman wrapped Cullen into lusty knots.

Cullen combed his gloved fingers through her disheveled hair.  Most of the waves fell from her top bun with her bangs cupping the right side of swollen face.  Evie sighed deeply as Cullen’s other hand squeezed her hip to relax her.  In his absence, she removed her training bodice, showing her unbound breasts and red neck from their morning exploration.  Her tunic hung off one shoulder.  He just wanted to comfort her, hold her close until she released the tension inside.  From the dark stare in her shimmer eyes, the mage looked like she would either set Skyhold aflame or pounce him, ripping his armor off with one hand…or was that just his imagination?

“…what am I going to do?”  Evie sighed after a few minutes, staring at the wall behind Cullen’s head.  “They’ll want to go to the Approach…and I thought working with the cellos will be a nightmare.”

Cullen knew who she meant:  Veronica and Fenris.  With the small band of Grey Wardens, Evie will be traveling with a band of out-of-tune instruments across Orlais, already a rough country for Evie because of her wicked sister.  The mage will be surrounded by blood magic and Venatori cultist.  Yet, he will be trapped hundreds of leagues away from her, her release and safety net.  There was no way he could join her, even though his mind raced with potential scenarios while walking through the great hall to meet her.  Logistically, he could support her better from Skyhold.  Emotionally and psychologically, Cullen felt like he was abandoning her to the Dalish’s Dread Wolf.

“Whatever happens, I am not going anywhere.”  Cullen assured her. 

The woman immediately stared into his amber embers and squeezed the back of his neck.  “I hate your breastplate.”

“So do I.”

“I might kill them before reaching the desert.”

“You’ll be in Orlais.  A few dead bodies on the side of the Imperial Highway won’t be strange in that empire.”

Evie smirked, rolling her eyes.  “You’re not helping.”  She kissed him a few times quickly.  “I’m going to miss you…”

Cullen sighed, rubbing his thumb over her left cheek slowly.  His other fingers massaged behind her ear, causing Evie to buck her hips.  Her green eyes rolled into the back of her head.  Cullen chuckled to himself.  Apparently, he found Evie’s sensitive spots pretty quickly.  His other hand poked the outline of the focus amber pendant between her breasts and under her open tunic.  “I won’t be far away.  Anything you need…”

Evie nodded, then glanced right up to the catwalk above.  “I know you’re there, you perverts…”

Cullen blinked a few times confused until two ravens swooped down from the high air and landed on the banister behind the sofa.  “What…?”

“Meet Mees and Nair.”  Evie informed, pointing to each individual raven.  “My brothers reincarnated, I think.  They won’t listen to Leliana—good birdies—and decided to roost in my tower.  I think you won’t have to worry about that slimy spymaster reading any personal correspondence.  Furthermore, I have some other ideas to cover up our business.”

Cullen chuckled a little.  “It seems you have thought a lot of this through.”

Evie kissed him too quickly.  “I have to.  I won’t let them win.”

The ex-templar knew who she meant.  Her paranoia and sorrowful conclusion on the battlements when Evie rejected him listed everyone who could ruin what they decided to embrace.  No matter how careful they would be, it will not take Evie’s comrades and Skyhold long to recognize their new bond.  Gossip will leave the fortress and end up in Val Royeaux.  Patricia, thus the Trevelyans, will know about their relationship and start their assault.  Samson probably had spies everywhere and would love to rip Cullen’s soul out to take vengeance against his once brother-in-arms.  Corypheus could use their emotions against them somehow.  Evie’s authority will be questioned for favoring one of her subordinates.  All these points were more reason why they should not start a relationship in the middle of a gigantic war.

Then Cullen locked eyes with the beautiful, smart, observant, and charismatic woman sitting on his lap.  Rationality did not matter right then.  Those opposing facts would not sway him away from caring for this person.  Deep inside of Cullen’s chest, the former templar felt twinges of a feeling he had not had since a young naïve man.  He did not want to recognize the emotion quite yet because he felt like he did not deserve the feeling.  It had been stirring there for months now.  Kissing Evie the first time last night, waking up beside her, and now holding her, the blond Fereldan knew it would not be long before he needed to address it.

“I would suggest for today, do what you want to do.”  Cullen finally moaned in his low baritone voice.  “We’ll meet with the wardens in the morning after you have a day to process everything.  If we try to meet now, you’ll won’t be as objective as I know you can be.  You did well with Hawke.  In a way, these people are not as wicked as the Champion.  Howe might be the son of a very deceitful man, but he himself is a good man.  I never personally met him until today, but his honorability is a known fact throughout Ferelden and the Free Marches.  I think for a time he worked under Stroud, if my memory serves me well, since the senior warden was the head of Kirkwall’s wardens.  It might be how Astrid knew his name, although you make a good point.”

Evie grimaced, gritting her teeth.  “Yeah, I guess I should step away.  With the wardens, we won’t leave for the Approach until the beginning of the week.  Give us today and tomorrow in Skyhold before filling out saddlebags with sand.  Might have you send the accompanying team ahead to give the group a head start since we’ll have more people travelling together.”

Cullen could tell Evie accepted her new situation, planning alternative scenarios even without all the information at the moment.  The Inquisitor did well to compartmentalize everything accordingly to not risk the organization.  Alas, it also meant her personal emotions suffered like they had the last two months. 

“Don’t think about any other business today.”  Cullen advised, kissing her forehead.  “Go have fun in your secret library.  Clear out your liquor cellar.  Lounge around and do nothing.  I will fend off whoever tries to approach you like a good mabari-“

“-lion.”

“Come again?”

Evie grinned, touching foreheads with him.  “Lion.  You’re my lion.  My Fereldan Lion.  You roar when I need protection, and you purr when it’s just us.”

The commander thought for a moment.  Lion.  Fierce, mincing, and strong.  Much better than a war hound because people cannot mock a lion in a bad way like a mabari.  “You’re not going to tell Sera, right?  Right?

The mage giggled, leaning in to kiss his lips softly.  Her tongue tickled Cullen’s lips, bringing a deep moan from deep within the ex-templar.  Before Cullen could hold her tighter, she slipped off his lap.  “No way.  My nickname, although with your matted hair, it won’t take everyone long to figure it out.”

Cullen shook his head, automatically running his gloved fingers through his curls.  “I have you to thank for that, by the way.”

Evie shrugged, waltzing towards her desk with her swaying hips.  “I’m just getting started…”  Maker’s breath, this woman is going to break him.

Ring.

Both leaders froze, knowing those groans and harsh accent echoing up the tower who called.  Evie rolled her eyes, walked over to her desk where a red velvet cord hung by a bookcase and tugged twice.  Josephine installed a bell system in Evie’s tower to allow the Herald to determine when to allow visitors and attendants.  Apparently after Evie nearly set the ambassador on fire a few months ago, the Antivan figured this was the safest mode of communication for both the Inquisitor and Skyhold.  The only person the rule did not apply to was Fesill since her assistant raced around Evie’s tower constantly.  Cullen wondered if Evie would amend it for him now too.  After all, he did not use it when he arrived since Evie requested him.

Cullen rose to his feet, grasping his broadsword hilt and preparing his commander persona.  Evie grabbed her leather jacket on her bed to cover her unbound breasts before taking a more firm look like the rebounding leader she is supposed to be.  It did not take much since her eyes showed she was still furious with the morning’s events.

“You two can drop the act.”  The harsh Nevarran hissed once her braided pixie hair appeared by the banister.

“Come again, Seeker?”  Cullen questioned in his formal authoritative voice.

Cassandra rolled her eyes, glancing at Evie.  The mage crossed her arms over her chest and bit her bottom lip.  “If Evie hadn’t talk to you by now, I will shield bash both of you off the balcony, so give it up.”

Cullen threw Evie a look, who just chuckled.  “Were we that obvious, Seeker?”  To this day, Evie and Cassandra rarely used each other’s first names.

“Not exactly, although by looking at your hairstyles I can assume things have been…smoothed over.”

Instantly, both leaders combed their hair back to control their wacky styles.  “Well, this won’t take long to spread.”  Cullen sighed, pinching his nose.

“I believe it will not spread for a while, not after what everyone did to Trevelyan.”  Cassandra smirked at Evie.  The mage nodded in a mode of thanks.  “It won’t be just you protecting this fiery, especially now that the wardens are here.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”  Evie muttered, sneering.  “The queen, Leliana,…and that damn apostate.”

“I suspected Anders was one reason why you were rattled.”  Cassandra concluded.  “That’s why I have told everyone to hold off on any outrageousness for the few days while we’re in Skyhold.  I know you’ll need time to prepare yourself for the Approach.”

“You’re getting better about reading me, Seeker.”  Evie noted, leaning against her messy desk.  “Makes me nervous.”

Cassandra huffed.  “Please.  I’m not making the same mistake a third time.  You also said to be open with you or have a fireball up our behinds.”

“That would be just the start for you, Pentaghast.  I hold you on a stricter scale than anyone else.”

“If you didn’t, I would be extremely insulted.”

In some ways, Cullen felt like he needed to cut off the snarkiness both women were tossing back and forth, but it was Evie’s shimmering eyes and Cassandra’s perked eyebrow that made him hold his tongue.  Both women used to despise one another, but throughout the last several months, an understanding formed between them.  In a way, it relieved the commander.  Cassandra and he were close friends since she recruited him.  She was someone he could rely on in battle and peace.  When Evie declared the seeker as her second-in-command, Cullen felt more confident about having Evie named Inquisitor.  The women were very similar, but he would never admit it unless under severe distress.  Separate, they were dangerous.  Together…Maker above, Corypheus did not have a chance.

“If I can be forward for a second, Cassandra.”  Cullen asked.  Both women turned to him, surprised by his worded expression.  “I was thinking…how much effort was put into finding Queen Asta?”

“We were stonewalled almost immediately.”  Cassandra sighed, rubbing the back of her head.  Evie did not seem rattled by the question.  She probably wondered herself.  “The king wasn’t willing to assist.  Any information about her whereabouts were many years old.  Most people said the same time.  ‘She just left.’”

“Has Leliana had any contact with her?”

Cassandra noted the sourness in Evie’s question.  “No, although I know she wanted to search for her.  Apparently, Asta told her to respect her privacy, and the rogue has, as surprising as that might sound.  I figure that is why she won’t stop pacing in the Rookery, holding that damn letter.  I think I already saw two crows leave with correspondences to King Alistair.”

Evie started rubbing her temples.  A lilt of magic drifted over Cullen, most likely the mage frosting her fingertips to sooth her growing headache.  “I can’t trust her.  I’m sorry.  She looks at me like a lamb, figuring out which way to slaughter me.  She knows more about me than me.  Astrid knew things I never told Alistair.  Either the warden-commander has been watching this whole situation or we have a leak.”

“I would most likely bank Astrid has her own sources.”  Cullen admitted, sighing.  “She is a resourceful woman.  A silver tongue that can turn any person into a drooling fool.  Leliana taught her some spy techniques during the Blight, and probably used them against Leliana in the end.  I am not defending the sister, just reflecting on past experiences.”

“Then, the Grey Wardens.”  Evie shifted the discussion.  “We’ll hear what they have to say tomorrow.  Find out where the fuck they have been and what they know about the disappearances.  Introduce Blackwall to Howe to have a liaison between the Inquisition and the splinter group.  I did offer Alistair any resisting warden safe haven under the Inquisition.”

“That might not be the best idea.  Blackwall as liaison that is…”  Cassandra cautioned, getting confused looks from both people.  “Blackwall has requested to leave as planned tomorrow and meet us in the Approach.  He never reported in when you wanted a head count on the Inner Circle, and he has been elusive since Skyhold was informed there were more Grey Wardens present.”

Evie gritted her teeth.  “Fuck…”  She kicked the side of her desk with her heel, leaving a dent in the finish.  She winced, realizing she did it bare footed.  “He is hiding something bad!  First, he gives me a lame answer about the Blight when I found records he stayed here for a time.  Next, Stroud mentions he could not sense him when we met in Crestwood.  Now this.  We’ll have to discuss this with Leliana.  I don’t mind people having shitty pasts.  Look at mine, for fuck sake, but I don’t appreciate being flanked, especially over something so sensitive and critical like the Grey Wardens.  Seeker, tell him to leave with the planned group in the morning.  Gives me some time to review the facts and possibly get some answers from Howe and his crew.  Avoids me sending him out into the desert only wearing his small clothes.  Fuck…”

Cassandra and Cullen did not need to say a word to the fuming woman rubbing her temples.  There was one thing you do not do to Evelyn Trevelyan.  Both the seeker and the commander committed such offences already and slowly regained the Inquisitor’s trust.  However, the whole Inner Circle had been warned.

Do not betray Evie’s trust or so help you when she finds out…

Chapter Text

Evie took Cullen’s advice to heart.  After informing Josephine she and her circle were not leaving until the first of the week, the mage decided to spend the day alone and revisiting the things that she rejected in her ultra-leader depression.  With the appearance of Anders’ warden comrades within her fortress, Evie felt raw and exposed.  In some ways she hated that her emotions were re-released just the night before, but thankful at the same time because she would have never survived physically.

Josephine agreed to act as a moderator along with Cullen against anyone who might disrupt the mage during her emotional and mental resettling.  Evie allowed the commander and the seeker to admit some details regarding her broken past and her brothers’ death to explain her reserved and hermit behavior.  The mage wanted to avoid any misunderstandings, especially following her erratic behavior. 

According to the Antivan ambassador, the wardens were more relieved to relax, sleep, and fill their stomachs after almost a year of looking over their shoulders.  From the bit of intelligence Howe admitted, the order’s disruptions started about the same time as the Templar-Mage war.  It was common knowledge that Weisshaupt invited mages and templars to join the wardens to avoid persecution. [1]  Many Circle mages in the Anderfels and surrounding countries went straight to the wardens, increasing the order’s recruitment quota.  To Evie, it may explain some facts to why Blackwall was wandering the Hinterlands alone recruiting since the mage rebellion settled in Redcliffe.  It still did not vanquish the gnawing feeling in her stomach that her shield battle master was going to backstab her in the near future.

Once Cullen and Cassandra left her tower, Evie decided a warm, comforting bath might relax her tight muscles and hammering headache.  She lit scented lavender and sage candles everywhere, while mediating in herbal oil water.  The smell lulled her conflicted mind.  Her specialized oils soothed her skin and hair, breathing life into her before submitting herself to months in the dry desert so far away from sanctuary.  The Fade hummed a soft tone through her veins and heart, bringing a sense of peace.  Just twelve bells before, Evie was doing the same thing, except torn over her romantic feelings.  Oh, how that seemed like a distant memory now.

Now, Evie’s soul betrayed her to act irrational and take out her hatred for Anders on his once comrades.  They did not know she held them responsible.  The wardens never knew they murdered Rian.  They had not had their moment to explain their behavior to support the apostate.  She gave Hawke time defend herself.  The elemental apostate practically laughed in her face and sic her elven crazed wolf.  Howe and the others deserved their moment as well.  Their impromptu entrance did not help their defense, demonstrating they truly did anything and everything to stop the Blight.  However, she knew what it felt like to be on the run for months.  Since leaving her family home, Evie fended for herself, avoiding rogue templars to save her own skin.  The Inquisition gave her protection and safe harbor.  The resisting Grey Wardens deserved the same opportunity like the mage rebellion and the remaining Templar Order.

Evie must place the past in the past and focus on the new collaboration.  Queen Asta placed her comrades in Evie’s hands to protect and fight their misguided order.  For many years, vengeance and hatred were the only emotions keeping Evie waking each morning and falling asleep at night.  In the deepest, darkest parts of her mind, the mage planned how she would kill Anders.  When she left her family estate, she planned to reclaim her phylactery, break it, and start hunting the abomination.  Her father and mother knew what she was going to do, and in some ways, encouraged her.  Anders could be blamed for more than just killing her brothers.  Her body demonstrated the indirect consequences of that apostate’s actions.

Instinctively, Evie traced the long scar under her left breast.  Her fingers tickled along the risen mound from her side to between her bosoms, bumping her amber pendant.  Evie’s green eyes rolled back into her head as her thoughts carried her back to that morning.  She did not expect Cullen’s touch to awaken her so deeply.  There was no hesitation from her or him, which was a surprise.  With Evie’s past, she believed her body would lurch or tell him to stop.  No, it was warming and fulfilling, craving for more until she lost complete control and orgasmed in happy bless.  The woman could not stop teasing the man, whose eyes showed he struggled between remaining a gentlemen and wanting to ravage her.

Would Cullen even want her though?

Evie leaned forward, pulling her legs to her chest, combing the soap suds from her wet hair.  He did not reject her marked body.  The Void, he admitted peeping in the Hinterlands months ago.  That just made her giggle, thinking about his internal war to respect her versus watching her bathe.  He was a modelled man of control and discipline.  Most men would have pushed her too far already or rejected her request to take things slow.  No, Cullen venerated and cherished her.

A small gnawing voice in the back of her mind kept nagging Evie though.  That voice always warned her when everything would fall apart.  She survived the Circle’s fall because it recommended her to trust that bitch Linnea.  The hunch kept her alive while traveling to the Hinterlands to retrieve her phylactery the first time.  That intuition saved hundreds of lives in Haven. 

Alas, that same saving grace pestered her when she ignored it and came out in shambles like when she ignored the quartet at the garden tea party and settle everything ablaze.  The murmuring nagged her during her Harrowing that something happened to Rian.  Now, it kept flashing the consequences of her giving in to her emotions and starting a relationship with the commander.  She will shatter further than ever before once Cullen learns her secrets or uses her until she is spent.  No, Cullen would not harm, reject, or play with her feelings.  It was wrong.  From what he saw already, he believed her beautiful and loveable.

But would the Fereldan lion continued to do so once he learned what caused all those marks?

Evie smacked her arms down into the tub spraying water over the sides, frustrated with her low self-esteem.  The dark wood planks seeped the water through its grains or pooled towards the fine Nevarran carpets.  The mage counted backwards until her breathing subsided and her heart no longer raced.  She kept reminding herself she was no longer a young lady, now a wiser woman who understood the world’s truths.

Thinking about Anders and his friends grinded against one of Evie’s deepest secrets:  the one secret she did not know everything about and her memory blocked by the chaos that happened.  The attending healers and upper administrations denied telling her the full truth when she awoke so many weeks later.  They just admitted the basics and left her to figure out the rest, alone and lost.  Starting a relationship with Cullen fueled the obscure connection between the event and Anders.  On one side, her vengeance chiseled at the wall her soul created around the incident.  On the other, her heart wishing to love the Fereldan but limited because that section of her heart was disconnected from the rest.  Evie equated a loving and cherishing romance with Anders’ actions, although both were quite separate events.

The bath did not resolve anything.  She felt stonewalled thinking about both the past and present, not enjoying the new happiness in her life.  Her yearning for knowledge and vengeance fought her desires and dreams.  Maybe this is why Evie never tried to woo anyone in the past.  If she ever opened that part of her heart, Evie would only discover the lingering hate, disgust, fear of the unknown, and blame.

“Cullen can rewrite that…all of it.  Do not fear this, Evie.  Do not back away now.”  The mage chanted to herself, closing her bright green eyes.  She could feel the mark wanting to spark beneath her palm’s skin, but she kept her emotions in check.  “What am I going to wear?  How will I style my hair?  Wear makeup?  What do I want to do?”  The questions drifted her thoughts back from the dark brink.  Her mind and soul focused on their answers rather than the whispering voice trying to dissuade her aspirations.

Evie quickly rinsed the remaining suds from her long hair and body, ready to continue her relaxing day.  Stepping out of the bath and drying herself off with a towel, she nearly slipped on spilt water along the copper tub’s sides.  Fesill laid her comfy cotton robe on the Free Marcher bed.  Pulling it around her nude body, Evie remembered her old fantasy of wearing just Cullen’s coat and maybe those high heel leather boots he eyed that night following Fenris’ attack.  The mage grinned.  If their relationship ever amounted to anything, it was something to consider.

Soon, giggles wailed up from deep inside Evie’s chest.  She twirled around her loft, holding the robe closed, while her wet auburn hair batted her face, shoulders, and back.  She felt a young adolescent receiving her first kiss from a young soldier.  It was a stupid emotion, especially for her age, but she could not help but be childish and silly for a few moments. 

Cullen and Evie were together, something she never imagined nor ever thought would be mutual.  Everything was against them, but if she could reflect back on this part of her life, she would remember the small part of happiness surrounded by the darkness.  When she was alone, she could act immaturely about everything, but once she left this tower—or his—she must be the Inquisitor and the grand Herald of Andraste.  People will find out quickly, especially since she is over her harden exterior that plagued her personality the last two months.  If Evie could balance this bliss with the Inquisition’s work, the ex-templar and Circle mage may emerge fine and beaming.

Once resuming the task at hand, Evie sat at her wardrobe vanity and properly did her makeup.  She always rushed most days, either late for a War Room meeting or a diplomacy gathering, but no one would be banging on her door or ringing her summoning bell today.  She kept everything simple, but still chose her dark kohl rim cat eyes and smoky brown eyes, feeling less exposed behind her fashionable war paint.  Her hair dried quickly following a few warming spells and adding a self-made softening oil to tame the fly aways.  People already saw what happens if she does not tame the frizz.  She twisted it into an intricate bun, but allowed some of the waves and curls to dangle along her ear and neck.  This was the last time she could pamper herself for a very long time.  She enjoyed every moment of it.

The mage disrobed and quickly grabbed one of her embroidery outer bodices she had specially made in Val Royeaux, along with a low neckline tunic, and tight taupe riding pants.  The bodice fitted her breast comfortably and designed with two different brown tones, dark chocolate brown from her shoulders to her under breast and light brown from below her breast line to her waist.  The non-boned corset’s primary feature was its long tail hanging off her bum and hip curves.  She waived the disconnecting sleeves, already knowing her day will be filled with stretching and movement.  Once dressed, she retrieved her knee-covering suede high heel boots, comfortable to walk in at the fortress, but very impractical in the desert. 

Satisfied by her ensemble, Evie grinned devilishly into the vanity mirror.  “Now, to see Ser Morris…”

 


 

The Inquisitor gracefully walked around Skyhold with her chin held high and shoulders back, demonstrating an air of confidence and authority.  No one approached her to ask her opinion about something or wish to speak about an issue.  Josephine’s declaration to leave the woman alone today traveled quickly throughout the fortress and was respected by the courtiers loitering around the great hall, much to Evie’s surprise. 

Whatever the advisors and Inner Circle discussed since the Emerald Graves, it worked.  Everyone gave the mage the required space and privacy she pined for since Haven.  Sod it, since the Circles fell.  Maybe she had to emotionally die to get the message across that they buried her under piles of bullshit and expectation.  Now, she could handle the pressure with several people’s support, most of all Cullen’s.  Just like Cassandra’s analogy in the Emerald Graves, she might experience a more severe pinch on the needle bed, but it would not pierce her skin anymore.

Evie wore a beaming smile, walking down the main steps towards the training ground and the south wall.  The workers, servants, and troops noticed immediately, nodding to her but neglected to use her titles.  They still did not call her Evie, but it was better than it had been.  Just another fact her comrades disseminated down through the ranks.  There was fine line between disrespect and acknowledging rank, and her fellow Inquisition members walked it quite well.  Her smile only grew as she waltzed across the upper courtyard, confirming to everyone they were doing the right thing now.

The mage waved a passive soft hand at Cassandra and Iron Bull as she passed the training dummies.  Both warriors were hammering against the dummies.  As joked in Haven, Evie requested a pair of hardwood and steel dummies for the seeker since she annihilated the typical stuffed dummies.  Cassandra just groaned when they were installed, particularly when she did slice against a straw dummy, Sera’s bees flew out and attack.  The Nevarran received several stings and bitched for bells, but Evie could not stop laughing.  The seeker looked like a blueberry all swollen and blue from the attack.  From the dummies’ appearance that midday, she almost shield bashed them out of the ground.  Evie hid her large smirk behind her marked hand, continuing on her mission to the quartermasters’ office.

Taking a sharp right by the infirmary, Evie pushed the reinforced door open on the south tower’s ground floor.  She entered and observed a large table with piles of paper, most covered with Cullen’s small chicken scratch, requesting multiple types of supplies and goods for the Inquisition’s various bases and camps in southern Thedas.  On an adjacent table, a large map of Thedas laid with markers.  Hanging on the stone walls were more maps with twine and nails showing supply lines and flagged locations from where items traveled to and from Skyhold and between merchants, wholesalers, and caravans. 

Among the ordered chaos was a tall blond man, about twenty-two, shifting through papers on his writing broad.  He glanced up once, his blue eyes catching the new presence immediately.  “Inquisitor!”  His voice wavered and choked a little.

“Ser Morris…”  Evie cooed, tilting her head to the side.  “Just the man I wanted to see today.”

The quartermaster swallowed hard and shifted between his feet.  “R-really?”

“Yup!”

Evie liked Skyhold’s new quartermaster.  The mage tolerated the treason-loving Threnn because she half-willingly assisted the heretical order during its early months.  Since she took the Inquisitor mantle, both she and Josephine agreed having a head quartermaster with such unpopular views would not win them any new alliances, especially among Fereldan merchants.  The ambassador handled the shift well.  She hired Ser Morris until the disguise he would help Threnn with the increased requisitions.  Slowly, they shifted more requests towards Morris until Threnn was made head of the supply stores, thus out the public eye.  The old quartermaster enjoyed her new position, relieved that she would not argue with the mounting Orlesians every day.  In that same time, Morris’ confidence increased until he felt he could threaten more difficult suppliers.  Still, the man, who was the center of a huge web of contacts, still stumbled and mumbled occasionally, especially when the Inquisitor personally contacted him.

“I hope you can help me on a request…”  Evie smiled, stepping forward until she leaned against the main requisition table.  “A surprise even.”

“W-what type of surprise?”  The man gulped, wetting his quivering lips.

“Well, you see, I’ve been arguing with the commander…”  The quartermaster’s blue eye grew wide.  “Ever since the envy demon attack, he has refused to repair his tower.  I mean, none of it.  I asked him multiple times to place his quarters on the Skyhold repair lists.  Mason Gatsi assured me all the major stuff has been handled.  Now, we are focused on the unused towers along the battlements, hopefully used by guests and our growing army.  Alas, Commander Rutherford refused to fulfill my request, so I came to the source.  If you get Gatsi the required materials, he can start work despite what the commander says.”

Ser Morris’ face morphed between panic and indecision.  “In all due respect, Inquisitor, you are not here as often as the commander.  H-he will yell for bells if he heard this, not at you of course, but me.”’

The Herald eyed the timid man.  Her pitch stiffened.  “You fear him more than me?

“I-I-…”  He stammered.  “N-not that.  It’s that…um…he has already declared any tower repair requests be null and void immediately, no matter the submitter.”

Evie’s bright green eyes darkened, a cheek nerve twitched.  “What?

“H-he expected this to happen months ago…since you were attacked by that elf, Fenris.”   Morris explained, playing with his fingers like they were covered with ants.  “Apparently, he knew you would submit something at some point.  His words were quote ‘Send the Inquisitor to me directly once she was denied.’”

That sonofabitch.  He knows her too well.

Shit…” Evie muttered, rubbing her temples.  “You won’t reconsider?”

Ser Morris shook his head frantically.  “I know you can fire me, your Worship, b-but the commander is an intimating man.”

Evie rolled her bright green eyes.  If only the quartermaster knew how coy and gentle that ex-templar could be.  Yet, Cullen affirmed his commanding persona quickly on new visitors and workers, unlike Evie who still tried to determine when to be authoritative and show her personal side.  The commander determined rank and understanding with little hesitation, evidence of his past leadership positions in the Templar Order.  If anything, he only recently adopted his softer side since meeting Evie, or at least she hoped that was the case.

“Well…”  Evie sighed, back away from her initial plan to surprise her new beau.  “Is there anything you know that I could do for the commander?  I would like to thank him for hard work and support since I was made Inquisitor.  I have been quite harsh to him, specifically in the last few months.”

Ser Morris nodded.  “We heard you were unwell for a time.  I only guessed what is happening through the submissions that go across my desk, but they tell a great deal of what is happening outside my tower.”

Evie winced, wishing she could go back in time and smack her past self for acting so cruelly to her team, workers, and troops in the Exalted Plains.  She would stop by the infirmary to see the remaining wounded once she left the quartermaster.  “Thus why this mode of thanks is so important.”

The quarter rubbed his jaw a few times, lowering his writing board a little.  “Well…there is one thing you may be able help with…”

Evie’s eyes brightened and sparkled.  “Anything you may know, it would be greatly appreciated.”  The mage knew she could think of many items and ways to thank Cullen, mentally giggling to herself.  However, she wanted to act neutral with her request to hide their new romance.

Morris glanced out the window for a moment, then up the tower to make sure they were alone and not surprised.  “Well, you must swear to not tell him I told you about this.  I will deny it even under severe torture.”

Evie’s interest perked.  “Oh really…?”

“Well, you know how Messere Tethras calls him ‘Curly’?”

The Herald nodded.  That morning flashed into her mind’s eye:  her hands tossing his bed hair everywhere until his curls gripped her fingers.  Those tight blond curls acted like finger traps that Evie will immensely enjoy in the future.  She bit her lower lip to avoid a mischievous giggle.

Morris turned around and rummage through a crate behind him.  Once he found what he was looking for, he reached out and handed a glass bottle to Evie.  “This is very difficult to get.  Almost all suppliers are sold out at every given time.  When they have stock, I order it all, using Commander Cullen’s personal funds to not bankrupt the Inquisition.  Maybe through your resources, you can get us a permanent merchant that can get us a deal.”

The Inquisitor studied the label on the chestnut flask, almost shaped like a pear with a tall neck.  It was empty, but Evie could smell the strong scent of sage wafting out of the bottle’s mouth.  “Calendula’s Skin and Hair Tonic…guaranteed to soften any skin and hair types for more manageable and healthy beauty.’  Oh, this is rich-“

That’s when Evie turned the bottle in her hand and saw the heraldry on the bottle neck:  the white steed half submerged under ocean waves.  “Those sonofabitchs…”

Morris blinked a few times.  “Your Worship?”

Evie squeezed her eyes closed, shaking her head violently.  Her temper flew through the roof.  “Quartermaster, I am commandeering this bottle.  Do not order any of this until I say otherwise.  I may be able to save the whole Inquisition thousands of sovereigns.  No matter if the commander or any other person threatens you, do not buy this stuff.  If you do, they will only find ash in my boot treads.  Do you understand?!”

Morris opened his mouth to protest, but immediately stopped once seeing the fire burning in the Inquisitor’s eyes.  “Y-yes, your Worship!”  He squeaked, holding his free hand out to swear his oath.

The mage stomped out of the tower in a flash, gripping the empty bottle like she would crush it into sand.  Her mind raced.  Nothing changed.  They kept using her even when she thought she was safe.

“Inquisitor?”

Cassandra’s voice.  Evie pivoted, gritting her teeth.  Her jaw ached from her clinching so hard.  “Seeker!  I must have a word with you!”

The warrior blinked, surprised by Evie’s abrasive voice, especially after her welcoming smile and wave just a few moments ago.  “O-of course.”

Evie pointed to the armory right beside the training dummies.  Cassandra would understand the most why this upset the Herald.  Evie kicked the armory side door open with her foot.  Her voice boomed off the stone walls.  Her glowing green eyes stared at the five smiths working by the forges.  “Out!”  Every smith, including their mentor Harritt, dropped their hammers and tongs and raced out of the building through the main door by the training arena, not even looking back.

Cassandra closed the door behind her, while the last smith slammed the other closed.  “What in Andraste’s name happened?!”

Evie shoved the bottle into Cassandra’s breastplate.  “This!  And probably more like it in circulation…”  The warrior took it from the mage’s fist and studied it closely.

“Calendula’s Skin and Hair Tonic…”  The seeker read.  She glanced up at Evie confused.  “I-I don’t understand.”

“Flip it over.”

Cassandra followed her command.  Her espresso eyes silted.  “The Trevelyan Coat of Arms…”

“You know who invented that?!”  Evie huffed, pacing through the armory.  “Me!  You know when!?”  She rolled up her tunic sleeves.  She showed the back of her arms where her burn scars laid on her back biceps.  “After fucking this!  They used me, Cassandra!  They used my misfortune to line their pockets with gold!  I don’t know how it left the Circle…probably one of my cousins.  I know I talked about my alchemy with Esme via letters, but of all the things they could have done!”

Evie flopped down on the stairwell heading to Cassandra’s loft.  Tears pooled at the edge of her cat eyes.  Her perfect makeup smeared each time she frosted her fingers and rubbed her temples.  “Those sonofabitches…!”

Cassandra sighed, walking over to the shaking woman and sat down.  “It does not surprise me.  Your family enriches itself any way possible.  They do not care whose hurt in the process.”

The mage hung her head.  “I don’t care really about the money.  It’s more about what started me learning alchemy…”  The murmuring voice burned more than ever from the dark corners in her mind.  “It…”  She sighed.  “It started after the…incident.”

Cassandra gasped, squeezing the flask tightly.  “Maker above…”

Evie tugged at the silverite chain hanging around her neck, pulling out her amber pendant, signet ring, and the silver thimble.  She twisted the thimble around her index finger like always.  “I-I couldn’t look at my scars…the burns.  So, I started investigating ways to get rid of them.  Any herb I could get ahold of, I tried.  I quickly became the mage to go to for fine soaps, scents, and whatnot in the Circle.  I gave out my perfumes and such for Satinalia gifts, primarily to encourage the adolescent boys to bathe.  Maker’s arse, they smelled awful…Calendula, also known as pot marigold, is very common in Ostwick and the Free Marches.  The Circle grew it in the garden.  It spread like weeds, so usually the Creation mages just composted it.  I told them to just give the extra to me.  According to my research, it helps promote wound-healing and soothing skin.  Abrasions, lacerations…all could be reduced and healed through proper alchemical processes.[2]  I experimented for months until I found tonic and balm forms that worked quite well.  Instead of the thick skin and high-peaked burn scars…anyways, it doesn’t look as terrible now.  It stopped working effectively about three years ago.  It saved my back and nerves when Burton wiped me after Anders blew up the Chantry.”

“I’m so sorry…”  Cassandra whispered from her right.  “I know that’s not very helpful, but…”

Evie sighed, flopping forward to grip her shaking knees.  “No, I needed to get it out before I set Cullen on fire…”

“Cullen?”

The mage nodded.  “Apparently, this is how he tames his curly hair.”

Cassandra burst out into a heavy laugh.  Evie could not help herself and followed suit.  Both women smirked and giggled for a solid five minutes, thinking about Cullen’s great obsession that he attempted to hide from everyone.

“It’s not Cullen fault.”  Evie finally said, finally catching her breath.  “He…doesn’t know.”

Cassandra eyed her.  “Which…part?”

“He knows the scars…”  Evie grinned again, thinking about his admission last night.  It quickly disappeared.  “But I cannot tell him everything I know, Seeker.  I cannot even tell myself what I know without breaking that wall I built to protect myself, thus why I never told you.  Thank the Maker I don’t personally remember what happened, but…I cannot ignore it now.  Cullen and I admitted our feelings to one another, but this secret tears me to bits that I fear will divide us in the end.”

Cassandra’s hand traced her own jaw scar, thinking.  “One step at a time.  He also has a great deal of baggage, but it is not my place to tell you.  There will be a time when you will be admit to one another the deepest wounds.  It will hurt yourselves more than each other, I believe.  Together, you two may begin to heal.  Until then, enjoy your budding romance.  Whatever you tell me, I will keep in confidence.  Both of you are my comrades-in-arms, but I will not break your trust in me to him and vice versa.”

“Thank you…”  Evie sighed, taking the flask back from her second-in-command.  A small grin perked along the corners of her mouth.  “I wonder if Elan Ve’mal has an extra apothecary stand…?”

Chapter Text

Cullen half expected Evie to stay in his loft last night, or at least he hoped she would.  He did not speak to her since leaving her tower yesterday morning.  Throughout the day, he sat in his office, glancing up from whatever parchment he was reviewing every time an outside door open.  He attempted to hide his disappointment, realizing it was a runner or officer seeking his attention.  The one person he did not want to see was Dorian, who nearly burst out laughing seeing his expression.  The Tevinter altus did not know Evie and he were together or he would have picked on the commander relentlessly.  Instead, he kept telling Cullen to be patient.  Now that Evie was in her right mind, maybe she would open up.  Cullen played along of course, which as not too difficult given he wanted to see her deeply.

The one time the commander saw Evie was that night.  A great deal of people mentioned throughout the day they noticed her strutting across the upper courtyard around midday, smiling happily and looking amazing.  When Cullen observed her, he saw anything but that.  He decided to use the backstairs through the kitchens to speak with Josephine before the ambassador went to bed.  He wished to avoid the courtiers stinking up the grand hall with perfume and gossip.  The commander admitted to himself to maybe poke his head into her cellar to see her and speak openly without prying eyes.

His Lady sat at the long desk in her secret library.  Her head buried in a book and writing quickly.  Evie’s shoulders were tense and hunched over.  Her free hand kept rubbing her temple, while muttering cuss words and insults constantly.  Her free relaxing day seemed an utter disaster, he concluded.  Cullen almost called out to her, but his anxiety controlled his actions then.  Evie did not know he suffered from claustrophobia and definitely did not want to explain why right then.  His heart and brain fought one another at the secret door.  He leaned against the new wood frame Gatsi placed to secure the entrance, watching down the tight hallway of bookcases at the angelic woman studying the old tomes.  Sage, lavender, and other herbal scents wafted down the way.   Those were not the mage’s preferred scents, but she must have been working with them at some point that day.  Possibly to mask the mold smells lingering in the library…or from the great hall.

Feeling like a creep, Cullen pulled himself away without saying a word.  It was for the best to avoid suspicion so early.  Hopefully, he would see her tomorrow before she left for the Western Approach.  Of course, they would meet in the War Room, but he prayed she would set some time assign to share some personal time before being separated for several months.  He had yet to share some tips on how to face red templars and blood magic.  He thought inviting her to a training session outside of Skyhold, but decided against it.  She needed her strength for the upcoming campaign.

The commander did not sleep well that night, tossing and turning thinking about what the Inquisitor would face in the desert.  His peaceful sleep beside Evie the night before was some of the best sleep he had experienced.  Maybe it was because he was so well rested he had extra energy, but Cullen knew better.  He feared for her, realizing she would be so far away and beyond his reach.  It raked his very heart and soul.  Prior to this, he could ride within a day or so to her location if required.  Arriving in Redcliffe with Arl Teagan and King Alistair was a primary example of needing to be at her side, determining if she may live or die.  If given a fresh horse and rode all night on no sleep or food, he might reach the Approach after a week at best.  What if Evie experiences a red lyrium relapse?  Severely harmed and without proper care?  Another assassination attempt?  Captured?  All those possibilities were likely before as well as now, but he would not respond as swiftly.

So, when Cullen entered the War Room that morning, it was no surprise everyone present gasped at his state.  Evie’s bright green eyes scanned him closely, most likely listening at his fortepiano for a hint of what troubled him.  He prayed utilizing the tune to explain he was fine and just allowed his mind to come up with so many ‘what ifs’ he could not sleep. 

The Herald bit her bottom lip, breathing deeply.  Maker, she looked exquisite that morning.  Her hair was up in a messy bun that allowed her wavy curls to hang loosely over her ears and temples.  Her bangs were naturally wavy, cupping her freckled cheekbones.  Her makeup was more natural tones, primary light brown and soft pinks.  No harsh kohl eyes.  The antique lace dress draped perfectly along her shoulders and hips, fitting tightly around her arms to her fingers.  The lace pattern was simple diamond flower designs in vital parts of the bodice and flowy skirt.  Now Cullen understood why some nobles were gasping about the Inquisitor when he walked to the meeting, complaining and complimenting her spring look, remarking about its Free March styling.  Of course, her jewelry of choice were the amber studs and pendant that fit between her breasts down the semi-modest v-neck.

Color wailed up Cullen’s cheek as his mind drifted back to what her bosom looked like.  She grinned mischievously, knowing by his piano tune what effect the mage had on him.  Of course she did.  Maker, he wished he could dismiss everyone present and just hold and kiss her all day, running his fingers, his lips along her shoulders, neck, and exposed clavicles.

“Shall we begin?”  Josephine cooed to Cullen’s left, breaking his desiring stare.  He cleared his throat, trying his best not to meet any person’s eyes.  Most likely, Leliana already knew he and Evie were together.  Cassandra probably eyed him closely, either disgusted or intrigued.  He could never tell.  Josephine’s attention was more on the additional man to Evie’s left.

Cullen’s red cheeks shifted from embarrassment to anger, primarily for Evie’s sake.  This meeting would be difficult for her.  Now, he wished he could non-verbally communicate with her both directions, to hear her emotions and thoughts regarding the situation around them.  All he could do his change his emotions and thoughts, thus his fade-touched instrument to convey his dedication and comfort.  What he once wanted to hide from the mage now provided a secret link.  Cassandra most likely knew what the Anchor allowed Evie, but the others did not.

Especially Grey Warden Nathaniel Howe.

“Inquisitor, Advisors, I thank you all on behalf of myself and my comrades for your hospitality and acceptance into the Inquisition.  I cannot say enough how wonderful it was to sleep in a soft, comfortable bed last night.”  Howe stated, bowing his head to each person in the room.  “Alas, I figure you have many questions that I hope I can answer to the fullest without break specific limitations that our order dictates.”

Evie swallowed, cupping her hands together in front of her.  Her voice was sweet and professional, quite a drastic change to her irresolute and loud yells yesterday morning.  “I offered to King Alistair that the Inquisition would accept wardens who were resisting Warden-Commander Clarel’s command.  I keep my word no matter who comes because whatever is happening in the Western Approach, it is Corypheus’ doing, thus within our domain.”

Cullen hoped no one could see the smile fighting his facial muscles.  As he predicted, Evie handled Howe and his team’s presence now with a clear objective mind.  From the neutral expression on Leliana’s face, she too was level minded now, able to separate her surprise and hurt by Queen Asta’s letter from the mission at hand.

Evie continued.  “Our contact informed Champion Hawke and I what every Grey Warden in Ferelden and Orlais are hearing:  the Calling or rather a false Calling.”

Howe held his expression well, but his eyes glimmered just for a moment.  “I see…As your rather demanding archivist mentioned yesterday, the Grey Wardens have many secrets, specifically about our initiation into the order and our death.[1]  You can imagine the Calling is not very persuasive to encourage people to join our ranks.  The Joining became public knowledge following the Fifth Blight, specifically when Warden-Commander Cousland established Vigil Keep.  She informed every warden recruit what would happen, breaking an ages-old rule.  Her personal experience at Ostagar changed her inability to hide that secret.  I believe she never wanted another Sir Jory incident.  If every warden here is any example, it did not dissuade people from attempting the Joining.  In some ways, it allowed the wardens to investigate who was more likely to live versus die.  The number of failed joinings decreased substantially since.  However, the Calling is still a highly guarded secret.  I hope you have not shared it beyond those who need to know.”

Evie nodded.  “Only my advisors and my Inner Circle know about the end of a Grey Warden’s life, and all of them are sworn to secrecy.  They fear my wrath, believe me.”  She giggled to show she was half-joking.

“Of course, your Worship.”  Howe smiled.  “We appreciate this event is kept behind closed doors.  It is not a…proud or happy moment in a warden’s life.  Most members have thirty years before they hear the voices and whispers; the taint decaying our bodies until we too succumb to the disease.  To only be a warden for nine years and having it nag my every thought both asleep and wake…It’s a constant battle to not just give in and venture into the Deep Roads.”  For a brief moment, Cullen wanted to reply with sympathy, thinking about his own struggle with lyrium withdraw, but he held his tongue.  Howe may have done nothing to him, but he greatly disliked him for Evie’s sake.  The rogue deserved no outward descent kindness yet.

“How many wardens have made the last walk to Orzammar already?”  Leliana questioned in her Orlesian accent.  Cullen noted a bit of concern in her accent.  The woman held mages and wardens very closely to her heart.

“Too many Fereldan members.  Most were younger than I and my comrades, inducted into the order in the years since the Blight.”  Howe sighed, shaking his head.  “They learned the truth too late, separated from those in command to learn that everyone heard the calls.  I was in the Free Marches when it started, working to uncover more about red lyrium.  Apparently, the false Calling dissipates the farther you are away from southern Thedas strangely.  Sigrun lives in the Deep Roads, since she is also a member of the Legion of the Dead.  It takes the queen every ounce of control to keep the woman from killing herself unnecessarily.  She noticed the increased number of fresh warden bodies throughout the old dwarven routes.  Velanna primarily monitored surface Deep Road entrances.  Her sister served the Architect and disappeared once Her Highness allowed the sentient darkspawn to live and take his followers away during the Thaw.  To this day, the hedge mage hopes to see Seranni one more time.  No one can convince her to stop her search.  Although, the queen sympathizes completely as she too never stopped searching for her brother during the Blight.  It was a struggle to have Velanna leave the forest and come here.  As for Oghren…I found him drunk and penniless in Amaranthine City.  His wife threw him out again for one reason or another.  His son told me where to find him.  None of Clarel’s subordinates searched for him, figuring he was already dead.”

“Hawke stated she was working with our contact regarding discovering more about red lyrium.”   Evie explained.  Cullen knew she was purposefully keeping Stroud’s name to herself to see if Howe knew who their informant was, thus possibly uncovering if Leliana leaked information.  “Was your investigation connected to the senior warden’s?”

Howe nodded.  “Yes.  Stroud and I worked together from time to time on different missions.  Hawke and her band saved my life actually a few years ago when my sister, Delilah, asked her to search the Deep Roads for me.[2]  Stroud was my commander when I did not have orders from Her Highness.  When we heard where red lyrium was found, we developed a small investigative party to figure out any information.  We lost two members to its insanity.  I spoke with Varric Tethras last night, hearing his side of what happened in that ancient thaig…and what happened when they released Corypheus.  Believe me, I nor any warden presence knew of the darkspawn’s existence.  From my limited communication with the king and queen, they know about the same.”

“How much communication do you have with Queen Asta?”

Evie, Cassandra, and Cullen glanced at one another while Leliana stared directly at the Grey Warden.  Howe and Stroud were comrades in the Free Marches and met Hawke.  There was multiple ways the Fereldan rogue knew their warden contact.  However, Leliana’s stern pitch alerted everyone that they might learn if the spymaster was involved or not.

“I understand your curiosity, Sister Leliana.”  Howe sympathized with the redhead.  “It pains her that she told you to not search for her all those years ago, but I don’t have direct contact either.  Our line of orders and correspondence is one sided.  It occurs in a way that is very complex.  She…”  Howe exhaled, closing his eyes.  “To inform you all, Astrid and I have known each other since we were small children.  For a time, my father attempted to arrange a marriage between her and me or my brother, Thomas, but you can imagine why that never occurred.  It took a long time for her and me to even speak civilly.  I tried to kill her to avenge my fallen family and steal back our sacred artifacts.  I blamed her for everything, not my greedy father.  She was patient, allowing me to rant and rave without saying anything in response.  It was not until she reunited me with Delilah than I understood who was truly at fault.  She offered to make me a warden instead of executing me, but I refused outright.  Took me a few days to see the honor of it all.  One of my ancestors was a warden and brought great honor to our family.  I wished to accomplish the same after everything my father did.  I thank her for the bottom of my heart and soul for this opportunity.  I redeemed my family name.”

Everyone watched as a small smile crossed the man’s face, his eyes staring off at nothing to another time.  He was right about Astrid.  Cullen did the same to her in Kinloch Hold.  He damned and cursed her for not killing every mage, apprentice, and tranquil present.  His mind was so beaten and changed by the torture that he could not think anyone was not a blood mage, demon, or abomination.  She just let him go on and on until Cullen was exhausted.  Once he broke down, she just smiled and told him she appreciated his advice, forgave him, and walked away. 

Cullen always wondered if that was Astrid’s noble background that explained her poise.  She more than anyone had every right to be angry and broken by what happened to her family.  Maybe someday he and Alistair—or even Astrid, if she ever returned—could sit down and explain how the youngest Cousland kept herself sane during that time.  Maybe Evie could benefit from that advice, especially since her open wounds walked everywhere.

“Her Highness uses signals in a way that only I would understand.  Something to remind me of a memory, or a phrase said by someone who meets me, like a long line of communication.”  Howe described, never breaking eye contact with Leliana.  “When this happens, I go to the nearest raven office or courier.  I give a special pass phrase in a form of a name, and there is the message.  There have been many false alarms, of course, but somehow she always knows where I am.  That letter I delivered yesterday arrived just like my orders to collect the others and come to Skyhold.  If I want to send anything to her, it must go to Denerim-“

“-Thus King Alistair.”  Evie concluded, sighing and crossing her arms over her chest.  Leliana winced, hanging her head.  “He knows how to contact her, but keeps it to himself to protect her secret.  Do you know why she left?”

Howe shook his head no.  His jet black hair batted at his cheeks.  “The last time I saw her was five years ago right before she disappeared.  Nothing seemed wrong.  If something happens to the king—Maker keep him safe—her secret will go to his grave.”

Evie’s eyes met Cullen’s across the tables.  Their shimmer and swirls indicated she still did not trust Leliana, but most likely Stroud’s identity either came from Astrid herself or Alistair.  Leliana’s own searching eyes seem to say she must be careful what she tells her close royal friend now.  The king will never say where his wife was or how to reach her.  Her involvement against Corypheus was just like her letter said:  beyond her reach and was not important enough yet to change from her own mission.  What was so vital for a Grey Warden to not battle an ancient darkspawn magister that threatens her kingdom?

“Let’s shift gears…”  Evie’s tone shifted to break the dark stares and thick atmosphere in the room.  “We leave for the Approach tomorrow.  My apologies for not allowing you all to rest more, but we are dealing with blood magic.  It is not something to take likely.”

“Agreed.”  Howe smiled.

“Stroud, Hawke, and Fenris have been snooping the desert alone now for about a month.  Our best scout already left a week ago to begin exploration.  Commander Cullen sent his second-in-commander, Knight-Captain Rylen, with a contingency of Inquisition troops to establish a presence.  Since Hawke’s missive, we have sent more troops, including our own Grey Warden Blackwall, workers, and diplomatically contacted nearby nobles for supplies and manpower if needed.”

“I never doubted the Inquisition would sit on this manner.”  Howe complimented every attending council member.  “From all resisting Grey Wardens, we thank you.” 

Evie just nodded, returning to her original thought.  “Our mission there is three-fold.  One:  Determine where the remaining Grey Wardens are and what their objective is.  According to Stroud, the Orlesian warden-commander wishes to make one last effort to find and kill the remaining Old Gods before the wardens die.  This is under the false pretense that the Calling they are hearing is real instead of Corypheus’ ability to influence thoughts and actions.  The ancient magister has eluded death before.  Varric, Fenris, and Hawke, swear they killed the bastard, and I do not doubt them.  If possible, we might uncover how he did so to properly prepare.  Our suspicions have been on his archdemon, but Solas doubts it is a true Old God, but something different.  We have confirmed there has been no signs of a Blight occurring…yet, but we cannot ignore the possibility.  Look at what the Architect and the Mother accomplished when Ferelden believed the Fifth Blight was over.”

Evie referenced a piece of parchment laying on the map table.  “Two:  Make contact and stop whatever the Grey Wardens are doing.  In the best case scenario, we talk them out of the plan with logic and end it there.  Very unlikely, but something must work in our favor sometime.  Worst case, we have to use force to stop whatever blood magic they are doing.  When I read Hawke’s letter, I thought about the influx of mages who have joined the order since the Circles collapsed.  After what we witnessed in the Hinterlands, it would not surprise me that some of those mages were Venatori or unleashed blood apostates free of the Chantry’s rules.  I know wardens do whatever is necessary to stop the Blight, but it is amazing how a few loud voices can shift an entire group to do the extreme.  The Venatori already pushed the mage rebellion to make very bad decisions.  The red templars are led by a very dangerous templar general.  Do not underestimate anyone under Corypheus’ command.  Hopefully, something in the middle will happen.”

Evie rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck.  “And three:  Investigate and stop the Venatori in the Approach.  According to reports, they are ransacking old Tevinter temples and Grey Warden strongholds in the region.  Orlais has already suffered too much death in the Exalted Plains and the Emerald Graves, weakening the strongest power that is keeping the Imperium at bay.  Their strong presence under Calpernia’s leadership just undermines the empire more.   They are hunting for something.  Corypheus vowed before I poured a mountain’s worth of snow over Haven he would find another way into the Black City.  I figure this is one of his alternative plans.  Howe, I would like your group to keep focused on the Grey Warden situation, although we will be in a region once plagued during the Second Blight.  We might request some assistance if we come in contact with darkspawn or blighted areas.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.”

“I am already working with the Inner Circle on a game plan, so when we arrive, we can hit the ground running.  Advisors, I know communication will be strained because of the distance, but we must remain vigilant.  Remember, I will be beyond reach.”  Cullen winced hearing Evie say what plagued him all night.  Her bright green eyes met his, soft and sympathetic to his sorrow Fade tune.  “It does not mean Corypheus or Samson will not lay compliant while I play in the sand.  Either one could attack the Inquisition, while I am away.  Let’s talk contingency plans…”

The War Room meeting continued for another two hours, covering every possible situation imagined.  Howe seemed taken aback by Evie’s over preparation, but no one questioned her.  Evie’s cautious mind saved the Inquisition at Haven.  Cullen remembered his promises to her after losing the location.  He did not anticipate an invading templar force and a red lyrium archdemon.  However in the months since arriving in Skyhold, he developed a strategic plan for any possibility he and his officers could conceive.  If any situation—or similar—occurred, he and his officer will immediately retrieve and enact the battle plan.  If Cullen was incapacitated or dead, his highest and most trust officers and the Inquisitor may act so not to burden by his missing presence.  Maker, he prayed that will never be the cause, but in the commander’s long battered history, he could not afford another Haven, Kirkwall, or Kinloch Hold.  Most of all, his life was Evie’s easily.  Cullen will give his life to save hers in a heartbeat, even if they never began a relationship.  He would do anything and everything for his Lady.

The War Council discussed all imagined potential scenarios.  What once even caused Cullen to say was excessive, now sounded very likely.  What would happen if the Breach reopened?  Time was changed?  A Blight began?  Corypheus controlled all the dragons in Thedas similar to when Cassandra saved Divine Beatrix?  The undead invaded the Frostbacks?  An Avvar invasion?  Nothing was off limits now.  An ancient magister lived and walked Thedas with an archdemon and red templar and fanatical Tevinter army.

Even the scenario that nearly caused Cullen to purge all over the table had to be discussed:  what if Evie died?  That twinge in his chest was more pronounced now than yesterday or even days, weeks, months before.  He eyed the woman across him closely, burning to memory everything:  the sound of her voice talking business versus in private.  How her loose auburn curls glinted different colors as sunlight streamed through the War Room’s stain glass.  The freckles across her wrinkling nose when someone suggested something she did not agree with.  Her bitten lower lip dimpling along her chin.  Her constant battle of pulling her bangs out of her face and behind her ear to only have them fall again when she shook her head.  The red spots on her temples when she massaged them too hard, avoiding to use frosted magical spell to not startle anyone, specifically him.  Most of all, every shimmer, fleck, swirl, and shift in her burning green eyes that Cullen loved since they met.  He prayed if lyrium ever claimed his memory, it will allow those two fade orbs to remain in his mind’s eye.

Cullen nearly missed the meeting wrapping to a close.  He spoke when needed and gave suggestions, but his attention remained on the woman he was falling for more than ever imaginable.  He was last to turn away from the pine map table, rubbing his neck to relax his tight neck muscles.  Evie was collecting her documents and notes to follow up with some last minute tasks.

“Commander, a moment?”  Her Free Marcher accent called to him.

His ears jumped happily at her softer tones.  He kept his commander persona since Josephine and Leliana were still by the tall main doors, but his amber eyes flicked to her like a thirsty dying man seeing an oasis paradise on the desert’s horizon.  “O-of course.”  Maker’s breath, man.  Do not sound like an idiot!

Evie beamed up at him, acting more casual than during the meeting.  “I wanted to invite you to my tower for some chess tonight.”  Cullen could not help his head flinging at the double doors.  Unknowing people were still present.  “Dorian and I were talking yesterday that we will be without our main tactical adversary so we are challenging you one last time before we go.”

Now, the commander felt like a damn fool.  His shocked expression caught Josephine’s eye.  She glanced at Evie for a moment, reading it was nothing.  The ambassador left none the wiser, he prayed.  “Of course.  I can win a few more games before you both leave.”  He replied with a nervous smug twinge.  He tried to hide his frustration that someone else would be present.

The mage waltzed up to him with her belongings in her arms.  Her lace dress danced along her curves, twisting him more and more into knots.  “Wonderful.  I’ll tell Fesill to bring up some whiskey and brandy for us.”  She was right in front of him now.  “Unfortunately, Dorian cannot stay long.  He has a prior engagement so he will be leaving very early.

Cullen smirked, running his gloved fingers through his hair.  His voice was littered with little chuckles.  “Such a shame…”

Evie bumped his left arm with her shoulder, grinning.  “I know, but I think we may continue in his absence.  Until tonight then…Please, don’t be late.”

The man never looked away as Evie broke her longing stare and swayed her hips out of the War Room.  Suddenly, his armor and doe leather under armor were too much.  His core’s pulsing heat nearly set him ablaze.  Thank the Maker the table allowed him to lean without falling over and hide his growing erection.  A small giggle rang down the stone hallway leading to Josephine’s office.  Of course, she heard his fortepiano singing with excitement.

Two can play this game.

Chapter Text

“Check.”

Dorian’s right eyebrow perked as he reviewed the chessboard.  The garden’s Thedas set was more ornate than Evie’s personal board, but it still contained gold highlights on the ivory pieces and silver edging on the black onyx.  The roaring fireplace behind the table lit the miniature statues like dancing shadows.  His grey eyes glanced up from his checked king at the woman leaning back in the wingback armchair, holding her honey mead goblet with both hands gingerly.  A small grin curled her lips.  He huffed, castling his king with the nearby rook, protecting the vital piece from her aggressive play style.

“Quick to be rid of me, my Dear?”  The Tevinter questioned, leaning back in his seat across from the Inquisitor.  His left hand reached for his brandy glass resting on a nearby end stand.

“Now why would I want that, Sweetie?”  Evie replied, tiling her head to the side.  Her auburn waves were free flowing and unrestricted, highlighting her strong Free Marcher jawline, cheekbones, and exposed shoulders. 

“Because that gown may break someone’s heart tonight, Sunshine.”  Her best friend smirked, his moustache twitching above his lip.

In some way, the auburn waves and curls hid the Inquisitor’s bare scarred arms and back.  The chiffon’s dress deep v-back reached her hip, and its diamond-shaped straps over her breasts made it the most revealing item she ever purchased, encouraged by the ladies while shopping in Val Royeaux.  If it was not for the built-in bodice, her breasts’ pink peaks would be easily seen through the sheer fabric.  The gown hung like tailored drapes along her tight torso, curving hips, long legs, and ending at her bare feet.  Evie concluded she would only wear it in her own company, too ashamed by her marked body to ever consider public eyes studying her.  But Dorian and Cullen knew what laid along her skin.  Dorian knew after giving her medical treatment in the field.  Cullen could not take his eyes off her now in anything she wore.  Evie almost reconsidered wearing it because the Tevinter mage might ask why she was being so bold, especially in front of man she yearned for like a ray of sunshine during a hurricane.

Dorian dug for more possible explanations, watching her attempted poker face closely.  “Might be it’s connected to how you and specific commander appeared completely disheveled yesterday morning?”

Evie eyed the man, thankful for the fire’s illumination to bask her in some shadow.  “Now what gave you that impression?”  The mage sipped the fermented honey, concurring that this was exactly what Cullen’s lips tasted like.  Maker, she prayed her face was as innocent as she hoped to avoid his suspicions.  She kept her soft makeup look from that day, replacing the pink eye rouge with silver to compliment the soft blue chiffon.  Luckily, her pink lipstick stayed in place while she sipped her honey wine.

“Please!”  Dorian laughed, taking a quick drink.  “Both of you looked like you rode across Orlais a few times.”

Evie shrugged, leaning forward to move a pawn from its starting position.  Dorian was a master of words, especially when flirting.  He chose analogies well to match his insinuations.  “I had just woke from a deep sleep and planned a training session that morning, forgetting to dry my hair before falling asleep the night before.  I do not know why the commander looked like that.  Maybe he found himself a lovely woman or man after all.”

That caused the Tevinter to burst out laughing.  “No one has replaced you, Evie, and I doubt anyone will ever.”  He sang so a matter-of-factly.  “You should have seen his sad mabari puppy eyes yesterday when I waltzed through the office door.  He looked so pitiful because you had not made an appearance.  That man is more madly in love with you now than ever before!”

Evie prayed the firelight hid her lips’ little curl and the knowingly stare.  He missed her yesterday.  She intended to see her commander at one point.  She refused to back down regarding his tower reconstruction, planning to argue his threatening order against Ser Morris.  A new plan formed in the back of her mind that will fill her down time in the desert.  However, upon discovering that his hair tonic was manufactured by her family based on her hardships forced her to remain away.  Although her heart tugged her towards Cullen’s office, she busily herself first at the apothecary, then her secret library to avoid lashing out at him.  She knew she would slip about the tonic and its inventor.  If she did that, she would have to explain her burns, which was the last thing she wanted at the moment.  If she could not face that moment in her life, she knew she could not tell Cullen, and she refused to lie.  They both agreed to be honest and open with one another so many months ago.

“We have covered this, Dorian,” Evie began in a stern voice.  “This is not the time or the place.  I am barely myself again, and I cannot hurt him more than I already have.  I rejected him on the battlements, crushed him into a thousand pieces.  I almost got him and everyone killed in the Exalted Plains.  It is better if he did find someone else.  I am broken baggage, not worth the effort.”

Evie already decided what she would say if someone asked her about their feelings for one another, especially since the commander kissed her unconscious body in the Exalted Plains.  She still needed to ask Cullen about that, by the way.  How could she been so moronic to miss such a moment!?  Why did he do that in front of everyone after a major battle?!

Dorian was the only comrade willing to even to suggest romance because everyone else learned their lessons about invading her personal life.  Evie’s evaluated the pros and cons of telling him the truth.  She concluded he could not keep his mouth shut.  Dorian would find out soon one way or another and already accepted he would rant and rave for bells.  Then, Evie would tell him the happy details to satisfy his curiosity.

What the Herald said was true though.  She was broken, battered, and not worthy of the commander’s affection.  He deserved someone else, anyone else but her.  However, he chose her and waited until she came around.  They should have never started the relationship because everything mounted against them, but they could not deny their dreams and desires anymore.

“The only person who believes that is you.”  Dorian scowled, moving a bishop across the board.  “And I thought he was stubborn…When is the barbarian going to bless us with his handsomeness anyway?”

Evie shrugged.  “I told him not to be late.   I bet he is in his tower still working.”

Dorian drank his brandy again.  “Strange you suggested this mini-tournament suddenly.”

“It wasn’t unexpected.”  Evie covered herself, moving a rook forward to claim an unguarded pawn.  “You told me you and he shared many nights playing chess in his office when he could not sleep and you were bored of reading all that Chantry bullshit.  I’m just offended you never invited me.”

Dorian rolled his eyes, attacking a lone pawn with a knight.  “I like to view my eye candy alone…”

“Such a shame.”  Evie sighed, resting her cheek on her hand.  “As Inquisitor, I could have organized a wrestling tournament during a rainstorm between the military officers.   Shirts prohibited.”

Dorian swallowed his brandy in a large gulp.  He lowered the drink from his lips.  “You’re an evil woman…I love you to bits.”

“Eh.”  Evie giggled, moving her queen to take his exposed bishop.  “I guess since you don’t like to share, I guess I wouldn’t either.”

“You will be invited to every game, talk, and teasing fete from this point forward.”

Evie burst out laughing, shaking her head.  “You want to see him shirtless that badly?!”

“Not just him!”  Dorian yelled, smacking his free hand on the chair arm.  “Your templars are the finest specimens in Thedas!  Furthermore, they are so scared of you, they would not question the rule!  If I ever face my homeland again, I will state your Circles contained the best sexual opportunities!”

“I wouldn’t know.”  Evie mumbled against her glass.

“Sunshine, from what you told me what happened in the women’s dormitory is enough to reconsider the system.”  Dorian commented while moving a pawn upward, forcing a giddy chuckle from the woman.  “To know you never tested your talents is a sin!”

Evie shrugged again, secretly imagining Cullen’s face when he will learn such enthralling facts.  “Maybe someone will benefit one day.  They have to overlook this ugly body though.”

“You’re beautiful.”  The Tevinter sang softly, meeting her hanging gaze.  “If anyone says otherwise, they do not deserve your flexibility.  You must know my sexual preferences by now, and you even get a rise out of me prancing and flipping about while fighting.”

Evie giggled, moving a piece.  It was time to turn the heat away from her.  “Now, would such preferences explain why you were in the tavern yesterday?”

Dorian froze.  His hand hovering over a knight.  “No.  I was thirsty.”

“At sunrise?”

“Yes.”

“Bull and shit.”  Evie called, eying the necromancer closely.  She made sure to phrase her cursing as such to show she suspected the true reason.  “Your robes looked like they were used to mop the floors.”

Dorian threw her a look, moving a pawn.  “Fine.  I passed out there.  Ended up drinking too much, and Cabot left me in a corner.  When I heard that walking dwarven keg tumble over the bar, I woke up.”

Evie smirked.  Her attention was more on the flushing mage in front of her than on the chess game.  “Is that the story you are sticking with?”

“It’s the truth.”

“Truffles may believe that, but not I.”  Evie pointed at the sleeping chocolate brown nug on her four-post bed.

“When are you going to get rid of that thing?”  He hissed as the creature wiggled its nose while dreaming.  Dorian hoped to change the subject.

“When I need a new hood.”  Evie sighed.  “Iron Bull barely got his pants on when the fighting started.  You see that?  It’s like someone convinced him to wear some clothes instead of fighting with everything dangling everywhere.”

“No, I didn’t see that, and I would never want to see his…dangles.”  Dorian muttered against his glass.  “Whose turn is it?”

Evie rolled her bright green eyes.  “Fine.  I’ll stop pushing if you agree to stop digging.”

“There’s nothing to push.”

“And there’s nothing to dig.”

“Good.”

“Fine.”

“What are you two talking about?”

Dorian and Evie both jumped in their seats hearing the sudden third booming baritone voice from the stairwell.  Both chess players glanced towards the banister to see Cullen arriving with sweat on his brow and without his armor.  Evie just giggled sheepishly, while Dorian stared at the new arrival.  Cullen approached making little sound without his metal shell and never rang the doorbell. 

From the gapping expression across Dorian’s face, Evie concluded he never saw Cullen without his metal gear.  “I will tell you whatever you want to know if you arrange that tournament.”  Evie nearly spit out her mead through her nose as she witnessed the mage gawking at the commander.  No matter how many times she saw him in that deep wine red leather doublet, matching tight pants, and untied embroidered cream tunic of two mabaris, the more she fell for that gorgeous man.  That man wore the same outfit the day they smashed her phylactery, one of her favorites.  His under tunic was untied at the neck, exposing some of his cut templar muscles.  Evie mental drooled at the sight, while Dorian openly gushed.  Her hand shivered as she wished to trace every inch of her Lion.  Cullen must have left his mantle coat in his tower.  The spring night air was warm enough to go without it, even in the high mountains.

Cullen threw the Inquisitor a look, puzzled by the exchange.  “Do I even want to know?”

“Probably not, but it will be something that I will announce when we return from the Approach.”  Evie beamed happily, watching the Fereldan retrieve her desk chair behind her wingback chair.  Dorian mouthed across the board ‘thank you’ while his grey eyes shimmered with bliss. 

Evie just nodded, yet her full attention followed the new arrival.  He placed the chair in front of the chess board table.  “Fresh bottle of whiskey on the stand.  You look like you need it.  Late night sparring session?”

“Officers meeting ran over longer than I anticipated.  They had a lot of questions that required my full attention.  I ran over since the young lady stated not to be late.”  Cullen explained, reaching for a glass tumbler nearby and pouring himself a drink from the liquor stand by the bookcases.  “Who’s the mead drinker?  Haven’t see anyone drink that since leaving home.”

Evie bit her lower lip.

Dorian’s grey eyes immediately glanced at her, watching her instinctively playing with her amber pendant hanging between her breasts.  “Yes, Evie, why no Antivan tequila tonight?”

Cullen’s eye brow perked, also staring at the flushing Herald over the wing chair’s arm.  Evie took a quick drink to think of her response carefully.  “We’re leaving at sunrise tomorrow.  You both know I cannot control myself when drinking that stuff.  Just look how hungover I was the day we closed the Breach.  So, I decided to sample another sweet beverage that won’t leave me wishing for death while traveling across Orlais.”

Dorian just stared at her with one of his unimpressed expressions.  “Then why order a few bottles for the road?”

“We’ll be gone for months, Dorian.”  Evie reminded the mage.  “If you all want to survive this expedition, ask the commander here to supply each checkpoint with a case of Antivan tequila, but I doubt the treasury can handle it.  If the Montilyet shipping agreement is ever resolved, importing will be easier and less taxing.”

Cullen came back into Evie’s view, giving her a small glint of his bum in those Maker-blessed pants.  He sat down with his whiskey glass.  “I overheard there was a snag.”

“Patricia, no doubt…”  Evie hissed, wrinkling her nose.  “You know how much trouble we went through to search for Countess Dionne’s lover, Ellerly?  Apparently, when Josephine’s messenger went to deliver his letter, the mage was sitting in her parlor well and happy to be reunited with his love.  Apparently, after the Inquisition healed him, someone paid his travel and care, reuniting them.  At least, the countess is still nominating the Du Paraquettes since we technically did find Ellerly.”[1]

“Why do you suspect your sister?”  Dorian asked, continuing with their chess game. 

Evie noticed he had been cheating, but ignored it.  She wanted to end their specific match.  If he and Cullen played next, that meant he would leave afterwards and then she would be alone with her Lion.  “Her little whisper at the delegation.  Josephine wants to do this through the proper channels, thus through Orlesian politics, Patricia’s realm.  My dear sister can watch the whole thing and manipulate it like this chess game.”

“Checkmate, by the way.” Dorian cooed happily. 

Evie just rolled her eyes and flipped her hand dismissively.  “I have months to best you, Necromancer.  Remember that.”

“I guess I play winner.”  Cullen concluded, trading seats with the Inquisitor. 

Both men started rearranging the board, while Evie started to pace.  “That whore loves to mess with everyone’s lives, especially if it destroys mine.  At least we are making progress.  The House of Repose hasn’t reached beyond out outer checkpoints, but remain vigilant, Commander.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.”  Cullen nodded.  He must know this rattled her to the core, watching her sip her mead and clench her teeth.

The pacing helped Evie calm down, but it also played into her ultimate evening goals.  The flowing chiffon waved behind her like ship sails on a warm and refreshing day on the Waking Sea, one of the reason why Evie decided to buy it.  Her hair bounced against her cheeks and back, showing her sun-kissed shoulders and smoothed burn and lashing scars.  She felt Cullen’s ember eyes watching her take each step.  Evie immediately noticed the fluctuations in his fortepiano as he struggled to keep himself under control.  When she teased him following the advisors meeting, he sounded like a symphony of pianos hammering the ivory keys in blissful frustration.

Evie did not know why exactly she enjoyed testing the commander’s self-limitations.  One possible explanation resulted from decades of living under a templar’s stare.  The knights always held the control.  One misstep and a mage could be punished or branded.  They carried all the keys, rules, and expectations.  Their resolve resulted from years of engrained discipline, instilled within since they were children. 

Now, Evie held the control and could only be rewarded for pressing the bounds.  Like always, she was doing the exact opposite than what she claimed.  Cullen agreed to be slow and let things take their course, but Evie immediately broke that rule.  Her addiction for his touch and embrace broke any confines she thought she needed.  Another reason she might be so bold now is to measure if he craved her as much as she did him.  There were no outward limitations anymore, no confusion if they cared for one other.  Her nagging conscience governed her self-esteem, warning her that it was all a lie.

Yet, Evie glanced at the ex-templar, pivoting on her right barefoot and allowing the flowing long skirt to flutter around her like butterfly wings.  Her apprehensive gaze met his burning stare.  Luckily, Dorian had left his seat to refill his brandy glass, his back to the longing exchange passing between the man and woman.  Cullen rested his chin on his knuckles, while his elbow sat on the chair air.  His alluring smirk accenting his scarred upper lip nearly caused her to drop her goblet.  His amber eyes told her everything, pushing her self-doubt back into the deep darkness.

I need you.

Evie reached briefly into the Fade, shifting the strong fortepiano into a romancing tune that flustered her into submission.  Somehow, she kept her composure when Dorian turned around to resume the newest chess match against her Lion.  Her left hand covered her lips to disguise her flushing cheeks just in case the glowing firelight gave her mental thoughts away.  The burning flames actually flared a few times when she lost a bit of control over her magic syncing with her raging allurement.

“It’s rather hot in here.”  She observed, quickly walking to the closed balcony glass doors by her desk.  A slight chuckle escaped Cullen’s lips.  Damn that man.  “I hope you both don’t mind if I open the outer doors.”

As soon as one door opened, the mountain air cooled her redden skin.  She remained outside for a few minutes, panting and stilling her desires, while the men began their game.  Skyhold was alive with activity.  Most residents had retired to the tavern for a last minute party before the Inner Circle and the Inquisition’s Grey Warden guests left in the morning.  From her high balcony, she noted the last minute preparation for travel.  Pack horses carrying their camping gear and foodstuffs for the areas they stopped to rest and were not near one of Cullen’s checkpoints.  Most of the nobles and delegates left that day since the Inquisitor would not hear any more requests for several months.  Thankfully, the weather was warmer than usual so the servants could air out the guest rooms of their nasty stench.

“If you think this is warm, Evie, wait until the Approach.”  Dorian commented, bringing her attention back into the loft.

“You must be happy to return to an environment like the Imperium.”  Cullen guessed, wearing his smug grin that he always had while he playing chess…or successfully igniting the butterflies in her lusty core.

“Yes, actually.” Dorian replied, moving a piece.  Evie waltzed over to the desk chair Cullen used while she and Dorian played.  “How do you southerners survive winters?  I nearly froze to death!”

“It’s called layers, Sweetie.” Evie recommended.  She quickly stopped by the liquor stand to refill her goblet with more mead.  If she could not taste Cullen’s lips yet, she would drink the second best thing.  She planned her next alluring attack.  “You insisted on wearing only half of your leather armor under thin silk robes.”

“It’s a natural sacrifice for fashion, my Dear.”  Dorian retorted.  “Besides, I thought the Free Marches were warming than here.”

“Yes, but that’s because of the Waking Sea.”  Evie explained, finally sitting down and crossing her legs slowly.  Her gown draped just right at the knee and exposed her smooth lower shin.  For a spit second, she caught Cullen watching her legs with dark huge pupils following her leg up under the chiffon.  “I always heard Kirkwall was warmer than Ostwick and Wycome.  You must have baked, Commander.”

“Yes…”  Cullen coughed once, snapping back to reality.  “Wearing templar armor in high temperature humid weather was like carrying around a personal baking oven.  It was a pleasant relief to see snow again after so many years.”

“You can keep the chilly stuff.”  Dorian muttered.  “I think the only person who hates its more is Evie and that’s because she was buried underneath it for bells.”

“I told Corypheus I had a frosty gift for him.”  Evie shrugged.  Cullen scowled, his eyes glancing at the fire and missing her auburn waves slide off her bare shoulder.  He most likely thought back to finding her frozen and bleeding to death four months ago.  “Mark my words, I don’t want to be in an avalanche for the rest of my life, but I do enjoy the cold.  Being a fire mage causes you to get easily overheated if not minding your magic.  I might be more tolerate to hot weather, but I enjoy a cool breeze any day.”

“You two might be the only two who will like this expedition.  Maybe Iron Bull too.”  Cullen projected, rubbing his chin a little as his amber eyes caught her sitting stance.  “Sera’s already freaking out with the lack of civilization out there.  Vivienne worked with her seamstress since you, Inquisitor, sent everyone back from the Emerald Graves.  She designed desert-appropriate robes that matches Orlais’ new spring styles.  She, Leliana, and Josephine were gossiping about it in the great hall earlier.”  He pinched his nose, shutting his eyes.  “Maker’s breath, I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.”

Evie and Dorian both giggled, seeing his disdain and loathing across his face.  “You worried they might design a new coat for you or something?”  Evie guessed between chuckles.

“They better not.”

“The thing’s hideous, Cullen.”  Dorian bluntly stated.

“King Alistair gave me that coat, congratulating me for leaving the templars and becoming commander, thank you.”  Cullen huffed, taking Dorian’s queen in his next move.  In usual Cullen fashion, he was only a few moves away from checkmating the Tevinter.  Evie hoped the commander concluded if he got rid of Dorian, they could finally pounce one another.

“I’m surprised it wasn’t covered in drooling dogs then.”  Dorian missed Cullen’s flank again, pushing a rook forward instead of defending his troubled knight.  “Explains that dead bear you wear around your neck.”

“That dead bear you so mentioned kept me warm all winter.”  Cullen sassed back.

“I know better ways to keep you warm...”  Dorian muttered against his brandy glass.  Evie could not contain her giggles as Cullen’s cheeks blushed bright red.

“I’ll pass.”

“You sure, Commander?”  Dorian pushed.  “I always found more bodies leave no one chilly.”

Cullen moved his knight, preparing his ultimate strike against Dorian’s royalty.  “I won’t miss you, Dorian.”

“You wound me!”  Dorian sarcastically gasped, holding his hand to his half-exposed chest.  The mage left his silk robes in the library, showing off his newly tailored leather armor with its missing left arm.  “No matter, I’m graced by this lovely woman’s presence the next few months.”

Cullen growled deep in his chest.  His amber eyes silted, sending daggers across the chess board.  If this was a month ago, Evie would have been none the wiser to why the comment disturbed the Fereldan.  Now, she knew he will not being close enough to protect her.  That bothered him.  That was quickly evident when his face paled speaking about contingency plans if something happened to her.  Evie always felt a little better knowing if too much trouble arose, Cullen could be at her side in a matter of hours or days.  He would be so far away.  She worried what the distance would do to their budding relationship, but Evie already accounted for ways to keep connected.  However, the commander admitted her presence helped his lyrium withdraw somehow.  He never explained it well.  However, if she was going to be gone, how will he cope alone?  Evie spent yesterday afternoon preparing items for him to relieve the worst.  Hopefully it will help.

“Is that why you report about my eating habits, Dorian?”  Evie noted, ready for her friend to leave.  Her mind, body, and soul needed Cullen more than ever now.

Both men threw each other looks, their mouths gapping.  “W-what are you talking about?”  Cullen finally muttered, rattled and caught off guard.

Evie rolled her bright green eyes.  “Please, I know you two correspond about my health all the time.  I thought one mother hen was enough.”

“What gave you that impression?”  Dorian mumbled, avoiding direct eye contact.

“Sera.”  Evie sang confidently.  “She can’t help but read over people’s shoulders in stealth.  Cole sometimes slips that you both worry.”

“Maker’s breath…”  Cullen sighed, pulling at his cheeks and chin.  It looked like he shaved sometime during the day, which actually disjointed Evie a little.  His dark blonde stubble actually excited her and highlighted her favorite facial scar.

Dorian needed to leave.  Now.

The necromancer made his move and leaned back in his chair.  From Evie’s observations, Cullen would make his attack in the next two moves.  “I need to teach that spirit to keep his mouth shut.  Yes, we discuss your habits because we care and love you, Sunshine.  Who wouldn’t want to look out for our beautiful Inquisitor?”

Evie and Cullen both froze for a split second when Dorian said ‘love.’  A small smile crossed Evie’s lips as Cullen tried to still himself despite his piano singing somewhat happily.  Although it was still very early to admit such deep feelings for one another, neither person seem to want to correct or change what their friend stated.  Evie knew very little about love, so that ache in her chest was foreign, but could not be called that quite yet.  For the mage to ever say it herself dredged up those emotions she fought the day before bathing.  If it was love, she both hated and embraced the feeling.  No wonder poets, writers, and minstrels sang about the emotion constantly.

“I thank you, but I don’t think you all should discuss my monthly privy habits…”  Evie joked to change the conversation’s tone.

“I did that once!”  Dorian huffed, throwing his arms in the air.  Cullen burst out laughing.  “You were acting like a complete bitch in Crestwood.  You only lightened up after I pissed off Danarius’ former slave…”

“Please tell me you called Fenris that to his face.”  Cullen asked, smirking.

“Only when I prepared a barrier spell with my free hand and Bull was carrying his greataxe.  I’m not dumb!”  Dorian explained.  Evie just shook her head, reflecting back on that moment around the campfire.  It was spectacular.

“Hopefully, Hawke has unleashed her hound on the Venatori instead of my neck.”  Evie commented, feeling a bit overwhelmed being around the two former Kirkwall residents without Cullen’s protection again.

“I’ll kill him.”  Cullen growled, bringing a smile to Dorian’s lips. 

The mage made his chess move.  “We’ll save a swing for you.”

“Thank you.  I want the final blow.”  Cullen nodded, placing his rook into the last position.  “By the way, checkmate.”

“Fasta vaas!”

Evie burst out laughing, watching Cullen lean back in the wing chair, smirking ear-to-ear.  Dorian jumped to his feet, gulped his remaining brandy, and walked towards the stairwell.  The Herald barely could keep her hysterics in check as Dorian threw the commander a disgusted stare.

“Belay that now!”  The Tevinter yelled and pointed at the lady Herald, walking down the stairs.  “Goodnight, Inquisitor…Commander!

“Tell Bull I said hello.”  Evie called, hearing the mage’s stomping stop for a second.

“I’m going to bed, thank you!”  He yelled back forcibly.  “Early morning tomorrow!” 

Exactly.”  Evie giggled.  Cullen joined her.

“Maker…bloody ingrates!”

Chapter Text

“You think he’ll forgive us?”  Cullen chuckled as both people remaining in the Inquisitor’s loft heard the lower tower door slam shut.

 “Which part?”  Evie asked, glancing over her shoulder.  Her body was turned towards the stairwell after her exchange with Dorian.  Her bright green eyes sparkled, while her head tilted towards him.  Her auburn waves fell away from her bare back, demonstrating further how much the chiffon dress revealed her scarred, but magnificent features.  “Teasing him about Bull or not telling him about us?”

Cullen smirked, leaning back in the wing back armchair.  “You concluded the same thing as I did.  Dorian’s a great friend, but he cannot keep a secret even if threatened with tranquility.”

Evie grinned, shifting completely towards him and allowing her chiffon gown to glide over her legs.  “Did you know he tested how long he could keep your exchange by the river to himself?  Two weeks before he exploded on the group.  Cassandra told me it wasn’t pretty.”

“That must be a record.”  Cullen laughed once.  “What’s this about Iron Bull?”

Evie rolled her eyes, standing up and heading towards the stairwell.  Her hips swung like a pendulum, accenting her firm round bottom with each sway.  “A theory he just confirmed before you arrived.  I started putting some pieces together, and he couldn’t directly deny it without incriminating himself more.”

Cullen squinted and frowned as his tantalizing view disappeared down the stairway.  “Where are you going?”

“Locking the door…”  She slyly sang in that amazing Free Marcher accent.

Cullen got up from his own seat, noticing his whiskey tumbler was empty.  He made his way back to the liquor decanters by the bookcases, his back to the tower stairs.  “I’m not permitted to leave?”  Evie did not immediately respond causing Cullen to look back over his shoulder, minding where he poured the whiskey.  The mage leaned against the banister post, frowning after completing her task.  His heart dropped.  He meant it as a joke, but she misinterpreted his intention.  “A-as if I would want to, of course.”

Evie played with the folds of her gown, glancing at the roaring fire.  “Yet I have to tomorrow…”

Cullen sighed, understanding her long face.  He did not know how to respond at that moment and chose to change the subject.  “So, chess?”

Evie’s gaze returned to his face, half-smiling while fighting her uneasy emotions.  “Perhaps, but neither holds back, remember?  We haven’t properly played once.”

Cullen’s smirk grew as an excellent idea crossed his mind.  “Winner chooses how to spend this evening.  Make it memorable and something to keep in mind until you return?”

Evie tapped her blushing cheek with her index finger.  “I suppose.  I know I have some ideas…”

The commander cackled, shaking his head.  “Unless I’m quite wrong, you’ve been suggesting notions all evening.”

Her hand shifted to under her chin, rubbing it softly with the back.  “Now, what gave you that impression…?”

Cullen took a sip of the rich whiskey, slowly scanning Evie’s exquisite shape closely.  Since leaving the advisor’s meeting, Cullen’s mind thought of nothing else by how much he wanted to keep Evie in Skyhold, kiss her, hold her, and never let go.  His mind, soul, and body begged for him to find a way to be with her and show how much he cared.  Those feelings grew from a small amazed seed meeting her by that Haven lake.  The man finally had the opportunity to demonstrate those emotions, but the world demanded his Lady’s attention.  The commander just finally won her heart and now he must let her go.  Maker, the idea alone almost brought tears to his amber eyes.

Since the meeting, Cullen found himself snapping at runners because he partly prayed for dusk’s arrival.  However, the quicker sunset occurred, the sooner he was going to have to let her leave.  The realization only twisted his insides more.  The commander finally had to beat out his frustration by challenging all current recruits in one-on-one challenges. 

By the time Cullen ran each soldier through his paces, he barely had enough time to bath, shave, and hold his final officer’s meeting before the Inquisitor’s departure.  Most meetings, the army’s leaders just listened and asked for clarifications, always seeing the rationality of Cullen’s edicts and tactics.  This time, they kept asking strange questions.  Cullen wondered if they were doing it on purpose until he studied Ser Hugh, now his second while Rylen was in the Approach.  The templar was actually curious about matters and wished to proper fulfil his duties, so the commander gave them all his full attention.

Cullen’s sweating actually occurred afterwards.  Reflecting back at his earlier intent to match Evie’s flirtatious game, Cullen threw off his armor and left it laying unattended on the loft floor, quite thankful to be rid of the outer shell.  He quickly changed into a clean tunic, leather buttoned jacket, and matching trousers, remembering months ago Evie’s glowing bewitched eyes when they went to destroy her phylactery.  It was about time to distract and tease the fire mage, especially after her little stunt that morning.

However, the commander never expected that gown.  When Cullen arrived, he was just happy he made it across Skyhold in record time and with few eyes seeing his destination.  Whatever discussion he interrupted threw the chess players by surprise.  Yet, once the commander glance at the giggling Evie, he immediately noticed that revealing dress, praying the staircase’s shadows disguised his sudden pulsing arousal.  He quickly paced across the room for her desk chair.  Dorian’s grey eyes followed him intrigued, meaning he had to control his facial expressions.  Thank the Maker, Evie suggested the whiskey, giving him a few more moments to adjust his length in his tightening leather pants.

Cullen motioned towards the chess set with one hand, while swirling his whiskey with the other hand.  Evie nodded, her grin growing as she slowly waltzed over to the wingback armchair.  Her chiffon dress danced behind her.  She purposefully made dramatic turns on her bare feet, allowing the fabric to gather around her hugging hips and shaped behind.  Her swift spins, almost like graceful dance movements, allowed her auburn waves and curling tips to lift away from her shoulders and back, exposing how low the gown’s back v-cut extended.

The man watched closely, both damning and thanking the Maker for that moment.  Cullen never imagined Evie in such a dress, but he burned the look to memory so he could remember every night while she was away.  Almost everything about her features was either fully exposed or noticeable through the sheer fabric.  Even the low bodice barely hid her breast peaks.  The moments he witnessed the back, Cullen studied how to remove it as swiftly and seamlessly as possible.

The commander’s mind slapped him back to his respectable senses.  He hung his head in shame, remembering he must control his desires.  Cullen wanted this relationship to work.  If everything became physical, it would turn into every fling he ever had.  Evie deserved to be cherished and loved, not used and dumped.  He would allow himself to unleash a little since she was leaving in the morning, wishing to convey his growing affections, but the man must control his actions.

Cullen cleared his throat, walking over to the other armchair, passing Evie on his left as she rearranged the pieces.  Her breast pooled against the bodice nearly freeing themselves as she placed the pieces accordingly.  His Lady’s hair pooled over one shoulder towards the fireplace, making a halo effect around her head that nearly sent the man over the edge.  She glanced up at him, her bright green eyes shimmering and following him while he took his place.  Her countenance was passive, yet Cullen could see she was taking deep breaths.  Her chest rose and fell every so often, highlight her breasts’ swell along the tight bodice.  She bit her lower lip, analyzing him.

“What do you hear?”  Cullen questioned, setting his whiskey glass down on the nearby end table.  He slowly figured out when Evie reached into the Fade and listened to the symphony.

Evie glanced away.  “Sorry…sometimes, I cannot help it.  I don’t mean to pry intentionally.  Shift changes are quite noticeable.”

“I will admit, at first I attempted to hide my emotions as much as possible.  Primarily to hide my growing feelings for you.  That was a complete failure.”  Cullen noted, rising a brief smile from his Lady.  “Now, I wish this occurred both directions.  I struggled throughout this morning’s meeting with Howe and all the worst-case scenarios.  All I could do was watch your eyes to get a sense of your thoughts and feelings about everything.”

“Good thing I’m an open book.  My lack of Wicked Grace winnings is very evident.”  Evie sighed, making the first move with a pawn.  “At least, I hope you understand my crazy facial expressions.”

“You’re getting better at hiding your reactions.”  Cullen commented, weaving his fingers together.  “Your eyes still give you away, but I think I only know what the changes mean…and maybe Leliana because that woman does watch people like a bird of prey.”

“Ugh…”  Evie immediately started rubbing her temples.  “I concluded she is in the dark about everything.  Unless she lightens up, I’m keeping my distance.  Besides, the only person I want staring at me is you.”

Cullen cackled a little, making his responding move.  “You definitely capture my attention, you minx.”

“I have to combat that scar somehow.”  Cullen laughed a little more, causing Evie to point at his face.  “Like that!  Stop it!”

“Well, that’s good to know.”  He replied, rubbing his chin wickedly.

“Oh, come on, Rutherford.”  Evie hissed, eying him as she leaned back following her play.  “You must know how much nearly every woman and most men in Skyhold drool in your wake.”

Cullen blinked a few times, dumbfounded by her observation.  “Come again?”

Evie rolled her swirling eyes in disbelief.  “You are not only the best knight and swordsman in Thedas, but also the most handsome.  According to Cassandra you’ve grown more attractive since stopping lyrium like the poison removed your fine features or something.  You should hear the Orlesian courtiers ask if you’re married.”

“Ugh…”  Cullen pulled at his face.  The man typically ignored the long looks he received, specifically lately.  “They don’t care who they bed, even if I was wed.”

“And apparently you’ve missed how the mage women watch you walking when you cross the bridge to the atrium.  I was standing on the balcony earlier today getting some fresh air after a painful personal meeting with Josephine.  At least fifteen mages were eying you pacing and reviewing the troops from on top their tower, swaying and gawking like a fan club.  I told Fiona later that they need to entertain themselves elsewhere!  Add the fact that you left the Order, and you just made every mage’s wet dream!”

“Is that from experience, Inquisitor?” Cullen teased, sipping his drink.

Evie’s bright green eyes grew into saucers as she sunk in her chair.  Her freckled cheeks flushed deep red, while licking her darkening lips.  The gesture made the commander quickly make his next move, trying to focus on the game so he could win quickly.

“The point is, you’re gorgeous.  Anyone would do cartwheels to win your affection.” Evie proclaimed, quickly following with her first take.  His previous play worked in her favor.  “And don’t let that go to your head or ego.”

“Remember whose room I’m in right now.”  Cullen sang, smiling gently at the woman in front of him.  Evie quickly sipped from her goblet to hide her embarrassment.  “I only prefer your attention.”

“And that you have…”  Evie mumbled against the glass, watching Cullen make his next move.  “…although I have no idea why.”

It was Cullen’s turn to roll his amber eyes, noticing Evie squirming in her chair and covering her shoulders with her hair.  “Think of it this way, Eve.”  His tone was low and direct, capturing her hesitant eyes immediately.  “I only notice your gazes and actions, unaware of those mages or stupid courtiers.  I saw your fireballs across the lake the first time we met.  I quickly recognized your essence even when you disguised yourself and the mark.  I only drop whatever task I’m doing when you arrive.  I actively fight your stubbornness any time you place yourself in harm’s well, making sure that I’m between you and an attack.  Most of all, I want to be the only person whose sees your genuine smile, tears of happiness, and overcoming your fears and mistrust.  If I could, I would keep you in my tower and as close to me as possible at all times.”

Evie sat up, swallowing.  She rested an elbow on the chair arm and rested her cheek on her raised hand.  She stared into the fire; her chest rising and falling more quickly.  Her lips pursed as her eyes dared around.  She tightly squeezed the bright green away, wincing.  She was fighting something in her mind.  Finally, Evie glanced up at him, tears fighting to get through her glimmering eyes.

“I’ll miss you…terribly.”  She whispered, barely audible to Cullen’s tuned ears.

Cullen nodded, sliding his rook forward.  “I will too…but we agreed that duty cannot change if we are together.”

“Will you write me?”

“Of course.”

“Not just reports?”

“I’ll use the raven brothers.”

“Frequently?”

“Yes…?  That’s a strange question.”

Evie huffed.  She made her next move, scowling.  “Did you ever write your sister?”

Cullen gave her an unamused expression.  “Yes…Mia was thankful that everyone’s safe.”  He took her piece.  She left her pawn exposed to protect a knight.

“Just making sure…”  Evie smirked, leaning forward and castling her king with the rook.  She did not have another good play at the moment.  “Because, if you pull that bullshit with me, I will come back here and shove my staff up your bum.”

“Might be worth it to see you again.”

Evie’s bright green eyes flashed up at Cullen; her mouth gapping.  Tears pressed at the edges of her eyelashes.  She jumped up out of the armchair and dashed towards her desk.  Cullen blinked a few times, leaning to the side to see what she was doing.  The mage reached into a drawer, gripping something inside.  She slammed the drawer shut, grabbing a sheet of parchment from a nearby pile.  Cullen could not follow her next steps, only noticing whatever she grabbed from the drawer was stirred with something else in an empty inkwell.  Evie dipped her quill into the mixed inkwell and wrote something on the parchment.  Nearly throwing the quill across the room, she lifted the parchment and waved it a few times.  She frosted her fingers and softly blasted the parchment until she was satisfied.  The Herald grasped the object from the drawer along with the parchment and returned to the fireside.

Evie handed the parchment to Cullen, hiding the other item behind her back.  “Read this.”

Cullen eyed her closely, slowly grabbing the paper from her outstretch hand.  She kept biting her lower lip, anticipating his reaction.  His amber eyes adjusted in the firelight, reviewing the parchment.  “It’s…blank?”

Evie grinned a little, flicking her eyes towards the fire.  “Hold it near the heat.”

Brows perked, Cullen followed her instruction.  He lifted the paper towards the fire, feeling the heat against his fingers.  His eyes studied the parchment, only seeing that it filtered the light through the fibers.  Suddenly, a soft, mute glow caught his attention.  He leaned more towards the heat, seeing more writing appear the more heat reacted against the parchment.  Finally, the message became clear, Evie’s scroll script writing easily readable now:  I need you, my Lion.

“How…?”  Cullen mumbled, his attention returning to the smiling woman now inching closer to his side.

“A little trick my father taught Esme and me when we were children.”  Evie cooed, tilting her head to the side.  Cullen nearly grabbed the woman to embrace her.  Something about how her bangs cupped her face nearly broke him.  He could not deny her.  Cullen wanted to kiss her terribly.  “We would make treasure maps with the ink.  While in the Circle, he and I would share secret information through the ink, labeling the letter with a sign or mark to check for a hidden message.  It was how he sent me the map to my phylactery.  I spent yesterday making the dry powder component part for you.  However, I don’t know how you might react to it.”

“What do you mean?”  Cullen asked, lowering the parchment from the flames.  Slowly, her hidden message disappeared.

“It contains finely ground lyrium.”

Cullen nodded.  “Ah.  I’m willing to at least test it.”

Evie pulled a metal vial from behind her back.  She handed it to the commander, allowing him to analyze it.  It contained a screw-on cap instead of a cork.  “I used that type of cap with a beeswax seal to avoid lingering odor.  Just heat the rim a little with a candle or your body heat, and it will release.  Don’t worry about an explosion.  There’s an inactive ingredient I added to avoid combustion along with some oil-soaked wool to keep the powder away from the lid top.  The amount of lyrium is greatly decreased compared to the normally required amount to avoid you smelling it.  I’ve read that even the slightest smell of that horrible blue stuff can cause addiction responses.”

Cullen could not believe how much Evie considered curbing his withdrawal symptoms, while keeping their relationship private.  He reached near the fire until the heat contacted the metal vial.  Slowly the lid released as he twisted.  As she stated, compacted wool separated the powder from the opening.  Cullen lifted the wool and took a single whiff.  His nose noticed the lyrium’s slight song, but barely enacted any symptoms.

“I seem okay.  I noticed you mixed it with something to make it into ink.”  Cullen commented, placing the wool back inside and sealing the vial again.  The beeswax solidified around the inside screw ridges.  Any lyrium Cullen noticed before was gone within seconds.

“Just some room temperature water.”  Evie advised, showing her relief to not cause him pain.  “You just need enough water with a tiny amount of powder to make it milky.  Too much water and it will not show the message.  Make a paste and it won’t evaporate, so anyone can see what you wrote.  I only ask that you keep this a secret.  I know Leliana could utilize this, but she has not earn my trust…like no way she will know about this!  Only a few people in my family and I know the recipe.  I have three vials made for you, more than enough.  You can write whatever in your regular letters, sent with the ravens.  If you want to send something extremely personal, use this ink and make a sign somewhere on letter with regular indigo ink.  That way I know to check.”

Cullen smirked.  “How should I label it for you that no one else will know…?”  The commander reviewed his time with Evie, struggling to come up with an identifier.  “Hmmm…Nothing official, of course.  You also have to consider I’m a terrible artist.”

“How about…”  The mage glanced down at her silverite chain dangling out of her gown, tucked between her perfectly shaped breasts.  She started thumbing through the objects.  “Everyone knows about my pendant…my signet ring is a Trevelyan thing…my thimble?”

Cullen reached up, taking the silver object from her hand and studying it closely.  “I noticed that a few days ago.  I’ve never seen it before.”

Evie giggled, stepping away and taking her seat again.  She pulled the gown’s skirt outward to have it rest to her sides.  She moved a chess piece to start the game again.  “Actually, this is Madam du Couture’s lucky thimble.”  The mage giggled to herself, shaking her head.  “You probably remember me saying Esme was a handful as a toddler.  People did not understand him, considered him a wild child or absent minded.  He hated large groups and only spoke to close friends, some servants, and the immediate family.  Yet, he had a focus that’s similar to the tranquil, specifically shiny things.  He understood metallurgy better than most employed family geologists.  Esme always wrote about how he discovered different metal properties that could revolutionize smithing.”

His Lady’s bright green eyes dazzled while staring into the fire.  “But I digress.  Madam du Couture was one of my mother’s few friends who was allowed in our home and never attempted to take my mother’s life.  She was an old Orlesian noble who traveled the world constantly.  She collected, of all things, thimbles from every place she ever visited.  My mother and she would embroider for hours, sharing stories about Madam du Couture’s travels.  Here.  Let me show you-“

Evie bounced out of her seat and raced to her wardrobe.  There was a giddy vocal lilt and a spring to her step.  She pulled open the top drawer and pulling out a small cotton bag.  She shut the drawer and tugged the drawstrings open.  She reached in and withdrew a handkerchief.  She waltzed elegantly back to Cullen’s side, handing it to him.  The commander gingerly unfolded the fabric.  The embroidery detail was very intricate and colorful, detailing lilies as the main feature with vines and ivy along the edges.  In one corner were the letters ETT, most likely Evie’s initials.

“I never watched my sisters and mother sow, but this looks very well done.”  Cullen concluded, passing the handkerchief to Evie.

 “Lilies are my mother’s favorite flower.”  Evie admitted, sitting back down across the commander.  Her eyes glowed and a smile stretched across her face, similar to her genuine smile when she admitted her feelings in his office.  Her fingers held the cloth tightly; her finger tips tracing the embroidery gently.  “My father dedicates an entire garden on our estate to just lilies, different species from across Thedas that bloom every season.  He pays the most experienced gardeners top coin to tend to the flowers so she has a constantly colorful sanctuary.  Each day my father picks the best lily in full bloom and places it in a thin simple vase on her nightstand so when she wakes, she can smell it and admire the pedals.”

“He sounds like a romantic.”  Cullen commented, knowing he could never match such a task for Evie.

“Eh.”  She shrugged.  “I’m off topic again.  So, as I was saying.  As I slowly grew up, my mother insisted I learn to sew like a proper lady.  So, every time Madam du Couture stayed at our estate, my mother, her ladyship, and I sat in the sitting room, sewing for bells while Madam du Couture went on and on about her newest thimble or about her boat rides down such stupid river.  You know me.  I don’t sit still.  I don’t act ladylike.  I hated it, but the more I complained, the longer my mother extended the lesson.”

Evie laughed a few times.  “There was only one other person more impatient than me and that was Esme.  You probably know that as his commander.  I cannot imagine him staring a candle repeating the Chant of Transfiguration!  Now, Esme noticed Madam du Couture only used one thimble to embroider with, this silver one.  She said it was her lucky thimble that allowed each stitch to come out just right.  As a three year old, Esme snuck into the sitting room one day, fed up that I could not play with him.  He waits for a long time until Madam du Couture puts down her sewing and rest her aching fingers.  When possible, he snatches the silver thimble and bolts of out the room.  I witness the whole thing, trying to contain my snickering.  Her ladyship returns to her needle work.  The thimble is missing.  She freaks out!  I mean, I never thought a noble woman could cuss in so many languages.  My mother tells me to leave quickly as this elderly woman loses her mind.  The whole sitting room is torn apart.”

“Oh Maker…” Cullen chuckled, intrigued by the story.

His lady took a sip of her mead, cleansing her dry throat.  “Every servant on the estate is tasked with trying to find this damn thing.  I immediately go to Esme.  I ask him for the thimble, trying to contain my laughter, but knew if this get any worse, Father will get involved.  Esme told me no.  Now that the thimble is gone, I can always play with him.  I figured he threw it into the sea.  I asked him for weeks if he would give me a treasure map with the invisible ink to find it, trying to persuade him with the game.  He says no constantly.  Esme wanted to play with me so much that if this thimble was gone, I would always be at his side.”

Evie’s bright green eyes dulled and her smile disappeared.  Her attention fell to the chess board.  “The day…my templar knight-captain relative and now full-templar Rian came to take me to the Circle, Esme threw the largest fit imaginable.  He kept screaming he threw fire from his hands too.  He wanted to be with me, not understanding the gravity of the situation.  He disappeared for a while, causing everyone to stop the exchange and search for him.  He reappeared about a bell later, covered in dirt and sand.  He threw himself at me, balling into my stomach.  In his tiny hand is this thimble.  He hollered he’s sorry for stealing it and begged me if he gave it back if will I stay…”

Tears began falling from Evie’s eyes.  Cullen ached, watching her mentally remembering her departure to the Circle.  He could name and reflect back on every escort mission for mage children he ever served.  Most sounded like her tale.

“I…I told him…” she wiped away the forming river of tears from her cheeks.  “ ‘Keep the thimble.  Every time you miss me, twirl it on your index finger until you feel better.  The next time you see me, give me the thimble.  You need to be strong for Mother and Father.  Listen to them carefully so they can tell me if he was being a good boy.’  I knew I would never see him again.  I lied so he could have some hope to hold onto.  He was very young, and I could not crush his beautiful soul.  I finished by saying, ‘Write me until then and send me some treasure maps.’  His smile shined brighter than the sun that spring afternoon among Mother’s lilies.  He vowed to make me proud, beaming as I was led away.”

Cullen struggled to remain in his seat.  Every fiber in his body told him to push the chess table aside and hold this beloved woman.  However, something about Evie’s gaze told him to wait and allow her to make the move.  “How did you receive the thimble then?”

Evie’s eyes shifted to his face.  The tears dried along her high cheekbones, but glimmered in the firelight.  “The secret cache that contained my phylactery.  He ‘returned’ it to me using a treasure map, along with my mother’s embroidered handkerchief.  After taking his first lyrium draught, he knew we could never be together.  He said goodbye, proclaiming he was no longer my brother, but my jailer.  He told me in the accompanying secret letter to take my freedom and go.  His chains were firmly on his wrists, meaning his forming lyrium addiction.  He prayed that maybe one day we would pass by one another in the street and not even know it.”

Cullen pinched his nose, leaning back in his chair.  The consequences of his orders on that templar…on Evie.  They never met again.  “And I ordered him to his death…”  How many other mages and their families did he contribute such pain?  How many children, parents, and worlds did he destroy because he believed in the Circles?

“Maker’s arse, Cullen!”  Evie snapped, jumping out of the wingback chair, circling around the chessboard. 

Cullen barely reacted in time as she lifted her chiffon gown and sat on his lap facing him; her bent legs straddling either side of him filling the chair space.  His amber eyes fell immediately to her low neckline.  Her amber raindrop pendant bumped his nose.  Evie grasped both sides of his head and forced him to look her in the eye.

“You played no part in Esme’s death!”  Evie cried down at him.  Her eyes glowed bright green.  The mark pulsed lightly against his cheek, nearly blinding his right eye for moments.  Cullen struggled in her tensed embrace.  Her legs tightened around his upper thighs.  His chin brushed her swelling breasts every time she took a deep breath.  “Please!  Do not blame yourself, Cullen.  Anders blew up that Chantry.  Hawke helped him, stupidly believing that abomination was trying to cure himself.  You did everything in your power to stop Meredith and save everyone in Kirkwall.”

“…I should have acted sooner.” He barely whispered, feeling his dark barred door slamming and pushing to absorb his broken soul.  “All the signs were there, Eve.  If you were there…Maker, you would have been branded because you have your own mind.  The things I’ve done to mages…I’m no better than your cousins.  I hate everything I’ve done, what I’ve become.  I am unworthy of your affection, Eve.”

Evie pulled Cullen’s face upward more, leaning forward enough to press her lips to his tightly.  Cullen attempted to squirm away, but his soul and heart craved her touch and plump lips like water.  He wrapped his arms around her, edging himself outward away from the chair back so he could pull her closer.  He immediately felt every part of the Evie’s body against his chest and core.  The gown was so thin, barely a barrier between his staring eyes and her nakedness.  He immediately pulled himself away.

“Eve, I…”

“Cullen Rutherford, I need you.”  Evie whispered down at him, loosening her grip on either side of his cheeks.  Yet, her body remained pressed against him, rubbing against his core every breath she inhaled.  Her legs circled around and wrapped around his waist like the day before.   Cullen felt the heat rising from her center through his leather pants.  “You ignited a light inside of me that died decades ago.  The things…that have happened to me.  Things I’ve done…I cannot face them.  Falling for you has pressed against those moments, driving them back to the surface.  My demons are our allies, and I’m scared to face them alone, without you.  I don’t care about what you’ve done.  You want to atone for those misjudged actions.  I care about who you became because of those experiences…just as mine made me.  These months apart will test our limits, not only within our relationship but within ourselves.  Every time your symptoms worsen, write me.  Every time you cannot sleep, write me.  Use the ink.  Mark the corner with a thimble.  Pour out your fears, for I will do the same.  You and I have been so alone all these years we think we can handle it, but we can’t anymore.  We’re so broken…this world shattered such an amazing man.  It nearly drives me to just let Corypheus to destroy it because everything deserves it.  Stay with me, Cullen…Please?”

Cullen lifted one of his hands to her face; his callus fingers breaking the streams of tears running down his Lady’s face.  He brushed her fallen bangs behind her ear, leaving his hand at her neck’s nape, softly massaging the delicate skin.  Evie immediately responded, tightly her leg grip around his waist.  Her hands dropped to his neck, running her fingers through his golden hair.  The lingering touch released Cullen’s blond curls from their tame style, wrapping around her magical fingers.

“I promise to be by your side…”  Cullen vowed, meeting Evie’s intense gaze.  The bright green orbs swirled with her emotions and thoughts.  Every word he spoke, they twinkled, ignited by his husky low voice that vibrated against her tensing body.  “I will never leave you alone.  I will fight your enemies.  I will shield you from anything that threatens you.  This, I swear, Milady.”  Cullen sealed his dedication by removing her glowing left hand from behind his head and kissing the back.

Evie smiled, kissing his forehead.  “I will stand beside you through thick or thin, my Lion.  Together we will put our pieces back together.  Our demons will not break us.  This, I swear…”

Cullen met her gaze again, feeling the greatest peace inside his heart he ever experienced.  No moment in his recollection demonstrated the calm and relief he felt in her arms and hearing her vow.  The deep twinges deep inside him were stronger than ever.  Tonight though was not the time to address the emotion, the longing.  Evie and he were just getting started on this personal journey.

The commander eyed her, realizing a sudden thought.  “How will I know if you sent me a message?”

Evie giggled a little, brushing her bouncing breasts against his cheeks and jaw.  “Look for the lion’s head on the lower right hand corner on the second page.  If you believe you can’t draw, you haven’t seen my doodles.  No one could read my designs in the Circle.  I may be able to dance, but I cannot do two things:  draw and sing.”

“Come now.”  Cullen frowned, returning his hand to her lower back.  His right hand’s fingers grazed her spine lightly, causing the mage to buck on his lap every so often.  His left hand gripped the major knot at Evie’s lower spine by her pelvis.  The knot secured the sleeve ties.  Only a few tugs would release the sheer straps and lower the dress’ upper half so her breasts fall unbound.  “It can’t be that bad.”

“Dogs howl and cats hiss when I attempt to sing.  Chantry mothers tell me to mouth the Chant instead of sing it.”  Evie declared, pushing back his jacket collar from his neck line.  Her hands slowly lingered down between his shoulder blades, placing space between his tunic and the leather jacket.  “A baby can draw better than me.”

“I suppose that’s a challenge then.”  Cullen chuckled, continuing to run his other hand up Evie’s spine.

“Ugh…”  Evie moaned, arching her back as his fingertips barely glanced her sensitive lashing scars.  “You have no idea what that does to me…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  He teased, receiving a dark longing look from the woman straddling him.  “Although, I quite enjoy the sounds you make…”

“Sodding bloody…That scar and now that touch.”  Evie ached, tightening her leg grip around his waist more.  “I need to find your weakness.”

“Milady, you’ve been twisting me into knots the last few days.  Maker, the last several months!”  Cullen admitted.  Evie laughed a few times, smiling brightly down at him.  Her auburn hair created a curtain around their flushing faces.  “You’ve been accenting every bodily feature for days now.  This morning, I nearly kicked out everyone just to kiss you and run my fingers along your collar bone.  I wanted to let my hands wander you curves, hold your breasts, and kiss your peaks.  Yet, I think this gown is my new favorite, with your training uniform a close second.”

“Good.”  Evie declared, pulling her hair away from her face so the firelight highlighted them both.  “That’s what I hoped.”

Both the man and woman laughed together, embracing one another tightly.  They belonged locked together, she and him.  They may be broken, but they each held the glue to put them back together. 

Chapter Text

Evie’s wandering hands continue to travel down Cullen back, pushing the jacket off his shoulders.  She used her wrapped legs around his core to lift the lower the jacket’s lower half away from his waist.  She nibbled her lower lip, attempting to look innocent while her limbs wickedly undressed him.

“What do you think you’re doing, Inquisitor?”  Cullen questioned, rubbing his nose against hers.  One blond eyebrow perked as reddening flashed along her cheekbones.

Evie glanced over her shoulder, noting his left hand tracing the gown’s ties along her back hip.  “I could ask you the same thing, Commander…”

“What about our chess game?”  He asked as his right hand reached the nape of her neck again.  He only squeezed once and received the long moan yet from his Lady.  “We haven’t finished.  We don’t know who the winner is.”

Evie sighed, leaning against his squeezing thumb and index finger grasping her neck.  “Mmm…We might have to play via mail.  I’m quite distracted at the moment.”

With Evie leaning into his grip, her chest jetted outward and her breath deepened.  Cullen’s face snuggled into her covered breasts, grazing his lips at the dress collar’s lowest exposed point.  “I have to agree.”  He admitted, his voice muffled by her skin.  The tip of her long scar that cupped her left breast peeked out of her gown bodice.  His lips barely touched it, and Evie sighed in anticipation and shoved herself against his face.  “We’ll continue it by raven, then.  Winner still dictates the reward?”

“We’ll just compromise tonight.”  Evie agreed, finally tugging the jacket down his arms.  It quickly slipped off to his elbows and lower arms, forcing the man to release his grip on her dress knot and neck so he could remove it completely. 

Cullen quickly freed his arms from the sleeves hastily and threw the garment over his shoulder, giving Evie the smirk she stated earlier in the evening that drove her insane.  Ironically, the jacket smacked Truffle asleep on the bed.  The nug took off running, dragging the jacket down the stairs around his neck.  Neither human heard his squalling. 

Once free from his outer layer, Cullen’s Lady instantly gripped the side of his neck, kissing him hard and clicking teeth.  Her tongue slipped between his awaiting lips, tasting the lingering whiskey.  In response, Cullen’s hands reached behind her back and quickly tugged at the chiffon knots that controlled the straps holding her upper bodice.  As predicted, they loosened and allowed the sheer straps to fall away from her shoulders, spilling her trapped bosom right in Cullen’s anticipating face.  She grasped in surprise as cool air brushed over soft pink peaks, while the former knight welcomed the exposed mounds in a happily growl.

Barely speaking, Evie stated the limit.  Her words leashed Cullen’s primordial desires that told him one last tie kept the lower half of the dress.  One pull again…“We wear equal amounts of clothing…” She declared, probably noting how his hand froze over the last dress tie.  Her gown and small clothes were the only garments covering her body, Cullen hypothesized, which left him dying to remove them both.  He interpreted her statement to mean they must keep their small clothes and one clothing article on.  A part of Cullen thanked the heavens for her limitation, while his throbbing length wanted more.  It just know how close it was from her entrance.  She must have sensed his inner tug of war through the Fade.

“Anything for you, Milady…”  Cullen groaned, lifting her up as he stood.  She gasped again with the sudden movement.  She relaxed quickly, showing she trusted her Lion fully.  Once again, Evie’s mouth married his as he carried her small frame over to the bed.  As expected, her legs remained tightly around his waist locked together at the ankles.  Cullen’s hands fell under her gown skirt, feeling her tightened bare thighs and firm bottom against his callused hands.  Although Evie’s build was wiry and bony, her muscles were lean and limber.  Dorian and Varric’s comments during that last practice session by Haven’s small lake rang through his mind.  Maker’s breath, he would be the one to benefit from her flexibility.  Immediately, upon laying his Lady down on the Highever comforter, his hips bucked against her center hard, releasing the most tantalizing gasp from the woman.

“Your boots, sir…”  Evie barely got out between her panting and locking her lips to his again.

Cullen groaned, reluctant to let go of this beautiful goddess pinned beneath him.  “Damn.  Right.”

Suddenly, right as Cullen leaned back to reach his ankle, Evie grabbed his right shoulder and used her tightened legs to swing him over and slam his back into the bed.  Her ankles released so she straddled him with his knees bent to support her back.  Her breasts hung from her body, barely touching his cheeks.  “Allow me then.”  The mage giggled, while tossing her pendant neck over her right shoulder.  It kept batting against her sensitive breasts.  She leaned back and twisting herself around.  Her fingers quickly undid the multiple buckles along the left boot.

“You’re so tiny compared to me!  How-“  Cullen commented, leaning forward onto his elbows.

“I can pin Iron Bull in hand-to-hand combat.”  Evie mischievously grinned, finally loosening the leather straps.  Both hands wrapped around the boot ankle and tugged.  “Besides, your center of gravity was off, and your mind was focused elsewhere.”

Cullen’s laughter rumbled down his chest to his core, sending vibrations to the sitting Evie through his hard abdomen.  “Maker, don’t do that while I am trying to remove your shoes!”  She whined, freezing for a moment.  Her bosom perked with her jerky breath.  Her legs tightened around his sides, feeling her pelvic muscles flexing to the vibrations.  The declaration only made the laughter’s reverberation more pronounced.  She sang a hard sigh and gripped his leg almost clawing at his leather pants. 

A few moments passed as Cullen simmered down for his Lady to resume her task.  Evie fought through the arousing feeling, freeing one foot from the hard leather boots.  She pivoted to the other side, throwing him an unamused stare like a dare to do that again.  Her cheeks were burning red; the color flowed down her neck to her unbound breast.

“Your breasts blush…” Cullen commented, his eyes flickering between her distorting face to undo the buckles and her jingling perfect mounds.

“I’m cold, that’s all…”  Evie muttered, not meeting his dark stare.  Her hands worked faster on the buckles and laces, almost blurring so they can wander elsewhere.  His boot finally released around the ankle.  She tossed it across the room with its mate.

“Let me keep you warm then.”  Cullen cooed, pushing forward and cupping his arms behind her back.  Her hips and beautiful behind rolled from his abdomen to his bound groin.  Both people moaned as they felt one another’s lust through the layers of cloth and leather.  Evie’s arousal nearly dripped from her soaked small clothes.  His face landed in between the mounds naturally, while his eager hands mushed her breast around his face.  His lips brushed and kissed every inch over her chest, warming her skin with his deep breaths.  His already appearing short stubble caressed her soft, sensitive exterior.  Evie’s body stiffened and rumbled sigh from deep within massaging his face and chest.  Her shaking hands landed on his sides and gripped tightly onto his tunic to steady herself.  His index finger followed the left lower scar from her side to her bosom, first cupping the breast in his palm, then gingerly tensed his fingers.  She gasped again, her breaths panting into his curly hair.  Her mouth gapped and eyes squeezed shut, overjoyed by the sudden massage.  Her sun-kissed skin was laced with goosebumps and shivers.

 Evie’s hands crawled down his sides to his trouser waist where a leather belt kept his tunic tightly fastened in his pants.  The mage gathered the fabric in her palms and quickly jerked it upwards, releasing the linen from their secure location.  The commander chuckled as it gathered beneath his under arms.  Her thumb grazed his fine hairs and excited him with growls and grunts once again. 

A final little growl of frustration escaped the Fereldan’s lips.  The man’s amber eyes were barely noticeable between the grasped breasts pressed against his cheeks as he glanced up at Evie’s flushed face.  “To remove that, I have to let go.  I don’t want to…”

Evie swallowed hard, enough he heard it through her chest.  “Your hands have explored more of me than I you.  I want to see what all that damn armor hides.”

“Of course, Milady.”  Cullen’s hands found Evie’s, gripping and pulling the tunic over his head.  Air whooshed across his ears as the fabric left his neck and head.  It tossed his hair loose until the curls cupped his forehead.  His hands barely let the shirt go before reaching for her breasts and squeezing again; his red face finding the valley of happiness her twin peaks provided.  Death between such fine peaks was worth it.  He did not need air to breath, only his Lady’s soft skin to kiss and touch.

The mage stopped his massage with her own hands.  Cullen immediately froze and leaned back, realizing his Lady stared him in the eye to wait.  Unsure if he pushed the bounds too far, Cullen complied, watching the woman sitting in his lap, her dress gathered around her waist and the chiffon dress enveloped both her and his legs.

Evie’s bright green eyes danced around the former knight’s upper body, while her mouth hung open a little.  Her breathing deepened.  Releasing her soft palms from on top of his rough hands, her fingers followed his arms and biceps to his exposed shoulders.  Their soft touch ran shivers through him all the way to his tightening groin.  The tips reached his first scars where his arms met his shoulders.  Evie’s head tilted, gravity pulled her auburn waves to the side.  Her curtain hair revealed her own scarred shoulders and collar bone, all of which Cullen wanted to kiss and love.  Her dazzling eyes silted and studied the marks with such an intense expression.  The dancing fingers met the defined pectoral muscles and brushed his fine blond chest hair, following the natural lines of hair and his cut muscular body from years of training with a sword and shield.

“So…exquisite.”  Her Free Marcher accent purred, following the muscular lines to his harden eight-pack abs.  Evie’s lips curled, finally meeting Cullen’s searching and wary gaze.  “Yet, so beaten too.”

The commander knew what she meant.  His Fereldan skin was fair with little color remaining from his Kirkwall tan.  However, the white scar tissue was still very visible, cutting into his finely textured chest hair and breaking his muscle’s natural shapes.  Cullen never thought about his own scars.  That same trainer who told the recruits that to wear them as badge of honor warned it was expected in their duty.  Most differed in texture from fine slits from blades to ridging caused by fireballs and burns.  A faint blue discoloration crossed his shoulders from lightning strikes ripping across his templar armor.  Suddenly, Cullen felt very self-conscious because Evie analyzed each so closely.  He took a deep breath, hanging his head.  “A hard and difficult life…”

“They’re amazing.”  She declared with a strong uplifting tone.  Her wandering hand tapped his chin upwards to see her smile growing bigger.  “I-I didn’t consider you too would have so many, yet they just make you more handsome and awing.”

“That’s what I think about yours.”  His voice was low and rough.  “They’re a visual tale of what has happened to you.”

Evie’s fingers streaked along his cut jaw to his neck.  They journeyed across his left pectoral muscle, following a set of claw marks.  “A greater terror demon…”

Cullen nodded.  “Most are from demons and abominations.”

“Kirkwall…”  Evie concluded, her voice falling away to nothing.

The commander remembered his previous wishes to inform Evie of blood magic.  He slid her to his thighs, pressing his chest against her.  They met eye-to-eye.  “Eve, you might be walking into your own Kirkwall.  Maker knows what the wardens and the Venatori are been doing out there.  I know you fight demons pouring out of rifts constantly, but blood magic is so much worse.  The demons and abominations that maleficars summon are far more powerful.  I recognized it at the Breach during the initial onslaught.  Those demons didn’t need a mage or ritual to call them through, but they lacked the power that sacrificed life forces give them.  Use your dispels and barriers.  Keep your distance.  I know you’re a skirmisher who fade-steps, strikes, and flees, but if you’re smited during a close attack…”

Evie nodded, pressing her forehead to his and running her silky fingers along his neck and jawline.  His stubble sent shiver coursing through his body ever gentle touch she gave.  “I know.  We still haven’t trained together to understand and counter red templar abilities.  Thank the Maker, when a red knight attempted to silence me before, Cassandra and the others protected me until I awake.  I hate blood magic.  I’ve seen the devastation…I want to ask you questions if I don’t understand something the maleficars do, but I don’t want you to relive Kirkwall…”

Cullen smirked briefly, fighting the anxiety of his past beating against his mental barred door.  “You’re so sympathetic.  Thank you for that, yet when it comes to Kirkwall, I can handle it and can assist with information or techniques any way I can.  Try to train with Cassandra.  Although she’s a seeker, maybe her silences will desensitize you so you won’t pass out.”

“I doubt it…”  Evie sighed, resting her head on his bare shoulder.  Her finger twisted around his curly chest hair.  “I’ve never heard of a mage who goes immediately unconscious when their Fade connection is disrupted.  I’ve researched it, but never discovered why that may be.”

“Let’s pray Corypheus and Samson don’t discover that.”  Cullen’s voice tensed just thinking about that damn drug addict.  “I’ll keep you safe, Eve.  I swear it.”

Evie’s red cheek lifted from his bare shoulder.  Her green eyes darkened and glimmered into his amber embers.  Her soft, plump lips married his, encompassing her emotions of fear and relief.  Their tongues danced together in sync like the finest waltz both people natural knew and shared to only each other.  Evie’s arms wrapped around his neck and pressed Cullen’s body to hers.  Their heated skins caressed and slid over one another, arousing Cullen with how right it all felt.  Hers felt like cool satin after a long hot day in full plate armor.  Her clove and orange scent wafted from her hair as it waved each time her lips followed his head to the side.

The man was slowly coming undone, losing all thought the more their vehement kisses intensified.  His callused hands followed her lashing scars up her back to her shoulder blades.  He tilted them both to the left, bringing Evie down the bed delicately and making sure her necklace did not tangle with her falling hair.  She complied, holding onto his neck and shoulders tightly until her weight was supported by the Free Marcher bed.

His Lady gasped as the commander’s kisses left her swollen red lips and followed her cheeks to jaw and upper neck.  She bucked into his core, her dress’ skirt falling from her knees and pooling by her hips on the bed.  It revealed her stringed satin undergarments that barely hid her folds.  Cullen’s left hand quickly met the exposed upper thigh, following the silkiness down to her hip, briefly brushing her tight small clothes.  Evie responded positively, pleased by his new exploration of her firm legs.  She tensed a little when Cullen’s finger tips grazed the burn scars on the back of her thighs.  He slowed his kisses on her collarbone, pressing his face into her shoulder, waiting for her permission.  Evie nudged his attention back to her face, kissing him hard and clicking teeth to push away her rising trepidation.

Slowly Evie’s hands fell away from his cheeks, following his neck down his spine, tickling the skin like waves of small electrical signals, exciting him more.  He pressed himself to her, grinding against her core.  Evie moaned loudly, running her finger nails up his back to his shoulders.  Cullen’s boldness deepened to explore more of her alluring body.  Her own curiosity intensified as her left hand followed around his waistband to his front belt buckle.  With their bodies so firmly pressed together she could not undo it, a purposeful act on Cullen’s account.  They agreed to be evenly studying the shape of each other’s body, but Cullen wanted this to be about her.  He mentally and physically memorized her body to recreate in his dreams and fantasies until his Lady returned to his side.

Cullen’s wandering index finger followed her small clothes from her waist to hip, finally landing at the inner thigh joint.  Evie kept panting deeply every time his hand hovered over the soft, sensitive skin, jerking a little so his fingertips touched her soaked small clothes.  As soon as he brushed across her hips, abs, and lower abdomen again, she bucked into his core, moaning in frustration and impatience.  Her back arched, while her right hand left his back and pressed hard against his exploring hand to continue.

Cullen obeyed again, his mouth suckling her right breast’s nipple.  The fingers traveled downward where her wetness touched his tips through the small clothes.  She desired him.  She dripped for him.  Alas, Cullen knew nothing more mutually physical could occur between them tonight.  Evie most likely never experienced this attention before, which both excited and haunted him.  Maker, he wish he was as innocent so he only knew her and her body.  Alas, he could only use the experiences to give her the best explosion, one both will feel and enjoy tonight.

The Fereldan’s fingertips nudged the small clothes’ thin fabric aside with a few flicks.  His Lady’s moans and impatience grew with the action.  His index finger caught the tight thin cloth and nudged it completely aside, finding and touching her slick smooth folds quickly.  Evie buckled again against his callused hand, Cullen’s attention shifted from her breast to her face, seeing her head rub back against the bed’s blankets. 

The amber pendant lying beside Evie’s right ear glowed to life.  The commander knew how mages reacted in intimate situations.  For most Harrowed mages, they kept their magic leashed and controlled to not frighten people.  Evie was no different, only allowing her magic to swirl around her as she gathered it closely.  Yet, when intimate and truly enjoyed themselves, the control lessened and reflected their inner emotions.  After Kinloch Hold, Cullen saw such moments too risky for possession, preventing any sexual actions between mages when he found them in dark corners.  His fear controlled his harsh punishments for risking everyone for a quick fuck. 

It took a Kirkwall senior enchanter to step in and explain the opposite would occur.  What could convince a mage to be susceptible to possession when they were receiving what they truly wanted in that moment?  Nothing a demon offered would change their heart.  Seeing that amber pendant shimmer only confirmed that dirty old man’s fact.  Cullen just smirked wickedly.

Abandoning her attempts to unbuckle his belt, Evie’s wandering hand rubbed continuously along his groin outside of the pants, releasing a growl from the ex-templar.  His length throbbed behind the few layers separating her hand from his yearning.  With each clothed rub, the more Cullen kept reaching the edge of release like an adolescent who had not found proper control.  Franticly, his free hand, while leaning on his elbow, found her arm, and moved it to above her head.  She immediately stared him in the eye, dark and glazed from her arousal and slightly annoyed she is denied touching his girth.  She bit her lip, her eyes begging him to release her, not her arm but the rising tension he can feel in each hip thrust and tweaked breast nipples rubbing against his buff chest.

Their searching lips met softly.  One touch together and his index finger found and followed Evie’s inner folds.  A second kiss and the fingertip glanced up towards her core.  A third and more pressure.  Evie’s pressed her full upper weight into her next kiss, waiting for the secondary response.  His finger slid through the folds and found the swollen nib they protected.  Evie gasped into Cullen’s mouth, shivering from his foreign touch and how it built more urges inside her.  This time Cullen pressed his lips to her and penning her to the bed with his massive weight.  He massaged the pearl now with two fingers, slicking his fingers with her growing juices.  Evie’s hips thrusted into his hand, arching her back and widening her legs more into almost a split.  She displayed herself to him like offering a king a grand feast.  Maker, this minx… 

They barely breathed between intense kisses and tongues, mirroring the movements Cullen repeated through her folds and against the bundle of nerves pushing her closer to orgasm.  With another thrust his fingers followed her inner curves to enter her core, feeling the warm tension wrapping his fingers.  His lady broke their passionate kisses, moaning loudly than ever before.  He tickled the tips.  Evie neared the precipice.  His goddess was tight and slick against his swimming digits. 

Cullen barely pulsed and dragged his fingers in and out of her soft core before waves of moans and ecstasy washed over Evie’s whole being.  The warm fire in the fireplace roared to life several times, illuminating the loft.  Her one hand gripped against his tense back, while her bare body pressed tightly to his and vibrated her pleasuring experience.  Her jaw bit into the tight shoulder muscles to restrict how much her moans and shouts rattle the tower.  The bite hurt Cullen for a moment until he registered he caused this blissful sensation, nearly causing him to release as well.  Her restricted arm over her flushed head strained against his tight grip.  His thumb and fingers wrapped around her wrist, stilling it as her orgasm rolled through her entire body.

Sensing her warm core relaxing around his buried ring and middle fingers, Cullen removed his juiced-covered digits and gazed down at the goddess beneath him.  He could not help but grin seeing Evie’s eyes rolled correctly in her head and her bare breasts rising and falling, desiring fresh air.  He released her bound arm, which found the back of his head quickly.  Her shaky fingers combed through the wild blond curls.  His glossy hand followed up her hip to in between them.  His slick fingers laid displayed between their swollen red faces.  Evie lurked for to sample of his success, but he jerked his hand away like a person denying another of a sweet treat. 

Once his Lady pouted and laid back down, Cullen brought the glossy fingers back to his face, taking a deep breath.  She smelled divine like the mark on her hand, this goddess his Herald.  He lightly touch his slick fingertips to his tongue:  sweet, salty, and tangy like a rare wine.  His amber eyes flicked to hers watching him sample her juices.  Cullen did not know her cheeks could flush even a deep blood-rich red than right then; her freckles poking through the blushing.  The man decided a small sample was not enough so he sucked each finger slowly, his amber eyes locked on those glowing green rifts that hypnotized him constantly.  Evie jerked into his groin again, moaning intensely and rubbed her clothed clit continuously against his right thigh.  Evie’s tension rose again for more, more of Cullen.

“Unfair…”  Evie breathed, keeping her sparkling eyes locked on his. 

His now clean hand fell to beside her head after reaching his fill of success.  “What do you mean?”

“We agreed to a compromise…”  Evie barely whispered.  Her voice was a little hoarse from her multiple majestic sounds, calls, and moans.  Her unrestrained hand grazed his covered groin again with such pressure she knew how much he ached tied behind so much fabric.

Cullen grinned devilishly.  “Believe me…it was mutual.”

Evie’s left hand followed his jawline to his upper scarred lip.  “You know more about me now than you…”

“Something for me to cherish while you’re gone.”

A mischievous thought crossed her face, swirling the green dyed irises.  Her curious hand traced his cock through his trousers.  “Well… when I return, it is my turn to learn.”

Cullen briefly kissed her, lowering his body to lay down beside her.  “Agreed.”

The commander could see that her subsiding euphoria lead her into a tired state.  Her eyelids hung low and her breath softened.  “Sleep.”  He whispered, kissing her forehead.

“Stay?”  She whimpered, her bright green eyes pleading desperately. 

Before he could reply, Evie head immediately found the same spot on Cullen’s shoulder and chest like last time.  Her breasts pressed against his side, sending excitement through his body all over again.  Her right legs slowly captured his legs and rubbed his stiff groin with her thigh.  Her wicked stare locked on his face while a groan and growl rolled out of his mouth.  She knew how to tweak his swollen length without even directly touch it.  Maker, this woman knew how to wrap him into knots.  Once she settled her body down beside down, he began to relax, ignoring his own urges for his own release.  Glancing down over her, Evie hugged his side closely for warmth and physical connection.

Cullen swept her wavy auburn bangs away from her cheeks, revealing her rosy freckles along her sharp cheekbones.  The view of her half nude shape pressed against his cut body and her leg across his core perfected the moment.  “Of course, Milady.”

Chapter Text

Evie felt colder than when she fell asleep.  That presence that always settled her soul was missing.  His strong arms and familiar scent diffused into nothing.  Apprehension and fear rose up inside her.  Her protection and comfort was not near.  Evie’s bright green eyes slowly opened, hoping to be blocked by muscle and a bit of fine blond chest hair.  Her hazy gaze continued all the way to the balcony stain glass walls.  Cullen was gone.

The mage sighed, biting her bottom lip.  She reached into the Fade to hear his piano.  Maybe he was still in the room.  Alas, it was distance, very faint and far away.  He left while she still slept, the sonofabitch.  Maker damn it.  From the soft glow rising along the Frostback Mountains, the sun will rise soon and begin the day.  Her Lion must have left to avoid prying eyes waking at dawn.  Damn everyone in Skyhold.  Damn the Grey Wardens.  Sodding arsehole Corypheus.  She will be forced to leave Cullen in the next couple of bells, missing one last opportunity to kiss his delicious lips, stubble neck, and mesmerizing body.

Evie rolled to her side from her stomach, her right arm naturally covering her bare breasts from the morning chill and pushing something made of linen aside.  The loft’s fire had died down, but it looked like Cullen closed the balcony doors on his way out to avoid more mountain winds from dropping the inside temperature.  Neither person needed the blankets during the night.  Cullen was a natural furnace, a common symptom of a recovering lyrium user, while Evie produced heat naturally as a fire mage.  Yet, linen fabric tickled her skin.  Evie’s eyes adjusted to the room’s low light, glancing to her left.  Cullen draped his tunic over her exposed chest and back.  It shifted to the side when she rolled. 

Maker, Cullen left without his shirt.  Oh, to be a soldier seeing that from the ramparts, trying to figure out why their commander was half dressed.  The women mages would probably fall off their tower if they witnessed that.  Fuck them.  He was hers, or at least prayed she exclusively held his attention.  From Cullen’s oath last night, yes only Evie will be enjoying his company and affections.

The commander’s scent overcame her senses, the blended smells of campfire, sage, and lavender.  Yet, there was something new mixed together that immediately wetted her groin.  That new addition lingered on her messy hair, redden neck, and the tunic.  The best way she could describe it was his musk, most likely sweat from him racing across Skyhold for the “chess tournament” and their lusty discovering activities.

“Ugh…” Evie groaned, rubbing her marked hand down between her legs.  He was a natural, tickling her just right to release her orgasm.  It had been so long since she felt that ecstasy.  He was the first man to awaken her in pure pleasure.  Almi, her female elven apprentice friend, had been her release in the Circle.  The now tranquil mage preferred women back in the day and mentored Evie on techniques.  She highlighted Evie’s pressure points.  Cullen found them immediately—the wicked man—raising her to pleasure before she could explore him more.  Evie never could satisfy herself despite the multiple attempts, going without release for almost ten years.  It was not the same without another’s participation.

Cullen awoke an erotic animal who craved him more than ever.

“Maker, he is gorgeous.”  Evie proclaimed, pulling herself down the bed by fisting the comforter.  No, she was not sharing that magnificence with anyone.  Dorian can beg and plea for that wrestling tournament, but she wanted to keep that shirtless knight to herself.  If he looked that amazing without a shirt, Maker be praised when she sees the rest of him.  She wanted to learn every inch.  Her lips, fingertips, and eyes must follow each line, lick, suck, and drink him up.  He firmly had her affections and heart.

Evie rolled over, her face pressed against the bed, huffing his musk left on the comforter.  “I don’t want to leave…” She mumbled against the blankets.  Months in the desert with blood mages and darkspawn versus a comfy castle with the most handsome Fereldan knight ever born in Thedas.  “That’s no contest…” She groaned, lifting her head until her chin rested on the bed.  Her arms laid outstretched from her body.  “The sooner I deal with the Approach, the sooner I’m back.  Maker please, make it so all I have to do is convince the Grey Wardens that they’re stupid so I don’t have to fight tooth and nail the whole time.  This relaxation won’t last long.  Now that I have experienced what that man’s rough hands can do, I will be aching for more in mere bells.”  Her legs spread out over the entire bed into an open split, bumping something at the foot of the bed.  “One day of horseback riding will undo this so fast.  Heck, just listening to everyone grumble and bitch will.  By the time I get there, I’m going to be such an arsehole…”

Evie’s mind wandered to what her foot bumped just a second ago.  She flipped her legs over the side of the bed, sitting up.  Her left arm kept her breast covered while her right arm stretched towards a wooden long rectangular box at the foot of the bed.  A folded piece of parchment sat on top.  Her fingertips reached for the box, tugging it closer.  Once within reach, her hand grabbed the folded piece of paper.  Releasing her grasp across her bosom, Evie unfolded the note, recognizing the tiny block writing immediately:

 

I did not want to leave before you woke, Milady, but to keep this private I must.  I may not be there to protect you, but maybe this armor will be sufficient.  I know you gave designs to Harritt and Dagna, but I asked them to use some familiar materials from your past conquests to keep the desert sun from baking you.  A new matching staff is by the door.

I miss you already, C

 

Evie blushed, beaming that Cullen instructed the smith and arcanist on her new armor even when she shunned him for two months.  They had been working from some new schematics she discovered while travelling the Dales.  Curious, the mage flipped the box lid up.  She gasped immediately, recognizing the scaly texture and cream color.  The artisans used the scales and skin from her two most recent dragon kills.  An ivory white long coat with a matching vest, hood, and thigh high boots established her outer armor and burnt orange tight pants, shemagh scarf, and undershirt provided the inner protective layer.  It naturally breathed while defending, ideal for the spring desert heat.  The creamy color reflects the scorching sun and minimizes burns and dehydration.  The scaly skin blocked out the sand and provided a barrier against the elements.  The shemagh will cover her nose and mouth during intense sandstorms.  The coat’s arms were armored and layered with dragon scales, forming scale mail and solid gauntlets.  Laying across the items was a hilt with a slightly S-shaped guard similar to an arming sword.  It was made from dragon bone, most likely also used for her new staff.  There was no blade attached to the hilt, odd to most people, but once Evie’s right hand griped the dragon skin wrap around the specialized metal, a flaming golden orange blade appeared, a perfect new weapon for a novice knight-enchanter.

Now that Evie had the arms and armor to defeat her foes, she needed to wash, style, and dress for travel.  Still overwhelmed and saddened she will be leaving, Evie knew wearing this gear will allow her to fulfill her duty efficiently and effectively.  She will be honoring Cullen and keeping him as close as possible.  

Her attention returned to his embroidered collar tunic.  “He is so not getting that back!”  Evie giggled, jumping to her feet.

Tugging a few lower knots along her back hips, the mage’s chiffon dress fell away from her hips and puddled by her bare feet.  A part of her was both thankful and annoyed Cullen did not continue untying her the night before.  Just in her lower small clothes, Evie waltzed towards the side room towards her copper tub.  She hesitated lifting her hand to warm the prepared fresh water and essential oils lying beside it.

“In my current state, I think a cold bath is better.”  Evie commented, still feeling her groin wetting just thinking about her Lion.  “Actually, I might need to frost it at this rate!”

 


 

Cullen panted, relieved he stood outside his side tower door and that only one person saw him heading there before dawn.  Of course, that person was that sodding runner, Jimmy, which disrupted nearly every personal moment with the Inquisitor.  Luckily, whatever Varric told the young lad, it worked because he just shook in pure fear and raced away without a word.  The commander’s half-dressed appearance was a safe secret for a least a few bells.  He could think of some excuse later after dressing and meeting the other advisors to wish Evie a safe trip.

Instantly, Cullen’s heart sank, losing his grip on the key ring about to unlock his office.  When the first inches of light illuminated the Frostbacks, he awoke, first unsure where he was until feeling the warmth snuggled up against his side.  Neither of them moved in the night, except Evie’s arm.  Her right breast pressed against his bare chest while the sleeping mage’s arm hugged his shoulder tightly.  The commander immediately awoke, afraid again this was a desire demon dream, but quickly realizing this was once again his happy reality.

Almost all willpower and control was spent not rolling Evie over and kissing her passionately and grabbing her breasts.  From her soft moans while wandering the Fade, Cullen believed she would have not minded a second round from last night.  Yet instead, Cullen slowly peeled himself away from the half-naked woman pressed closely to his person.  Her hand on his shoulder would not budge its clench, forcing Cullen to think quickly.

On the carpet floor below was his embroidered cream tunic.  Following a few moments of grumbles and over stretching his left arm, he grabbed the article of clothing and replaced her grip with the tunic, stilling smelling like him.  It worked and actually allowed him to cover his lady’s exposed back while she rested comfily on the four-post bed. 

Sitting on the bed’s edge, he watched Evie closely, running his callused hands through her fiery curls and waves.  Each passing second was one less to sneak away, but Cullen somewhat hoped his admiring and soft touch may wake her.  However, if the inferno mage did wake, she would insist he remain, possibly showing all of Skyhold their new relationship.  In those moments, he printed to memory each little feature of Evie’s half-nude body and angelic face.  The commander prayed the fortress’ residents could keep their talk to themselves without disrupting their budding romance.  Yet, Evie was the Inquisitor and her life was front and center of all gossip and excitement across numerous royal courts and local pubs.

With that realization, Cullen collected the invisible ink powder, boots, and his jacket, pulling himself farther and farther away from his sleeping lady.  He tiptoed down the stair case, retrieving his secret gift by the door.  Thank the Maker neither Dorian nor Evie noticed the rectangular box last night, meaning his hiding spot behind a barrel was perfect of any future secret packages.  Both mages also ignored the cream white staff hanging on the rake by Evie’s other staves.  Hiding something out of the open was useful, and Evie still did not study her environment well even after six months.  Cullen returned to the upper loft quickly, gathered his discarded boots, wrote his note, and placed his present at the foot of the bed.  He kissed Evie’s forehead, temple, and lips one last time.  She did not stir, a sound sleeper when she did let herself rest.

Picking up the keyring off the ramparts and finding the proper skeleton key, the commander forced his emotions and thoughts to the background.  He had maybe two bells before Skyhold said adieu to the Inquisitor and the Inner Circle.  However, one emotion, the twinge that grew with every passing moment, would not leave him.  The more he forced the pinches away, the more they intensified.  This was not the time to address the elephant in the room.  The strong feeling kept making Cullen miss the skeleton key with the lock’s hole.

“Maker’s breath…” He groaned, pulling at his chin.  “Fine…I’m falling in love with her.”

In response, the twinge exploded, forming a bright smile across his lips.  His jaw stopped clinching.  His face blushed bright red and burned down his neck.  His muscles relaxed and his neck loosened to the point he could stretch it farther than he had been able to in years.  Finally, his hand stopped shaking so he could slide the key into the lock.

Twisting the skeleton key to the right, Cullen mumbled one last thing so he could continue his day.  “I’ll think of the implications and consequences to admitting that later.”

Glass crashed from inside his office.  The commander froze, just about to lean into the door to enter.  Someone was inside.  On instinct, he kneeled.  Somehow in her struggle to remove his boots last night, Evie missed the dagger he sheathed in the left boot’s tongue.  Most likely, her focus lingered on his vibrating laughter.  A quick mischievous smirk crossed his lips.  That will have to wait until later too.

Now, partly armed with a dagger in his dominate hand, the knight prepared for the intruder inside his office.  Cullen debated between a surprise attack or stealth.  He did not wear armor, so he could sneak in without alerting the interloper, but the sun peeked over the mountain peaks faster.  He needed to hide.  Surprise then.

Preparing his boot kick, Cullen realized this was the new door he had to replace after Fenris attacked Evie.  Ser Morris will grumble when he hears about this.  The commander’s boot kicked the door open, utilizing his momentum to follow through and lung towards the intruder.

“EEP!”

Suddenly, a box fell out of the interloper’s hands as Cullen dashed into the office, readying for a fight.  Luckily, the commander was able to stop himself before the dagger struck the servant elf’s throat.  His amber eyes scanned the person quickly.  “Fesill?!”

The redheaded young woman shivered in fright, backing away from the desk with her arms wrapped around her chest.  She fell to her knees, bowing continuously.  “Messere Commander!  M-my apologies!  I-I mean, please forgive me!”

Cullen placed the dagger on his desk, ignoring the multiple bottles and boxes covering his reports.  “Why are you here?  How did you get in?!”

“Lady Inquisitor asked that rogue Sera to lockpick your door last night, while you were gone.”  The assistant quickly explained still kneeling on the floor; her voice quivering with each word.  “My lady instructed me to use that door to bring you these medicines before you returned to your office.  She somehow knew you would be gone so early in the morning.  Please forgive me, Messere!”

The commander smirked, shaking his head.  Apparently, Cullen was not the only one with a surprise gift.  However, knowing Sera had access to his office during the night meant he would need to do a full sweep for pranks and messes.  Not only will he request Ser Morris a new door, but also a locksmith to install Fereldan locks.  Two break-ins in three months alerted him that his tower was less safe than even the Gallows.

“It’s okay, Fesill.”  Cullen’s tone was calmer and soft.  His amber eyes glanced over the items covering his desktop.  “What is all this?”

Fesill slowly rose to her feet, continuing to bow her head in shame.  Her eyes fought with her conscience not to stare at his exposed chiseled chest.  “Lady Herald spent the previous day making potions, oils, and soaps for Messere to alleviate his symptoms.  I do not know what ails you, Messere, but my lady stated they will work.  She dictated each has a label and instructions of use and dosage, organized by types, such as teas, oils, soaps, inks, and tonics.  There is enough for three months.  She has given some recipes to the apothecaries and myself if you run low.”

Fesill handed Cullen a clear tall square container with a corked top.  The contents were clear green oil similar to olive oil with a specific sage and lavender smell.  “The only one that she insisted she make is this tonic, stating Ser Morris will not buy more of the obsolete brand.  Her order is as permanent as is your instruction to not repair your tower.”

Cullen winced, realizing what he was holding.  Evie discovered that he barred Gatsi and Ser Morris from rebuilding his tower.  Furthermore, she now knew he used the hair tonic her brother recommended in Kirkwall.  Esme stated Evie developed it, but why would she refuse Morris not to order more?  The quartermaster always stated it was out of stock, almost bankrupting Cullen every time it became available.  The commander figured courting the inventor did have some benefits.  However, he would have to be more careful now that Evie was denied repairs and construction.  The woman will find one way or another, even hundreds of leagues away.

Reviewing all the bottles, poultices, and other items in the boxes, a soft smile crossed Cullen’s lips.  His glimmering amber eyes flicked to Fesill, playing with her fingers and not looking him in the eye.  “Thank you, Fesill.  I appreciate what you and Milady have done.”  Cullen hesitated, using his new nickname without realizing it.

Fesill beamed, tilting her head.  “This is our secret, Messere.  You make my lady so happy.  I will not speak of this to anyone.  Lady Herald stated if you run low on any item to please let me know.  I also attend to her special personal ravens.  If there is anything you need, please notify me.  You have my confidence, my Lord.”

Cullen nodded to the elf servant.  This young woman loved Evie.  The fire mage trusted her, and Evie saved her life in Haven.  She was someone Cullen could trust to secure information and acts in their relationship.  “Of course, Fesill…”

 


 

Whistles and calls echoed off Skyhold’s stone walls that morning.  All attention of gathered servants, troops, and leaving comrades focused on a white, orange, and red being exiting the castle’s main hall.  She twirled her bone white staff with an Inquisition eye headpiece holding a colorful sparkling fire opal, dragon skin wrapped grip, and a masterwork sentinel detachable staff blade.  Attached to her potions belt was a bone white hilt decorated with tiny amber stones along the guard.

“Wow…”  Varric chuckled beside his pony.  He let go of the reins to clap a few times.  His eyes shifted to the chocolate brown nug chasing around her thigh-high boots excitedly.  It kept squeaking and pawing at his master for attention.

From the dwarf’s position, Evie wore her auburn hair using Rivari braid techniques with many swirls to one firm bun at the nape of her neck.  It looked like nothing would remove it from its position, especially a running Antivan horse across the Orlesian Empire.  Her makeup was fierce with dark kohl cat eyes with espresso colored eye rouge.  Her lips were also painted a darker red and her cheekbones dazzled everyone with a natural blush.  Varric concluded this woman was determined and focused on destroying her adversary quickly and proficiently.

Dorian joined Varric’s applause as the fire mage waltzed down the main stairs with her chin held high and her chest out.  She dared anyone to challenge her.  “My dear, you are a tiger searching for her prey!”

Immediately, the Inner Circle’s eyes found the commander standing to the side at the base of the stairs.  The Fereldan knight stood in full armor and his bear mantle.  One hand gripped his broadsword tightly, while his other bent back along his lower spine.  He watched the Herald closely, but his face was stolid.

“Damn…”  Varric mumbled, biting the inside of his cheek.  Although betting with money was off limits within the comrades, they still arranged small friendly ‘wages’ with chores, drinks, and other non-monetary items.  The dwarf swore the commander would buckle once the Inquisitor arrived.  From his look, the blond ex-templar already knew about her new armor, a guarded secret he heard from a tipsy Harritt in the tavern last night.

“We haven’t left yet…”  Iron Bull commented, studying the advisors closely.  He was right at Varric’s back with his new Abyssal Hang-Tooth dracolisk, a special gift from Evie for her favorite meat shield.  “He could still say something between now and us leaving.”

“Well, Darling,” Vivenne’s velvety voice cooed from nearby.  “You certainty looked the part now…”

“Thanks, Viv.” Evie called back, skipping off the last stair.  The mage knew the Orlesian bitch hated that nickname.  “I will take that as a compliment.”  She glanced over her shoulder, grinning ear-to-ear as everyone witnessed Vivienne slither away unnerved.

The Inquisitor approached the Taslin Strider she selected for her journey.  Master Dennet petted the mare’s snout, while handing an apple to Evie.  “She’ll serve you well, Inquisitor.  She has lots of energy for fast sprints and will enjoy the sand.  She’ll feel like she’s home in the Approach.”

Cole appeared suddenly on the mare’s back behind Evie’s saddle.  The spirit typically rode with the Inquisitor.  “She is eager to go.  She wants to race the dracolisk on open land.”

Evie fed the mare the green apple, scratching her behind the ears.  “I figured as much after our ride yesterday.  I just hope Griffon won’t get jealous of Tequila.  He’ll need more salt licks to make it through the months apart.”

“Ugh.”  Cassandra moaned, rolling her eyes.  “You named the horse after liquor?”

Evie giggled.  “It’s Antivan.  It’s my favorite thing from the merchant kingdom, besides our great ambassador of course.”  She padded the mounted saddle bags.  “Furthermore, that’s what most of these saddle bags contain.”

Sera laughed, sitting cross legged on her horse.  “Packin’ drinks, ain’t ya!?  Sharin’?”

“Maybe, Sera.”  Evie winked.  “Thanks for the favor, by the way.”

“Nope, thank you, Quizzy!”  The rogue winked, flashing a smile towards the commander. 

Varric’s stare focused on the man as he readjusted his stance, trying to hide the frightening implications.  The dwarf knew Sera booby-trapped his office last night, expecting to hear his yelling and curse across Skyhold in the darkness.  Surprisingly, not a peep.  The man was a soldier of routine.  Where was he if not in his office?  Alas, the whole pub erupted in laughter as Sera repeated her stunt to everyone who will miss it.

Evie reviewed the gathered Inner Circle and accompanying Grey Wardens.  Her eyes focused on an already mounted rogue with long black hair beside her mare.  “We set, Howe?”

Nathaniel Howe nodded, glancing over his shoulder at the three other wardens in his company.  “As ready as ever.  Although, Skyhold will need to resupply its alcohol stores.  Oghren made sure to never run dry again.”

Belch!   The dwarf sang throughout the lower courtyard on cue.  The red-headed berserker beat his chest a few times, trying to encourage another show of inappropriate manners.

“Eight.”  Iron Bull rated, even making Solas giggle beside his Brecilian Sure-Foot Hart.  Vivienne and Cassandra rolled their eyes, while Josephine gasped in horror.

“Everyone else, mount while I finish up with the advisors.”  Evie instructed, pivoting on foot towards her war council.

Iron Bull, Dorian, Varric, Sera, and even Cassandra eyed the advisors and the approaching Inquisitor, wondering if something will happen before they leave for several months.  Blackwall put in his wager yesterday morning before leaving with the advance team and Bull’s Chargers.  Either Cullen or Evie will break their tug of war or show that nothing is going on after all, even with their leader showing she is returning back to her normal, fierce self.

Evie reached down and picked up the nug whimpering at her feet.  She approached Leliana, holding the weird creature out from her body as if disgusted by its presence.  “Here’s the rat.  Have fun with him.  If he disappears, check in the stables by Griffon.  They both love hanging out together.  It will lessen them missing me.”

Leliana smirked, taking the nug happily from the Herald.  She rested him on his back, tickling his stomach.  “Nothing to worry about, Evie.  We’ll be just fine, won’t we Truffles?”  The Orlesian sang, rubbing its fur quickly.  The nug squeaked and rubbed the spymaster’s nose, happy about the sudden attention.

Evie rolled her bright green eyes, nauseated by the exchange.  She stepped right to Josephine.  “Keep these two in line.  Send me any information regarding the Orlesian ball as soon as it’s scheduled.  Most of all, don’t worry about the House of Repose and my sister.  We can do this, Josephine.”

Josephine took a deep breath, squeezing her glossy eyes shut.  “Thank you, Inquisitor.  I will be fine, just as soon as this whole thing is over.”

Evie hugged the unnerved Antivan tightly before side stepping one last time in front of Commander Cullen.  Everyone watched the lower courtyard closely.  “Try to lighten up, Commander.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.”

Evie winked, twirling around quickly.  “Nice hair by the way.”

A groan escaped his lips.  His gloved hand ran through his styled mane, more behaving than usual.  Cullen’s grunt caused Evie to giggle and take a hop towards her horse.  The whole Inner Circle glanced at one another, disappointed their exchange was quick and unamusing.  Everyone already taunted Curly about his shiny perfect hair that morning.

“Oh!”  The Herald clapped, stopping mid-step.  “One other thing!”

Varric’s attention followed Evie’s walk back to the commander.  She leaned forward towards his left ear, away from the other advisors.  Even to the most sensitive ears, the group could not make out what she was saying.  Curly’s amber eyes widened a little as she leaned back and tilted her head.

“Understand, Commander?”

The knight’s tone was his typical husky sound, but he stumbled on the first word.  “O-of course.”

“Well, wish us luck!”  Evie cooed, waving goodbye and rejoining the group.

“I know what I’m asking her later.”  Dorian giggled, leaning towards Iron Bull.  The Ben-Hassrath and Varric kept their eyes on the ex-templar, whose face remained stolid and a normal color.

“Time’s a wasting!”  Evie yelled, mounting her Antivan horse.  Cole moved back a little to give her proper space.  She pulled on the reins, turning the mare towards the main gates.  “Blood mages and darkspawn await.  Let’s move!”

The Inquisitor nudged the mare into a trot, leading the group out of Skyhold.  Servants, soldiers, and other residents in Skyhold waved goodbye and called ‘safe travels’.  Varric, Sera, and Iron Bull kept glancing over their shoulders at the three advisors.  Leliana used Truffle’s paw to wave goodbye.  Josephine bowed her head to honor the comrades.

Lastly, right as the dwarf’s pony followed the line out of the gate, Varric witnessed what he hoped would have happened sooner.  The commander pulled at his face, turning purple down his neck.  He stumbled backwards, gripping the stone wall behind the advisors.  Josephine and Leliana studied the suddenly frazzled man, while trading looks in confusion.  Hot damn, Varric was thankful he could read lips as the commander’s hand left his face while muttering.

Iron Bull was watching too, repeating back what both he and Varric understood.  “ ‘Maker’s breath, you minx…’

Chapter Text

Three Weeks Later

Evie pulled her dragon cloth shemagh from her nose and mouth, taking deep long breaths.  Her lungs yearned for moisture to sooth the inner air sacks.  The scarf wrapped around her head down around her face and up into her hood, blocking out as much sand and sunlight as possible.  Sweat rolled down her temples from her hair line and forehead.  Her senses told her to remove her coat and hood to allow her body breathing room, but she already witnessed what happened if too much water evaporated from a body and what the sun’s rays did to exposed skin.  Iron Bull looked like a burnt druffalo over an open fire pit.  Solas’ bald head did not fair any better.  Both men soothed their bare skin every so often with special elfroot lotion Solas made once the Inner Circle arrived at Rylen’s camp.  Almost half of the Inquisition’s support workers and soldiers suffered from heat stroke.  Warmth balms providing heat and fire resistance only helped to a degree in the sweltering climate.

Dorian waddled up the sand dune, panting the whole time.  His boots kept sinking into the sand like weights.  He scanned the canyon ledges, assisting Evie’s squinting eyes as she scanned the limited horizon.  A passing sandstorm disrupted how far both mages could see.  Rubbing some sweat from his brow, the Tevinter mage glanced at their leader and accompany members.  “Does that noise ever stop?!”  He groaned, shaking away the constant buzzing ringing throughout the canyon.

“Well, it’s sand blowing on sand in a place full of wind and sand.”  Iron Bull remarked, rubbing his shoulder harness.  It kept agitating his sunburn, peeling his grey blue skin in large flakes.

Dorian threw the Qunari an unamused look.  “Thank you.  That makes so much more sense now.”[1]  He deadpanned, sneering at the slightly cackling reaver.

“I thought you were looking forward to this, Sparkler?” Varric commented, flopping down on the sand dune’s peak to rest and take a quick drink from his water skin.  The dwarf’s cheekbones were bright red, especially across his nose, but he handled the intense climate well.  After all, Kirkwall was a dry, dusty place too.  Furthermore, most dwarves lived their whole lives near lava and geothermal heated areas.  His body adjusted quite well. 

“I was, but did we have to come during mid-spring!?”  Dorian huffed, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Why not when the first snow fell in Haven?  Fasta vaas!  I’m hot, sweaty, and this sun is making me wrinkle!”

Evie smirked a little, winking at Varric.  “I figured you would be used to being hot and sweaty.”

The Tevinter threw her a look that would reanimate a corpse.  “Absolutely not!”  By his raised pitch, he knew what Evie was enunciating.

Iron Bull chuckled.  “Of course he is.  His staff’s pretty polished.  Imagine what he could do with my axe.”

Evie and Varric both burst out laughing, nearly falling down the hill.  Dorian threw his hands in the air and continued down the sand dune cussing in Tevene.  Both the Inquisitor and the writer applauded Bull, only making Dorian’s expressions louder and more obscene.

Bishop to King Four

Cullen, this place is just one large sand pit.  We reached Rylen’s camp yesterday afternoon.  Our horses were worn out after so many weeks of travel.  I never want to ride a saddle again.  Take that as you want.  The farther west we ventured, the more the desert heat slowed our pace.  By the time we arrived, most of us were ready to leave.  I slept so soundly last night because the heat zaps you of energy quickly and exhaustion allows for sleepless dreams.  It will only get hotter as the weeks go on.

Right now, Bull, Varric, Dorian, and I are clearing the outer canyon in the Approach of hostiles and fade rifts.  Since arriving a week ago, the main Inquisition army under the knight-captain’s command fought the demons pouring out of the rifts on either side of the canyon.  Rylen’s men nor Harding’s scouts have been able to search the Western Approach because the demons kept them boxed in.  The Venatori closed and locked these ancient large gate doors so we cannot enter without circling around.  All our preparation to find and stop the Grey Wardens have been throttled by low water supplies, fade rifts, crazy wildlife, and a lacking main base of operations. 

We’re waiting for Hawke, Fenris, and Stroud to join us this evening for a strategy plan. I haven’t seen the witch in a few months, so this will be interesting.  At least I will hear her and Fenris beforehand and kill some hyenas to focus my temper elsewhere.  There are enough of those damn dogs around here.  They have the same spiky hair as Fenris’ Mohawk and ponytail, so it’s easy to visualize between casting fire mines and immolate spells.

The air is thick with blood and the Veil tears easily.  Hawke was unfortunately right.  Blood magic lingers everywhere.  Whatever the wardens and the Venatori are doing, it’s horrible and must stop before this blighted desert turns into a demon’s fantasy.  It is only a matter of time before we start seeing bodies and blood everywhere.  Even Harding commented something is not right, and she’s dwarf unable to feel the Veil’s weakness.  We have our work cut out for us.  Sodding damn it.

 “So, Harding and a few scouts captured and persuaded a Venatori messenger earlier.”  Evie explained, following Dorian down the sand dune and towards the left side of the canyon.  “It looks like we will expect some red templars in a few mines up ahead, but primarily Venatori summoning demons and excavating the old temples.  They employed a local bandit group.  Nothing as organized as the Freeman of the Dales, but still pains in the arses.”

“Blood magic, scary artifacts, and bandits, oh my.”  Varric sarcastically sang.  “Hawke sure knows how to find the shittest places in Thedas.  You know, Inquisitor, I’m from the city.  This place stinks.”

Evie walked along the large path, smirking.  Thank the Maker this area of the canyon was in shadow, providing a short rest from the blaring sun.  “Just think of it this way:  you can be the next Brother Genitivi, telling old cloistered sisters and noblewomen about Thedas’ grand landscapes.”

Varric rolled his eyes, pursing his lips.  “I would rather drink that nasty Qunari piss Iron Bull consumes after a dragon fight.  I’m pretty sure Philliam would assassinate me in my sleep out of pity.”

“It isn’t piss, Varric.”  Iron Bull hissed, smacking the writer upside the head.  “But, you might taste some in your next ale.”

Evie chuckled to herself, half listening to the banter escalating behind her.  She invited these three companions on the investigation for a reason.  They made her forget her lonesomeness.  Over the last few weeks, Varric slowly won Evie back over with his silly stories and random topics, distracting her from what nagged her every night.  Iron Bull always was someone to drink with, knowing when to bring up sensitive, serious topics and when not to push.  Dorian might always comment that having a Ben-Hassrath in the group was spelling trouble, but the Qunari used his observant skills to protect Evie when vulnerable.  Lastly, Dorian was quickly became her best friend along with—gasp—the seeker.  He and Cassandra understood and protected her.  The seeker could not joke or sass, but Dorian could not restrain his expressions and be discreet.  Combined, they were the closest substitute for Cullen.

 Cullen.

Evie thanked the Maker under breath that she was leading the crazy band through the canyon.  Just saying his name in her mind nearly brought her to tears.  Most expeditions she would be returning by now or had seen him in the field.  However, the Inquisitor’s mission was just beginning.  She only arrived last night, exhausted and sick of everything.  If it was Cullen instead of Rylen waiting on the main road into the canyon camp, she would have done cartwheels and believed the whole excursion was worth it.  Yet, the knight-captain was not her dear Lion, although he was a Free Marcher.  The captain did say something before Evie collapsed in a personal tent that brought a brief smile to her lips.

“Th’ commander told me tae keep ye safe, Inquisitor.  Tauld me nae tae shaw mah coopon again if ye e’en got a scrat.  Ah ken he means it tay.  Th’ cheil will hunt me doon loch a mabari pack!”

Again, Evie’s lips curled at the statement.  Cullen trusted Rylen with her security and wellbeing.  If her commander believed in the templar knight-captain from Starkhaven, she should too.  Rylen was still a poor alternative to her Lion’s prowess.  Evie grimaced.  She did not know the man that well and should not judge him harshly just because Cullen was not there.

“What are these even doing here?  This is bad.”

Evie awoke from her thoughts, realizing several canvas wagons were circled in a rock colisack.  Crates, sacks, and other gears were strung out all over the sandy ground.  Evie held her gloved hand up, stopping the group from proceeding.  She hand signaled to Varric, then reached into her coat.  Her hand briefly brushed her amber pendant before clasping the Ring of Doubt in the inside pocket.  She slipped into stealth along with the rogue armed with Bianca the Crossbow.  Dorian and Iron Bull found a few bushes to hide.

Hidden from any prying eyes, Evie and Varric reviewed the scene.  There was no blood and bodies.  It seemed this was a dumping place for ransacked caravans.  Any remaining items were useless or broken.  The mage assessed if this was the work of the Venatori or their hired raider clan.  Evie signaled to back up and continue down the canyon cautiously.

Dorian and Iron Bull walked slowly up the main canyon path while Varric and Evie took point, still hidden from sight.  Evie kept her staff sheathed on her back as it was easier to keep hidden and crouched without it skipping across the ground.  She could fade-step and cast without it for the few minutes, thankful again that her teardrop pendant was a small focus stone.  The Anchor was relatively dark because she had not engaged in battle for a while and waned her focus to other matters.

The party all saw the site once they turned the canyon corner opening up into the desert proper.  Several gated and caged wagons lined the ancient road, most covered in blood.  Decaying bodies bloated with maggots laying in the desert sun laid in piles behind many carts.  The area looked devoid of life besides the random hyena feeding off the rotting flesh.  Varric circled around to an upper ledge to review the open area that led to a few mine entrances.  Evie slipped out of stealth, slipping her shemagh over her nose to mask the stench.

“What are the odds that all these people just happened to die here?”  Dorian warily commented, joining her a few moments later.  The Qunari brute reviewed the piles of bodies, while Evie listened into the Fade for an unfamiliar tune.  A hint of chimes echoed, raising nausea in her gut.  Of course, red lyrium was involved somehow.

’Property of Federic of Serault, University of Orlais, Nazaire’s Pass Research Camp’” Iron Bull read on a tag on a bloody sack.  “Teapot, some papers, and biscuits.  Looks like backup supplies.”

“Nazaire’s Pass is to the west.  I remember seeing it on an older regional map.” Evie remarked, placing her hands on her hips.  “I’ll have a soldier retrieve that for the researcher, if he is still alive.  This was probably an assistant.  But, what happened here?”

“Looks like one of the last people killed.”  Iron Bull concluded, returning to his feet.  “Maybe about a week old based on decomposition.”

“Nobody should be out here but Grey Wardens.”  Varric called from his position.  “Something’s very wrong.”

Evie sighed, glancing at Dorian.  The Tevinter mage winced every so often.  “You hear it too?”

Dorian scowled.  “After being surrounded by the nasty stuff in future Redcliffe, it’s difficult to not hear now.”

Varric appeared from up the road, sheathing Bianca on his back.  “What?”

“Your favorite stuff.” Evie sarcastically called.  “Ready for shit to float.”

“Sodding great.”  The dwarf groaned, following Evie towards the first cave.  “Second biggest mistake of my life…”

“What’s the first?”  Iron Bull asked, following the troupe into the cave.

“The one story I’ll never tell.”

“He means Bianca.” Evie referenced the crossbow on his back.  Her companions only saw her cream coat outline as darkness consumed her.  Varric hissed under his breath, but avoided replying, knowing if he did he would only invite more scrutiny.

AHHH!

Dorian, Iron Bull, and Varric raced forward, searching the darkness for their screaming leader somewhere in the cave.  Dorian ignited a nearby torch with a lightning bolt, witnessing a mass scooting on her behind towards the wall as red little eyes darted towards her.  She hollering even drowned out the red lyrium’s chimes from the nodes growing out the cave walls.  Iron Bull rushed forward, swinging his greataxe to chop off the spider’s tiny head.  Evie kept shaking and holding her head, tears streaming down her squinting eyes as more eight-legged fiends erupted out of a mine shift.

“Get her out of here!” Dorian yelled, waving for the Qunari to carry her away.  “We’ll clear it!”

Bull gathered up the panicking Inquisitor, jogging out of the mine as quickly as possible.  His boots slid on the cave’s slope as the auburn haired mage kept beating his shoulder and slamming her head against his bicep.  Once outside, the Qunari kneeled down to attend to the anxious woman.

“Boss!  Evie!  Get a grip!”

“Fasta vaas!” Dorian hollered, stomping out of the mine with Varric in toe.  Evie kept rocking and grabbing her braids, nearly tearing out her hair.  Iron Bull barely registered what the Tevinter did by the time the hollering ceased.  Dorian shook his welted hand, muttering under his breath as Evie sat frozen on the ground.  The Inquisitor slowly reached for her redden cheek, surprised by the slap.  “Dearie, I am getting sick and tired of slapping you.  I’m starting to think you like it!”

Evie rubbed her temples following wiping away the tears in her eyes.  “What the fuck…”  She mumbled, trying to get a grip again.  “I don’t know what happened.  I saw the red lyrium and then furry little legs tickling forward.  Immediately, I froze and started screaming.  I have never felt so terrified in my life!”

“I don’t think you remember doing that in Crestwood too, Monkey.” Varric reminded the leader.  “That time you just fade-stepped over the hill and out of sight.  You did not stop until you ran into the lake!”

“On the Storm Coast, in those crazy stone pillar caves, she did the same thing.”  Bull added, rubbing his chin.  “Then, she just ignited the whole room with fire.  Freaked Sera out, nearly making the elf shit herself.  Got a fear of spiders?”

“I-I don’t know…” Evie whimpered, slowly regaining her mind.  “I used to love the eight-legged freaks.  I would throw them at Patricia during big socials when she got too pompous.  I’ve always loved insects, playing with them while sitting in the Circle’s gardens.  Now, I just see green and feel terrified every time one appears.”  Her right hand kept massaging the gash in her left palm.  The Anchor pulsed and sparked constantly.

“Well, let Bull and I clear the next mine, while you and Dorian investigate the first so you don’t lose your shit again.” Varric recommended, pointed to an abandoned mine shaft a few feet away from the first.

Evie nodded, reaching her feet again.  “Let me pull the boards down for you.  Dorian, you take point, and no, I’m not enjoying your love taps.”

“You just don’t know how to have fun, Sunshine.”

Evie glanced at Iron Bull.  “He likes it rough?”

Dorian threw her another dirty look as the team burst out laughing.

The full investigation took about two bells.  The whole complex expanded three mines, one of which sealed at the back to avoid the Inquisition from following through the blocked tall doors.  The scene was not pretty.  Missives throughout the mines stated the red templars were starting a red lyrium mining operation, but decided to abandon the project once Inquisition troops started appearing.  Most caves were littered with blighted slave bodies and blood magic.  The Venatori were testing on the captured travelers, making blood arcane circles on the ground and summoning using red lyrium.  All surviving workers were slaughtered once the operation was closed down.  Edicts shifted their mining goals to the southeast region of Orlais.

“Emprise du Lion…” Evie concluded, reading over all the vellum documents left by the red templars.  “Commander Rutherford and Lieutenant Kestrel can use this to track and pinpoint the templar army.  Emprise du Lion is hundreds of miles from here.  How in damnation did an army of chiming knights passed the Inquisition?!”

“How did the red templars ambush Haven without anyone noticing?” Dorian added, reading the reports over Evie’s shoulder.

“They got to have secret routes unknown to us.  As soon as Kestrel picks up a trail, it disappears without a trace.”  Evie groaned, rolling her head around her shoulders.  A new, more annoying tune started to ring throughout the Fade.  She internally debated if this new instrument was better or worse than red lyrium.  “In any case, we’ll need a lyrium cleanup crew here stat.  The empire won’t collaborate with us to remove the growth nodes, so we have to do it all.  Thank the Maker Alistair has a brain.”  She reviewed one order again.  “This better not be our Marius.  If that Tevinter mage hunter double crosses us, I swear…”  She let her words drift away.  Her temper stemmed from the annoying string instruments nearby.

“So, it’s Commander Rutherford now, Monkey…?” Varric smirked, dusting his hands off after digging through some rumble.  “Curly on your shit list again?”

Evie glared over the parchment top edge unamused.  Bull cackled a few times, but kept his personal thoughts to himself.  “Do you want to me to call you Messere Tethras?  Because that’s how you become Messere Tethras.”  All three companions giggled as Evie shoved the missives into her side pouch.  “Come on, you brats.  Our missing guests have arrived.”

Varric glanced up the canyon towards the main camp.  “How do you know?”

Evie rolled her bright green eyes, already preparing herself for war.  She prayed they find a few more hyenas before returning back to base camp.  “Believe me, she’s not that hard to miss-“

 


 

I thought a few months apart would have subsided my rage and disgust, Cullen, but seeing her again just ignited the simmering torch inside me.  Hawke is still that snarky, wicked witch we both remember.  The only difference between her visit to Skyhold, Crestwood, and now is that the desert has burnt her to a crisp.  You Fereldans don’t tan, do you?  She looks like a cooked lobster.  What I would give to see the Waking Sea personally right now...

Evie wrinkled her nose every so often and crossed her arms over her dragon skin vest and undershirt, leaning against a stack of crates.  Everyone gathered around the main command table in the Inquisition base camp.  Most of the Inner Circle was missing, not needed for the strategy meeting at the moment.  Those not attending enjoyed the cooling evening air, drinking, eating rations, and gabbing around a few campfires. 

Out of the Inquisitor’s comrades, Varric, Solas, and Iron Bull attended to represent the mages, rogues, and warriors.  Knight-Captain Rylen commanded and represented the Inquisition’s military and work force.  The Starkhaven native was used to having men under his leadership, first as a templar and now an Inquisition officer, but this mission was his largest oversight, controlling nearly a third of the organization’s military force.  To Rylen left was Scout Harding, leading the Inquisition’s scout and spy network.  Out of everyone present, the dwarf was the most tanned and covered head to toe in freckles.  When possible, everyone teased the young woman about her spots, causing her to blush constantly.

Cassandra stood to Evie’s right, feet parted and arms behind her back at military rest.  As Evie’s second, she must hear everything so both leaders could work in unison.  On the way to the Approach, the seeker and the fire mage agreed they would be working separating on all the missions.  Cassandra would be stationed at the base of operation and close to the troops, mages, and scouts, while Evie actively worked out in the field.  Despite the Inquisitor ordering her to stay in basecamp in the Exalted Plains, it worked better than anticipated.  The seeker had more command and delegation experience between the different internal groups.  The Herald operated better in the field and during skirmishes.  After all, she was the only one who could close fade rifts.

The two commanding Grey Wardens waited beside Cassandra, mumbling to each other regarding current events within their order.  Stroud outranked Howe, but the older warden respected the rogue.  Stroud looked relieved he was no longer the only Grey Warden ignoring Clarel’s orders and fighting their idiotic plans.  Howe took a few breaths of relief that someone else could oversee their involvement in the Approach.  Evie concluded that despite Howe’s noble background, he did not enjoy overseeing others.  He operated better alone.  The Herald was the same way prior to the Inquisition, but sometimes the Maker has other plans.  The crackling mark on her hand was proof of that.

Rounding out the group and directly across Evie stood Champion Veronica Hawke, also arms crossed over her chest.  She leaned on one foot, tapping her boot while everyone finished their personal conversations.  Her icy-lilac eyes would glance at Evie every so often, but then darted elsewhere, giving an air she did not have a care.  Fenris was not present, but nearby, probably in shadow by the sound of his cello.  Evie felt the elf’s eyes on her, stalking and ready to pounce when needed.  Out of habit, the Herald reached into the Fade for Cullen’s piano, but quickly remembered after a few moments her commander was hundreds of miles away.  If something escalated, he could not save her.  Evie was ass deep in her personal demons, alone and vulnerable.

“Let’s get started…”  The Inquisitor’s voice boomed throughout the tent, silencing any last mutters from the attendees. 

All eyes watched Evie as she leaned against the table, reviewing the large map of the Western Approach.  Their basecamp was labeled by one of Cullen’s map marker, bringing a quick frown to Evie’s face.  In comparison, their location was a tiny ant compared with an expansive and blighted desert.  The Inquisition had their work cut out.

“Harding, you report first.”

The scout stepped forward, placing raven markers throughout the regions.  “There are three regions showing activity:  The main Western Approach, primarily to our east past the sulfur pits, the Hissing Wastes, and the Forbidden Oasis.  Each enemy encampment is focused on their own operations, working quickly to uncover whatever.  From most excursions, the scouts report the Venatori are excavating ancient ruins covered by the sands for ages.  For what exactly is unknown.”

Solas stepped forward, setting an ocularum shard on the table.  “Based on Enchanter Renaud’s analysis of that Markham scroll and my research throughout the Fade, I hypothesize the Venatori have located an ancient temple in the Forbidden Oasis that requires these shards to access it.[2]  Whatever lays inside is powerful for them to go through such lengths to gather these shards throughout southern Thedas.”

“Any maps of the area?” Evie asked, placing a mage marker over the Forbidden Oasis.

“Only an old Envers Mining Company map that did not show the temple.  The company abandoned the area years ago and unlikely not connected to the red lyrium mines you found earlier.” Harding informed, placing her hands behind her back.  “Rhys and Evangeline would have been perfect for this excursion, but Sister Nightingale just reported they were hung up in Ferelden and not joining us.”

“I’ve heard of Enver Mining Company.  They were a competitor against my family’s operations.  My father maneuvered politics to weaken their activities.  Maybe the Trevelyans have some information on the area too.  I’ll write a letter to Ostwick to see if we can get some other information.”  Evie quickly jotted a few notes down on a nearby strap of parchment.  Cassandra groaned to herself.  The Inquisitor knew the seeker hated contacting the Trevelyans, fearing they will sabotage the organization, but Evie would rather protect their men at the moment.  “Solas, you, Vivienne, and Dorian are leads in the Oasis.  Remember everyone, Corypheus is searching for other means to enter the Fade.  Do not discount these excavations as simply reclaiming history.  The Venatori want to revive old Tevinter and will not stop until they fulfill their master’s wishes.  According to the intel Harding and I found today, the head researcher in the Approach is a man named Servis, but I think Calpernia is personally overseeing all operations.  He must be reporting to her.  Her location is currently unknown.”

Evie shifted her attention to Stroud.  “How about the Hissing Wastes?  I read a report you were there awhile, Stroud.”

“I was.” The warden confirmed, stepping forward.  “During my investigation into red lyrium, I came upon an excavation in the Wastes involving an ancient dwarven thaig.  After speaking with Howe, Varric, and Hawke, I believe the red templars and Venatori are searching for a new pure source of red lyrium, similar to the idol Varric’s brother found nearly nine years ago.  Due to the lyrium’s nature, a battalion of red templars are overseeing the search.”

“Inquisitor, the red shit we’ve found has been grown from Corypheus, his archdemon, or whatever.  Ancient red lyrium is worse.  You know what I had to do just to contain that little shard for study.”  Varric added, scowling constantly as he spoke.  “If they are after another thaig like the one Hawke and I found, we are absolutely screwed.  During our expedition, we didn’t get to examine the whole place.  If they have time to search and mine, say goodbye to Thedas.”

“Okay.  I’m assigning the rogues to lead that area.  For what Harding’s scouts reported, it’s an expansive place with tall canyons.  Even red templars cannot work out in the heat without dropping over.  Everything happens at night there, allowing the rogues to investigate unseen.  We’ll stop them, Varric.  I swear it.  I’ll reach out to Orzammar and Trevelyan mining partners to see if they have any information or could lend some assistance.  Maybe the dwarves have some background on this specific thaig in the Shaperate.  My father probably doesn’t want more red lyrium surfacing, so maybe he’ll enlist some mining third party partners to supply manpower.  Now, the elephant in the room and why we’re here, the Grey Wardens.”

“On our way here, we only witnessed a few dozen Grey Wardens approaching the desert.  They either ran or sacrificed themselves so their comrades could escape.”  Howe reported with a heavy heart.

“It’s been the same here.”  Hawke remarked, shaking her head.  “They are keeping themselves hidden, out of sight.  They are not working with the red templars or the Venatori, but they are aware that those groups are here.  They don’t see them as a threat, only the Inquisition.  Fenris and I tracked them throughout the region with little success.  There have been random abandoned encampments throughout the desert, but no documents or signs showing their final destination.  Because this was the site of the Second Blight, there are many old abandoned towers, lookout points, and fortifications.  They could be hiding and gathering at any of these locations without our knowledge.”

“Furthermore,” Stroud interjected.  “Wardens can travel on blighted land, unaffected by the taint remaining after so many ages.  They are most likely travelling at night through such areas to avoid detection.  I suggest Howe, myself, and the other wardens following their trail through those areas to pick up where the main force is gathering.  Between Orlais and Ferelden, there are about one-thousand wardens.  Of those wardens, three hundred are mages.  More venture from the north beyond our detection.  I do not know how many have travelled from Nevarra and the Free Marchers, while many fulfilled their final sacrifice before the Orlesian warden-commander composed her plan.”

“Do we know who is behind Clarel’s plan?  The Venatori involved, if any?” Cassandra finally spoke.

“No, but there has been signs of blood magic at random altars throughout the Approach.” Hawke replied, tapping the map at specific spots.  “They’re testing and seeing success rates.  Most places…ugh.  It’s blood magic.  It’s never pretty.”

“Hawke, work with the wardens as best as possible.  I know you cannot enter the blight lands, but you can keep them from being impacted by Corypheus’ control.  Cassandra will be the main liaison between all the operations.”

“Aw thes plann’ is well an’ guid, Inquisitor,” Rylen began in his thick Starkhaven accent.  “But withit a proper base ay operations, our bum’s oot the windae!”

Most people standing at the table just stared at the Starkhaven knight, dumbfounded by what he said.  Hawke, Stroud, and Varric could follow him mostly.  Evie kept her giggles to herself, relieved to hear a familiar local dialect after so many months away from the Free Marches.

“Any suggestions?” Evie questioned, eying the map closely.

“Aye.” The knight-captain replied, moving a military marker to the middle of the Approach.  “Hardin’ noted when th’ scoots first arrived, th’ Venatori worked out ay Griffon Win’ Keep in th’ middle of the region.  Since ‘en, most operations hae moved behin’ th’ tois taa Tevinter doors athwart th’ sulfur pits.  Mair fowk left fur th’ Wastes an’ th’ Oasis later, leavin’ only a wee platoon ay Venatori agents inside.  Ah believe we can claeem it an’ make better use.”

“Okay, then.” Evie sighed, biting her lower lip.  “We move on the keep.  We’ll work together first, before splitting on our missions.  We are good as dead without somewhere to rest and regroup.  We march in the morning, understood?”

“Yes, Inquisitor.”

“Dismissed.”  Evie called the meeting to a close, watching everyone scattered out of the command tent.  Cassandra stayed behind, watching Rylen leave with Harding.  “You okay, Seeker?”

Cassandra cleared her throat, breaking her expresso eyes away from the templar commander.  “I…Can you do something for me?”

Evie blinked a few times.  “Sure.  What’s wrong?”

The seeker glanced away, biting her lip.  “Can you translate what he just said?”  The Herald burst out laughing, shaking her head.  Cassandra threw her a look, unamused by her outburst.  “I’m serious…I-I can’t understand him.”

“Is it just that or were you not playing attention?”  Evie eyed, smirking.

“I-I was playing attention…I just like accents, but his is very thick and difficult to follow.  As a fellow Free Marcher, I figure you could translate without making me look a fool.”

“Do you need me to translate what Howe said too?”  Evie’s smirk grew with each passing moment.  “After all, you stared at him the same way while we marched here.”

“I-I understand Fereldans just fine!  I don’t trust Howe, so I watched him closely.  I know his presence makes you nervous!”  With each passing moment, Cassandra’s cheek turned a dark shade of red, and she squirmed like ants crawled into her greaves.

Evie sighed, knowing the seeker was trying to divert her attention away from the obvious.  “I am getting used to Howe and the other wardens.  After all, Anders betrayed them too and ran off to Kirkwall.  It’s Hawke that pisses me off.  But yes, Seeker, I’ll ‘translate’ for you.  Just know, I am not going to sit in every conversation you have with Rylen.  How is either man supposed to make a move while the Herald of Andraste chaperons?”

Cassandra’s espresso eyes widen as the nerve in her cheek twitch.  “W-why would either do such a thing!?”  The Inquisitor could not stop giggling as she just walked away, leaving Cassandra flustered and stammering by herself.

Stay tune for the biggest love triangle I have ever witnessed unfolding under the desert sun.  Out of this whole crew, Cullen, Cassandra deserves some happiness too.

 

 

Chapter Text

Cullen, I am off to get you a fort.  I know you knights like your big forts and showing off your might across desolate landscapes.  I saw your scowl when Leliana claimed Caer Bronach in Crestwood.  Since Rylen suggested Griffon Wing Keep, I suppose I will allocate it to our military forces.  I just need to convince the Venatori to leave with my fire and the Anchor.  I do not think they will mind, right?

All sarcasm aside, about half of our Approach army left the canyon the day after the strategy meeting.  We wanted a large fighting force since we were unsure how many Tevinter cultists still occupied the keep.  However, we feared if the canyon remained unmanned or too sparse, the Venatori might open their big metal gates and ambush us.  Rylen left his second, Lieutenant Tamsen, behind to continue operations.  Some scouts were sent to seek out this researcher who decided now was the best time to observe dragon eating habits.

We traveled across the desert throughout the next three days.  The Inner Circle, the Grey Wardens, and Bull’s Chargers took two encompassing routes around a large gorge with a clean source of water.  Our route was easier since the Chantry carved an old trial through the canyons.  Maker knows what they were doing out here, but we left it before reaching the end.  It led towards the dragon nesting area.  Something to look forward to if some time to relax arises.  (I already hear your groan just thinking about me taking on another dragon.  Yet, the downstairs hall has uneven number of skulls at the moment.)  The Chargers found a nest of verghast around the gorge and constantly engaged with the local raiders.  They sighted a few more fade rifts that will require my attention.

The army followed at a distance, about a day behind us due to the sandstorms, narrow trails, and setting up camps and supply lines.  Rylen is efficient.  I see why you trust him.  Cassandra is impressed…or that might be her swooning from a distance, overhearing his Starkhaven accent while he orders troops about.  Didn’t they meet in Kirkwall when you were recruited?!  Rylen stated that’s where you two met, and you convinced him to leave the order too.  He mentioned he hated how the knights ran off barking at the moon and someone needed to so some real work.  I’m enjoying his tales, specifically about you stripping to your templar skirt and puking into the bay after a long night drinking at the Hanged Man.  My, what I would give to see that…without the vomiting of course.

Meanwhile, I suspect Howe has been leaving Cassandra little gifts.  I see something new and unusual in her hands every morning, including a rare flower, an Andraste’s Grace.  Maker knows how the warden found that in the middle of the desert!  The rogue makes sure Rylen sees her surprises each time, only making the Starkhaven native cuss like a sailor.  Makes me homesick. 

But I digress…

 

Skinner, Sera, Harding, and Sigrun scurried around the boulder’s base to meet the Inquisition command.  In pairs, both reconnaissance groups arrived right as the sun rose over the blighted canyons in the east.  With just the few rays of light, the air was already thick and heavy following of rather torturous sandstorm that blew through the region the night before.  The main force expected the pairs the evening before so the battle could start at dawn, but the storm forced them to find shelter.

The main Inquisition force reached the final forward camp the day before.  The base overlooked the gorge and a natural land bridge that even Evie was fearful to walk, but kept reconsidering with each tequila swig.  The route the Inner Circle took to the region was not applicable for the main army because of the rising sulphur from a blighted pit.  The gorge and its oasis crawled with nasty wildlife that already claimed four soldiers to poisoned bites and claws. 

Luckily, Hawke and the other team carved a route around the gorge’s other side.  By the time Evie heard about the fade rifts, most of the men were passed the dangers.  These troops were seasoned, sent on missions where they encountered fade rifts or knew how to handle the tears prior being assigned to the current mission.  Their skills and responses were prime examples of how well trained Cullen prepared the Inquisition’s military.  All that training and preparation will be tested that day, especially since Evie did not want to lose anyone.

Evie, Cassandra, Hawke, and Stroud all laid prone on the sandstone boulders, watching the keep about half a mile away from their position.  A week’s worth of scouting, grueling marching, and hot sun led them to their first battle against their adversaries.  Each commander suffered from peeling skin and horrible sunburns.  Luckily, the oasis contained a plethora of wild elfroot, allowing Evie, Solas, and accompanying tranquil alchemist Clemence to make several dozen poultices and balms to avoid further skin damage and infection.  By that morning, Evie’s skin adjusted to the environment and slowly darkened into a warm tan.  For brief moments, the mage reminisced about her family’s estate by the sea and the sunshine warming the sand why playing in the sea surf.  Then the dry air and coarse grains would bring the Inquisitor back to the present.

The lead scouts sneaked around the boulders facing the keep to meet their leaders behind the ridge.  Cassandra already unfolded a local map with sparse details, one of many the Inquisition created during their expeditions.  Evie prided herself as an explorer during their missions, just allowing someone else to draw the lost roads and viewpoints because of her hideous stick figures and unclear lines.

With each scout arriving, the Inquisitor, Seeker, Champion, and Senior Warden slid down to meet them, ready for their report.  Evie reviewed the rogues as they drank from a full water skin provided by Hawke.  Sera wrinkled her nose, realizing it was not wine.  Sigrun poured the liquid down her throat, allowing escaped splashes to cover her red face.  The one giant freckle named Harding ran the water through her hair before replacing her hood to block out the sun.  Lastly, Skinner denied the assistance, instead drinking from her own waterskin.  Evie smirked a little seeing Hawke’s hurt expression.  The Champion did not know Skinner mistrusted ‘shems’ and avoided any gifts from humans.

By then, Rylen and Howe joined the gathered group by the ridge, noticing the rogues’ return.  Howe offered to be part of the search teams, but Stroud requested he remain close to camp and oversee the other scouts while Harding was away.  Evie hypothesized it was a friendly gesture on the senior warden’s account since he too noticed the growing emotions between the warden, captain, and seeker.  Rylen urged Howe to go on and that Harding’s second could oversee everything.  Howe stepped back quickly and accepted his commander’s recommendation, stating darkspawn were in the area, thus he was vital to their survival.  All Evie could do was laugh at the growling boys.  She wished Cullen was present to finally tease flushing boys instead of being the butt in of jokes.

On second thought, maybe not because Evie loved that Feraldan’s innocent Chantry boy stammer and flushed cheeks.  Maker’s arsehat, she missed that man.

“Report.”  The Inquisitor called, feeling a bit more rushed to get going than a moment ago.

Sigrun and Sera glanced at one another.  The dwarf cleared her throat.  “The east side of the keep is the main entrance, secured with a rusty metal gate and worn wooden doors.  From our estimates, they are the original with little repairs by the Venatori.  The east and north surroundings contain blighted lands, sulphur pits, and several Venatori camps.  Most of the camps are squadrons of Tevinter brutes, spellcasters, and archers, most likely reinforcements for their other operations.  From what we can tell, most of the patrols focus on the east ramparts, thinking nothing will come up from the blighted areas.  However, the sulphur pits to the east…crawl with darkspawn.”

“Nasty monster, they.  The bloody big ones take a whole quiver to pen down.” Sera added, sticking her tongue out disgusted.

“Hurlocks?” Howe questioned. 

Sigrun nodded.  “Genlocks too, but not emissaries.  More coming down the cliff face and through the sulphur pits.  They walk right across the pits and engage the extra Venatori troops constantly.  I sensed a few Venatori are infected already.”

“Might be why they stay outside the keep.”  Evie hypothesized.  “If we want the fortress, we will have to deal with the threat without any Inquisition men becoming blighted.”

“That’s why we are here.” Stroud responded.  His brown eyes darted around, already thinking about how to deal with the problem.

“South and west?” Evie glanced at Harding and Skinner.

“The west has darkspawn too, crawling up the canyons to the keep, but the Venatori are using them as target practice than considering them a major threat.  The main problem are the hyenas and quillbacks.  They are infected and will not hesitate to spread the taint.”  Harding shuddered, thinking about what she witnessed while scouting.

“There is a cave southwest.”  Skinner began, pointing to the cliffs around the keep on the map.  “A magical barrier blocks the entrance.  A squadron of troops are stationed there, but not many.  It looks like it leads directly under the keep.”

Rylen jogged away, retrieved something from his tent, and returned.  He unrolled the parchment, reviewing the building schematics.  “I’ve reviewed th' keep’s designs, cheers tae Warden Stroud collectin' warden watchtower maps frae th' Second Blecht.  Accordin' tae thes, th' cae was ance a water cistern leadin' tae an aquifer in th' bedrock.  Based oan local accoonts, th' water was gain by th' time th' wardens abandoned th' keep.  It is an boss cavern noo. However, a weel was built deep intae th' aquifer.  It is likely still thaur if th' buggers ur usin' th' original gate an' doors.”[1]

“What if it was sealed?” Howe quizzed, perking an eyebrow.  “Many places here are sealed.”

Rylen eyed the warden, noticing what the rogue was trying to do.  “I doobt it.  Space is limited in th' keep.  If th' Tevinters ur havin' troaps bide ootwith th' walls an' blockin' th' cae wi' a barrier, they ur usin' th' place, most likely fur scran mince an' onie remainin' water.”[2]

“And if it is filled with Venatori?”  The rogue asked, doubling down on making the captain look like a fool.

“They’re trapped.  Only a body way in.  Ye haven’t see th' Inquisitur toss a rift, hae ye?”

Evie rolled her bright green eyes.  “Please keep me out of your egotistical banter…although I would use my firestorm, but eh.  Either way they would be ash.”  She shrugged.  The whole group giggled a little, even Hawke.  Cassandra just groaned as both men realized the tiff won them little. 

A plan formed in the Inquisitor’s mind based on the information.  Cullen appreciated her observant and calculating mind, but she wished her Lion was present to assure her she developed the best conclusion.  “Seeker, Captain, Champion, and Warden Stroud, let me know what you think about this:  Bull’s Chargers and the non-rogue wardens draw any lingering rampart fire to the north and west.  Nothing big, but to draw away any darkspawn or wildlife away from the attacking groups.  Skinner, I have trained with you all.  I know you can handle it.  Meanwhile, the Inquisition battalion led by Rylen, maybe with Blackwall, Sigrun, and Fenris, attack the gate.  Based on these reports, the front enemies are sick and are not in the condition to support the old gates, but it will draw the main interior force away to protect the entrance.  The remaining Inner Circle, the other warden rogues, and Hawke enter the cave, taking out that side encampment.  Even if the well is sealed, it won’t take much to uncap it.  We climb up and sneak attack.  After securing the courtyard, we open the gates for the main troops.  The rogues take to the ramparts until we capture or kill every bastard inside.  If it all goes south, we will still be able to retreat with a regiment of Inquisition troops protecting our escape, while slimming down a number on their forces.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.  The plan sounded solid.  Rylen smirked, “Soonds loch somethin' th' commander woods hink up?  Daein' some studyin' wi' th' templar?”

Evie threw him a look.  “I am from a family of templars and been surrounded by knights my whole life.  And I sign off on all the troop movements and requisitions Commander Rutherford sends me, so I have to know some tactics myself.”

Cassandra glared at the captain.  “Women can be commanders too, Knight-Captain…The Herald can groin kick you all back to basic training...”  Rylen bit his lower lip and backed away.  Immediately, all the women present burst out laughing as the men meandered away before getting hit or kicked.

“Move out at midday.  It’s going to be sweaty and long, but I want to sleep behind walls tonight.”  Evie called, shooing the leaders and scouts away to follow through with her orders.

 


 

“Shaa we knock…?” Rylen sassed, pointing his broadsword at the keep’s gate.  The men under his command immediately started hammering their weapons against their shields.  The mages thundered their staves down on the ground behind their shield wall, whistling and yelling at the keep’s ramparts.

Evie smirked proudly from her hidden position about one-hundred yards from the cave entrance.  The Inner Circle lined a dune’s west side, waiting for their opportunity to join the fight.  There was something about that moment that filled the Inquisitor with proud and honor.  She finally got to fight along with the soldiers instead of recruiting and being their divine beacon.  Her comrades and she rescued many while wandering the empire and Ferelden, but they were always disattached from the real Evie.  They viewed her then as a holy symbol instead of a person.  Now, they were the same, bleeding and sweating in the desert midday sun.  There was no etiquette stating Evie was better than them.  She finally felt a part of them.  That was the only benefit of battle over peaceful engagements.  All shared the same fate:  life or death.

The Herald watched—as predicted—Venatori cultists engage the templar-mage forces attacking the front gate.  The Tevinter spell casters never experienced a true templar assault, immediately panicking when they lost their Fade connection.  An Inquisition mage would utilize the opportunity to blast a lightning strike or freeze the adversary.  Teams of Inquisition troops not part of the Order worked together to put down brutes or shield the lines as archers engaged enemy snipers on the ramparts.  Standing out during the battle, blood flew in all directions as Fenris wielded his greatsword through Venatori like they were made of parchment.  The whole Inner Circle heard his demonic laughter from their position.  Hawke beamed with pride.  Rylen relied on Sigrun by his side to alert their flanks to darkspawn trying to strike the regiment.  Almost all blighted creatures never made it out of the sulphur pits to harm Inquisition forces.

Evie’s bright green eyes shifted to the right.  By then, most of the local wildlife had been cleared by Bull’s Chargers, while Blackwall, Stroud, and the other wardens cleared the darkspawn rising from the blighted lands.  There too, Evie’s prediction was correct as the other rampart guards tried to target the Chargers, never able to keep track of the constantly-moving mercenary band.

“Let’s take a keep, huh?”  Evie giggled, eying Cassandra to her right and Hawke to her left.  “Solas, barrier.  Sera, bees!  Varric, set traps on either side for any escapees.  Iron Bull, swing for the stars!”

“Oh yeah!”  Iron Bull yelled jumping over the dune along with the two rogues. 

The elf rogue popped over the dune in stealth, laughing wildly like the Inquisitor just gave her the best birthday gift.  In a matter of moments, the cave-protecting camps roared with flaming bees and wasps, chasing Venatori troops in circles.  Iron Bull thundered forward, shielded by Solas’ barriers, taking out any Tevinter that escaped the blazing wasp-bee chaos.  Varric’s traps quickly smoked, bombed, and bonded any Tevinters trying to send word to the keep.

“Dorian, rise them.  Hawke, bring down the heavens.”

The Tevinter necromancer call forth his abilities, raising the already dead Venatori to begin fighting their fellow men.  Hawke sneered for a moment, annoyed she had to follow the Inquisitor’s orders, waving her arms above her head and then thrusting them down.  In sync, lightning bolts shot out of the clouds and rained hell throughout the camps.

“Seeker, the spell casters.  Vivienne, support her.  All else, follow me!”  Evie called as the Inner Circle rushed over the hill towards the raging battle.

The Herald barely casted a fireball before the enemies were all eliminated in the cave camps.  A few Venatori remained alive, although worse for wear from the magical and physical attacks.  She turned her attention to the electrical magical barrier blocking their path into the aquifer.  “Opposite magic, my arse.”  She muttered flicking a fire mine at the barrier.  She snapped her fingers.  The mine exploded and broke the barrier.

That is when the smell hit her.

Evie immediately started gagging and coughing.  She had encountered human remains in many conditions throughout her time with the Inquisition:  fresh, fed on by wild animals, dusty bones, mummies, but never bloated and gooey inside a humid cave.  Even in Crestwood, the cold, rainy weather kept the smell and decomposition contained.  In the Mire, the bodies had been dead for decades, except those people lost to the plague.  Even then, they had been burned before the Inquisition arrived, primarily skeletons with bits of charred tendons hanging off their bones. 

Cassandra jogged to her side, then winced.  “Maker have mercy!  What have they been doing?!”

“Testing…” Hawke hissed, lighting a nearby torch on the cave wall.  “They’ve been dumping their failures or used sacrifices down the well.”

“Kirkwall?” Evie asked, hoping she was wrong.

“Yup.”  Hawke sighed, reaching for a rag in her armor.  She covered her nose.  “Dumped people in the bay or in the sewers back then.  Dark Town smelled like this on a daily basis.”

Evie slid her shemagh over her nose.  “Well, only one thing to do with blood magic-“  Evie entered first with Hawke close behind.  The fire mage pulled her magic together, smelling the air a few times and looking for a familiar scent.  “You might want to back out, Hawke.”

“Why-“

Evie danced with her dragonbone staff, flinging her hands in the air summoning a firestorm.  The spell was intense and usually caused a huge roar as the flaming balls fell from the ceiling, but this time the whole cave exploded.  Evie just pulled up her hood to protect her hair, thankful that her armor was flame retardant.  The Champion was knocked backwards and barely had time to cast a barrier as a whirlwind of fire rushed past the pair and up the cave entrance.  Behind Evie, she heard cussing and laughter.  On cue, Solas sprayed frost over the opening.  Vivienne frosted the team to extinguish small fires in their hair and armor.  There was a reason why Evie requested Harritt place a fire rune on her Inner Circle’s gear.

Hawke leaned forward, dusting away little flames along her gray mantle and hair.  She glared up at the Herald, about to summon a lightning strike.  Evie just shrugged.  “Basic alchemy…decomposition equals methane.”

“You could have blown up the keep!”  The Champion hollered, preparing her fist.  She jumped to her feet.

“I was just taking your approach.  You did the same thing fighting in that weird cave on Sundermount.”

Hawke groaned, stomping away into the cave’s tainted waste water.  Varric jogged up to his friend, first eying and smirking at the Inquisitor.  Of course, Evie would take a page out of Tales of the Champion.

The remaining Inner Circle joined their leader in the watery cesspool.  Vivienne wrinkled her nose, freezing the water in front of her before walking onward.  Cassandra groaned at the gesture.  The first enchanter did not want to ruin her new boots.  By then, Iron Bull joined Evie by a ray of light at west end of the cavern.

“You blew the top off.”  The Qunari observed, looking up at the sky.

“And burned the rope.” Solas added, poking the singed well bucket in the water with his gnawed ironbark staff.

“Varric, hand me Bianca.”  Evie held out her hand, not even looking at the dwarf.  At the same time, she unwrapped some coiled rope from her armor belt.

“Oh no!”  The writer called, waving his hands.  “No one else touches Bianca!”

“No one would want to after how much you rub on it.” Sera giggled, clapping.  “Your own special oil, eh?”

“Varric, she is the only one that can be discharge a bolt deep enough into sandstone.”  The Inquisitor commented.

“What’s your idea, Boss?”  Bull asked, seeing the gears working behind Evie’s bright green orbs.

“You know how you’ve wanted to toss someone into battle?”[3]

“Yeah?”

Evie pointed to herself.  “You get your wish today.  Either you can pick up Varric or I’m going.”

“Hot damn!”  Bull hollered, slinging his greataxe onto his back.  “Give her the crossbow!”

“I’m not flying or giving you Bianca.”  Varric whined, hugging his prized possession.

“Look, I am going to Fade-stepped to Bull, pop up out of the well, throw a ring of fire.  In the chaos, I’ll shoot a bolt with a rope tied to it into the keep wall.  As soon as that happens, I will drop her down the hole, back into your arms.”  Evie assured the apprehensive dwarf.

“Just give her the damn thing, Varric.” Hawke hissed, while placing her hands on her hips.

Varric eyed the crossbow.  “It will only be for a moment, my love.”

“Oh for the love of a druffalo’s behind…” Dorian rolled his eyes.  “Fasta vaas, get on with it.”

Everyone worked quickly to ready the bolt and tie the rope to its end.  Bull positioned himself under the well with his hand knitted together to boast Evie up.  Evie stood at the other side of the cave with Bianca in her hands.  Within seconds, she appeared with one foot pushing against Bull’s hands, bounced off the well walls and popped out into the courtyard.

Immediately, Evie was surrounded by five Venatori all surprised to see a flying woman coming from below.  Evie summoned the fire wall, encircling the well to allow time for her team to climb up.  She shot a bolt into a high tower, landing on her feet about the same time.  She tugged the rope a few times before dropping the rope and Bianca back down the well.

The Inquisitor barely had enough time to draw her knight-enchanter arming sword before a Venatori brute swung his hammer down at her.  Evie rolled and danced away.  Right as the brute pivoted, two daggers were buried into his face.  A large floppy hat slammed the brute’s head as the man fell over.

“Hi, Cole.” Evie sang, kicking an archer in the face before slicing the man’s head off.

The Herald missed the spell caster fade-stepping and flanking her, while she switched to her staff.  She heard the mage’s groan right as a longsword stuck out of his throat.  In the air, the remains of a spell purge sparked around the dead mage. 

Cassandra withdrew her blade and eyed her leader.  She was the latest comrade to emerge from the well.  “You still stink at noticing your surroundings…”

“That’s why you and Cullen are around.”  Evie winked, dashing away to fight an infantryman.

The seeker groaned from behind her.  She turned to the emerging Hawke and Varric.  “Open the gate for the knight-captain.  Rogues, to the ramparts and capture the inner gates.”

Evie sliced through the retreating Tevinter soldiers when she heard cries and calls of Inquisition troop pouring through the busted front gates.  From above, Howe and Sera ran the ramparts towards the first inner gates.  The fire mage nodded to Cole, who disappeared.

“Dorian!  Vivienne!  The gates!”  Evie called before fade-stepping forward.

Cole appeared and drove his daggers into the gate guard.  Vivienne froze the gates controls before the rusty grating fell.  The Inner Circle and the Inquisition forces rushed forward, clearing the courtyard and reaching the middle open area.

Evie reappeared from her fade-stepping right as she heard the gears of a second inner gates starting to fall.  She reached for the Anchor, feeling its power filling with force as she battled.  She withdrew mana to fade-step again.  She barely reached the gate before sliding underneath it, nearly getting crushed beneath its weight.  Cole appeared beside her, protecting her so she could reach her feet.

“Inquisitor!”  Cassandra called from the staircase’s base on the second gate’s other side.

Evie ignited the Venatori flanking her and Cole’s positions at the base of the second flight of stairs.  Once they were killed, she glanced at the gate controls.  The enemies smashed them to cut off the advancing forces.  “Shit!  Take to the ramparts!  This way is blocked!”

“Don’t rush into battle!”  Cassandra hollered, knowing her advice was in vain.

“Don’t worry, Seeker.  I have a glowing surprise for the previous tenants.”  Evie laughed, wiggling her green pulsing left hand through the grating.

“Here, Inquisitor.  I am ready to serve!”

Evie glanced up the stairs to the keep’s highest floor.  Staring down at her was a mage with a metal mask, gripping a tome.  She felt the Fade tear around him, telling the fire mage this was the main leader the blood mages responsible for all the dead in the aquifer.

“Life is nothing!   He, the Elder One, will reign!”

“Apparently, you haven’t met me, you fucker!”  Evie yelled, fade-stepping up the stairs and through the magister, slightly freezing him.  When she reappeared she was encircled by Venatori troops, brutes, and spell casters.  She grinned.  “You must see this amazing gift your Elder Ass won’t get!”

Evie thrusted her marked hand into the air, summoning a powerful fade rift over her head.  Unlike the ones in the past, Evie had been working with Solas to increase the power pulling through it to increase its damage and length of time it could remain.  Evie concentrated while the bright green ball pulled and sucked at the enemy and controlled its expansive size.  By the time she drained its power and closed the rift, only the wobbling magister remained.  All his soldiers were either tore apart as blood poured from their shoulders and hips or nothing but scattered ash carried away by the desert winds.

Evie pulled her magic close to prepare for a fight against the leader right as two arrows zoomed from either side of the keep.  They met their target at the same time, exploding the magister’s head like a watermelon.  The Herald blinked and shielded her face of sprayed brain guts.  She shook her head a few times to remove any skull material from her braids before seeing who struck the man.

“His head busted like a rotten egg, yeah?!”  Sera giggled, hooping down from the north rampart.

“I had that under control.  You did not need to shoot.”  Howe grumbled as he walked off the south rampart.

“No, that was my kill.  You were too slow.”

“Please, you were still down on the lower level when I took my shot!”

“Now see here, sassy pants, you can’t hit the nickers off your mama’s butt!”

Evie rolled her eyes, leaving the archers to argue between themselves.  Coles appeared beside her and followed her down the stairs.  “Candle, what are nickers?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older…”

Cullen, you got yourself your own water tainted, darkspawn invaded, blood magic amplified, sulphur lung-burning, crumbling keep.  Don’t even say I never gave you anything.

Chapter Text

Knight to Queen Second

Eve, thank you for the keep.  From the reports coming in through usual ravens and couriers, my new gift will take a significant amount of work to sustain any sizeable garrison.  I think I have already signed five requisitions, fulfilling both you and Rylen’s edicts.  Ser Morris is panicking that he cannot fill the entreaties before I yell or you return.

I’m glad to hear the oasis no longer has varghest infesting the area, so the keep has some fresh water.  Leliana recommends moving the creatures since we destroyed some nests and now they attack the traveling caravans.  You know how the Nightingale is with animals.  You know my position:  kill the pests.[1]  By the way, Truffles will not leave me alone.  I keep finding him asleep on my mantle every morning.  No matter if I seal my hatch and bar all the doors, he still finds his way in, usually smelling like horse manure.  The stench is forever embedded in the mantle’s fur.  Dammit.

Rylen said you took it upon yourself to clean up the aquifer and do something with the space.  There is enough room elsewhere for supplies and foodstuffs.  I personally believe he wishes to avoid meals smelling like decomposing bodies.  He stated you have been tossing fireballs and mixing potions at all bells of the night.  You keep the troops awake.  Yet, if it keeps you from going after that dragon, I encourage your newest pet project.  I know you have been gathering guts and whatnot for that Orlesian researcher.  If you argue that taking down that beast down is for science, you will have to answer to me when you return!

Per your grumbling about the nasty rations in the Approach, I ordered a mess chef to leave with the next support regiment.  It will do wonders for the men’s morale, especially since everyone is baking under the spring sun.[2]  It also will keep the Inner Circle from drinking every bottle of booze we send you all.  Dorian and Fenris alone are costing the Inquisition a fortune, which you still haven’t told me who won that drinking contest.  All you mentioned was the lower courtyard was covered in shattered melted glass and a vendor refused to stay another day after witnessing a skeleton walking away with the whole stall’s armor and shields. 

And you cannot be out of that case of mead already.  It only arrived Thursday!  I might have to ask Alistair for a special trade license to support your alcoholism.  Or start some apiaries in the gardens?  I don’t know which is worse:  your new obsession with mead or your preference for Antivan tequila.  I’m surprised your liver hasn’t retired and gave up on you.

According to Cassandra’s report, you and the Inner Circle mages are going to the Forbidden Oasis first before venturing towards the Hissing Wastes.  That should be enough time for Dagna to arrive and assist you.  When I informed the arcanist she would be investigating a surface dwarven thaig and reviewing ancient Tevinter artifacts, I don’t know who was happier:  her or Harritt.  Since you and your team left, her experimenting as gotten more…explosive.  I am worried she will level all of Skyhold.[3]  Harritt explained she threatened to establish a ‘Pink-quisition’ and that he will quit if you allow it.[4]  I’m relieved she will be gone for a while, but do you think it is wise to place her in charge of Tevinter artifacts that we do not know what they do?  At least the land there is already tainted, so she cannot do any further harm.  Right?

Cassandra also alerted me to your brash attack while taking the keep.  While I’m relieved you’re safe and you planned a very strategic battle, fade-stepping up wells and under gates is not smart.  I know if I was there I would be hollering for bells at you, while you just ignore me or giving that wicked coy grin you do to get out of trouble.  So if my disdain won’t change your fighting style, I am sending Commander Helaine to continue training you on becoming a knight-enchanter.  Between sparring with Cassandra and your magic sword practice, maybe you’ll be more cautious and aware on the battlefield, you minx.  Furthermore, she can work with some younger, less experienced mage recruits.  When I spoke to her last, she gave several critiques to improve our templar-mage mixed squads.  Her insight will be beneficial to everyone there.  Just listen to her, please.

Josephine sent several letters today, requesting materials to construct the gas towers needed to purify the sulphur pits and ten wagons of lumber for the foot paths.[5]  The construction supplies is coming from Serault, that strange and haunted region by the Approach.  The Divine believed it was worth saving, but I overheard Josephine and Leliana gossiping about its crazy revolts and blood magic.[6]  Great.  Just what you all need.  Keep an eye out of any stones, lumber, or mechanics that are cursed.  That includes barring them from Dagna’s experiments and masterworks. 

The specialized construction operations gives the ambassador something else to think about, other than suffering diplomatic issues.

 

Cullen tapped the quill a few times against the parchment.  His scarred lip quivered a few times, trying to decide if he should warn Evie about the Antivan’s nervous behavior.  Since Evie left four weeks ago, Skyhold felt her absence.  Operations continued as normal without her, accustomed to her long absences, but a dark cloud hung over the inhabitants.  Out of anyone, Josephine suffered the most.  Typically, the ambassador would organize activities to keep the Inquisition’s support personnel in happy, hopeful spirits, but she agonized the most during the Herald’s mission.  Every time Cullen visited her office, she paced and jumped when someone opened doors.

The commander pulled at the week’s stubble chin.  Cullen kept shaven and formal to give his troops a good hygienic model, but somehow he just wanted to let himself go.  The only person he wanted to impress at the moment was Evie.  Ever since the Inquisitor told him about his mage fan club, he could not ignore the squeaking and giggles every time he reviewed the troops.  It was templar training all over again, except he had a secret lady waiting for him when he graduated.

Cullen debated about adding what he just witnessed in Josephine’s office in his personal letter.  Knowing the Antivan, a raven already left with her newest concerns.  However, the Brother Trevelyans, as Cullen called them, traveled farther and faster than the couriers and the organization’s typical black birds.  He timed Nair’s departure a few weeks ago.  From time the crow left and Cullen received Evie’s response to his letter’s questions was about three days.  The brother ravens flew constantly, typically transporting letters between the commander and Inquisitor as soon as they landed with a reply. 

Most Inquisition-related correspondence left with supply caravans or Leliana’s crows.  Cullen kept those letters strictly formal to avoid suspension.  Evie responded the same way.  Both people kept those letters long and filled with as many orders as possible.  Ravens could not carry them because of their weight.  Yet, work still filtered into their personal letters, such as quick immediate replies or wisecracks about current operations.  It was still too much Inquisition information for Cullen.

The ex-templar yearned for his Lady’s voice, temper, and sassiness.  In person.  Possibly, as a bonus, he might suckle on her perfect bosom too.  Or grab her firm bottom.  Both would be fantastic at the moment, along with the rest of her, sitting on his lap with all doors lock and a sound silencing rune.  Cullen groaned, adjusting his length in his tight pants.  That would have to wait until tonight after his growing piles of mundane paperwork.

Mees crowed from one of the ladder rungs, hopping and flapping his wings.

The commander adjusted his manhood again.  His amber eyes flicked outside, seeing the sun rise over Frostbacks.  His attention returned to the unnerved black bird. “Give me another few minutes.  Your restlessness isn’t helping.”

The raven just crowed back, then looked like it stuck out its tongue.  Yes, that was Esme Trevelyan reincarnated.  That sassiness and boldness must be a family trait, not just uniquely Evie.

The Feraldan knight figured Evie wrote during the night after a long day of questing and not being able to sleep.  Cullen began every morning with a fresh letter from his Lady to read and reply.  Jimmy figured out after a few snaps and threats not to disturb the commander until he left his tower for breakfast.  The one time the idiot arrived, while Cullen read the Herald’s letter over his cup of cooling lavender tea, the commander nearly discovered how far he could throw the runner over the ramparts.  Cullen still debated how he would make that moron suffer for nearly destroying his relationship with Evie before it began.  His kicked groin ached for a month because of his stupidity.  Do not even remind the knight about interrupting during his confession.  He still carried the three shattered pieces of amber in a leather pouch inside his coat pocket.

Cullen’s mind reread what he wrote in his letter, once again debating to warn the Herald about Josephine’s rising stress.  Evie hated surprises.  Yet, Cullen felt out of place discussing other’s personal issues.  After all, Evie and he almost never happened because the Inner Circle stampeded through their budding relationship.  He dipped his quill, and quickly wrote.

 

The specialized construction operations gives the ambassador something else to think about, other than suffering diplomatic issues.  You know I abhor politics, especially Orlesian games.  From the floating gossip in the great hall, the delegates for Gaspard, Briala, and Celene cannot agree on a day for their negotiation ball.  I personally find that as positive:  one, the assassin has to wait just like we are, and two, that keeps me from having to attend that damn event.  

However, I feel compelled to protect you from a surprise letter you may receive following Mees’ landing.  Last night, Josephine was found sobbing and pacing in the great hall.  In her hand was a vellum.  As usual, Leliana and I were still awake.  I heard the shouting from my tower.  The spymaster and I raced to her assistance.  The guards and patrols prepared for battle from the terrifying shrieks.

Leliana pried the vellum from Josephine’s grasp, while consoling her friend.  We moved the ambassador to her office.  I barked a few orders and dismissed the lingering servants before closing the main office door.  The spymaster requested I read the document aloud.  The letter was in Orlesian, which I barely translate, let alone speak.  I tried my best, but Leliana cringed constantly.  I’m a Fereldan.  My kingdom’s hatred for the masked puffcakes is in my blood.

In short, the judge who stated he would ratify the Du Paraquettes’ elevation as nobles died during the hunting expedition.  I reviewed my assigned soldiers I sent to be his honored guard.  According to the letter, the seven men assisting Judge Auld in his spider hunt were not able to keep him from being swarmed and poisoned.  He died quickly from his wounds.  His family is holding Josephine responsible, demanding monetary compensation.  No other judge will most likely ratify the elevation, thus Josephine is stuck on how to proceed.

The main issue is that I only assigned six honor guards on the mission.  Apparently, a seventh soldier accompanied the group, but no one remembers his name or station.  A man’s body floated down river dressed Inquisition armor, but not recognized by my officers.  Most likely our mysterious extra soldier.  One of Leliana’s spies intercepted the judge’s body, finding a special cologne on his clothes that would excite and anger the cave spiders.  No one is openly stating it, but it seems your sister has struck again, but there is no proof.  The ambassador refuses to meet with anyone unless accompanied by a familiar Inquisition soldier and agent from both branches.  I do not know what more we can do for her------

A surge of pain ripped up Cullen’s spine to his skull.  The commander nearly fell out of his desk chair from surprise and agony.  Ink spill all over the desk, barely missing the letter.  Mees took flight and squawked throughout Cullen’s tower.  Other reports and request felt the blunt of the mess, which the commander did not care.  Just as long Evie did not suspect the withdraw torture.

Despite Evie stating to use the invisible ink and write every time he felt in pain, Cullen avoided it because of hand cramps.  If he did, Skyhold would be out of parchment and vellum within a few bells.  He knew the withdrawal would be bad, but not this severe.  It stayed away for the first week, his body and mind still filled with their new interactions and his blissful visions when he pleased himself. 

Then, it all hit like a ton of stone.

The migraine was first.  The advisors were in the middle of a war table meeting, discussing operations based on Evie’s replies while traveling to the Western Approach.  Josephine discussed willing nobles in the western regions who wanted to help Inquisition operations.  The commander barely had time to look out the stain-glass windows to see if it was storming when the lightning strike ripped through his skull and traveled down to his toes and fingertips.  Vomit rolled up his esophagus, but he luckily closed his mouth to avoid purging all over the Thedas map.  Thank the Maker, Leliana read his face correctly with its bright purple hue and wincing pain.  She stated the other pending matters could wait, shushing the ambassador before Josephine interrupted about the assassin after her.  Cullen stated he was no longer needed, rushed to his tower, locked all his doors, and drank the first vial of medicine Evie prepared for him.

That woman is a gift from the heavens.

Whatever Evie put in the mixture, it worked, dumbing down the striking pain so Cullen did not puke or become incapacitated.  It tasted horrible, but he misread her instructions the first few times.  She recommended drinking rotgut whiskey or vodka before drinking the potion, anything to numb his taste buds.  The commander chose Iron Bull’s dragon alcohol since it was the only liquor in excess in Skyhold at the moment.  He wondered how Evie lived through that dragon slaying party drinking that formaldehyde.

Once he figured out the combination of liquor and potion, the commander felt better for a few bells so he could work.  Once the pain was at bay, the teas, peppermint oils, and scented incense controlled the symptoms.  Cullen did as she requested and wrote the experiences down in hidden messages in his letters.  It was therapeutic.  The lyrium in the invisible ink did not bother him then.  Evie replied with well wishes, noticing patterns and attack triggers.  She recommended he walk or jog laps around the battlements to clear his mind and let the potions work through his system before attempting paperwork again.  He actually slept with little to no nightmares those nights.

By now, after four weeks away from Evie, the treatments were waning.  The nightmares were growing in intensity and vividness.  Cullen kept smelling the Fade for demon stenches so he could prepare.  The commander’s body became accustomed to the concoctions and sleep aids.  The fire mage already increased the potency twice.  Adan the Apothecary warned any higher amounts will impact his humours. 

The apothecary.

Another lightning strike thundered through his body.  Cullen gripped his hardwood desk, digging his fingernails into the finish.  The mother of pearl and marble edges cracked under his tightening grip.  Sweat dripped from his brow.  He already shedded his coat and gloves to reduce his interior temperature.

Cullen could not tell Evie why he avoided the apothecary now and her invisible ink powder.  A few days ago, the commander entered the apothecary needing a refill on a few potions and incense.  Fesill was busy that day with some other duties, and Cullen believed the walk would possibly help his chills.  The spring winds through the mountains was refreshing even though the pollen tickled his nose.  The former templar forgot he suffered from allergies as a child.  Kirkwall’s windy bay kept the pollen down, but here, ragweed grew on the slopes and worsened his nasal headaches.

The commander knocked on the door, learning that Adan had a temper if someone barged in and interrupted him while he worked.  The apothecary sat at the base of the mage tower near the gardens and within walking distances to the infirmary.  No one responded to his knocking.  Cullen grimaced, running his hand through his blond neat hair.  Evie’s new improved formula tamed each curl with less product.  Was no one present?  It was past lunch.  He should have checked if the mages and mashers were in the gardens tending to their herbal crops.  Cullen decided to knock again.

That time the ex-templar heard footsteps crossing the room.  A few second later, the reinforced door opened a few inches.  Cullen’s migraine and pain was minimal up to that point.  Yet, seeing the attendant drove the agony through the roof.

Since that day telling Leliana about his history with Maya Amell, Cullen successfully avoided her.  He never saw her, and she stayed on the opposite side of the fortress.  The commander wondered if the spymaster worked with the Council of Magi to keep them separated without dropping any association.  However, the tranquil stared at him at the apothecary door.  Her wavy blonde hair was pulled back with a rag, most likely an action by Minaeve since tranquil were never annoyed with hair falling into their eyes.  A leather apron layered her robes to avoid poisons and mixtures spilling on her clothes. 

Maya’s dead sky blue eyes met Cullen’s amber hues through the door crack.  For a split second, he swore he saw a bit of life rise, but flash away before the vomit raced up his throat.  In his pain-filled mind, his former lover looked like his current infatuation, uplifted by his presence and reunited with her emotions.  Evie and Maya could have been twins when Evie disattached herself and became that tyrannical monster in the Exalted Plains.  There was no life their eyes, just like when he saw their loving feelings through their shimmering irises.

“M-my apologies…” Cullen stammered, trying to forget the comparison his mind kept making studying the tranquil woman.

“Commander, you are here for more potions?”  Maker’s breath, even her dead voice sounded like Evie’s when she allowed her Inquisitor persona to rule her.

Cullen just stood there.  His mouth gapped.  He felt his heart beating out of his chest.  “H-how-“

“The Inquisitor entrusted me with her recipes and treatment.  I even gave her recommendations on doses based on my extensive studies.” The tranquil informed, monotone.  “We reviewed all current published research on the condition.  As a tranquil, she knew I would not break her confidence, notifying me this was personal matter that must remain secret.  Her assistant, Fesill, typically states when you require more aids.  Based on your regiment, you should not need new vials until next week.  I highly recommend you do not take more than instructed.  It can damage your kidneys and liver.”

Cullen shook violently.  “H-how closely have you and the Inquisitor worked together?”

“Since I arrived.”  Maya replied flatly.  “Our interaction has increased since her own exposure to red lyrium, thus my research on curbing lyrium exposure with the Inquisition’s red lyrium disposal units.  If you request, I can write a full report for your review on the military health outcomes following red lyrium exposure.  On a personal level, she stated she wished to spend more time with the alliance tranquil because she feels we are ignored.  Despite my reassurance we cannot feel neglect, she and Minaeve increased interactions with all tranquil.  The Inquisitor requested documentation on current rite of tranquility practices and outcomes.  She met with former Grand Enchanter Fiona regarding tranquil living here and possibly recovering their emotions.  Would you like to wait while I make your order?”

The commander’s mind blanked.  “N-no.  I will have Fesill come…”

Cullen barely grabbed the chamber pot under his desk before bile and acid erupted out of his mouth.  Since that revelation, the commander stopped taking Evie’s medicine.  Every time he went to write his pain with the ink, he broke down and cried, only seeing her dead green eyes and a brand on her forehead.

Maya and Evie worked together to help treat his lyrium withdrawal.  They researched lyrium impacts, assisting him through the ordeal.  Evie related to Maya from her own experiences disconnected from her feelings.  Evie wished to understand the rite of tranquility, possibly recommending reversing the branding for alliance tranquil.

Lifting his head from the pot, the commander wiped the lingering acid from his lips with a nearby cloth.  Now, he could smell the lyrium in the ink powder.  It sang a sweet song, nearly driving Cullen to lick the powder out of the metal canister.  Now, any potion made the withdrawal worse.  In his suffering mind, Evie was Maya.  Maya was Evie.

Evie will suffer and die if he loves her.

Cullen admitted to himself the day the Inquisitor left Skyhold he was falling in love with her.  The emotion hung inside Cullen’s chest for months as he pushed it aside or trying to deny it.  Now that he said it to himself, he could not do neither.  He could not decide if this was positive or negative revelation.  It made him both so happy and so broken at the same time.  Evie brought him warm, hopeful thoughts and smiles.  Touching her, may it be her hand or her sex, sent exciting electrical shocks throughout his body.  The lyrium in his body craved her like she absorbed the poison and ended his agony. 

The former templar had not felt like this since he was nineteen.  With Maya.

Maya was Evie.  Evie was Maya.

Evie will suffer staying with him.

He cannot tell her he loves her.

Mees crowed again, alerting the commander the day continued while he fell apart.  He glanced his long letter, writing a few little sentences, avoiding the invisible for the first time.  Cullen could not control his actions at the moment.  Evie will know something is wrong, but he will make up an excuse in the next letter.  Now, he just needed to disconnect himself from his torturing pain and controlling thoughts.

 

-I miss you, Milady.

Yours, C

 

Chapter Text

Cassandra could hear the banter from the southeast tower, while making a disgusted face.  “Mages…”  The seeker jeered, lowering the dwarven spyglass from her right eye.

As a seeker, Cassandra can sense magical auras from nearly a half-league away.  Since recruiting four very different, highly skilled mages to the Inquisition, she attuned her honing ability to those individuals.  Frost formed on her eyelashes feeling Vivienne’s aura.  Tickling inappropriate shocks, even more arousing than her smutty books, sparked from Dorian.  Solas emitted a homely gentle warmth, reflective of his highly specific healing and force abilities.

And then there was the Inquisitor.  From the heat coming off the sandstones as her Antivan mare trotted up to Griffon Wing Keep, she was one fade rift away from sending all three mages into the Void.  The fire mage kept biting her lower lip and eying her saddle bag.  She most likely found another rare vintage in the Forbidden Oasis. 

“…What are you supposed to be?  Some kind of woodsman?  Is this a Dalish thing?  Don’t you dislike the Dalish?  Or is it some kind of statement?”  Dorian kept asking about a specific elf’s wardrobe as he slowed his Imperial mare.

“No.”  Solas huffed on his hart.  He stopped the mount behind Evie, who paced in front of the keep gate.

“Well, it says ‘apostate hobo’ to me.”

“’Unwashed apostate hobo,’ more specifically.”[1]  Vivienne clarified, wrinkling her nose.

“Get this gate up, or Maker, you all die at dawn!”  Evie hollered at the top of her lungs.

“Raise th' flag an' soond th' beel!  Th' Inquisitur has returned!”  Rylen called from his central station on the upper ramparts.  The Starkhaven templar giggled a little, glancing at Cassandra out of the corner of his eye.  She knew he was studying her, expecting some cheeky comment.  They had been trading quips the last few days when no one was around.

“Prepare for debriefing, Knight-Captain.”  The seeker ordered, walking from the tower with her gauntlets behind her back.  She made sure her gloved hands rested on her hips and accented her behind as she descended the stairs.  She just recently asked the keep tanner to make a pair of skin tight leather pants that had driven Rylen crazy the last few days.

“As ye wish, Seeker…” The templar officer replied, making sure his strong accent echoed off the stairwell walls.  Cassandra shuddered in delight at the heavy lick he placed on her title.

What was she doing?  She was Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, the Inquisitor’s second.  She remain stationed at their main Western Approach base to oversee all active Inquisition operations, while Evie handled all proactive missions.  She needed to remain professional, strict, strong-

“-Please tell me what Howe brought you lately, or so help me, I will burn down this keep.”  Evie begged, meeting Cassandra on the staircase heading to the lower open courtyard.  In the distance, the other mages meandered around before following their leader to the barracks.

Cassandra pivoted on her boot and walked slowly up again beside the lumbering leader.  “A fossil of two small prehistoric mudcrabs that look like they were holding each other’s claws as they died.”

“Oh, thank you.  You’ll have to show me.” Evie sighed, pleased.  “I noticed the sulphur towers and the wooden walkways are coming along well.  Probably another few weeks before we visit Calpernia, if she is there.”  Evie growled, biting the inside of her cheek.  Her bright green eyes shifted from the Inquisitor mindset to her own, fierce self.  “Five days, Seeker…Five days of bitching about Tevinter enslaving spirits and elves and why the Circles are the best places for mages.  They bickered about magical theory, testing one another’s knowledge on all histories, misconceptions, and practical lovemaking positions, especially if you are strong with Force magic.”

“I take it Dorian is giving you pointers?”  Cassandra guessed as the two women reached the living quarters’ main hallway off the middle courtyard.

“Pssh!  That was all me!  Apparently, Vivienne would not recommend page 73 of the Art of Love without first channeling your magic into a vibrating rune.[2]  Solas kept fixing the illustrations because they were based on ancient elven stretching positions that would cause the performers extreme physical pain after several rounds.  That whole conversation only filled two bells.  We had just started off!  I purposely engaged phoenixes in hopes they would rip me to shreds!”

Evie unlocked their personal room door she shared with Cassandra, allowing the seeker to enter first before flinging her saddle bag onto a nearby chair.  The seeker kept smirking, pleased to see Evie’s misery from the excursion.  “It seems you had an eventful few days.”

“The easy part was infiltrating the oasis and temple!  It was an old elven temple that energized the Anchor with elemental resistance and power as you fed these weird doors more shards, thus dead tranquil.  The whole oasis was filled with skulls on pikes.  Corypheus probably started the program to give the Anchor more power to destroy the world.  It kept stinging my hand every time I absorbed the boons.  Andraste and the Maker must favor the elves too if they had a temple for this divine gift.”  She wiggled and waved her marked left hand for emphasis.   “The door purposely contained a spell to keep people away.  The structure must have been built before the fall of Elvhenan!”  Evie hollered, reviewing her stacked mail gathered since she left.  She removed two envelopes, pushed out a dusty bookshelf to place the letters into a smell linen bag hidden against the wall. 

The mage wrinkled her nose, threw the letters down, and marched out of the bedroom.  The door was still open to the tight hallway.  “Sera!  You’re dead!  No new booze for you!  And I want my money, damn it!  It’s your own fault you bet you could get ten seconds of air time sliding down that sand dune on a templar shield!”

The elf rogue whined from nearby, most likely from the western wooden walkways.  “If you didn’t magically sealed the bag, you would have never known!  That’s Cully Wully’s writing.  He letter sexing you yet!?  Booby grabbing?  Pussy scratching fun?”

Evie’s freckled burnt cheeks twitched as she gathered her magic.  Lieutenant Tamsen passed by, hoping the Inquisitor would not pull her into the fight.  “Tamsen!  Sera’s on shit shoving duty until further notice!”

“Y-yes, Herald…”

“Expect shit in you wash water, Quizzy!”

Dorian called from down the hall.  “She will still look better than Solas.”

“I agree, Darling.” Vivienne added from her own room.

Evie marched back into the room and slammed the door.  She paused for a second before she smiled and laughed, shaking her head.  “If it wasn’t for the fact this place is hotter than a witch’s titties and Cullen is hundreds of leagues away, I might live here.  If I did all that in Skyhold, I would never hear the end of Josephine’s etiquette lessons.  Speaking of lectures, Cullen won’t like that I cliff jumped onto a roaming giant guarding a waterfall.  You already got me in trouble about all my brash fighting taking the keep.  I fear he might have a heart attack at this rate!”  She pointed at the seeker using a stern voice.  Her face relaxed and nodded.  “It was so cool, though.  It kept screaming as I lit its head on fire and stabbing it with my enchanted sword.  By the way, if you and I get away from here without any of these jackasses, we are having a spa day in the Forbidden Oasis.  Maybe Rylen can take you?  Or is that more Howe’s stick?”  The mage winked, standing with her hands on her hips.

“Depends on my appetite…”  The Nevarran cooed, sending both women into a titter.

Those weeks in the Approach changed Evie.  The longer they were away from Skyhold politics and focused on their missions, the more the true woman showed through.  Whatever ailed her in the Exalted Plains truly disappeared when allowed to be herself.  Cassandra smiled knowing she was partly why the Inquisitor expressed herself more, especially while Cullen was so far away. 

Furthermore, the two women became close as kin in many ways.  Cassandra actually gossiped with the mage each night they were both present.  Evie admitted a few details about her budding relationship with Cullen, such as why they had wild hair during the warden tavern raid.  The seeker asked for her options about Howe and Rylen, leading to a three bell long pros and cons debate, listing each man’s attributes, all the way down to their supposed lengths and girths.

It had been a long road for both women, yet something dissolved the final walls that kept them from being honest and sincere.  Their past disdain and misinterpretations in Haven seem but a dream compared with their relationship now.  Cassandra never had a sister or another feminine mate who was also brash and held her own in a fight.  From Evie’s tales about her Circle and her early life, she did not either.  They were both strong, fierce women who always had to be intimidating and demanding.  Sometimes, girl gossip, romance, and makeup was fun and rewarding too.

“By the way, I made another kohl block and cut it into sticks.  I saw our stock was low, and I found some charcoal around the mining camp.”  Evie showed her the few black sticks, while removing items out of her saddle bag.  “I needed something to do besides choke those dumbasses.”

Cassandra immediately touched her smearing eye makeup.  “That last stick keeps melting off my face.  Something changed when you mixed the embrium oils with the charcoal last time that it makes it smear easily.  Anyway, thank you.  Rylen is on night patrol tonight.  I am thinking about reading under the full moon.  Maybe on those boulders where we hid before taking the keep.  You know, within eyesight of walking patrols and an officer gaze?”

Evie just shook her head.  Her bloody, dusty braids had fallen from her hair pins during her ride back.  From how Evie unpacked and pulled out fresh clothing, she will take a bath soon.  “You’re going to have to choose one soon, my dear Seeker.  Keeping those men on such hopeful leashes is not healthy for them or you.”

“Says the woman who made the commander wait how many months?  The man bloody kissed you to life on the battlefield!”  Cassandra spat back; her high cheekbones blushing.  Her inner romantic beamed remembering the gesture.

“I still need to ask him about that…” Evie waved her left hand, dismissing her thoughts.  “Anyway, you can ask him.  It was worth the wait.  Just like the very specific wait he is suffering with right now.”

“Is this about what you whispered in his ear as we were leaving?” Cassandra chuckled a few times, remembering Cullen nearly falling into the stables.  “Maker…”

Evie shrugged, moving her saddle bag and sat in the old wood chair.  She slowly peeled off her dragonskin armored coat, showing her sweat soaked undershirt and vest.  She already threw the shemagh on the floor in smelly disgust.  “Maybe…”  She wiggled her eyebrows before grinning ear-to-ear.

“I don’t know the details, but the non-monetary bets going on about what you said only get higher…”  Cassandra informed her, crossing her arms over her chest.  The seeker neglected to state she too submitted a chore bet just a few days ago when Iron Bull bet cooking fresh meat for a month at each Inquisition camp the Inner Circle visited.

Good.”  The Herald whistled, devilishly grinning.  “I have a plan on getting my cut.  They aren’t betting with money.  Okay fine, but if they want to know details, they will have to pay up though.”

“Why tease the commander so cruelly?”  The Nevarran remarked.  She immediately winced and waved away the stench flowing out of Evie’s greaves and boots.

The Inquisitor stood up and tossed the sand caked boots out the window onto a long ledge where they hung their wet laundry.  She nearly broke Blackwall’s birdhouse for Evie’s raven brothers.  “If you know how he refused me from enjoying his body, you would have done the same.”

The seeker bit her lower lip.  “I’ve only seen his shirt off once.”  She squinted and corrected herself.  “Actually twice?  The second, he was missing his tunic the day we left.  He didn’t see me leave the armory and-“

Evie burst out laughing, nearly falling out of the chair.  She reached into her saddle bag and held up a large oversized embroidered tunic.  “-You mean this?”

“You dirty woman!”  Cassandra clapped and stomped her boot.  “The other time was when he had to race across the training yard to his tower.  It was early in the morning, and I was up training earlier than usual.  He must have been in the bathing house and washed his clothes.  Everything was dripping wet, including him.  It was very cold outside, still winter, so every muscle flexed and shined in the morning rays.”

Evie slid out of her chair, moaning loudly.  “No fair!  Oh Maker, I miss him!  Dorian and I declared that when we return we have a shirtless fighting tournament with all the templars and upper Inquisition soldiers.”

Cassandra grimaced, her cheek twitching.  “Rylen’s here.”

“So is Howe.”  A twinkle lilted in the Inquisitor’s bright green eyes.  “Need to boost morale?  The new chef’s great and all, but it’s so hot.  We can’t have those glorious men train in full armor and clothing all day, right?”

The seeker’s espresso eyes silted.  “They would never buy it.”

“They don’t know about my secret project…” Evie cooed, tilting her head.  Her smaller braids fell from her messy hair style.  “The water down there is not potable, but a few naturalizing solvents and some candles…quite a reward for the winner, huh?”

It was Cassandra turn to slide off her bunk bed.  “Andraste forgive me for my sins…”

Both leaders sat on the sandstone floor, groaning and soaking their small clothes with visions of muscular happiness.

“Inquisitor!”

Evie flung her head up from her fantasy.  “You better say Corypheus is outside there juggling nugs, or so help me…”

“A special courier is asking for you at the outer gate.”  The voice sounded like one of Rylen’s runners.

“Take the message, and I’ll get it later.”

“It’s a Trevelyan messenger, Lady Herald.”  The runner exclaimed through the dilapidated door.  “He will only speak to you and you alone!”

Cassandra glanced at the Inquisitor, blinking.  “A Trevelyan courier?!  Out here?!

Evie rolled her bright green eyes as all her mirth drained from her freckled face.  “Remind me to tell you of the story of how I got the Divine’s invitation to the Conclave.  Hopefully, it is just some responses to my mining inquiries.”

 Previous interactions with the Trevelyan Family alerted Cassandra to grab her shield and sword.  They did not know if an envy demon took over another family member or worse, the actual family patriarch arrived.  She called forth her inner holy aura just in case she was forced to silence Evie.  More likely, the seeker would egg the mage on and watch happily as she ignited the noble house’s messenger.  Cassandra learned her lesson about underestimating any Trevelyan.

Cassandra met Bann Ian Trevelyan ten years ago at the Grand Cathedral.  The nobleman personally pleaded with Divine Beatrix to assist with the atrocities besieged against Evie.  Cassandra only nodded at the ass before the Divine told her to leave and request no one enter her chambers until she said.  The bann’s presence thickened the area like a fog.  Everyone noticed him and immediately hung their heads to avoid his swirling piercing eyes.

The seeker found herself studying Evie as the mage grabbed her stinky boots, but forwent her armored coat.  Cassandra did note the novice knight-enchanter carried her magical hilt and a hunting knife on her belt.  The mark sparked to life like Evie prepared for the ancient magister to appear at any moment.

As they made their way up the keep, Cassandra noted Evie looked like her father.  The bann’s hair was redder, much like Evie’s waves sun dyed after weeks in the desert.  They both looked healthy with harmonious sun-kissed skin.  Bann Trevelyan wore a trimmed beard and allowed his wavy hair to flow naturally to the right like it was scared into the position.  Most of all, the father and daughter carried themselves in that same thick, commanding atmosphere that filled the keep once Evie reached the overlook.  She adapted that air as part of her new Inquisitor persona.

Iron Bull saw the prepared seeker and Evie’s authoritative presence, tapping Krem to go get his team.  The Qunari fell in line and followed the Inquisitor and seeker to Rylen’s position.  Dorian had poked his head out of his quarters, stripped of his silk robes.  Only dressed in his leather armor, he grabbed his seer staff and trailed behind.  A boom passed Cassandra’s flank, awakening the seeker that a person moved in stealth.  From Evie flicking left hand, it was Cole waiting for her emotional commands.

Normally, couriers met in the lower courtyard openly and with little fanfare.  The whole keep stood silent as Evie stepped forward and gazed at the dismounted man holding his horse’s reigns waiting at the newly smithed outer gate.  Cassandra watched the Herald’s bright green eyes study and assess the person.

“Why do daisy cry?”

Cassandra threw the mage a startled look.

The messenger cleared his throat and thundered back.  “Because fair maidens do not know if he loves thee.”  Evie wetted her lips, thinking.  The courier replied with his own question.  “What is the last flower that stays at a pyre?”

Evie bit her lip hard.  Her eyes darted back and forth, searching for something.  “Lilies, for they cry into the night, at the stars of those…”  the Free Marcher’s voice cracked.  She leaned forward and braced herself on the available metal railing.  “…who have passed on.”

Evie glanced over her shoulder at Rylen.  “Let him in immediately.”  Evie bolted down the staircases to meet the man; her boots smacking the sandstone like a herd of druffalo.  Cole already disappeared from the ramparts to follow.  The spirit whispered Evie’s inner pleas, “Pain.  Agony.  Not this.  Please.”

Cassandra glanced at the tall Qunari and Tevinter mage.  Neither seemed surprised by the exchange.  Bull saw Cassandra’s confusion.  “Coded poems to announce the person and the correspondence’s purpose without telling a gathered group.  Clever, Bann.”  Bull commented, rubbing his pointed chin.

“In Tevinter, it is a blood magic hand shake.”

Bull smirked.  “Savages.”

Dorian gazed over his shoulder.  “You’ll have to show me to be more like you then, hm?”

Cassandra rolled her eyes, grumbling.  “Get a room.”  She rushed to meet Evie below. 

As she reached the middle landing, Varric joined the commotion.  “A party?”

“Trevelyans.”  The seeker hissed, gripping her longsword hilt.

“Oh goodie.  A public execution then.”  Varric laughed, following behind.  “And here I thought the writer’s block would ruin my week.”

By the time Cassandra caught up with her leader, Evie already stood by the lower courtyard well.  It looked like it took a beating, now torn apart on one side and sealed with a hatch.  The Inquisitor claimed the contaminated old aquifer as a secret personal project while she was stationed at the keep.  After over half a year in the field with the fire mage, everyone knew she rarely slept, at most catnapped in strange high places or on horseback while traveling.  To fill the time between sunset and sunrise, she worked in the cavern below the keep on something only she and Cassandra knew about.  Every morning, some worker complained lumber, mortar, and stones were missing.  At the moment, the Herald chose that spot as a possible escape route if this exchange fell apart.  Cassandra kept her distance to prepare and possibly strike.  Movement caught her attention along the standing position on either side of the lower staircase.  Both people were in stealth, most like Skinner and Sera.

“Hywel, we meet again at the ass end of nowhere.”  Evie called, her pitch noted anxiety as well as light-heartedness.

“Lady Evelyn-  My apology.  Lady Herald of Andraste and Inquisitor.”  The courier greeted, bowing to the fire mage.  “Yet, you still look like you lost a fight with a grizzly bear.  What did I tell you about wrestling with the wildlife?”

“I won the fight, and it was a giant, thank you.”  Evie corrected the messenger with a snap.  She unbuttoned her vest, while she continued to speak.  “Have trouble finding the place?”

“I was a few leagues from the Forbidden Oasis when a former miner stated you left that morning to return here.”  Hywel informed the woman as she reached into her tunic.  “I only arrived a little later than your own party because my horse needed a drink at your fine gorge over the ridge.”

Evie glanced over her shoulders at the gathered group.  “You see, everyone, Hywel’s specialty is finding people.  He never uses the person’s name.  It is their reputation he utilizes…along with several bags of sovereigns.  Any tongue will wag when offered enough coin.”

“Only if it is I asking, Inquisitor.”  The courier waited for something.  Evie pulled out her amber teardrop pendant.  On the chain was a silver thimble and her signet ring.  The mage took a step forward.  The man nod at the displayed ring, turned to his saddle bag, and unlock the buckle.  He tabbed through the correspondences until he pulled out a thick envelope.

Immediately, Cassandra felt a strange magic vibrating from it.  Evie accepted it, nodded to the courier.  She slipped her signet on her right hand ring finger and broke the enchantment on the envelope’s wax seal.  The magic subsided immediately with a blue faint glow.  Lyrium enchanted.

“I am glad you have your true ring back, my Lady.” Hywel nodded his head, watching Evie throughout the whole exchange.

“Yes, well that’s why you found me in that nasty tavern last time.”  Evie huffed.  “Knight-Captain Rylen, please assist Hywel with anything necessary, including a comfortable cot for the night, perhaps?”

The messenger waved his hand.  “No need.  You know very well my job is never done.  Until we meet again.”  He bowed lower than his previous time, waving his hand in some formal way.

“I’m sure you never stop.” Evie muttered, watching the courier mount his horse and skip out of the keep back into the desert.

“What weird snobs.” Sera called, falling out of stealth.  “All those secret rings and codes.  Mind telling me some, Quizzy?  A Jenny can right those injits right quick, ya know?”

“I like you Jennies too much to see you all massacred and deleted from existence.”  Evie pivoted on one boot and quickly lifted the hatch she placed over the well, and entered her lair.  “Seeker and Knight-Captain, the debriefing must wait.  I will inform you when I’m ready.”  She slammed the hatch shut once she descended into the dark, rotting abyss.

Rylen and Cassandra traded glances, feeling several fire mines being set below their feet.   The seeker’s lip quivered as she watched the keep gate close.  The sand dissipated from the courier’s horse hovers racing away.  She missed something in those few exchanges, but one thing stuck out the most.

“Bad news from home.” Iron Bull stated for everyone gathered.  “Very bad news.”

 


 

Dorian enjoyed his tall, peaceful perch on the southeast tower, gazing at the astrarium every few pages and noted its changing, glowing constellations.  Since the Inquisition claimed the keep and he was in residence, he enjoyed leisure evenings sipping brandy and reading a good book.  One thing about killing his fellow countrymen:  they had better taste in literature than the southern countries.  Finally, the necromancer had proper magic literature that was not butchered by the Chantry for their Circles.

“Good book?”

The Tevinter mage’s heart dropped through the Void.  Her voice was hoarse, filled with fallen tears. He did not need to look at her.  Her fierce kohl and rouge was probably wiped away after several soaked handkerchiefs.  Her nose always looked like a glowing ruby focus crystal after a good cry.  After all, the mage held his best friend closely after killing the red lyrium husk of their fine Fereldan commander.

“An appetizer to the show about to occur to our south once that Starkhaven captain can find his tongue.”  Dorian smirked, thumbing towards where Knight-Captain Rylen patrolled the walls.  “You made our seeker some new kohl for her rendezvous tonight?”

“Now, what gave you that idea?  I was more concerned about your makeup for your tent partner when we leave for the Wastes.”  The Inquisitor moved past him, leaning against the tower’s railing to view the darkening desert.

“You worry about your own kohl, my dear Sunshine.  I have my own affairs in order.”  Dorian smelled honey in the air.  He peeked over his book and reviewed his fellow mage’s back.

Evie finally bathed, but she looked cleaner than a typical sponge bath everyone suffered with in the Approach.  Her oversized linen tunic and tight tan riding pants were clean too.  What was she up to below the keep?  Dorian reviewed the large tunic closely.  It was drab and barbaric.  Red Avvar-designed stitching followed the back collar to the front depicting a roaring lion on the hunt.  Where had he seen that before?

“What did Felix’s letter say?”

Dorian awakened from his memory searching.  “Excuse me?”

“In the Exalted Plains, you received a letter from the Imperium…because it was opened by Leliana and you cussed about privacy.  From the lack of your typical disgust when the runner gave it to you, it must have been from Felix.”

This amazing woman surprised him every day.  “I believed I received that letter the night I got too drunk and argued with an Inquisitor Trevelyan, I think?  Bitch, really.  Never took anyone’s advice.”

“Yes, I didn’t like her either.”

Evie’s tone was sassy, but hurt by something.  Dorian wondered why his friend brought up his mentor’s son.  “Apparently, he went to the Magisterium, just like he promised.  Stood on the senate floor and told them of you.  A glowing testimonial, I’m informed.  No news on the reaction at the time, but everyone back home was talking.  Felix always was good as his word.  Damn too honest and heroic.”

Evie winced.  She pulled the oversized tunic close to her body.  “…was?”

“He’s dead, Evie.  The Blight caught up with him.”

That really made the Herald curl into a ball.  “It’s a…little late, but…are you all right?”

Dorian put down his book and turned to a sitting position on the tower waist-high wall.  “He was ill, and thus on borrowed time anyhow.”

“How long from…infection to…death?  Even with treatment…?”

Dorian exhaled, twisting his moustache a few times.  “Felix was tainted during a darkspawn raid, trying to protect his mother.  Maybe scratched or bitten, tainted blood entered the wound, but we didn’t know he was ill until his health declined drastically.  I think Alexius knew before anyone else.   He survived maybe a little over a year?”

“Oh Maker…” Evie sobbed, sliding down the tower wall until she sat by the astrarium.  “Cullen, please.  I wish you were here to hold me.  To see me cry…I need you…Please!

Dorian kept that little confession in the back of his mind.  Suddenly, the tunic’s familiarity flashed across his mind’s eye.  A strapping ex-templar wore it untied at the neck during their mini chess tournament.  Well, Dorian no longer had to nudge his two favorite people into each other’s arms.  They did on their own.

However, this was not the moment to fish for details, such as if Dorian’s fantasies were as good as the real thing.  That letter delivered by the Trevelyan courier dropped the fire mage to her knees.  Something happened to someone close to Evie that required a great deal of secrecy.

“Sweetie, care to tell me who is infected with the taint?”

Evie hung her head, while her arms and legs fell limp out from her core.  Her back pressed against the tower wall.  Her hands twirled the shiny thimble on her charm necklace around her index finger.  “She consumed it, not knowing her close friend poisoned her.  Madam du Couture, an elderly kind and dear lady to my family, and she did this?!”

“Who is ill, Evie?”

“My mother.”

Dorian quickly kneeled by his friend, feeling great compassion and pain for the Inquisitor in that moment.  Evie might sway on her personal opinions about her noble father and completely loath her older sister.  However, the whole Inner Circle witnessed a gentle gleam in her bright green eyes when she talked about her mother, Lady Gwen Trevelyan nee Monroe.  Details were vague, but the bann’s second wife remained confined on their family estate for safety purposes.  Everyone knew Evie drank from her mother’s glass when she was six and nearly died from nightshade poisoning.  Assassins constantly found ways to end the poor woman’s life.  However, tricking her into drinking darkspawn blood?

“What was she drinking that masked the taint?” Dorian asked, sitting by his broken friend.

“Not drank.  Ate.”

Ate?

“Mother loves baking and making sweets, especially for King Alistair when he was just stable boy.  She always sent me treats in the Circle, enough for everyone to have two pieces.  Even for the nasty templars, hopeful they might be kind to me.  Madam du Couture traveled Thedas, collecting thimbles and whatnot.  According to Father’s sources, the dark chocolate the noblewoman brought from Rivain was melted and mixed with darkspawn blood.  The exotic type of chocolate with its amaretto liquor centers hid everything.  Mother’s taster never had a problem.  His three random pieces were fine.  After an evening talking and sewing beside the fire, the noblewoman received some urgent news and had to quickly leave.  Something about her grandson in Orlais.  Mother continued with her sewing, finishing her box of Rivaini chocolates.  They found her in the morning…coughing up blood and ghost white.”

Evie wiped away a few tears and cleared her throat.  “They give her a month.  Two with extensive treatment and bleedings.  My father requested my presence so I could say goodbye.  I must decline.  Corypheus has the taint, an ancient magister who will curse this world with the Blight.  I must stop him.  Yet, I told Mother before I left home last autumn, I swore I would be back in time for the largest lily blooming in her gardens.  That’s four months away.  I guess neither one of us will see the spectacle.”

Dorian hugged the fire mage closely, rocking her a little like a swaddled baby while tears streamed down her sunburnt cheeks.  Even if Evie left right then, she would not arrive in Ostwick until six weeks past.  Her mother might be dead by then.  The Tevinter could not do anything for her at that moment, but damn it, he could write her Fereldan knight across the continent to get his ass out there and wipe away her tears.  Maybe make love to her until she could not walk right for an age.  It might not be the same, but it was better than sitting in a Second Age keep in the sweltering desert heat alone wearing his old ruffian clothing.

The Tevinter tried to remember all the different powders and potions Felix had that help slow the infection and kept him himself.  Maybe he could get the recipes and offer them to her and her mother to extend her life a little longer.  Evie asked for very little since becoming Thedas’ grand savior.  She deserved to see her mother one last time before her death.  Dorian had many letters to write tonight.

“Care to watch a Starkhaven templar try to swoon our seeker?”  The necromancer sang to the beautiful woman in his arms.

“Please tell me you have the spyglass ready.”

“Along with a dead sack of rats ready to be risen under a boulder.  I heard it’s her favorite scary pest.”

“Put me down for laundry duty if the seeker knees him in the groin.”

“As the Herald commands.”

Dorian slowly climbed to his feet, smelling the honey scent wafting from the broken woman sitting on sandstone slabs.  So that is why she suddenly loves the fermented honey wine.  He grinned devilishly.  “Fresh bottle of mead?  Wine and a show?”

“Make it two.”

Chapter Text

Things cannot get any worse.

Yet, Leliana knew they could.  She participated in stopping the Fifth Blight.  It will always get worse, especially when the Maker lets it all happen.  He let Ferelden break out in a civil war during the Blight.  The god allowed the Divine to die.  The Maker permitted an ancient magister to destroy the Conclave and Haven, and now possibly the world.

The spymaster kept massaging her left hand, hoping the writing cramps would subside, but it was unlikely.  The mental list of people and missives she needed to write outpaced the number of ravens and crows she had at her disposal.  Runners and couriers were in shorter supply.  She already called back several trusted messengers from Caer Bronach because more troubling news kept rolling in from all parts of southern Thedas.

The Western Approach expedition already wore on the whole Inquisition leadership even before the Inquisitor disembarked from Skyhold.  Leliana kept her own concerns about the Herald’s wellbeing to herself.  Her red lyrium exposure and complete mental breakdown even caught the bard off guard.  Her interior spy network informed her that Cullen had done as Leliana had encouraged, but his oblivious runner ruined the most hopeful outcome. 

Cassandra’s reports back from the Exalted Plains confirmed Leliana’s worst fears:  that Evie was dead, long live the Inquisitor, the Herald of Andraste.  For a short period, she wondered if she was going to enact her most hidden regicide plan to save the Inquisition.  Any proper and professional spymaster would have one in mind.  She prepared such a plot for even Divine Justinia, as much it pained her.  Leliana prayed she never had to use it for the Divine’s own writ, her legacy.  Following the commander’s public display of affection at the final battle, Leliana withdrew her anxieties.  The mending would take time, especially for Evie, but things would be okay.

Even after seeing Evie’s broken soul upon her return from the Emerald Graves. 

The mage’s inability to look anyone in the eye, most of all her commander’s, was expected.  Josephine always looked out for the woman, especially after the Inquisitor ordered Leliana not to pursue the ‘simpler’ and less risky option to the diplomat’s crisis.  Cassandra finally became the confidente Evie needed since the Conclave explosion, gaining the Herald’s ear and trust.  The two women were inseparable now.  Cullen was the most beaten and bruised from the experience.  Leliana was more concerned for him than the Inquisitor.  She knew those lost familiar amber eyes and broken spirit from the early days of destroyed Kirkwall when the man did not have a path to walk that could bring him any joy.  They even displayed hints of his torture in Kinloch Hold.

What did not help anyone was the news that the Grey Wardens were committing blood magic.

Leliana panicked when Evie informed the War Council the wardens were hearing the Calling.  The bard was surprised she did not ride to Denerim right then and beat Astrid’s location out of Alistair.  Following her successful interrogation, she would mend his bruised body and they would go rescue his wife and her best friend.  Astrid would see the discolorations on the man’s pale skin, glance at her, and predict how long he lasted before spilling her deepest secret.  She always gave Alistair the benefit of the doubt, even knowing the shortened odds.

Hearing that the Grey Wardens were considering blood magic for one last stand nearly pushed the redhead to request she accompany the Inner Circle to the Western Approach.  In hindsight, that would have been better, especially during the current cloister fuck.  Have Cassandra remain in Skyhold as second and seneschal, bring Charter to oversee the outer spy network, and Leliana journey into the desert.

But the spymaster did not suggest it.  Leliana’s personal wishes could threaten her beloved mentor’s last requests.  She knew she wanted to go there and hopefully see Astrid fighting to save her cherished order.  Howe’s information and Astrid’s personal letter to the Inquisitor smashed that fantasy.

Evie got a letter, and Leliana did not.

Astrid knew about everything going on in southern Thedas and did not return to save the day.

Astrid knew she hurt Leliana, but will not apologize.

Leliana rubbed her blood-shot eyes.  Their discoloration was from hours of reading and writing, not from the sudden emotion pushing at her tear ducts, she protested to herself.  She trained the queen too well.  The bard just so happy that someone accepted her as her and not as a used rag that could be manipulated like Marjolaine had done for most her young adult life.  The Maker’s supposed rose vision might have told Leliana someone was coming to end the Blight in Lothering, but it was Astrid’s own holy presence that kept the redhead still loyal to her even at that very moment.

Even knowing Astrid’s betrayal, Leliana still respected her wishes to leave her alone on that lonesome journey.  Those nights, ten years ago, wrapped in each other’s sweaty naked bodies, kept Leliana mortared to that spot and patiently waiting for her love’s return.  Even realizing in those precious moments she would never have Astrid’s heart, she still loved her, still worshiped her perfect body slowly changing as the specialized warden taint coursed through her veins.

…Leliana was captured following the failed ambush, subjugated to torture and experimental testing, specifically tissue grafting to heal Alexius’ son, Felix.[1]

That line in Evie’s alternative future report did not surprise the Nightingale.  During the Fifth Blight, it was a constant concern among the wardens’ companions if they would fall to the taint.  All known Chantry records of the Blight stated a person did not need to be bitten or scratched, just receiving tainted blood internally, could infected a person.  Open wounds while fighting the creatures always frightened the ragged group.  Alistair informed Astrid that the Grey Wardens believe it is not a physical infection, but a spiritual one taking a physical form.  The taint permeated everything in known world from the Fade to Thedas.[2]  Oghren’s proxy during the Blight probably saved his life when he became a warden himself.  Sten probably scared the taint away.  Shayle is technically a rock.  Wynne’s spirit kept her safe.  Zervan contracted so many sexually transmitted infections, the taint could not take hold.  Morrigan…ugh-

“-There is a way I think I can protect you, Leliana.”

Once again, that emotional pull tugged at the spymaster’s tear ducts.

The spymaster jumped out of her rookery seat, pushed the side door open by the Andrastian shrine, and stomped outside.  The bard gripped the tower wall tightly, trying to regain her poise.  She needed to focus.  She needed air.  The smell of Andraste’s Grace burned inside Leliana’s nose.  The full moon above would never mimic the silver flecks in those sparkling grey eyes.   She pulled off her gloves and threw them as far as possible because her tips felt that silky smooth caress as they glided over her flawless breasts.  The bard’s ears blushed, still feeling her panting breaths against them as she moaned, screamed in ecstasy.  The taste of her juices lingered on the redhead’s tongue, forever coated her plump lips until the Maker takes Leliana’s life.

The seneschal’s small coats wetted beneath her chainmail and leather armor.  Tears gathered on her eyelashes.  The bard squeezed her lids and lips shut.  Both lips and lids.

The Present.  Keep control.  Focus.  Blank.

Leliana’s ice blue eyes shot open.  Her mind was blank.  No more dampness.

The Inquisition.

Skyhold was quiet, completely still.

The curfew began two bells ago.  The council had no choice.  Things were rolling out of control each day Cassandra and Evie were gone.  Five weeks and no outside leadership to pull them back from the brink.  Leliana ripped apart four missives already, requesting the Inner Circle drop what they were doing in the desert and return.

Despite her breaking behavior right then, Leliana was the sanest person there.  Something broke Cullen last week.  His withdrawal symptoms spiraled out of control.  Leliana could tell just from her rookery he had not slept in over five days.  When the curfew began, he personally reviewed all locked buildings, most of all the tavern.  Punishment for breaking the nightly restrictions was imprisonment.  Only with written permission from a council advisor or serving scheduled security shifts allowed personnel to leave confined quarters.

Seven people willingly asked for imprisonment.

Leliana could not figure out why.

Cullen gave good suggestions, but they did not fit with what the people stated.  ‘It means my daughter will be safe,’ ‘Private Pollock won’t visit me there,’ ‘My meals will be fresh and tasty.’  Josephine just shook silently when they gave their statements, almost forgetting to record the whole exchanges.  Leliana told all of them to go to their rooms and sleep.  Everyone was tired and worn from constant missions.  If they could not sleep, visit the apothecary for a dreamless sleeping draught.

For the first time ever, the commander purged all over the floor in public.

Leliana could count the handfuls of times Cullen nearly did it in the last eight months, but he always controlled his withdraw.  After he confessed his past relationship with Maya Amell, he could say her name and keep a straight face.  Once both he and Evie showed up with wild, tangled hair following their first intimate exchange, Leliana knew they were each other’s comfort and warmth.  The Inquisitor did quite well in using her personal ravens and her assistant to keep their romantic relationship private.  Too bad Cullen could not keep a straight face another minute when the Inner Circle departed.

A wicked grin formed on the spymaster’s lips.

So those rumors about Evie’s groomed Circle ‘talents’ were true.

Anyways, Cullen broke the fortress’ confidence with his inability to keep his bile inside.  Leliana jumped into preservation mode right then.  She turned to her diplomatic friend to organize something lively and hopeful.  Mother Giselle and the loyal Chantry sister had their hands full with the devout coming every bell for their prayers, blessings, and singing.  Skyhold’s renovations were complete—sans Cullen’s tower—so there was no obvious work to occupy everyone’s mind.  Maker, even Gatsi paced waiting for his new stone shipments.  He already completed four dwarven and elven statues in a month!

Josephine just remained frozen.

The positive and graceful woman was broken by primordial fear.

The Inquisitor wrote three different missives stating she will assistant Josephine against Patricia’s actions once she returned.  Evie could not do anything about her sister’s melding while surrounded by blood magic, Venatori, and crazed wardens.  Cullen and Leliana did everything their power to protect the meek woman.  Josephine must stay inside safe Skyhold and be patient.

Leliana sighed.  Now, it will only get worse.  Evie’s mother, Lady Gwen Monroe Trevelyan, has been poisoned and slowly dying.

Official correspondence arrived just bells ago.  Dignitaries whispered half-truths between themselves a few days before that.  Philliam Trevelyan wrote Leliana personally the same day Evie found out by a Trevelyan courier.  Philliam stated in his cryptic letter disguised as a market shopping list that Lady Gwen lived in confinement since Evie was thirteen.  Her last public appearance occurred eighteen years ago.  Slowly throughout the last fifteen years, most servants, family friends, and business partners were barred from visiting the seaside family country estate to protect the bann’s wife.  The estate was now almost empty, sans a few most loyal guards, servants, specialized healing mages and physicians, and trusted immediate family until her Ladyship passed away.  Bann Trevelyan cancelled all business ventures except those pertaining to the Inquisition until further notice.  The whole outcome meant, on a small scale, Evie could not appeal to her father to curb her sister’s Inquisition sabotage.  On the large scale, Evie’s heart and soul shattered.  Yet, the Inquisitor wrote her advisors and her family she would not leave her duty.

"Bold in deed” is all she wrote Bann Ian Trevelyan.

Cullen discovered the outcome three days after Leliana received Philliam’s letter.  The spymaster noted no change in his behavior prior to then, even receiving Evie’s personal raven’s letters.  She either did not tell her new love, or the letter had not arrived yet.  Cullen’s worried demeanor and request to leave for the Approach occurred later after a specially paid courier arrived from Serault.  Leliana’s secret interior agent stated the news first arrived from Dorian, who used his own funds and personal connections to tell the Fereldan to get his behind out there and console his Lady.

Well, that took the Tevinter mage longer than Leliana believed possible to find out about their relationship.

That is when the templar-mage brawl occurred following a possession.

The advisors were in their daily war council meeting, discussing all negative consequences of Cullen leaving Skyhold.  Delegates’ screams alerted the advisors.  The smell of sulphur and carbon flowed throughout the great hall.  So did Cullen, all too well.  Leliana knew that smell from Kinloch Hold.  Josephine did not, the poor diplomat.  Everyone rushed outside.  The commotion centered across Skyhold from the mage tower.

The abomination used to be a young mage named Ivy.  She received her education and passed her Harrowing in Montsimmard under Vivienne’s supervision.  Unlike her mentor, she joined the mage rebellion, believing the Orlesian tower was the exception, not the normal life inside the Circles.  She was a knight-enchanter, although not a skilled front-lines fighter or she have been in the Approach.  Instead, she served in the mage-templar mixed units, the prized example of collaboration and change for the Inquisition.

According to the investigation, Ivy was not on duty patrolling the valley.  Her squad had just rotated back to Skyhold rest and relax.  Her templar squad mates stated she had not been sleeping well, and passed out in her bunk sometime that afternoon.  The mage barracks inside their tower was relatively empty when it all happened.

A Harrowed mage became an abomination.  How?

The mages and templars eliminated the rage demon quickly.  That was not why the dignitaries started running and screaming.  It was that the templars and mages started casting and cancelling in the courtyards, calling for the war to resume.  It did not make sense because both Cullen and Leliana heard from the Council of Magi and the Templar Order that both sides were improving relations each day.  Evie met with Ser Barris and former Grand Enchanter Fiona the day before she left.  Both representative assured the Inquisitor they would continue reviewing the future plans and programs to change the Order and Circles.

The advisors never said a word to break the chaos.  A sensible mind came from the most unexpected source.  He climbed the mage tower, pushing everyone out of his way.  He yelled at Enchanter Ellendra to cast an amplifying spell so everyone could hear his voice boom throughout Skyhold, even maybe to everyone in the valley, mines, and forests; all supporting and giving their lives for the Inquisition’s success.

“Is this what we promised!?  Resuming war while an ancient magister roams Thedas and threatens our lives!?  Who bloody cares if they wield fire, and we drink lyrium to cancel their spells.  We should be learning how they cast to stop those Venatori who slaughter the innocent and weak!  We should realize that lyrium led our brothers and sisters to become monsters and murder too many in Haven!  Maybe we should stop drinking it to save ourselves!  We are scared!  We are broken and damning the Maker for the Blight!  Right now, the Grey Wardens pace, wondering if the taint will turn them into fiends.  They use blood magic to solve the Blight!?  I cannot comprehend how more sin can destroy sin. 

“Yet, you blame each other for the failings.  Are you even Andrastian?!  I do not know about you, but I will stand with my cousin, the Inquisitor.  The Herald of Andraste!  She, born a mage, guides templars, fellow mages, Chantry sisters, nobles, and the everyday joes!  She is the Candle, walking against the darkness, unafraid.  Yet, she is just one candle, one light.  Let us hold a candle.  Let us carry the light with her, not against.  My aunt is dying because some foul abomination fed her the Blight.  The Herald’s candle is weak, my brother knights and sister mages.  Let us chant, Maker’s servants.  Let us mold wax from the new apiaries and make more candles, workers.  Humans, dwarves, elves…let us hold our fire lights and heal our world!”

 It was the first time Leliana saw Josephine smile in months.  “Ser Malcom…”

The first time the advisor met Evie’s youngest templar cousin occurred when Ser Burton became an envy demon.  He was meek and scared of the fierce Inquisitor, who stood bleeding and horribly poisoned by the red lyrium dagger.  The Herald smashed a rejuvenating potion vial against his helmet.  The Trevelyans were held in quarantine and interviewed about their potential behavior if they joined the Inquisition.  Malcom hung his head and shook, torn between his own thoughts and the pressures from his fellow templar cousins.  Leliana made sure every Trevelyan knight was shadowed and watched for misconduct.  Malcom was a follower, a scared little boy who drank lyrium and wielded dual swords.

Yet, that follower brought the troubled Inquisition back from the brink that day.

Once Malcom completed his lecture, he rescinded into his shy, meek persona again, hoping no one equated him to that outburst.  The advisors met with him after declaring a curfew, cleaned up, and cleansed the mage tower.  They appreciated his speech and effort.  Cullen asked if there was anything they could do for him.  Malcom requested a transfer to the Western Approach.  He wished to avoid the backlash from his other cousins and the disagreeing Inquisition members.

“Evelyn needs me.”  He barely whispered, fighting the sorrow rising from his weak soul.  “Even as children, she was sweet to me, but I still whipped her to near death all those years ago.  Aunt Gwen is so sick.  Uncle Ian broken…rushing to make his wife’s passing as easy as possible.  Meanwhile, other Trevelyans prepare for his own passing and the opportunity to become bann and the family head.  Aunt Gwen cared about me, forgave me for scarring her daughter.  Uncle Ian stated she permits me to come home.  Barely anyone in the family may see my aunt right now, but me?  I am unworthy to be her nephew…Evelyn’s cousin.  If Evelyn will be ‘bold in deed,’ damn it, I need to do the same.  My mother, Uncle Ian’s sister, is well and safe.  Evelyn is alone, carrying some much.”

Josephine sobbed hearing the knight’s confession in the War Room.  Cullen looked away the whole time, fighting between beating the shit out of the knight and saluting him.  Leliana just nodded, giving her support to finally change his ways.  Despite his attendance better here in floundering Skyhold, Malcom could do wonders in the desert.  Yet, his speech provided the spymaster weeks of propaganda.  A Trevelyan templar knight stands with Mage Inquisitor Lady Evelyn Trevelyan, the Herald of Andraste.

The commander broke the silence that day, slapping his gloved right hand on Malcom’s pauldron.  “Protect her, knight.  Be where I cannot right now.”

Malcom stared at him for a few minutes, scanning Cullen’s glossy amber eyes.  Whatever conclusion he realized, it made him smile.  “Of course, Commander.” 

Josephine glanced at Leliana surprised.  Leliana just smirked, facially expressing she was right in what the Antivan thought.  Once again, Josephine beamed and relaxed.  The advisors knew Cullen and Evie were an item now.  The spymaster wondered how much longer that secret will remain hidden from the Inner Circle in the coming weeks.

Staring out at the still Skyhold, Leliana reviewed the events with a clearer mind.  Astrid no longer plagued her fears and lonesomeness.  Everything was strange, sprouting from little roots nesting inside a giant boulder.  A boulder’s small crack cannot be broken by a tiny tree sapling.  Yet once the sapling continued to grow and thrive in the crack, the boulder slowly breaks into two.

“…Keep your focus on Samson in the east.  He might take this opportunity while I am away to strike the Inquisition.  We are fighting a two-front war now.  To stop the red templars and save the Grey Wardens, we must work together as a fluid team.”

Leliana’s jaw fell open.  Evie was right.  This was not anxiety and small happenstances occurring throughout Skyhold.  These were small roots chipping away at a solid boulder, the Inquisition.  Typically, Evie would review every event with suspicion for the worst possible outcome.  How did Leliana not predict this?

The spymaster always thought about Astrid.  The queen flooded her dreams and every waking thought.  Her mind and soul could not forget her betrayal.  Leliana worried if she was safe.  What was her love’s burdening secret?!

“This is malicious intent.”  Leliana whispered; her icy-blue eyes searching all around her.  How did the enemy infiltrate the fortress?  How did they orchestrate their attack without the advisors batting an eye?

How did they break the advisors so easily?

Josephine’s problem was already blooming when Evie left.  Leliana only became so anxious seeing Oghren and hearing Astrid wrote the Inquisitor personally.  Cullen’s lyrium condition was the worst kept secret within the Inquisition.  What did their personal issues have in common?

Fear.

Corypheus instilled fear in the Inquisition.  Just like the false Calling, he introduced the seeds of fear in his greatest adversary.  The Grey Wardens fell to their knees knowing they were all dying and must end the Blight.  They turned to blood magic, a sin on top of a sin.  Mages fear becoming abominations, always fighting demons in the Fade to avoid possession.  Most templars fear mages.  Many knights became templars because of Chantry doctrine and misunderstanding magic.

The advisors.  Cullen feared giving into lyrium.  Turn up the struggle.  Make the symptoms worse.  Plague his nightmares with torture and desire, especially since giving into the feelings for the Inquisitor.  On strictly strategy notion, the Inquisitor romancing a subordinate risked the whole Inquisition.  Yet, the organization already experienced the alternative:  a crazed, damning leader who did not care for anyone.

Josephine:  death controlled her thoughts.  Will I die today?  Is that person loyal to the cause or will they murder me?  She barely trusted anyone, thus she is the worst diplomat possible.  No more allies for the Inquisition.

Then there was Leliana.  The spymaster worked decades ridding herself of weakness and possible blackmail, especially after killing Marjolaine.  She tied all loose ends she believed.  Except Astrid.  Leliana’s weakest link was her best friend.  The queen could order her to slit her own throat and the bard would do it.  Knowing nothing about her whereabouts troubled Leliana’s thoughts day and night.

How did Corypheus know these fears and weaknesses?!

Leliana had a new mission, a purpose to save her beloved Inquisition.  She grabbed her leather gloves from the stone slabs and rushed inside.  She had a new list of missives that required her attention.  If the ancient monster wanted to break their boulder, he will have to try harder.  Leliana will not let it split so easily.  She will mix the mortar herself and axe through the tree trunk until her enemies all fell over screaming, spurting blood until they laid dead.

Chapter Text

Cole remained in stealth, perched on top of a cliff above the Inquisition Sunstop Mountain campsite.  The spirit determined this was the best place for him that night, especially since the Inner Circle prepared to ambush the main red templar and Venatori base tomorrow.  A week in the Hissing Wastes led them to this moment, pushing the red templars away from several surface dwarven tombs.  Everyone needed their strength, sustenance, and rest.  The strange young man required none.  When he was not on watch during missions, he remained by Evie as her personal guard.

Yet tonight, Cole could not bring himself to be at the Candle’s side.

Throughout the years living in the physical world, Cole slowly understood how to properly help people.  Rhys taught him that killing was not always the answer, changing the spirit’s meaning and actions forever.  Since joining the Inquisition, many Inner Circle members encouraged him to expand his tactics to not only help others but grow himself.  

There was constant tugging between Solas and Varric on how the assassin should act.  Solas stated he should be his natural self, a spirit from the Fade that made it physically into Thedas without possession.  The apostate concluded the spirit would return to the Fade soon once he felt his duty was complete.  Varric mentored the boy on how to be a person, someone who belonged in the physical world.  Cole learned how to play Wicked Grace, carry on normal conversations, and not use his forgetting ability constantly.  People remembering his aid would help both him and them.

Yet, there was one aspect both men agreed upon that Cole constantly failed to grasp:  keep people’s thoughts and feelings to himself.  That last several bells demonstrated that fact’s importance.  After the night’s harsh, hurtful events, the spirit began understanding why keeping some emotions close to one’s heart, separate from public eyes and ears.

The mystic assassin never understood how the living did not want to share their emotions with others.  It seemed the most logical thing to do to help one another.  Cole determined it was a lesson he yet to fully understand, just like when Seeker Lambert illustrated he was a ‘demon,’ not a ghost.  Although it was best for Rhys and Evangeline not to know his whereabouts, right then he yearned for his lost friend’s counsel to comprehend not sharing inner thoughts.  He needed the mage more than ever right then because his misunderstanding had cost Candle greatly.

Cole’s cliff looming over the camp was his place of exile, especially hearing Varric, Dorian, and Cassandra’s mental yelling and cursing.  The spirit missed something.  Shouldn’t it have helped? 

It all began when his burning Candle left camp earlier, recognizing the raven circling around as Mees.  It was common knowledge now that two specific black birds responded specifically to Candle, and was not part of the Inquisition’s main messengers.  They arrived about every two days from the east, always finding the mage no matter where the group traveled.  She snagged an Orlesian bread stick from a nearby food sack, walked about twenty paces from camp, and lifted her arm.  The raven, Mees, floundered down and landed on Candle’s bracer so his talons did not scratch her.  He received a few soothing pets and whispered coos from the Inquisitor before she handed over the bread stick.  While the animal was distracted, she claimed the prize contained inside the canister attached to his right talon.

Your letter is a little late, Cullen.  Things too busy in Skyhold?

Once the raven realized it fulfilled its task, it flew away, but not far.  It claimed a nearby outcrop as his home for the night.  It knew by morning he will be returning east with a new prized letter.  Candle watched it leave before wandering out into the desert to read Cullen’s latest writings.

A thimble!  Hot damn!  He hasn’t used the ink in a while.  Lately when he used it, it only contained good news…yet nothing about his withdraw.  No more advice on changing potency or which incense is best if his allergies flare up.  I hope he is okay…

-Damn it!  He took my rook!

Cole learned when Evie received a letter to leave her alone.  However, Candle was not herself after that day’s fighting.  She, Cole, Dorian, Varric, and Iron Bull attacked a red templar encampment.  The monsters transported a very large node that typically were used to begin corrupting the surrounding area.  The spirit informed the squad about the node, and Evie immediately fade-stepped away.  That would be the third node they found in five days.  As she promised Varric she wanted to destroy it before its malicious growth began poisoning the expansive desert.

Evie almost died today.

The mage appeared from fade-stepping in the middle of several red templars:  two knights, a shadow, and a behemoth.  Cole did not tell her in time about the oversized monster.  Before her magic sword thrusted into its distorted face, it silenced her.  Candle fell unconscious instantly.

Panic ensued.  Dorian fade-stepped into the fray, hoping to grab his friend’s body before a red knight cut off her head, but she was penned under another red knight’s shield.  Iron Bull was too far away.  Even his whirlwind strikes did not pull the red abominations away from Candle.  Varric fired a whole quiver of bolt just to pull the red templars’ attention away.  Cole frenzied, slaughtering an approaching red knight who had been patrolling the encampment’s outer area.

“For the Herald!”

Suddenly, appearing over a sand dune, ten Inquisition Calvary riders, a mage healer, and one templar knight emerged at full gallop.  The knight charged into the battle, drove his shield into the red monster pining Evie’s unconscious body and knocked the creature away.  He reigned his horse back and thrusted his sword into the second red knight’s head before cutting it off.  The templar threw his shield down and withdrew his second sword from its scabbard and proceeded to stand over Candle’s body until all the red templars were vanquished.

“You’re…you’re Evie’s cousin, right?  The craven who always looks like he will piss himself.” Dorian commented once the battle ended.  He held Evie closely during the exchange.  Usually, she woke after a few minutes, but the unusual silence forced her to sleep longer.  Cole still could not feel her fade connection returning.

“I-I am…” The templar stammered, retreating again inside himself.  “I live to serve her in her darkest hour, while the knight who wished to be here remained in Skyhold.”

Dorian hissed, rolling his eyes.  “That man will be picking femurs out of his arse for the next ten years when I get ahold of him…And they’ll be rotting gurn femurs.  There’re enough of those brute animals out here.”

Ser Malcom saluted and bowed again.  “He figured you would wish him harm, and he accepts whatever punishment you decide.”

“That noble twat.  Won’t even let me have fun chastising him…”

The remaining Inner Circle surrounded the unconscious Inquisitor, not understanding the exchange, but never spoke their minds.  They simply threw each other curious looks and wrinkled their noses at the knight, remembering Malcom’s missteps months ago.  He is a Trevelyan.  Past interactions demonstrated they must watch him closely for Evie’s sake.  Just in the last weeks, a Trevelyan courier delivered a cryptic letter, stating the Candle’s mother was dying.  Cole wanted to tell him his thoughts and dedication were genuine, feeling his humble soul yearning for redemption.  However, somehow the spirit knew they would not believe him.  Following the fight, the Trevelyan’s squadron was ordered to report the keep and carry back orders and resources from the Wastes.  Malcom was gone by the time Evie regained consciousness.

That was the beginning of Cole’s misstep.  Everyone noticed when Candle received her letter, occupying a tall boulder about one-hundred yards from the camp.  Cole decided it was too dangerous for her to be alone, but she would sense his presence if he approached her location.  So, he sat down on broken, toppled dwarven statue around the fire with the other companions, listening to her thoughts attentively. 

The mountain top camp was buzzing with many people.  Cassandra joined the Inner Circle for tomorrow’s assault.  Her presence relived Cole, especially after Evie’s collapse that day.  She still worked while eating some Orlesian bread sticks and stew, arguing with some scouts regarding the lack of intelligence they had here.  The only excuse the scouting team had was it was huge, empty place.[1]

 Among the usual comrades, Tessa and Marius joined the Inquisition, planning on taking a Venatori stronghold with the Chargers and Dorian the day after tomorrow.[2]  The Grey Wardens Stroud and Sirgun, Hawke, and Fenris also occupied the camp, reporting to the Inquisition’s leaders on their current slow progress.  Sirgun joined a squad of departing scouts to search the area for potential darkspawn and red templar activity.  The dwarf warden was antsy being in such a large open place and could not sleep.  Fenris enjoyed some time chatting with a fellow former Tevinter slave.  Marius did not speak much.  The recruited noble-ex-slave duo were exhausted after their constant travel, so they quickly retired for the night.

So, Dorian, Iron Bull, Blackwall, Sera, Varric, Fenris, and Hawke huddled around the main camp fire, drinking warm ale and eating their rations.  Solas and Dagna analyzed the dwarven artifacts and special tomb slabs they gathered from the surface ruins.  His group and Cassandra could barely hear the fire conversations.  Vivienne tied up her tent flap at the far end of camp and performed her weekly beauty routine, so at least she did not know…yet.

...my mind wanders constantly to your little statement.  It keeps me sane, curious to what other surprises you have up your sleeves.”  Cole spoke, keeping his full attention on Candle in the distance.

Blackwall blinked a few times.  “You okay, boy?”

...I should have woken you, kissed you until you were breathless that morning.  You were just so calm and beautiful sleeping.  I did not have to heart, yet now alone and slowly growing insane without you, I see how much of a mistake that truly had been.  To have just one minute, one bell with you longer or even now, would be greatest blessing from the Maker.  I’m glad to know you are enjoying my shirt.  More are going missing.  Your doing via your nug or Fesill, I suppose?

“Oh!  Kissy kissy!  Stripping dirtiness!”  Sera squeaked, clapping.  “Give us details!”

Dorian nearly dropped his stew bowl.  He cleared his throat and blurted the first thing that came to his mind.  “Say Fenris, did you think Danarius chose that lyrium tattoo design because it looks elven or that is where your arteries flow?”

Fenris’ cheek twitched, staring at the altus.  Before the warrior stood, Hawke patted his lap.  “Shh, love.  He’s trying to distract us.”  Hawke’s lilac-tinted eyes glanced at Cole.  “What’s this about shirt stealing?”

Varric laughed.  “Need I remind you that almost the whole Kirkwall crew lost their garments during your wild parties, Hawke?  The kid probably picked up you thinking about that.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the time we found you hanging from the chandelier from Bianca’s back straps butt naked and acting like a pissing dwarven fountain all over my sitting room carpet.”  Hawke reminded her best friend.

“Now, that sounds like a party!” Iron Bull called, cackling deep within his large chest.

“Isabella knows how to make events, how should I say, ‘clothing optional’.”  The mage giggled, rolling her head on her shoulders.  Her raven black hair grew longer since being at Skyhold.  It was shaggy and nearly covered her ears.  “I think the kid’s talking about a more personal robbery.  Who has a nug?”

Dorian cleared his throat.  “Who would want a nug?  You must know Evie blows the rats up, so everyone avoid bringing one home.  He is just rabbling.  He does it all the time.  Ignore it.”

“Evie actually owns a nug despite her hatred.”  Blackwall commented, combing his beard with his callused fingers.  Dorian rubbed his eyes in disgust.  “That chocolate one.  Always woke me up at dawn when it would play with her Forder, Griffon.  Cute thing, but always wants attention.”

Dorian gritted his teeth.  “That’s Leliana’s mole.  Remember when we left, Evie handed it to her.  The mage threatens to turn it into a hood if it keeps bugging her.”

Iron Bull listened to the discussion, eyeing the Tevinter mage beside him.  Dorian knows.  Shut up about it, and they won’t get curious, Vint.  Think of something more appealing to transfix Cole’s attention.

“Why would I not want to think about Candle, Bull?”  The boy asked, showing his bright blue eyes under his floppy hat.  Bull face-palmed and groaned.

“Who’s Candle?”  Fenris hissed, leaning forward.  He rested his arms on his knees and stared at the fire.  “One of those spy agents?”

“Monkey.”  Varric informed.  Fenris understood that name.  “He’s called her that since he showed up in Haven and told us we were all going to die.  I personally think my nickname is better.”

“So, the Herald has a bedmate.”  Hawke concluded, taking a gulp of Fenris’ wine.  “And I figured she was asexual, always keeping herself covered up and prudent.  Won’t even show her shoulders, while sweating profusely in the desert.”  The mage took another long drink.  “Now, who is the lucky man or woman?”

“Probably Cully Wully!”  Sera yelled, hopping on her log seat.  “That’s where all her letters come from.  She even had me break into his office.  A night cap, yeah?!  No wonder he never threw a fit finding that horse shat in his desk drawer!”

Iron Bull slapped his huge hand over the rogue’s mouth.  “Stop.  It.”

Hawke lit up like a light bulb.  “Curly?  Mr-Stick-Up-His-Ass?!  No wonder she flipped when I criticized him.  Varric told me they were interested in one another.  I guess Circle mages do suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.”

“Hawke, you weren’t here when we agreed about this, but we vowed to keep Evie’s life personal and out of our gossip.”  Blackwall explained, receiving a sigh of relief from Dorian.  His Markham accent was rough, his eyes staring straight at the spirit.  “Last time everyone poked around, it nearly destroyed her.  Cole, keep the thoughts to yourself.”

Hawke rolled her eyes.  “She can’t even handle gossip?  I embrace gossip about me.  Remember, Varric, us listening in the Hanged Man as the rumors get more and more unbelievable.”

Varric shook his head.  “And your ability to outdo them.  I think they gave you more ideas than kept you subtle.”

“I don’t follow.  I lead.”  Hawke stated, receiving a supportive nod from her lover.  “Leading comes with horrible baggage.  If you take on the mantle, you carry it all or none.  Besides, it’s just us.  Aren’t you all betting chores anyway?  Furthermore, I never made that silly vow.  I don’t give a shit about her fragile little feelings.  What I do give a shit about is Noodle Head’s plans, the sonofabitch.  Maybe I’ll let it all happen.  Probably better for everyone in the long run.  The woman has said nothing but stern and unwarranted jabs towards me that I’ve ignored long enough.  She’s full of fart air…”

“Killing her brother seems like a logical reason.” Dorian huffed.  His moustache kept twitching the longer the conversation continued.

I did not blow up the Chantry.”  Hawke pointed to herself.  “I was tricked!  A victim in all that shit.  Yeah, I should have guessed that freak lost his shit, but he never purposely hurt anyone.  Anders was a damn good healer, probably the best.  I wanted to help cure him, so he could go on with his life, not live with a demon raging every five minutes or running from the restrictive Grey Wardens.  Instead, I gathered ingredients that made explosives.  I don’t know alchemy.   That was Bethany’s realm when Dad trained us.”

“Anders still runs from the Grey Wardens even now.”

All attention flew to the newcomer standing behind Cole.  Stroud’s Orlesian-Free Marcher accent drew the party’s attention like a bright star.  Despite being in camp, he was still dressed in his full plate warden armor. 

“Truly?  After the riots, he disappeared, but we figured his wounds killed him.” Varric assumed.  “One less murderer in the world.”

“He barely had any mana left to heal himself.  He spent it mending our wounds after we killed Meredith.  V, you told me to not cut off his head!  Let karma take him instead!  You purposely protected him!”  Fenris added; his knuckles turning white along his curled fingers.

Hawke’s mouth gapped in shock.  “I-I need to take quick walk.  Fenris?”

The elf jumped to his feet, responding to the mage’s call.  The Kirkwall lovers quickly disappeared from the campfire’s light.  Stroud pursed his lips and walked towards the seeker, who had joined Solas and argued with Dagna.  By the sound of his thoughts, a few favors popped up in his mind.

Cole relaxed a little, sensing Candle was returning to camp.  Her violin sang through the Fade, bringing a smile to the spirit’s face.  His head danced back and forth with magical rhythm.  Evie skipped gracefully over a log, choosing a pile of blankets as her preferred seat.  Her tent was right beside the stack.  She reached in and pulled out a new bottle of mead.

“It’s so pretty tonight.  You can see so many stars…and the auroras.  Beautiful dancing colors along the horizon.” The Herald sang, popping the cork.  “Anyone?”

“Quizzy sharing?!”  Sera yelled, immediately shoving her empty cup over the fire.

“I might hoard alcohol, but this is the happiest I felt in a week.”  Evie poured the drinks.  Blackwall handed over his mug.  Dorian lifted his wine glass and shook his head no.  Iron Bull and Varric passed as well.  “One good thing about this damn place is that the Inquisitor Inquisitor remained in Skyhold.  No judgements.  No curtain shopping.  No nobles!  Maker’s arse, the shit they are probably saying about the Trevelyans right now...”

“This place is only space and sand, Evie.”  Dorian reminded his best friend.

Evie threw her feet up on a nearby enchanting table and reclined back until her loose hair bunched up on top of the blanket stack.  “And hot.  And hundreds of miles from civilization, but it’s also freeing.  Remember, you’ve found more relevant books here than Skyhold’s whole library.  After Iron Bull’s skin adjusted, his tan highlights his fine moobs.  Sera enjoys trying to break into my lair and mail bag.  It’s a game, huh Missy?”

“Fuck that hatch.”  Sera blurted, gulping down her cup of mead.  “Just you wait, Quizzy.  Bees and fart bombs…everywhere.”

“Blackwall loves killing darkspawn.”  Evie added, pointing to the warden.  “We’re working to save the order.  Who leading on taint kills, by the way?”

“Howe.”  Blackwall chuckled deep in his chest.  “Only because Cassandra hasn’t joined us hunting.  Just need ten more, and I will lead the darkspawn kill count.  Stroud doesn’t count because none of us would win then.”

“Varric?”  Evie quizzed, finishing her sip of mead.  “You enjoying Hawke’s company?”

“My purse is lighter, that’s for sure.”  The dwarf laughed.  “It is good to be away from business craziness too.  Monkey, you’re forgetting all the work waiting for you when you get back, piling on top of your desk.”

“And Cully-“

Iron Bull smacked Sera upside the head, while reaching for his mug of ale.

“Yes, I miss the advisors…”  Evie admitted, staring up at the sparkling night sky.  “And feeling clean and not shoveling sand out of my small cloths.  I never thought killing red templars and Venatori would be a vacation, though.  Eh, oh well.”

“We expected you to take longer giving orders to the council when we left.”  Blackwall commented, glancing at the gathered group with a curious expression.

Evie caught the shared gazes between the companions.  Cole noted a wicked tune humming from Evie’s soul.  “What type of orders did I need to say?  I spent most of the day before settling matters and giving edicts.”

“Well, you always remember something right before we leave, Boss.”  Bull admitted, smirking a little.  “And you’re usually open about those orders so they’re on the same page.”

“Who knows what Red and Ruffles will do if Curly’s mysterious task applies to them as well.”  Varric pointed out.  “You know they struggle sharing information between one another sometimes.  Curly always forgets to include them.”

All the men leaned forward, curious and wide eye.  Sera just scowled at the Iron Bull, rubbing the back of her head, her stringy blonde hair running through her fingers.  Dorian finally spilled it.  “What did you tell our fine Fereldan commander?”

Evie remained seated, sipping her mead like she did not have a care in the world.  She waited a few minutes:  glanced around camp, combed her long auburn hair behind her, and played with her amber pendant.  “What’s the bet?”

“We don’t bet anymore, Monkey.”  Varric gasped in shock.  “We learned our lesson.”

Evie rolled her mischievous bright green eyes.  “Fine.  Chores.  Winner get whatever chore done by the lowest loser.  What is it?”

The congregated party eyed one another.  In agreement, Varric took out his betting book.  He slipped on his reading glasses and flipped through the pages.  He found the correct page.  “Winner’s entire basket of dirty laundry for a month…while wearing Solas’ robes.”

Ouch!”  Evie called, wrinkling her noses.  “Please tell me Vivienne is playing.”

“She suggested it!”  Dorian huffed, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Been trying to think of something better for four days now!”

Evie tapped her lips with her glass, thinking.  “Winner shares reward with me, fifty-fifty.”

“Oh come on!”  The whole crowd hollered in protest, tossing their arms up in the air.

Evie shrugged, sighing deeply.  “My secret then…and it is a great one.  Almost every missive mentions it somehow.  I wonder if you all can figure it out under his professional, dry writing.”

“You are a wicked woman…” Dorian groaned, scowling and leaning against Iron Bull.

“Oh, Dorian.”  Evie cooed.  “You know about my returning order when we get home…?”

The Tevinter mage nearly jumped out of his seat.  “Yes!?”

“A rehearsal.  At the keep, but I won’t say when.  The seeker’s excited at least.”

Varric threw both mages a look.  “Seeker?  Excited about something?!  Maker’s titties, what in the Void?!”

“Is this what you…” Iron Bull began.  Dorian nodded very quickly, beaming.  “Shit, Boss.  Now, I’m aroused.”

Blackwall pulled at his black beard.  “I believed we’ve been out maneuver.  Our curiosity has won the day.”

“Twenty-five percent, and you have a deal.”  Varric bargained, preparing his quill to write in his betting book.

“Twenty-five will get you an obvious guess.”

“Right now?”

“Yup.”

The whole group cried, “Deal!

Evie rolled her head along her shoulders, stretching her tight muscles.  She bit her lower lip.  Her bright green tipsy eyes scanned the food nearby.  “Hand me a bread stick, please.”

Sera raced out of her crate seat, tackled the bread sack, and shoved the whole thing at the Inquisitor.  Blackwall kept pulling at his growing beard as he spoke.  “What are you and the commander, by the way?  We need context.”

Cole could tell Evie regretted the whole conversation, but her alcohol-swimming mind controlled her moving, loose lips.  She never planned to drink a bottle of mead before receiving Cullen’s letter.  It was late.  She panicked.  Ever since the news from Ostwick, Evie hung onto every positive and loving word he said.  Delays on deliveries allowed her doubt he is just using her.  The nagging internal voice kept eating away her confidence.  They always disappeared when her ravens emerge out of the darkness.

Acceptance settled into Evie’s soul.  She could still control the rhetoric shared between her friends.  “Have you ever…”  She thought about her word choices.  “…see if you could one-up someone?  Do something better to drive them insane until they respond?  No actions needed…just heightened curiosity?”

“You wicked, wicked woman.”  Dorian was drooling.  “You two will be found someday dead from heart attacks!  So that dress…?!”

Evie tipped her glass to her friend.

“Maker’s balls…”  Blackwall grumbled.  “That poor man.”

Evie rolled her eyes again.  “Please!  I told him not to play with fire.  I am just replying to his response following the dress.”

“I say we chip in and bring employ a tamassran at Skyhold at this rate!”  Iron Bull suggested, shaking his head.  “What did you say?”

Evie glanced at Sera’s sack of bread sticks.  Cole did not understand why Evie debated on sizes, shuffling through the bag.  She decided on an eight inch long, one inch thick bread stick and analyzed it closely and in everyone’s full view.

The men and Sera mimicked their leader’s intense studying.

The mage opened her mouth, slipped the stick into her mouth, and closed it.  Her lips pursed with no difficulty.  She sat like that for a few moments, gazing at each watching person to make sure they understood.  Once satisfied, she opened her mouth and her tongue pushed out the bread stick, demonstrating afterwards that her tongue could touch her nose.  Sera reviewed the bread stick quickly.  No bite marks or bits missing.

“Andraste’s chosen…”  Varric whimpered, nearly falling over.  “It’s true.  You’re a gift from the Maker…”

All the men nodded, readjusting themselves in their seats.  Sera focused on Evie’s tongue as the mage drank from her mead glass.

The thoughts rolling around in everyone’s minds made no sense, even for Cole.  “Why a lamp post?”

Chapter Text

“So…I report back to the Seeker fortress, covered head to toe in wyvern egg slime, no pants, and my hair cut short.”  Cassandra barely could keep a straight face as the whole gathered crowd cackled hysterically.  She took another gulp of mead.  “The Lady Seeker took one look at me, pointed at my hair, said ‘I like the new look,’ and went on with her inspection.  So Varrrrrrrrric, does that win the grossest place to get laid or not?”

The participating Inner Circle all clapped and hollered to the bowing seeker, barely able to stay on the stump without tipping over.  Somehow throughout her whole story, she lost a glove and her seeker gambeson flew like a flag attached to an Inquisition tent post.  The partiers started passing silvers around the circle into Cassandra’s waiting hands.

Varric pulled out a sovereign, sighing.  “I’m impressed, Seeker.  That beats my dwarven oil over a lava flow story.  Touché.  Although, that story means you actually had sex once, which is unbelievable in the first place.  You pick the next category.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes and groaned.  “Shut it, Varric.”

Evie barely caught her breath, gasping for air between snorting fits.  The novity of her funny laughter waned over a bell ago following Blackwall’s ugliest woman story.  The mage heard Markham women made dogs whimper, but nothing prepared her for a mole with that much hair.  In attempt to regain her composure, she knocked over her inkwell.

“How did we start this again?”  The Inquisitor quizzed the drunk ensemble.

“You’re writing Cullen about Sera drawing a big dick on the Colossus map yesterday.”  Iron Bull reminded her, taking a swig of Tevinter ale he found at one of the Venatori encampments.

“Still not happy with moving my bishop to claim his pawn…” Evie groaned, staring down at her parchment.  “I still haven’t finished that sentence, you know.”

“You still only have, ‘Sera stared at the massive statue, and contemplated if she had enough time to dig a penis in the sand?!’ ” Hawke hollered, dumbfounded.  Her bottle of Marcher whiskey barely had a few sips left.

“I only got to ‘dig a pppppppppp….’”  Evie echoed, swaying to the side to illustrate her messy writing.  The whole group chuckled as both powerful mages just kept repeating the letter P in one elongated slur.

“Look, Monkey,” Varric called from across the fire.  “Give up writing tonight.  I can’t spare anymore ink and if you wake Quartermaster Wykes again, the man will kill you.”

Evie tossed her quill and the pages of parchment over her shoulder.  She nearly got Cole in the eye, sitting on the table behind her.  “Done.  Pentaghast, category!”

Cassandra grimaced and tapped her boot, trying to think through her fuzzy mind.  “Okay…Best sex with a person who absolutely hate.”

Hawke’s hand flew up in the air.  “Me!  Me!  Me!  None of you will beat this!”

Money started to fall on the sandy ground.  Evie slapped down two sovereigns on the rock in front of her.  “I have a story, but isn’t mine.”  Her bright green eyes flashed across the fire at Dorian, who kept nudging Bull in the side to leave him alone.  “I know it is true though because Cole can account it occurred.  He wandered into my tent scared while scouting the Approach, saying even the horses never heard such crazy sounds.”

“Oh!”  Cole called.  “I thought you said to not to repeat what I saw from up the tree?”

Dorian threw the spirit a look.  “You-“  He froze and slid further away from Bull before anyone noticed his bright red face.

“I’ll allow it.”  Varric judged, refilling his mug at the keg.  “Hawke, you have the floor.”

The Champion first glanced at the warrior to her left.  “Do you mind?”

“Wait!”  Sera sassed, trying to point at the three Hawkes in her blurred vision.  “Fenris doesn’t count.  You like him!”

Hawke waved her index finger a few times.  “It wasn’t Fenris, just asking for his permission.  After all, he broke my heart, and I lowered my standards there for a while.”

“I would say…” The former slave hissed, disgusted by the inebriated storytelling.  Luckily, there was new case of wine at camp to keep him occupied.  “I still won you back.”

“Yes, yes you did.”  Hawke beamed, kissing the white-haired man on the cheek.  He just groaned.

“I’m getting sick just watching you two.”  Dorian huffed, suddenly only an inch away from Bull on the log.  His hands kept disappearing down Iron Bull back pants.  “Get on with it before we run out of Orlesian absinthe.”

“Fine.”  Hawke cleared her throat and cracked her neck.  “Now, for anyone who hasn’t known me or read Varric’s fine—but bullshit—book Tales of a Champion, you might know I am an apostate.  Never lived in a Circle and never wanted to.  No offence, Quizzy.”

Evie shrugged, drinking directly from the third mead bottle now.  “No taken.  It blew worse than Dorian’s first boyfriend.”

“I told you all to give him the benefit of a doubt, okay?  His gag reflex flared up even chewing his food.”  Dorian whined as the group snickered.

Hawke clapped to bring attention back to her story.  “So, it’s surprising that an apostate ran all throughout the mage abusive capital of Thedas without being locked up or made tranquil.  Before your disgusting minds get any ideas, no, I did not sleep my way out of going to a Circle.  I am not a slut, but take my friend Isabella’s approach:  enjoy one’s company and move on.  No tied emotions or worries about what other people say.  Well, until Fenris officially stole my heart…”

“Ugh!”  Sera snorted, sticking out her tongue.  “Enough mushiness, more angry banging!”

“I’m getting there!”  Hawke hollered, kicking sand at the impatient rogue.  “Well, because I broke the whole emotions rule and was immediately dumped by the love of my life, I quickly fucked as many people as I could, of course being careful not to get pregnant and diseased.  Like where most of these stories start, I got horribly drunk at the Hanged Man.  Varric was not around that night.”  She swayed and glanced at her dwarf friend, getting up to refill his mug at the keg stand.  “I think you were enjoying you own lady friend, which just made it all worse.  I ended up there after having a very public fight with my brother in the Gallows.  If you don’t know, Carver is a templar because his last words to me before I left for the Deep Roads were ‘fuck you and the horse you rode on, V.’  Big slap in the face.  Well, now his sister was the Champion of Kirkwall.  Beat the Arishok in single combat.  My apologies, Bull.”

“You won.  That’s the surprising part.”  The Qunari commented, throwing his arm around Dorian to nudge him on his knee.  “Don’t try that with the current one though.  Varric can attest the guy is a badass, especially for a hornless Qunari.”

“Well, Carver, in his prick way, got butt hurt that once again his sister outshined him.”  Hawke continued with her story, flopping down beside her elf lover.  “Called me some shitty stuff in front of everyone in the Gallows’ shopping area.  Meredith was off probably killing kittens or something sinister.  Well, I make some snarky comment.  I know, shocker!  Carver starts swinging his greatsword like he will cut off my head.  I make another quip that compared his lacking penis size with his sword, and the next thing you know, all the templars have to drag him back inside.”

“Is he the guy you laid or…?”  Blackwall wondered, disgusted by the prospect.

“Oh fuck no!”  Hawke hollered.  “What’s wrong with you!?  No, I’m getting there.  Well, Carver was the only family I had by then.  My mom passed away a month before, a victim of a necromancy-blood magic serial killer.  Knowing that your only true family hates you doesn’t sit well.  So, I go get drunk at the Hanged Man.  Justified, right?  No friends around that night, or this would have never happened.  Hadn’t been laid in a long time, so heightened lady hormones governed my plastered mind.   I decide to leave once they kicked me out, and I stumbled home.”

The apostate took a quick drink from her almost empty bottle, standing up again and wobbled around the camp fire.  “I fall into the mansion and get greeted by a broadsword pointing at my pretty nose.  I immediately electrocute the fucktard because you can ask Fenris and Varric, too many people have tried to murder me in my own damn house.  Well, this idiot dispels it.  Damn it, I just shocked a templar.  Is it Carver?  Nope!  Worse.  The knight starts hollering how I should be thrown into the Gallows immediately for nearly killing a templar knight in full plate mail and that hideous Chantry skirt they tie around their hips.  Ugh!  I say ‘Tell me where to find one, and I will kill them.’  The armored buffoon didn’t like that.  I ask how the person got in.  Replied my strange dwarven servants allowed him in before they left for the night.  Mental note to self:  fire Sandal’s father.  Not Sandal.  That slow guy is an enchanting god.  Just his dad.  You should hire them for the Inquisition, by the way.  Sandal and that Dagna will revolutionize the whole war.” Hawked thumbed behind her at the sleeping dwarf’s tent nearby.

The tanked Inner Circle watched, mesmerized by how the Kirkwall mage could still walk around without falling in the fire.  “I yell ‘get out or expect another lightning bolt up your anus.’  The knight stated we had to discuss the Gallows fiasco.  I laughed, pouring myself a whiskey.  What was there to discuss?  My brother’s an asshole.  So?  The sky is blue…well, before the Breach, that is.”  Hawke pointed to Evie and nodded an approving smile at the Herald before continuing.  “The idiot grabbed the whiskey glass out of my hand.  You do not take a Hawke’s whiskey glass.  I punched the moron in the face…except I forgot I was wearing my mother’s engagement ring.  The ring’s diamonds were huge, my dad’s rich spoils for helping the Grey Wardens seal up Corypheus.”

“You still have the ring?”  Evie huffed, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Nope.”  Hawke groaned.  “Lost it in a grate breaking Corypheus’ seal.”

“Poetic.” Dorian laughed once.

“Continue, Hawke.”  Fenris smirked.  “You’re getting to the good part.”

“Well, the ring rips open the templar’s face.  Like no-way-to-fix-it-without-magic bad.  The knight knew not to ask me to seal it up because I always rely on Anders to patch up the crew.  More likely to turn a head inside out.  So, the idiot asked for needle, thread, and a healing potion.  I said no potion, but walked to my room for the sewing kit.  I return, and the asshat drank the rest of my whiskey!  Empty bottle sitting on the floor beside him.  You don’t do that, no matter if someone cut open your ugly fucking face.  I lost it.  I don’t care that this was a high-ranking templar.  The Order won’t find the body after I’m done with it.  So this knight and I start casting and silencing.  My mana depletes along with the knight’s lyrium abilities.  Neither one of us have lyrium potions.  Okay.  Daggers versus sword.  Cuts covered our bodies.  Blood flying all over the place.  Like my dad said, ‘in an ounce, in for a pound.’”

Hawke stopped pacing, standing by her original seat, flinging her arms around like a mad woman.  “It starts looking bad for me by this point, but my rage against this particular knight was insatiable.  I hate this person.  I wished the Qunari killed the douchebag, not just for drinking my whiskey, but for everything happening in Kirkwall and the Gallows.  I Avvar-roared at this fucker and bum-rushed him into the wall.  We both fell to the floor.”

The apostate stopped talking for a moment, glancing at her attentive audience.  No one is moving.  “Well, this tidbit was unexpected.  Sitting on his lap, through all his armor, I notice he’s plastered horny.  Bulging hard.  Impressive really with both of us covered in each other’s blood and sweat.  When I said he drank my whiskey, I mean one full bottle in less than a quarter of a bell.  Right then I remember I’m drunk too, horny, and lonesome.  Three very dangerous facts to make the worst mistake of your life.  His life, not mine.  Mine was letting Fenris leave me naked after sex-“ Hawke shouted at her boyfriend.

“You will never let me live that down, V…”  Fenris mumbled, opening a new wine bottle.

“Anyway, those variables applied to him as much as to me in that moment.  I rock my hips, he responded with a hip thrust.  I start pulling at his belt buckle.  He reaches for his pauldrons clasps.  In my inebriated mind, I thought I’m going to make this asshole regret everything he has ever done.  When he wakes up in the morning, he will be crushed to know he slept with Veronica Hawke, his arch nemesis and a powerful, unrestrained apostate.  I was not going to enjoy it.  Surely.  This Chantry saint knew as much about women as he did about mages…Nothing!  At least I wouldn’t be alone and scratch that horny itch in my folds…”

“There are creams for itching, you know?”  Evie sassed, winking at her friends.

The whole group leaned forward, ignoring their leader and waiting for the good part: an apostate and a templar in Kirkwall screwing during the height of abuse and controversy.  After her joke fell flat, Evie sat with her mouth gapping, partly like a smirk.  The only two people not surprised and only half listening was Varric and Fenris.  Varric remained in shadow by the ale keg, while Fenris looked like he heard the tale ten thousand times.

“I take it was…good?”  Evie grinned wickedly.

“Quizzy, you don’t know the half of it.”  Hawke smugly cooed, crossing her arms over her chest.  “Maker strike me down, I was the best angry sex I ever had.”

“Isn’t Fenris always angry?”  Bull pointed at the warrior beside her.

Hawke and Fenris both shrugged.  Hawke rolled her eyes.  “Wrong adjective.  Hatred sex ever.  When Fenris and I fight, the angry sex even beats that night, but not by much.”

“Hate you too, Hawke.”

Hawke waved off the scowling man.  “Anyway, I always wondered if what they said was true about Circles.  If they were really towers of hot orgies and whatnot…Well, Maker’s flaming cock, this man nearly made me turn myself in when I woke up.  Bells…Bells!  Bells of no stop fun and orgasms.  Sucking, screaming, bondage, dirty talk, and so many pleasure positions until we passed out right in the middle of my sitting room floor.”

The mage’s audience applauded at her accomplishment.  Hawke brought a Kirkwall templar to his knees during full night of passionate fucking.  Letting the crowd settling down, Hawke finished her whiskey bottle; her icy lilac eyes stared at the snorting Inquisitor, analyzing her oblivious face.  “I woke up to knocks at my front door, just ten feet from my naked body.  I have woken up hungover and naked many times, but not beside my enemy, and definitely not while a possessed Grey Warden waited at my front door-“

The whole crowd stomped and laughed at the statement.  Evie was screaming in laughter.  Cassandra and she collided on the ground, still rolling in hilarious surprise.  Dorian started clapping.  Sera hopped around the fire like an idiot.  Iron Bull took another gulp of liquor between gasping breaths.  Blackwall kept shaking his head in disbelief.  The only three people that night did not join the craziness was Fenris, who just smirked, Cole staring across the fire at Varric, now leaning against the table bracing himself and gripping the wooden table.

“I heard Anders’ voice calling for me.”  Hawke continued as the hollering simmered down again.  “I glanced to my right, barely recognizing the templar’s face because of all the blood dried from that huge gash.  I looked at myself, covered in said blood and tasting it on my lips…and some salty jizz, but that was expected.  ‘Oh fuck…’ I whispered, kicking the idiot in the side, while jumping to my bare feet.  I gathered up all his armor, padding, and small clothes and threw them into a nearby closet.  The guy just grunted.  I smack the cut, and that woke him, nearly getting punched in the eye.  Wouldn’t have been a surprise that this dumbass would hit a mage and a woman.  I rushed to cover his mouth before he yelled.  I told him someone was at the front door.  If he wanted to leave with any dignity, go into the broom closet and wait.  He tried to protest, but shoved him inside and slammed the door.  I even wedged a chair under the doorknob to keep him locked inside.  He was banging and yelling so much I had to put a silencing spell on the door!  I gathered up my clothes and hastily put them on while running for the front door.”

The apostate just shook her head, staring into the bright fire, thinking about that morning years ago.  “’Hawke, you’re bleeding!’ Anders hollered, scanning my face and neck.  I told him I had a bad nose bleed during the night, thus why I didn’t answer the door immediately.  He asked if I needed anything or needed help cleaning up the mess.  I said no and asked what he was doing there so early.  The fucking sun wasn’t even up.  He asked if I could come by his clinic later.  Cool.  Okay.  Bye!  Slammed the door in his puzzled face.  Got rid of the templar-hater.  Good.  I raced back into my sitting room.”

The group noticed Hawke’s reenacting, panicked face.  “I realized I hear no banging from the closet anymore.  I checked, and the silence spell was gone.  Huh.  He dispelled it, so why no yelling?  I opened the door…”  She huffed and shook her head. “Apparently, this particular templar is afraid of tight spaces…claustrophobic.  He passed out cold, drenched in sweat, and tears ran down his cheeks.  Well, if I had known that sooner, that would have saved me so much stress.  Scare the little shit and automatically end Meredith’s tyranny.  I grabbed a bucket of magically iced water and threw it on him.  That woke him!  I told him to get dressed and get the fuck out of my mansion.  I marched upsides, took a very long destressing bath and wandered to the Hanged Man…Varric called me out on my hanging head of shame, but wickedly happy grin…The end.”

Whistles and a standing ovation greeted the bowing Champion of Kirkwall from everyone around the fire.  No one had noticed Cole disappeared and placed himself in exile high over the cliffs, rocking and holding himself.  He read Varric’s thoughts, knowing it would be a matter of moments before the ball dropped on the drunk Inner Circle.  Varric wandered back to fire, hanging his head and wincing.

“So, what happened to the templar?  Meredith kill him?”  Iron Bull cackled, handing over his coins to the apostate.

“Oh, he survived…somehow.  Never changed either.  Still the same asshole who cannot stand being in tight spaces.  Of course, every time I see him, I get as close and confined as possible.  Always makes him nervous and freaks out.”

Blackwall blinked a few times.  “You’ve seen him recently?  Maker’s balls, that would have been hilarious to witness!”

Cassandra nodded in agreement, still laying in the sand with Evie.  “What about his busted face?”

“Oh, that’s the best part!”  Hawke giggled, placing her hands on her hips.  “He can never forget that night because every time he looks in the mirror, that scar stares right back!”

“That’s absolutely wicked!”  Dorian chuckled.  “Like on his forehead? Over his eye?”

Hawke shook her head no, wickedly focused on the Inquisitor sitting giggling by the camp fire.  “No.  His upper lip.”

Cole curled himself into a ball.  The pain and sorrow flooding the area overwhelmed his abilities.  Cassandra sobered up immediately, throwing Varric a glare that would smite the dwarf in two.  Blackwall coughed a few times, diverting his brown eyes.  Sera laughed hysterically and looking at her comrades, thinking everyone thought it was a clever twist.  Only hearing her own silliness, she stopped and disappeared into stealth.  Iron Bull pinched his nose and groaned, unbelieving he missed the signs.  Dorian threw every cuss word at Cole’s direction and threw his hands up in the air.

“Wow.”  Her Free Marcher accent was meek and barely a whisper.  “Small world.”

“I guess so.”  Hawke crossed her arms over her chest.  “So, what was your story?”

“Hawke!“ Varric snapped, throwing down his full mug; completely disgusted by her friend’s smug attitude.

“No, Varric.”  Evie stated, holding out her marked hand.  She picked up her two sovereigns on the rock by her feet, walked around the fire, and placed them firmly into the apostate’s palm.  “I forfeit.”

The Inquisitor nodded to the Champion, then to the Inner Circle.  Everyone stood frozen and shocked, barely moving.  Evie pivoted away from the fire and walked out into the darkness alone.

 


 

Solas found the Herald after two bells alone under a stone canopy by an ocularum.  She buried the skull beneath the sand, but the fire mage melted the sand and created a glass window.  Hacked bits of wood littered the area around the spike, which once held the tranquil’s skull.  The chips smoldered from a flaming magical sword.  The twig remaining was nothing but burnt carbon, barely standing on its own.

The woman herself sat with her legs cross, staring out over the bland landscape.  Solas found her vest down the winding path and her boots flung over the canyon wall.  Like a good friend, he retrieved the garments.  Her coat and shemagh were left in camp.  He brought them along because the temperature dropped substantially throughout the night.

“Pulled the shortest stick?”  Evie called behind her as he laid everything down on the stone canopy’s stairs.

“No.”  The apostate replied, studying the sitting woman before him.  “Apparently, everyone agreed to give you space.”

“Why are you here then?”

“Cole would not stop bothering me after a while…He said he could not hear you anymore.”  Solas explained.  “Do you mind if I sit with you?”

Evie waved her hand to her side.  “I put up a cancelling ward so no one could track me via the Fade…How did you find me?”

“Not difficult.”  The elf stated, sitting down on the cold stone slabs.  “You cannot survive so long outside a Circle without learning a few tricks …and you threw your laundry in such a way that this was the only likely place.  After all, someone will be doing it dressed like me...”

“Do you know?”

“Enough.”  Solas sighed.  “I know you do not want counsel or encouraging words.”

“Thank you.”

“Instead, I wonder if you wanted to learn something.”

“Like what?”

“Walk the Fade?”

Evie twirled her head and eyed the apostate.  Her long auburn hair nearly poked Solas’ left eye.  “What…?”

“You do not remember our Fade walk around Haven months ago.”

“Yes, but-“

“Did you not say you wanted me to teach you…using the Anchor, of course?”

“Yes, definitely!”  Evie called.  “Just…now!?  We’re in the desert, surrounded by blood magic and Maker knows what else.  You just offered a mentally weak and extremely troubled mage who has to use a strange mark to walk the Fade.  You understand I don’t want to be possessed.”

“And I would not suggest it if I feared you were susceptible.”  Solas remarked, knowing he was right about suggesting the lesson.  Anyone else would not recognize the heightened risks.  “I was fade walking earlier during everyone’s partying.  I know what lingers here tonight.  You should not fear possession.  I would recommend you only attempt it with me because I am more experienced and naturally have this ability.  We do not know the Anchor’s confines.  So, as long as you walk my dreams, you should be well.”

Evie smiled and nodded.  “Yes, I agree.  Please…take me away from here.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, let’s get this over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible.”  Evie sighed, cracking her neck in the keep’s War Room.  “Three thick letters from a specific commander require my attention.”

Rylen blinked a few times and glanced to Cassandra for an explanation, who just grunted and waved him off.  Stroud cleared his throat, while Harding bit her lower lip.  No one attempted to meet the Inquisitor’s grimace, focusing primarily on the duplicate map of Thedas that matched the one at Skyhold.  Each council member’s tokens littered the table, designating what missions they were conducting from the main headquarters.

The returning force arriving from the Hissing Wastes refused to argue with the Herald once she dismounted her Antivan mare and called for the debriefing immediately.  The Inner Circle waited until their leader was inside and a safe distance away before dismounting and meandering to their quarters.  Cassandra kept an eye on every person, disgusted and furious with their performance while in the expansive desert.  She constantly looked for Cole, who was on her most wanted list, discovering very quickly how the Champion of Kirkwall—and practically everyone else—knew about Evie and Cullen’s relationship.  His typical safe havens, Solas and Varric, were quite the opposite on their journey back.

“Knight-Captain, status.”  The Inquisitor’s voice boomed off the sandstone walls.

The templar cleared his throat and reviewed his notes.  “Laborers an' engineers completed th' gas neutralizin' towers tois days ago.  Ance th' sulphur pits waur nae longer an issue, aw workmen waur reassigned tae th' wooden walkways.  They finished construction jist thee bells ago wi' wee incident.  However, th' darkspawn remain a majur issue.”[1]

Howe stepped forward.  “Oghren, Velanna, and I kept them at bay, thinking there must be a hole somewhere in the pits.  After the towers were completed, we concluded they’re pouring out from that canyon leading to the ancient Tevinter buildings we see from the ramparts.  Whatever those ruins are, the darkspawn originate from there.  Possibly an old testing fortress to cure the taint or contains direct access to the Deep Roads.  This keep will not be safe until we nullify that threat.”

“Does that canyon lead behind the Tevinter doors?”  Cassandra questioned, tracing her finger along the canyon to the least sketched area of the Western Approach.

“From our scouting mission earlier today, yes.”  Howe concluded.  “We did not enter the fortress, but it’s expansive.  Someone has been digging deep into the canyon.  Scaffolding and bundled lumber litter the area on this side.  The wood’s quite fresh, meaning most likely brought in and built by the enemy.  They reached the surface from inside the fortress, meaning they worked from inside the Tevinter doors.”

“Mair activity rumbles occurred throoghit th' canyons frae beyond th' doors.”  Rylen observed, pointing to the Inquisition’s original camp and the several resting camp around the gorge.   “Since ye aw disrupted their missions in th' forbidden oasis an' th' Hissin' Wastes, red templars an' Venatori coorie back here…ain 'en discowre th' Inquisition has taken their keep.  Whoever survi'es th' skirmishes wi' us, end up bangin' oan th' doors tae enter.  Their leaders refuse them aw.”[2]

“Sacrificing their own men to keep us out…”  Evie hissed, shaking her head.  “It tell us we broke their backs here.  However, it does not tell us who is leading them and where the Grey Wardens are gathering.”

“It might be time to investigate the southwest area of the Approach.”  Stroud suggested, circling another thinly sketched local region on their maps.  “We now know where not to look and can focus on this region.  Once the alliance wardens find where the darkspawn originate, I wish to have them and Hawke’s duo join on the last search area.”

“Maybe while invading the Venatori, we can find documentation to minimize the search area more.  Corphyeus must be keeping Calpernia informed on the Grey Warden situation.”  Evie hypothesized, readjusting her stance by the table.

“You still believe she is here, Inquisitor?”  Harding asked, tilting her head.

“Tessa and Marius’ attack on the Venatori stronghold bore some fruit.  Before they left with Charter, who I didn’t even know was here until she explained she’s on a secret mission for Leliana, they discovered some records very recent from Calpernia.[3]  Even by raven, they would not have arrived so quickly.  She is in the region.  I have a communication crystal with her name on it.”  Evie patted the long purple crystal she kept in her armor.  A powerful force field protected the crystal so Corypheus could not hear until the Inquisition was ready.

“With a new plan of attack, what are the updates from Skyhold?”  Cassandra glanced at Rylen for a report.

Rylen exhaled, looking like he was not wanting to report, but kept his tattooed chin high.  “Skyhauld is…functionin'.  Th' War Cooncil did nae expect thes expedition tae tak' sae lang.  Sister Nightingale oversees th' other branches since quine Montilyit continues tae fear fur 'er life.  Commander Cullen is weel, but is overworkin' himself.  Puckle fights broke it atween th' templar an' mages, an' th' Orlesian baa is still up in th' air.”[4]

“While the cat away…”  Evie sighed, rubbing her temples.  “Our shipments of gurn skin, metals, and herbs returning intact?”

 “Better than intact.”  Rylen sang happily.  “Despite th' commander overtaxin' himself mair than required, he reduced th' travel time atween Skyhauld an' haur by a week.  Most supply caravans arrife ten days early.  Each gonnae-no alang th' way has become tent villages wi' standby personnel waitin' tae support whit ur whoever travels a body direction ur th' other, thus wa yer coosin, Ser Malcom, arrived sae quickly.  Th' Orlesian hamlets alang th' roote huvnae bin thes safe in fife years.  Thaur ur nae fade rifts since th' Inquisitur closed them oan th' way haur.  However, th' roote noo bypasses Emprise du Lion an' th' Emerald Graves.  We still hae a minimal presence thaur, but a strange winter has besieged th' moontains, makin' travel impossible.”[5]

“Winter?”  Evie quizzed, rubbing her temples.  “We’re days from summer!”

“I ken.”  Rylen huffed, crossing his arms over his chest piece.  “Tois twin high dragons waur spotted in th' region a month ago.  Frost breaithers.  Thee separate requests arrived at skyhauld, askin' fur ye, Inquisitur, tae pit them doon.”[6]

Evie beamed wickedly.  “What did the commander say about that?”

“Tair up th' information knowin' ye hae 'at swatch in yer yak. A few chuckles rang around the room.  By th' way, it will tak' several weeks tae gie 'at tomb’s dragon anes back haur.  Onie idea whit ye want us tae dae wi' them?”[7]

“Give them to the craftsmen to upgrade everyone’s armor and weapons…and maybe make a scale mail set for me.  This dragonskin coat has served well, but might need to be retired before we are done.”  Evie froze and pointed to everyone present.  “And no one tell him about that dragon kill.”

“Or the one we’ll need to eliminate to scout the south west region.”  Stroud reminded the gathered leadership.

“Oh yes!”  Evie clapped a few times.  “With all that scale and bone, everyone will have dragon armor out here.”

“A raven arrived from that researcher.”  Howe added, waving the missive.  “He thinks it’s the best time to watch its feeding practices, especially since the university translations arrived earlier in the week.”[8]

Cassandra held up her hands.  “I will not get involved.  I will put down dragons if ordered, but will not lie to the advisors about your hunting, Trevelyan.”

“Some second you are…”  Evie muttered, wrinkling her nose.  Her attention returned to the map, following a detailed route towards the map’s edge.  “We still need to investigate the end of the Chantry trail too.  The road follows the ridge behind the dragon’s nesting area.”

“Chantry, dwarven, an' mage scholars will be haur by th' end ay next week.”  Rylen reminded, reviewing a reply letter from Skyhold.  “That’s if Dagna doesn’t destroy onie mair artifacts.”[9]

“In her defense, I never knew urns could rupture like that.”  Evie remarked, shrugging.  “Also request some architects and siege specialists.  Iron Bull made a good point that why isn’t Orlais or Ferelden trying to replicate dwarven building, even ones so ancient.  Might be something to look into for the future.”[10]

Stroud thought of something, raising his hand to speak.  “Did the former Hissing Waste slaves arrive well?”

“Yes,” Rylen smiled and nodded.  “mony ur awreddy headin' haem tae their families in th' eest, but several request if they main remain wi' th' Inquisition.  A body cheil is a braw smith, an' loves workin' in th' keep’s forge.  He remembers ye said ye booght some new schematics frae a mabari?”[11]

Evie laughed, shaking her head.  Dust and dried blood sprinkled out of her braids.  “Yup!  The owner is a hunting merchant who set up shop in a gorge.  The dog counted coins better than Vivienne, and pushed your change with his little nose.”  The Inquisitor inched her index finger at her nose.  “So adorable!  If only half my family was that intelligent.  I think if the commander met that dog, he would propose a mabari army, specifically to counter the Orlesian nobles.”

“Who says he doesn’t hae a body planned?” Rylen chuckled, shaking his head; his dark brown hair danced acrossed his forehead, catching Cassandra’s attention.  The seeker wetted her lips.  Howe growled loudly, causing Rylen to cheekily grin.  “Th' cheil literally has a military strategy fur everythin'.  Probably while we’re aw it haur, he’s gaitherin' mabari pups as we spick.”[12]

“Just as long as I get one.”  Evie huffed, crossing her arms.  “Hawke might have left her hound in Kirkwall, but damn it, doesn’t she love gloating about owning one.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes and grimaced at the Inquisitor before relaxing.  “Give the volunteers all well-paying jobs.   They deserve some happiness and a monetary base to rebuild their lives.”

“Malcom and the unexpected volunteers from Skyhold serving you well, Rylen?”  Evie asked, still confused why her youngest cousin beat feet to join her in the Approach.

“Ser Malcom and his team are working with the wardens, Herald.”  Howe informed before Rylen could speak.  Howe nodding to Stroud.  Rylen snarled at the warden.  “He is extremely dedicated to you and the cause.  If the Grey Wardens were not compromised by Corypheus, I would recommend him to join our order.  He’s very thorough and asks about your wellbeing daily.”

Evie rubbed her temples a few more times.  “He may be very helpful, but I’m wary to his purpose here, especially during such a trying time in my family.  Remain skeptical and aware, just in case…What about that singing Chantry sister that wandered the desert faster than my horse?”  The Inquisitor asked, thinking about everyone she met in the Waste.

“Also haur.”  Rylen confirmed.  “She holds sermons every loon o’ morn an’ dusk.  It is daein’ wonders fur morale.”

“Not as much as this rumored tournament.”  Harding giggled with the seeker and the Herald.

Howe and Rylen traded daring looks from across the table.  Stroud spoke first.  “We still don’t know how this will improve spirits, Inquisitor, but if you believe this hand-to-hand tournament will help, we wardens agree.”

Rylen puffed out his chest.  “So dae th' men.  Th' prospect ay usin' yer new facilities first an' aloyn got th' whole keep tae sign up withit questionin' th' whole ‘no shirt’ requirement.”[13]

Evie beamed, while Cassandra bit her lower lip turning three shades of red.  “Well, you know my men’s wellbeing is my top priority.  Of course, women participants will be wearing bands and tank tops.  Don’t want everyone to get heat stoke for something not work related.”  She cleared her throat to disguise her mild humor snorts.  “Is that all?”  The Herald questioned, glancing at everyone surrounding the map table.  All nodded following reviewing their lists and notes.  “Good.  The wardens and an Inner Circle team of Dorian, Blackwall, and Varric will move out in the morning up the canyon to behind the doors.  Rylen, prepare a supply line to follow us.  Seeker, keep attentive.  We may need your abilities depending on what we encounter.  Let’s wrap up this damn excursion before summer roasts us.  Dismissed.”

 


 

Evie sat in a wooden rocking chair made by a Griffon Wing Keep’s craftsman, watching the sun set in the west.  Blood, dirt, and red lyrium no longer stuck to her redder auburn hair.  Fresh black kohl rimmed her sparkling bright green eyes and fierce eye rouge brought out their distinctive flecks.  She modeled Cullen’s oversized tunic, not the original, but a new shirt snagged by Fesill and sent with the last supply caravan.  The assistant deserved her own palace for such a thoughtful gift.  The mage’s nose drifted to the collar constantly, smelling a blend of lavender, sage, fire smoke, and musk, distinctively her fine Lion.  The whole keep witnessed her showing off the man’s shirt with a clay orange Qunari breast band underneath as she strutted to her tall perch in the north tower.  The shirt went well with her tan training pants.  She even bought a pair of ankle sandals from a visiting merchant caravan to finish the ensemble. 

In one hand, a mead silver gobbet hung between her fingers, taken from the dead Venatori leader, Overseer Jullex, at the Hissing Waste base.  Evie hated taking spoils from battle, but this goblet contained the Chantry insignia, most likely stolen from a murdered sister entering the desert.  Learning the keep’s makeshift Chantry contained enough finery, she decided to keep it for herself.  The metal allowed her to frost the outside to cool her mead to a refreshing temperature.

In the other hand was a new letter from Cullen.  Once again, her Lion did not write her a hidden message, although his king chess piece was on the run from her bishop.  What used to be a constant addition to his writings became less used the longer they were apart.  Evie wondered if the lyrium powder finally disturbed his senses, but he never mentioned it.  Actually, he rarely mentioned anything about his current wellbeing, mainly only random encounters with an Orlesian buffoon or how frightened Jim was that particular day.  If Rylen was right, Cullen took less and less time for himself.  On her reply, she would have to address his disrupted sleep and straining workload.  At least, she knew he ate because Fesill stated she hand-delivered his meals each day, sans his morning and night lavender teas.  He never attended mealtime inside the fortress, preferring his quiet tower over the same usual company.

Perched on the tallest tower overlooking the keep, Evie felt as calm as possible, despite the Inner Circle watching closely below.  A part of the mage wondered if her companions fear she might firestorm them or summon a fade rift.  Maybe they needed to be scared of her for a while.  Maybe she might send a few random fireballs over the wall just to make them piss themselves.

The Inquisition successfully stopped the red templar and Venatori excavations in the Hissing Wastes.  Surprisingly, there was not a new source of red lyrium hidden in the surface thaig, just a over-protective but now dead dragon and an extremely unique rune that even got Varric talking about dwarven history.  The Inquisitor had no doubt in her people.  Actually, she herself faired quite well surrounded by crazed red monsters, never falling unconscious.  When she felt a knight draw forth a silence, she rained fired over every enemy; an easy task especially envisioning them as Veronica Hawke.  The only real concern stemmed from her comrade’s hangovers, which weakening their constitutions.  It even took a few shouts and kicks to get Cassandra up that next morning.  Intelligence reports from returning scouts stated the prime time to take the encampment was midafternoon before the red templars and Venatori forced the slaves to begin excavating again, unfortunately at the sun’s height and heat exposure.  To make the camp on time, everyone had to be up at dawn.

Solas and Evie were already prepared to leave by the time everyone came to breakfast, grumbling about such early hours.  Evie, although a little hungover herself, made a great deal of racket and whistled while she briefed her team, mentally grinning to herself every time Hawke winced.  Typically neutral regarding companion problems, Solas silently applauded the Inquisitor on her very justified quips.

Somehow, fade walking with the apostate rested Evie beyond her best deepest sleep cycles.  The apostate and she were very active while walking about the dwarven tombs.  They witnessed spirits reenacting the Fairel family coming to the region and building the shrine to the paragon, if the dwarven people would recognize a surfacer as such.  Solas pointed out lingering demons, but explained ways to minimize conflict.  Mostly, playful spirits followed behind the two mages, curious and willing to share their wisdom and insight.  Evie thanked her friend for the experience, relieved to learn something new about magic that remained forbidden by the Chantry’s Circles. 

Once Evie awoke and returned to camp, she informed Dagna to check a few areas for missed artifacts and stone tablets.  The mage suggested maybe Orzammar’s Shaperate may record the ancient writings.  Maybe the Inquisition’s discoveries will make the underground society see reason and recognize surfacers’ benefits to the dwarven people.  Dagna somewhat hung her head at the prospect, stating personal experience demonstrated that was unlikely.  From their previous discussions, Dagna left Orzammar after Hero Queen Asta gained the dwarf permission to study at the Kinloch Hold Circle of Magi.  In doing so, she was made casteless and disowned by her father, a smithing caste merchant.

Kinloch Hold.

Evie bit the inside of her cheek.

Once the Inquisitor destroyed a few ocularas and slaughtered some lurkers that night, she was fine as one person could be.  When Solas found her, mediation allowed her to step back and review the facts.  That particular night happened at least four years ago.  Hawke admitted herself that she planned on making Cullen regret it.  The man was drunk, injured, and trying to keep the peace between the Gallows and the Champion.  Esme most likely had not arrived in Kirkwall yet.  It was before Cullen even knew Evie existed.  She forgave him almost immediately and did not blame him for his actions.  Hawke was sexually appealing in her own twisted, weird way.

Yet, why did it still hurt so much?

Evie knew why it drove daggers into her heart, although she purposefully pushed herself away from admitting those feelings.  In any case, it would make any woman pause.  A former jaded lover gloated in front of all her friends that she slept with the Inquisition’s commander.  She deliberately made him regret the experience for the rest of his life by scarring his upper lip.  That new signet feature replaced his infamous curly hair when Cullen utilized Evie’s hair tonic.  So evilly intertwined.  Hawke flaunted her conquest at the man’s new partner with the smuggest grin across her burnt, wrinkling face.

The whole experience taught Evie she knew almost nothing about Cullen Rutherford.  Of course he had slept with other women in the past.  His agile hands on her demonstrated that fact very clearly.  He was quite handsome and alluring, but to personally know a previous lover poured salt in an already gaping infected wound.

Her Lion agreed to take things slow.  Why?  Because he knew about the scars before Evie admitted it?  Was Cullen preparing himself to gaze on such an ugly body when he has seen the Champion’s flawless Fereldan skin?  He admitted he had done things that might drive Evie away.  What heinous acts would he feel would make Evie turn and run?  Yes, he was the knight-captain of Kirkwall, Meredith’s subordinate, but did he do those things willingly?  Forced?  Happily?  The possibilities sickened the mage to nearly purge.

Cullen avoided telling Evie where his scar came from, just kissed her palm and stated it was something for another time.  If it was her, she would not admit it either while lying in bed with a new partner.  However, she loved that scar.  Ever since that first advisors’ meeting in Haven, Evie craved to run her fingers across it.  She swooned when her Lion gave that alluring smirk.  The mage enjoyed sitting across from Cullen while playing chess and imagined licking it with her tongue, and it pleasing her sex.  Now, will she just see Hawke’s smug face?  Will Evie even be able to look Cullen in the eye anymore?  Will she be able to admit she knows its origin and not start yelling or crying?  What will be his reply?  Sorry?  ‘Shit!  I never planned on you knowing’?

That nagging inter voice’s volume echoed more in the Inquisitor’s head more than ever before.  The story demonstrated the ex-templar can be that same bastard the whispers hinted at so many times already.  Her image of a gentlemanly knight was a huge faux.  She saw what she wanted to see.  If he could sleep with a woman he hated, what else has he done without protesting or being indifferent?  He was knight-captain under Knight-Commander Meredith Stennard for six years and did not stand up to her until she threatened to kill the Champion.  What did he ignore or permit before finally giving in?  Imagine if he was the person holding the whips when Evie’s cousins punished her for Anders’ massacre, their commander officer who simply transferred the heinous relatives to another Circle.  Imagine if his name is in that sealed file-

Evie gulped her mead until every drop flowed down her throat.  She squeezed her bright green eyes close, counting to ten before opening them again.  She needed some lavender tea, anything to remind her of what she witnessed herself, not imagined based on hearsay and rumor.  She wanted Cullen telling her his dark secrets.  Evie desired his cut arms holding her closely and Fereldan husky voice explaining his side of events.  The mage never fully judged someone until she heard from all parties.  However, he was weeks away.  She could not march into his office and demand to know how he got that scar.  Would Culllen even admit it?  Would he lie?!  No matter, because Evie would explain she heard the tale while drunk and laughing like it was another templar that fell for Hawke’s plan of sex and revenge.

Cullen fucked Hawke!  That same woman slept with Anders!  Indirectly, the commander laid with that abomination, as unrealistic and irrational as that conclusion was right then.

Evie grabbed the half empty bottle of mead, drank several gulps, and spat off the side of the tower onto her comrades below.  Somehow she felt the act could wash her mouth of Anders and that realization.  Just like her last long, lounging bath in Skyhold, she could not disconnect her growing affections from her hatred of Anders and his friends.  Now, that connection was more true than false.

A few moments passed before the mage relaxed and poured a proper cup of liquor.  She was out of tequila or that would be her alcohol of choice at the moment.  Evie needed to be in top shape first thing in the morning, so fermented honey won drink of choice that evening.  Suddenly, it tasted wrong and disgusting, no longer refreshing and closing the distance between her and her Lion.   

If anything good came out of Hawke’s gloating story, it explained why Cullen never visited Evie in her secret library or avoided anywhere that kept him closed in.  For a templar, she understand why such a weakening fear could be abused by maleficars and other enemies.  Blood mages could simply place the commander in a tight prison cell.  How long would Cullen last before breaking?  Did Samson know about this weakness?  The two templars shared quarters in Kirkwall.  If Cullen reacted poorly just one time, the red lyrium general might remember that memory and corrupt the commander.  Just like not telling Evie about his lyrium withdraw, Cullen risked the Inquisition.

The Herald had her own weakness:  silencing knocked her unconscious.  Despite working with Cassandra to build a tolerance against the ability, Evie still passed out every time her Fade connection was severed.  None of the Inner Circle mages found ways to reconnect the Inquisitor during battle sans drinking lyrium.  For personal reasons besides Cullen’s own lyrium battle, Evie refused to drink the blue potions.  Its extra potency spiked with nightshade poison during her Harrowing almost killed her.  The Trevelyan fortune stemmed from its necessity throughout Thedas.  Mages and templars alike depended on it to continue fighting.  The Inquisitor will always refuse to drink it, even if it stopped her from passing out.

The Inner Circle fought constantly to make sure not a single enemy escaped when Evie fell unconscious.  Blackwall nearly died once chasing down a red lyrium courser who darted away from a battle toward reinforcements in the Emerald Graves.  Everyone agreed that Corypheus can never learn that fact because he might use it to gain the Anchor or to control the Inquisitor.  The envy demon nearly gained the Anchor’s abilities.  The ancient magister did not need to go through so many hoops to drop the Inquisition to its knees.  More than Cullen’s claustrophobia, Evie’s fault risked the whole world.  However, could drinking lyrium solve that problem?  Unlikely.

That sealed file held all the answers.

No one, not even Corypheus, could get a hold of that document.  There were so many locks, barriers, and requirements to even access it, let alone open the damn thing.  The magister killed the only person who could request its contents.  That also meant Evie could not obtain it.  The people who know what is written inside are dead or sworn to secrecy, including the Herald’s own fucking father.

Evie gulped her goblet of mead.  Nothing has changed since she fell out of the Breach eight months ago.  They were no closer in stopping Corypheus, and she still did not own or read her own Circle file.  If anything, her demons haunted her everywhere.  Sleep brought her sister’s curses from the day her magic manifested.  Her mind’s vision of Kirkwall’s Chantry or the Conclave always burned from her inflicted magic.  If not those nightmares, she witnessed her comrades’ heads on pikes, turning into red lyrium fiends, or eaten by demons.  Each nightmare allowed the demons a step closer to possessing Evie, despite her ability to fight and protect herself.  The Anchor called the Fade’s strongest demons like it challenged Evie every time she closed her dyed eyes.

In many ways, the waking, physical world was much worse.  Constantly, the Herald fought blood magic and demons, while using the Anchor to close rifts.  Each fade rift did something to her like marking another day off her life or brought her closer to insanity.  The strange countdown declined drastically since sealing the Breach, it still lingered and snaked up her arm, starting to pass her elbow.  It laid deep in her tissue, hidden under her darkening tanned skin.  Her arm bone slowly glowed bright green.  Blood pumped through dyed veins.

The Inquisition’s alliances supported her worst personal enemies, the causes for every single scar on her battered body.  Templars, rebelling mages, radical Chantry leaders, Grey Wardens, Free Marcher residents, Fereldans, Orlesians…the list would use every piece of parchment in the keep.  They all taunted her, poked, and took bits of her mind, body, and soul, destroying any happiness she found or embraced.  Her genuine smile now tarnished by those same demons even before she met Cullen.

“I walk among demons every day and night.”  Evie muttered, rubbing her temples with so much pressure it gave her a thumping headache.  “There’s no escaping them…”

“If you can’t hack it, resign.   Give the Inquisition to someone who is more capable.”

Evie’s bright green eyes flung open.  She jumped to her feet and threw the rocking chair to the side, gathering her inferno magic around her like a flaming tornado.  “What, you Hawke?!  Ha!  You will have to destroy me physically and in the Fade before I give up on my divine duty!  My fucking faith-driven role given to me by Andraste herself!”

There, standing by the wooden staircase, was Champion Veronica Hawke.  Her arms laid crossed over her perky breasts, highlighting their flawlessness, especially compared to Evie’s whole tan body.  Her shaggy pixie hair fluttered in the evening winds.  Electrical sparks and arches danced around her, while dark clouds gathered high above.  Evie knew she blocked out the world while she deviled into her deepest thoughts, but she figured her noise rune would alert her to movement.  No, of course the apostate would dispel it like it was just another fact demonstrating Evie could not hack leading the Inquisition.   What better way to rattle Evie than to catch her off guard at her weakest moment.

“You know, as a mage, I can technically do that.  I guess something you Circle slaves never thought about.”  Hawke mocked, unimpressed by Evie’s remark.  “Strike you down here, then dream and destroy your spirit before it reaches the heavens.  Shit, you already walked physically in the Fade supposedly.  Kill two birds with one stone, huh.”

“If you wanted to lead the Inquisition, why have Varric hide your location?”  The Herald hissed, placing her hands on her hips.  The mark sparked and ionized the air around them, giving off a horrific smell.  “Why leave the Viscount?  Why cower away while demons ran down from the sky?  Why stay away after the Divine was murdered by the ancient magister you set free!?” 

“I don’t expect you to understand!”  The electrical mage huffed back.  “You, a noble little Circle mage who got everything you ever wanted.  I was at Ostagar when I saw my king cut down by a darkspawn orge.  I got my brother and best friends out of there before darkspawn killed us too.”  Hawke started pacing back and further, rattled she even had to argue her case.  “I get to Lothering.  We have to run again, but we lose Aveline’s husband and my baby sister, Bethany.  Bethany never hurt anyone in her entire life.  Her magic and her faith were signs that the Maker still loved His children!  We run to Kirkwall!  My uncle gambled away the family fortune.  I sell myself and my brother into servitude just to enter the city!  I see an opportunity to start a new life and find that damn idol.  From that moment onward, I spent every waking second trying to fix that mistake.  That mistake bound Varric and me together even now.  Thank goodness he is such a great guy.  Aveline tried to keep the city from imploding.  Qunari used me as their go-to person while they planned on subjugating us under the Qun.  The man I gave my heart to only walk me away after I gave him my virginity because making love with me reminded him of being a slave.  A blood mage kills my mother and desecrated her body.  My brother becomes the very thing that can take away my freedom.  And you’re butt hurt that I befriended a Grey Warden who used me to blow up a fucking Chantry that contained your brother?!  Fuck you, and fuck your pettiness!  Walk a day in my shoes and you’ll be crying for your precious Circles like that!”  She snapped her fingers to illustrate her point.

Evie shook her head, dumbfounded.  “You think that is all this is about?  Fuck off a cliff, Veronica!”

“Because I fucked your spineless templar?  You can have the branding bastard!”  Hawke waved her hand like Cullen was a speck of sand.  “Let me know how that goes.  Oh wait!  I already know!  Terribly!  You know why I left as viscountess?  That so-called Chantry hero made ruling Kirkwall worse than when Meredith was alive.  He made it all worse!  Aveline was moments away from having the masses lynch the ‘so faking faithful’ nobles, whose templars sons caused this bloody mess.  His fucking templars willingly took red lyrium, seeing how powerful Meredith became.  They hoped to rule the world using that horrific stuff!  Anything’s better than your family’s grand poison!”

Hawke stopped pacing and grabbed her hair, tugging to restrain her hands from casting lightning bolts.  “If I knew they would put such pussy people in charge, I would have openly became Inquisitor.  Even if you got that damn thing on your hand, I would not put you a hundred leagues near the leadership.  You cannot judge anyone’s character.”

“And you can?”  Evie laughed, throwing her hands into the air.  “Let’s start with Merrill.  You call blood mages horrible things, and yet you befriend one whose own clan disowned her?  Oh Sebastian, the prime example of those Chantry noble fakes you were just criticizing.  You got him his bloody crown.  His first order of business:  take Kirkwall!  You know the only people keeping him out of the city is Inquisition under my own personal orders!  All we need is one Free March city to fall before they’re all at war.  Good job there, Champion.  Let’s see…”  Evie tapped her chin, pretending to struggle thinking about Hawke’s flawed companions.  “There’s Isabela, a woman who spreads more diseases than the whores in the Blooming Rose.  Those descriptive infections Varric wrote about that Anders had to cure, most of them cause infertility!  Good luck if you want kids!  I’m surprised her skin hasn’t melted off her breasts!  You already slandered your own brother.  Aveline and Varric have their own problems, most originating from you!  If you’re pointing at me for bad lovers…lastly, Fenris.  The maniac that loves killing mages.  Have you ever stopped wondering if one day he will snap your neck because of what you are!?  I’m surprise you ever visit the Fade, always fearing for your life!”

“I’m not saying I’m perfect.  I’m saying you think you are!”  Hawke remarked, flicking Evie off.  “Your band of fucktards are not a field of roses either!  Spies, apostates, murderers, Circle whores, Chantry fuckers, and enemy Tevinters, oh fucking my!”

“So, that’s why you should be Inquisitor?”  Evie quizzed.  “Think you’ll do better?  I doubt it.  You still haven’t answered why you never came to Haven, even after the Breach was stabilized.  I think I know why:  you were scared.  So was I.  Scared shitless!  Yet, I bloody stayed.  Even saw a world if I failed!  Do I agree with the templars, rebelling mages, or the Chantry?  Heck no!  What makes you and me different is that I am doing something to change it.  You think because I am a noble Circle mage I had an easy life.  Please!  Walk a day in my shoes, you insufferable bitch!”

“So we both believe we are better fits for Inquisitor over the other…”  Hawke’s pitch lowered, while biting lower lip.  “How about you put your abilities where your mouth is…”

Evie walked up to Hawke, meeting eye to eye, although Hawke had few inches over Evie.  Their magical auras intermixed like elemental explosion on top of the tower.  Hawke’s cello boomed in Evie’s ears, yet her violin did the same to Hawke’s Fade pull.  “What do you suggest, Champion?”

“A duel…”  Hawke sassed, smirking.  “Magic to magic.”

“Terms?”

“No lyrium.”

“Okay.”

“No armor.”

“Agreed.  No dispelling or cancelling.  Just raw magic.”

“Just like how I like it.  No Anchor.”

“No Fenris then.”

“Agreed.”

“One staff and one blade.”

“A staff blade counts as both.”

“Deal.”

“First to yield or blade pointing at a certain death.”

“Deal.”

“When?”

Evie thought for a moment.  “…dawn following the keep tournament.  Everyone, including the templars, will be sleeping and hungover.  It should allow us to slip away to a safe location and fight without the whole Inquisition rushing to stop us.”

Hawke nodded.  “All right.  Only under one condition.”

Evie tilted her head.  “Yes?”

“Both us wear breast bands and tight pants, showing as much skin as humanly possible.”

The Herald bit the inside of her cheek.  Why such a rule?  Only if Hawke knew about Evie’s scars would she even suggest that.  She countered.  “Not pants…Instead, Circle skirts…in Chantry colors.”

The Champion grimaced and shuddered.  She rolled her icy lilac eyes.  “Fine.”

“Until then, Champion.”

“Adieu, Herald.” 

Chapter Text

Cullen’s body knew what his subconscious needed.  Its automation dressed him after wiping away all the sweat his fair scarred skin.  Tears stained his flushed, swollen cheeks.  It walked him across the ramparts into the main fortress, an area of Skyhold he had purposefully avoided for the last few weeks.  Luckily, it was the dead of night.  Only patrols were permitted to wander the halls.  The advisors gave very few passes to bypass curfew.  The commander especially felt no one could be trusted.  In effect, no one saw the wandering exhausted man lumber through the dark atrium and into the great hall.

The commander wished to see his Lady sitting in her Andrastian flaming throne just for a moment, despite hating the imagery the Inquisition created.  However, if she did appear, he knew he was dreaming.  In reality, the large open space thankfully smelled less like Orlesian perfume and more associated with oil and candle smoke since many nobles and delegates did not travel to Skyhold lately.  The Inquisitor had not been present for about two months, and Josephine kept isolating herself more, fearing the House of Repose’s assassins.  Most communication occurred through ravens and messengers, now a highly prized position within the organization.  Too bad Cullen could not get rid of his personal runner.  His patience for that oblivious idiot thinned more and more each day.

The tallest tower remained locked and closed since she left.  Leliana and Cullen only carried the specific keys to the main door for emergency purposes, but not the interior loft, respecting her privacy and personal space.  Yet somehow, the commander’s rattled, hazy mind and automated body allowed him to reach the highest room.  His amber eyes stared and scanned the quiet loft.  An unslept bed, clean unlit fireplace, and closed balcony doors greeted him.  A thin layer of dust laid on the intricate desk and lazy sofa.  There was nothing inviting or homey about the bedroom.  Nothing screamed she lived there lately. 

Suddenly, those same ember orbs rolled into the back of Cullen’s head.  What his soul craved reached his senses, permeating his nostrils and pushing away the night terror’s lingering emotions and fears.  Those dark thoughts and images returned behind the mental chained door his psyche created to protect his soul.

In the weeks since her departure, Cullen burned all the special scented candles she made.  He attempted to pace how many he could burn per week to keep a stock until she returned to Skyhold, to him.  Once the ex-templar stopped using her withdrawal potions and aids, all he had were those candles to reaffirm a sense of center and comfort.  Her assistant, Fesill, made more based on her instructions, but they were not the same.  Something about how she infused the beeswax, oils, and citrus juices screamed her rather than any other candler.  Cullen knew she heated the wax with her inferno magic.  He envisioned her controlling the flames to not set the clove and citrus oils ablaze.  Her bright green eyes shimmering while dunking the handmade wick into the wax bath layer-by-layer until she was satisfied.  Her satin fingers sprinkling in bits of crushed cloves and orange zest into the solidifying wax between each layer.

“Eve…”  Cullen whimpered, gripping the banister behind the sofa tightly.  His knuckles flushed white as his nails dug into the wood, nearly peeling the paint.  The former templar’s other hand rubbed his black-rimmed eyes as his body leaned against the sofa, needing its support to remain standing.  His migraine never relented or paused.  It chipped and ate at his mind and soul constantly like a sculptor chiseling marble with a dull tool.  Every curly hair strain ached and shocked his scalp.  Just yesterday, he almost shaved his blond mane to fight the pain.  Only his Lady’s awe of his curls kept him from picking up his razor blade and cutting the twisty locks.

Just whispering her name brought the rattle man both great happiness and fear.  It fueled the withdrawal symptoms, while his weakening body craved her mystical healing power.  Her magical aura pulled out the lingering blue poison and replaced it with peace.  He might have been able to sense Maya before he drank lyrium, but Evie’s fiery glow enveloped his detoxing mind, body, and soul.  She soothed his troubles and made him yearn for her presence more each moment.

Her unique scent and that magnifying aura was what alerted Cullen that the demon was not Evie.

Cullen knew it would happen sometime very soon.  The desire demons that harassed and tainted his dreams constantly searched for a new fear or weakness to reprise.  The demons knew of the Inquisitor since she fell out of the Fade, but the desire demons were distracted by other thoughts than her growing importance in his life.  For many years since Kinloch Hold, those specific demons chose Maya’s form to reenact the abuse he endured inside the Circle.  After he slept with Hawke and seeing her again in Skyhold, they taunted him about his great mistake, always closing doors to keep him tight and confined during the night terrors.  Other feminine forms were used over the years, but rarely had the desired effect on his psyche.

The commander utilized his templar education and dispelling meditation to lock away Evie and his growing romantic feelings so the demons could not access them.  It was a nightly routine he practiced while drinking his lavender tea.  Even if he did not plan to sleep, he mediated and focused his desires and happiness into a yellow orange candlelight, much like Evie’s distinctive light spell.  Drinking his morning lavender tea would call back that mental magelight, knowing he was safe from the Fade’s demonic attacks.

Despite his psychological preparation each night, the desire demons searched and dug through Cullen’s defenses for content, anything to get a rise out of their victim.  They resembled Free Marcher legends’ mermaids or sirens trying to sing sailors to their deaths.  On the rare nights they tired quickly, he may call back that magelight and give him great dreams and fantasies.  The two nights he slept beside Evie, he never prepared his mind and soul.  The commander also never slept deeply to travel to the Fade, yet he knew somewhere inside himself that he would not fear the demons if his Lady remained near.

After preparing this particular night, Cullen fell asleep in his own bed finally exhausted enough to stop working and rest for a while.  A night terror awaited him.  The demons found Evie.  The evil found his growing love.  A specific demon haunted him longer and more persistently than the others throughout the last ten years.  It alone found his protected orb, enchanted and curious by its specially built templar barriers.  It quickly dispelled the defenses and laughed at its contents.  It immediately took Evie’s shape and entered Cullen’s dream excited to taunt her victim with the rich image.  Yet, like Evie said, it never matched her scent.  In most cases, Cullen recognized his Lady was near just by the way the wind blew her clove and orange smell his direction.  The demon recognized both Cullen’s panic and defensive strength once he equated the connection.  It knew he would not be assuaged by the image alone. 

So, it purposely injured that lovely image.

It screamed Cullen’s name repeatedly, bleeding and scarred, mimicking her body’s years of abuse and torture.  The former templar held the whip and knife, dripping with her bright red blood.  A glowing brand formed in his grasp as the demon begged for him to not do it.  Once Cullen broke and hollered for it to stop, that is when the demon attempted to seduce him.  The blood disappeared, but the scars remained.  It guided his hands over the stiff white tissue, showing the scars will disappeared if he touched her, kissed her, fucked her.  It nearly worked.  Just the ability to hold and sooth Evie appealed to him, lessening the pain in his body.  The commander barely survived.   Its sulphuric scent and big black eyes, not the glimmering green rifts that absorbed him completely, reminded him it was not real.  He needed to wake from this nightmare.

Once he awoke, Cullen’s body knew he needed to smell oranges and cloves to assure him what appeared in his dream was not Evie and that he was awake and still not wandering the Fade.  From this point forward, the ex-templar must remind himself constantly about how Evie looked and the ways her aura truly healed him.  Now that the demons knew her, each night will be more and more excruciating, especially since she was not present physically.   He yearned for her Free Marcher lilt. Those faded freckles across her cheekbones seemed like a distance memory.  Cullen would give anything to see that mischievously grin she loved to give when she provoked him sexually. 

Evie did provoke him with the last statement she sang in his ear, right before she left his side:  “Oh, by the way…I have no gag reflex…Something to ponder about until I return…You know, to keep you company… Understand, Commander?”

The commander groaned and readjusted himself right then, reflecting back on her secretive whisper.  That day in the lower courtyard, Cullen replayed the message a few times in his baffled head as he watched her mount the Antivan mare in a quite suggestive way...or it just his mind processing her unique talent?  She trotted towards the gate with the Inner Circle and the Fereldan Grey Wardens.  Its meaning sank in once seeing her brief smirk and shimmering eyes pass under the portcullis.  He broke right then, almost calling off the whole expedition and keeping Evie locked away to love and cherish alone.  Very alone.  That was her intent when she remarked it was her turn to explore him when she returned.  Since then, her invisible ink messages stated she was just getting started, especially if she won the mail chess match.  Since he brought her so much pleasure before she left, she struggled alone and needed his assistance desperately.  She cooed that he awoke a dragon in her that could only be tamed by him.  Maker, that minx!

Cullen attempted to tease back by mail on what he planned if he won.  His finger barely stroked her before she climaxed.  Imagine what more digits, more parts of anatomy may entice.  However, she aggressively fought during the mail chess game and challenged him constantly.  Right now, his remaining pieces were on the run, trying to protect his weak king.  Cullen promised his Lady he would fight for his chess victory, but he could not deny losing seemed quite enthralling and more rewarding.

Cullen moaned and took a few steps forward.  He needed fresh air, anything to cool his sweating and aroused skin.  It physically hurt missing her.  The demon’s alluring images and Evie’s descriptions were becoming muddled in his mind, much like his struggle to separate Maya and Evie.  His loosely buckled boots stomped towards the balcony doors facing the Frostback Mountains.  He unlocked the stained glass double doors and pushed them open.

The spring air whooshed passed the ex-templar’s ears, immediately cooling his sticky skin and soaked tunic.  Unlike the daytime, the nights continued to be quite cold, especially following spring storms.  At higher altitudes, it snowed constantly, but Skyhold was a warm oasis.  In a previous letter, Evie expressed that she was jealous of the fortresses’ climate, hating the desert heat more and more every day she spent there.  Cullen half joked in his reply that if she hated it so much, Evie should just come home.  She hissed, mentioning he was not helping.  The mage desperately wished to return.  She missed her Lion.

Sniffing his sweaty tunic, Cullen wondered how long before it will disappear from the laundry room.  He knew Fesill stole several tunics and sent them west.  None returned, although the commander wondered if how wore through the linen might be by the time she returned.  They might be more useful as rags then.  In Haven, the commander did his own laundry, demonstrating his position did not excuse him from private-level tasks.  Once moving to Skyhold, Josephine required him to allow the hired servants to assist him.  His time could be spent elsewhere, like sleeping or relaxing; yet another task lost that could distract him from his withdrawal torment.  He still refused anyone else to clean his office or loft.

Cullen smirked and shook his head, leaning against the balcony banister.  Evie’s counter-tower assault began a few days ago; her sneaky response from him barring Ser Morris from repairing the central tower.  A Denerim glassblower’s apprentice arrived with a cart full of Orlesian Serault stained glass, brass, and mahogany wood.  The commander learned about the project when he discovered the man reviewing his ceiling hole.  He was a large artisan, undeterred by the commander’s authoritative templar persona.  His master received a special request with full, upfront payment from the Inquisitor, stating the recipient would be difficult but must relent.  Cullen nearly ran the artisan through with his broadsword.

Until the Fereldan knight reviewed the schematics.

Maker, Cullen fell more and more in love with that woman every day.

The former templar wondered even then how his Lady figured out he was claustrophobic.  It did not surprise him really.  She was observant, although do not expect her to witness items in her own environment.  Even training with the rogues the last eight months, the Circle mage still missed basic details around her environment.  Evie probably pieced together the smallest details to assume his weakness.  The assistant explained her concept drawing looked more like a toddler’s first painting attempt, but the idea was clear and precise.  It will open his loft, allowing him to see the setting sun, starry nights, and dawn’s majestic rays.  The man still watched the dawn and dusk each day while his Lady was away, reveling in its colors and sights.  He stood on the ramparts and remembered the blissful moments he shared with Evie. 

The dwarven mechanism that will fill the envy demon’s hole will be the new focal point in Skyhold.  Its clicking rhythm will fill the air with sound instead allowing Cullen’s mind to wander.  It will fill the silent void that he hated much like what happened at Redcliffe Castle.  The central tower will signify the Inquisition’s importance, but include his personal contribution to the war.  Most of all, the two additions will provide a private space from prying eyes, specific Leliana’s from the Rookery.  Just like Evie, she considered personal areas from public duty, specifically their growing relationship.

Once reviewing the design concept, Cullen relented and approved the installation.  Evie won that particular battle hands down.  He has yet to tell the mage that, deciding she will want to see his reaction upon her long-awaited return.  The full stained glass mosaic remained a mystery, only known by the glass master and the Serault material workers.  However, Cullen knew his Lady reviewed every conversation they ever shared to depict the most comforting and happiest moment in his life.   The mosaic will allow him to keep his tree sapling and vines, another living thing and feature he enjoyed about the special loft.  The installation was only partially done and trashed his private space, but he enjoyed witnessing the process and could envisioned Evie’s touch on each cut glass piece.  When Cullen awoke from the night terror, the shaped glass and its sparkle in the waning moonlight brought him back to reality.  It fulfilled its purpose.  The broken man knew he was safe and not trapped.

Thinking about the project pushed away the desire demons words and attempts, revitalizing Evie’s true personality and image in Cullen’s mind.  He stretched his back and arms over his head, smiling a bit.  The devious woman gave him a new focal point, something else to look forward to while combating the agony.  The desire demon or Maya could not break the challenging game the mage and ex-templar played since they met.  First it was sussing out emotions, past connections, and trust, moving onto physical attraction and teasing, and has led to topping one another with thoughtful gestures. 

Cullen is no way was a romantic man.  He spent most of his life restrained and bound to a set way of doing things.  Before he left home, the adolescent remembered witnessing his brother attract and court any young woman who past his path, despite still being a child.  Cullen barely stammered before running away in a young lady’s presence.  His awkwardness continued throughout recruit training and—in some ways—to that very moment.  That ‘Chantry boy’ shyness, as Evie called it, was one of her favorite qualities.  It made her feel safe with him, knowing he would never take advantage of her.  As usual, he gave her that grimace she always laughed at, poking his dimples and sassing him.  That was even before they began their relationship, just a passing conversation months ago in a Skyhold hallway.

Evie’s glass tower project provoked Cullen to do something to surprise her now.  The commander wished the dragonbone weapons and dragonskin armor had been a one-sided gesture, but she already created potions and oils to assist him while away.  She finally pushed him to fix his tower, so he reached out for his reply, his new focal point, especially after his night terror.  Four vendors and specialists already replied with rejections, stating his commission will not be possible.  Ferelden lacked such specialized craftsmen, forcing him to look to Val Royeaux.  He purposely neglected to state who he was and who the recipient will be, wishing no exclusive treatment.  Cullen wanted this item made from the heart, reflecting of Evie and her angelic soul.  He refused to ask for Josephine’s assistance because that would give away their relationship.  Now that it looked like his Lady would be gone another month, he still had time.  Maybe someone will come to his aid.

“Eve…”  the man groaned again, running his calloused hands through his sweaty hair.

Cullen kept trying to find qualities to fantasize about to remember the woman truly rather than the muddy images from Maya’s haunting and the demon’s masquerade.  Despite many memories occurred between them since the Conclave, there were very few loving, personal moments.  Most events occurred prior to Evie’s confession.  Many were ruined by that nitwit runner or depressing revelations, such as how beaten, bruised, and alone his Lady had been throughout her life.

The commander wrinkled his nose, disgusted by his aroused body’s suggestions that kept passing across his consciousness.  There was a train of provoking thoughts the ex-templar knew that will work to reconnect him with his Lady, but he purposefully locked them away.  He hated how physical and primal he became the two private, intimate times Cullen and Evie shared.  The man and woman agreed to take their relationship slow, but already he underdressed her and fondled her body like an Avvar barbarian.  Evie replied happily to his advances, but so did the women he laid with in the past.  All of those relationship were purely physical, a means to an end.

Cullen refused to treat Evie that way.  She was a person, an exquisite beauty to revere and love unconditionally.  He will do anything for her and stand beside her through thick and thin.  They already lived a nightmarish life, but together they might find happiness.  Leliana was quite right about that.

However, the twitching length in his linen pants kept reminding him the many times he pleasured himself before they declared their emotions.  The man hated himself each time afterwards, using Evie’s image to release.  No one should think of the Herald of Andraste with such brandished and perverted thoughts, but he could never help it.  First, she used to hate being call the Herald and the image the Inquisition sculpted, nearly losing what made her her.  Second, Cullen learned not to think of Evie as a thing or vessel that could close rifts.  That mindset ruled him for years in Kirkwall to hide his fear and mistrust of mages.  His Lady taught him she was a person.  Mages had souls to respect and should be considered equal.  Fantasizing about her with his hand wrapped around his cock did not show respect in the slightest. 

The Chantry stated masturbation was sinful and should not be practiced.  That never stopped templars.  Cullen heard all the excuses imaginable while a knight-captain.  The Gallows’ knights were sent to his office for punishment for ‘sinning through self-pleasure.’  Those particular knights rarely were discrete, unlike the rest of the Order.  The punishment usually entailed the knight going to confessions and stating his or her action to a Chantry sister.  What Cullen knew of Chantry sisters in Kirkwall demonstrated they did the same task on themselves, arguing the act did not breaking the vow of celibacy.

Other punishments included higher doses of lyrium or no lyrium at all.  The blue substance suppressed desires and emotions in non-mages.  Less emotions meant less likely to masturbate.  Cullen now knew he only cemented a knight’s addiction more through such tactics.  Samson appeared in his office several times for masturbation when he did not have enough money for a whore at the Blooming Rose.  The knight-captain personally fed the bastard’s addiction, unknowing he would turn away from the Maker to serve an ancient magister years later.  Guilt welled up inside ex-templar as Cullen stared out over the mountains.

As a knight, Cullen rarely masturbated, thus the random women he would fuck in the Gallows for physical purposes.  There was no rule about laying with someone, just as long no one asked and no one told.  The action remained another everlasting scar left by the demons who tortured him in Kinloch.  Victims such as he rarely valued themselves following emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.  That is why the commander considered those past flings as nothing but mistakes and missteps.  The women wanted more emotional connection from him, but he refused, breaking off sexual encounters will little to no explanations.

Cullen smacked his forehead.  And then there was Veronica Hawke.  Besides not stepping forward to protect Maya, laying with the Champion of Kirkwall continued to be his second worst mistake of his life.  Even with his drunk mind that night, her lustful whispers still rang, saying “you’re the best fuck I ever had.  A natural…”  Cullen Stanton Rutherford, you idiotic warped moron!

That night was still damn good though, a release Cullen desperately needed during the height of Kirkwall’s blood magic and revolts, which just made the regret sting that much more.  Just days later, he turned on his commander and struck down the first enchanter abomination.  Maybe that drunk night held purpose for his actions then.  He may never know for sure.

That was why considering stroking himself standing on Evie’s balcony tore him to pieces.  Cullen could remain cooped up and stupidly ravage Evie when he finally saw her again, unable to control his actions.  He never wanted to treat her like a thing, his worst fears.  Or he could utilizing his locked fantasies and fantastic dreams to avoid such actions, but be disgusted with himself afterwards.  It was clear which outcome was better, although Cullen still felt like a pervert doing such an act in her private rooms.

The man’s amber eyes glanced to the Free Marcher bed inside.  He smirked devilishly.  The acts already committed in that loft already passed perversion and included the most alluring moans and sighs Cullen had ever heard.  The way her bright green eyes rolled in her head as she clawed his back.  Her right breast plumpness in his palm while his lips suckled her left tit, leaving red welts along her sun-kissed skin each time he nibbled.  That deep red glow afterwards as she watched intently as he sampled her savory juices.  All the while, Cullen’s mind was nearly blank except for the multiple ways he imagined that could raise new sounds from that majestic voice.

The length twitched again, hardening just thinking about Evie’s beautiful form beneath him as she jerked into his crotch and whining for more.  Her wandering hand pressing against his trousers, searching for the front belt buckle.  Those silky fingers traced his cut muscles, following from his arm, shoulder, down his chest, to his abs.

“You should have let me explore…”

Cullen’s amber eyes rolled into the back of his head.  Suddenly, he felt a presence behind him, her warm breath on his neck.  Chiffon brushed his legs, and then his shoulder blades; that resplendent dress.  It hid nothing and was so easy to undo.  Pulsing heat warmed his skin as satin finger tips flowed down his biceps.  A faint kiss tickled his upper spine.

“You can envision this…”  Her Free Marcher voice cooed, continuing to kiss his spine upward slowly crawling towards his neck.  “…because you have seen what lies behind all that armor and cloth.  First, you witness me bathing in the Hinterlands.  You know how water pulls at my auburn waves and slicks my scarred skin.  You waited a long time to please yourself after that because you discovered who Esme was.”

Cullen groaned, remembering that first time he stroked himself with Evie in mind.  It was following the morning he confessed his past connection with Evie to Cassandra and Leliana.  The confession released him from the built-up guilt.  That night, several bells before he had to race to Redcliffe, he stayed in his tent alone with his thoughts.  Despite the dropping temperature, the man decided to hand wash himself with a rag and warm water bucket.  Each dunk and wringing the rag, he constantly envisioned Evie’s soap bar slicking her skin.  The waterfall poured over her sun-kissed face, down her shoulders, and along her lashed back.

It only took a few strokes then for release because he never pleasured himself after stopping lyrium.

“But you forced yourself to stop thinking of me that way afterwards, so disgusted…”  Her Marcher lilt was so strong his left ear.  Her hands followed his hips forward and traced his pants waist to the front loose ties.  “Why then while I was in the Mire did you touch yourself again?  Was it my breast in the moonlight that convinced you it was okay once more?”

The man started to step back into the loft, feeling the presence continue to tease the pant band.  That second time occurred following a dream, a very vivid dream.  Cullen could not stop thinking about the hinted outline through Evie’s thin linen nightgown at Redcliffe Castle.  Her green rifts shimmered from her fallen tears, yet her new determination and slight smile assured him that he could gaze without taking advantage of her.  The moonlight casted shadows across those unbound mounds.  That night in his cot after the dream he wondered what those perfect mounds felt like.  Some men preferred breasts, others behinds.  That night, while rubbing himself again, he declared he loved those breasts and what his imagination created they felt like.  He fucked his sheets, hollering into his pillow to contain the pleasuring moans.

“That changed though, didn’t it?”  Her alluring voice whispered again.  By then, he and the presence were inside.  His back hit one of the Free Marcher bed’s four posts, yet the presence remained.  “That’s why you love that training outfit.  Once glance at my ass and you nearly claimed me there in the armory.”

The presence slowly untied the front of his pants, briefly brushing his sensitive skin.  In his body’s haste to dress to walk to Evie’s tower, he neglected to put on smallclothes.  He fell asleep nude, too exhausted to even dress properly.  His body already knew what he would be doing right then, excluding any barriers that would delay the release.

“I like that vision you pictured that night, despite your thick cock still swollen from my unintended kick.”  The voice nipped as the last tie undid his length.  “So sensitive, which just made it all the more desiring.  Your hand up my tunic front.  Meanwhile, you behind me positioning yourself against my ass.  The armory, of all places, to thrust inside my cunt from behind.  One hand grasping my left breast, while your other hand arches my back at my hip so I can turn and still kiss you throughout each thrust and orgasm.  You would every so often massage my pearl enough to tease and ignite me, inciting new mewls only to thrust harder into me.  You haven’t been able to look at the armory the same way since…”

The satin fingers found his lower head, dancing her digits across his engorged tip just right to make him hiss.  The fingers followed his stiffen shape, measuring him.  “So many times you have witnessed me, even now knowing my folds and clit, yet I am left with nothing.  What is beyond this head?  How long do you grow?  How long will my lips travel as you sink into my throat?  Will you last long enough to experience all my gifts?”

“Will you taste delicious?”

 


 

Cullen’s slowly opened his amber eyes as the streams of light shimmered through the loft’s stain glass.  He laid on his stomach facing the window, naked with his clothes littering the dusty floor and stick from his multiple releases.  Her orange and clove scent immediately filled his nostrils.  He was still in her loft.  His eyes scanned his limited visual area, noticing the short burnt candle on the nightstand.  The light flickered with each breath, as did the parchment lying beside it.

The paper looked blank, but Cullen knew it was filled with her rich words.  That is right.  He knew why now he decided to go to bed last night, why he neglected to dress and masturbated continuously.  An unexpected letter arrived from his Lady.  Mees arrived bells earlier than usual with a letter completely blank.  Cullen decided to go to bed with a lit candle and highlighted her words.

The commander knew Evie was struggling terribly.  Something had happened, but she never said what.  Her life became so complicated and harsh those last few weeks.  Her mother was dying from the Blight.  Things between her comrades became unbearable, specifically after the Forbidden Oasis.  This secret unexpected letter was filled with her cries and desire for him.  Cullen spent those bells alone, pleasuring himself in her loft because she begged to see him.    She missed him dreadfully.  She cussed about the Approach.  She hated everything there.  They still had not found the Grey Wardens.  They were about to take on the Venatori behind the ancient gates.  Evie threatened damnation if something did not come out from this specific expedition.  There was no end in sight.

Most of the letter was Evie cursing Cullen for not leaving her with any vision of his body or mind.  His fantasy of her presence behind him while stroking his cock were incited by her letter.  She admitted she knew so little about him, but she could not help but pine and need him.  Cullen was her best friend and now lover, who she trusted completely without knowing much about him.  She hated she learned more from others than him, yet she would not push him.  Evie knew her Lion did everything with reason.  The mage just needed to vent to avoid blowing up the keep.  She unsuccessfully pleasured herself to reach the release he gifted her before she left.

I don’t know what is worse:  telling you what I can do or the inability of doing that at this moment.  If I was there, first I would shove both of us into the darkest place.  Second, I would spent bells just kissing you to remind myself how your stubble feels on my cheeks and your lips marrying mine.  Once satisfied, I will claim what you refused to allow me that night, if you permit me of course.  I need to experience you myself.  Know you, until you tell me about you.  You tasted me, you fiend.  What will you taste like?  Will you taste delicious?

I miss you, my Lion.  It hurts.  All this anguish alone.  Just to hear your fortepiano now…

I will win this game.

Queen to knight four.

~Eve

Those fantasies, Cullen’s masturbation last night replied to her urges and cussing.  Evie needed him, and all he could do was stroke himself.  Knowing the commander failed his Lady right then allowed the withdraw symptoms to claim him again.  They were falling into an abyss and cannot save one another.

“I love you, Eve…”  Cullen whispered, blowing out the candle.  “I failed you…”

Chapter Text

…Be angry, Eve.  You deserve to be, especially with me.  I promised you that I will stand by you, shield you from all the bullshit.  I vowed to never leave you alone, and yet you are now.  Your letter demonstrated my lack to serve you as both your commander and as a partner.  This whole situation keeps up apart, weak, broken, and alone.  All of our worst fears are front and center. 

I struggle almost every bell to keep your image and personality clear in my head, but it became polluted by everything else.  I slept in your loft last night, automatically wandering there just to smell your unique scent.  The place is empty and cold despite the surrounding warming temperatures.  Your letter allowed me to see you clearly again, pulling the weeds that suffocate your being within my aching skull.  I hope you do not mind.  I wish to avoid seeming like a lurch.

Just know you have been successful there.  Every time you fight the Venatori, it weakens Corypheus.  Yes, the wardens are still elusive, but the same can be said about the red templars here.  That alone is irritating me to no end.  Not knowing where Samson is equals your frustration to confront Calpernia.  I know we’re close, Eve.  Turn your temper and frustration into action like you always do.

As for needing me both mentally and physically, I am at your mercy, Milady.  I now understand why you struggle imagining me, and the fact your attempting makes me stammer and blush.  You know how too, and yes, I’m groaning at that specific grin you now have.  In time, we will learn everything about one another, all the secrets, and bits covered for modesty purposes.  All of me falls at your feet like a man worshiping a goddess (especially in that damn chiffon dress).  You’re not the Herald of Andraste, the Inquisitor, Lady Trevelyan, or whatever bull Josephine and Leliana write and say.  I kneel before you for who you are, Eve Trevelyan, the woman I care deeply for more and more each day.  I’m amazed by your strength through all struggles.  You do it all alone.  I failed you because I believe I should be the one keeping you safe and staying beside you, yet I haven’t done a thing.  In just that, it gives me strength to continue onward.

I await you, Eve.

King to Rook eight.

C

PS:  When did I become a mushy writer?!  Maker’s breath!  Please, don’t tell Dorian!

 

Evie bit her lower lip, allowing her hand-held fireball to dim.  The words slowly disappeared from the page until it was blank, secret and hidden from potential prying eyes.  Tears welled up in her bright green eyes as she let out a huge aching sigh.

The mage wrote a very angry, uncouth letter to her commander a few days ago.  Following Hawke’s challenge, something kept bugging her until she started ranting, not aloud but through her written words.  She knew Cullen did not deserve such abuse, but he was the only person she could trust, yet also the man she knew the least about.  When Evie comprehended that was the bugging bit, her written anger kept going, somehow flowing into her sexual need for him.  Witnessing Cassandra wandering out of the keep with Howe from their bedroom window only fueled the cursing.  Even then, she remembered nothing about him, had nothing to connect her to her Lion.  There was nothing wrong with her imagination.  Cassandra and she had several conversation on Cullen’s build.  Yet, Evie needed to know everything now because everything else she knew about the man was tainted by Veronica Hawke.

Evie folded the letter and placed it in her back pocket.  She sat in front of the campfire alone, watching Inquisition scouts and soldiers work to build the forward camp.  The wardens and the organization conquered Coracavus after two days of constant waves of darkspawn.  No one was infected with the taint, thank the Maker, but it did not mean the battle was easy.  Most of that time was spent building a temporary wall to block the Deep Roads access point.  Inquisition engineers, particularly dwarves, will arrive in a few days to properly seal the giant hole the Venatori stupidly created.

Rylen believed the Venatori abandoned their people in the other regions, when actually they themselves needed recused.  Some idiot attempted to train a giant to do all the heavy labor since most captured slaves were sent to the Hissing Wastes, used for blood sacrifices, or mined red lyrium.  The oversized beast busted a hole right into the Deep Roads.  Excavators pleaded with their overseer, Servis, to return some Grey Wardens to slay the beasts.[1]  The Tevinter mages’ bodies laid dead for weeks.  Good.  Animals did not feast on their tainted corpses, leaving the murderers to rot and be forgotten. 

Furthermore, this plea for warden support meant the Grey Wardens were collaborating with the Venatori.  The prospect alarmed Stroud, but he stated little.  Oghren, Velanna, and Stroud spent bells destroying the darkspawn and corpses, making sure the Blight did not spread or pollute the grounds.  His mind focused the on the current mission, not the future implications.

Blackwall participated in the continuous fights with the Fereldan Grey Wardens, but his response differed from the others.  Velanna responded quickly when darkspawn appeared, never really needing to tell her other comrades.  Stroud understood what to do as well as Oghren.  They were in sync during skirmishes through some secret warden ability.  Blackwall always engaged the monsters last, reacting to their presences like an unblighted individual.  One time Oghren saved the warden recruiter when a hurlock busted through a weak wall and tried to cut off his head.  Blackwall thank the dwarf, but the berserker just threw him a look.  From her small interaction with the Fifth Blight veteran, he usually likes anyone, especially if they carried a flask.  Oghren joked and taunted the Inner Circle with filthy dwarven stories.  He reminded Evie of when she met Iron Bull on the Storm Coast.  Yet, the red haired berserker shunned the Inquisition’s battle master.  Why?

Evie’s eyes wandered from the campfire’s flames to specific people accompanying her.  Solas was not supposed to be part of the mission, but he volunteered to join the group when they left at dawn.  Something about his glowing eyes in the rising sun told the Inquisitor why.  He was worried about her.  He will never admit it, but he genuinely cared about her state of mind.  Evie wandered if it was in response to him leaving her when she needed him the most.  The fire mage welcomed his assistance, but never replied to his unspoken concern.  Yet, Evie appreciated at least one person respected her privacy a little.

The Herald tried to keep her smirk small as she listened to the apostate argue with the Grey Warden Velanna.  On their journey to the Western Approach, both mages were kept separate after Velanna nearly ripped off Solas’ bald head.  Solas quite vocally stated he despised the Dalish, specifically the vallaslin they tattooed on their faces.  Velanna, despite an outcast to her clan and people, defended her culture, and asked repeatedly who raised Solas.  She continuously challenged the apostate, seeking answers that even Evie wondered about sometimes.  Varric and Iron Bull remarked they just needed to fuck and get out their frustrations.

Everyone commented Blackwall never shared anything about his past, but neither did Solas.  The apostate hid behind his nerdy Fade-walking ways, shielding himself from people discovering more about his life.  He was an enigma, one that Evie wished to understand.  He offered a great deal of knowledge and insight, yet she did little in return.  He listened to her rants when upset and offered advice and his views to her troubles.  Evie still kept him at arm’s length.  He abandoned her.  Although he did not betray her trust, he already demonstrated his own goals ruled his heart.  Why was he truly with the Inquisition then?

Their elven outbursts rang throughout the Coracavus’ front courtyard, bouncing off the surrounding sandstone columns while amplifying their fierce words.  Evie’s elven still stunk, but Velanna used every curse under the sun, while Solas kept questioning her beliefs.  To others, their bickering could be considered flirting.  Evie wondered if it was until she heard Solas explain he hated Grey Wardens the same if not more than the Dalish.  Velanna was a spit fire hedge mage.  From the tales Howe and Oghren told around the campfire, she was born that way, always ready to fight and kill anyone who questioned her.  Evie concluded Solas enjoyed nitpicking her personal beliefs, placing doubt in what Velanna held onto dearly for solace.  What a dick move, Baldy.

“…and then there was this amazing brew from the Chasind.  Ancestor’s buttocks!  Those guys know how to mash wild berries with sorghum!”

Evie’s curious eyes flowed from the bickering elves to a small circle of Inquisition scouts and soldiers, Blackwall, Varric, and Oghren.  The dwarves quickly became friends while still in Skyhold.  Varric was born on the surface, but knew a great deal about Orazammar.  Oghren left the underground city with Astrid and Alistair during the Blight.  To supplement his fear of falling into the sky, the berserker decided he will try every bit of alcohol he could find.  The conversations between she and the dwarf primarily contained their preferred drinks and brews they both should try.  Oghren actually tasted the infamous Storm Age Grey Warden Whiskey, stating what Evie remembered was quite wrong.

"It’s the Stone—or in your case the heavens—in a bottle!”

Evie immediately grimaced.  She will never find another bottle in her lifetime.  Apparently, the wardens found a completely hidden cellar in Soldier’s Peak ten years ago.  The whole crazy band drank the angelic swill to their heart’s content.  Ugh.

The currently fireside conversation between the soldiers, the dwarves, and Blackwall were obscure brews outside the main Chantry countries.  As a warden, Oghren enjoyed sampling many uncivilized group’s alcohol while fighting darkspawn.  She overheard him say Astrid gave him the job of a lifetime.  He killed blighted creatures for fun and drank everything not nailed down.  Grey Wardens’ stamina grew with the taint, but required they constantly eat.  The dwarf explained it only allowed him to drink that much more booze before falling over unconscious.

Yet another quality Blackwall lacked.

Evie bit the inside of her cheek. 

“Mind if I join you?”

Evie slowly glanced up through her long bangs at the Tevinter mage holding a mead bottle and two mugs.  She shrugged, patting the sandy ground beside her.  She inched left to give her friend some space against the cracked sandstone block supporting her back.

Dorian groaned as he sat down.  Evie knew she was overworking the altus.  He accompanied her everywhere in the Approach, rarely resting between missions like she.  The only time Dorian was not complaining or tired was when he sneaked into Iron Bull’s tent for a nightcap.  Everyone knew they were an item, but Dorian acted oblivious, much like Evie before everyone knew her personal life.  The mage spent that evening wandering the ancient prison’s halls, reading about his homeland’s imperial peak.  The place experimented on its captives, whose crimes ranged from public indecency to treason.  Much like Servis, Dorian searched for ancient knowledge, more to understand his ancestors rather than to use it maliciously.  He must have left the ruins when it became too difficult to see by magelight and torches.

“How are you doing, Sunshine?”  His voice was low and soft, while pouring some mead into a cup.

“I want to go home…”  Evie whispered, keeping her focus on the crackling fire by her tight-high boots. 

The inferno mage never really had a ‘home.’  The Trevelyan Estate was where she lived before her magic manifested and the few months after her Circle fell.  The Circle definitely was not a safe, happy place.  She slowly grew to love Haven until she buried it under an avalanche.  The Approach allowed her to be herself without judgement, but it lacked the one person she needed.  At the same time, Skyhold lacked any personal connection to make it her home.  She always felt it was someone else’s place.  The Inquisition only borrowed it for a while.  Yet, Cullen was there.

Evie frosted her finger tips and rubbed her temples.  Her head spun from everything going on.  “I want something to work out.  Everything we engaged here has led us nowhere.  No Calpernia.  No wardens.  Only sand and blood.”

“When I asked you how you were doing, I was not meaning that damn Inquisitor, my Dear.”  Dorian cooed, nudging her.  He offered her a filled cup.  Evie smiled and accepted the fermented honey.

“I don’t think about it.”  Evie whispered, knowing what he meant now.  “Like I said…I want to go home.”  Wherever that really is.

“You should be allowed to, Evie.”  Dorian sighed, hanging his head.  “I am lousy replacement for who you really need right now.”

“Nonsense, I enjoy your handsome company.”

“Of course you do, Dearie.  You have great taste.  However, I cannot hold you while you ball like a specific daft templar.”  Dorian hissed, wrinkling his perfect brown nose.

“Oh, I already cussed him out a day or so ago.  Just got his reply.  Still nothing about his headaches or anything.  Only accepting my rage and stating he should be here.”  The mage grinned a little.  “At least hearing you climax lets me know at one of us is enjoying themselves.”

Dorian grumbled deep in his exposed chest, rolling his grey eyes.  “I continue to deny your idea I am with Bull.”

Evie’s bright green eyes flashed at him.  “And I’m a monkey’s uncle.”  She sighed, resting her head on his bare shoulder.  “At least tell me you’re happy?”

“You’re not then?”  Dorian remarked, avoiding her question.

“Confused really.”  Evie hummed, swiping her long hair from her eyes.  She took the auburn waves out of their typical braids.  Wearing her hair up now gave her tension headaches.  “Trust and whatnot.”

“The man will not betray you, Evie.”  Dorian nudged her in the side before sampling the wine.  Neither wore their armor, feeling safe in Coracavus’ courtyard facing the canyon behind the ancient double doors.

“But will I betray him…everyone?”  Evie whimpered.  “Should I have this role or is someone else better at being Inquisitor?”

“Honey, if you were demoted, I will leave and take you with me.”  Dorian huffed, knowing who Evie slyly suggested.  “I follow you…and your fine commander.  Maker, bless that backside.”

Evie flicked his naked bicep.  “Mine…”  Evie no longer denied her relationship, especially to her best friend.  How they discovered about it is what bothered her the most.  She should have suspected it would fall apart fast and terribly.  No matter all her secretive safeguards, precious things always shattered horribly.  “His ass is quite grabable really.  I have yet to explore the front, the fiend.”

“Description or it didn’t happen.  I am still waiting for the grand tale of how you became bed mates anyway.  You owe me.”

Both mages giggled, shaking their heads.

“I will tell you sometime…just…not now.”  Evie stated after her chuckles simmered down.  “I…”  She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to find the words to convey her worry and apprehension.  “Has there been someone you…gave your…”  She could not finish her question.

Dorian kissed the top of Evie’s head.  “I know what you’re trying to say, Sunshine.”  The Tevinter put his arm around her, feeling her sweaty dirty skin instantly.  Goosebumps rose across her bare arm and shoulder.  His touch ignited her need for Cullen.  Evie only wore one of Cullen’s loose tunics, torn so there were no sleeves after the mage ripped it off a laundry line.  “I cannot say for sure.  I know it is different for everyone.  Yes, I have fallen for someone before…but I was greatly burned by him…literally.  He cheated on me with dozens of women his parents fed him to keep in his family’s good graces.  I refused to participate in such ways, one of the reasons my father tried to hide my…preferences.  He pushed these stupid and ‘pureblooded’ mage women at me.  If he saw you, he would notify the Imperial Chantry immediately for us to marry.”

“We are cousins…”

“Many times removed.  Remembered you almost married your brother Rian.”  Dorian commented.  It made Evie shudder.  “Sorry.  That was uncalled for.  Anyways, if this was another life…If I was not me, Evie, Cullen and I will duel for your hand.”

“Nothing against you, Lightning Strike, but you wouldn’t stand a chance.”  Evie giggled, staring into the flames in front of them.

“I know.  It would not stop me from seducing you though.”  Dorian rolled his head, then pinched his moustache back into its perfect place.  “Nonetheless, my experience with love is the worst.  However, I will say when that man walked away each night we spent together…I felt like I was missing a bit of my soul.”

“I know…”  Evie closed her bright green eyes.  “I don’t know yet…too many questions and wondering thoughts to really know-“

“Get rid of that doubt, and you’ll be fine.”  Dorian kissed her crown again.  “You’ll just know.  Don’t try to talk yourself in or out of any of it.”

Evie nodded, kissing Dorian’s cheek.  “Thanks.  In another life, I think you would be my soul mate.  But, I will take you as a brother, if you’ll have me.”

Dorian swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bumping Evie’s temple.  “Thank you, Evie.  I needed to hear that.”

Questions rolled around Evie’s mind.  Something about Dorian’s voice cracked and whined right then suggesting there was more to what her declaration meant.  His fade flute whistled and squeaked with trepidation.  Yet, she kept her thoughts to herself, noticing Dorian’s painful grey eyes.  Instead, she returned her attention to crackling fire.  She waved her hand, igniting some wood missed by the blaze, feeling the shifting heat.  She allowed her mind to wander until no thoughts appeared.  She let everything go.

“Inquisitor, may we speak?”

Two pairs of eyes glanced up to see a tan-skinned man with a scruffy beard saluting them.  Evie lifted her head from Dorian’s shoulder, knowing she needed to be a leader again.  Stroud’s eyes whispered his trepidation.  Dorian caught it too, squeezing her shoulder tightly.

“Of course, Grey Warden.”  The Inquisitor replied formally before gulping her mead quickly.  She smiled at the Tevinter mage, tapping his bare shoulder a few times.  “Keep drinking, Lightning.  I know you’ll be cold without your bed mate.”  She winked as she stood.

“Bah!”  Dorian huffed, wrinkling his nose.  He simmered down quickly, eying his friend and family closely before she walked away.  “Just call if you need me.”

Evie nodded, then turned her attention to the senior warden.  “I will follow you, then.”

The senior warden brought Evie to a set of stairs, leading to the old ramparts above the courtyard.  There was little light that far away from camp.  He did not want anyone knowing where they were speaking.  Evie kept her mind open, watching the warden’s actions closely.  Nothing about his internal tuba alerted her to be on guard.  If anything, Stroud was one of the safest people she had met in the last few months.  He feared for his own life more than threatened Evie’s.  Between Clarel’s assassins and the Calling nagging at him constantly, the mage was surprised about how much restraint and calm he depicted.

While climbing the stairs, Evie reviewed her past interactions with Ser Jean-Marc Stroud.  Although he brandished his sword the first time they met, Evie dismissed that action because she and Hawke had snuck into his hidden cave.  Since that moment, he acted in the highest respect and attitude, grateful that the Inquisition believed him and wished to save his order.  Once meeting the Fereldan wardens, he relaxed a little more, but not much.  He was a commander and needed to provide stability for his fellow wardens.  Howe relied on him, specifically regarding darker warden secrets and knowledge that may save everyone in the Approach.  Even the shield warrior kept information from his younger members, specifically because their loyalty laid with the Hero of Ferelden, not him. 

Stroud stopped walking at a battlement corner, allowing Evie and he physical cover while gazing out over the unknown desert.  His sight strained in the darkness, but Evie knew not to offer a light.  His brown eyes shimmered and danced as he searched for the enemy.  Were there more darkspawn?  No.  Evie knew this look.  He summoned the courage to state something that will upset her.

“We have not spoken personally, your Worship, throughout this expedition, but on behalf of myself and the other wardens, we thank you for your effort and continuous actions to assist our order.”  Stroud’s accent rumbled off the surrounding walls.

“As I told Howe in Skyhold, our concerns lie together.  With Corypheus walking Thedas, the Blight threatens us all.  His efforts to pollute the land continues, especially after what we witnessed in the Hissing Wastes.  We now have written confirmation that states the order is allied with the Venatori, most like under false pretenses.”

Stroud nodded.  “And what of your view on the Grey Wardens?  Clarel and what the Orlesian wardens are not our order.”

Evie nodded.  “I know that, Ser.  Being in your company these last few months has allowed me to gain a clearer picture.  Prior to this excursion, my knowledge was basic, based on books and hearsay.  I dislike gossip and books fantasize the reality, specifically regarding the wardens.”

“Very true.”  Stroud sighed, pulling at his chin.  “If I could be so bold, Inquisitor, but may I ask about your family?”

Evie stiffened.  “What about?”

“I have…overheard some discussion.”  Stroud swallowed, pulling at his stubble again.  “Your family has suffered a great deal.  Much of which can be related back to the Blight and the Grey Wardens.”

The Herald gritted her teeth.  “That is one way to put it.  Like as I just stated, do not trust hearsay.”

“Thus why I am asking you directly.”

Evie’s heart climbed into her throat, feeling its fast pace hammering in her neck.  “What is there to say really?  It is all terrible.  My father’s first wife became a broodmother, struck down by Grey Wardens and my family members.  My mother, his second wife, is dying because someone poisoned her food with the Blight.  My brothers…”  Evie squeezed her eyes shut.  Now she know why Stroud struggled to ask her.  “…Anders murdered them, Messere.  One’s life taken during the Chantry explosion and the other when templars attempted to recapture him.  If the wardens could just control that abomination-“  She bit her lip.  “My apologies…you do not deserve that.”

“Yet, you still stare at the other wardens with those same swirling eyes now.”  Stroud observed.  “The seeker informed me of your…sensitive past with the wardens when you first arrived.  She asked if I would keep interaction between you and the others as distant as possible.  I discovered in the Wastes why.  Once Howe and the others were informed of who you were in relation to those templars, they met to discuss how to reconcile the situation.  They elected me to speak with you.”

“None of them had the guts to come to me themselves.”  Evie started to pace, holding herself.  “None of them wished to confront my temper and explain themselves?”

“The person who you should ask is Warden-Commander Asta Cousland.”  Stroud’s tone was stern.  “Like your own companions, they were just following their leader’s orders.  Even then, they knew the consequences of their actions.  Wardens do act above the Chantry and countries’ governments, but we must tread lightly.  The Blight is all we focus on.  I know little about the details that year following the Blight.  Sometimes the Thaw creates more damage than the darkspawn invasion.  I hope you can forgive them.”

Evie stopped walking, breathing slowly to control her temper.  Her back remained facing Stroud.  She did not want him to see her shimmering eyes.  Tears tugged at her lashes.  “It will take time.  What you say is true, and I have told myself all these facts for years.  However…the indirect impact scars my skin, constant reminders of those deaths.  Until I confront Astrid and Anders, I will still hold that grudge…but I will be mindful that those wardens believed in the larger picture.  Rian’s death and later Esme’s were aftereffects for stopping more death.”

“I do not know where the Fereldan queen is, but I can assist you on your quest to find Anders.”

The Inquisitor twirled around, dropping her arms.  Her mouth gapped.  “What…?”

“Weisshaupt hunts the apostate too.”  Stroud leaned against the wall, holding his longsword’s hilt.  His buckler clicked against the sandstone.  “I saw him once in the Deep Roads the year Hawke and Varric ventured for the dwarven thaig.  His taint alerted me a Grey Warden was near.  My patrol met the adventurers, but by the time I discovered the warden’s identity, Varric’s brother betrayed them and they were gone.  After Anders abandoned the order, the wardens searched everywhere for him, including Kirkwall.  However, he knew how to keep himself hidden.  He listened to no one except the warden-commander and Hawke.  Hawke did not know at the time the order wished to capture him.  For years, he kept decently behaved, assisting the poor and sick in Darktown.  As the senior warden in the Free Marches, I kept an ear out just in case.”

Stroud glanced out over the dark canyon.  “Then the Chantry exploded.  The mage rebellion began.  Leaders at Weisshaupt viewed the event two ways, causing a divide to grow.  Some officers feared the Grey Wardens would be blamed for his actions, feel the Chantry’s wrath after ages of avoiding it to do our duty.  It’s just another misstep that will cause countries to push out the wardens like what happened in Ferelden ages ago.  The others thanked the apostate for giving the wardens a new recruiting tool by appealing to wary mages who wanted protection from rogue templars.”

The senior warden cleared his throat, meeting Evie’s glowing eyes.  “Now this.  A false Calling, an ancient magister wandering about while spreading the Blight, tainted red templars…the public view wardens as monsters again, especially since many members were thieves and murderers prior to their Joinings.  Weisshaupt agreed finding Anders and judging him will assist in improving our public image, although the order’s leaders do not know the truth about what is happening here.  They might never because of how our order is structured.”

Stroud’s attention returned to the Inquisitor.  “I know House Trevelyan.  A mentor was one of the wardens who assisted your family killing the first Lady Trevelyan.  The wardens know your family seeks revenge.  I think you wish it more than any other relative.  When this mess here is over, I will give you any information I have on the apostate’s whereabouts.  If the Inquisition judges him and shows the wardens under Clarel are not the true order, you might be able to save our order from complete ruin.”

Evie sighed, rubbing her temples.  “The judgement cannot be about personal wishes though, Stroud.”

“It will not be.”  Stroud stated strongly.  “The situation with the wardens will not end well, no matter how we act.  I know that.  The Inquisition is the only true impartial institution that can judge Clarel properly.  The same is true about Anders.  Seeker Pentaghast told me of your logical judgement of Magister Alexius despite the man tried to wipe you from existence.”

“I might be able to do that with Clarel, maybe…”  Evie whimpered, biting her lower lip.  “But Anders…I…”

“Not now, Inquisitor.”  Stroud shushed.  “That is why I said I will give you the known information after this expedition.  We must see this through.  Anders can wait and so can your judgement.”

Evie nodded, pulling her magic towards her for comfort.  Maker’s arse, she wished Cullen was there.  To find Anders and judge him for his crimes, not just the public ones, but the personal actions against her brothers and herself.  The barriers protecting Evie’s heart crumbled each moment thinking about the possibility.

“How does the order feel about people leaving their post?”  Evie asked, thinking about Stroud earlier statements.

“Unkindly because the member pledged their life to the stopping the Blight.”  Stroud explained, searching Evie’s face to why she asked the question.  “However, that can be accomplished in different ways, so if the person can argue their way of life, then there is an uneasy accord struck.  However, if a Blight occurs, all wardens must act.  Furthermore, once completing the Joining, a person’s time alive is shortened.  Many choices are gone because of the taint.”

“How does the order feel about two members being Fereldan royalty?  You know, taking titles even when such titles disappeared after becoming wardens?”

Stroud nodded his head.  “Ah.  Asta and Alistair.  Wardens are not supposed to engage in politics, but we do anyways.  For example, I served in the Free Marches because of my background here in Orlais.  I wish to avoid the Grand Game.  By becoming king and queen, the wardens saved the country from the Blight.  However, the full impact of their choices still has yet to hit.  Strife might return to Ferelden since the queen is missing and there is no future blood heir.  There will never be…”

The senior warrior cleared his throat again.  His eyes showed he did not want to speak on the matter anymore.  “There is another matter I must inform you, Inquisitor, if you please?”

Evie huffed, shaking her head.  “My, Stroud, you think you’ve given me enough to think about?”

“I think this particular matter plagues you as much as it has me.”

“Oh?”

“Blackwall is not a Grey Warden.”

Evie gapped like the first surprise again.  Embers and ash swirled around her.  “I knew it.”  She stomped towards the stairs.

“Evelyn, please wait.”

Evie stopped on the first stair.  Through the Fade, she heard Dorian’s flute intensify from his spot by the campfire.  Solas stopped arguing a while ago, but his Orlesian horns were amplified from his tent.  He was not asleep.  He must have sensed her heightened magic.  The mark glowed and pulsed.

“Why?”  The Inquisitor hissed, gritting her teeth.  “That man has been lying to you and me.”

“Thus why I ask you to keep this fact to ourselves.”  Stroud instructed.  “Do you know why he would use this disguise?  Most people would not dare volunteer to act like a warden without reason.”

“No.”  Evie’s anger subsided, but boiled beneath her sweating skin.  She will blast that giant by the Gate of Andoral to the heavens tomorrow.  “I suspected his canard for months now.  He told inconsistent and generic stories when we arrived at Skyhold.  You muttered you never sensed him when we entered your cave and his response to not fearing the Calling.  You’re a strong warrior, but yet it brings you to your knees.  He ran like a craven when the other wardens appeared at the Herald’s Rest.  Even the last few days, he did not battle like the rest of you.  His appetite pales in comparison to any other warden-“

Stroud smirked, shaking his head.  “So what they do say about you is true.  Your observations are correct.  Howe came to me early in our expedition, mentioning Blackwall’s allusiveness.  Blackwall is about my age, meaning the taint should be very strong in him than the younger wardens.  He knows little about the order’s secrets except what the public assumes.  Most of that is purposely misleading to throw off non-wardens.  His greatest mistake was his constant great pride and honor about the order.  It resembles those same romanticized tales you mentioned from books.  Through our conversations and fighting beside him, we can conclude he is not a warden.”

“What does the order say about such situations?”  Evie hissed, wondering if she will be able to punish the battle master.

“This has rarely occurred.”  Stroud replied, pulling at his stubbly chin.  “If a person wanted to be a warden, they either joined the order or attempted to use their false connection to gain something.  Most people in the latter situation are conscripted for their actions.  I discovered a few young lads saying they were wardens to impress a lady, but their secret became revived when they conceived a child.  You might not know, but wardens cannot have children.”

“We have something in common then.”  Evie commented, leaning against the wall.  “My organs barely functioned before pouring snow on Coryphues.  Then a sword sawed through my abdomen, making it more unlikely.  I think there is more luck that another person will gain Andraste’s boon than for me to conceive a child.”

“My condolences…”  Stroud bowed his head.

“I’m a mage.  I cannot keep a child anyway.”  Evie added.  “It’s ironic really since Anders’ actions lead to this difficulty in the first place…”  Her bright green eyes dulled as the darkness loomed in her mind.  Her heart’s walls shattered thinking about it.  She shook away the thoughts, ignoring the implications.

“In any case,” the senior warden started, clearing his throat.  “Warden rules state the false warden is to be conscripted.  However, it is the Inquisition who has suffered.  I suggest you discover why he is hiding behind this persona.  Some fellow wardens with Clarel will know if Blackwall is a real person.”

“He is…was?”  Evie remarked, thinking back to several months ago.  “King Alistair stated Warden-Commander Duncan knew the man, and he stayed at Skyhold for a time during the Fifth Blight.  It has been ten years.  We do not know how long that liar has personified the true warden.  I will send a specialized message to my spymaster to investigate.  As you stated, many wardens originate from rough and troublesome origins.”

“That is very true.”  Stroud’s stared off at nothing. “My Joining occurred when my trainers asked Clarel to recruit me to avoid me throwing my life away and revenge my family.  My story resembles Warden-Commander Cousland’s origins quite well.  Family murdered because of political games and desires.  I never met the queen, but our shared experiences would be an interesting discussion.”

“I will accept your suggestion, Stroud.”  Evie agreed, trying to simmer down her temper.  “I will alert Sister Nightingale immediately.  In the meantime, please assist me in possibly gathering information about this conspirator.  He is fine warrior, but I abhor betrayal.  I will not allow someone sabotage the Inquisition or the Grey Wardens.  Once we deal with Clarel, you and I shall stand together and handle both traitors.”

Evie held out her right hand, demonstrating her dedication to Stroud.  The senior warden accepted, shaking it twice and nodding.  “Thank you, Inquisitor.  Let us end this cat-and-mouse game with Clarel and stop the blood magic.  Once Oghren, Velanna, and I confirm there are no more darkspawn into this canyon, we will rejoin Hawke, Fenris, Howe, and Sirgun in the south west.”

“We should be done by the end of the week.  A smuggler named Servis leads these Venatori.  We took down two giants, but another protects the Gate of Andoral.  Cassandra and the Inner Circle wait until we open the door.  After that, we can capture this leader and get some information.  He holds no loyalty to the Venatori.  He left many to die as he escaped the darkspawn.  He isn’t bright either.  He believed ‘trained’ giants would serve better than workers.  Ha!  Let’s get to sleep so we can break the Venatori at Echoback Keep.  Then together we will find the Grey Wardens.”

Stroud smirked and nodded, saluting.  “Of course, Inquisitor.  Let us end this.”

Chapter Text

It’s amazing how quickly a Tevinter craven becomes a turncoat, Cullen.  They spout the most idealistic shit at you when the fight begins.  However as their magic connection is lost and they’re surrounded by Inquisition members, all of a sudden, their whole demeanor changes.

Cassandra tossed the head Venatori researcher across Echoback Fort’s ruined ramparts with one hand.  The mage’s stealth spell faded as she continuously disconnected the Fade around him.  Both the seeker and the Inquisitor watched him slide on his side, holding his broken arm.  The fierce women sauntered up to the robed heap and just stared at the pitiful man.  The mage slowly pushed himself up, his hands bound in mana-draining shackles.  He waved his palms frantically.

Taking the ruined keep behind the Tevinter gates was quite easy.  Once the Inner Circle rogues accessed its poor defenses, the battle was over in a few minutes.  Servis barely got a spell off before I clubbed him unconscious.  The Inquisition eye on my staff can be quite painful.  Cassandra silenced him a few times when he started to wake up, confused about how quickly he lost all his research and supporters.  A Venatori archer was more difficult to defeat than the mage smuggler.  Iron Bull enjoyed that scrap, especially when his axe cleaved the archer’s head like watermelon in a single blow.

“Servis of Minrathous Circle of Magi…One of my companions knows you…and your tendencies to steal.  It doesn’t matter with you…artifacts, other mage’s research,…and anything that lines your pockets with coin…”  Evie hissed, slowly waltzing up beside Cassandra.  She stared at the Venatori smuggler with disgusted bright green eyes.  “I’ve seen your personal work throughout the Approach.  Raising monsters, using your magic for conquest…all for Corypheus.  Your letter to a Magister Nanterius intrigues me.  You want to leave your master now?  Be as far away from the Inquisition as humanly possible?[1]  I wonder it’s connected to you tendency to steal artifacts and not tell your superiors.  That’s either bravely stupid or stupidly brave.  Damn, do you want to die?”

Servis stammered, trying to cough up the blood dripping from a cut lip into his gapping mouth.  “I was hired by a third party!  I’ve no loyalty to him.  Might you find that useful, your Worship?”

Cassandra blinked a few times, scratching her braided pixie hair.  “Wait…are you attempting to bargain with us?”

“Yup, bravely stupid.”  Evie cooed, tilting her head.

Servis crawled to his knees, clapping his hands together despite the restraints.  “Bargain?  I plead!  I throw myself on your mercy!  I also have friends in Tevinter who owe me large debts.  Leave what happened here behind us, and I can put them all at your disposal.”

Cassandra’s Nevarran accent hitched as she rolled her eyes.  “You believe this?!”

Evie bit her lower lip, thinking.  She knew what this mage had done throughout the whole region.  Blood mage was easy a means to an end for him, while he pillaged from warden, ancient Tevinter, and elven ruins like they were his personal cabinets.  Yet, as Evie feared, there was no sign of Calpernia at the keep, only recent correspondence showing she ventured into the Approach again.

“You’ll live…for now.  It all depends on the information you give.  Our spymaster will assign specialized agents to you.  I expect them to inform me that you have been forthright.  One slip up and you will meet my blade.”

“You can’t be serious, Inquisitor.” Cassandra mumbled under her breath.  That infamous nerve in her cheek jumped a few times, surprised by Evie’s judgement.

“We’ll see if he gives us what we want right now, huh?”  The Herald called, winking at her second-in-command.  “Where’s Calpernia?”

Servis pursed his swollen lips.

Evie unsheathed her knight-enchanter hilt, but did not cast the magical blade.  Her inferno magic swirled around her dragon-armored body, building its strength like a raging sandstorm.  “Where is Calpernia?”

“I…”

Evie pumped all her magical aura into the hilt.  The magical blade flashed with fire, roaring to life and scorching the sandstone rampart beneath her feet.  Random grains of sand glimmered as they melted and reformed into glass.  “I cannot hear you, you lying piece of pig swallow.”

“The Still Ruins!”  The Tevinter smuggler yipped as the Inquisitor lifted her knight blade above her head.

The fire blade disappeared instantly.  Evie smirked and shrugged.  “See, that wasn’t too difficult.”  She winked at Cassandra, who just grunted.  The Inquisitor’s gloating nature disappeared when she stared at the babbling mage kneeling.  “You used up all my patience though, and I know my spymaster can be quite brutal if I let her.  From personally witnessing all the dead bodies littering the desert, I don’t mind her blooding you for bells.  Seems fair, huh?”  Servis swallowed again, shaking.  Evie leaned over the rampart.  “Lieutenant Tamsen, escort our new informant back to the keep.  Make sure one of the Nightingale’s persuasive agents and a templar stays with him at all times.  He is a very special guest…”

“Yes, Inquisitor!”

“Dorian, your former Circle mate is joining us for a while.”  Evie laughed, sheathing her hilt.  “Make sure he feels unwelcomed.”

Dorian cackled as he watched the fallen Tevinter get picked up by the templars and soldiers.  “Oh my Dear, you have no idea…The bugger stole my favorite grimoire.  I truly wish to use any means to get it back.”

Evie glanced back at the pile of robes being man handled by Inquisition templars.  “The Still Ruins…just beyond the Gate of Toth.  You better be right, Servis, or I’m shoving a metal pear up your ass.  Is there anything else I should know about these ruins?”

“I-I don’t know anything!”

“You sure…because I can always get back out my blade.”

“I am sure!  She was just here yelling constantly only two days ago!”  The Venatori stammered, readjusting himself while confined.  “She took almost all of my remaining men, supplies, and all related research.”

“How many?”  Cassandra demanded.

“Uh, like fifty?”

Evie and Cassandra traded looks.  Evie tossed her left hand at the prisoner demonstrating she was finished with him and walked away with her counsel.  The templars nudged the mage down the stairs to deliver to the Inquisition keep.  The women began to whisper, making sure no one could hear their discussion.  “The Still Ruins was that place Rylen’s men could not enter when we first arrived.  No one was protecting it, but no one volunteered to inspect the site.  Scouts kept disappearing around there after we moved to Griffon Wing Keep.”  Cassandra explained, rubbing her forehead.  Sweat rolled down her temple from the ambush and midday sun.  Each evening she peeled her gambeson and plate mail off her body, soaked through with sweat and grime.  No one felt clean as the rising sun grew to its summer height.

“All the mages sensed strange magic from there.  The Veil thinned greatly there like around fade rifts, but there were no signs from the Anchor.”  Evie glanced at her gloved left hand, monitoring the gash across her calloused palm.  “Calpernia must have moved there as we stop their operations elsewhere.”

“We must tread lightly.  We do not know what Calpernia is capable of.”  Cassandra warned, noting the swirling embers around the leader.  “I know your patience wears thin, Trevelyan, but you cannot allow your temper and impatience rule you.”

The Inquisitor gave the seeker an unamused look.  “You should be proud of me.  I haven’t exploded since the first week on the road, and you can’t blame me on that one.  That bloody warden dwarf drank my tequila!  Just let me roast Calpernia like a spit-roasted pig, and I think I’ll purr for a month.”

“I though only Cullen could make you purr.”  Cassandra poked.

Evie ignored the remark.  Her tone changed to illustrate her significant edicts.  “Get Tessa and Marius.  Have Rylen and Malcom organize our best mixed units.  I’ll ask Stroud for Oghren to accompany us.  The senior warden’s eager to travel south west.  More wardens sightings keep popping up around that overlook area.  I made his day finding that archdemon’s blood in the corner, so he’ll be willing to let the dwarf go for a few days.”

“I thought you gave that kind of thing to Blackwall.”  The seeker observed, remembering all the artifacts they collected since he joined the Inner Circle.  “He relishes in Grey Warden memorabilia.”

Evie just growled, pivoting on her right foot.  She quickly hopped down the stairs.  Her fire magic continued to swirl around her head.  To distract herself, she began twirling her dragonbone staff between her fingers so she did not let her new intelligence fall from her lips.

That’s why we went there, Cullen, three days after capturing Servis.  That was what I have been waiting for.  You know your adversary, Samson, but something about Calpernia draws me to challenge her.  I have a crystal with her name on it, a way to hear from Corypheus’ own mouth about what they plan.  I learned a great deal about her from Marius throughout the last few months.  She’s a former slave whose master honed her abilities after she taught herself to read.  She also prefers inferno magic too.  She is a survivor and a fighter.  Is that why entering the Still Ruins both excited and ate at me?  I was anxious as well as determined.

I chose only people I could trust for this mission; people who gained my respect these last few months and stood beside me through thick and thin.  That’s all I have really without you.  The Inner Circle sans Blackwall stood with me, along with the drunk warden Oghren.  I sent the Free Marcher with the wardens to follow up on the new warden sightings.  He wasn’t too pleased, but I ignored his apprehensions. 

Malcom led the hand-picked mix unit squads that he, Tamsen, and Rylen recommended personally to cover their own hides.  The mages primarily utilized primal magic, but there was at least a healer for every three soldiers.  The whole battalion numbered about seventy-five templars, mages, and soldiers.  Having Malcom there unsettled me, but even Cassandra believed he means well now.  Of course, that does not say much since she’s has underestimated every Trevelyan she’s ever met.

Because of their background, I employed the Bull’s Chargers to scout and infiltrate the ruins.  They led the Inner Circle inward, while Malcom’s forces supported and protected our flank.  My heart thumped eighty leagues a bell.  I kept searching for your fortepiano in the Fade for reassurance, only discovering the orchestra surrounding me from my comrades and support.  My violin sang with determination, but anxiety made it squeak and miss notes.  Maker, I wished you were there that day.

“So, the Venatori want to keep us out…”  Dorian cooed, resting his hands on his hips, staring at the weak barrier barring the Inquisition’s path.  “Shall we disappoint them?”

Evie flung a fire mine at the ice barrier sealing the ruin’s main courtyard.  “Why do they think this keeps us out?”

“No one on look out.”  Sera stated, looking at the two towers on either side of the entrance.  “You’d think they expect us by now.”

Solas nudged the city elf in the side with his gnarled staff.  “If the Venatori sought something here, it must be worth investigating.”

“Then let us enter.”  Vivienne hummed, swaying her hips with each step in that ridiculously exposing armor.  Evie snapped her fingers and exploded her fire mine, watching the first enchanter enter the ruins without caring about the falling flames.

“Maker’s arse, I hate that bitch.”  The Herald muttered, following the Iron Mage’s lead.

We noticed a Venatori scout run into the ruins, barely slamming the door shut when he went to warn his buddies.  He shook and fell a few times as we entered the courtyard.  A subpar mage stood his ground, blocking the outer.  Oghren and Iron Bull quickly rearranged his colon before he even summoned his magic.  The following forces inspected the watch towers, finding a few notes for one of Servis’ assistants, Morven.  Out of all the failures the Venatori and red templars suffered out here, Servis brought up Alexius’ failure in Redcliffe.[2]  Were the Venatori still upset that the Inquisition saved the southern mages?  Whatever they’re there doing here, Corypheus demanded no more mistakes.

That threat made more sense when we reached inside.  All of us expected resistance, but just a handful of Tevinter soldiers stood on guard.  None of them imposed any threat, barely yelling or building a defensive wall.  I barely casted a fireball before they laid dead.  The first scout was present among the dead with one of Sera’s arrows between his eyes.  She huffed that she couldn’t gloat at Howe for her perfect shot.

“A map of the Approach.  Circles around everywhere we have stopped their excavations.  It seems this Lucanus has been waiting on their other projects before proceeding here.  Everything they needed was for this ruin…”  Dorian concluded reading a set of orders and research notes laying on a nearby table.  Solas struggled to activate an elven artifact on Dorian’s left.  Its wards failed on command.

“You’re shitting me… ” Iron Bull whispered, lowering his battleaxe.  His remaining eye fixated on something ahead.

“What is it, Amatus?”  Dorian asked, putting down the pile of parchment.  His eyes searched for the Qunari.

“Amatus?”  Evie smirked, nudging Cassandra beside her as the seeker inspected a few Venatori bodies.  “Isn’t that a Tevene endearment?”

Dorian did not respond; his grey eyes engrossed on what caught Iron Bull’s attention.  He grabbed Evie’s armored arm and twirled her around.  Batting her friend’s arm away, Evie followed the necromancer’s gaze.  Once her bright green eyes found their quarry, her mouth fell open in shock.

It was a frozen scene from the ancient past, Cullen.  Nothing moved, even if you hit with magic missiles or Oghren’s battlehammer.  That was actually funny because the force vibrated up the hammer’s handle and knocked him on his ass.  He proceeded to berserk on a lesser demon with little success.  Greater terrors and despair demons hung in mid-air like statues in a palace gallery.  Tevinter soldiers and mages defended themselves from the creatures flowing out of a fade rift.  Their expressions were shock and fear like they never seen such a sight.  To see a tear in the Veil stated the world might end because of their mistake.

Evie cautiously walked up to a despair demon and reviewed its position, waiting for its black eyes to focus on her and attack.  “Everything’s…frozen.”  She side stepped behind a Tevinter brute.  She saw similar armor in other Approach ruins, but none were used by the Venatori.  “I don’t think this was the Venatori, but how…?”  Her bright green eyes focused on the still fade rift.  She flicked her left hand at the torn Veil, but the Anchor refused to connect to the rift.  “Nothing’s happening…”

“I’d say some ancient Tevinter decided to alter time.  I’m surprised it didn’t go better.”  Dorian commented, tapping his seer staff head against a frozen infantryman’s helmet.

Solas gazed at the still demons and flying rocks enchanted and smiling.  “Slowing time like this would require great power.  It may be what drew the Venatori here.”

Evie gritted her teeth, thinking about Alexius again.  “Time-fucking-altering magic?!  Of course they would keep trying to change history.  Even after we made sure to destroy all of Alexius’ research, they’re still trying to make it work on their own!  Oh shit…Servis stole Dorian’s grimoire last year…”  A swirl of panic and loathing absorbed the Inquisitor as the Inner Circle spoke.

“To what gains?”  Cassandra questioned, keeping her shield at the ready while weaving around a greater terror.  “They learned they cannot remove you from existence, Inquisitor.”

“Maybe Evelyn is not their intent.”  Solas hypothesized.  “Maybe it is the means they opened this fade rift.  If this occurred during ancient Tevinter, it predates the Breach by ages.  Even possibly the Blight itself.”

Death.  Blood.  Must stop Helladius’ plans before it corrupts everything.”  Cole muttered to himself before disappearing.  He reappeared by a locked door on the far side of the main room, picking its lock.  “Trapped.  They will sacrifice us to feed their experiments.

“Whatever it is, it’s wrong!”  Sera huffed, holding herself close.  “This whole place feels…wrong!”

“My Dear, you are quite right…”  Vivienne concurred, causing the whole group to stare at the first enchanter dumbfounded.  The Orlesian priss just agreed with their flea-bottom Red Jenny.

“I thought Kinloch was scary…”  Oghren whistled, while shaking his head.  He reached for a leather flask attached to his belt.  His bright red braided beard ran with spirits with each gulp.

Evie’s bright green eyes flicked away from the still fade rift to the drunk warden.  “Kinloch?  As in Kinloch Hold?  You went there?”

“Yeah, Missy…” The berserker belched after drinking from his flask.  “During the Blight-“

“-Malcom, hold position here.”  Cassandra ordered with a strong stern voice, pointing at the main door, fade rift, and two side door.  “The Chargers and the Inner Circle will continue.  Capture any Tevinter trying to leave for interrogation.”

“Aye, Seeker.”  Ser Malcom called before shouting edicts to his battalion.

“Krem, take the Chargers, and scout the next few rooms.  We’re expecting at least fifty Venatori here, but there are no signs of them.  Make sure we’re not walking into an ambush.”  Iron Bull instructed, nodding his pointed chin at the far back double doors open to another area.

“Aye, Chief.”  Krem called, unclasping his shield from his back.  “I’m sick of staring at my old relatives anyway.”

“I knew you were a Qunari in a Vint’s body.”

Evie followed Cole into a side room; her eyes continuously returned to the red-head beserker gulping ale in the middle of the sanctum.  Sera quickly busied herself lockpicking the other side room door to investigate.  The smell of old blood and dust tickled the fire mage’s nose as she skipped down a small flight of stairs.  “Holding cells.”  Evie whispered.  “That explains their curiosity at Coracavus, although I think this place predates the prison.  Possibly the results here encouraged building a prison…quicker access to slaves and sacrificed subjects?”

“You think blood magic created that rift, Monkey?”  Varric quizzed behind her as she reviewed the shackles and random chests.

“I said when we were nearing the Breach,”  Evie began, kneeling by a skeleton.  “You have enough sacrifices, at some point the Veil will fall.  Most mages wouldn’t agree with me, believing not enough death could puncher the barrier.  All the rifts in the Exalted Plains are a prime example of the final straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Kirkwall should be a desolate wasteland then…”  The dwarf muttered under his breath.

“Apparently, you still wear rosy glasses, Varric.”  The seeker sneered, standing guard while Evie searched.  “Kirkwall is a cesspool.”

“It might be to you, Seeker, but she’s my home.”

Evie glanced over her shoulder, grinning.  “And here I thought taking you to all these pretty places would change your mind.”

“Chief!”  Krem called back into the main chamber.  “Venatori behind double doors leading outside.”

Evie sighed, rolling her neck.  “Let’s get this over with.”

By then, my nerves were simmering again despite me connecting the dots.  That should have been my clue.  The whole place should have sent off all my warning sirens, but I just wanted to find Calpernia.  I wanted an explanation to everything we witnessed in the Western Approach.  I wanted to go home.  I wanted to return to you.

Then the cluster fuck kicked in.

It happened so fast.  Sitting here trying to remember everything hurts my concussed, bleeding head.  The Inner Circle followed the Chargers to a pair of back double doors.  We heard several voices through the metal, specifically a man and woman.  Marius and Tessa were missing, or I might have known if it was Calpernia.  I might have been able to think clearly if they came to our aid.

“The texts describe a chamber.  This must be it.”

“Good.  Give me the keystones.”

We sprung out of the Hall of Silence, expecting to catch the Venatori off guard.  We did, but we were off guard too.  No one expected one another.  All their soldiers, mages, and archers were pointing their weapons and shields at the frozen demons and ancient Tevinter, not at us.  We started shooting bolts, arrows, and fireballs, and the Venatori screamed like they thought the demons were inflicting the damage-

“-Inquisition!”  Lucanus yelled beside a tall stone staircase.  He tossed a barrier around himself and the tall woman to his right.  “Hold them off!”

Evie’s bright green eyes focused on the tall woman, who was reaching for the head researcher’s hand holding a large sack.  Instantly, Evie’s mind returned to that night so distant ago.  She would never forget seeing Corypheus appearing out that black ash on the cliff.  The red general to his right was the infamous Raleigh Samson, Cullen’s former brother knight.  The woman before her grabbing the sack still had the same white-blonde hair and black leather long robes.

“Calpernia!”  The Inquisitor hollered at the top of her lungs.  Before Cassandra could say a word, the fire mage fade-stepped from their defensive position behind the Chargers and chased after the Elder One’s Venatori leader.

I now know how stupid I was.  I am a moron.  It all fell apart because of my bloodlust to know my enemy, kill their leader.  The Inquisition’s ambush crumbled with me beating feet down the stairs and through the Venatori lines.  Thank the Maker I didn’t die reappearing behind two Venatori brutes, but that says enough to how fucked we were.

In hindsight, it all makes sense, came together after so many months.  What I wanted to know about the Western Approach came together after reviewing the puzzle pieces.  The keystone pieces that Calpernia quickly shoved in a specialized magic stone door at the top of the stairs.  Dorian and Solas reviewed them later, stating they resembled the shards the oculara highlighted, but specifically unlocked that sanctum’s door.  That sanctum door resembled those found at Solace in the Forbidden Oasis and the door locking us out of the grand hall in future Redcliffe.  The second connection snapping into place-

Calpernia shoved each keystone into place, igniting the green light to power the locked door.  She dashed inside the secret room right as the final shard unlocked the magic door.  Evie huffed and panting, running up the flight of stairs after her.  She wished to conserve her mana for the fight that will follow.  The mage blocked out the outside noise, focusing her senses on the Tevinter woman who entered the once locked room.

Below, Inquisition forces engaged the Venatori in a heated battle.  His purpose fulfilled, Lucanus fell into stealth and flanked the Chargers and the Inner Circle with two pairs of archers.  He reappeared and call forth a lightning strike on Stitches, almost killing the Charger immediately.  Grim screamed and used his bastard sword to strike the mage in the torso.  Two archers buried arrows into the mute man’s chest before Dalish placed a barrier over both wounded Chargers.  Oghren flipped his hammer into a Venatori archer’s chin, shattering his jaw on impact.  However, Grim fell down the steps, his blood painting the stairs red.  A final grunt left his lips. 

Cassandra led the other shield warriors forward, attempting to follow Evie through the outside courtyard.  She and the companion mages kept dispelling and silencing Venatori mages, allowing the other warriors to strike them down or push them back.  Skinner and Cole drove their daggers into Lucanus, while dodging his bouts of thunder and lightning.  Iron Bull, witnessing blood flowing from Stitches and Grim’s dead body, roared with rage.  Using his reaver abilities, the Qunari whirlwinded his adversaries close then proceeded to chop off Tevinter heads and arms.  Dorian witnessed the carnage, backed up and kept his partner covered in barriers until Solas could freeze the head mage.  One last thrust against Lucanus’ frozen body, and he fell into thousands of pieces under Bull’s battleaxe.

Evie reached the top of stairs, twirling her staff between her hands.  She slowly entered, noticing the room was completely black except for the glowing spirit rune in the back.  Right as she passed through the open magic door, it slammed shut behind her.  Two blue fireballs flew at the Inquisitor’s head.  Evie threw up a barrier, while firing a immolate spell at the fireball’s origin.  In the explosion, she noted Calpernia dashing away.  The Herald pulled her magic together tightly before flashing it out around her.  Several wall scones ignited, brightening the small room in flames.  Calpernia appeared behind her about to slit her throat.  Evie danced away, kicking her opponent in the face.  While Calpernia was stumbling from the strike, Evie reversed pickpocketed the woman, slipping the listening crystal deep into her black light armor.  Right as the Herald withdrew her marked hand, Calpernia grabbed her opponent and gathered her magic.  The ex-slave knocked off Evie’s hooded helmet and force pushed the Inquisitor into the far wall, cracking her head against a Tevinter statue.

Evie felt the blood fall from her temple as she witnessed Calpernia waltz up a dais towards a hanging crystal ball in a trapped force.  It stemmed from single point at the end of a staff.  Blood splatter encircled the staff over two feet away, hovering in air much like the fade rift in the main sanctum.

The Inquisitor’s bright green eyes widened as she pushed herself off the far wall.  She outreached her gashed hand towards the staff at the same time Calpernia nearly touched it.  Unfortunately, Evie’s Anchor hand contacted first, fueling the staff with power.  Both women flew apart as the spell burst outward.  The staff tumbled from Evie’s grasp as once again her head smacked the Tevinter statue, this time in the back.  Calpernia scrambled to her feet and snatched the staff before Evie even realized it was gone.

“Thank you, Herald.”  Her thick Tevene voice rang throughout the room.  “We struggled on how to break the spell since you stole our dwarven rune, but I guess the Anchor is still useful to my master…even attached to your pitiful hand.”

The next piece snapped into place right then as my concussed mind tried to comprehend her words.  Why were they in the Hissing Wastes if it wasn’t for a new red lyrium source from an ancient dwarven thaig?  The Inquisition took Fairel’s special rune, the prize of the paragon’s lifelong research after leaving Orzammar.  The Venatori needed its power to break Sapredon’s failsafe, the time magic he used to prevent Helladius’ crazy theory to channel power through the Veil.[3]  Of course, we didn’t know all those details until we investigated the Still Ruins later.

Coracavus, Solasan Temple, Fairel’s legacy…all pieces to obtain a new focal point for time magic, a way to tear the Veil.

“Evie!  Wake up!”

The Herald groaned and struggled to keep consciousness.  Her ears muffed sound like cotton was shoved deep inside her canal with a broomstick.  Her vision spun and fuzzed each time she attempted to focus on one object.  Iron and copper stained her tongue.  Liquid dripped out of her auburn braids and down her face.  She could barely control her arms as someone lifted her up off the floor.

Slap!

“Stop fucking slapping me, Dorian!”  Evie hollered, barely hearing her hoarse scream inside the small room.

“Fasta vaas!”  The necromancer hollered as Cassandra threw Evie’s limp arm over her pauldrons.  “Time’s flowing, you nitwit!”

“And Calpernia’s fleeing!”  Sera hollered by the room door.  “I told you not to touch anything!”

Evie swayed as she found her footing again, stumbling and nearly falling on the elf rogue.  “We…have to stop her.  Time…staff-“

I knew my vision sucked right then, but I never imagined such a sight.  It wasn’t just the Inquisition versus the Venatori, but now demons and ancient Tevinter joined the horrid battle.  Time collided right then, Cullen, leading to blood and gore everywhere.  Iron Bull and Krem shielded us as they hurried me towards the main sanctum.  Rocky flipped grenades at ancient Tevinters, while Vivienne sliced demons’ limbs from their frozen bodies.  Cassandra’s dispels kept draining my low mana, forcing Solas to take over her role carrying me with Dorian to support our escape.

Except there was nowhere to escape.  By breaking the staff’s spell, the fade rift came alive.  That’s why they were hurrying me through the ruins.  I could hear Malcom’s yelling orders through my muffled ears as demons and ancient Tevinter cut through our surprised forces.  None of the mixed units noticed a stealthy Venatori mage fade stepping away with the artifact.  By the time the Chargers and the Inner Circle made it back inside and barred the back door, Calpernia was gone with the Tempst staff.

Apparently, I closed the ancient fade rift.  Everyone continued to battle the demons as Dorian and Solas pointed my left hand at the rift.  I remember feeling the pain, but not knowing why.  Its blood magic…it wasn’t a Breach tear.  It tore at my mind, body, and soul, eating at me until the Anchor could take hold.  It didn’t happen immediately.  Each time the Anchor connected with the hole, I screamed and attempted to break the pull. 

Thinking about it now, it was like closing the Breach the first time.  Lightning kept arcing across my heart.  Immense power pulled the air out of my failing lungs.  I whined, whimpered, and screamed in agony through the whole process, but my concussed mind could not comprehend the events around me.  It felt like I was dying, but unlike the hike through the snow, I felt everything in seconds before my soul was snuffed out.  If it wasn’t for the over two dozen dead lying in the keep’s lower courtyard right now, I would say it was all a dream.  It maybe might be still because once the tear was closed, I passed out and allowed the Fade to claim me.  I envisioned your handsome face once before blackness blinded me, thinking I would never see you again.

In short, my foolhardiness led to this.  Calpernia escape the Western Approach with an ancient time staff, fueled by blood magic.  A total of thirty men and women are dead.  Thirty eight people are wounded, and that does not include me.  Stitches is in critical condition.  Bull keeps pacing in front of his tent, muttering to himself.  His ire remains to be seen until Stitches’ condition changes.  I know I will hear and feel Bull’s anger and pain about Grim’s death.  I fucked up.  Nothing can excuse my arrogance and stupidity.

Maybe Hawke would be a better Inquisitor, after all.

Evie’s bandage hand paused, rereading the last sentences a few times.   She gritted her teeth.  The mage immediately regretted writing it.  Pain washed over her from her two head wounds.  The healers stated she was lucky that her brain did not explode out of her skull.  In many ways, Evie wished it had.

It was four days after the battle, and the Inquisitor struggled writing her debriefings for Skyhold.  Evie believed writing her account as a personal letter to Cullen would have been easier than Leliana’s report, but seeing her declarations of failure and disgust made her sick.  Her foolishness led to death.  Cullen’s men laid under linen blankets in the Griffon Wing Keep’s lower courtyard.  Cassandra personally wrote to the men and woman’s family announcing their demise.

“If I hadn’t rushed in…if I just realized the truth…”  The Herald kept repeating.  Suddenly, she dunked her quill in the indigo ink.

Maybe Hawke would be a better Inquisitor, after all.

Blame me, Commander, for the loss of life.  Demote me or whatever punishment exists for this foolhardy arrogance!

Evie bit her lower lip.  “Fuck!”  She crumpled up the parchment pages and lit them on fire.  She tossed the ash behind her head and grabbed a new clean sheet.  She did not want Cullen seeing her broken again.  Her depression that lead to death in the Exalted Plains claimed her once again, but she was truly Evie, not poisoned or distressed!  She committed these heinous crimes.

And she definitely did not want Cullen knowing Hawke will replace her as Inquisitor in the next week.

 

Chapter Text

Fiona stepped to the side to allow a runner exit through the main reinforced door.  From the small eye exchange between her and the young boy, it looked like he saw Corypheus himself and ran for his life.  His hazel eyes were dazed and petrified, only noticeable through the small silts his hooded helmet allowed.  The Fereldan scout barely uttered an ‘excuse me’ before racing elsewhere.  He wished to be anywhere but near Skyhold’s central tower.

The grand enchanter rarely left the mage tower or the castle’s library.  Her people needed her despite not directly leading them anymore.  Her demotion by Inquisitor Trevelyan angered the rebellion mages, but Fiona understood the woman’s reasoning.  She herself no longer trusted her leadership. 

A new Council of Magi governed the free mages with each fraternity represented, a better organized leadership so a group could determine the best decisions.  Each fraternity elected a man and woman comprised of humans and elves to serve the legislative body.  It allowed more than just a single voice speak for mages throughout Thedas.  Her fellow libertarian mages elected her as the female representative on the council, fitting since she remained the main liaison between the Inquisition and the alliance mages.  Her greatest opponent, Madam Vivienne de Fer, argued her own position within the council, but the other fraternities required she remove herself as an Inquisition Inner Circle member.  The icy first enchanter refused and made sure the loyalist female representation was one of her former pupils.  The other head mages watched the pupil closely now after the Inquisition stopped another of de Fer’s former pupils transforming into an abomination a few weeks ago.

When the older mage met with Inquisitor Trevelyan before her expedition to the Western Approach, they discussed many topics and concerns.  Evelyn’s reputation for being thorough and observant gave Fiona insight on matters occurring beyond the war.  The Inquisitor constantly encouraged the mages to prepare for the new world they and the Inquisition built together.  The inferno mage herself did not equate herself as part of the rebellion, her position could jeopardize their goals.  She stated she wanted the alliance mages to act independently from her and her organization, but learn all they could while under the Inquisition’s protection.  If anything happened to the Inquisition, she wished to see the mages succeed and gain their freedom.  It seemed Evelyn and Fiona both knew that despite the Mage-Templar War being settled by Corypheus’ Conclave attack, that it did not mean mages gained their autonomy.  Once the ancient magister was dead, Thedas will rebuild and the mages, along with the remaining templars, must mold and heat the bricks of the future’s foundation.  If any part of the foundation built by each arm failed or if they did not properly mortar the bricks in place, chaos could return.  Or even worse, nothing will change.

Fiona asked Evelyn once why she never joined the rebellion, especially since she shared similar critiques about templars and the Chantry.  The Inquisitor just sat and stared into the fireplace, rubbing the back of the arm a few times.  Once her bright green eyes flashed at Fiona, the elven mage could see there was a heavy pain beneath the surface that ate at her daily.  The Herald explained she saw templars and mages as the same, trapped animals behind stone walls.  She will always limit herself to all the Chantry’s law set on all mages until all could have the same basic freedoms.  She will never allow her noble status or divine role to place her above an Alienage apprentice or human tranquil.  That was her only outward connection with the rebellion.  Her declaration contained a great deal of weight as if she already knew she could never have the life she wished until all mages were made equal to all other living beings in Thedas.

Those thoughts fluttered in Fiona’s mind as she waited until the runner shut the atrium door across the castle bridge.  She struggled with this task for months, knowing she must get to the heart of the mystery.  The topic greatly applied to current events despite their archaic origins:  grey wardens, blood magic, the Calling, mages, and rulers.  To her quarry, it will relate to the Inquisition’s current conflicts.  To Fiona, it will uncover if specific secrets still remained such or were burned and forgotten.

Maker, she hoped it was a done deal.

The grand enchanter took the last step through the open main reinforced door.  Her blue-silver eyes struggled to see clearly inside.  The farther she entered the space, the more the shadows elongated around the individual sitting behind the desk.  With her thin pale knuckle, she tapped the wooden door frame three times.  The person never glanced up from his report; the writing desk completely covered with parchment and books.  If she had not known better, she would think it was a mage studying ancient spells and scrolls.

Fiona grimaced, thinking carefully when her second set of knocks still did not raise the man’s head, even when he ran his gloved hand through his disheveled blond curls.  The dark sunken amber eyes just kept dancing across the parchment, while his cut upper lip quivered and quickly read each word.  Soft whispers hummed through the area as he attempted to focus.

There was one more thing she could do, but she hesitated.  Fiona knew this templar’s history very well.  She investigated him closely following Kirkwall.  This man committed great crimes against her fellow mages, but she could not hate him for it.  He acted to the letter what the Chantry and his commanding officers detected, but in the end stood by an apostate to strike down his knight-commander.  Under current Chantry law, he was untouchable because technically he never committed a crime.  The prospect angered the elven mage, but he never personally harmed mages under his own free will…that she knew about.  If the rebellion wished to persecute him, the Chantry must see their own actions as crimes.  That will never happen.

The knight was not like Fiona’s former Orlesian masters, sexually and physically assaulting servants because they could.  However, his history with mages swept completely opposite directions.  He feared them with good reason.  Uldred was a despicable blood mage, hungry for power and liberty.  The mage’s and his pupil Jowan’s action sent mage freedom back years.  The blood mage’s only surviving knight victim then served with another fearful knight-commander, committing some of the worst atrocities known to Thedas both before and after Meredith’s demise.

Grey Warden Anders set in motion everything as the possessed healer declared rebellion and mage freedom when the Kirkwall Chantry exploded.  Fiona smirked to herself right then, following her third set of knocks and a small poised verbal announcement.  Grey Wardens were never meant to interfere in politics and institutions, but Anders, Queen Asta, and she got shit done by pushing those power structures.  A part of the ice mage wondered if Veronica Hawke or Evelyn Trevelyan were wardens in disguise.

Finding her third attempt to signal her presence failed, Fiona decided she will utilize her trick to alert this templar.  Despite her growing age, the elven mage was still quite strong, thanks to her Grey Warden training that kept her stamina and mana heightened and expansive.  Ice crystals began forming along her skin; its pale color gleaming in the sunlight behind her.  Snowflakes and a chilling breeze swirled around her head and shoulders.  Still, no rise from the templar.  Strange.  She always heard he was one of the top knights to sense mage auras.  She called further more frost until a small dusting frosted the wooden door and its metal lock.

With a quick magical snap, the Orlesian mage announced herself.  “Commander Rutherford?”

Suddenly, the Fereldan templar bolted from his desk seat and grasped his broadsword hilt, scanning his office for the magical interloper.  Fiona released her winter grip and held her angular chin high.  Still, the man struggled to recognize her, his stance shaky and his face panicked by the dissipating magic.  She was nearly two feet shorter than him, so she understood why he might not notice her, but his glossy gaze stated his mind was elsewhere, beyond his office envisioning another life.  She saw a similar traumatic stare from the Inquisitor once she arrived back from Alexius’ alternate future.  Still to this day, Evelyn apologizes to her like she did something that ruined Fiona forever.

Finally, his amber eyes lowered to her position in front of the door.  He continued to pant and weave until he pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Maker’s breath, Grand Enchanter…I nearly…”  He never finished his sentence, only muttering to himself.

“My apologies, Commander, but all other means to identify my presence failed.”  Fiona explained, stepping forward into the central tower more.  Her Circle slippers clicked against the hardwood, causing the knight to wince.  “I am surprise it took such a strong magic aura to alert you a mage was nearby.”

Cullen dropped his hand from his ashen face and scowled.  “I’m completely focused on my task, Grand Enchanter.  People interrupted me enough today, and I have nothing to show for my efforts.”  His gloved hand referenced the mounds of parchment disorganized on the table top.

Fiona nodded.  “I know you and the War Council remain quite busy while the Inquisitor continues her mission.”

“I assume you are here for a reason?”  The Fereldan man muttered in a raspy irked tone, sitting back down in his patted suede wooden desk chair made from bear peats. 

The commander’s furniture looked very refined and new, almost matching the commander’s red and gold coat and bear mantle.  The desk’s carved designs and mother of pearl edging definitely had a woman’s touch, but kept the knight’s cut and simple preference.  That meant Sister Nightingale or Ambassador Montiylet did not select the desk and chair.  The women preferred Orlesian décor, quite the opposite motifs displayed along the desk’s corners and edges. 

Fiona’s eyes adjusted to the dark room.  The castle windows were covered with dark drapes, mangled and ripped on their wrought iron rails like they were pulled closed with a rough forceful hand.  Very few candles were lit on the standing wrought iron chandeliers.  The bookcases lining the space matched the desk cravings littered with books and other items, but in no particular order.  A medium size cushioned seat sat in the far corner covered with a white dusty sheet.  Red highever weave peeked out along the floor along with gold leaf wooden edging.  The seat was a recent addition.  The whole room was definitely selected by a woman.  Men rarely considered such matters, especially a former knight.  However, the room’s unkempt state was unusual for a templar.  They preferred order and structure.  This commander’s office demonstrated none of those qualities.  Yet, Fiona’s mind kept searching to who else in the Inquisition could add such touches to a room.  The Inquisitor?  Nonsense. 

“Yes, Commander.”  Fiona agreed, noticing a simple wooden chair to a ladder’s right.  It looked like it was there for temporary purposes and not original.  Dust rolled down the ladder, demonstrating something being built above her head.  She waved towards the chair as she spoke.  “I wish a moment of your time.  I have meant to discuss something with you for a while.”

Cullen nodded an agreement to see her.  He watching the grand enchanter cross the room, retrieve the chair and set it in front of his desk.  The brief moment Fiona glanced above the office, she noted gleaming glass through a gaping hole above.  Only the Inquisitor could permit such construction and changes within Skyhold.  Peculiar. 

Before Fiona sat down, she closed the main reinforced door to avoid interruptions.  The action perked the templar’s attention.  Suddenly, he was on edge and wary.  She felt the lyrium coursing through his blood react and preparing for a potential attack.  From the amount of energy he pulled towards himself, his lyrium was low.  He must have missed his draught that morning, a possible explanation to his skittish behavior.  Knights always acted irritable without their precious drug.

“If it something to do with the mages, it would better to schedule a meeting with the whole War Council.  I cannot speak alone for my associates and the Inquisition.”  The commander explained, his guard tightening every moment Fiona remained in his presence.

Fiona sat down in her positioned seat and placed her hands in her lap.  Her blue and white mage robes rustled and relaxed around her small frame, while her short black hair danced into her eyes.  His eyes kept shifting between the closed doors.  His breath quickened.  A vein in his temple popped with his pumping heartbeat.  As a masterful player of the Grand Game, Fiona determined this man felt caged.

Good.

“No, Commander.  I believe only you may solve my conundrum at the moment.”  Her Orlesian accent rolled off the end of the sentence.

Cullen wrinkled his brow, while leaning back.  His seat squeaked a little under his armor and body weight.  “Then how may I be of assistance?”

Fiona noted both gloved hands rested on his templar broadsword pommel.  She witnessed knights strike down mages with just one stroke across the breast, withdrawing their blade in a blink of an eye.  That is why she practiced casting icy barriers that much quicker.  “As you may be aware, the alliance mages are collecting any documents and books left at the Circles to archive and rebuilt our libraries.  We successfully recovered some materials, but most Circle writings suffered from fires and looting.  The Inquisitor’s own Circle tower exploded and fell over, sending its records and stores into the Vimmark Mountains’ valleys.”

“Did she tell you why that might be?”  The knight asked, gripping the pommel tightly.

“No, not personally.”

“The Inquisitor escorted her fellow mages and surviving loyal templars out of a secret entry before discovering her first enchanter and mentor being bled dry by blood mages.  Understanding lyrium’s combustible nature, she blew up the tower’s supply at the base and raced for her life before it fell.  The fires destroyed all known information.”

Fiona grunted an acknowledgement.  “A tale very similar to other fallen Circles.”

“I assume you did not come to regal me with the rebellion’s beginnings, Grand Enchanter.”  The commander grumbled, showing his annoyance that his time ticked away with little work done.

“You would know about that first hand, Commander.”  Fiona snapped back.  “After all, you were at the rebellion’s epicenter.”

The pale templar swallowed hard.  “Continue.”

“In our process of liquidating the remaining Circles, we discovered that one Circle’s archive was thinner than others.”  Fiona continued, her icy-blue eyes burrowing into his soul.  “The oldest information dated back to 9:33 Dragon when I know personally it existed for ages before, specifically all the way to 3:87 Towers.”

The specific date brought a widen look to the commander’s amber eyes.  The action reminded Fiona of her son’s warm honey gems.  The commander’s irises was darker and more flecked with pain and misery than Alistair’s bright, joyful gaze.  Despite the last mother-son exchange being extremely unpleasant, it allowed Fiona to study her son from afar for one last time, especially if the war forced her to fight.

The elf cannot think of her grown king right then.

He was why her inquiry was so vital at the moment.

“K-K…Kinloch Hold.”  The commander stammered, coughing a few times to clear his hoarse throat.  “You know what occurred there ten years ago.  As grand enchanter, you were privy to such information.”

“Yes, I am aware.”  Fiona reaffirmed.  “I also know it was closed for two years after the Blight while the Chantry readjusted its hold there following the corruption.  Most mages were transferred out of Ferelden because the Chantry feared their freedom by participating in the assault against Archdemon Urthemiel might insight rebellion or they were still suspected they were blood mages not cut down by the Hero of Ferelden.  Their persecution for being hidden maleficars was one of the sticking points at the Conclave.  Those mages and apprentices should have not been branded and abused after saving Ferelden from the Blight.  I remember hearing one suffered from nightmares about the event and that gave enough worry to be slain without further reasons.  However, the remaining templars returned to the templar academy in Denerim and were later sent to other Circles like nothing happened to them.”

Cullen blinked slowly, staring down at his desk.  “That is correct.”  He exhaled and continued like her point about mage persecution meant nothing.  “Knight-Captain Hadley became the new knight-commander after Greagior retired.  He was the only original person at the tower when it reopened.  Even Archmage Wynne rarely came back to the tower during her work with the Circle of Magi.  I was informed the Chantry wished to start anew there, so it was smaller than its previous incarnation.”

“Do you know what happened during that two year period?”

The commander clenched his pommel so tightly his hands started to shake violently.  “No, during the Thaw, I was transferred to Kirkwall to fill one of three knight-captain positions.”

“You quickly became Meredith’s second if my memory serves me.  Her good little Fereldan mabari.”  Fiona’s Orlesian lilt brushed her sweetly snip.  This man’s guarded deposition rattled her.  She felt herself becoming more aggressive than needed.  She needed him relaxed if she wishes to learn the required information.

“Yes, just my luck…”  He groaned, pinching his nose.  “If you wish to know about that lost time frame, I believe I can give you the con-“

“Nothing remains at Kinloch, Commander.”  Fiona interrupted, staring the knight in the eye.  “When the Circles rebelled, most mages at Kinloch were young and quite relieved about the rebellion.  Apparently, Kinloch modeled itself after Kirkwall.”

“Given its history, it makes somewhat sense.  I like to remind you were not present at either Circle when blood magic gutted people like fish.”  His deep Fereldan voice was rough and scrappy.

“Most mages who resort to blood magic, Commander, do so out of fear of their lives or are left with little choice.”  Fiona quipped back, fisting her pale hands in her lap.  She quickly relaxed.  “I am not here to talk about the past.  Please, Commander.  The Council of Magi is concerned that the Chantry whitewashed records prior to Uldred’s coup.  Very little information remains about what led to the coup.  We have seen such instances in other Circles, but Kinloch Hold is the most recent case, especially since the Right of Annulment nearly occurred.  I brought the concern to Inquisitor Trevelyan’s attention, and she stated you might give us a direction.”

Once again, the commander’s amber eyes widened and his nostrils flared.  “You spoke to Eve about this?”

Fiona mentally noted the name he used for the Inquisitor.  No one within the Inquisition used such a shorten form for Evelyn, very unusual, especially for a formal templar.  Both women kept their speech formal for Fiona felt Evelyn would never consider the older mage a friend or confidente.  “We were discussing tranquility before she left for the Western Approach.  She explained her experience while poisoned with red lyrium.  We commonly debate about the Anchor and its relationship to the Veil, its origins, and her emotions and soul.  She’s quite interested in the Council of Magi’s plans regarding the tranquil.  If it was not for the rebellion’s children kept at Kinloch Hold, what would have happened to their tranquil?  When you spoke about people returning to the Circle, you forgot that during that two year time, the Chantry kept the tranquil present.  They cleaned up the blood magic mess left behind with little care given.  The Chantry nearly starved them to death.”

“I also remind you the rebellion also neglected them too.”  The commander added with a scowl.  “You all walked about Redcliffe unaware the Venatori slaughtered them for their skulls.”

“Thus why Inquisitor Trevelyan keeps asking about our future stances.”  Fiona sighed, glancing away and wetting her lips.  “I understand the Inquisitor’s passion now that mage scholars informed me a few days ago about the Temple of Solasan in the Forbidden Oasis.  They personally collected the tranquil skulls used to find the specialized shards.  To tie this discussion together, we, the Council of Magi, wish to find and investigate all information pertaining to Kinloch Hold prior to its reopening eight years ago.  If we find the Chantry whitewashed all conduct, we will proceed legal and criminal action against those responsible, as we have conducted in other Circles.  It would be the first major judgement regarding the highest level of templar and Chantry leadership within Ferelden.”

The knight’s face relaxed, stolid after her proclamation.  “And if that documentation is lost?”

“We investigate each tranquil’s case separately.  Most pre-Blight Ferelden mages died during the archdemon battle and the Templar-Mage War.  However, we do have the majority of tranquil from that time, many you must be familiar with from your time at the Circle.”  Fiona explained, tilting her head.

“I am.”

“I hope if judging individual cases is our direction, you might inform us of any details you might have witnessed during your time there.”

“I was only stationed there for three years, Grand Enchanter.”  Cullen replied, his hands still resting on the pommel although his grip relaxed.  “I took my vigils right before my eighteenth birthday.  Prior to that time, I rarely was included in any actions within the leadership.”

“Surly you participated in Harrowings…or brandings.”

Fiona wondered if she stared at a statue.  There was nothing expressive about the commander’s face the more they spoke.  He either hid a great secret or he truly had nothing to hide.  “Only one…Harrowing there, that is.  Brandings were performed…by the templar lieutenants and upward.”

“I understand.”  Fiona nodded, taking a deep breath.  Now she had him speaking specifics about the Circle.  Maybe this knight knew what happened to her precious secret.  “Very quickly, and I will let you return to your work, Commander.  Gathered information regarding the Circle’s reopening also showed all artifacts were liquidated from Kinloch Hold, specifically from the basement vault.  As I stated, the alliance mages are rebuilding our libraries.  The idea of such artifacts free and kept unchecked scares us.  From the reports out in the desert, our scholars uncovered dangerous items once housed within the Circles that were used by the Venatori.”

Cullen’s lip pursed.  “I am not at liberty to discuss current events in the Western Approach, but the War Council knows that such cursed items have fallen into the enemies’ hands.  Our arcanist, Dagna, and the Inquisitor work closely so that such items are returned to Skyhold.  We must discuss as a group with the Council of Magi on what to do.  As for Kinloch’s stores, I never ventured there except once as a squire during my first months there.  Knight-Commander Greagior brought me with him when he and First Enchanter Irving created a phylactery for a new apprentice, a young elven boy with the last name Surana.  I don’t know why that name stuck with me all these years.  Once again, I was a low-ranking templar recruit with little incite to final decisions regarding the Circle, even after I took my vigils.  My apologies.”

Fiona grimaced as she rose, feeling her inter panic surge knowing she made no headway on her personal question.  “Understood, Commander.  I thank you for your time.  I will inform the council what I learned and may have future questions.”

“Please have a runner notify me in advance for future meetings.  With the Inquisitor gone for so long and Skyhold requiring a curfew to properly function, my time is quite precious.”  The templar rose from his seat.  His amber eyes remained fixed and unwavering like a good templar as she waltzed towards the side door leading to the mage tower.

“Of course, Commander Rutherford.”  Fiona smiled and slightly bowed.  Her hand pulled open the side door, nodding one last time.  “Good day.”

“Goodbye.”

Fiona slammed the newly varnished reinforced door close; its intricate lock clicking into place.  Each step away from the tower, the more her jaw clenched.  Her magic gathered quickly around her as she passed soldiers and other fortress inhabitants.  She slowed her pace, allowing her mind to filter through their discussion.

That man knows something.

The grand enchanter purposely met him during his busiest part of the day, week, and month.  The Inquisitor had been gone now almost three months.  Around this time each month, lower officers submitted their reports to their commander for review and revised orders.  She watched the last two weeks as Commander Rutherford remained in his office to work, rarely leaving even for food.  The Inquisitor’s personal assistant handled his meals, dishes, and laundry, which was also quite peculiar the more the elven mage thought about it.  Fiona already scolded the mages cooing at the ex-templar on top of the mage tower twice in the last four days when he did leave and reviewed his troops.  She noted he returned to his desk afterwards and ate lunch while runners and ravens came and went.  She wanted to catch him off-guard.  A templar swamped with paperwork and constantly interrupted meant he would be careless, lose his templar persona easily.  She fought the bastards most of her life before and after the Grey Wardens.  She shook off her shackles multiple times to regain her freedom.  That man was no different from other knights.

However, the commander’s emotions and facial expressions flipped depending on the topic and specifics.  He willingly stated a name of an apprentice when in the vault, but never gave any idea of what happened to the Circle’s records.  He knew an apprentice’s name but never stated which tranquil he might recognize from Ferelden.  His blank face and counter questions to what the council would do if they never found the documents troubled her most.  He was knew something.  Possibly, he feared his name appearing in those writings.

"I introduced him to Maya Amell when she assisted me following Haven and I laid resting after the envy stabbing.  I discovered later he served there during the Blight, but he gave little information.  He might be a great source to discover the missing records, Grand Enchanter.”

Fiona replayed Inquisitor Trevelyan’s suggestion in her mind for months.  That Free Marcher accent sounded hopeful and found no worries about speaking with her commander regarding his former Circle.  Fiona concluded she did not know about Kinloch Hold’s history, specifically how her commander ended up at Greenfell, a known Chantry monastery for templars who became insane after decades of lyrium consumption.  The grand enchanter knew the Inquisition’s spymaster, Leliana, knew this information.  Maker, the Nightingale assisted Alistair and Asta to save the mages and surviving knights.  Thank the Maker her gentle son never became a templar knight!

Fiona felt herself growing dizzy, reaching for a stone wall half way back to the mage tower.  She let her eyes scan the horizon, admiring the flowing river carving its way through the Frostback Mountains.  That man trained with Alistair as an adolescent.  When she heard what happened at Kinloch, she wondered if Alistair might have been stationed there and fallen with the other templars if Duncan had not recruited him.  The elven mage hated her son was a warden, but somehow she never worried the Blight will claim him one day.  She did panic once she heard the Arl of Redcliffe sent him to the Denerim templar academy.  She could not bear that boy growing insane on lyrium.  Thank the Maker, Duncan for arriving in time.  Fiona begged for years for her friend to go and save him, but the rogue waited until he had good reason to conscript him.

Cullen did not know where the vault’s contents went, that she was sure.  Fiona discovered years later that Queen Asta had full reign of the Kinloch Hold Circle as Warden-Commander.  Hadley called her a personal friend and a gift from the Maker.  Many new Fereldan wardens came from the mages that lived there.  Her easy access and recruitment angered the Chantry, but she was a woman with such resilience and poise that even Ferelden’s grand cleric refused to argue with her.

Fiona hated her.

The grand enchanter disliked Asta not for marrying her son, but that she will not let the past die.  Fiona witnessed once from afar how happy both wardens were together, hand-in-hand and laughing when the grand enchanter visited Denerim’s archives.  Together and in love, the king and queen led Ferelden through tough times.  When the grand enchanter heard Queen Asta disappeared, Fiona first worried for her son.  The heartbreak might kill him, much like Maric’s disappearance ached hers. 

Then she realized what the woman’s quest truly was. 

Fiona discovered all documentation and artifacts disappeared following the Circle’s short closure.  The only people who visited during that time was the tranquil and Queen Asta.  Owain, the oldest tranquil at the Circle, told Fiona he assisted Asta throughout her personal studies prior to her disappearance.  Once she found her pertinent information, she never returned.  Within weeks, the queen disappeared.

Damn it.

Fiona hated Asta.  She feared that the warden-commander found her secret.  Alistair does not know because he would have never acted so rash and harsh at Redcliffe once Magister Alexius was defeated.  When the king offered the mages a sanctuary, Fiona waited for a messenger to inform her the king requested her presence.  Alistair would have confronted her about his origins, how she gave birth to him, and left him alone.  He would question how she was healed of the Blight and returned to the Circles.  It never came.  Asta never told him.  Why?

As the grand enchanter stared out at the Frostback Mountains, Fiona wondered if her secret was truly safe or if the coming months will expose it all.  Since learning Asta disappeared, the elven mage waited for the day she reappeared and exposed everything, specifically to Alistair.  The Mages’ Collective kept an eye and ear out for the warden throughout southern Thedas, Fiona’s only hope of finding the queen and confronting her.  The noble warrior was extremely smart and skillful, learning everything possible from Leliana and her second, Bann Nathaniel Howe.  The queen sent her loyal wardens to Skyhold.  Fiona hid the whole time, but locked eyes on Nathaniel right before the group departed.  She stood on the mage tower with the council.  He singled her out from everyone present.  She knew that striking gaze.  He knew her significance.  How though?

Fiona took a deep breath, held it for a few moments, and released.  The war with Corypheus, specifically the magister’s abilities over Grey Warden, will possible destroy Thedas.  The troubles never concern her about Alistair, only Asta.  She wanted to know if she was dead or alive.  The elven mage huffed and shook her head.  Actually, Fiona might not make it out alive either.  Then her secret is truly safe, never to haunt her son and his crown.  They will have no one to confirm or deny his origins then.

With a new resolve, Fiona smiled, nodded, and resumed her walk back to the mage tower.

 


 

Cullen never moved until he heard that signature slipper tapping against the battlement stone walk away from his tower.  Each sole click against the flagstones ticked like his future’s fate.  Once the clicks faded with the Frostback high winds, the former knight slammed his gloved hand down, and brushed all his reports and books off the desk, roaring so loudly he heard pigeons in the rafters take flight.  One glance at his gauntlets and their embossed Sword of Mercy design brought a new wave of anger and panic.  He ripped them off his arms and threw them against at the main reinforced door with so much force one broke into bent useless pieces.

This was the end.

Of all the days for the grand enchanter to question Cullen.

Last night Cullen’s mental chained door hung off a hinge, open and exposed while he slept.  Since the desire demon discovered Evie, his internal defenses slowly crumbled until they reached those locked away memories.  The demons torn off the double locks with one claw and broke the chains from their rings.  Any nailed wooden boards he hammered there from his last collapse lasted seconds against their assaults.  The ex-templar’s mental resistance and techniques floundered during his deep sleep. 

The demons already knew about those dark moments in his life.  Maker, many created those tortures in Kinloch Hold during the weeks he remained caged and abused.  Many of those terrors bled his fellow knights—his friends—all over the Circle’s stones, especially from within the Harrowing Chamber.  However, they did not just unleash those memories, but combined those events with Evie’s image.  Now that they are aware of her significance in his life, the desire demons could do whatever they wanted to break him.  Just in that one night, the commander begged for them to stop.  Those emotions and memories combined with their abuse on her image.  They particularly enjoyed using his actions from Kirkwall on his Lady.  Worst of all, they kept him from waking, his only way to escape lost by their constant onslaught of horror, pain, and anguish.  Only once he fuck them all and branded her, he may be free.

Cullen will never sleep again.

The commander nearly took his emergency lyrium dose when he left his loft.  After those horrific visions and the prospect of what will come from that point onward, he just wished to take the blue vial and dull everything.  Only one thing stopped him even in that moment while tears flowed from his terrified eyes.  The image of Evie pressed against the main reinforced door declaring she was scared too kept him sane, but Maker she wanted to be with him.

Now Grand Enchanter Fiona investigates what happened at Kinloch Hold and probably has vellum in order for his actions in Kirkwall.

When the ice mage first arrived and used her aura to alert him, Cullen nearly called for the guards to escort her out of Skyhold.  The woman knew his history, but yet purposefully cornered him with her magic like the damn blood mages at Kinloch.  She was surprised how much aura was required to lift his head.  Fiona did not know his skull felt like thousands of knives stabbing him repeatedly.  She had no idea he talked himself out of using his quill to dig out his aching eyes just to stop the pain.  The commander felt like he laid on the rack for months as his demons pulled his arm and leg joints apart.  Once again, he contemplated shaving his head because every hair follicle burned, even those on his face.  His under clothes hidden by his armor were soaked with sweat and grim from the fevers and cold flashes.  It was the first time since stopping lyrium he felt like death was merciful.

Once again, his Lady kept him back from the brink.  Cullen vowed to never leave her alone.  However, she left him alone.  Her duty to the Inquisition kept her away from him when he begged the Maker to bring her back.  The former templar did not remember how he felt so at peace and calm with her near.  Her mystical abilities seemed like a myth his mind, heart, and soul created to keep him from giving into the demons.

Fiona must know his connection to Maya Amell.  The grand enchanter reminded him that Kinloch’s tranquil lived in Skyhold.  He did not need the reminder.  Everywhere he walked, he saw Maya and her branded head.  Every scout was Veronica Hawke and her blasted diamond ring scarring his face for everything he has done.  The Champion’s proclamation to make his life the Void reverberated in his ears every time someone rang the fortress’ bell.

If Fiona knows, so will Evie very soon.

“I’ve failed you, Eve…”  He whimpered flopped down in his chair and rubbed his watering eyes. 

Cullen kept his office as dark as possible since he slept in the Inquisitor’s loft.  Any light burned his sensitive eyes.  However, he could not bring himself to look at his office.  Evie’s touch laid on everything around him.  Once she recovered from Fenris’ attack, furniture artisans arrived and replaced all the rotten wooden pieces he used as a desk and chair.  Josephine forced him to get a new bed after witnessing what he slept in following the envy demon attack.  The Inquisitor never mentioned her decorating because she knew he would fight her on the change.  Cullen never thought about her gifts until after he slept in her loft.  She chose everything based on his simple style and Fereldan heritage.  The latest addition arrived with the small sofa for the empty corner by the main door.

The artisan handed him a handwritten note and walked out once completing his task.  Rest your head.  Mine will join you soon.  It was her reply to her harsh letter last week and his response.  That is where Cullen’s night terror occurred.  He covered the couch with a sheet to block out the images the demons showed.

Knowing now the alliance mages sought out his crimes as a templar, there was only one thing the commander could do.  If Cassandra remained in Skyhold, he would have asked weeks earlier once he vomited in front of Leliana, Josephine, and the people wishing to be imprisoned.  The seeker swore to watch him and relieve him of command if his withdrawal jeopardized the Inquisition.  Now, his past choices and his weak mental state risked everything Evie built.  He refused to see her achievements tarnished by a broken, evil addict.

Cullen glanced down at the wooden floor.  His eyes cleared of the pain and tears right then.  A closed inkwell, quill, and blank parchment laid waiting.  He will not wait for the seeker’s return.  He must do this now before it was too late.  Before Fiona accused him for branding a Harrowed mage via denial of involvement.  Before the Council of Magi arrested him and placed him on trial for his abuses in Kirkwall.

The commander cleaned up his flushed face and reached down for the writing implements.  “SEAMEN!”  He knew the scout was not far despite the tongue lashing the knight gave just before Fiona arrived.  “GET IN HERE NOW!”

Leather boots thundered from the right battlements and sung open the wooden door right as the commander uncorked the inkwell.  “Y-yes, Commander!?”  Suddenly, the runner’s eyes glanced at the scattered reports, documents, and books throughout the office.  He kneeled down to start picking it up.

“Belay that and listen!”  The Lion roared from behind the desk.  The messenger jumped to his feet and saluted.  “You have one bell to prepare to leave for the Western Approach!”

Jimmy blinked a few times and shook.  “Sir?”

“You will deliver a letter directly into Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast’s hand and her hand alone!  Return here in one bell once you make ready to retrieve the letter and ride as fast as possible.  Stop at checkpoints, show my personal Inquisition seal, and get any supplies and a new horse as needed.  Do I make myself clear!?”

Jimmy weaved between his feet.  “W-what if Seeker Pentaghast is not there?  Do I give it to Inquisitor Trevelyan?”

“Absolutely not!  Under this direct order, give this missive to only Seeker Pentaghast!  Any deviation will result in your death for treason.  Do I make myself clear?!”

“Y-yes, Commander!”

Cullen flicked his hand.  “Get out of my sight.  Make ready and return in one bell.”

“Aye, Sir!”

Cullen watched as the runner raced out of the tower towards the barracks.  With his lip twitching, he began his missive.  Cassandra will be furious and will tell the Inquisitor.  However being hundreds of miles away, neither woman will be able to do anything.  By the time a response arrives, Cullen will have turned himself and await his fate.

“Forgive me, Eve…”  Cullen muttered, keeping his emotions in check as he wrote.  “I failed you because I love you too much to see your Inquisition soured and tarnished by my past.  It is time for me to truly atone…even if requires my life.”

Chapter Text

Veronica Hawke looked forward to this day as she stared out over the canyon.  Heat waves already shimmered on the horizon as the black blighted distant ground absorbed the sun’s rising waves.  The sky was clear of clouds, for now, allowing dawn’s reds, oranges, and yellows streak across the sky.  The Champion rarely saw the sunrise.  Heck for a time, she rarely saw the sunset, a night owl for years as she cleaned up Kirkwall’s streets like an arcane vigilante with a band of crazy sidekicks.  When her crew of misfits were not killing half-crazed Qunari, blood mages, or rogue templars, they partied like it was their last night on Thedas.

Oh, how the Champion missed those days.

Ever since she fought and nearly died against Meredith, Hawke knew her days as a carefree sarcastic apostate were done.  She struck down Kirkwall’s boogeyman and was named viscountess, a job she never wanted.  She never wanted to be Champion and she definitely did not want to be any more worldly.  People could not wrap around their heads that she wanted to do something good and right, not sit and bury her head in an ale while so many horrors occurred day after day.

For most of her young life, Hawke hid, not only for her safety, but for entire family.  Her father was a fugitive Circle mage who escaped to marry the woman of his dreams.  Banished by her mother’s family, her parents settled in Ferelden and had a bunch of kids.  Veronica wondered for a time if that would be her life.  Getting married and having a litter of kids in some hidden cabin, keeping her magical brats from being taken away by templars. 

Once her father died, Hawke took up the family mantle, working all kinds of jobs to make ends meet and developing a unique set of skills she once felt ashamed of.  Oh, how those talents saved her life multiple times.  Before her father’s death, he taught her and Bethany everything they needed to know to control their magic.  He was a force mage, but highly educated in all schools of magic.  Bethany’s spiritual healing magic cemented her role as the gentle and caring child blessed by the Maker to do some good in the world.  Carver, the only non-mage child, struggled to find his own voice, especially when his big sister saved him from getting his head pounded in by local bullies.  The life was difficult, but Veronica accepted it as her norm, her future.

The Blight ruined that beautiful world, the Maker’s way of telling his children to fuck off.  Hawke was never spiritual, despite Bethany’s sermons.  Being an electrical mage meant she got stared at and mocked for her icy-lilac eyes and tall lean build.  She cut her hair short as a teenager to scare off any boys who attempted to take her virginity.  She always was the tomboy, preferring to wrestlw in mud than act proper.  She got in many fights with her mother over her behavior.  Maker, she wished she could take back those harsh insults now.

The Maker’s Blight killed Bethany.  Of all the people in their group that day, Bethany was the least person who should be harmed by the Maker’s wrath.  Her death that day and Veronica’s inability to protect her cemented Hawke’s role to do something with her life.  Her father left her to protect the family.  She failed him and Bethany as they ran from Lothering.  She always wondered if had been wise to go after Carver when he, Wesley, and Aveline joined the king’s army at Ostagar.  The young man just wanted to prove himself.  Veronica chased after them and save their lives as the king’s armies were butchered by darkspawn and ogres.  She always wondered if her best friend and Carver never joined the military if they could have run before the Horde reached their small quaint town.  Would Bethany still be alive?

Hawke vowed to never lose someone else ever again, but throughout her years in Kirkwall, she kept fucking up and lost her family and friends.  She accepted Merrill as her little sister once she learned the Dalish elf suffered losing her dear friends during the Blight.  The fact that she was a blood mage was just a forgotten detail only relevant when she used her life force to save someone.  She only wanted to reclaim her people’s history putting that eluvian back together, just like Veronica sold herself and her brother to Athenril just to save her family.

Varric gave her a way to revive the Amell family.  He needed someone who was willing to risk herself in the Deep Roads, no longer wanting to live in Lowtown.  His brother, Bartrand, was a complete ass just like Carver, so the dwarf and she grew a kinship from similar beginnings.  Too bad a red lyrium idol would connect them until that very moment.  Hawke admitted to Varric long ago she was in love with him.  However, she already knew his heart laid with another.  She simply told him to hear his rejection so she could go on with her life.  The dwarf said he wished he had met her first and did not stupidly wait for a woman who chose the easy route.

Once inside Kirkwall, Hawke’s mother began telling about her family history.  Despite her parents shunning her for marrying a mage, the family line was littered with mages, many living in Fereldan and Free Marches Circles separated and alone.  Her mother made sure her children never suffered such a fate, especially what happened to Veronica’s second cousin, Maya.  The poor girl, the same age as Hawke, was made tranquil for loving a templar.  That fucking templar did not deserve her heart, especially what he bloody did to other mages all the years Hawke knew him.

Carver’s betrayal stung that much more once she survived the Deep Roads.  It was no secret they argued constantly.  He had the right to yell at her now that she thought back on those days.  No one likes their big sister hovering and choosing how they would live their lives.  With Bethany dead and no father to look up to, Carver lost his calming ear and rebelled.  When her mother told her he joined the templars, she both panicked and nearly blew up Lowtown.  For months afterwards until they reclaimed their family residence and lifestyle, she wondered if her brother would rat her out and get her thrown into the Gallows.  It seem like something he would do, but it never happened.  Hawke only took a deep breath once she was named Champion of Kirkwall.  By then, Captain Noodle Head knew she was an apostate.  Even then, that bastard did not turn her in and brand her forehead.

Hawke prided herself in gathering a following of ducklings behind her as the years wore on.  Sabastian became Hawke’s Bethany in regards to faith.  The archer always attempted to convert her, despite always saying mages belonged in a Circle.  Once she reclaimed his birthright, his loyalty weathered away the longer they bickered over religion.  Isabella was Sebastian’s opposite, introducing Veronica to her sexuality.  The pirate knew she was a virgin until the morning when she bawled into her shoulder after Fenris rejected her.  Afterwards, she adopted Isabella’s tome on relationships.  When the pirate fled with the Qunari book, Hawke felt that betrayal for years, only to return once her life was no longer threatened.  By then, Veronica learned to keep the duelist at arm’s length.  The only other mother duck in the group was Aveline, and that woman kept Hawke from being thrown in jail every night.  Veronica hated hiding secrets from her best friend, but if the captain even knew a couple of things she did, Aveline’s good morals would have the apostate in irons in seconds.

Then there was Anders and Fenris.

Hawke took a deep choking breath right then as her eyes examined the horizon that morning.  If she thanked Carver for anything, it was teaching her how to keep dogs and cats from killing one another literally.  To this day, Fenris knows he only holds one half of Hawke’s heart.  The other died when Anders declared rebellion.  She loved both men more than she ever cared to admit.  She always thought someone could not love more than one person, but she did.  Anders was gentle kind and understood her, while Fenris appealed to her fierce, crazy side that kept her alive for so long.  If the Chantry never blew up and both men asked her to choose, Hawke would say she could not and walk away.  Fenris received her virginity simply because she knew who he was fully.  She never had to ask which soul controlled the body at that very moment.  Once the former slave rejected her, she fell into Anders’ arms, broken and lost.  Yet, the mage used her for his own goals, Justice constantly whispering in his ear.  Once Fenris discovered they laid together, it took the whole crew to break up the glowing men.  The Hanged Man looked like the Gallows after defeating Meredith!

Hawke blocked both men out of her heart then.  Once Danarius showed up with Fenris’ sister, she realized she never got over the man, her protective side winning in the battle over her heart and soul.  Fenris’ happiness to know she never stopped loving him opened his more sensitive side that Hawke missed in their budding relationship.  Anders did not take the loss well, but she never imagined he would take such actions.  He planned his big betrayal, specifically using her to gather the materials required for his bombs.  The abomination made Hawke the Thedas’ greatest fool.

That’s why the Champion waited by that canyon so early that morning dressed in a secure breast band and that stupid Circle skirt.  If her crazy life told her anything it was that if the Inquisition remained in Evelyn Trevelyan’s hands, the whole world will end.  Hawke really did not want to be Inquisitor, but once again she felt she needed to do the right thing.  No one else was challenging the arrogant, snobby Circle mage.  No one had the guts to state she was wrong.  Only Hawke can take her on and fulfill the requirements needed to save Thedas.

Hawke still could envision the first time she met the fanatical leader.  Within seconds of Varric’s introduction, embers swirled around the mage’s head.  Her nose scrunched and lips shifted as they studied one another.  Her emotions displayed across her high cheekbones left little to the imagination.  The Inquisitor hated Hawke.

For brief moments throughout their first sentences, the Champion wondered if they had met before, a possible explanation for the woman’s fiery.  She was not at Dike Propser’s garden party when Hawke attended with Tallis.  Why would she be there anyway since she was Circle mage?  Although, Hawke heard Ostwick’s Circle was the opposite of the Gallows.  The longer they discussed what Hawke knew, the more the Inquisitor wanted to run her through.  Thank the Maker Fenris acted as he did or no one in Skyhold would survive the explosive so called Herald of Andraste.

Varric informed Veronica about how Evie’s brothers died over the last ten years.  The explanation gave some reasoning, but did not warrant the out-of-control behavior and slants the Inquisitor through her direction.  Hawke naturally defended herself repeatedly, usually with some teasing to hopefully break through the woman’s ire.  It never worked.  She concluded that Evie had no intentions of knowing Hawke, so she gave up being descent.  The Inquisitor’s so called friends joined against the Champion.  Veronica did cartwheels when she, Fenris, and Stroud left for the Western Approach.

Suddenly, vomit flew out of Veronica’s mouth into a dried bush.  She continued to hack and cough as each gag racked her stomach.  The keep tournament occurred last night.  Just as Evie predicted, everyone was drunk by the end.  The Inquisitor and Hawke did not participate, knowing that the next morning they would have their own battle royal.  Knight-Captain Rylen, a templar Hawke remembered from his generous assistance in Kirkwall, won the tournament, barely besting the warden rogue Howe.  Fenris would have beaten both men, but Hawke purposely got him overly drunk on cases of wine so he would never know she left before sunrise.  If her broody elf knew about the challenge, he would not hesitate to kill the Herald.  Veronica constantly had to leash her lover throughout their expedition because how the religious leader treated his girlfriend.

Once back to a standing position, Hawke touched her abdomen, drawing small circles over her bare stomach.  She spat to remove the acidic taste lingering on her lips.  Strange.  Veronica did not drink much last night, maybe only two pints of beer.  Maybe…Hawke bit her lower lip, wincing at the brief spark of hope and dread that skipped across her heart.  No, she could not think about that at the moment.  She arrived early to mentally prepare for the mage war, not become distracted by unlikely prospects.

The Inquisitor shouted during their last lively discussion inquiring why Hawke did not respond to Haven’s plight after the temple explosion and when Corypheus attacked.  The Champion barely told herself why and definitely did not need to explain herself to that fire mage.  The reason haunted her every night she walked the Fade and when the flow of blood began monthly.  She remembered touching her groin that morning, noticing how she soaked the inn bed with blood.  Fenris’ panicked face burned into her memory as he rushed for a healer to stop what her body was doing.  It was those few times that her love screamed he wish Anders was present.  Consequentially, the abomination might be the cause.

The last ten years turned Hawke cynical.  Her once witty, carefree attitude shifted to a grumbling, insulting veteran of war and destruction.  So many losses, most being her own family, brought her to this point.  Her mother would be so ashamed, but completely understand why her spunky eldest child’s spirit died a hundred times over.  Yet, pride and doing the right thing forced the Champion to pick up the mantle and fight again.  She was too stubborn to fall over into a ditch as much as her heart wanted her to.  Her mistakes enjoyed kicking her until she bled, but yet she refused to give up and die.

Trotting horse hooves from the east brought Hawke out of her loathing thoughts.  She barely glanced over her bare shoulder, her jet black bangs batting against her cheek and lilac eyes.  The rider guided the Antivan Taslin Strider towards the Champion’s white stallion.  Like a dancer, she gracefully dismounted and tied the brittle to a dead tree.

Veronica wrinkled her nose one last time, pivoting to face the new arrival.  Hopefully, the Champion’s stern face hid her disgust that the Inquisitor wore an oversized tunic over her breast band and Chantry skirt.  She wore one similar the day Hawke challenged her.  The embroidered neck was Fereldan needlework.  Its huge size on the mage’s smaller limber frame told her who the real owner was.

 Somehow, Hawke kept from puking again.  Of all the people to fall in love with, she chose the knight-captain.  She must not know his dark past.  Hawke declared years ago to expose Rutherford’s actions to anyone who will listen.  The Inquisitor was blind and naïve to think that templar could care for her.  Either she had no idea why or ignored it.  Veronica knew she read Tales of the Champion because she utilized some fighting tactics the Champion embraced in Kirkwall.  So, how did this Circle mage still fall for that egotistical arsehole?

The Herald’s hair was in a series of tight braids throughout her head.  Even her bangs were woven out of her face so her dark thick cat eyes kohl and dark eye rogue screamed at the Kirkwall resident.  Her bright green eyes glowed and pulsed like the green gash on her left hand.  She detached her Inquisition dragonbone staff from the saddle.  She demonstrated clearly her disconnecting the blade at the staff’s tip and left it on a saddle loop.  Her right hand briefly brushed the dragonbone hilt secure to a sash around her hips.  Once satisfied, she finally acknowledged Hawke.

“Champion…”  Her Free Marcher noble accent rang down the cliff that environmentally built a natural boundary for their duel.  Unlike the rough accents Hawke was familiar with, the Ostwick tone flowed like water, only sounding like fast rapids when the woman sneered.  Hawke was quite familiar with it.

“Herald…”  Veronica called, nodding.  She refused to use the inquisitor title.  The Circle mage demonstrated throughout the last few months she did not deserve the honor.  Even using the divine title made Hawke want to vomit again.

Evie stopped a few feet from the Champion, thrusting her runed staff into the ground.  “A fire staff and…”  She grasped the dragonbone hilt.  As she removed it from the sash, a flash of flame and light created a magical blade.   “…my knight-enchanter blade.”

Hawke knew what she was doing.  She displayed her choice of weapons to her opponent, per their agreement.  The Champion smirked, disconnecting her favorite dragonbone and purple quartz staff she only used for special purposes from her back.  It was made from the dragon she and her friends killed in the Bone Pit, using the found dragon fang as a hooked point at the staff’s bottom.  Xenon the Antiquarian sold her the large electrical focus stone and offered to make her the staff.  Hawke would love to use it all the time, but avoided damaging it in a meaningless battle.  The same staff killed Meredith, and it made sense to use it against another tyrannical leader.

“My electric staff and…”  The Champion remarked.  With her left hand, she removed her short sword/dagger called a cinquedea.  It was shaped like an oversized triangle, almost five fingers in width, thus its Antivan name.  “…The Low Blade, a gift from the Prince of Starkhaven.”

“A rogue weapon.”  Evie commented, studying the blade.  “You are familiar with rogue fighting?”

“Of course.”  Hawke smirked, thinking she surprised the Inquisitor.  “I spent my youth hiding my magic and working on jobs that required me to lockpick and shake up some bandits.  I worked as a rogue to enter Kirkwall.  Isabela and Sebastian helped hone my techniques.”

“Good for you.”  The woman responded, half impressed half sarcastically.

“I thought we agreed on breast bands and this horrific skirts.”  Hawke nudged her chin at the large tunic the Inquisitor used to cover her arms and body.  The other mage grimaced, her bright green silting.

The most annoying aspect to Evelyn Trevelyan was that she was prudish.  Isabela would have eaten her alive for how little she showed her body to others.  During their fireside discussion in the Hissing Wastes, Hawke noted the woman never submitted her own raunchy stories or sexual encounters.  Just like a true Circle mage.  Hawke knew Circles could be places of hidden fucks, but it seem the Inquisitor ignored those actions, most likely unfamiliar with any sexual attention.  The Champion’s cousin, Maya, came to mind.  That bastard templar loved preying on weak innocent Circle mages to get his fun.

Evie’s grimace shifted to an expression of defiance.  A small curl peeked at the edge of her lips.  “Yes, we did.”  The woman crossed her arms, while turn back to her horse.  She grasped the tunic lower seam and pulled upwards.  In a quick flash, paler tan skin appeared in Hawke’s vision as the woman displayed her body to the electric mage.

Veronica did not expect what she witnessed.

There were dozens of white lines crisscrossed across her back, slightly risen among her skin.  White and darker discolorations lined the back of her bare arms from harsh burns.  Hawke could not contain the gasp that huffed from her lips.

The Herald only turned enough once she placed the treasured tunic in a saddlebag.  Her knowing bright green eyes glared over her shoulder.  Hawke barely questioned, “Where did…”  No, she knew that answer.  “Who did that to you?”

“My own family.”

Another gasped escaped the Champion’s lips.  “What…how…?”

“Oh, you know.  I might be noble-blooded, but having a mage among a very devote Andrastian family is a blight against it.”  She explained so matter-of-factly.  “Those,”  She pointed to lashings.  “happened two days after Anders blew up the Kirkwall Chantry when my baby brother Esme perished.  My templar cousins could not beat the abomination, so they just used me instead.  They poured rejuvenation potions on the lashes when I passed out.  That’s why they are layered and sensitive.  You want to touch them?”  Her voice was sarcastically happy, pairing well with her fake smile.

Hawke just shook her head and just listened as she continued to describe the scars.

“The burns on my arms and legs,”  She moved the skirt a little to show off the back of her thighs.  “o-occur after…”  Her fake smile disappeared.  Her eyes dulled and stared over the cliff.  “Well, I don’t exactly know truly.  Only that they and this long scar under breast appeared following my eighteenth birthday.  You know, a few weeks after Anders and Queen Asta killed my brother Rian in Amaranthine City.  My cousins didn’t cause it per say, but they were happy someone did after my poisoned Harrowing lyrium didn’t kill me.” 

Suddenly, the Inquisitor’s ire the first time they met made sense.  She was not just upset about Anders killing her brothers.  The abomination’s actions indirectly scorned her physically and most likely psychologically.  What was worse was the same family Hawke remarked as nobles inflicted the abuse.  Her templar cousins maimed her body to the point she felt she had to cover the scars to avoid the same shocked gaze Hawke gave at that moment.

“Don’t worry though.”  Evie cooed, waving at the Champion.  “Many in House Trevelyan have been trying to kill me snice I was born.  No big deal, you know.  Even now, one of my family’s closest friends tricked my mother into eating darkspawn blood.  She’s dying and asked for me.  I can’t go.  Too busy killing red templars and Venatori and preventing the end of the world.”

This woman’s mother was dying from the Blight.  Someone her family trusted poisoned her mother with darkspawn blood.  A new emotion fell over Veronica’s heart she never imaged she would feel for this person:  sympathy.  There was not a moment Hawke did not think about her mother, especially her last words to her after Hawke killed that blood mage who desecrated her body and head.  She might not have saved Leandra from her fate, but at least she and Carver spoke to her before her passing.  For the glossy shimmer over the Inquisitor’s eyes, her own mother had very short time to live. 

This explained why Varric argued with Hawke in the Hissing Wastes.  Typically the rogue would have told her why her little tale about sleeping with Ser Noodle Head was beyond uncalled for, but he did not elaborate beyond how tasteless the Champion spoke about lying with this woman’s lover.  The Inner Circle must have heard about the poisoning before they departed the keep and met Stroud and Hawke in the Hissing Wastes.

Well, doesn’t she feel like a druffalo ass.

Hawke shook the guilt from her head.  She just stared at the woman with the best stolid face she could muster.  If the Inquisitor believed admitting these facts would sway her resolve from the fight, she was poorly mistaken.

“OH!”  Evie called, clapping once.  “I forgot to show you the best scar of all!”

More?!

The Herald waltzed up to her, shimmying the Chantry skirt to her hips and pointed to her lower left abdomen.  The scar was jagged and slightly pink.  “This is was from a broken sword that I used to cut the trebuchets’ rope to cause the avalanche.  You know, the one to stop Corypheus from murdering everyone in Haven?  Went right through me.”  She twirled around and displayed the exit wound right above her behind.  “I walked through a blizzard with it sawing through my insides.  I only lost some intestines and my fucking left ovary!”

The fire mage shouted at Veronica with that admission.  The Champion took a few steps back in shock.  Maker’s burning breeches.  That sympathy and guilt roared over the Champion’s heart and soul like a herd of shocked druffalo.  There were very few things that Hawke could push aside and motherhood was not one of them.  From the fiery glow in the woman’s eyes, she knew losing her ovary was a breaking point during the war.  Still, Hawke kept her personal thoughts to herself.

Two focus stones?”  Veronica huffed, pointing at the teardrop amber pendant with a signet ring and silver thumb hanging around her neck.  “Quite unfair, isn’t it.”

The Herald bit her lower lip, nearly drawing blood.  She nodded twice while snarling.  “Yeah.  Sure.  Whatever.”  She pulled off the long necklace and threw so hard at the mounts that it hit her horse in the hindquarters.  “Anything fucking else, your fucking Highness?!”

“No…”  Hawke mumbled, turning away to take her place on one side of the battle area.

Maybe Veronica was wrong after all.  Maybe this person was exactly what Thedas needed.  That did not mean the Champion of Kirkwall will throw the fight.  Her pride and stubbornness barred her from simply giving up.  If Herald Evelyn Trevelyan wanted to remain the Inquisitor, she had to prove it to Champion Veronica Hawke.

Chapter Text

Cole picked up the amber pendant necklace from Tequila’s maimed side, dusting off the sand and other debris the multiple charms collected.  He remained in stealth, although he knew Candle was aware he was there.  She heard his Fade instrument strongly while she rode to the dueling site, only requesting he not interfere with the battle or inform the keep.  He never planned to.  Since his mistake in the Hissing Wastes, he kept his mouth shut of any emotion or thought Evie conceived.  Solas and she will forever be two people he will not speak about openly ever again. 

The spirit knew his Candle wanted to give the Inquisition to Hawke, especially following Grim’s death.  However, he whispered to Evie during the ride she will not give it up easily.  Cole repeated how Candle nearly gave up so many times this last year, but always pushed through successfully.  The same must happen now.  The spirit felt and heard her feelings that she did not want to give up and roll over, but she did not believe she was a good leader.  Evie’s emotions stated she did not believe in Hawke either, especially after she abandoned Kirkwall as viscountess.  However, maybe the Champion will rise to the occasion and repent.  After all, Corypheus’ rise and the spread of red lyrium was the mage’s regret and mistake.  The magister’s continuous victories were Evie’s own failures too, especially Haven and the Silent Ruins.  Blaming one another was like the pot calling the kettle black.

Black stained by red lyrium and the darkspawn taint.

“A mistake does not make you a bad person, Candle,” he had whispered into her ear.  “It makes you a better, realistic leader.  How else will you learn?  Mother Giselle told you after Haven that trials test and strengthen your faith.  Mistakes do the same.  You grow from the experiences.  You grew so much before Corphyeus, Candle.  You’ll continue to the more you fight him.  Don’t give up.  Don’t accept defeat.”

From Evie’s thoughts, she understood his advice, but still could not overlook her failings.  The spirit remembered overhearing Cullen thinking she could observe and determine the best action through others’ mistakes, but always damned her own failures.  Only recently, Evie could look at her actions during the mailed chess game to see her shortcomings and change the outcome.  However, it took all these months to learn.  Thedas was not a silly game and could not afford such inadequacies.  Oh, how Cole wished Cullen could be there to reassure Candle.  Only he could break this loathing that festered the last few months.  The defeat at the Still Ruins and the Exalted Plains brought so much doubt into her mind that it poisoned her.

Yet, from the scattered emotions trickling across the Champion’s thoughts and hearts, she too was regretting everything she ever did to the Inquisitor.  Evie had no intention of explaining her scars, but Hawke’s remarks caused the stories to fall from Evie’s lips like vomit.  With each realization, Veronica sympathized and related to Candle.  However, just like Candle, she too refused to back down.

Cole understood then why both women hated one another.  He concluded that speaking their thoughts and emotions will not help end their strife, only this magical duel.  They were exactly the same, both too stubborn and strong tempered to see the truth.  Their primal magic mirrored one another, too strong and harmful to move beyond their outward protective façades.  Both survived heinous moments throughout their long difficult lives that no one else will ever experience.  Cole barred himself from interfering because he knew both women needed to see this for themselves.  Only then will their hate be pointed at the person they actually loathed:  themselves.

The spirit teleported to a high boulder, overlooking the cliff and flat dueling area.  Boulders naturally determined the boundaries with Hawke placing herself on the farthest southern point, while Evie marched the opposite direction.  Both mages slowly gathered their magic close to their bodies.  Each step closer to their starting positions, the more the Fade pulled and morphed around them.  Cole could feel the intense primal powers both women generated with their connections.  It was so strong in fact that the amber focus stone began glowing in Cole’s invisible hand, slightly hovering over his palm and pulsing.  He cupped his hands over the stone, shushing it asleep.

Unmined Paragon’s luster sparked and cracked in the boulder seams as the Champion mediated and drew her magic inward.  Dark troubling clouds blotted out the rising sun, responding to her Fade call for strength and mana.  Thunder rumbles rolled and lightning cracked inside the mincing storm swirls.  The unnatural desert weather waited for its master to release the raw chaotic power that energized and ionized the dry air.

Across the desolate landscape, grains of sand slowly melted and molded together into molten glass.  The desert temperature increased dramatically as the Herald struck her dragonbone staff into the ground and gathered her own arcane inferno.  Flecks of ash and embers swirled around her body as the Anchor dimmed and laid dormant on her left hand, cut off from interfering with her magic.  Rumbles from beneath the ground demonstrated how the fire mage called forth Thedas’ tectonic mantle to aid her, something she rarely committed.  From her meditation, Cole heard she called such forces when she used her firestorm to defeat her red lyrium love in that destructive alternate future.  Now, her friend Dorian was not present to put her back from the brink if Evie allowed the earthy power erupt within her.

Cole felt Evie’s concentration as Candle allowed her mind, soul, and heart reach into the Fade for her singing violin.  The tune pulled and pushed between defeat and excitement.  The sorrow succumbed to the blaring electric cello booming in the same space, but the violin would sing its soprano octaves and burn away the doubt and regret to reveal its own success and achievements.  The Champion’s cello would respond with her own praises and outcomes, seeing the end of her tale more easily than Candle.  Evie’s low self-esteem would roll through her again to diminish the stringed instrument’s solo.

The compassion spirit allowed his unworldly form to drift into the Fade a little.  His icy blue eyes glanced around him to see both spirits and demons gathering to witness the great battle.  Rage demons glowed and flared near the Herald, but will not propose possession just like the Pride demons laughing behind the Champion.  These mages were too strong and self-empowering to even to be proposition by such weak demons.

Furthermore, other spirits of Justice stood beside Veronica Hawke.  Their companion, now Vengeance, cared and supported the woman during her wars in Kirkwall.  Too many injustices occurred to the electric mage and they too felt her role in this battle will complete her great mission.

Cole smiled a little as a spirit of Purpose appeared beside his Candle.  He sensed the rare being near the Herald many times, repeating in her dreams that her struggles and trails had lessons and purpose.  As much as Evie ignored her wisdom, this golden spirit will not leave her side.  Much like Cole, the Spirit of Purpose is tied to Evie and will continue to be so until her divine duty was complete.  If only Candle could see Purpose’s support and will.

However, Purpose’s rare appearance caught something else’s attention.  Cole quickly retreated from the mystical world, feeling the pain and hurt this being thrived on for millennia.  Its reach was extensive, tied to both the Inquisition and the Grey Wardens.  “Fear…so much fear…”  Compassion whimpered, holding his physical chest.  “It loves what is happening.  No.  Candle will destroy you.”

If on cue, Hawke drew back her glowing staff to her side, the quartz focus stone pointing towards the ground as she took a step forward.  Her stance demonstrated she will fade-step, but Cole could tell that was not true.  This stance was similar to a rogue dropping into stealth, especially as she lowered her head and kept her eyes glued to her target.

The Herald’s staff still struck into the ground, Candle stood in a dancer’s first position with her left foot perpendicular behind her pointed right.  Her arms rested at her sides as she listened for her violin’s cue.  Feeling the Champion’s rogue stealth surging, Evie opened her glowing bright green eyes, snatched her pulsing runed staff, and flashed into fade-step.

The battle has begun.

Evie reappeared right as Hawke disappeared, her staff blocking Evie’s quick attack.  Evie flipped in the air to block the Champion’s throat attack, but miscalculated Hawke’s summoned lightning strike.  The electricity sent Candle into convulsions.  Veronica smiled, pleased how quickly she hit her adversary.  Suddenly, a force push sent Hawke flying backwards and rolling on the ground.  Evie recovered from her convulsions, using her barrier to blast Veronica backwards.  With only one boot touching the ground, she surged forward again and summoned at fire wall behind the Champion to block her escape.  Her staff went to bat her enemy’s face, but Hawke flew up her own barrier before using the dragon fang to take a slice across Evie’s stomach.  The Herald’s inter-dancer sucked in her abdomen to avoid the deathly stabbing and skipped away.

The Herald gathered her mana, still full and pulsing, for a firestorm.  Cole and Evie both knew this powerful spell will alert any magic user within a few leagues.  Before Evie snapped her fingers, Hawke’s gathered weather swiped the falling fireballs, shocking each one until both massive spells cancelled one another.

The spell and counter spells continued, slowly depleting each mage’s mana reserves.  To save the energy, both woman would stealth or fade-step melee attacks only to be blocked or throttled by their adversary.  It quickly became apparent their staves were actually a hindrance despite giving them a focal point to summon.  However, both mages were skilled in close quarter fighting, Evie with her dancing skirmish tactics and Hawke utilizing her honed rogue techniques.  What both women thought would be their advantages were also quite similar.

She waltzes like she’s at a ball.”  Cole repeated from the Champion’s mind.  “Kirkwall taught her well to survive its hellish seeded underground.”  The spirit stated from his Candle.  “So alike.  Same lives.  Same struggles.   See please!  See…!”  Yet, Cole’s pleads fell on deaf ears as the Champion and the Herald surged forward and magically struck one another’s barriers again and again.

 


 

Cassandra gasped and coughed several times as her black pixie hair absorbed the barrel’s icy water, magically cooled by one of Dagna’s runes.  The seeker had never considered publically dunk her head into a barrel, but the hangover pounding behind her eyes and ears rivaled stopping dragons attacking Val Royeaux all those years ago.

How did Evie get her to drink so much?!

The keep tournament provided some of the happiest moments in the seeker’s life.  As the Inquisitor predicted, men and women from within the Inquisition and Grey Wardens battled and tested their skills with amazing finesse.  Those who watched the spectacle enjoyed their comrades’ sweaty shirtless bodies flex and bend across the middle courtyard.  Liquor flowed like rivers, and food from throughout Thedas filled everyone’s bellies.  The cook that Cullen sent to the keep, Moore, made rations taste like an empress’ feast.  The next time Cassandra sees her ex-templar friend, she will hug him on behalf of her joyous stomach.

The show of strength was exactly what the Western Approach expedition needed.  Almost everyone there had not seen their friends and families for months as they searched for the Grey Wardens.  The defeat at the Silent Temple crushed many people, the number of dead lost in the massacre fell on Cassandra and Evie’s hands.  The Inquisitor accepted full blame for her actions during the battle, but the seeker knew there many shortcomings from the exchange that pointed at all the leaders.

The Inquisition went to that haunted place blind.  All the scouts they sent there over the months never returned.  The Venatori kept the leadership focused on the Grey Wardens and their smaller operations so the Inquisition could not see the larger picture.  Yes, it is true Evie was too focused on stopping Calpernia, but no one, even the Venatori, expected ages old demons and ancient Tevinters attacking as more demons poured out of a rift not created by the Breach.  Closing that alternate rift nearly killed Evie.  Cassandra still winced as her mind repeatedly listened to Evie’s painful, anguishing screams each time Dorian and Solas focused her marked hand at the rift.  If Corphyeus creates more rifts with that staff independent of the Anchor…Maker be merciful.

The seeker shook her head and rubbed her espresso eyes.  No, she could not think of the consequences of their failure.  Right now, Cassandra needed to get Evie refocused on discovering the Grey Warden’s plot.  They had been there nearly three months with no clue or insight on the order’s plans.  Their plans might already be reality because of how long the Inquisition has dallied to stop the blood magic.  With the Inquisitor self-loathing following the defeat, Cassandra feared they might lose this major milestone too.

“No.”  The seeker huffed, punching the nearby stuff bear dummy. 

Evie and Sera thought it would be a funny joke to use some old bear pelts and make Cassandra a stuffed bear practice dummy to smack and stab.  The women remarked how they missed killing bears in the Hinterlands versus constantly defending themselves against the numerous hyenas in the Western Approach.  The seeker first groaned at the gesture, but now appreciated the thought.[1]

Cassandra felt she failed Evie again.   The seeker noticed before how the Herald became obsessed in finding Calpernia.  Evie swore the woman was there, but Cassandra dismissed it.  There was no physical proof.  She should have listened to Evie and prepared the mage for meeting her arch nemesis.  Cassandra recognized Evie made it a personal mission to stop Calpernia, just like Cullen declared hunting down Samson his vendetta.

Cullen and Evie were so alike.  The qualities the seeker appreciated in each person also blinded them.  Cassandra’s duty was to find truth, while the commander and the Herald reached to enact justice and correct past mistakes.  It was the seeker’s duty to sway both people from holding the burden so stubbornly close and personally.  The failures now masked their goals.  Cullen leaving the templars and stopping lyrium was a great success, but his past mistakes, such as Samson and Hawke, haunted his every thought.  The more the lyrium leaves his ailing body, the more those failures will press him away from his ultimate goal:  freedom.  The seeker sensed there are other great mistakes eating at the commander.  His letters over the last few weeks demonstrated he was struggling, but Cassandra cannot assist him.  Maker, Cassandra’s own disappointments kept piling up the longer she stood soaked with water that early morning.

No more.

Cassandra clenched her jaw and stomped down the lower level stairs from the middle courtyard.  Her destiny was the marketplace, a common area Evie spent her mornings, discussing caravan routes and concerns with the merchants.  She will not let Cullen and Evie fall.  She swore to stand and support both people through their personal wars.  To see them so in love only added more logs on the passionate fire.

Speaking of burning desire, the seeker abruptly stopped and blushed.  Her whole body pulsed with heat and excitement seeing Rylen by the well entrance.  By now, Evie completed her personal project, using the last few days before the tournament to make it ready for the winner.  That winner stood by the entrance, speaking to Harding.  He had not realized the seeker’s presence, so Cassandra just enjoyed the view.

Rylen barely defeated Howe in the tournament.  Their sweaty shirtless bodies flexed and moved like majestic Avvar men Cassandra read about in her smutty books.  Cassandra spent the final battle gripping Evie’s left hand tightly, biting her lower lip in worry and complete enrapture.  She envisioned both men fought for her heart because she was divided on who meant more to her.  Yet, Rylen disarmed his opponent, bringing Howe down to his knees and yielded.  Rylen never spoke to her afterwards, only nodding and smiling at the drunk woman.  In that moment, the Nevarran chose her love.

Cassandra smirked, thinking back to his harden form in tight leather pants.  Rylen’s Starkhaven tattoos went beyond his face, down his back and chest towards his groin.  Maker, the Nevarran soaked her loins thinking about tracing the inked lines with her index finger from his forehead to his length, his gravelly and gruff voice vibrating through her body against her thigh-

Seeker…

Maker, she cannot wait any longer.

“Seeker…?”

The Nevarran jumped out of her imagination and blinked a few times.  “What…?”

Rylen and Harding tilted their heads and studied the woman.  Harding glanced away as her mind figured out Cassandra’s flushed state.  The freckled dwarf giggled into her gloved hand.  Rylen smirked proudly, placing his arms behind his back.  He slightly swung on the balls of his feet as the seeker recomposed herself.

Coughing a few times, Cassandra wore her authoritative mask again.  “Knight-Captain Rylen and Scout Harding, have you seen the Inquisitor this morning?”

Both subordinates thought for a moment, then looked around.  “Actually, no.”  Harding admitted, tapping her chin.  Her light green eyes studied the small interior stables.  “Her horse is not present.  She might be on a morning ride.”

“Unlikely.”  Cassandra declared, her mind envisioning her room.  The leathers Evie would wear riding were still hanging up inside their room.  “At this time, she would be speaking to merchants.”

Rylen shrugged.  “I’ve bin doon haur since loom o' morn, givin' orders an' checkin' supplies. Ah ne'er saw 'er.”[2]

Anxiety rose up inside the seeker as she pivoted and marched back up the stairs.  Rylen and Harding followed behind, sharing the same concern printed across Cassandra’s face.  She searched the passing people, seeing many hungover people slowly rising.  Rylen and Evie allowed everyone a slow morning following the tournament, knowing people would be in bad shape.

A case of tequila and mead laid open and full beside the dirty buffet table under a mid-level courtyard tent.  Cassandra froze, fighting her pounding headache.  She only saw Evie sip her goblet throughout the whole exercise.  Typically, empty bottles of mead and tequila would surround the Inquisitor during such occasions.  No case of alcohol would survive such a night unless the woman purposely stayed sober.

A sickening though passed Cassandra’s mind.  Did Evie purposely get everyone messed up to cover her actions?  Would Evie hide her intentions from even Cassandra?  Did the Inquisitor run away?

“Impossible!”  Cassandra huffed, ashamed she ever allowed such a thought to cross her mind.  Evie was the most dedicated person in the Inquisition.  She would never leave without completing her task.  She was not Cassandra and abandoning her Herald during her great need.

“Hey, Varric…” A broody bass voice echoed across the area.  Cassandra pulled herself out of her panicked thoughts and followed the voice’s origin.  Her espresso eyes focused on the white-haired, lyrium-tattooed warrior groggily walking up to an equally unfit, unkempt writer.  Varric yawned into his hand as he emerged out of the Keep’s underbelly where the barracks were.  He had not even buttoned his tunic when Fenris met him by a tent.  “Have you seen Hawke?  She wasn’t in bed when I woke.”

“No, Broody.  Can’t say I have.  She left the party pretty early last night too.  Huh.”

“Yes…she kept shoving full bottles of wine into my hands.  She only took a swig when I offered.”

Doom washed over Cassandra.  The seeker summoned her blessed abilities to sense magic throughout the world.  That particular morning, her abilities took more energy than usual.  The seeker never allowed herself to be so inebriated and compliant, but Evie convinced her to let go and enjoy watching her suitors fight for her heart.

With each heartbeat, Cassandra searched for the conflagration she associated with the Inquisitor.  Almost immediately, clashes of magic overwhelmed the seeker.  Two elemental forces battled somewhere near, neither letting go.

Lightning and fire.

“Maker bless us all…”  Cassandra whispered as her senses told her what was happening.  She faced Rylen, gritting her teeth.  “Knight-Captain, gather all the templars immediately at the gate!  Harding, send runners to assemble the Inner Circle, specifically the mages!”

Both Inquisition members stared at the second-in-command, waiting for an explanation, but the seeker did not elaborate.  Instead, she stomped up to Fenris and Varric, who had overheard her orders.  “Fenris, you are coming with me, but if you act out, I will personally run you through!”

The elf glared at the seeker.  During their time in the Approach, both warriors respected one another.  Their personalities were very similar, except Fenris’ inability to control his emotions just like the damn Inquisitor.  “What?!

“We must stop Hawke and Trevelyan before they blow each other up!”

Fenris glowed as he too searched for his mate.  His lyrium tattoos provided Hawke with mana sometimes with his permission.  The lovers shared a unique connection that Cassandra admired from afar.  His shocked expression demonstrated he too connected what was happening.  In a flash, Fenris raced towards the front gate. 

Varric shook his head between the white haired elf and the seeker.  “Seeker…?”

Cassandra waved and stormed down the stairs towards the stables.  “Prepare the horses and mounts!  Forgo my saddle!  We have to get there before it is too late!”

 


 

Cole scrunched his toes inside his boots and laid his hands down on the boulder to avoid being pushed off as Hawke defected one of Evie’s fireballs.  The spirit’s icy eyes barely followed his Candle as the inferno mage ducked and weaved around Hawke’s lightning strikes clashing with the ground.  The woman would pivot, twirl, and flip in and out of fade step to avoid the electric magic, finally reappearing in front of the Champion, screaming at the top of her lungs.  Hawke kicked away, grabbing Evie’s staff and twisted it out of her hands.  In the same instance, the Herald punched Hawke’s shoulder, forcing the mage to drop her staff.  Using her momentum, Evie kicked her enemy’s staff away.  The dragonbone staff skidded across the desert landscape, almost falling off the cliff.  A chunk of quartz broke off and the dragon fang snapped in two.

Both women were down a weapon.

Most mages would back off and to recollect themselves, but both the Champion and the Herald continued their battle with their arms and legs.  Evie bent and ducked out of the way as Hawke unsheathed her knife again and moved to stab and slice.  Cole stared in awe as the two mages moved like dance partners around one another, never landing a strike.  Every punch was blocked.  Each kick was avoided.  Hawke’s knife never contacted Evie’s skin.

Needing an out, Evie tossed an immolate spell at Hawke’s feet and fade-stepped away.  Hawke barely tossed up a barrier, the explosion sending her sliding backwards several feet.  Hawke patted and wheezed as the dust cleared.  Glass spikes demonstrated where the immolate bomb exploded and melted the sand grains.

About twenty yards away, Evie reappeared from fade-step and stood in her dancer first position.  Her grimacing face dripped with sweat, while dirt and grime covered her exposed body.  However, both Hawke and Cole felt mana still surging inside Evie despite the numerous spells and actions she completed.

How does she have mana…?”  Cole repeated from the Champion’s mind.  Hawke’s glowing lilac eyes glanced at the Anchor on the opponent’s left hand.  Just like at the beginning of the battle, the gash was dim and dormant.  “I get it now…she never needs lyrium!  Makes sense if her family poisoned her Harrowing lyrium.

Cole withdrew from Hawke’s emotions, feeling a very familiar hissing and iconic groan echo through the Fade.  “Candle, they’re coming.”  The spirit whispered, knowing his Candle sensed the racing pack of templars, mages, and lead seeker galloping towards the battle.

Evie reached into her sash belt and withdrew her hilt.  All her remaining mana rushed into the knight-enchanter blade.  Her stance shifted from a dancer to a fencer.  The flaming arming sword pointed at her opponent, while Evie rested her left arm behind her back.  From her training, the Herald only used her left hand when she wanted a barrier.  Knight-Enchanter Commander Helaine remarked her swordsmanship resembled a templar using a sword and shield.  On slow days, Evie trained with Cassandra or Knight-Captain Rylen, utilizing her barrier as a shield to defend herself.

Now, the true battle began.

Hawke smirked, twirling her cinquedea in her hands.  She clapped the hilt then pulled apart.  The large triangle blade was actually two smaller dueling blades, still allowed by the mage’s rules because it is still technically one weapon.  The rogue mage raced forward, calling her lightning to arc and spark around her, using the metal blades as rods to toss her magic at the flaming knight-enchanter.

Evie fade-stepped again, reappearing right as Hawke captured her flaming sword between her two dueling blades.  Both women stared into each other’s glowing eyes, pushing and pulling for supremacy.  Yet, Evie’s roaring flames began singeing Veronica’s black bangs, forcing the electrical mage to break the push and flip backwards.

Hammering horse hooves venture closer from the north.  Cole could sense all the fade-connected individuals galloping closer, their panic nearly pushing the spirit over.  His eyes glanced at the swordswoman fencing and blocking for her life.  She too could hear the encroaching symphony.  The battle only had minutes more.

The Champion reacted when her fade connection met her lover’s, sending an electrical storm forward.  The cyclone swirled and pushed debris into the Herald’s eyes.  Evie retracted, squeezing her eyes close.  Hawke utilized the opening to surge and jump forward.  Yet, the attack was blocked instantly.  The electric mage did not know Evie could sense her every move through the Fade via her cello.  Evie twirled her magical blade, pulling one dueling hilt from Veronica’s grasp.  The frenzy allowed the fire mage enough time to clear her eyes.

“Inquisitor!”

“Hawke, stop!”

“Silence them before they kill one another!”

“No!  Evie will fall unconscious!  There will be nothing to stop that crazy woman from stabbing her!”

Both mages knew the next action will be their last.  No clear winner showed themselves.  So, with the last bits of mana, the Champion and the Herald called forth their spells, kicking up molten sand and debris in all directions.  Both women screamed their battle cries as their blades struck forward-

Cole flew backwards and sent his floppy hat flying as the collision of arcane energy knocked the spirit off the boulder.  The Inquisition horde of racing horses all reared back, knocking many riders from their saddles.  Somehow, saddleless Cassandra remained on her mare, but her dispels barely disrupted the mixing magic.  Those still mounted coughed and attempted to settle their startled horses.  The sand wave mimicked the desert’s harsh sandstorms, exploding off the blighted cliff and against the sandstone boulders.

Even Compassion’s visibility fell to zero.

Silence.

Cole returned to his feet.  His hat waved down from the now clear morning sky and rested by his dusty boots.  The unnatural storm clouds dissipated above.  The rumbling earth settled beneath his feet.  Panic and confusion gripped the group.  However, Cole stood calm and at peace, his icy blue eyes staring forward. 

Dust, leaves, and sand still blocked visibility.  Cassandra jumped off her horse, coughing into her hand and rubbing her grimy eyes.  She stopped a few inches by Cole and attempted to gaze into the settling cloud.  She glanced at Cole for a reaction.  Nothing.  Her espresso eyes flicked back.

The sun rays broke through the dust, outlining two forms, dressed in Chantry Circle skirts and sweat-soaked breast bands.  As blue skies formed around the two women, a metal dueling blade and a flaming knight-enchanters arming sword shined.  The rogue blade barely touched the Herald’s left breast, aimed at her heart.  The magical sword tickled and reddened the Champion’s neck right by the jugular.

“A tie…”  Cassandra whispered in shock.

Cole smirked, disappearing.  He reappeared by Evie with her discarded staff and held out her amber pendant necklace.  The knight-enchanter withdrew her magical blade.  The rogue electrical mage mimicked the action.  The two elemental fighters faced one another and bowed.

Now, they know they are exactly the same.

“Hawke!”  Fenris hollered, pushing passed Cassandra towards his love but stopped short of hugging her or killing Evie.

Both mages stepped backwards, allowing one another to leave the field of battle.  Evie pivoted to walk to her horse, sheathing her hilt back into her sash.  Her other hand snatched her necklace.  She immediately put it back on.  Cole stayed by her side, almost growling at the templars, the Inner Circle, and soldiers who traveled to the location.  They now witnessed what Evie hid beneath her clothing.

“Those scars…”

“Those…burns?!”

“Maker above.”

“Who would do that to her?”

Knight-Captain Rylen grunted, eyeing Ser Malcolm closely like he could read minds.  He knew in one look.  “Templars…”  The Herald’s cousin hung his head.  He kneeled in his full plate armor as Evie passed him; she never acknowledged his presence among the Inquisition soldiers and scouts.

“Evelyn!”  Cassandra called as the woman mounted her Antivan mare.  Dorian and Sera both threw the seeker a look.  Everyone knew Cassandra and Evie never used each other’s first names.  However, the fire mage ignored the call, directing her mare away from the dead tree where she left her and nudged Tequila into a trot back to the keep.

“A tie…”  Fenris remarked, placing his tan hand on Hawke’s shoulder.

The Champion started to shake.  She slowly lifted her left hand to her neck, rubbing where the flaming sword tickled her redden Fereldan skin.  “Not a tie.”

Everyone’s eyes shifted away from the mage riding away to the one still standing on the battlefield.  Cole smiled, disappearing again to follow his Candle.  He still gripped her staff closely to his chest.

Fenris blinked a few times.  “What…?”

Tears slowly flowed down the Champion’s cheeks as her lilac eyes darted in all direction.  “A blink of an eye.  Her blade…reached me a blink of an eye sooner…before mine reached her heart.  She is the Inquisitor,…and I will follow her to the Void and back happily.”

Chapter Text

“ARGH!”  Evie screamed, throwing a head-size stone across the cavern with all her remaining strength.  It flew only a few feet before flopping down in some runoff water.  The mage did not keep her focus on it, seeing a brick to lob next.  Her shaking hand picked it up and threw it another direction, smashing it against a wall.  Her eyes searched for her next projectile.

If Evie had any mana left, she would be casting fireballs and telekinetically pushing stones everywhere.  Her arm and leg muscles were sore and burning, but she kept picking up stones, bricks, tools, wood planks and anything surrounding her in the large cavern.  Her heart, body, and soul demanded a release.  Something needed to give before she lost herself in the chaos.

Evelyn!

Evie picked up a wood plank and swung it against the wall.  It shattered into hundreds of splinters and scratched her face and bare shoulder.  She twirled around, growling “What!?

Cassandra panted and sneered by the caverns well hatch.  She had jumped down because Evie broke apart the steps during her descent with her knight-enchanter blade.  Someone above had enough sense to reclose the hatch, dropping the seeker into shadow again.  The warrior did not move from her spot while the whole cistern basked in darkness.

Evie stumbled on her feet, water slushing around her feet.  In her destruction, she probably broke a terracotta pipe that took her forever to make.  Pumped water stored in barrels, inner cisterns, and other vessels around the cavern now drained all over the new stone tile floor again.  Just great.  Just fucking great.

“Light a torch, Trevelyan.”  The seeker demanded.  Her Nevarran hiss rattled in Evie’s ringing eyes.

“I don’t have any mana, Pentaghast.”

“Draw from the mark, damn it!”

Evie laughed once, placing her hands on her exposed hips.   Her bony hips barely held up the shredded Circle skirt and sash.  Her naked body had been viewed so publically now.  Every imperfection Evie hated with a passion was now a known fact about the wonderful and divine Herald of Andraste.  Maker, kill her now.  “Do you want to blow up the keep because this would probably do it.”  Evie waved her low glowing marked hand in the darkness.  Of course she was a beacon of bullshit.  She will never escape long enough to hide and cry.

That famous disgusted groan echoed off the aquifer walls.  “I feel your mana.  Just do it.  I’m not having this argument in the dark.”

The fire mage flicked her right hand.  Instantly, torches on all the walls ignited violently scoring the rock with black soot.  That last ounce of mana used nearly brought Evie to her knees, but she hid the ache and exhaustion as much as possible.  To avoid punching the seeker, Evie’s hands tugged at her tight braids, breaking the closely knitted ties that kept them in place during the mage battle.  Her fingers shook violently with each pull, her temper and emotions so out of control.  She could feel clumps of hair pulled from the roots.  Great.  Now, she will go bold again. 

Evie mediated for bells the night before to separate the Anchor from her simmering emotions.  Fade-walking with Solas had help establish ways to turn on and off the mark like a lock.  The technique was not a complete separation, but it still protected people when her furious emotions exploded.  For how wound up she was at that moment, Evie feared what unlocking the Anchor will do.  If she reestablished her connection to the Anchor now, Evie feared she would create a new Breach.  Maybe that would be a good thing considering the Western Approach was a desolate blighted void.

“Happy, Seeker!?”  The mage yelled, flipping off the warrior with a toss of her middle finger.  Evie kicked a broken board across the water-carved room.

“What was all that?”  Cassandra’s Nevarran grunt was as soft as she could get.  The woman was trying to reel in her own temper to avoid a worse situation.

Evie personally wanted another fight.  Seeker versus Herald.  The two sparred a little, but never used abilities, focusing more on swordsmanship and blocking.  If either woman participated in the tournament, the whole world would be talking about the battle just like the Inquisition will excitedly repeat about Evie and Veronica’s rumble. 

Adrenaline pumped through the fire mage’s veins like a powerful drug.  It pushed away the darkness and hurt.  It dusted the trepidation and confusion when alcohol could not dull it.  Her heart was unprotected since its strong walls fell after Hawke’s sex tale, but those hormones kept it safe like he vowed he would do. 

Philliam warned his grandniece months ago that she needed a release before she went insane.  Apparently, that breaking point was now, and Cassandra will be her first victim.  The fire mage gave her a once over.  The seeker left her shield and sword elsewhere, probably too afraid that she will struck down the Herald in anger.  The warrior wore no armor, barely dressed in a tunic and her patched leather pants.  Maker, she looked like shit.  Even her pixie hair stuck out in all directions, covered in dust, and unbraided.  Evie would typically not fight an unarmed person, but Cassandra Pentaghast was never truly defenseless.  That Nevarran accent and glaring eyes were as much weapons as her sword and shield.  Her clenched fists were probably classed as weapons of mass destruction in four different countries!

Those defining features stabbed Evie more than any physical weapon.  Those espresso eyes watched her move critically.  Hints of disappointment stung around those stern black irises.  That accent echoed off the cavern walls with venom and malice.  Everything across Cassandra’s face screamed what Evie thought about herself for months, but now only crystal clear following her magical duel with Veronica Hawke.

“You know exactly what that was, Cassandra.”  Evie hissed.  It was no longer about titles between the two women because Evie should not have a title, a role in the Inquisition.

That disappointment grew to envelope the seeker’s cheeks and nose, wrinkling and morphing with Evie’s admittance.  “I want to hear you say it.”

Could Evie say it?  The thought nearly made her heave.  “It was a duel for the Inquisition.”

“Not just that.  Tell me.”

Evie kicked the water.  The mage jumped up and down, splashing water and other debris everywhere.  “I shouldn’t be inquisitor!  You wanted to hear it, and there it is!”  The mage flung herself around the cave.  “Everything I’ve done is evidence to why I should have never been made the leader.  You stated yourself Hawke was considered.  Astrid too!  I fell into this position.  You can remark it was for the best, providence even, but I don’t believe it.  I was a convenient replacement, divinely marked by the Maker to fix everything!  Well, you’re probably regretting it now.  I have no experience in any of this shit.  I haven’t talk to anyone besides a templar or mage for two decades, but you all placed me in a chair to negotiate between kingdoms ran by nobles.  I hate nobles.  I might be a Trevelyan, but I am the worst example of who a Trevelyan is!  Horrible temper and a mage!”

The woman pushed herself off a wall.  “Secrets?  Scouting?  Ha!  People see me coming leagues away.  I have more secrets than anyone else, but everyone knows mine more than me!  Yet, I am supposed to know which gossip to follow and which is bullshit!?  I sent so many scouts to their deaths trying to figure out what is going on at a temple or castle.  Leliana will never tell me how many people we lose for just rumors.  Were their deaths worth what we know now, which is fucking nothing!?”

Evie picked up a pebble and threw it across the cistern.  “Do I look like a soldier!?  Do I look like I could lead thousands of people into battle and be successful!?  I know templars because they controlled me, beat me every time I defied them!  I don’t know the first thing about dressing in plate armor or storming a castle, but here I am!  I am winging it every time we must charge a keep or fight a rogue army.  I am a skirmisher!  Open battles are my worst nightmare!  I only became a fighter when the Circles rebelled.  Before, I was kept contained, to not learn how to defend myself.  A battle mage who will never fight and never leave that tower!  Funny, right?  Yet, you all placed me at the front!”

Finally, the mage flung herself down in the water, soaking the dusty battered Circle skirt.  What used to drain perfectly into a deep pool she created now flooded the cistern again.  The water slowly rose over her bare body.  “Everyone knows what this body looks like now.  Everyone knows I am ugly and battered.  They will point and whispered to their friends when I pass no matter how much I cover up.  They’ll discuss what they heard around the tower about what happened after my Harrowing, seeing the burns when I change my clothes or shower in the public baths.  They’ll flick the sensitive skin or peel the healing flakes while I sleep so it scars more.  Men and women alike with giggle or be revolted by the blemished layers.”  Her lilt simmered to a whimper as she held her chest and shoulders closely.  “New templars will just believe I am a misbehaving mage, someone to watch more closely than any other mage.  ‘Throw her in solitary confinement for coughing during the Chant or making direct eye contact.  No one will notice she’s gone.’  Rip apart my robes so I have to quickly sew up the slashes before anyone else sees the disgusting former noble no one will ever want to touch and love.”

Tears trickled down the woman’s flushed face and dripped on her shaking hands.  “Why would anyone want me as Inquisitor? Why would anyone want me…?”

Cassandra exhaled and slowly approached the mage rolling into a fetal position.  “Tell me, what guides you?”

Evie sniffed a few times.  “Does it mattered?  It’s failed too many times and led too many to their deaths.  Just escaping the Circle, I led children to their deaths by turning the wrong corner or getting lost in the sewers.  Children, Cassandra.  I should be executed.  I let them die.”

Cassandra kneeled down, but avoided sitting in the water.  “Humor me, please.  I’m trying to imagine what Thedas will look like when we’re done.  All of this continent once belonged to the Tevinter Imperium.   Andraste changed that, as did the Blights.  As for what will come next…I cannot guess the Maker’s plan.  So I ask you, what guides you?”

“Do you want me to say it’s the Maker?”  Evie guessed, rolling her glossy eyes.  Her bright green eyes flicked to her gashed hand.  “Cole and Mother Giselle have already remarked about faith and will being tested by trails.  I figured I’ve been through enough trails and obstacles to be free flowing with faith and strength, yet here I sit in former decomposing waste more lost and hurt than ever before.  No, I will not say it is the Maker because he would have not made these mistakes.  In that case, I’m guided by what my flawed conscience, my instincts tell me.”

“Your conscience must speak more clearly than mine then.”  Cassandra admitted, looking away.

“Don’t give it the satisfaction.”  Evie mumbled, hearing that nagging voice eating away at her.  “It was right about Haven, yet I refuse to listen to it now just like I refused to listen to it all those years ago.”

Evie tugged at her braids again, wishing for the inner voice would shut its mouth.  “You would have liked Rian, Cassandra.  You two would have been a beautiful balance of will and duty.  I could see him romancing you with such finesse and genuine care unmatchable by Rylen or Howe.  He would have taken his time so you would fall for him as deeply as he would for you.  I’m sorry I led him to his death, your potential soul mate lost for something so stupid.”

The mage shook her head, trying to get back to her point.  “Rian proclaimed long ago I had foresight via my conscience.  I could predict outcomes to every scenario nearly to a speck of dust dancing in light.  The day my magic manifested, it told me not to remove my lucky charm, a small simple necklace my father gave me when I was four.  It repeated to not listen to the orchestra playing in my soul.  When Rian told me that Ferelden’s templars requested a Trevelyan templar to accompany them to recapture Anders, I outwardly told him to go, excited that it could lead him to new adventures.  However, that night, lying in bed my conscience refused to let me fall asleep, nagging at me to tell Rian to stay at the tower.  I chalked it up to being nervous about my Harrowing…I never told him like I should have.  I should have studied more about Grey Wardens, find a way to convince him to stay.  But no, I didn’t.  I watched Rian leave, somehow knowing I would never see him again.  My brother died in Amaranthine City.  He died because I did not listen to my instincts.”

Evie flopped her hands down and exhaled.  Water splashed into the seeker’s face.  “Since I gave into my feelings for Cullen, it has been screaming at me, warning that everything will fall apart because I gave in to caring about him.  The last man I felt anything for…”  Evie rubbed her burned bicep.  “I know Cullen will not commit those heinous things, but learning about Kirkwall, possibly Kinloch too I…”  She took a deep beath.  “…Then, you have the Silent Ruins.  My gut kept repeating Calpernia was here in the Approach, but my mind kept stating to slow down and think everything through.  All the facts were there about the temple, blood magic, and that staff.  I just instead saw her and raced forward like a fucking foolhardy arrogant idiot.  I led all those men and women to slaughter.  I still can’t look Iron Bull in the eye.  I just hear Grim’s dying grunts or Dalish slowing healing from the attack.  Huh, I actually was proud and excited to fight along the troops when we took Griffon Wing Keep.  Maker, that should have been my first clue that war is not exciting and cool, but blood and disgusting, especially against an ancient Tevinter magister.”

Evie jumped to her feet and started wandering around in circles.  “I haven’t found the Grey Wardens, spending too much time instead hating Veronica.  I hate her because I hate myself.  I’ve never met a person just like me, but there she is.  Of anyone, it is her who stares right back me with the same pain from Anders, just caused by different circumstances.  I never told her why I want to kill that abomination until this morning, screamed all the things I blamed him for, but it was actually I who blame myself.  It’s easier to blame a man you never met for crimes committed than to see your own role.  If I hadn’t taken off my charm necklace or told Rian that next morning before he left the tower to not go.  If I never allowed myself to become obsessed with a futuristic red lyrium pendant or believe I had to be perfect, no one would have died in the Exalted Plains.  If I could stop loving Cullen…”  Evie covered her mouth as sobs poured her lips.  She fell to her knees and screamed both pain and happiness.

That word.

Evie never allowed that word to leave her lips if connected to her emotions.  The first time she said it, it led to her breast nearly being cut off and burned horrifically.  It was easier to believe Anders caused what happened ten years ago, but it was her stupid heart that led her into that false sense of security, warmth, and hope.  She did not know what happened, but she remembers her emotions prior to that ghastly event.  Rays of light cut through dark clouds every time he neared.  They shared tears when they mourned Rian’s death.  Evie was so foolish.  Her conscience yelled and screamed to not get sucked in.  It was nice to feel like someone cared about her.

Then, six weeks later, she woke up so badly burned and mutilated to the point everyone called her diseased and disgusting.  Evie had no memory of those weeks to explain what happened.  The person who could give her such answers no longer was in the tower, gone from that prison.  After that, Evie was more alone than ever before.  Before Rian’s death, mages and apprentices talked and included her in their studies and experiments.  After Rian’s death, that false care kept the loneliness away.  Now awake but with no memory but the scars and healing, no one neared her.  She was worse than a leper, a target for abuse and slander.  There was no explanation to why.

It became easier as the years went on.  The fire mage’s loneliness toughened her and allowed for facades to form and mask the pain.  She spent years redirecting her longing for love and happiness into revenge.  Each protective block placed around her heart was another way she will kill the apostate that murdered Rian.  Each spell perfection was another way to struck down that monster.  By the time Esme died and she learned Ander’s role, Evie just waited for the signal to escape and collect her phylactery.  Her father would provide the funds and transportation to begin her deadly quest. 

The Circles fell, and Evie fled home.  As promised, Bann Trevelyan gave her good leather armor, a powerful staff, the best family horse, and all the sovereigns she will need for supplies and bribe people.  The last words her father declared before she walked out the door, “Happy hunting, my dear daughter.”

Then Divine Justinia stated she will show Evie her Circle file.  Just go to the Conclave.  The Divine had the file details in her possession to give Evie clues.  Speak about the experiences at Ostwick’s Circle Tower and the full file would be hers after the Conclave.

Evie’s heart jumped into her throat.  The first strike on the ironclad wall guarding it slammed and clipped away at the mortar.  It was a chance to melt her heart and be able to care again.  Maybe love someone.  Yet, Evie’s conscience told her to not go.  Do not be tempted by the ability to find peace and answers.  Kill Anders and set yourself free-

-Well, look where that choice led her.

Staring off into space, Evie wondered if that was the first time she actually appreciated not listening to her conscience.  Yes, she was currently in a war with an ancient magister with a strange magic connected to her hand.  However, for the first time in Evie’s life, she was surrounded by people that meant everything to Evie and she to them.  For the first time in her life, a man deeply cared about her leagues away and waited for her return anxiously.

And she loved him.

Evie loved Cullen.

Evie loved Cullen despite her conscience telling her it was wrong and will not end well.  He had many secrets that when she will learn them might break her just like what caused those burns and scars, but she did not care.  Evie will still love him no matter what.  Is that why she could not give up the Inquisition?

Cassandra finally sat down in the water beside Evie, placing her arm around her naked shoulders.  “It seems your conscience has been fighting your heart for a long time.  Yes, people have lost their lives under our command.  Yes, you do not know battle tactics, espionage, and diplomacy, but Maker, Evelyn, you do it anyway.  You try and learn from each encounter.  The Silent Ruins was just a minor setback in this huge war.  Look how successful you been since walking out of the Fade!  You cannot be perfect all the time.  I don’t think you even know how.  I think that was what your problem with Hawke truly was.  She reminded you of yourself because she was not perfect.  The Champion made many mistakes, and that told you so will you.”

Evie finally rested her head on the seeker’s shoulder.  Her presence and soft tone breached her painful depression and soothed the losses and regrets as Cassandra continued her monologue.  “We are not gods.  We fight a magister who wants to be god, but he isn’t.  You stated you don’t think the Maker is guiding you, but you forget you survived the Breach opening.  You sealed it and lived.  You faced that false god and survived an avalanche.  His mark is on you and can control it…mostly.  You are the Herald of Andraste.  The Maker’s Bride directed you on this path.  Everything that has happened prepared you for now because that is what is keeping you alive.  If your conscience is telling you to not love Cullen, I wonder if it actually something malicious instead.  If you ever doubt yourself, take solace in that the Maker believes in you and made you his Herald against the growing darkness.  You are blessed, Evelyn.”

Evie smirked, tilting her chin a little to sit on Cassandra shoulder like a parrot.  The seeker gazed into her eyes with a gentle smile.  Evie was attracted to women.  If Cassandra desired women and Evie was not with Cullen, the Herald might woo her herself.  “I just think my conscience and instincts are aresholes.  There is a never-ending war inside me, Cassandra.  This place…I miss the peace Cullen gives me.”  Her bright green eyes closed, focusing on the blurred images of her love so far away.  “I miss his baritone words in my ear and his rumbling laugh.  I yearn for that snarky smug grin he gives after winning a chess match.  It makes me weak in the knees.  I hate not being able to ask him directly about past events.  I can barely remember the concrete things we shared together.  I’m filled with doubt about myself and everyone.  However, I’m thankful for you…Dorian…and all those idiots up there.  I never had people who wanted to be around me.  Yes, Corypheus brought us all together, but you all stayed even after my stupidity nearly gets us killed.”

“It’s because we believe in you.”  The seeker cooed, nudging Evie in the ribs.  The Herald winced.  Hawke probably bruised or cracked a few.  “I am getting sick and tired of repeating you were made Inquisitor for what you did and will continue to do.  Furthermore, you are truly faith-driven and walk in the Maker’s light.  The Maker placed you that mark on your hand, highlighted your importance so we see you as our leader.  Your actions thereafter led this Inquisition.  I know why I stay is tied to you specifically.  I know I want a world where people trust the Chantry and that trust is respected.  I want to respect tradition but not fear change.  I want to right past wrongs but not avenge them.  And I have no idea if my wanting these things make any of them right.  However, I feel that we share in that same vision.  But unlike me, you can actually make it happen.”

“They’re admirable goals…”  Evie whispered as her shimmering bright green eyes studied Casandra in the torchlight.  She watched a few goosebumps rise behind Cassandra’s ear and neck.  Evie feared she was making her nervous, but the seeker just blushed and leaned into Evie’s forehead.  “I don’t know if I can do all that, but together we can at least work towards them.”

“Some would call us heretics for those views.”

Evie waved to herself, giggling.  “Well, we lead an order condemned by the Chantry.  I’m a blasphemous mage who openly calls herself the Herald of Andraste.  You left the Seekers and the Chantry to begin the Inquisition.  I think we’re passed the whole heretic thing.”

“Perhaps, but it takes precious little effort to paint even an act of compassion as damaging.”  Cassandra warned, thinking about her own trials to save Divine Beatrix.

“And paint they will…”  Evie added, finally moving away.  Some of her braids finally fell away from her scalp.  “The artwork they must be saying upstairs will definitely not put me in a good light now.”

“I disagree.”  Cassandra snapped.  “If anything, it will show your adversaries how strong you truly are.  You always wanted Inquisition members to see you as a person, and seeing your scars has done that.  It also compares you with Andraste again.  Just like Andraste long ago, once again the fate of Thedas will be determined by a woman; a woman who already has been burned and survived.  You were a prisoner, accused and reviled, yet you’re emerged from every trial victorious.  I highly admire you, Evelyn.”

“I’m glad the scars have a point then.”  Evie concluded as her hands slowly left her naked body.  “If each one was Maker’s plan for such a moment, then…I think I can slowly accept that.  Still stinks though.”  Both women laughed a little.  “I…I hope we can call each other friends, Cassandra…?”

The seeker’s mouth gaped and locked eyes on the mage.  Slowly, Cassandra pursed her lips and nodded.  “I hope so, too.  We still have a long road to travel, Evelyn.  Wherever it takes us, I’m glad you’re here.”

Evie nodded.  “Me too.  I’ve never truly had a friend before.”

Cassandra smiled.  “Me neither, although our comrades will be quite insulted if they think you don’t regard them as friends.”

“Most are friends…”  Evie wrinkled her nose.   “Well, not Vivienne.  Blackwall is on my shit list.  How about Varric for you?”

Cassandra cackled.  “He’ll only get to become an annoyance.  I might consider an acquaintance if he finishes the next Swords & Shields.”

Evie poked the seeker’s shoulder.  “Speaking of mushy romancing, I need to clean up this place for your grand date.”

Cassandra studied the torn up cistern.  “Will that even be possible?”

Evie giggled.  “If you help, we can enjoy a nice relaxing bath.  All I have to do is fix a pipe and get the automated dwarven pump running again.”

The seeker groaned, while laughing.  “…a real bath sounds good actually.”

“Hangover?”

“Yes.  Your fault.”

Evie grinned.  “I didn’t hear you complain last night watching your warden and templar wrestle.  Do you think those tattoos continue past Rylen’s hips?”

Cassandra bit her lower lip, blushing in the torchlight.  “Oh, I’m finding out…”

Chapter Text

Evie climbed the north tower with a bottle of mead and her goblet.  It had become a daily occurrence to watch the sun set and relax.  A glass of iced lavender tea already sat on the table, the ritual shared by the commander and she continued even so far apart.  In a leather sleeve tucked under an arm was new parchment, a quill, and ink to write Cullen and possibly her mother.  She missed her mother’s assuring voice and comforting smile.  Just to have Lady Gwen hold her for just a moment would dissipate all her fears.  Will Evie get to experience it again or was that last long hug before leaving Ostwick the last time she will feel her mother’s embrace?

Another potential pen pal crossed her mind, but she feared overstepping an undetermined line.  When her letter arrived a few weeks ago, Evie struggled with a reply because she was so unsure of her emotions and how to even address the sender.  Now knowing what her heart declared, Evie eagerly wanted to know this new acquaintance more thoroughly.  The person opened a new door of understanding about Cullen that had been not available before, if they even discussed him.  The person was more interested in knowing Evie, especially hearing such praises about the Inquisitor around town and from the commander.

The desert sparkled in the evening rays, drawing the Herald’s long stare away from her drinks and correspondence.  The woman openly accepted its strange glory.  Watching the sun slowly creep under the blighted horizon made Cullen not feel so far away.  How many times had they watched the sun rise and fall since they met?  Not enough, especially now as she watched it knowing she loved him.

Evie loved Cullen.

Evie loved.

The scary pain slowly died away each time she repeated the statement in her mind and heart.  Her conscience’s screams were murmurs in the shadows now, while she basked in the realization’s warmth.  Evie waited to scream it across the keep and over the blight cliffs, but kept her lips pursed.  He deserved to hear it first before she waved it like a flag over Skyhold.  She will not even write it.  He will hear it with her Free Marcher lilt and see it in her shining bright green eyes.  Somehow, the prospect that he might not feel the same about her was not a concern.  The recognition itself jumped a major hurtle for Evie already.  Furthermore, she truly believed Cullen felt the same way and maybe even realized the truth before her.  Only seeing him again would confirm her suspicions like she needed any more reason to finish this expedition.  She wanted to go back home.

Home was Skyhold.

Home was where Cullen was.

Evie’s fears suddenly had no power over her.  Cassandra was her best friend.  Dorian became her new brother.  The Inner Circle was her new crazy family filled with people she trusted to guard her back and never betray her.  Yes, Blackwall still lied about his profession, but he might have a good explanation.  Even Vivienne might not be a viper waiting the weeds.  Just another reason to complete this quest and get the heck out of the Approach.

For the first time in a decade, Evie did not really want to know what laid in her Circle file.  She did not want to hunt and kill Anders.  She discovered a new peace she believed was only a fantasy, yet here she was.  The fire mage fought an ancient magister, poisoned templars, and fanatical Tevinters, but she wanted to stop them.  Endless possibilities could occur and she willingly faced them all just because she loved someone.  Not just anyone, Commander Cullen Stanton Rutherford.

Cassandra was right.  Everything that has ever happened led Evie to this moment.  The Maker planned for these hardships so she could led the Inquisition, as hurtful as that conclusion truly meant.  The Maker allowed those heinous actions, but they molded Evie for her blessed role now.  Could anyone else rise to the challenge with such determination and faith-driven purpose?  Evie never considered herself religious, but her faith swelled each time she touched the Anchor now, its pulsing soft glow mimicked her inter peace.  Her god chose her to heal the world.  Wow.  The Maker was real.  Corypheus was wrong.  The Golden City’s divine seat was filled with the Maker’s love and happiness.  A mage led the Maker’s people into darkness, unafraid.  Evie lived to serve all Thedas’ beings and do something good and right.

The mage’s thoughts continued to drift.  Would anyone else be able to confront such horrors without the resolve Evie established throughout her life?  Could a Dalish hunter, a believer of the Elven Pantheon, earn the faithful’s blessings as their Andraste’s herald?  Would a smuggling dwarf be trusted to do what was best for the Inquisition?  How could an exiled Qunari make sensitive decisions with such a yes-no mentality?  Why did she even think about those races being Inquisitor?  What the Void, Evie!

Knock! Knock!

Evie did not turn her head.  Instead, she reached into the Fade and heard a soft cello nearby.  “Yes, Hawke?”

The Champion chuckled by the wooden staircase, taking a step forward.  “You have to tell me sometime how you do that.  Maybe in exchange, I can teach you how to turn into a dragon.”

Evie huffed once and shook her head.  Her auburn waves danced in the wind.  She was clean and refreshed.  Fixing the cistern took no time, so she Cassandra and she lounged in the bath alone for a few bells.  They told stories, gave opinions, gossiped about their men.  Now, she was wearing linen pants, a supporting breast band, and one of Cullen’s tunic.  She kept the large open neck untied, showing off her shoulder scars.  The mage wanted to test Cassandra’s theory about people accepting her deformed body.  No one reacted like the mages and templars at the Circle.  That was a refreshing start.

“I already ‘breath’ fire.  If Iron Bull throws me hard enough, I’ll fly.”  Evie remarked as the electric mage appeared to her right, staring out at the sunset.

“I didn’t just learn how to be dragon, I was taught by Flemeth.”  Hawke proclaimed, thumbing towards herself.

Evie blinked.  “Wait, why do I know that name?”

“Oh, that’s right.”  Hawke nodded.  “You’re not Fereldan.  She’s the famous Witch of the Wilds, Flemeth.”

Evie wrinkled her nose.  “That old folktale?!  Arl Eamon told us children it to keep us from running into the Kocari Wilds and join the Chasind.”

“Well, she is real.  Even, I thought it was bullshit until that woman saved my family, Aveline, and I fleeing Lothering.  I delivered her pendant to the Dalish, and poof.  There she was!  That’s how I met Merrill.”

The Herald studied the Champion closely.  “I don’t remember that in Varric’s book.”

“I told him to keep the witch out of it.”  Hawke remarked, stretching her arms over her head.  “He wasn’t with us when I delivered the amulet.  Even he thought I was full of it until Merrill stuck up for me.  Maker, that girl is as innocent and accepting as Bethany.”

Evie glanced away.  “Thus why you supported her…I’m going to assume I misinterpreted all your intentions ever.”

“Nah.  Even I smack myself looking back on some things.”  Veronica’s voice lowered a little.  “If I knew what I know now…”  She sighed.  “But I wouldn’t change anything.  It made me into the person I am now despite being cynical and an insufferable ass.”

“Takes one to know one.”  The fire mage pointed at herself.

“So, it is true then about us…”  The Champion chuckled a little.  “We are the same…Varric thought we would be good together, just didn’t realize two sarcastic bitches can’t share the same space and time.”

“Is that a good or bad thing?”

Hawke shrugged.  “Who knows, but that means you too know pain and suffering.  I should have never made you undress.  I thought you were being prudish because I was before I lost my virginity.”

“What makes you think I have mine?”

The woman’s lilac eyes studied Evie closely.  She opened her mouth, then closed it.  “No, that it is not for me to know.  I can see it in your eyes.  There is a story there.  There always is.”

“Did you regret giving yourself to Fenris…despite him leaving you like he did?”  Evie asked, feeling like an ass for asking, but needed to understand this person a little more. 

“No…Did I feel like a fool, uh yeah, but I love him.  I did then and still do.  I just loved Anders too.  That’s why I am not asking for your tale.  Your eyes mirror my own after he blew up the Chantry.  You may blame yourself, but don’t.  Whatever happened wasn’t you.  Love makes us all morons, but sometimes not even that can excuse what they did to us.”

Evie nodded.  “Noted.”

“I owe you an explanation.”

The Inquisitor threw Hawke a look.  “Please.  Let’s just-“

Veronica held up her hand.  “No.  It would do me a world of good to say as much to help you understand me.  I want to explain why I life the viscount and never went to Haven.  Something you said this morning rang the same tune as me.  You may never experience what I have in this, and I pray you don’t.”

“Please, Hawke.”  Evie sighed, shaking her head.  “I shouldn’t have-“

The mage glared at the Inquisitor.  “Listen.  I’m trying to be a better person.  If you’re as stubborn as I, we will be here for the next age arguing.”

“You think the Chantry will choose a divine before then?”

“Void no!”

Evie burst out laughing.  “Me neither.  Fire away.”

Hawke bit her fingernail, while her other hand glided over the tower wall stones.  “The first time I found out I was pregnant was the day Starkhaven’s templars left.  I barely wanted to get out of bed because I puking so much, but Seneschel Bran Cavin told me it was good for diplomacy.  So, down Kirkwall I walked, crossed the bay, and landed in the Gallows.  I puked on Noodle Head, not exactly on purpose, but an added bonus.  I don’t remember passing out, but I woke up in bed two days later.  Surprise!  You’re pregnant!  The healer was excited, while I froze in fear.  Face down an arishok?  Sure.  Kill a hunger abomination?  No one else will.  Put down a crazy red lyrium knight-commander?  I enjoyed that one.  Me?  Motherhood?  Nope!  I was petrified.  So was Fenris, but he quickly warmed up to the idea.  So, when I lost the baby in my third month, you would think I would have been happy.  Instead, I felt like part of my soul was rip out from me.  You might fear something, but it doesn’t mean you didn’t love it.  The healers stated it was common for women to miscarry so early in a pregnancy.  It didn’t mean anything bad happened.  I thought about the red lyrium and all the blood magic, but they kept assuring me it was not my fault.  So, I declared I wanted to try for children.  Fenris agreed, eager to belong and create his own family too.

“We tried for a year and a half.  Nothing.  Kirkwall was slowly rebuilding, but there were whispers that the templars feared a mage in power, especially one that let a Chantry murderer live.  Noodle Head and Carver repeatedly calmed them, restating everything I did for the city over the years.  Aveline and I worked with the nobility, who was starting to challenge my rule.  They didn’t like I was looking out for the poor and hungry.  They felt I was hurting trade more than it was already impacted.  Then whispers flowed from Darktown that red lyrium was on the rise somehow despite Varric and I only knowing about the thaig.  Red Lyrium Meredith could be only visited by specific individuals for security and safety purposes.  I had just came back from investigating when I fell over my desk in pain.  That same healer declared again I was pregnant, but I never imagined it being so painful.”

Hawke sighed and hugged herself.  “By then things were spiraling out of control.  I heard about the Left Hand of the Divine snooping around, and that the Right Hand seeked my counsel.  I sat down with my friends and asked for their opinions.  I was surprised to hear even Aveline yell ‘Fuck Kirkwall,’ get out of there, and think about my growing family.  I bled for that city-state enough.  So, Fenris and I left in the night.  It was good that I did because apparently some rogue templars were going to assassinate me, sucking down red lyrium like their lives depended on it.  I never told Rutherford because I assumed he was in league with them.  I only told Carver and got him and Merrill out of there before making my own escape.  I couldn’t have my baby brother fall to that substance.”

“Fenris and I fled west, using what remained of my richest to reach Nevarra.  We were at an inn when the bleeding began.  The pain was horrendous.  Apparently, the baby never reached my womb, growing in one of my tubes and thus the growing aches and stabbing.  I barely survived.”  Hawke lifted her tunic and lowered her pant waist.  Evie’s eyes widen at the size of the scar across her lower abdomen.  “Somehow, we found a physician.  We learned from the healer that one reason why I was having problems carrying was because of the Blight.  I wasn’t infected, but because I laid with someone who was infected damaged my reproductive organs.  Apparently, that’s one reason why Grey Wardens never have children.  I wanted to hate Anders for corrupting my womb…but I couldn’t.  A part of me will always love him and never regret our time together.  I fell into a dark depression, never emerging from our isolated cabin for months.”

Hawke lowered her head and tossed back her black pixie hair.  It was nearly long enough to make a small ponytail.  “We didn’t hear about the Breach and the Conclave until Fenris came back from the local village.  You couldn’t see it from where we lived because I created thunderstorms to keep from people wandering too close to our mountain.  I emerged from my depression long enough to access the letters Varric had been sending me.  He had a contact in Hunter’s Fall that collected his letters for us.  I learned from his letter that Seeker Pentaghast kidnapped Varric to tell the Divine my story and maybe discover my location.  Fenris and I thought he was dead for a long time until we learned about the infamous Herald of Andraste and her Inquisition.  A new Varric letter appeared around the same time we heard about Haven’s fall.  A raven arrived that next week, stating Corypheus was alive and caused the Breach.  We packed up our stuff and started travelling to Skyhold.”

Evie bit her lower lip.  “It makes sense why you never came then.  Losing two children within three years, one almost killing you, and the man you once loved a possible cause for never having any more.  I know all that far too well.  Never been pregnant, but I doubt I ever will be.”

“Does Rutherford know?”  Hawke asked with concern in her voice.

The other mage shook her head.  “He knows about the sword from Haven, but not all the damage.  I…cannot tell myself let alone him about the other cause besides Haven that makes it unlikely.  It isn’t because I don’t trust him, it is more because I don’t have the answers to his possible questions.  I’ve…lost my memory of that event.”

Veronica hugged herself.  “I know you care about him.  Maybe you know something I don’t, but Evelyn, I cannot forgive him for what he has done.  I could out-write Varric listing everything I know he allowed and did in Kirkwall…and before.”

“Has he asked you to forgive him?”

“No.”

Evie figured as much.  “Because that probably means he hasn’t forgiven himself.  He told me when we started this relationship that he joined the Inquisition to atone for his crimes.  He fears when I learn the truth that I will want nothing to do with him again.  I know some details about what happened in Kirkwall, but I believe there is always two sides to a story, possibly more.  I always give the accused a chance to defend themselves.”

Hawke half-smirked.  “Who says it will be the truth?”

“That’s where all information is important.”  Evie replied, smiling.  “I can call someone’s bullshit.”

Hawke nodded.  “I know you don’t want to know, but-“

Evie held up her hand.  “Forgive me, but I would rather wait on some declarations.  Maybe after this expedition is over we can talk about those crimes when both you and he are in the same location.  Maybe not same room, but not hundreds of leagues separated from one another.”

Veronica laughed a little.  “Fair enough.  However, I will say one thing now and wait for as long as you need.  Ask him about Maya Amell, my cousin.  After all, she lives in Skyhold.”

Evie’s bright green eyes widen in surprise.  “The tranquil woman from Kinloch Hold Circle?  She’s your cousin?”

Hawke rolled her lilac eyes.  “I thought you knew my mother was an Amell.”

Evie smacked her forehead.  “Of course!  Your mother ran away to marry your father.  You had to reclaim the Amell nobility and fortune after your uncle embezzled everything.  How is Maya your cousin?”

“My grandmother and her grandmother were sisters.  So technically, we are second cousins, but I don’t have much family anymore, so I claim what I have.”  The Champion explained, tilting her head.  “However, most of that side of the family were mages.  Maya was the oldest of five children, each sent to various Circles, even after their mother disappeared and their father fled with them.  Maya is the only one I know who survived the rebellion.  Well, if you call tranquility living.”

“Cullen met Maya in my loft after I was attacked by the envy demon, but he didn’t seem to know her.  I know he served at Kinloch Hold for a time, but that was during the Blight.  He admitted the Circle had its own troubles during that time, but never gave any details.”  Evie spoke aloud, more for her own review than for Hawke.

“Well, I just wanted to state that before anything else.  It seems like something he is still avoiding, even from you.”  Hawke hissed as her lip twitched.

“I’ll definitely think on it.”  Evie whispered, hearing her conscience start its song again.  Evie shook her head violently, almost hitting Hawke with her long auburn curls.  “So…where does this leave us, Champion?”

“Civil acquaintances?” The woman questioned hopefully.

“Well, that’s too bad.”  Evie smirked, shrugging a little.

Hawke threw her a look, scowling tugging on her brow.  “Why’s that?”

“Well, I know for a fact you have fought a few dragons, one of which was that bitch Meredith…”

Veronica laughed once and stomped.  “No, dragons are nicer than Meredith.”

“In any case,” Evie began, rolling her head around her shoulders.  “I typically only invite comrades to a dragon fight.  I don’t see ‘civil acquaintances’ falling under that title.”

Hawke perked an eyebrow.  “Oh really?  Would this be a particular fire breathing dragon that is blocking Stroud’s search in the southwest?  I understand fire doesn’t take down fire, but electricity would do a number…”

“Possibly…What do you say?  Feel like contributing in making dragons extinct again?”  Evie proposed, offering her right hand.

“Alright.  But, I get a tooth to make a new staff.  You kind of did a number on my favorite this morning.”  Hawke grabbed Evie’s offered hand and shook it several times strongly.

“Have Dagna make it for you.  I know it isn’t Xenon, but she can make masterpieces.”  Evie called, giggling a little.

Hawke blinked.  “How did you know he made my staff?”

Evie placed her finger by her nose.  “Only Xenon could get that massive Trevelyan-mined quartz without having my family sending assassins.”

The Champion burst out laughing.  “Very true.  I never understood why he dismissed Thaddeus Gigantus Crumbum the Third, even though he claimed the golem was his favorite.  I think he has to with that miniaturized bear he named Chauncey, but the pile of bones never admitted it.  If he ever invites you there, make sure to go.  That would mean going to Kirkwall, but eh, it might be worth it.  Say, mind having a few drinks and finding out how else our lives have crossed and been fucked over?  I noticed a full case of tequila you haven’t claimed yet, and neither one of us got to enjoy ourselves last night.”

Evie clapped a few times, excited.  “I know where to steal some very good Fereldan ale for you that no one found last night.  One rule though:  we drink it up here while tossing fireballs and lightning strikes at the templars just enough to singe their stupid skirts and shock their plate metal.”

Hawke grinned ear-to-ear.  “You are a woman after my own heart…”  Both mages raced down the stairwell.  “Have you seen Cullen without his shirt yet?”

“Maker, yes!  Tell me, were you lying about the great sex?”

“I only lied that Fenris’ angry sex is better.  You know because he was sitting right there!”

“Naturally!  You can’t hurt their egos.”

“Exactly.”

Chapter Text

Varric stood slack-jawed at the scene in front of him.  He might have thought he finally knew what dreams were as a dwarf, if only he saw the sight.  However, the surprised expression across Cassandra, Dorian, and Iron Bull’s faces confirmed they witnessed the same unexpected event.  Even Harding and Fenris both seem a little off put by the laughter and high jinks displayed.  The Inquisition members not taken aback by the scene were Cole and Sera.  The spirit assassin clapped and smiled, while the archer skipped around and pull out her arrows from the oversized lizard’s corpse.  Her maniacal laugh rolled off the cliffs like an insane banshee.

One mage was dancing on the dragon’s upward-turned stomach doing a Fereldan jig.  The other mage’s knight-enchanter sword stuck through its eye as she balanced on the hilt like an acrobat.  Both women sang an old Free Marcher sea shanty about bar fights and getting laid, reminding the dwarf why the Kirkwall crew never let his best friend sing.  The same should be applied to his current divine boss.  Both mage shared a bottle of rotgut moonshine an Inquisition soldier made out of old rationed potatoes and deep mushroom.  One leader would take a swig and telekinetically toss it to the other between verses like they were skipping arm-in-arm down a city street, not on top of a dead fire-breathing dragon that terrorized the Western Approach for last three months.

“Did I miss something?”  Dorian quizzed, crossing his arms over his dusty robes.  “Weren’t they trying to kill each other yesterday morning?”

“It seems they have settled their differences.”  Solas cooed from behind the gathering group.  A hint of a cheeky smirk nudged along his thin lips.

“The war against Corypheus might take a backseat if they decide to conquer the world and establish their own religion that includes Diamondback and wenches.”  Rylen remarked, giggling under his breath.  The mages invited him on the hunt last night because they ‘accidently’ showed the man’s bare ass to the troops and Cassandra.  The drunk duo demanded to know if the knight-captain wore his templar skirt like a traditional Starkhaven kiltsman.  The seeker later thanked the mages for such an amazing and tantalizing view.

“And that’s a problem how?”  Iron Bull asked, wiggling his eyebrow excitedly.

Dorian and Cassandra both through their significant others looks and groaned.  The Qunari and templar quickly straightened up and coughed.  Their eyes met their mates with apologetic expressions.

“I knew they would get along.”  The writer beamed, placing his hands on his hips.  “They just…had to nearly magically annihilate each other first?”

By now, the mages joined hands, spun in circles, and tossed electricity and fire around the area like fireworks, rewriting the Chant of Light about booze and chocolate.  That made Cassandra throw her hands up in the arm and walk away.  Her Nevarran accent hissed with her mumbling.  That actually made Vivienne grin a little, although she watched the misuse of magic with absolute distain.

“I wonder what our charming commander would think seeing his ex-lover and current skipping around, drinking on top of a dragon, while horrifically singing a bastardized version of the Maker’s sacred text?”  Dorian proposed the dumbstruck group.

“If he was me, he would have a hard on the size of the Frostbacks.”  Iron Bull hummed, sitting down on a boulder.  It was a known fact that the reaver became very sexually charged after a dragon fight.  The Inner Circle noticed Dorian always walked funny for a few days after each dragon kill and no wild life neared the campsite for all the strange yelling and twatching.  However, this particular show demonstrated how erect the brute could get as his center fauld stuck straight up while seated.

“The commander keeps avoiding sending dragon requests here.”  Harding admitted, smiling.  “I don’t think he knows about the dragons we already put down.  I think he would first turn mabari and barked for a few bells at us for allowing the Inquisitor to do this.  Then, he would realize how close she and the Champion were now and run for the hills.”

Dagna nudged the fellow surface dwarf with her elbow.  “You didn’t see how red he was in front of the tavern the day the wardens arrived in Skyhold.”  The arcanist and a group of scholars had been investigating the Chantry road, uncovering where the markers led.  Fredric of Serault and she watched the fight from the cliffs and took notes.  The dragologist walked away crying when the Inner Circle murdered his pet high dragon, proclaiming he regretted ever agreeing to help the Inquisition.  The arcanist assured him he could properly dissect the beast for science.  It barely calmed the masked researcher.  “This would make his head pop!”

“Which head, sweetie!?  Eh?!”  Sera laughed, running up to the crowd.  She jumped into Dagna’s arms, knocking the dwarf over.  “So many sexy peaches drink’ and singin’, anyone would be popping off, yeah?”

The Inner Circle found out about Dagna and Sera when the dwarf and elf started making out during the keep tournament like there was no one present.  Vivienne had a few templars pour icy cold water on the lesbian couple to break them apart.  Sera just thought the ice mage was starting a wet t-shirt contest since the rogue was not wearing a breast band.  The whole keep found out Sera does not mind streaking if enticed with enough alcohol and Dagna politely asks.

“Broody?”  Varric asked, eyeing the sullen elf who just watched.

“Shut it, dwarf.”  Fenris huffed, tossing his white Mohawk hair out of his face.  His hair tie broke during the battle, leaving his long silver hair in his face and his buzzed sides.  “I wish they weren’t casting, but it’s a nice sight watching V enjoy herself.”

Varric knew what the warrior meant.  It had been nearly five years since Hawke smiled so brightly and demonstrated how she was a carefree jokester.  Once the Arishok was killed, the electric mage slowly succumbed to pressures until her sarcastic nature shifted to a cynical, bitter woman.  People thought it was Fenris rubbing off on her.  Her best friend Isabela stole from the Qunari and let innocent civilians die during the invasion.  Sebastian only wanted Hawke’s help to regain his crown, leaving as soon as his birth rite was his again.  Most of all, Anders used the mage to blow up the Chantry because she picked another man, his arch nemesis, as her true love.

Then there were the miscarriages.

When Veronica asked the misfits what to do when she finally got pregnant again, Varric took no time to tell her to leave and save herself, Fenris, and the baby.  The dwarf loved Hawke as a friend and knew he would miss her.  However, the templars were plotting to kill her, too stupidly hooked on the red lyrium sweeping Darktown somehow.  Seeing Samson with Corypheus explained that epidemic.   The nobles were about to revolt.  Lastly, his spy network picked up the Right Hand of the Divine was hunting Hawke.  Varric offered himself as a decoy so the pregnant woman could flee. 

A part of the writer wondered if they would ever see each other again.  Varric did not know what would happen once Cassandra captured and interrogated him.  Hawke was a famous apostate who openly challenged the Chantry.  She waved her magical gift in templars’ faces.  Tevinter magisters and Antivans assassins hunted Fenris because he was a prized murdering slave.  Their child could be used as blackmail against them or taken just because of their combined abilities.

Varric smiled happily watching the two new friends dance and sing on the dead dragon because they both realized they were kin, not enemies.  Both women were stubborn and mistrusting, their lives shaping them to always look over their shoulders.  Cullen was right when he slung Varric across the courtyard that night.  The dwarf forgot that both women would immediately see a new presence as threatening, not an ally and kindred spirit.  Thank the Maker, Stone, or whatnot they finally got along.  Maybe together they could feel like they were not alone in this cold, depressing world.

A flying gauntlet knocked Varric literally out of his thoughts as Cassandra thundered forward.  The small curl to her pink lips hinted she was not angry per say, but her dagger eyes and stern expression stated she had enough.  The seeker stuttered forward and summoned a spell purge and Wrath of Heaven over the dead dragon, knocking both Evie and Veronica off the dragon instantly.  Both mages suddenly lost their casting and mana.  The Inner Circle winced as they both heard both apostates slapped the ground and groan.  Glass shattered against a nearby rock.

“Play time is over.”  Cassandra huffed, flipping both leaders off and returned back to the gathered group.  The Nevarran did her best not to giggle hearing the mages grumble and whine.

Dorian’s eyes focused on Evie, knowing the mage handled templar abilities poorly.  Alas, his concern faded as Evie began giggling and smacking Veronica in the shoulder.  “Mom’s mad.”

Hawke pulled the neck of the moonshine bottle to her lips to only find it broke on a boulder.  “And took our booze.”

Evie grunted, tossing her hands out from her sides.  “I told you to share!”

“I wasn’t going to give any my half.  You should have.”

“Maker’s arse, no way!  You poured my tequila over the wall last night!”

“You missed pissing on that quillback!  That was the closest thing to finish the job!”

“Now, to get Isabela here and really start the party.”  Varric cackled to himself.  “Yup, this is definitely going into the manuscript.”

“Inquisitor!”

Evie bolted upward, sitting in the rubble as a rider and horse charged towards the group.  The Ostwick native’s face morphed from glee to wariness.  No one was supposed to report to the group today.  Stroud and the wardens searched the last bit of desert on blighted lands, while the leadership needed a fun activity to break yesterday’s tension.  Yet somehow work always found them.

The Inquisitor stumbled to her feet.  “Report.”

“It’s the research team from the Chantry trail!  They request your assistance to remove a magical ice barrier.  Strong one with runes carved into the rock.  An old Chantry and Circle encampment sits outside a deep cave.”  The scout explained, glancing at Cassandra and the other members.

The seeker wrinkled her nose.  “Chantry-Circle encampment?”

“Not recent.  Maybe few years old.  Trashed by raiders and the dragon, but abandoned sometime recently.  Documents from a First Enchanter Lydia are marked 9:37.”

Evie raced forward.  “Lydia!?  As in First Enchanter Lydia Aberdeen of Ostwick Circle!?”

The rider seem surprised by the declaration.  “I’m…I’m not sure.”

The eye exchange between Cassandra and Evie told Varric and the crew everything.  Iron Bull spoke first.  “Pack it up!”

Hawke joined Evie, patting her on the back.  “Fenris, Varric, and I will go join Stroud.  Last reports stated they were investigating the old fortress along the hill to our west.”

“Take Bull and Dorian with you.”

Dorian did not like that.  “All due respect, Dearie, but I would rather stay with you.  You are not exactly…functional.”

Evie threw him that famous fiery look.  “Thus why I’m asking you to go with Hawke.  Be my eyes and ears.  Besides, the seeker knows how to keep me straight, right Pentaghast?”

Cassandra was by the horses, untying the reins.  “You need another purge, Trevelyan?”

Dorian sighed as the Inquisitor patted his back.  “See you at camp, Lightning.  Or in the morning.  From your brute’s armored salute, you won’t be able to move for a month.”

The Tevinter mage stomped a few times.  “We are not together!”

Something broke in Iron Bull.  The typically calm Qunari marched up to the mage, twirled him around, and smacked Dorian a brutal kiss.  Everyone heard teeth click before both they both clawed each other and passionately kissed.  Bull only broke the loving for a second to whisper.  “And now…?”

Dorian stumbled a little, spellbound by the forceful kiss.  “I will not admit I was lying, but-  Oh!  Fuck it!”  The Tevinter mage jumped the Qunari with his own fiery of kisses.

Evie mounted her mare Tequila and waved.  “Wardens first.  You two can have a honeymoon later.”

Varric smirked, walking by the men sucking faces.  “Preferably where no one will hear the screaming within a ten league radius.”

 


           

Evie did not know what she would have expected when she arrived at the Chantry cave, but a part of her hoped somehow she would see Lydia exit a battered tent alive and well and scold her for taking so long with her demon samples.  Since letting her heart feel again, the sorrow of witnessing her mentor bleed to death for power finally hit her.  She never cried when she reached the Trevelyan Estate, only thought about how she can now fulfill her mission to retrieve her phylactery and kill Anders.

The fire mage could not remember how long she stayed with her parents before heading to Ferelden.  She had not seen her mother and father for almost twenty years, and she only stayed a month at most.  Her last words to her mother was that she would be back for the summer lily blooms.  Now, her mother Gwen was dying and she faced a Chantry encampment that contained correspondence from her arcane mentor.

Solas and a few Inquisition mage scholars studied the cave barrier closely while Cassandra and Evie investigated the records and books left on the site.  From the battered boards, torn tents, and overturned bedmates, the bandits did not find many valuables after they left.  The inhabitants took what they needed and evacuated quickly.

Vivienne walked into the research tent that was open on one side.  Both mages listened to the hubbub outside while searching the premises.  Evie flipped through some books for letters or familiar writing.  They only found a page of a long analysis from Lydia, thus how the rider knew her name.  The other research was missing, along with analysis from other mages and templars.  “This will not bring her back.”

Evie threw Vivienne a look, daring the loyalist mage to start a fight.  Her alcohol buzz was gone, blown away as she raced to the location on Tequila.  Yet, the ice mage’s eyes showed…compassion?  Then it hit the Herald.  Lydia had been one of Vivienne’s friends.  They corresponded and collaborated on projects together.  Of course she might feel something at this site like Evie.

The Inquisitor broke her eye contact, hanging her head.  “We barely spoke after Anders blew up the Chantry.  I was her second on her demon possession research, and I broke all ties with her studies and experiments.  That abomination made me think there was nothing that could save a possessed mage.  Hawke remarked Justice was a spirit that slowly began corrupted by the injustices occurring in Kirkwall and Anders’ irrational thoughts.  Lydia believed in what she did, and I dismissed it.”

“I cannot blame you, Darling.”  Vivienne concurred, reviewing some notes found in a box.  “I did not agree with Lydia’s studies, just as I disagree with you keeping that pet demon around.” 

Evie knew Cole was around, his gongs close.  The mage prepared to protect her comrade and guidance, but Cole shushed her.  He whispered to keep her emotions inside to let this bitch finish.

“However, Lydia’s theories were sound, just as our crafty assassin is not fully corrupted…yet.”  The first enchanter added.  Her eyes remained on the parchment in the box.  “The only mage who documented what happened in Redcliffe to Connor Gurrien was Archmage Wynne.  When I learned he was Ferelden’s Inquisition ambassador, I reached out to speak with him.  He reluctantly declined.  Wynne and Lydia worked closely together in the fraternities.  Wynne moved freely while executing her Circle duties, while Lydia researched in the labs.  I was Lydia’s counterargument.  She knew how I felt about our possession weaknesses and asked me to criticize her research.  Sometimes, the holes were quite clear in her methods and analysis.  Other times, like before her death, I could only reply with thoughts and questions.”

Evie chuckled a few times, shaking her head.  “You were the mage…Oh, Lydia.  She would give me your criticisms to research and tear it apart with facts.  I always proclaimed the author just had an axe to grind, not anything productive to contribute.”

“I knew you were her pupil, Evelyn.”  Vivienne purred, tilting her head.  “Bann Trevelyan and she spoke so highly of you, yet the bann refused to allow me to correspond directly.  I think your sister was the prime reason despite our shared loathing for the loose cunt.  So, instead I would inquire about your education through Lydia.  My friend said little directly, but I knew what was Lydia’s methodology and your analysis.  When we met, I was not completely dissatisfied to see your keen observations in the flesh.”

Evie rolled her bright green eyes.  “At least I am not a whole disappointment then, Madame de Fer.”

Bare feet slowly approached the mages from behind.  Evie glanced over her shoulder to see Solas gripping his gnawed staff closely.  “The barrier can be removed, but I wanted to inform you that the runes are older than this camp.  I would predict they originate a few ages ago.  This place was visited often, but not as a Chantry pilgrimage.”

“Connected to the Second Blight?”  Evie proposed to the two scholars.

“Possibly, but unlikely.  The Veil is thin around the cave as well as to the west where the wardens search.”  Solas explained, causing all mages present to reach forward with their gifts.  “The causes for both sites are the same…”

“Blood magic.”  Evie whispered as the thin Veil burned her soul from the heinous rituals encircling the area.  Being in the Approach for almost three months, the mage could tell the differences in blood magic like Hawke.  With Solas’ guidance, she learned by using the Anchor areas where the Veil thinned by heinous bloodletting.  She hated knowing any of it.  “This site feels…less power driven?”

“Agreed.”  Solas replied.  “The blood magic committed here was a test site, but not to gain power, more to chain it.  The runes on the outside demonstrate that clearly.  They were to control the amount of power emitted from testing.”

“Let’s get that cave open then.”  Evie proclaimed as she walked out of the tent towards the cave entrance.

The magical barrier was put up in haste because the icy charge was uneven.  However, it was still took a few channeled fireballs and fire mines to release the magic.  The runes countered a great deal of the focus, chaining Evie each time she cast.  It felt like runes used by templars to deplete mage’s mana in restricted areas or in prison cells.  Luckily, Evie learned from her many years in solitary confinement to keep extending her mana and increase its pool.  During one confinement, the enchanter focused on one rune and pulled and pushed against its depletion abilities.  Each attempt left her extremely exhausted, but it was not like she had anything else to do.

The barrier exploded after Evie’s tenth fireball, igniting the runes with power.  All the mages present felt their mana wane and slowly leave their reserves.  Cassandra felt the shift and walked towards the entrance first.  Her gauntlets touched inside the cave.  She reached to her side belt pouch for a match and lit an old torch.

“A failsafe.”  The seeker explained, while review the entrance.  “The runes continue inside.  If you mages enter, you will be defenseless.”

Evie instinctively pulled from the Anchor, still charged from the dragon battle.  Even then, the mana slowly bled from her.  “I have a means to keep going.  Vivienne, Solas, and the mage scholars, stay here.  Non-mages hold until we know for sure what is inside.”

Dagna popped out from behind Sera.  “Let me come, Inquisitor.  None of this affects me, a-and I would like to see how this all works.  T-to make it safe for the other scholars, of course.”

Sera wrinkled her nose.  “Nah, Peachy.  Not goin’ anywhere without me!”

Dagna gently smiled.  “I’ll be with the Herald and Seeker.  Who better to protect me, hm?”  Sera stomped away, muttering about mages and magic stuff, while Dagna giggled.

The Inquisitor traded looks with her second then nodded.  “Don’t touch anything.”

“I’ve learned from the Tevinter pots, I promise!”

It felt weird entering the cave and not automatically tossing a magelight or fireballs to light the Herald’s path.  Cassandra would ignite the torches as she passed, holding her sword in her dominate hand for protection purposes.  Evie turned her staff around to use the blade, knowing there was no point to focus her willpower through the focus stone.  A disadvantage to a knight-enchanter sword it still relied on her abilities.  Maybe Evie needed to carry a true arming sword now for when she was spell purged…or worse.  At least she had her hunting dubh on her back belt, although it was not the one her father gave her when she left Ostwick.  Dagna dallied behind, her gloves touching the glowing runes curiously.

“I’ve seen some of these scrolls at Kinloch.”  The dwarf exclaimed, stopping by a set of runes by her shoulder.

Evie’s heart flashed to her throat.  Kinloch Hold.  Evie froze and squeezed her eyes shut.  For twenty-four bells, Evie successfully locked away Hawke’s admission.  Alcohol and mischief contributed to that, but the Inquisitor vowed to not let her conscience dwell on the strange facts that rolled around her head. 

This was not the time to focus on this, especially with her mana slowly draining from her soul, but Dagna gave an opening.  Evie watched Cassandra descend down the cave alone.  The seeker seem to relax a little because she did not have to defend Evie and her at the same time.  “How so?”

“After a group of apprentices broke into the vault, the knight-commander added new runes to the lower passages.”  Dagna sang happily like she was talking about the weather.  “They were reluctant to have me help since I was new and no one knew what to do with a dwarf in a Circle.  Once I showed I could fold lyrium into carved rune scrolls, I assisted the project.  Of course, I was constantly supervised and never allowed to know a full set of rune configuration.  That didn’t happen until much later.”

“Mages broke into the vault?”  Evie asked, confused.  “Like where the artifacts and phylacteries were?”

“Yup!  Smashed them all up!  Messy as heck.”  Dagna admitted, making a disgusted face.

“Did they escape?”  Evie questioned, knowing only apprentice phylacteries stayed in a tower.

“I don’t know.”  Dagna shrugged.  “It happened right before all the blood mages murdered everyone!  I arrived with Queen Asta a few weeks after she and King Alistair cleared everything out.  I spent the first three months just trying to come up with a way to get decaying flesh smell out of stone.  Thank the Stone for Chantry incense sticks.”

Evie stilled.  Blood magic.  Blood magic?  A Circle overrun with blood mages?  Templars would have declared a Rite of Annulment, not let two wardens and a band of ragtag fighters reclaim it.

The Circle had troubles of its own.  I…remained there during the Blight.”

Cullen’s words echoed in Evie’s shocked mind like he spoke them in that cave right then. That was the largest understatement she has ever heard.  The low light and darkness masked the mage’s horror.  No wonder he warned her about fighting blood magic, how demons summoned that way were more power-fueled than those that fell from rifts.  Evie just assumed he meant Kirkwall, the blood magic capital of Thedas.  Apparently, Cullen went from one blood magic Void to another.  His whole templar career revolved around crazy maleficium.

Evie’s connective mind pieced together another explanation.  That was why that warden, Oghren, remarked the Silent Ruins reminded him of Kinloch Hold.  He was there with Alistair and Astrid fighting the blood mages and demons.  What did they see?  What happened to the templars and the other mages?  Vivienne reminded Evie of Archmage Wynne.  She served with the wardens during the Blight.  She survived the carnage, and to the Inquisitor’s knowledge, no Rite of Annulment was declared on that Circle.  The Chantry enjoyed informing other towers when they committed the Rite to scare Circle mages into submission.

“Evelyn?”

Evie jumped and screeched hearing her name echoing off the sandstone.  She twirled around to see Cassandra staring up the passage with the torch near her face.   She squinted to see the Inquisitor in the low light.  The mage exhaled, relieved her friend had not seen the panic and shock across her face.  From Dagna perkiness, she was not alarmed either.

“Clear?”

Cassandra grunted a confirmation.  “You should come though and see.  Dagna, please return to the surface and wait for us.  We will let you know when you and the scholars can begin your work.”

The Nevarran’s voice was strained but direct.  Dagna nodded and did as ordered.  Evie struck her staff down and slowly walked forward.  The closer she advanced, the more those espresso eyes warned her.  She used that warning to explain her shock, if asked.  “What is it?”

The seeker sighed and sheathed her longsword.  “It is easier to show you.”

Evie knew she should not be cheeky, but with her new information about Kinloch Hold she needed her sarcastic mask.  “The last time you said that I was placed in the middle of a gigantic hole in the Veil fighting a Pride demon.”

That iconic disgusted groan echoed off the stone walls.

The large cavern was already illuminated when Evie entered.  Tall torches hung from the walls and ceiling.  Tables and apothecary stand lined the walls, but the circular archaic feature in the middle of the room kept Evie’s attention.  The engraving was familiar, but could not place it.  The whole room felt…off.

“I know what this place is now.”  The seeker declared, closing her dark brown eyes.  “I knew little about it, but it lead to the Mage-Templar War.”

Evie stared at the warrior.  “What…how?”

“Divine Justinia employed a tranquil mage name Pharamond to research reversing tranquility or at least make it for an apprentice to not be susceptible to possession.”  Cassandra explained, scanning the room.  “She wanted to find a way to reconnect a mage’s emotions, but still restrain their magic.  That was at least the hope.”

Evie knew that name.  All mages knew that once-tranquil mage’s name.  “He became possessed during the reversal, but he was made whole again.  Archmage Wynne…”  Evie closed her eyes.  “…entered the Fade and killed the demon, freeing him from possession.  No wonder Lydia’s research is here.”

“No, this was here before what happened at Adamant.”  The seeker admitted, pointing to the grimoires and other texts sitting on the tables.  “This was one of Pharamond’s research sites, an old Chantry location…”  Cassandra stopped herself, pointing at the circle area in the middle with the stand.  “This is where the Chantry tested and perfected making phylacteries.”

Evie suddenly felt nauseous.  “The runes…the thin Veil, but to chain power not grant power.  You know making phylacteries is blood magic right?”

“Of course.  It still did not stop the Chantry from doing it despite that it’s forbidden.”

“All those mages…”  Evie whispered, approaching the engraved Circle.  “…tested and chained until they had a tool to…monitor them.  Find them.  Recapture them.  This Circle is the same as a Harrowing Chamber.  This must be also where they developed other practices.  They put Pharamond here to find a way to break tranquility?!”

“He moved to Adamant soon after establishing here.”  Cassandra continued.  “The Veil there is thinner and made bringing spirits, or in his case, demons through.  After everything, he still asked to die, his emotions too much to handle after so long.”

Evie blinked a few times, seeing scattered research across a table.  She knew that writing and analysis.  “These are Lydia’s notes…sent to…the Divine?”  The Inquisitor read quickly.  “It doesn’t make sense.  It’s observations on state of a mind.  Lydia was an ice battlemage with some Creation knowledge.  Nothing to warrant studying the brain and soul.”  The more Evie searched, the more she became flushed.  “There is no names or experiment methods!  If Pharamond’s possession occurred after leaving here, why was Lydia sending the Divine observations?!”

The seeker hung her head.  She rubbed her eyes.  “I don’t know.  All of this occurred while I was in Kirkwall.  Leliana worked with the mages when they all met at the White Spire, and broke them free when Lord Seeker Lambert arrested everyone.  She might make sense to all this.”

“Lydia was there at the Spire.  Thank the Maker the knight-captain who escorted her was a good woman.”  Evie rubbed her temples, wishing she had the mana to frost them.  Her mind was pounding.  So many realizations, but more questions than answers.  “She was so frightened when she returned.  She and Knight-Commander Wallace prepared the tower for possible rebellion.  It took five months, but it was some of the edgiest time ever.  The knight-captain survived the fall and even came to the Trevelyan Estate with me and the other mages who fled.  She didn’t stay.  Barely anyone stayed, too afraid and mistrusting of my family.”

“I will put Harding in charge of gathering this research and information, not the scholars.  It won’t take them long to find out this place’s origin, but until we have a full picture of what happened here…”

“The alliance mages will want this information, Cassandra.”  Evie concluded, already seeing the shakeup.  “If we hide this research, they might rebel against us.”

“Not if we give them some information.  As of right now, this is Inquisition property to understand.  We will invite them once we have a clearer picture.”  The seeker suggested.

Evie started pacing.  “It might not be good enough.  I agreed with Fiona that they could begin understand atrocities committed against the mages, especially the tranquil.”

Cassandra grabbed Evie’s bicep.  “And we will, but we cannot lose focus.  Corypheus is our main adversary.  We can mold the future once he is dead.  Fiona agreed to that when we offered this alliance.  Yes, you have been preparing the mages for what will happen next, but there will not be a future if we don’t stop that magister.”

“Just promise me:  no cover up.”  Evie warned, staring Cassandra in the eye.  “Look at me, Cassandra.  My own history is a Chantry-Circle cover up.  If anyone thinks we are hiding this discovery, we will lose their trust.”

“I agree.”  Cassandra nodded, never breaking eye contact.  “We will discuss this with Leliana as soon as return to Skyhold.  She was there.  She will know Lydia’s role in this research.”

What was supposed to be a comforting thought was a nightmare to Evie.  A part of the Inquisitor still believed the Inquisition’s spymaster leaked information to Queen Asta.  Evie’s conscience hollered the rogue knew more about Evie’s past than even she.  Now, they had to trust Leliana to secure this research and explain what Pharamond was doing here.  If Evie had not shunned her mentor maybe she would know where these observations originated herself instead of trusting a woman who killed indiscriminately.  Evie already stopped Leliana once from killing a traitor.  That Butler was brought in and questioned, although Evie never heard the interrogation.  The agent died in Haven trying to free a refugee family from a burning building.  Many considered him a hero despite his initial betrayal.  The Nightingale thought her scouts were expendable and should have given their lives at Haven.  She did not see anyone as a living breathing being.

Evie opened her mouth to explain her concern, but yelling from above pulled her attention away.  Horses rode fast to the entrance.  People shifted and called to one another.  The seeker let go of Evie’s arm, drawing her sword.  Evie pulled from the mark despite its low glow.  Both leaders raced out of the main room and up the passage.

The bright midday sun blinded Evie as both women emerged from the cave, searching for the possible enemy.  Instead, there was dust cloud from kicking hooves and riders in the encampment.  The Herald coughed a few times, pulling her shemagh over her mouth and nose.  Her bright green eyes slowly adjusted to the light to see Dorian controlling his Imperial mare.

“Dorian?!”

The Tevinter mage flicked his head at the call.  Evie never saw such a frightened and pissed look on her best friend’s face.  “Evie!  We found the wardens…and they opened a fade rift!”

Once again, Evie stood shocked, mouth gaping in surprise.  “Fuck!”

Chapter Text

Dorian knew that stare in Evie’s bright green eyes.  She was not exactly shocked and scared by his sudden arrival that late afternoon or about his assertion.  All of that was on top of something else.  He was a fool to not push and accompany her to the Chantry cave.  The woman balanced on a spider web for weeks.  First, she discovers her mother is dying.  Then, her arch-nemesis jokes about sleeping with her beau.  Afterwards, they suffer a brutal defeat at the Still Ruins.  Just the morning before, the Inquisitor fought the Champion in an arcane onslaught.  Now, this bloody cave discovery.  Damn that gorgeous commander for abandoning her out here!

However, the Tevinter altus followed her direction.  He acted as his friend’s acute senses during the warden search in the southwest.  When he and Iron Bull arrived—after finding a hidden boulder and made passionate love following their open declaration of devotion—the wardens had just finished investigating an old fortress their forbearers built during the Second Blight.  Hawke and Fenris arrived about the same time although the former slave and mage left the dragon killing earlier.  From the blush creeping across the Champion’s face and Fenris’ still broody but smug look, they too shared a similar tryst during their journey.  Varric left the site last, so it explained why he arrived when he did.  His pony sank constantly into the sand dunes when they first arrived in the Approach, its stocky legs not meant for such precarious ground.  Only after changing its horseshoes five or six times did they find a way to keep the stubbly creature from being swallowed by the sands.

From a rickety lookout stand, Howe located a temple-like structure over the next ridge that no one had noticed in the past.  When the Inner Circle traveled the main section of the Western Approach, the group kept a distance from the cliff areas that remained blighted after so many ages.  The alliance wardens were just a small band, so they could only cover so many leagues within the last few months.  Even Stroud, Hawke, and Fenris investigated small areas the months before the Inquisitor arrived barely covering enough ground.  There were hundreds of Inquisition personnel in the Approach and that finally narrowed their search areas.

Something nagged Dorian to climb the wooden tower to study the temple despite the fact he despised heights.  Most places that were not warden constructed were ancient Tevinter buildings.  He knew the most about the old Imperium compared with the rest of the expedition, but his knowledge was still limited.  He raked himself over the coals after Coracavus for spacing out during his childhood history lessons, once believing that understanding a lost time that everyone remarked with such grandstand just made a person arrogant.  Yes, he was a scholar and an avid reader, but he enjoyed studying magic abilities and establishing his own hypothetical and philosophical experiments.  His mind’s eye focused on the present and future, not reminiscing about a lost past.  Evie and he spent many evenings around the fire debating about such famous experiments and theories.  Yes, her knowledge about Tevinter and non-Chantry preferred magic was limited, but she kept up with him as easily as any other Tevinter pupil.

So, when the altus reached Howe’s location, his grey eyes gazed through the provided spyglass eagerly.  Just as Evie said, he was her spiraling Fade eyes, giving his hypothesis to the gathered group with as much analysis and assumptions he could provide.  Alas, he was not as observant as his distant cousin, but he caught what most ignored. 

Seeing the two tall statues on either side of the entrance told Dorian everything.  Those were gate guardians, the grand monoliths Appius Trius modeled after his famed golem friend he discovered in the Western Approach at the height of the empire.  These were not the first time Dorian witnessed such since arriving in the desert, but their present caused shocks down his spine.  Those metal golems usually contained a lyrium rod in their weapons and centers…and were powered by life force—blood magic.[1]

“Fasta vaas…”  The altus muttered under his breath, his moustache twitching like a dying fennec he would shock in the Hinterlands for its fur and meat when he travelled alone. 

All the Inquisition mages automatically tested the Veil when someone muttered blood magic.  The whole desert was one giant life force pool where his ancestors slaughtered slaves to fuel their experiments.  The ancient Tevinter mages cared little for the people who died under their knives, only expanding their influence throughout Thedas.  When he reached out, that distant site bit him like a rabid hyena, asking for blood to receive its gifts.  His elemental gift came so easily the longer he focused on the temple.

Dorian abhorred blood magic.  His own recent history may explain his loathing if anyone asked, but none of his companions knew that great secret, even Evie.  It was just a few bells ago he admitted he was a homosexual despite the signs presented like his flashy robes and open flirtation. (Those qualities were what alerted his father, the bigot bastard.)  His constant denial broke his lover then.  Dorian could not blame Iron Bull.  Their relationship had been a child’s wooden yoyo for months.  The altus gave into his lust the night before the alliance wardens bushwhacked the Herald’s Rest.  Of course, his first official sexual encounter with the Qunari brute would be publically displayed with the ambush.  In those moments, Dorian understand completely what Evie felt the morning she sparred with her hunky commander.

His best friend observed all the signs that morning, teasing him for details during their chess match the next evening.  Yet, she too hid her own discovered romance from him for months, only admitting her new relationship under the distress that her mother was dying from the Blight.  A quick prayer crossed Dorian’s mind that his potions and other healing practices extended that woman’s life so Evie could see her again.  Neither person divulged details about their affairs yet, but after Dorian and Bull’s open declaration, that conversation might occur tonight-

-If this blood magic temple turned out to be nothing.

Of course, Dorian nor Evie’s lives could turn out positive.  The site made Dorian’s blood boil at both what happened at that temple and his father’s actions last year.  It mimicked Evie’s own world as she crumbled at that Chantry cave.

His mind returning to the present, Dorian watched from his mount as the Inquisitor and the seeker mounted their horses hastily.  Evie threw Cassandra look, quickly glaring at the cave.  Cassandra replied with a nod, ordering everyone back to the keep until further notice.  With the warden sighting, they did not want to risk anyone’s life, especially the group of scholars.  Harding and her scouts will secure the site and gather all research appropriately.  She ordered Harding to request a squad of soldiers to assist her.  Evie watched carefully as the scholars wandered back to the wagons to leave.  Only a few Chantry sisters wrinkled their noses, but the Inquisitor’s eyes focused on the mages.  She waited for any one of them to object.  What happened here? 

Within five minutes, the altus, seeker, and Herald dashed away.  The other Inner Circle remained to guard the departing scholars until the troops arrived.  Dorian explained what the teams discovered, while riding their horses hard back to the ritual tower.  His voice quickly became hoarse with the hollering…or was that from Bull’s long, thick dick?  Once the altus informed the wardens about what the site may be, the whole group agreed to check it out.  It became a common occurrence the last three months to see recently murdered warden warriors and rogues at such sites, their killers nowhere near to question.  From Stroud’s long face, he worried he would see the same here.

If one could call their intuition lucky, they found the site devoid of dead…well, until Sirgun appeared from stealth after surveying the surrounding area.  A group of four warden mages, five non-mages, and a Tevinter magister travelled on foot from the west towards them.  It was the first time anyone saw wardens alive and approaching the Inquisition since the expedition began.  Iron Bull and Stroud agreed to pull the non-rogues back behind a series of boulders to observe the group.  The rogues posted themselves around the temple site at different angles.

It was somewhat strange for the group to come by foot when mounts made the early summer desert bearable.  The magister spoke to the group with a sickly sweet voice that demonstrated he was confident that this experiment would be successful.  Dorian’s furry lip jumped again.  This would be another blood magic ritual.  They will witness the act in the flesh, smell the taint of someone’s life force leave their bodies and fuel a power-hungry mage. 

Yet, the team must let the experiment begin.  Even Hawke and Stroud succumbed to that fact because the Inquisition had no explanation to why they found so many warden bodies at such sites over the months.  It did not mean the observers were happy.  Fenris actually walked away, mouthing off in Tevene about mages and their weaknesses.  Hawke gulped some water from her water skin, rinsing her mouth of disgust and irritation.  The apostate struggled every time someone found a blood magic ritual, her lilac eyes glazing like a warrior who witnessed his battalion massacred like lambs.  Maybe Evie’s new confidente would understand Dorian’s plight more than anyone else.  Of course her lover would understand, branded by such actions in his youth, but multiple encounters with the sour elf told Dorian that he would never trust him enough to tell his torturing experiences.  The Tevinter mage was simply happy he had not found himself butchered by the former mage.  Surely after that one drinking and taunting contest was finally forgotten by the elf.

Before the Tevinter magister and wardens begin, Dorian’s disgusting kinsman explained what went wrong the last time.  The test occurred during the moon’s full moon and not during the new moon.  A warden mage asked if Satina, Thedas’ other moon, mattered, and this mage, Erimond stated no.  Satina only truly appeared during a short period during Umbralis and winter.  Of course the Tevinter would prefer the Tevene name for Firstfall.  For the rest of the year, Satina was in shadow and rarely seen in the sky.  On the other hand, the moon—which did not have an official name—cycled once a month.  The ancient Tevinter scrolls the magister referenced for the ritual suggested conducting the magic at the moon’s height, never stating which height:  the waxing or waning.  Erimond’s previous failure landed on the ancient Tevinters who wrote the magic, not himself.[2]

Once again, Dorian’s moustache danced on his lip.  The man was a prime example of an egotistical imbecile that rule the Magisterium.  Yet, if this man was with the wardens, it meant he served Corypheus, thus was a Venatori, the fanatical example of Tevinter’s desire to reclaim its former glory.  Dorian reached for his flask and took a gulp of fine brandy to wash his own revulsion away.  Maker, his countrymen were morons!

Hawke and Iron Bull glanced skyward following the explanation, only seeing a brief outline of the main moon in the afternoon sky, its waning almost complete.  In the desert, the Inquisition witnessed the moon during all times because of the clear blue sky, just barely tinted green by the Veil.  The Breach’s scars extended to even here with random streaks of brighter green and rippling Veil.

Thus why this Magister Erimond’s next action did not startle Dorian.  The mage pointed to a warden warrior with a wave.  The magister stood in the middle of the ritual tower.  The large brute slowly approached, seeing the sacrificial knife glint in the late afternoon light.  His eyes shimmered with fear and dread.  If by command, the wardens began chanting the motto.  That caused the warden to straighten his back and approach his death honorably.

Honorably stupid, if you asked Dorian.

“In war, victory,”

The warrior dropped his shield and broadsword and met Erimond at the ritual center.

“In peace, vigilance,”

The sacrifice turned around and waited for the knife, closing his shimmering eyes.  Tears lingered on his eyelashes, while his lips whispered prayers in Orlesian.  Dorian predicted the man was no older than twenty-five, probably a warden for not very long.

“In death, sacrifice.”

Erimond reached up and stroked the knife across the warden’s neck with ease.  The blood spurted like a flashy fan into the area, hovering as the magister waved his magic to absorb the life force.  The warrior dropped like a ton of bricks while his soul lingered in Erimond’s glowing hand.  His spiritual magic ignited the ritual tower with a bright green glow.  The Veil reacted with sparks and cracks.  The magister thrusted the magic outward, the Veil replied with a lightning strike.  Dorian knew that goop and spark noise, witnessing the tear appearing easily with the fueled life force.

“It’s time to get the boss.”  Iron Bull grunted, clutching his hand around his battle axe.

“I’ll do it.”  Dorian volunteered.  His Imperial mare was faster than the other mounts present.  He was skilled rider who could navigate around the boulders and ridges easily.  Lastly, Evie will not question him on his announcement instead of searching for more answers before acting.

Hawke threw him a look.  “Get going.  We’ll observe what they’ll do.  Maker bless your speed.”

Dorian nodded, smirking to hide his own trepidation.  “My dear, the Maker broke the mold with me.”

A bell passed by the time Dorian returned with the Inquisitor and her second.  They approached slowly to the boulder, noticing the warriors and mages had left their initial hiding spot.  They instead stood by the ritual tower entrance armed and ready to fight.  Hawke leaned against a gate guardian about to puke all over the ancient statue.  From that location, Dorian could not discern what was happening.

Stroud lowered his shield as Evie and Cassandra approached.  Varric, Dorian, and Iron Bull formed behind them.  “I’m glad you made it, Inquisitor.  I fear they’ve already started the ritual.”

“Dorian informed me about what he witnessed.”  Evie replied, trying to see around the tall Orlesian warden.  “What has happened since?”

“More blood magic.  You can smell it…or see the corpses.”  Hawke explained, regaining her control over her stomach contents.  She smacked her lips as acid burned the back of her throat.  “We had to pull the rogues back once the sacrifices began because of susceptibility.  The Calling grew in them the longer they lingered at their scouting spots.  There is no mistake there are less people alive than dead now.  I witnessed a rage demon exit the rift too.”

“Shit…”  Evie muttered, crossing her arms.  “I guess it’s time to knock and confront this magister.  Stroud, it might be best to keep the wardens back so the Calling will not affect their minds.  Hawke, Fenris, and Bull, cover our asses while we’re up there.  Come running if shit goes south.”

“It usually does, Sunshine.”  Dorian smirked, twirling his ice staff.  “It isn’t a Tuesday without some blood magic and bad situations getting worse.”

Evie sighed, rubbing her temples.  “You have no idea…”

There was definitely a story there about the Chantry cave.  Dorian quickly wondered if there was any more alcohol in the keep.  Between the keep tournament and Hawke-Evie’s drunk fest yesterday, the fortress was nearly devoid of liquor.  Dorian’s flask was his personal stash.  From its light weight, he was almost out too.  Pity.

The walk from the entrance to the ritual tower felt like an eternity.  The closer the group reached the stairs and main ritual site, the more Dorian wished to gag and vomit.  Blood poured like rain here in the past as well as now.  Just like most rifts, Evie’s left hand sparked and jumped under her dragonskin gloves, the Anchor reacting out to the nearby tear.  If the experimenters did not notice them approach, they would see them as the mark glowed like a bright green beacon.

Reaching the last stair, the team witnessed the ritual clearly.  The warden mages never looked their direction.  All focused on the sacrifice.  The last warden rogue, a duelist was pleading for his life.  The stupid honor they called earlier was no longer there.

“Wait…no.”  The rogue whimpered, waving his hand out in front of him as the warden mage inched closer with the blooded knife.

The Tevinter mage waved from a higher dias, “Warden-Commander Clarel’s orders were clear.”

The warden continued to plead.  “This is wrong!”

“No shit…”  Evie whispered in front of the team.  She remained on the last step, watching the sacrifice closely.  Her face demonstrated her struggle to interfere, but knowledge was power.  They all needed to know Corypheus’ plan.  Yet another burden of leadership landed on Evie’s shoulders.

Erimond smirked.  His silly soul patch and scruffy beard unkempt from months in the desert.  “Remember your oath:  In war, Victory.  In peace, Vigilance.  In death…”  The mage stabbed the rogue in the heart while Erimond sickly giggled at the action.  “…Sacrifice.”  The blood flowed from the body and the warden mage directed it to the rift.  On command, a rage demon emerged roaring like a beast.  He clapped once.  “Good.  Now bind it, just as I showed you.”  The mage did as he was told.

The action caused Evie to stomp forward, glaring at the mage and the Tevinter instructor.  The team followed closely, armed and ready on her command.  Dorian’s grey eyes focused on the Tevinter mage, witnessing him cast a strange red spell.  The spell was directed at the warden, a blonde handsome man that Dorian would have considered as beau in the past.  The warden mage’s face shifted from successfulness to stolid instantly.  Red glowing marks shined under the man’s eyes.  Erimond waved him aside as the Inquisition reached the fade rift.

The mage’s smirk grew observing the fuming Herald.  “Inquisitor, what an unexpected pleasure.”  The mage bowed low and outstretched his arms.  “Lord Livius Erimond of Virantium, at your service.”

Dorian’s mind immediately filter through his knowledge of Imperium nobility.  He heard of House Erimond, but they were no one of significance at least in the Magisterium.  Still, somewhere they were probably related in their past.  Tevinter sounded like a huge incest empire to make the best mage.  Yet, his insignificance is probably why Corypheus recruited him as an agent.

Stroud surged forward.  “You are no warden!”

Dorian rolled his grey eyes.  Duh.  That has been quite evident this whole time.

Erimond’s grey eyes silted.  “But you are…”  He exhaled and flicked his hand.  “The One Clarel let slip along with that whore queen’s puppets.  And so you found the Inquisitor and came to stop me.”  He grinned at the notion.

Evie stepped forward to address the mage wardens.  “Wardens!  This man is lying to you.  He serves an ancient magister who wants to unleash the blight!  If he gets rid of you, then there is no one who can stop him!”

Erimond rolled his eyes, his annoying voice taunting Dorian’s friend.  “That’s a very serious accusation.  Were you hoping they would rebel?  Appeal to their sympathy for their fallen comrades?  Let’s see what the wardens think, huh?  Hands up.”  On command, the warden mages raised their hands.  “Hands down.”  They followed his request.

That explained the red glowing marks on their faces.

Stroud shouted.  “Corypheus has taken their minds.”

Erimond sniffed and crossed his arms over his chest.  “They did this to themselves.  You see, the Calling had the wardens terrified.  They looked everywhere for help.”

The griffon senior warrior exhaled and shook his head.  “Even Tevinter…”

The Tevinter magister huffed happily.  “Yes, and since it was my master who put the Calling in their heads, the Venatori were prepared.  I went to Clarel, full of sympathy, and together, we came up with a plan…raise a demon army, march into the Deep Roads, and kill the old gods before they wake.”

“Fuck!”  Evie hollered, tugging on her tight braids.  She really needed to stop doing that or she will go bald.  “I was wondering when the demon army would appear.  Corypheus marching across Orlais with an army of demons…I witness that in the envy demon’s dream and saw the results in future Redcliffe!”

Erimond continued to feed the group information.  Why was it villains feel like telling their plans and life stories like this?  Wouldn’t most people keep that secret from their enemies?  “And now you know how it begins.  Sadly for the wardens, the binding ritual I taught their mages has a side effect.  They’re now my master’s slaves.  This was a test.  Once the rest of the wardens complete the ritual, they will conquer Thedas.”

“And with new mages joining the wardens following the Mage Rebellion, there is more mages now in their ranks than ever before.”  Evie concluded, kicking the air in frustration.  “And killing the Old Gods trying to prevent another blight?  No one knows where they are or an excursion would have been called ages ago.  I assume demons was Clarel’s choice because they don’t bitch or need food like the rogues and warriors.  They are expendable just like these warriors and rogues here.  Morons!”  Evie pointed at Erimond.  “One question:  how did Corypheus influence the wardens to make them do this!?  And the Calling?!”

Stupidly, Erimond answered the question.  “Ha!  Made them?  No.  Everything you see here?  The blood sacrifices to bind the demons?  The wardens did it of their own free will.  Fear is a very good motivator, and they were very afraid.  You should have seen Clarel agonize over the decision.  Burdens of command, I suppose.  You understand that, don’t know you Inquisitor?”

Cassandra finally broke her silence.  She spent the whole argument stewing over the blood magic and carelessness.  “Do you want to see the world fall to the blight?  What do you get out of this?!”

Erimond shrugged.  “The Elder One commands the Blight.  He is not commanded by it like the mindless darkspawn.  The blight is not unstoppable or uncontrollable.  It is simply a tool.”

Varric muttered behind Dorian.  “Somebody’s certainly a tool.”

The altus nudged his short comrade.  “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Erimond continued to boast.  “As for me, while the Elder One rules from the Golden City, we the Ventaori, will be his god-kings here in the world.”

Evie flicked off the magister.  “I’ve see that future, asrehole!  There was nothing left to rule!  The Blight, demons, and Corypheus destroyed the world.  Everyone was dead or dying.  You will be just like everyone else:  a corpse with his head on a pike!  I promised to never allow that future come so I demand you to release the wardens from the binding and surrender.  I won’t ask again.”

The sickly smirk graced Erimond face as he lifted his hand.  “No.  You won’t.”

Suddenly, that red glow hovered around Erimond’s hand.  It jolted outward filling the air with blood magic.  Evie fell to her knees as the mark sparking and electrocuted its owner.  The scream Evie hollered….Dear Maker, Dorian never heard something so shocking and desperate in his life.  His soul and heart cried and broke witnessing his cousin crumble under the agony.  The pain brought her to her knees and sent chills down Dorian’s spine.  Frantic, he casted a barrier around Evie to block the magic, but it did not work.  Where was horrible dressed egghead when they needed him?!  Dorian notice the Anchor’s glow and arcs did not stay around her hand, but snaked down her arm to her elbow.  For a brief second, he could have sworn he witnessed Evie’s radius and uma pulse with light beneath her skin.  How?!  The others told Dorian the gash stopped growing after she closed the Breach the first time.  With the Breach fully sealed, how was it still slowly growing?! 

Cassandra thundered forward and spell purged the magister, but still the spell kept Evie on her knees, rolling on the flag stones in agony.  The screams brought Hawke, Fenris, and Iron Bull running towards the tower.  The other wardens followed behind, but slowed to a crawl once the Calling became unbearable.  They held their head and groaned like the undead.

Erimond giggled evilly as he kept thrusting his magic over the Anchor, sending Evie into wave after wave of anguish and torture.  Her right hand held her other waist to somehow minimize the pain.  The concern in Cassandra’s eyes told Dorian she was considering silencing Evie to knock her out.  However, if she did, that meant Erimond would know Evie’s great weakness.  So instead, they left her to suffer helpless and confused.

“The Elder One showed me how to deal with you, in the event you were foolish enough to interfere.  That mark you bear?  The Anchor that lets you pass safely through the Veil?  You stole that from my master.  He’s been forced to find other ways to access the Fade.”

Evie slowly pulled herself up to a kneeling position, clenching her jaw tightly to hold in her screaming.  Maker, her will still surprised Dorian every moment.  Her bright green eyes glowed with such intensely as she stared at the fade rift left unattended beside her.  Erimond kept running at the mouth about taking her head to his master, while Evie flashed the mark at the fade rift and disrupted its stability.  Dorian watched happily as Erimond flew across the dias and hit his head on a low statue.

Evie dripped with sweat as she slowly returned to her feet, her left hand hung at her side as the Anchor continued to spark and pulse from its experience.  A glorious smirk graced her face as she eyed the magister.  “Sorry, dickhead.  I personally like my head right where it is.  Tell your master no matter the agony and pain, I will hunt you all down and obliterate you all!  Death will be only the beginning!  I will fucking hunt you all down in the Fade and annihilate every one of you pricks until your souls are nothing but fade shit under my mud crusted boots!”

Maker, Evie was pissed!

Erimond’s true colors showed as he scooted on his behind on the flagstones, trying to flee.  “Kill them!  Kill them all!”  The red glowing magic interacted with the hypnotized drone mages.

The battle was quick.  There were four warden mages with demons versus the alliance wardens, the Inner Circle, Fenris, and Hawke.  Everyone present were used to fighting demons by now after months in the Approach.  If anything, the skirmish just slowed the alliance wardens’ race to stop Erimond.  However, Erimond had mounted a hidden horse he kept by the cliff for his own convenience after completing his experiment.  It did not explain what he wanted to do with the controlled mages, but knowing him, he just sent them to his master to begin the army.

Hawke kicked a rock after everything settled.  “So…that went well.”

Stroud glanced at the Champion, exhaling heavily.  “You were correct.  Through their ritual, the mages are slaves to Corypheus.”

Fenris nudged a dead warden’s side where they were discarded following the sacrifice.   “And this explains where the warden rogues and warriors are going.  No place for them in that stupid army.”

Veronica tossed up her hands.  “Oh, of course!  It’s not real blood magic until someone get sacrificed.”

Evie rubbed her temples.  “Human sacrifice, demons summons…The mages killed their fellow wardens.  Nothing can justify this!  Who looks at this and thinks it’s a good idea!?  ”

Hawke spoke with a somber voice.  “The fearful and the foolish.”

Howe stepped forward.  “The wardens were wrong, but that’s why we are here.  Yet, Clarel and the other wardens had their reasons.  You don’t know what the Calling is doing to us.”

“I don’t care about the excuses.”  Hawke hollered, pushing Howe out of her face.  “Everyone has a story they tell themselves to justify bad decisions…and it never matters.”  Her lilac eyes fell on Evie.  “In the end, you are always alone with your actions.”

The statement meant something to the Champion and the Herald.  Evie responded with a strong nod.  Their Inquisitor reviewed everyone present with burning determination.  “Now we know what they are doing.  If this ritual requires them to wait for the new moon, that gives us a month to prepare.”  Once again, everyone’s eyes looked skyward.  The moon began reappearing above them in its new waxing stage.  “Erimond knows it works now despite losing his mages and demons.  Next month they will be doing this with the full force.  We’ll need the army to stop them before the demons destroy the world.”

Cassandra stepped forward.  “We don’t know even know where the other wardens are!”

Stroud waved his hand to the east.  “I believe I know where the wardens are now, your Worship.  Erimond fled that direction.  Seeing what he did with the fade rift…There is only place…There’s an abandoned warden fortress that way.  Adamant.”

Evie’s lip twitched.  “Of course…the fortress has already had demons pouring out it in the last few years.  The Veil is probably burnt parchment thin there.  I want those wardens.  We cannot let Corypheus gain a demon army.”

“Rhys and Evangeline will be a great help there.”  Cassandra suggested, already thinking of battle tactics.  “In the meantime, we must scout the area to confirm their presence, while we have Commander Cullen march our main force here.  It will take them the whole month to reach the Approach, cutting it close to the ritual.”

Stroud waved towards his fellow wardens.  “We will scout out Adamant and confirm the wardens’ presence there.”

Hawke pointed at Velanna.  “I would keep her away from there.  She is susceptible to the ritual.”

The short-tempered Dalish elf spat at Hawke’s feet.  “On Fen’Harel head I would do that!  Blood magic is for the hypocrites and the useless.  No, I am staying with my fellow wardens!”

Evie sighed.  “Velanna, your assistance in the battle plans would be deeply appreciated.  You know the warden mages and their abilities.  Please…”

Howe nodded.  “Go Vel.  We’ll keep you posted.”

The Dalish mage rolled her eyes and conceded.  “Fine.  Keep that slanderous wolf humper away from me!”

Varric cocked an eyebrow at Dorian.  “Wolf Humper?  I thought I was the only one that gave out nicknames.”

Dorian flipped his hand.  “She means Solas.  The two of them have been passionately terminating each other in elvhen for months.  They just won’t slump off into the Fade and screw.  The sexual tension makes your sappy novels look like children’s books.”

Evie clapped to break the hushed discussions.  “Let’s mount and get back to the keep.  That lets the scouting team to resupply before approaching Adamant.  Inquisition scouts will be assisting you.  Cassandra, we have a major missive to send east.”

Cassandra nodded strongly.  “It is time to test our army.  Cullen has trained them well.”

Dorian slapped a hand on Evie’s shoulder, whispering into her ear.  “I knew he would come for you.”

Evie poked her friend in the bicep as the group returned to their mounts nearby.  “And here I was going to surprise him to vacation here.  You know, sun bath and drink iced mixed tequila drinks on the keep ramparts.  I just didn’t plan on inviting several thousand soldiers too.”

“Did you really think he could leave his duties at home?”  Dorian grinned as the team returned to their mounts.

“He is as stubborn with work as to let me explore that delicious body.”

Dorian laughed loudly, wiggling his eyebrows mischievously.  “Good thing you have a secret get away.”

The Herald beamed.  “What ahead of you, Lightning Strike…I definitely need release after today.”

The Tevinter mage glanced up and saw the Sun rolling towards the horizon slowly with the waxing moon behind them.  “The day’s not over with, Sunshine…and we’re all out of liquor.”

Chapter Text

Maker, Evie wanted this day over with.  There had been enough excitement and pondering to fill her life a few times over.  However just like Cullen said all those months ago, there is no rest for the wicked.  That might be true now, but Evie expected a long vacation after all this hubbub.

The ride from the ritual tower to Griffon Wing Keep took half of the time than usual, everyone burning with determination and disgust about what the warden were doing.  Even the mounts responded to the tension emitted off their riders.  Every living thing knew this was serious, a race against time to save Thedas.  The Grey Wardens were great heroes who sacrificed their lives to save Thedas from the Blight.  Now, they were deceived by that same Blight unknowingly.  Who will save the world if they all disappear and become Corypheus’ demons?  What will happen when the next archdemon—beside Corypheus’ dragon—rises and lead a darkspawn army to destroy the world?  It will be the First Blight all over again!

Evie knew she will have to debrief the entire Inner Circle and western command before beginning preparations for Adamant, if that is truly where the wardens were.  She could not doubt that assumption.  They cannot dally another three months searching for the wardens again.  Maker, she prayed Stroud was correct.  Yet another web of events and locations that the fire mage should have seen coming.  In just one day, the whole warden plot revealed itself.  It took three months for such a day.  The Inquisitor will instruct her Inner Circle, Knight-Captain Rylen, Commander Helaine, and Ser Malcom to plan for next month and prepare in such a way that they themselves could only attack Adamant, the worst case scenario Evie prayed will never happen.

Concern wield up inside the Herald.  The western force stationed in the desert needed Cullen’s army, who trained fiercely for such a task.  However, it took the Inner Circle three weeks to reach the Western Approach.  Add another three days to get to Adamant from Griffon Wing Keep.  Too bad the military force could not just cross Lake Celestine and bypass the keep to gain a little time.  There were not enough potential ships to carry the force.  Well, maybe the whole Trevelyan fleet if they left dock now and gathered at the same time.

A force nearly ten thousand strong will not easily cross Orlais and immediately fight, if they made it at all.  A massive force will travel across armistice Orlais.  Gaspard and Celene’s armies combined might make up the Inquisition force.  The empire will see their marching military as a threat.  Josephine will need to quickly negotiate a contract and treaty to avoid unattended bloodshed.  If Corypheus had spies and supporters in the imperial court, they will convince both warring sides to deny the Inquisition’s request.  The Void, Patricia will take the opportunity to taint the Inquisitor’s intentions, an opportunity served on a silver platter.  This could threaten the Inquisition’s chance to attend the peace talks!  Maker, what a mess! [1]

Another disconcerting thought crossed Evie’s mind during the ride back to the keep.  The Inquisition will need siege equipment and schematics to breach the fortress’ walls.  That alone can take months!  The Herald’s mind returned to the possibility of using Trevelyan ships to transport equipment to Lake Celestine.  Would her father even do such a thing?  Or will he be compliant and ignore his daughter like he has done for decades?

Evie assumed too much.  She must trust in her allies to do the right thing.  Maker, bless the Inquisition.  If she was truly the Herald, the Maker and His Bride will provide the path through the chaos to save Thedas and His People, human, Qunari, elves, and Dwarves alike.  She shook her head violently, while mushing Tequila onward.  She cannot doubt now.  None of them had a choice, and she must lead them. 

The war advisors will know their roles.  Cullen established a fluid supply line across the empire.  Many caravans slowly inching back and forth reached the keep in two weeks now.  Her commander improved messaging and troop movement throughout these three months.  Leliana probably already has Adamant designs from Phammard’s experiments or knows where to find them.  Rhys and Evangeline might be near Skyhold and will provide the spymaster guidance and input.  Her scouts will hastily gain information for the battle, willingly sacrifice themselves to save the world as much as Evie wished that could be avoided.  She will not doubt their sacrifices now when everything was on the line.  Josephine, despite distracted by the House of Repose, can talk any noble or delegate out of clothes, influence, and money.  She served the imperial court as Antiva’s ambassador.  She will know who to contact and smooch about marching across Orlais.  She already established relations with surrounding nobles near the desert before Evie left Skyhold.  Those noble houses may supply the Inquisition troops to protect their lands to avoid failure.

All the Inquisition’s precautions and choices already accounted for this outcome.  Evie’s mind reminded her of the two bell conversation with the War Council before she left Skyhold about this worst case scenario.  Her advisors trusted her conscience about those bizarre situations.  She will not need to argue as much about which actions to take.  Much like Haven, Evie will trust her instincts should the worst happened.  However, how much can the Herald trust her gut when it declares Cullen will destroy her if she continues their relationship?

Evie spurred Tequila onward with her boot, pushing away this looming doubt and dread.  Between Cassandra and her, the western force will be prepared to receive Cullen’s army and take on the Grey Wardens.  Dagna was there with some of the best smiths the Inquisition has to supply forces, but not as skilled as Harritt yet trusting enough.  Workers and laborers mined and gathered surrounding resources so the keep’s stores were plentiful.  Foodstuff remained abundant since many western Orlesian caravans and merchant travelled to the keep.  Water was always a concern, but Evie’s secret project led her to find ways to desalinize non-potable water, only successful because of the Inquisition’s stationed mages and dwarves.  Cassandra and Rylen worked well together as a power couple, strong, honorable, and loyal.  They knew military strategy.  The Inquisitior’s limited knowledge will not hinder the effort.  She will be there blessed leader, fighting beside them to stop this madness.

The Inquisition could not forget the alliance Grey Wardens.  Stroud was one of the best commanders Evie has ever met and probably as knowledgeable about Grey Warden secrets as Warden-Commander Clarel.  No wonder Erimond feared Clarel’s failure to capture and kill Stroud.  The other wardens were skilled and very loyal to their order, knowing the Orlesian wardens were misguided.  However, how much will the Calling impact them physically and mentally during the battle?  Will being so near the ritual corrupt them as well?  No, Evie knows ways to reduce the risk even though the wardens will not be happy.  She will request only one or two to participate in the battle just in case only a Grey Warden can kill Corypheus and his archdemon.  Truly, ‘in death, sacrifice.’

The compounding doubt and concerns stemmed from Evie’s own self-doubt and guilt about leading the Inquisition.  She realized now she would make mistakes and cause rippling consequences.  She was fallible like Astrid and Hawke, potentially requiring someone else to come and clean up her messes.  Knowing this, she will trust the people surrounding her and not make choices solely on her knowledge and strength.  Evie will never repeat the Still Ruins again because she was supported by the finest people in all Thedas.  A huge bright smile blessed Evie’s face as she slowed the Antivan mare to a trot once approaching the keep’s cast iron gate.  They can do this!

Reality hit the inferno mage right then, the mage’s bright green eyes studying the soldiers rushing around the keep’s battlements.  Were they rushing to meet her and the others?  No, their actions were responding to something that happened before she approached.  The gate was already open.  Lookouts left their stations.  No horn sounded her return.  Rylen did not raise the flag marking her arrival.  Dust from fast horse hooves lingered in the air.  Instinctively, Evie glanced at Cassandra.  The seeker’s surprised face demonstrated she noted the same tense atmosphere, different once again from the Chantry cave and the ritual tower.

Maker, Evie hated when Dorian was right.

“WHERE IS SEEKER PENTAGHAST!?  PLEASE!”  A young shrieking man called from the lower courtyard.  He fell off his sweating and exhausted horse, his helmed head darting around for a familiar face.  Even from that distance, Evie could see his black sunken eyes and petrified emotions showing through his helmet silts.

Cassandra nudged her horse forward.  Evie quickly followed.  “I am here, soldier!” For those who did not know the seeker well, they would never notice her cracking Nevarran accent that displayed her buried fear.  Shit, if she was even nervous…

Breathe, Evie.

Evie edged her mare forward, searching for any identifier about the frightened scout.  His Inquisition medium armor was covered in sand and mud. Debris from a hard and fast ride covered its olive green and orange coloring.  His Inquisition cloth heraldry hung off his belt tattered.  Part of the armor sleeves and legs had been ripped either by passing tree limbs or falling off his horse during a spirt.  The Inquisitor slid off her mount before Cassandra, marching forward towards the man.  His hazel eyes met hers and stumbled back, falling over a well brick.

“I-Inquisitor!”

Evie froze.  All movement around her slowed as her companions followed her lead.  Cassandra’s gauntlet brushed her dragon scale arm when she passed and approached the scout.  The Herald searched in her mind.  Why did this man fear her?  Yes, the dragon armor Cullen gave her in Skyhold was ripped to shreds.  Sandstorms, greater terrors, and red templer shadows enjoyed turning the white dragon skin into lizard rags.  The dragon weave was bleached light peach instead of the bright rich orange when she left the castle.  Her hair was officially red, the brown blotted away after months in the desert sun.  Evie had to find other ways to braid it differently each day because the strains would bleach like tye dye if left in the same style.  Her skin was dark tan, the olive undertones warmed her facial features.  Her cheekbones and nose were nothing but red freckles like Esme.  If she did not cover up her body quickly, more formed along her arms, chest, thighs, and shoulders.

The Inquisitor spent the day travelling from one startling situation to the next.  The dragon fight was the easiest of the three tasks.  The Chantry cave gave her more questions to muddle around with than she wished.  The long term implications from that discovery will be difficult to mitigate and absorb by Inquisition allies.  However, the Grey Warden blood magic ritual took all priority.  Was it her determined expression and straightened back what threatened this man?  Has the three months in a desert with demons and blood changed her so much?!  Will Cullen even recognize her?!

The soldier stumbled and slid on his behind, his helmet flew off and tumbled away.  Those hazel eyes defined all his Fereldan facial features.  Memories of them meeting around Skyhold, specifically on the atrium bridge, washed over Evie’s mind and soul.  All of Evie’s concerns about her causing his panic flew away.  Instead, all her purpose and determination melted and allowed dread and her own panic consume her.  “Jim!  Why are you here!?  Is Cullen-“

Evie nearly threw up saying his name, stumbling around like a drunkard as the tan and bleached world spun around her.  Cullen hated his personal runner with a passion.  Yes, the moron interrupted and destroyed most of their interactions since arriving in Skyhold, but he became this essential piece in Cullen’s life.  Runners, messengers, and ravens have become a prized possession since she left for the Western Approach.  Communication was still slow. Yet-

Evie’s bright green eyes flashed to the battlements towards where she and Cassandra stayed.  Blackwall had built them a birdhouse with spare wood from her secret aquifer project.  She noticed they got very tired over the months, constantly flying nearly a thousand leagues to deliver the romantic letters.  The last correspondence declared Evie the mail chess winner, her rook and pawn cornering Cullen’s king.  The two raven had not been together in the same location for months.  Yet, Mees and Nair roosted on their birdhouse outside Cassandra and Evie’s window, waiting for her impatiently.  Mees bobbled his head, and Nair hopped in place.  They flapped and moved with little resistance.  Neither showed they had a letter attached to their legs.  That meant Cullen did not respond to her chess success.  Maker, that meant Cullen has not written her in over a week! 

Cullen…

“Seaman, report.” Knight-Captain Rylen called as he raced forward from the middle courtyard stairs.  The runner jumped to his feet and saluted.  That’s right.  Jim used to be Rylen’s runner.  From Cullen’s letters, the knight-captain nearly launched the recruit out of a trebuchet in Haven.  Cullen kept that possibility as his own since arriving in Skyhold, especially if the runner interrupted them again.  Evie joked Cullen already had a trebuchet calibrated just for that.

“I-I have-“ Jim stammered, searching around him.  The whole keep froze following his shouting and sudden arrival.  He coughed a few times to give him a moment.  Rylen waved for a water skin.  Ser Malcom handed him his own, throwing Evie a look of concern and bewilderment.  Since the Still Ruins, Malcom assisted Rylen with orders and soldier rotations so morale remained high after so much death.  Jim grasped the water skin from his commanding officer and guzzled the content quickly.  More coughs and spit flew before he stiffened into proper form.  “Commander Rutherford has an urgent correspondence for Seeker Pentaghast, Sir!”

Cassandra stepped forward.  Evie nearly raced her for the letter.  “For Cassandra!?  What is this about, Jim!?  Answer me!”

Jim shook violently.  “I-I don’t know!  It is for Seeker Pentaghast and she alone!”

“Give it to me!”  Evie hollered, thrusting her hand forward.  For the first time, Cassandra did not groan, but threw her a frustrated look.  She knew Evie loved the commander, but Evie was overstepping her bounds even as Inquisitor. 

No letters, both ravens present, and not allowed to see this letter!?

Cullen!

“I-I can’t!  He said if I gave it to anyone else but the seeker, it was considered treason and punishable by death!”

Evie was pretty sure the whole keep gasped at the same time.  “What?!”

“Inquisitor!”  Cassandra hollered, stepping in Evie’s way as she dove for the scout.  “Let me handle this!”  She shoved Evie away, almost toppling her, and turned to the scout.  “Give me it!”  Jim side stepped the seeker, reaching into his saddle bag.  The Herald’s eyes could see Cullen’s official red and gold wax seal on the envelope.  That sent her into a deep dread, almost hyperventilating.

Evie walked in circles, rubbing her temples with frosted fingers.  Scenario after situation twisted her insides to what this could be about.  “Answer me!  When did he give this order!?”

“I-“

Cassandra huffed, flicking her hand towards the messenger.  “Answer the question.”

“One week ago!”  Jim was almost in tears, while hopping between his feet.  “He told me to ride as fast as possible, use his official seal at supply stops for a new horse, sleep, and food.  I was to deliver it in great haste!”

“Nearly a thousand leagues in seven days?”  Varric proclaimed with a disbelieving lilt.  “That’s fast!”

“Good news for the army.”  Stroud replied, stepping forward.  His mind already analyzed everything for the upcoming battle next month.

“That depends if everything is alright.”  Iron Bull retorted, placing his hand on the shaking and pacing Inquisitor.  “Boss, breath!”

Evie stumbled as her world phased in and out of blackness.  Bull caught her before she fell over.  Dorian rushed forward and casted an ice spell to sooth her.  From his twitching eyes, he felt the magic bite back, responding to Evie’s tormented heart and soul.  She had lost control of her own magic in those few moments, her panic and worry governing her fade connection.  The interference caused the mark to spark and hiss.  Evie crashed back into Bull’s chest in agony.

The Chantry cave team raced down the stairs from the ramparts where they watched the scene closely.  Solas led the group down to the courtyard.  His grey eyes fell on Evie with bewilderment and intrigue.  “What happened!?  The mark should be stable!”

“One of Corypheus’ goons used a new trick on her.  Red magic of sorts.  Blood magic or something!  He ignited the Anchor, sending it into a frenzy!  It’s crawling up her bone!”  Dorian hollered as the apostate reached their sides.

“Evelyn, you must be calm!”  Solas cried, tossing his own healing spell over her seizing body as Bull’s huge hands held her upright.  “We cannot help you if you do not control your emotions!”

Cassandra grabbed Cullen’s letter and raced back to Evie.  “Solas, Dorian, move!  I’m going to have to-“

Dorian turned feral, shoving Cassandra away.  “Don’t you dare!  She cannot handle that now!”

“She’s safe here!”  Cassandra shouted, her espresso eyes daring the Tevinter mage to challenger her.  “Corypheus will not know.”

“Venhedis kaffas!  Fuck him!  You see what it does to her!  You’ll only make it worse!”

“It may not work.”  Solas warned, studying the flaring Anchor.  “It did nothing during the Breach.  Depending on the magic used before it might be a permanent condition until we understand the spell.”

Cassandra prepared her seeker skills, her fade disruption hoovering above her skin.  “I will not abandon her!  I will not let her suffer anymore!  I’ve failed her too many times already.  I will not let even you stop me from trying!”

“Please do it!”  Evie screamed as the next wave burned her hand internally.  “The pain!  I cannot control it!  My emotions!  CULLEN!”

The seeker waved both mages off her.  Solas and Dorian reluctantly agreed, grimacing and hissing with each step away.  “Bull catch her and take her to our room.  I’ll follow with the letter.”

“Right!”  Bull prepared himself to receive the dead, leap weight.  Evie shook and cried in Bull’s massive hands, her shoulders squeezed by his blue grey grip.  Her face kept morphing the longer her bright green eyes studied the letter in Cassandra’s hand.  “Ready!”

No Fade.

Relief!

Blackness.

 


 

Evie gasped and flew forward, coughing and hollering as the silence fully wore off and allowed her to wake.  Her body barely touched the bed before it occurred.  She nearly slapped Iron Bull across the face with her wild left arm, bolting forward in panic.  Bull’s hands had just left her frightened body as he slowly inched away.  He prepared to hold her again if the mark responded to the wild emotions again.  Luckily, the silence had helped for the time being.  Beneath her skin, Evie still felt its urge to protest and hiss as her emotions kept loosing grip on her control.

Cassandra flung herself into a wooden desk chair facing the window where Mees and Nair watched the scene.  Solas, Dorian, and Rylen waited by the door, searching Evie for any further disruptions and Cassandra for news from Skyhold.  She cracked the seal, then glanced at Bull.  “Leave us.  We’ll inform you once we understand what is happening.”  Solas and Dorian opened their mouths to protest, but Cassandra flicked the letter at them to silence them.  “Close the door and do not listen.  That includes you, Cole.”

Cole appeared on the desk, his hand hollered over the opening letter.  “Panic.  Fear.  My failures, my crimes haunt me even now…The commander’s hurting…Where is his letter?  What is happening?  Oh Cullen, what is wrong!?  Please let me stay by Candle.  She needs help.”

Cassandra’s espresso eyes softened.  “Okay.  Stay by the Herald.  Everyone else, out.”

The others complied grudgely, turning away from the Inquisitor and her second, closing the battered door behind them.  Cassandra waited for a few moments, listening to their feet walk away.  They were finally alone.  The seeker sighed and unfolded the letter.  From the envelope’s thinness it was short and to the point, very much Cullen.

Evie watched attentively as Cassandra’s eyes glossed over the written words.   She followed the seeker’s face for any hint to the message.  It shifted from seriousness, to confusion, and lastly anger.  The seeker flicked the letter in her hand in disgust, grunting and pacing.  “That idiot…!”

The Herald’s legs still were supported by the bed as her teary eyes followed the seeker’s walking in the small room.  “What is it?”

Cassandra flung the letter again in her hand, but kept her grip.  “Has Cullen told you about his lyrium withdrawal?”

“Yes, and I respect his decision.  He trusted your judgement on the matter.”  Evie replied, concern growing in her gut.

“As do I.  Not that he’s willing to listen.  Has he spoken about it in your letters?” 

The Herald blinked a few times, her mind filtering through all Cullen and she’s correspondence over the last three months.  “In the beginning…he followed my request to tell me when he was in pain.  I made him several tonics, salves, and teas to assist him based on the limited research on lyrium addiction.  He would report their effectiveness.  I worked closely with Skyhold’s apothecaries to adjust the potions as needed.  However, in the middle of our second month, he stopped reporting, focused on fun and lively things happening in Skyhold.  I even brought it up, but he dodged my questions and neglected using our safeguards to keep things about us quiet.  Why?  What does the letter say?”

“His giving up lyrium is not a decision made lightly.  But now…Cullen has asked that I find a replacement for him.  I’m of course refusing.  It’s not necessary.  Besides, it will crush him.  He’s come so far.  Yet…”  she sighed deeply, staring at the short correspondence.  “He states he is unfit to lead the Inquisition army in his ailing state.”  Cassandra reviewed the letter again.  “He declared he should atone for his crimes more directly, not through his command.”  She exhaled and threw her head back.  Bits of sand and blood puffed out of her pixie hair.  “And people say I’m  stubborn…”  [2]

“What do you mean ‘his crimes more directly?’”

“You know about Kirkwall…He feels guilty for all his inactions there.  His hatred of mages was fueled by Meredith, leading him to commit atrocious under her command.  Apparently, being commander has not fulfilled his desire to become anew and atone for his actions.”

Evie jumped to her feet, her mind no longer dizzy and confused.  Now, her observations and conclusions formulated needed actions.  “Something has clearly happened in Skyhold that we do not know about.  Mees and Nair are here, meaning Cullen has not written me, probably because of this correspondence.  What is going on?  Of course, he doesn’t know about the Grey Wardens, but the timing is peculiar.”

“I agree.”  Cassandra nodded, handing Evie the letter to review.  “Mages made their suffering known, but templars never have.  They are bound to the Order, mind and soul, with someone always holding their lyrium leash.  Cullen has a chance to break that leash, to prove to himself—and anyone who would follow suit—that it’s possible.  He can do this.  I knew that when we met in Kirkwall.  His actions now might convince the Inquisition’s templars to consider change.  Yet, if he does leave before the battle, we are at a great lost.  Rylen or I might command, but neither one of us has the experience and where with all to properly lead the army.  If anyone could change his mind, it’s you, Evelyn.  He needs you now more than ever.  He needs to know you—no, we—support him.”

“I have to go back to Skyhold now!”  Evie raced to her belongings and started packing.  “By the time I arrive, we will have little time to march and return before the next new moon.”

“I think it is best to not mention to Cullen what is happening.”  Cassandra advised, helping Evie gather essential goods needed for the trip.  “I will send messages to Leliana regarding the situation.  She might know about Cullen’s resignation, but I doubt it especially by his wording.  She can prepare the soldiers in a way of ‘gentle’ encouragements.  I will give the advisors the air that we will need a larger force here now, but not specifically why.”

“Send a coded message to Josephine too.  We will need the nobles’ assistance with siege weapons and resources.  Furthermore, she will need to petition the imperial court to allow us to pass safely through Orlairs.”

“Good thinking.  I will prepare everyone here in the meantime.  Who will be best to go with you?”

Evie glanced at Cole, who disappeared to follow her unspoken commands.  “Cole, Dorian, Solas, and Velanna.  Velanna can inform the council directly about the Grey Warden’s tactics in the battle.  Dorian is one of Cullen’s closest friends and can reach him as well as I.  Solas will be good for healing he may need.  I might ask him for his expertise on withdrawal to see if I missed something.  Cole can give us the emotions around Skyhold.  It isn’t just Cullen’s letter I am worried about.  Everyone there is acting strangely.  There is so much…”  Evie’s bright green eyes closed thinking about the curveball she never expected.  “Fear.  Fear has gripped the Inquisition.  Something has interfered just like with the wardens…!”

“We do not know that.  Focus on the battle and getting to Skyhold in haste.  Let me think about the consequences here.  We will get through this, Evelyn.  I swear it.”  Both women jumped into a tight embrace.  Their bruising grip despite their sweat and flith stated everything their hearts cried at the moment.  Well wishes in success and travel.  Being there without physically standing beside one another.  I will not fail you.

Evie studied her friend before hugging her tightly again.  The mage needed her friend's assurance and support.  A part of Evie feared she might not be successful.  Could she bring Cullen back from the brink?  Or will he leave and force the Inquisition to stand against the Grey Wardens without his intelligent military mind. 

“Maker, I hope you’re right!”

 

End of Part 1 of "Walking Among Demons," the third saga of "Fire In Your Eyes."

Chapter Text

The away team left at dusk, wishing to utilize the cooler nights to reduce heat stroke on both the riders and horses.  Evie only told the travelling group the whole story after leaving to avoid a panic within the Griffon Wing Keep.  Cassandra informed Rylen and Tamsen so they could act accordingly.  Rylen gave Evie a quick note for Cullen, words of encouragement to his friend and comrade.  He expressed he wished to quit lyrium after the war.  Cullen showed him that the battle will always be tough, but successful and freeing nonetheless.  Only vital Inner Circle members were notified, but removed enough details so not to leave doubt in everyone’s mind.

It was not difficult convincing the other mages to go.  Dorian heard it involved Cullen and had a pack and his imperial mare ready within a bell.  He was an accomplished rider so the long grind east will be easy for the Tevinter mage.  Solas’ hart would not handle the grueling ride, so the elf switched to a traditional Inquisition horse.  He too did not have a problem returning to Skyhold.  He exclaimed the wardens must be stopped, stupid enough to summon demons to seek out the old gods.  Cullen’s expertise will determine the battle, thus he will assist any way possible.  Velanna complained about travelling away from her fellow wardens and with Solas, but relented anyway.  Howe stated she will not cause problems despite her surly attitude.  She will be beneficial in planning the battle, especially as a warden mage who would have been practicing the ritual if she accepted Clarel’s command.  Lastly, Cole was forced to ride his own horse to reduce weight on Evie’s mare.  Cole explained Tequila will carry them farther than all the other horses combined.   The Antivan steed felt Evie’s concerns, wishing to be a quick as the wind to bring her home safely.

Iron Bull demanded to come as well since the party contained primarily mages.  Evie side kicked him in the kidney while Solas presented his staff blade at his exposed throat.  The Inquisitor explained he was too large to move as quickly as they needed.  Furthermore, he could not ride the horses because of his massive size.  Evie hoped her reasons did not wound Bull, but she was out of time and had to be harsh to get the point across. 

As the group departed, Evie swore she heard Cassandra singing the Chant to bless their way.  As proclaimed, the seeker notified Leliana of the warden situation and Cullen’s resignation.  As ordered, the spymaster will work on the sidelines to gather and prepare the troops for war.  Cullen will not be informed of the large battle until after Evie speaks to him.  They feared notifying he too soon will worsen his depression and shame.  Josephine was also alerted to garner permission to march a sizeable force across Orlais under the guise to aid finding the wardens.  The ambassador will be also kept in the dark mostly so not to frighten her further, her own personal issues governing her diplomacy right now, specifically in Orlais.   Cassandra also remarked she can contact Josephine’s western allies about the trebuchets, copying Josephine on the correspondence.

The away team rode during most nights until they were out of the desert.  By the third day, every rider suffered from sores and aching joints, yet no one complained.  They stopped at Inquisition checkpoints, who were informed from the last checkpoint of their movements.  This kept the group from being ambushed or captured during their rides, while keeping Skyhold in the dark about their fast return.  The checkpoint hopping occurred for four days where the team would sleep four hours, eat, and only take a short break during the ride to bodily relieve themselves. 

They reached the Emerald Graves by day five, filthy and tired, but still determined to reach Skyhold by the end of the week.  It was here that Tequila showed she could not continue, travelling nearly non-stop from the keep to the Imperial Highway only finally stop by the green lush wilderness.  On happenstance, Griffon was there.  Apparently, the Fereldan Forder had become restless at Skyhold and caused some problems in the stables.  So, some upper Inquisition officers rode the moody stallion on routine patrols to stretch his legs.  Truffles remained at Skyhold, but the two animals were rarely apart.  Once seeing his owner, the Forder neighed and kicked until Evie mounted him to ride onward.

The closer the group travelled towards Skyhold, the more they heard wild stories about what was happening at the Inquisiton’s center.  Evie knew some information based on war table reports, but how the men and women acted, the reports were subdued and bland.  People explained their fears haunted them in their sleep:  Were their sons okay?  Their soul mates murdered while they were away?  Fade rifts absorbing whole villages as demons slaughtered refugees?

Solas assured the Inquisitor that these worries probably had not happened, but placed in their minds to mature and fester like the Calling within the Grey Wardens.  What troubled the apostate was how this fear was implanted.  He assured everyone at the beginning the Veil was strongest around the fortress, an unlikely spot for a fade rift to open.  However, it was still the Fade.  People travelled there in their dreams, so the threat still transcended the mystical green barrier.  The closer they venture, the angrier Solas became, cussing in Elvhen about the corruption at such a sacred place.  Evie deduced that the fortress was likely Elvhen in origin, catching some of Solas’ words and previously studying in her secret library.  She will question the apostate about the castle later, curiosity and suspicion nagging her for information.

Evie, Dorian, Velanna, Solas, and Cole reached Skyhold by the early morning of day six, nearly a full day before Jim reached Griffon Wing Keep the week before.  Evie ordered the last checkpoint before Skyhold village in the valley not to announce their arrival.  She sent Mees ahead with a coded message to Leliana to meet them at the gates, but not to awaken the fortress.  The personal ravens sent correspondence between the seeker, spymaster, and Herald throughout the week to plan their next actions.  According to Leliana’s latest note, Cullen nor Josephine knew about their return, acting per usual.  Cullen questioned the gathering of troops for the Approach, but the ruse held until Evie drops the inevitable news.

Relying on the Nightingale tested Evie’s trust.  Cassandra trusted Leliana to do the right thing for the Inquisition, but Evie’s gut stated the spymaster was not completely truthful to her and her leadership.  It was true Leliana would do anything for the Inquisition, her mentor’s legacy following the Divine’s death, but that was what scared Evie.  Yes, this emergency was difficult and required a great deal of blood and sweat, but Leliana’s tactics weighed on Evie’s conscience.  Maker, she prayed the Nightingale did not resort to her secrets and blackmail to push action.

The portcullis was open when the team crossed the bridge to Skyhold, slowing their steeds to a trot for the first time in days.  Griffon neighed and coughed from the hard drive to make it during the night.  Evie kept patting his side, stating rest was waiting for him at home.  As they crossed under the gatehouse, they noticed Leliana waiting for them in the lower courtyard, hands behind her back and chin high.  A small smile graced her pale face.  The scene frightened Evie to no end.

“Inquisitor, welcome back.  I wish it was under better circumstances.”  Leliana cooed holding Evie’s horse’s reins as she dismounted her Forder.

“You and me both…”  Evie coughed and swayed.  Her legs were bowed and throbbing from the fast riding.  She might not sit down for an age now.

A shadowed object and squeal called as it raced down the Inquisitor stairs.  Evie barely had enough time to register when a chocolate nug lunged and jumped into her arms.  She pursed her lips, holding the nug as Griffon nipped at the bunny mole’s ear.  “Hi, Truffles…”  Evie muttered.

Once relenting to the happy nug rubbing against her face, Evie’s critical eyes fell on the fifteen-foot half-sculpted piece of marble sitting in the middle of the lower courtyard.  From the rough form, she knew it was supposed to be her holding a flaming sword.  “Um…what’s that?”

Leliana giggled a little.  “Gatsi has been busy.  The whole garden is filled with statues.  Mother Giselle told him thirty was enough, but he remained antsy.  He ordered the rock from Orzammar and has been working on it ever since.  It will be the talk of every Skyhold visitor.”

Evie bit the inside of her cheek.  “Why does it have to be me?”

The spymaster tiled her head, her voice like an Orlesian songbird, “Who else should it be, Inquisitor?”

Before Evie could give a snide remark, Solas dismounted his horse and kneeled.  His hand flew to the ground as he chanted in Elvhen.  After a few moments, he opened; his grey eyes wincing.  “The Veil here is assaulted by many demons on the other side.  A great force is making them act to weaken it here.  How?!  Why?!”

“Didn’t you all have a possession a few months ago?”  Dorian asked, throwing his leg over his saddle to slide off.

“Three total with some scares.  All were harrowed mages.  We moved the children and apprentices to Caer Bronach because of the increased worries.  If what you say is true, then the Inquisition has been targeted by a foe.”  The Nightingale concluded, sighing heavily.

“You don’t seem surprised.”  Evie stated warily.  Her magic felt the demons pressing on her control to let them possess her.  They will surely fail.

“Over a month ago, I concluded something strange was happening.  However, I could not tell the other advisors for they were more attacked than I.  I sent Charter and some other special agents to discover the cause.  Is it possible Corphyeus is controlling demons to attack us?”

“Unlikely.”  Solas explained, sensing the courtyard.  “He is a magister, but he can only access the Fade like the rest of us or he would not need the Anchor.  It seems though he’s contacted a strong demon who is following his orders.  Possibly like the demons the warden summons?”

“The ritual…” Velanna called, tapping her finger on her elbow.  “Maybe that’s why it is at a specific time.  It requires complete access to the specific demon’s Fade domain.  Whatever it is, it must be stopped.”

“And we will…”  Evie smiled, wiping her face of grime from the road with her shemagh. 

“Is this so surprising though?”  Dorian mentioned, crossing his arms over his chest.  “He had an envy demon serving him as Evie’s cousin and tried to take her form.  Envy is a rare, unique demon.  Maybe something similar is attacking the Inquisition and the Grey Wardens.”

Evie rubbed her chin as she thought through everything that was said.  “Solas, keep testing the Veil here.  If so many demons are pressing here, are we at risk now of a fade rift forming?  Dorian, study what demon could have such an influence and what it could gain working with Corypheus.  I assume it is a fear demon, but who knows what type.  I hate to think Corypheus has found a Forbidden One and made a deal with it since they predate even the Imperium and the darkspawn.  Velanna, start working with Leliana on disrupting the ritual.  Share whatever known magical abilities warden mages have so we can prepare fighting those under Corypheus’ control.  I know you wardens are protective of order secrets, but there too much at risk to keep to tradition.  Leliana, muster the alliance templars and trained mage spell negators Fiona and I have been experimenting with as an alternate templar policing force.  They will be vital in the battle to negate the wardens’ magic and kill the summoned demons.  Work with Knight-Lieutenant Hugh and Knight-Captain Barris.  Hopefully, Cullen will join you once I inform him.”

Leliana smiled as Evie handed the nug to the spymaster.  Truffle squealed and clawed to return to the Inquisitor, who marched away towards Cullen’s tower.  Cole followed, flicking his fingers together with each step.  Leliana continued her report.  “Cassandra has Stroud and Hawke’s confirmation that the wardens are held up in Adamant.  Rhys will be here within the day from Ferelden to assist.”

Cole froze, his icy blue eyes focused on Evie.  “He cannot see me…”

Evie stopped walking and patted Cole’s hat upon his head.  “Stay with me.  They do not need to know you are with us.  It will be okay, Cole.”

“You promised you wouldn’t contact them.”

Evie exhaled, stretching her neck.  She really did not want this discussion now.  Her mind was already swimming about Cullen and preparing for the worst.  “They can help us, Cole.  They know what we are walking into and will act against the darkness.  If you sense either person, go hide and wait for me to call you back.  I won’t let them see you.”

“Help Candle…Yes, they can help.  Okay…”  Cole’s tenor voice cooed, still showing his worry with his shaky thin arms.  He disappeared, mumbling to himself.  Knowing the spirit, he sensed many people he wished to aid from their horrible dreams.

“Now, to knock some sense into my commander…”  Evie called, marching passed Leliana towards the central tower.

Evie felt like she was walking in the Fade around Skyhold.  Barely anyone was awake and moving around.  She knew the castle was under curfew, but it looked dead and haunted as she climbed the stairs by the tavern.  She expected to hear laughter and music from the pub, but not even candles burned inside.  The ramparts had skeletons as patrollers, not strong eager guards she remembered who proudly represented the Inquisition. 

The only happy feature gracing the open area was the circular dwavern clock that replaced the envy demon hole in Cullen’s tower.  Evie got the idea a few weeks before discovering Hawke and Cullen slept together.  She spent the whole trip to the Western Approach thinking about what do with Cullen’s crumbing tower.  Once concluding he hated tight spaces, the open clock face and tiffany glass mural ceiling were the best idea.  She used her Trevelyan funds, planning on petitioning her father to give up all the profits made by her hair tonic recipe to reimburse her.  From its completion, Evie knew Cullen relented and allowed the glassworkers to fix his tower.  The clock clicking was lulling and relaxing to her troubled soul, just as she hoped it would be for Cullen.  Evidently, she was wrong.

Evie did not have a plan on how to approach the commander.  She could tell through the glass windows he was still awake, finishing his duties before he retired from his position permanently.  He was never one to have someone else clean up his messes.  That was a good sign that he might be still reachable and decide to stay after all.  Learning that demons poked his troubled soul will make him see reason as well. 

The Inquisitor had been angry with her Lion for not informing her directly—him going as far as threatening treason and death—and keeping his lyrium troubles to himself.  She told him to always tell her.  Evidently, he must have felt he could not share his burdens with her still despite their budding relationship.  Did he not trust her?  Did he feel she would not understand?  It stung like a cave spider bite.  It fueled the nagging instincts inside her soul, but she ignored it as best as possible.  Cullen does everything with purpose and reason.

However, the ride back to Skyhold made the mage notice that Cullen was walking among his own demons throughout the last three months.  She just learned why she hated Hawke.  Evie was as much to blame, not just Anders, for her family’s deaths.  The blond Fereldan too probably faced his own roles in Kirkwall and possibly Kinloch, if Hawke’s warning gave her any clue.  There was certainly enough material there for the Fade-lingering demons to bug him while alone for months.

However, Evie did not know what he had done.  Cullen never shared his actions with her, always keeping the pain and guilt inside his heart and soul until it ate him alive.  The Herald knew from the Tale of the Champion Cullen allowed many mage abuses under his watch, but Varric himself rarely described cases, only what the outcome was once Hawke talked the knight-captain out of a specific reaction.  Evie herself hated him for a time while reading the book, but she vowed to let him to explain himself.  That is all she can do now.  Allow Cullen to explain himself and move forward.  Maker, Evie prayed it will be an easy fight.

The Inquisitor reached the side door to the central tower, pushing it just a little to make sure it was unlocked.  It was, causing Evie to both clench her jaw and relax her heart.  She really did not want to barge in, but she also did not want to surprise him by being sneaky.  She decided she would let go of her fire aura so he will recognize it is her that was entering, if his low lyrium allowed his senses to recognize the shifting magic.  With one last breath, Evie pushed the door open and kept her head straight.

Maker, bless this meeting-

-Evie barely got a barrier up as a glowing blue wooden box flew her direction like someone tossed a saucer at the wall.  Evie deflected the box, allowing it to smash against a bookshelf and the door frame.  Her bright green eyes flashed to the debris left on the floor, hearing the strong song pulsing from the blue liquid spilled across the floor. 

Blue lyrium.

“Maker’s breath!  I didn’t see you enter!”  Cullen cried at the shadow, standing by the door frame.  Suddenly, his face shifted from surprise to anger.  “Demon!  You will not trick me with her shape again.  Leave me!  You will not break me!”

Again?!  Demons haunted this man with her image.  No wonder he never shared his worries.  It was probably too painful to relive.  Now, Evie was pissed!

Evie inhaled the surprise, noticing how her form lurked in long shadows.  The single candle on his desk barely illuminated her full form, only an outline.  On instinct, she waved her hand to light the wall scones around them.  The office brightened, nearly blinding Cullen.  It was trashed with parchment, spilled ink, and broken debris everywhere.  The curtains barely hung on the cast iron rods.  The furniture she gifted the leader of her armies looked beaten and abused from the chaos.  Cullen shielded his eyes, slowly walking away from her.  He was singing?  No, chanting, still trying to dispel the demon.

The Inquisitor feared her Lion would silence her at this rate, so she had to show him the truth.  She rushed to his side and pressed herself against him.  Instantly, elderflowers and oakmoss encompassed her nasal cavity.  These were not smells she would equate to her Lion before.  Her brain quickly caught up.  Of course.  She made elderflower balms and oakmoss salves for him to assist against his lyrium withdrawal.  At least he was utilizing them.  Strange that her Lion was still assaulted by demons when both herbs have magic properties to ward off evil.

Still, Cullen attempted to push Evie away or defend himself, but he was so weak with fever.  “Cullen, breathe in deeply.  Look into my eyes.  Who do you see?  What do you smell?!”

Cullen barely opened his sunken black eyes.  He took two deep breaths.  His amber red eyes rolled into the back of his head.  “Cloves…citrus…dirt?  Sweat?”

“Focus on the clove and citrus.  You have to forgive the rancid stench though.  I did just ride all week across Orlais to get back to you.”

“Y-you…Eve?  You cannot be here.  There is no way-”  He groaned and gripped the desk as a new wave of withdrawal aches hammered against his whole body.  Cullen whined in pain as he grasped his forehead, chanting again for the migraine to leave him be.

Evie’s heart ached and mourned the more her Lion backed away.  She grasped his hands, forcing him to touch her face and shoulder.  “It’s really me, Cullen.  I’ve come back.  For you!  I came back to kick your ass for doubting yourself.  For doubting us!”

“I never w-would…No, this cannot be happening…”

His Lady grabbed his cheeks and made him stare at her.  “Are these eyes of a demon?”

That got through to him.  Barely shaking his head, “No…those…beautiful rifts…I must be asleep.”

The Inquisitor smacked his cheek with half force, enough to make a pink welt.  Then, she poked him in the nose with her index finger like an adult scolding a child.  “Don’t make me kick your ass, Rutherford.”

Cullen smirked barely, winching in pain.  “No, not asleep…Only Eve…would cuss and sass me…but how…?”

“That doesn’t matter now…”  Evie’s bright green eyes flickered back to the broken box by the door.  “I’m pretty sure the box has had it coming for months now.  You know, if you wanted to smash it, we could have gone to our rock and beaten it senseless with your templar shield or something.”

“F-forgive me…I never meant for this to interfere.”  He pleaded, pushing Evie away.

Evie half smiled, analyzing the broken man before her.  His eyes were dark blood-slot abysses.  He looked thin, barely holding himself up under his armor’s weight.  His hair was disheveled along with his mantle.  Maker, this man was truly broken.

“I believe you.”

Cullen tossed up his hands.  “For whatever good it does…”

“What’s happening, Cullen?”  Evie asked warily.  “You’re scaring me.  Please talk to me.  Why resign?  Why give up when you have come so far!?”

“Promises mean nothing if I cannot keep them, Eve.”  Cullen shouted, tossing a book off his desk.  From his tone, Evie concluded he was just talking out loud, whatever his mind thought right then.  A part of him probably still thought he was asleep and dreaming of her.  “I never meant for this to interfere.  You should be questioning what I’ve done!  I thought this would be better—that I would regain some control over my life.”  His baritone voice turned raspy and stern.  Her Lion gripped the sides of his head, nearly ripping his blond curls out.  “But these thoughts won’t leave me…how many lives depend on our success?  I swore myself to this cause…I will not give less to the Inquisition than I did the Chantry!  The Inquisition is so much more than the Chantry can ever be!  Yet, I give it so little?!”

Evie followed him around the office as he paced.  “No, you give this organization everything in your heart and soul, Cullen.  You’re an excellent commander.  Not only are you leading the largest army Thedas has seen in ages, you are showing everyone that lyrium will not dictate your life.  Look here!”  Evie pulled out Rylen’s note, waving it in his blanched face.  She shoved it into his chest for him to read.  “Rylen will follow you until you both put down your swords and shields as old grizzly men.  Once the war is over, many templars will give up that foul blue Void and begin again.  You give more to this cause than anyone else, more than me!  You are putting your life on the line to demonstrate that you will not be leashed by that drug!  Your defiance will shape the world, my Lion.  Your protests and achievements will even pull down the Trevelyans and bankrupt them!  And I’ll be cheering you on the whole time!”

“You should be questioning me!  You should be scrutinizing my choices, Eve!”  Cullen hollered back, thrusted his broken gauntlets down on his messy desk.  “You should join the alliance mages in questioning me for what I allowed to happen!”

That caused Evie to step back.  “Wait.  The alliance mages are investigating you?”

“Why wouldn’t they?  Just because I am the commander?!”  Cullen retorted, pacing back and forth behind his desk.  “I served the Templar Order, carried out their edicts without question.  So many mages suffered because I was compliant or supported their punishments.  However, they don’t know why I acted as I did.  You don’t either!”

“Then tell me!”

Cullen sighed, leaned back, and turned towards one of castle windows.  The glass quickly fogged with his hot deep breaths.  “You asked what happened to Ferelden’s Circle a few months ago?”  Evie froze, preparing for the worst.  That Circle haunted her the more she heard throughout the last two weeks.  Now, she will know the truth.  “It was taken over by abominations, blood magic everywhere.  The templars—my friends—were slaughtered like cattle.  I watched as each was led to the Harrowing chamber and sacrificed to fuel Senior Enchanter Uldred’s chaos.  Some were simple play things…demons shoved into knights’ bodies so they became thralls to those bastards.  I was tortured in ways unimaginable, methods I cannot repeat because I didn’t know they were even possible.  Every time I close my eyes, I’m back there, waiting for the time where it will be me bleeding all over the stone floor and a demon rising from my life force.  They wished to shove a desire demon into my body, to swallow my soul until I was one of their monsters!  I resisted repeatedly.  Barely nineteen and resisted what senior templar officers could not.  They tried to break my mind, and I—how can you be the same person after that?” 

The former templar started to pace again.  “Knight-Commander Greagoir sent me to Greenfell to educate me on my duties so I didn’t go insane.  They pumped me with so much lyrium so I would forget what happened.  It might as well been red lyrium because it’s all the same.  Mind decaying and eating people’s souls.  Still.  I wanted to serve.  They sent me to Kirkwall, hand-picked by Meredith out of Greenfell.  I trusted my knight-commander, and for what?  Her fear of mages ended in madness.  She encouraged my hatred, that same loathing you read about; my ramblings that mages were not people, weapons to be used and thrown away.  Even after leaving the Order, I still treated you harshly because of what you are, thinking I had to protect Haven from the weapon.  Meredith kept throwing wood on the flames so her actions were never questioned.  I allowed it.  Blood magic ran like rivers through the city-state, so it just confirmed my misguided beliefs.  Even the seekers saw her punishments as reasonable because of all the maleficium.  As the years continued, I slowly looked around and observed the looming shadow of the Order that I once believed in.  It no longer existed.  Did it even exist to begin with?  Was it always a young boy’s imagined make believe?  An illusion of honor that actually masked tyranny?  I contributed to the Order’s fall.  I disguised that militaristic dictatorship based on suppressive religious beliefs!  I tried to keep Esme away from that poison in the end, seeing how that hatred and fear passed down to the younger templars.  He still died because I believed in that bullshit!  Finally, I woke up.  I saw the blood on my hands.  Everything I had done by doing nothing!  Kirkwall’s Circle fell.  Innocent people died in the streets.  Kinloch occurred on a city-state scale, and I participated in creating the rivers of blood!  Can’t you see why I want nothing to do with that life?!”

Evie stood quiet, filtering through what he exclaimed.  Dagna stated the Circle was filled with blood magic, but Cullen lived through that chaos.  No matter what happened, anyone would come out hating mages.  It could have been weeks before the wardens arrived and saved him.  Cullen’s shaking body and stuttering demonstrated that the torture marked him for life, scarring his body, heart, and soul.  She had seen the physical scars all over his upper body and torso, but never understood the significance.  Even Evie’s abuse could not match that she knew what caused it—well besides her burns and her Circle file.  It cannot be as bad as blood magic torture, right?

It also explained Hawke’s warning.  It would make sense that all the mages present would be made tranquil.  Did the Champion know what Cullen suffered through and why Maya Amell was branded?  It was not Cullen’s fault for her condition.  It was Chantry’s response to blood magic.  It was a surprise that none of the mages were just killed like in an annulment, specifically Archmage Wynne who had a spirit keeping her alive.[1]

“I understand why you wish to change your outcome…”  Evie began with a whisper.  “It also shows how resilient you are, Cullen.” 

“Don’t!”  Cullen huffed, marching over to his bookshelves.  “Don’t give me your pity.  I should have known it all and stopped it.  I will not let my failures harm the Inquisition.  I will give the same as the Chantry, even more here.  I should be taking it!”  He punched the bookshelves with his good gauntlet, breaking the metal on impact.  The impact left a dent in the varnished wood and toppled a few books to the cluttered floor.  His anger subsided, his eyes downcast.  With defeat, her Lion whimpered, “I should be taking it…”

 “Think about yourself for once.”  Evie’s voice was stern and angry.  She could let this man submit to this madness now or ever.  “Fuck the Inquisition for a moment.  Fuck Corypheus.  Fuck the Chantry.  Fuck the world!  It can all just go hide and fuck itself right now!  What do you want, Cullen?!”  She poked him hard in the chest and nose, his fever sweat immediately wetting her fingertip.  “Do you want to be addicted to the horrible stuff the rest of your life or will you give it up, face your fears, and live your own Maker-damn life!?

Cullen exhaled deeply.  Moments passed with no answer, but Evie watched his amber eyes closely.  He was thinking her words through.  That was a good sign right?  However, it was taking too long.  Did she fail?  Will he relent and begin taking lyrium again?!  No, that cannot happen.  Then, that sweet baritone voice echoed throughout the room.  “No…I want to give it up.  But…these memories have always haunted me—they’ve become worse…if I cannot endure this…”

“That’s where I help you, Cullen.”  Evie smiled, resting her hand on his sweaty cheek.  Her thumb brushed his upper lip scar.  She thought she would not be able look at him knowing its origin.  However, all she had done in his presence is drink him up like she never drank water in her life.  His amber eyes gleamed down at her with new warmth and happiness.   His face was handsome and wonderful despite his troubled state.  His piano slowly calmed and settled with each moment in her presence.  He was still her Cullen, not the man who acted with little regard in Kirkwall.  She still loved his scar, everything about him no matter what happened.  Who he was now was all that mattered.  “I’m never leaving your side again, my Lion.  I will be here to hold you and kiss you when you are weak and lost.  Nothing you have done can chase me away.  Now that I know roughly what happened, maybe you can share more to release this burden off your shoulders.  I won’t rush you though.   All in your own time…”

Cullen slumped over and exhaleded.  He rested his forehead on Evie’s shoulder.  “Maker’s breath.   It’s truly you, Eve.  My Lady has returned…”  He allowed his ailing weight to fall on Evie.

“Let’s get you to bed.”  Evie called, throwing one of his arms over her shoulder to escort him towards his loft.  “You and I both need our rest.  Come, let’s go to your room, okay?”

“I never wanted you to see me like this.”  Cullen mumbled, the stress of his personal burdens slowly nudging him asleep. 

Evie hurried him to the ladder and guided him up with her hand.  She waved her hand to extinguish the wall torches and candle, basking both people in darkness.  “Well, how many times have you seen me sick and crying, Rutherford?  It will take some time to break even …”

“The lyrium box…?”  Cullen voiced towards the mess, already half way up the ladder.  His nose wrinkled as he swayed. 

Evie waved her hand again, setting the box and blue liquid aflame.  It quickly consumed the contents, ridding the tower of its sickening song.  “Better?”

“I wanted to smash it more…”

The herald giggled.  “There is probably another one around here somewhere.  I’ll get a whole stack so you can beat the shit out of them.  No more leash, right?  Freedom?”

Cullen reached the loft and barely smiled down at his Lady.  “Aye…”  The action wore him out more than it should.

His Lady rushed to his side, edging him towards the bed.  Her hands quickly worked at the buckles and clasps holding his armor to his body.  His pauldrons, chest plate, greaves, and broken gauntlets slowly fell to the floor.  From the swelling and redness, his hand looked like Cullen probably broke a few finger and hand bones.  Solas can heal him in the morning.  The commander’s leather under armor stuck to his sweaty frame.  Evie had to peel it off like her own coat and boots.  She stopped when both people reached their under shirts and pants.  Her amber focus stone swung between her breasts, a constant remind of how much Cullen meant to her. 

Evie laid down first, resting Cullen’s aching head on her chest above her right breast.  She frosted her hands and slowly massaged his shoulders, arms, and scalp.  His breath quickly even out and within seconds, he was sound asleep.  The weight and burdens from the months alone finally consumed him.

Evie studied him closely, beaming to see him so close again.  She wished it was under better circumstances, but he needed her in this moment of weakness.  This was not the end either.  It will be a long road to recovery, especially informing him about the Grey Wardens tomorrow.  She shook her thoughts away, her bright green eyes focused on the glass mosaic above her head.  The rolling hills, colorful autumn trees, and farm grasslands shined through the glass.  She thought the scene would remind Cullen of Honnleath and his youth, before becoming a templar, the person he wanted to be now.  The stars twinkled above in the summer night sky.  Dawn will break in a bell or so. 

“You can do it, my Lion…I believe in you…”  Evie whispered and kissed his forehead.  The next words fell out of her mouth before she realized it.  He was asleep and would not hear them, but she could not hold them in any longer.  “I love you…”

Chapter Text

Cullen slowly opened his amber eyes, expecting to see his unkempt desk littered with letters, books, and notes.  Instead, his eyes glanced upon a pair of majestic breasts only covered with a sheer breast band one of his stolen embroidered tunics.  Grime and mud stained the cream color to dark brown and orange.  He quickly lifted his head, immediately regretting the quick action while reaching for his thumping temple.  His stare shifted back to the pair of breasts attached to the being lying beside him.  The commander nearly rolled out of bed in blissful surprise.

Her hair was almost rich red from sun bleaching.  Very little brown remained, only around the tips and roots.  Sand and leaves stuck out of the half done braids and chin-long bangs.  Her skin was dark, olive in tone from the months in the desert sun, while burnt red freckles covered her forehead, nose, and cheekbones.  She looked like her skin peeled a few times during the months out there.  Esme and she could be twins right now.  Her younger brother looked similar after transferring to Kirkwall.

The commander barely recognized the armor he gifted her.  The dragon skin was brown and torn at the seams from constant use.  The dragon silk faded greatly, showing how it laid around her neck, pants, and arms throughout the blanching process.

Yet unlike the last time she laid beside him in bed, Cullen was not surprised to wake up beside Evie nor thought it was a desire demon.  He barely remembered the night before and what he said, but he knew her scent despite the leagues of travel covering her filthy body.  He smelled it throughout his sleep, providing him with safe happy dreams for the first time since she left.  Eve was back.  She came back to him.

The realization almost sent Cullen into a panic.  She left her important duty because he lost his sense of self.  Somehow within seconds of arriving, she brought him back from the brink with her presence and the carefully chosen words.  Months of troubling thoughts and pains washed away following a few moments in her pleasant company.  Evie was truly his medicine, his better half.  Cassandra must have shown her his resignation letter and appealed to get him to reconsider.  He still did not feel he should be commander, but Evie was not letting him give up so easily it seemed.  She now knew about Kinloch Hold, the torture, and his anger that led him to act so horribly in Kirkwall. 

Shame and guilt wield up inside Cullen while reflecting Evie saw him at his worst and knew its causes.  He should not lead her armies or hold her affections, but there she laid beside him as a safe haven, an anchor to keep moving forward and fight for a free future.  She did not reject him, only showed him he can move past those experiences and succeed in breaking his lyrium leash.  She vowed to stay by his side through it all.

Maker, he did not deserve this woman.

Maker, Cullen loved her with all his being.

Could he tell her that though?

The commander shook that thought away.  His Lady just returned from an expedition that separated them for months and nearly a thousand leagues.  If he said something now, she might not believe him, mistake it for being separated for so long and that he might change his mind.  Evie mistrusted people’s words.  She will always second guessed their intentions.  He needed to show her just as she demonstrated that she cares for him with the tiffany glass ceiling and dwarven central tower clock.  Thank the Maker his gift arrived a few days before his breakdown.  It laid in her rooms waiting patiently on her Free Marcher bed.  What was once his reply to her thoughtful gestures was to become his goodbye and apology gift for leaving her Inquisition.  By her lack of response, it seemed like she came right to him last night.  She probably did not know the present even existed yet.  It could be once again a token love and happiness than abandonment and despair.

The exhausted man’s head still ached from the withdrawal episode like a hangover without the ale.  He would be bed ridden today, finally allowing himself to stop and rest versus pushing himself while His Lady was gone.  He missed her.  Cullen knew that before, but now having Evie beside him, he realized he overworked himself to ignore the pain in his heart.

Another realization occurred to Cullen.  What about the mage council?  They will still want to hold him accountable for his actions, especially what happened to Maya Amell.  A sudden warmth overcame him like the Maker told him it will be okay.  Think about the present and get better.  It will take the council significant time to gather evidence against him, if any even existed.  Cullen will act accordingly when it is time.  He will not deny his involvement now, but he prayed that his reasoning will be enough to defend and save himself.  Yet, why did he no longer fear retribution?  Why was it he can think so clear-minded now?  For now, he must survive his withdrawal and enjoy having Evie beside him again.

The commander feared his past actions will impact the Inquisition.  His involvement in mage abuse will tarnish Evie’s alliance with the mages, sowing distrust between the allies.  They needed their loyalty, and Evie will surely defend him to the Council of Magi.  Still will risk anything and everything to protect Her Lion.  He will convince her to not guard him, to consider the Inquisition and its future above even him.  Their war with Corypheus was more important than his life.  Hopefully, the alliance mages will know that too and wait to prosecute him until after the ancient magister was dead.

Cullen laid back down, resting his head on the pillows and not Evie’s breast.  A part of him wanted to reveal the whole truth now.  He already unloaded some secrets on her.  Might as well continue until all his sins laid in her lap, such as his once involvement with Hawke and how the woman rubs that one night of drunken lust in his nose like the scar she placed on his upper lip.  Cullen shook the memory away.  Evie stated his crimes would not chase her away, but hearing everything now so soon will burden her more than ever.  She had her own problems.  Her mother was dying.  The wardens still lingered somewhere in the desert practicing blood magic.  No, Evie cannot handle such secrets right now. 

Just a little longer.

With that, the commander left his disheveled bed.  His lethargic body urged him to seek fresh air despite barely able to stand and walk.  He needed the stone walls and nearby furniture to keep himself upright.  The longer he lingered around Evie, the more her grime bothered his sensitive nose.  He wished that was not the case, but the desert and long ride definitely made her smell rather pungent.  Maker, he was ashamed that drove him away, but he did not want to vomit.  Once again, the withdrawal robbed him time with his Lady.

Cullen decided to forgo his armor since he will be in resting the whole day.  He barely buckled his boots before descending the ladder.  His joints ached and muscles spasmed with each rung down the vertical stairs.  The longer he listened to his body, the more he realized how much he pushed himself the last few months.  The old Fereldan realized did the same in templar training, nearly getting himself killed practicing with oversize halberds.  He made a sparring mistake and almost had his head caved in by his opponent.  Thinking about that moment, the lingering dent in his skull throbbed with his headache.  Maker, he was such a stubbornly selfish fool.

Cullen’s left hand landed on his desk as his knee gave out while stumbling towards the side rampart door.  He felt a folded piece of parchment lying on the desk corner, his blood-shot amber eyes staring at it like it would come to life.  Evie shoved that into his chest.  It was from Rylen.  Slowly unfolding the filthy note, bits of Western Approach poured out and fell to the cluttered wood floor.  The Starkhaven’s horrid script jumped out and blasted the ailing man.  His friend’s hard accent screamed the written words throughout the commander’s thumping skull.  It stated the same cursing Cullen hollered at himself right now.  Don’t give up.  Break the leash or I’ll break you, you daft idiot.

The commander’s eyes lingered to the burnt spot on his floor from where his lyrium box had been set aflame.  He wondered why he kept it for so long.  Maybe it was because it was one of his last possessions that journeyed with him as a templar.  Just as his lucky coin connected him with his estranged family and the broken amber focus stone linked Evie and him, his lyrium box was his first true possession once taking his values.  He mentally argued he needed to keep it near as a reminder of his vows to protect innocent people from the world’s dangers, particularly malificium.

However, Cullen was no longer a templar.  Anything else can represent his oaths, not demonstrate those he broke because he woke from the deep fantasy the Chantry told its knights.  The box tempted Cullen constantly and should have been destroyed along with Evie’s phylactery all those months ago.  He liked the idea of finding another one to smash and beat until it was dust.  His body used the opening tower door as a brace as he wandered out of his office.  The commander could release years of anger and hate so he could truly move on.  Yes, the idea sounded pleasing the more he wandered out onto the ramparts.

The crisp mountain air flowed over the former knight as he exited his tower.  Summer was in full swing throughout the Frostbacks.  Only glacial white snowcaps remained on the mountain tops.  The river by the main village—almost now a guarded and gated city—at the base of the mountain flowed easily, no longer frozen over like when they first arrived.  He could see the hawks and falcons hunting that early morning.  Elk, rams, and other woodland creatures wandered the cliffs across the valley for their morning meadow meals. 

Cullen realized then he never stopped to truly look at Skyhold and the surrounding area.  He was always hip-deep in work and never stopped to enjoy his environment.  He was married to his duty, caged by it still despite leaving the Order.  He used his work as a crutch to avoid his haunted past and lyrium addiction, a major indication of a soldier stuck in a traumatizing event.  He only buried himself more under the filth instead of getting better. 

Maybe that is why writing his family was so difficult.  The ex-templar never told them what happened, believing ignoring them and they forgetting he existed was the better idea.  Maker, Cullen had not been living at all.  He was not free of the Order because his past still trapped him like a tightening noose.  The more the former knight believed he walked away, the tighter his past strangled him and pulled him back into the darkness tinted by lyrium’s blue light and sweet song.

Saying those cursed words and experiences to Evie opened Pandora’s Box though.  It made it all real; the abuse and hate really occurred over a decade ago.  To Cullen, it felt like those weeks alone happened yesterday and constantly recurred every night he closed his eyes.  Sitting there naked while the desire demon attempted to seduce him to the point he hated his own body, those who loved and cared about, and blamed himself for all the terror.  Blood mages and demons tainted every happiness he ever knew with wicked words and crushing guilt.  Cullen survived that, but he was the only one who did.  By not speaking about it before made it a disattached fantasy, hopefully figments of his imagination or possible whispered spider threads induced by the Fade.  The man watched and visualized the trauma like reading a fictional book.  Even Varric’s horrid novels could not match the descriptions his mind reminded Cullen all the fucking time.

Now, someone knew not because they found the broken knight in that purple magical prison.  Leliana always knew about the torture, but they never spoke about it.  She was Cullen’s silent friend who just nodded her head when he suffered a flashback.  She worked from the shadows to alleviate the stress, but did that truly help him?  No.  Stating the truth to Evie broke the noose around his neck.  Speaking more about it will free the beaten Fereldan maybe, but it will be very painful like a filthy bandage being ripped from a gang-green amputated stump.  Evie will not judge Cullen for she was a fellow survivor who endured torture and hate. 

Maker, he loved her.  His heart and soul ached loving her like a stabbing pain of mirth and passion.  Cullen never loved and cared so much as he did for that woman asleep in his bed exhausted after a speedy return to his pathetic side.

Maker’s breath, Cullen loved Eve completely:  mind, body, and soul.

The place that could have changed Cullen was Greenfell.  He hated that monastery where templars went to die after their addictions ate their minds and soul.  He remembered the stench of lyrium, ammonia, and feces everywhere.  The drug flowed like blue rivers through the stone halls, always promoted as the solution to all knights’ problems.  It poured through the hall culverts opposite the drains that barely removed the filth, urine, and vomit from each templar’s secluded room.  Instead of treating templars with conversations and nurturing like a physical ailment, they fed the addiction to block out the abuse, so they never felt anything again and never questioned the Order.  The templar was to never question the Chantry.  A knight was to never question.  Greenfell turned broken templars into automated monsters who acted without a mind or soul. 

The monastery’s methods reminded the commander of the re-educators Iron Bull told him about under the Qun.  If broken, they “fixed” you, molded you into their pons so you never had your own mind.  Maybe when the Iron Bull returned, the two veterans could have a long, hard discussion about being “leveled out,” as Knight-Commander Greagoir proclaimed what Cullen needed when he sent the damaged knight to that Void.  Still, every templar there in Greenfell deserved a better ending than being fed the poison that led them there in the first place.  Surely there was something better to help them.  Maybe through the Inquisition’s influence, that Void’s methods of treatment could change.  Maybe it will take a whole new place to rehabilitate all broken templars—and abused mages—everywhere.  It was a thought to ponder over and process in the near future.

The future.

Cullen never thought about the future before that very moment.  It was always the past or present.  The past haunted him while asleep, while the present demanded his constant attention while awake.  What did he want from his future?  Evie argued before to forget everything else and asked him what he truly wanted.  It made him really consider.  Nothing came to mind that moment.  The future scared him.  The idea alone nearly caused the commander to purge over the battlements.  He could fail cutting his lyrium leash, become another Samson begging on the streets with no sense of who he once was and succumbing to death alone like forgotten garbage.  However with Evie’s assistance, he felt that was unlikely.  That stubborn sassy woman will not allow him to fall so far alone.  If it did occur, she too would probably be in that Val Royeaux alley lost and broken by the world, especially with how this bloody war was treating her.  Suddenly, Cullen could visualize Harding walking by and peacefully putting both lost people out of their miseries.

Cullen could never let that happen to His Lady, so that meant he will not end up giving in to his lyrium addiction.

So what did Cullen want?  He wanted to see his growing family, reconnect with his siblings who surely hated him for ignoring them for so many years.  The blond Fereldan had several nieces and nephews he never met.  Just that winter, Branson’s wife gave birth to a little boy.  Alas, the young woman died of post-partum infections just a few weeks later.  Oh, how his brother must be suffering right now.  Cullen would be suicidal if that happened to Evie.

The commander wondered how his home kingdom changed over the last decade.  How did joking and silly Alistair rule Cullen’s homeland?  What ever happened to his friends and neighbors he knew while a boy?  Who else survived Honnleath?  What happened to the young men and women who never graduate templar training?  Yes, Cullen wanted to connect with people.

The former knight envisioned leaving his shield and sword aside and no longer commanding thousands of people against Thedas’ enemies in the Chantry or the Inquisition’s names.  He imagined Evie standing beside him in front of a small farmhouse settled in the Hinterlands.  She no longer would feel the pressure of everything, her genuine smile beaming up at him.  She would be free herself to live her own life, not forced to live and die in a Circle.  She did not have to save the world, be judged as a mage, or governed by her cruel family. 

Maker, Cullen prayed his Lady’s future would be a life with him.  Laughter and giggles will fill the air, not screams and agony.  Children?  Could Cullen have children now?  He could marry as a templar, but most Order appointments kept the knights away from their families, almost using them like pons of control.  The Order demanded the knight’s time constantly so most knights avoided the family connection all together.  Now, it was a possibility.  Evie and he married with a few children.  Three is a good number.  Of course, he would not be a true Fereldan without a mabari sitting beside him attentively watching his family.

Would Evie want such a future?

Would his Lady wish to continue their relationship after the war?  The Inquisition?

“What are you thinking about?”

Cullen woke from his thoughts, blushing like a cooked lobster.  He twirled his head to the left witnessing Evie genuinely smiling at him with that beautiful freckled face and gleaming eyes.  Her hand rested on the stone wall beside her, lightly scratching it impatiently.  Her face morphed a little from that beaming grin to worry and hurt.  “Do you want me to leave?  I’m sorry if I-I disturbed you...”

“No!”  Cullen hastily called, waving his left hand to encourage her to his side.  “No…Just enjoying the view.  Summer here is welcoming and comforting.”

“Yes…”  Evie smiled, studying the landscape.  “I will take this over the desert any ole day!”

They both laughed, allowing the awkwardness to melt away with the wind.  Cullen closed his whiskey eyes and took a deep breath.  The longer she stayed by his side, the more the pain and worry disappeared.  She was truly his antidote.

“I wanted to thank you…when you came to see me…if there’s anything.”  He exhaled and shook his head.  “This sounded much better in my head.”  He ran his hand through his hair and massaged his neck like a little boy confessing to his crush.  “Maker’s breath…”

Evie giggled, tilting her head to the side.  Her long matted bangs cupped her cheeks.  She still had debris sticking out of her loose braids and bed hair.  “I trust you’re feeling better?”

Cullen nodded, looking at the horizon again.  The sun was higher in the sky, meaning he slept for most of the morning.  They both needed their rest.  “I…yes.”

“Is it always that bad?”

Cullen sighed, shaking his head to avoid the pain taking him away from this freeing moment.  Evie placed her hand on his shoulder as comfort.  It took Cullen’s whole willpower not to hug and kiss her.  “The pain comes and goes.  Sometimes I feel as if I’m back there…I should not have pushed myself so far these past few weeks.”  Evie perked an eyebrow.  The commander rolled his amber eyes and exhaled.  “Fine, months.  Better?”  She simply shrugged and gave that sassy grin like she got what she wanted.  Cullen’s heart jumped into this throat.  Maker’s breath, he loved her.  “I’ve…I missed you.”

Evie squeezed his shoulder tightly.  “And I you.  I’m just glad you’re all right.  Just know Skyhold won’t fall apart if you take a bell for yourself now and then.”

Cullen huffed.  “You sure about that?  You haven’t seen what has been happening lately.  However, I’ll keep that in mind.  I will admit it has been better without my runner up my arse every moment.”

That got Evie laughing.  “Maybe he should stay in the Approach.”

Cullen shook his head.  “I wouldn’t do that to Rylen.  Although, I’ll have to thank my friend the next time I see him for the ‘encouraging’ words…and protecting you when I could not.”

“The person who should be thanking you is Cassandra.   Those two lovebirds are disgustingly sweet.”  Evie smirked, shrugging.

“Probably like us.”  Both people nodded, grins matching.  Evie inched closer until her tunic-covered body pressed on his side.  She kissed his shoulder before staring up at him with her bright green eyes.  Maker, he missed those orbs.

Cullen sighed, kissing her forehead.  He needed to tell her so many things.  He loved her.  He will never let her go again.  First though, “I’ve never told anyone what truly happened to me at Ferelden’s Circle.  I was…not myself after that.  I was angry.  For years, that anger blinded me.  I’m not proud of the man that made me.  The way I saw mages…I’m not sure I would have cared about you, and the thought of that sickens me.  Now I can put some distance between myself and everything that happened.  It’s a start.”

“We are in this together, my Lion.  Your burdens and sorrow are mine too.”  Evie replied, resting her chin on his shoulder.  “Trust in me as I trust you.  That is how we will heal and be the people we want to be.”

“Still…The idea I could not care for you.”  Cullen whispered, finally placing his arm around the timid, hesitant woman.  She treated him like a fragile doll, fearful her touch alone could shatter him.  Quite the contrary.  “A part of me will always fear magic and mages, but not you.  Maybe over time my fears will subside.  Be patient with me.  Tell me when I say something that offends you.  I might not even realize it.  It is so engrained in me by the Order.  I don’t know what is worse:  the lyrium or the poisonous verbiage.”  Cullen squeezed his whiskey eyes shut.  The words bit the inside of his lips.  He could barely keep them contained.  “I…I love you too much, Eve, to push you away.”

Cullen waited for the fall.  His amber eyes squeezed tight still, so idiotically afraid he pushed too much and lost her for good.  Maker, now was not the time!

“I love you too, Cullen.”

His hopeful eyes flashed open and stared her in the eye, searching.  Tears formed on the edges of her smudged kohl cat eyes.  Her lips quaked from saying the words.  Cullen pivoted and placed both hands on her shoulders, bringing her closer until their bodies brushed together.  A surge of want, love, and desire rolled through his body and soul.  “I’m not saying that because you helped me or because you have been away, Eve.  I fell in love with you months ago, but I could not accept it.  Too damn afraid I will ruin everything and poison you with my past.  I will show you how much you mean to me.  I promise you…”  He pecked her lips quickly, afraid to linger any longer.  “You don’t have to say it because I did.  You must believe me.  I will wait for you-“

-Evie cut off his rambling with her own soft and gentle kiss.  Her callused hands snaked around his neck, pulling him closer to the point Cullen pressed her against the stone wall.  His breath was caught inside his lungs.  Warm, support, and happiness pushed the rest of the withdrawal away.  This was supposed to happen he confessed his feelings over six months ago.  It should not have taken this long to finally kiss her on the battlements. 

He loved her.  He felt every bone, muscle, and mound of her body, a shape he wanted to caress and kiss with his soft lips and tongue.  Saying those words allowed his fantasies to overcome him.  He wanted to taste her, make love to her.  Cullen promised he will show her his devotion.  Maker, he wanted her.  Badly.  Claim her.  Possess her and never let go.

“I am saying it truthfully too, Cullen.”  Evie whispered in his ear as they hugged each other tightly.  “I might have not known my feelings as long as you, but this emotion is scary and beautiful.  There is so much that kept this love from warming my heart, but it does now.  I raced here for you because I care and do not want to see you fall, especially alone and afraid.  I will race across the world just to be by your side when you need me.  I love you, my Lion…”

“Maker…I never thought…”  Cullen whispered, pressing his forehead to hers.  “You love me…?  I never thought…a mage…could save me.  Love me…after everything I’ve…Maybe it needed to be a mage to melt my heart and show me happiness.”

“I will show you my heart for as long as you want me here, Cullen.”  Evie blushed, quickly glancing away.  “If that is what you want…”

Cullen smirked, hugging her.  “I’m not going to easily let go either, Milady.”  Cullen closed his tearful eyes, realizing this has been all about him the last few bells.  “What about you?  You have troubles of your own.  How are you holding up?”

Evie squeezed him, speaking into his sweaty shirt while her face laid against his chest.  “Honestly, I’m terrified.  So many people depend on us.  On Me.  Corypheus is still out there.  Now the Grey Wardens…”

Cullen kissed the crown of her head.  “We’ve made great strides.  Do not doubt yourself—or the Inquisition—just yet.  If there’s anything I can do, you have only to ask.”

Evie’s paled face flashed upwards to meet his soft gaze.  “Corypheus is controlling the wardens.  He and his lackeys are making a demon army, the same army I saw in the envy demon dream and in future Redcliffe.  It’s the army you fought time and time again that finally caught you and turned you into that red monster!  That’s all I could think about getting here…losing you…I can’t!”  Tears streamed down her freckled cheeks.  “The Grey Wardens think they can march into the Deep Roads and kill the remaining old gods when actually they are being manipulated and controlled.  They’ll conquer Orlais instead, and then the world.”

Cullen blinked a few times.  He was not expecting that response.  “…what?”

Evie pushed Cullen away and started to pace.   “I was going to let you rest before telling you.  I came back for you Cullen, no matter what is happening.  Know that.  However, your resignation came at the same time as we figured out the Grey Wardens’ plans.  Cassandra and the others are preparing for battle to beat the demon army even if our main force cannot reach Adamant in time.  We only have three weeks to arrive before the new moon ritual.  I’m sorry.  Please believe me when I say I’m here for you, but the Inquisition needs its commander, its forces that you have recruited, built, and matured!”

Cullen ran his hand through his hair, his baritone voice shaking.  He started to explain, but rambled his rushing thoughts.  “I didn’t expect to hear that, but I already had a campaign in place for such an event.  I established plans once you informed us of your visions to prepare for when we figured out the truth.  I vowed to you that another Haven will never happen again, so I have strategies for every possible combination of calamity.  That includes archdemons, Qunari invasions, and a shortage of sweet rolls and tequila.  Maker, it’s real.  It’s actually happening.  Maker’s breath….”  The commander blew out his cheeks.  “I promised you after Haven I would not fail you, yet I was about to run away and wallow in pity!”

Evie smacked the commander in the shoulder and poked his nose hard.  “Shut it!  You are not your wounds, Cullen.  If anything, they made you into the person I love and care about today.    You’re a better person than you give yourself credit for.  Don’t doubt yourself.  I believe in you and your army.”

Cullen nodded, pulling Evie towards him again and hugging her tightly.  “Thank you, Milady.”  Then, the commander harden his stance, his commander persona ruling his mind and action.  He will not crumble to this.  His baritone Fereldan accent shook out any hesitation and fear from its tone.  “To work then.  I need any information on Adamant-“

“-Leliana is bringing Rhys and Evangeline to Skyhold.  She has been working to secure maps of the fortress.”

“This is why Cassandra requested a larger force for the Approach.”  Cullen cackled, kissing Evie’s crown a few more times.  “Sneaky women.”

His Lady sassed him, “Well, it takes such strong women to whip men like you into shape.”  Maker, he missed her wicked attitude and aura.  Evie looked up at him again, grabbed his cheeks, and smiled.  “Rest today, Commander.  This can wait until you are well.  You said you already had a plan in place.  Give the orders to your officers.  I will handle everything else.  Trust me…please?”

Evie leaned upwards on her toes to kiss his passionately.  She held him close to her curvy body, building his lust to new heights.  Cullen prayed she did not feel his girth through his thin pants.  He felt her breasts through the fabric, nearly breaking him to lift her up and ravage her right then.  He stopped though, his stomach lurched as the breeze shifted.

“Eve…you need a bath.”

“Hush you.  You live in the desert for three months and see if you still smell like roses.”

Chapter Text

Cullen took the news better than Evie thought.  Maybe it was her pleading that his resignation did not directly impact leading the Inquisition army or that they confessed they loved each other.  Evie thought she would wait for a while to actually say her feelings to him face-to-face, but he seem like he was struggling to contain the fact too.  To know he loved her brought a sense of peace to Evie’s troubled soul.  She never doubted his love because it came from Cullen, someone who she trusted and that he trusted her with his darkest secrets. 

From those glossy amber eyes, there were more secrets there to confess, but his Lady did not push her commander.  For him to admit he was tortured by blood mages was enough for right now.  She now understood his claustrophobia and reaction to her magic when the Anchor went out of control in Haven.  So much about his actions and methods were so easily explained after so long.  Things she thought were just him being him came from that single point in his troubled life.

And that man trusted her with that traumatic secret.

A part of Evie felt she needed to share a secret to balance his confession, but seeing him work immediately afterwards changed her mind.  Besides, she herself was not ready to tell that darkest secret eating her alive, the one she knows little about, the one she has no answers for.  There will be a time for that, and it was not now.  The Grey Wardens were their top priority.

Yet, Hawke’s voice about her broken womb echoed in Evie’s mind while she walked into the great hall towards her tower.  Hawke’s warning that Cullen might want children disturbed her.  Men left women with barren bodies all the time.  The Chantry allowed marriage annulments because men needed precious heirs.  Most divorced women joined the Chantry because no one will want their broken and vagina-stretched bodies, their biological purpose not functioning to fulfill their most basic duty.

The Inquisitor shook her filthy head.  No, that did not matter in any case.  The wardens was her main objective.  Anyway, she could not marry and keep any children even if she could give birth.  She was a mage.  The Chantry forbid such relations, treating arcane people less than even elves and dwarves.  Cullen might not even want children. 

Why the Inquisitor even thinking so far into an unlikely future anyway?!  No matter, for all beings should be the same, especially in the Maker’s eyes.  Maybe that was just another reason why Andraste gave her the boon.  Mother Giselle stated the Chantry was a corrupted vessel governed by fallible people.  Evie was in a position to give all equal rights inside the institution.  Something she will consider in the future.  No, her attention must stay on the Grey Wardens despite her own future desires pressing at the seams.

It felt weird seeing Skyhold so devoid of people, Evie thought reaching the great hall.  Nobles and delegates did not know she returned.  Heck, the Inquisition did not know she arrived except Cullen and Leliana.  She really did not want to deal with the pompous upper crust anyway.  If only Skyhold could be like the Western Approach…well, except the heat, blood magic, and other hideous events she had experienced the last three months.

Evie marched to her tower as she mentally dreamed about a nice hot bath alone.  Out of the corner of her right eye, she noticed Leliana exiting the Rookery staircase in the rotunda.  The Inquisitor slowed her step to meet her. “Good morning, Sister Nightingale.”

“Good morning, Inquisitor.”  Leliana smugly smiled, tilting her head.  “I assume all is well now?”

The Herald nodded, understanding what she meant.  “Yes.  I ordered him to rest for the day before diving into his battle plans.  We will hold a council meeting first thing tomorrow morning.  We have three weeks to reach Adamant.  I believe in us and him.  He devised a plan months ago when I first saw the demon army in the future.  He is adjusting it from his bed to execute tomorrow.  I stayed with him until he ordered his officers into action.  I even threatened to lock him inside his loft if he attempted to work beyond plans or left his tower.  He’ll appreciate any information on Adamant you may have.  Tomorrow, of course.”

The spymaster giggled, shaking her head.  “Yes.  Well, I am glad to hear he’s better.  I knew you had an influence on him.  Just be kind and gentle with Cullen, please?  He…”  The spymaster’s icy blue eyes glanced away as she thought about her next statement.  “Most would have crumbled under even half of what he experienced, but not he.”  She shook her head, breaking her calm façade for a moment.  Once recomposed, her Orlesian accent began again, “I hope your morning on the ramparts was well?”

Evie flushed red, looking away and bounced between her feet.  Of course the spymaster would see them confessing their love.  “Let’s keep some things private, hm?”

Leliana nodded.  “Privacy and secret moments are my duty, Inquisitor.”

“True true…”  Evie sighed, smelling her tunic again.  “I’m getting a bath and will follow up with the other mages about the demon research.”  The Inquisitor snapped her fingers.  “Damn it!  I forgot my key to my tower in the desert!  I rushed so quickly to get here that I didn’t pack everything!”

Leliana waved her hand.  “Josephine has your spare keys locked away.  Come.  I am going there myself right now.”

The two women continued to chat about affair as they opened the first set of doors to the ambassador’s office.  Both women froze.  They smelled the open exposed flesh and blood at the same time.  For the Inquisitor, months surrounded by blood magic made her attune to the scent like a fox hunting field mice in winter.  Evie flicked a magelight down the stairs towards the private dining hall and her secret library.  The light floated over a body half way down the stairs.

Leliana rushed down the stairs to examine the body, devoid of armor and identification.  “This is one of my scouts.  She shadowed Josephine!”

Ahhh!!!”

Evie kicked the door open, pulling her magic sword hilt from her belt.  It flashed alive as Evie prepared to fight an adversary.  Leliana followed behind, two hidden blades appeared in either hand to support the Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor froze at the sight that greeted them.  An older man stood in front of Josephine with a blade stabbing another Inquisition scout that had thrusted their dagger up over Josephine’s head.  The stabbed person fell over in to a heap, dead.  Josephine’s eyes widen as she observed her ‘savior.’

“Ah, Phoenix.  Right on time.”  The older gentlemen cooed, turning his head slightly.  His white goatee and balding head glimmered in the firelight.  “Sorry, I am late, but your security is quite strong.  Kudos to you, Sister Leliana, and your Commander Rutherford...”

Josephine gasped, her eyes rolled into her head as she fainted.  The older gentlemen rushed to catch her, dropping his blooded blade.  He pulled her up in his arms and carried her to the nearby chastise lounge.  “Well, I know I am shockingly old, but not that ugly.  I hope not at least.”

“Great Uncle Philliam!?”  Evie hollered as Leliana glided to assist with the fainted Josephine.  “What in the Void are you doing here?!”

Philliam nodded to Leliana, who rushed for the water decanter near Josephine’s desk.  “I am everywhere, my Phoenix.  You see, I decided to defy your father.  I know.  Shocking!  I could not sit on my hands while you fight an ancient magister.  Just now, you fight the great heroes of Thedas because they hear the false Calling.  They summon demons for the ugly bastard!  I must get involved or we all fall.”

Evie shook her head, watching as Leliana splashed water into her ambassador’s face.  “Wait!  You’re defying Father!?  You’re crazy!  A-and how did you know about the wardens’ demon army?!”

“Your personal birds, Phoenix, love Orlesian biscuits…”  Phoenix smirked.  “After all, they are your brothers.”  Evie frozen and frowned.  “Do not worry.  I did not read your love letters, although I must meet your beau.  Alas, I only noted the ones from your advisors these last few days.  Your brothers rested at my townhouse during their journeys, knowing a safe haven even in death.”

“I thought the wax seals looked strange.”  Leliana grinned at the old bard while shaking her friend awake.

“But why are you here?!”  Evie hollered, wishing to avoid realizing her personal correspondence has been monitored by her family for months.

Philliam shrugged, kicking the dead body at his feet as the assassin’s blood puddled and pooled between the flagstones.  “My main contribution recently has been getting rid of all these Repose ‘assassins.’  They are fleas truly, multiplying worse than the crabs on the Pearl’s whores.  This one was the closest to ever get to Skyhold.  Your damn sister terrorizes this poor woman.  This one killed my best operative so I did as the good Nightblade does:  I avenged him.  I discovered you were returning, so here I am.”

“How did they get in?”  Leliana’s voice turned stern, searching for where her defenses failed.

“Look at your deputy cook.  The woman enjoys blabbing during sex…and will sleep with anyone.  No standards at all.  Sad really.  No self-worth and horribly depressed.  The assassin learned about Lady Montilyet’s early work schedule before meetings and took advantage of the curfew.  Thankfully, I figured out a way in time.”

“Yet another thing you must diverge, Great Uncle.”  Evie mumbled, rubbing her temples with frosted fingertips.

“As a man who pledges his loyalty and resources to you, Phoenix, you will learn everything I can give…well, almost everything.  There are some things your innocent mind should never know about erotica that your damn Circle did not teach you.”

Josephine slowly opened her eyes, muttering under breath about death and revenge.  Her chocolate eyes fell on Leliana first, then the Inquisitor to her right.  A brief note of surprise graced her face, but her eyes continued to survey her surroundings.  Lastly, they flowed up to Philliam.  Panic welled