He shouldn’t be here.
The thought strikes him, quick, and sudden, like air being knocked from his lungs before he can even comprehend what had happened. They aren’t quite in the Fade, he can sense that much, even if the magic he’d possessed in his younger years comes flooding back all at once, like the rush of a river as a dam broke.
Everything is in a green haze, clouded and hazy, and the air carries the heavy scent of an age long since passed. (If he closes his eyes, he can almost pretend like nothing had changed, and he’d open his eyes to find her standing there, as resplendent as ever, a smile upon her lips as she holds out her hand for him to take. [But she isn’t standing there. Her bones have long since turned to dust, in a grave none but he knows the location of, and there’s another standing in her stead.
Another who he might care for more than he had ever cared for her.])
“Is this… Are we dead?” Hawke is the first to speak, her dark brows knitted as she looks around them.
Solas thumbs the grip of his staff, trying to conceal the way that every breath he takes feels like inhaling air as cold as ice, tiny daggers pricking at his lungs as his magic comes back to him with every passing second. He had almost forgotten the Dreaming, had almost forgotten how magic felt curling around his fingertips, ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice. If they others feel it too, they say nothing, and a part of him knows that this is limited to him, and to only him.
“No.” Solas swallows, glancing to the Champion of Kirkwall out of the corner of his eye. “This is the Fade.”
If they escape from here, he knows that the magic will be ripped from him once again, and it will hurt twice as much as it had the first time.
He can see the Black City in the distance, almost close enough to touch. He could abandon his plans. From here, he could tear down the Veil, without need for the power of his orb, but all that would do is serve Corypheus, and his foolish attempt to conquer the waking world. He would see them suffer, and without his orb, he is not powerful enough to face him alone.
No, he will have to wait.
“We were… falling.” Elgara props herself up against a nearby pillar of stone, staff held tight in her hand. “We came through a rift, and…” She cuts herself off suddenly as Cole whimpers behind her, his arms wrapped around his shoulders. The outline of him almost flickers as he struggles to maintain his physical form, fighting the desperate urge to slip back into the spirit he is at heart. “Cole…?”
“I-I can’t be here,” the young boy stammers, eyes darting around wildly beneath the brim of his hat. “Not like this, not like me!”
Elgara is green, even without the Fade’s light, a moment’s away from being sick, but still, she flits to Cole’s side, peering beneath his hat to meet his eyes. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she assures in a low voice. He hates that about her—he hates that even when she’s on the brink of collapsing, she still cares more about others than for herself. It will be her undoing. (It will be his too, for he has started to care more about her than about himself.) “We’ll get out of here. I just need you to hold on.”
Cole shakes his head, frantic, and on the verge of tears. “This place is wrong. I made myself forget when I made myself real, but I know it wasn’t like this. He knows too—this isn’t what was made by my hands, but even still, they are close enough to touch, laying in a dark and dreaming sleep as countless wars and ages passed.”
His stomach twists, but neither Hawke nor Stroud know Cole well enough to make sense of his ramblings, while Elgara has long since become used to the boy’s cryptic words to pay him any mind.
It is ultimately Cassandra who suggest escaping through the rift the Wardens were attempting to summon the Fear demon through, and so they set off towards the horizon, Cole disappearing and reappearing every few seconds, hesitating only when Elgara murmurs hushes reassurances.
“Elgara.” Solas pulls her aside, placing one hand on her forearm, Cassandra and Hawke continuing to lead the group, the Seeker animatedly discussing Hawke’s years in Kirkwall while the Champion clearly tries to avoid the subject. The Inquisitor looks tired, blood and mud staining her face.
“Is something wrong?”
“I could ask the same of you,” he says, looking to the crackling green mark on her hand. “The Anchor…”
As if on cue, the Anchor sparks, hissing as it comes in contact with the magic hanging in the Fade’s air. She grimaces, pain shooting up her arm. “I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll be fine,” she repeats. (He knows she’s lying, but what is he meant to do? He did this to her. [
He is the reason her brother is dead, he is the reason she carries a title she had never wanted. ]) She pulls her arm out of his grasp before he can stop her, knuckles straining against the leather of her gloves as she hurries to catch up with the others.
The encounter few obstacles on their journey towards the rift, and the rare demons that they come across are dispatched quickly. Solas can almost feel the fear demon speak more than he can hear it. Its grating voice sends shivers down his spine as though someone is standing just a hair’s breadth behind him, crooning in his ear.
I was wondering when you’d come, Dread Wolf, it whispers in his mind. But I had expected you to come alone. Shall we see what it is that you fear? I am quite certain that it carries her name.
Solas’ hands curl into fists. She is not yours.
And nor, trickster, is she yours.
The demon pulls from his mind then, but Solas has no doubts that it is still there, in the shadows waiting, watching, wanting. (You cannot have her. She belongs to neither of us. She is something that is beyond us both, and not even you could turn her against me. She will only be broken by what I will do.)
Solas’ heart drops when they round the corner, his mouth going as dry as the Western Approach. He had never met Divine Justinia, but he has seen the official portraits, seen the small scribbles Leliana discards without a second thought. A part of him knows that this isn’t her, that the woman standing before him is a spirit wearing the face of another, not unlike Cole. Yet, none of that matters, not to Cassandra who all but falls at the feet of the spirit with the face of her most treasured friend.
And it matters not to Elgara who stands there, back straight as an arrow, and her brows set in a line. “Justinia.” Her voice is colder than it has ever been, sharp and grating like ice.
The spirit’s eyes flick to meet hers. “Inquisitor Lavellan,” it says, Orlesian accent heavy.
“Stop this,” Elgara says tightly. “You’re not her. She died long before I was made Inquisitor, and you play a game that does little but hurt those around you.”
“Perhaps it is not that simple.”
“I know spirits. I have seen the things they have tried to tempt me with, and still I have walked away. You will not change that.” (He had not known that. He had not known that she had almost succumbed to the very affliction which the Chantry touts as the reason they lock mages in guarded prisons in a misguided attempt to protect them.)
“And yet, you now face a foe which you cannot possibly understand. You lash out in anger because you think you understand things that are beyond your comprehension, child. It is the Nightmare you forget upon waking. It is what created the false Calling, and now you have found yourself in its realm of darkness and fear where it has fed off of the memories when you were last in the Fade. Take them back.” The spirit approaches Elgara slowly before reaching forward and pressing its hand against her forehead with enough force to send her stumbling back.
She collapses in an instant, slumping over like a child’s doll. He moves at the last second, catching her before her head can slam against the rocky ground. She doesn’t respond, but her eyes darting about beneath their lids. All of a sudden, she wakes with a great inhale, scrambling to get away from Solas before she realises that it’s only him, and even if they’re in the Fade, she’s safe.
(She’s in his arms, and she’s safe. He won’t let the Nightmare hurt her as long as he lives.
The only thing that can break her is him.)
“Solas,” she whispers, relaxing into his arms.
“Vhenan.” He can feel her shaking like a leaf, mere moments away from being swept away by a gust of wind. He tries—in vain—to wipe some of the demon ichor from her face, serving only instead to smear it across her golden skin and stain his cotton sleeves. “What did you see?”
“She saw the truth.” If they hadn’t already been aware of the fact that the figure standing before them is nothing more than a spirit, they’d have realised it simply from the condescension and derision that drips from her voice. “Corypheus intended to rip open the Veil, and use the Anchor to enter the fade to throw open the doors of the Black City. Not for the Old Gods, but for himself. When she disrupted his plan, the Anchor was bestowed upon her, an intruder, rather than its rightful owner.”
I am its rightful owner, Solas almost wants to say as he helps Elgara to her feet. The suffering she endures now should be my own.
No. Compassion’s voice enters his mind with none of the unease that had followed the Nightmare’s message. She wanders trapped and afraid in the forest, alone but for the wolf that guides her. Her suffering has made her stronger, and now she stands, tall and proud for her people, and for you.
“Is that all?” Elgara’s jaw is clenched tight even as she still shakes.
“Yes. Did you wish there for to be more? Do you find yourself disappointed, child of the People?”
“I have learned nothing from this foolish display of yours. All you have done is reiterated information which I already know, and advised that we leave as soon as possible without providing a method to do so. The sole piece of advice you have given me is that I should break his damned orb next time it starts glowing!”
“Yet even that information may one day help you.” The spirit is calm in the face of her anger, lids languidly shutting over its cool gaze. “Come. We must make haste. You do not have time to waste, and there is still much you have yet to learn.” It turns, gaze focused elsewhere, and disappears into thin air.
Her anger is new, the Nightmare whispers in his ear. She used to hate, but never like this. It gnaws at her heart; poison spreading through her with your touch as its source.
Get out of my head, he growls, mental barriers slamming into place and forcing it out.
And it does, but what it does next is not much better. The Nightmare’s voice is a whisper, low and quiet but it might as well be shouting. “I was wondering when you’d return for what had been stolen from you, child of Mythal.” He can almost feel it laughing, a dark, mirthless chuckle that reverberates around them. Its voice almost sounds like the Betrayer’s as it had in his last moments, proud and arrogant. “You should be thanking me, girl. It would have weakened you. You are not as brave as your brothers, and still, look what became of them. You alone stand where they have fallen, but they were born for this role while you were not. Elgara Fen’ghil’lan Mythalen Lavellan—you will never live up to your name. You will never be enough.”
Elgara pushes her shoulders back, raising her chin. She can hide her fear from the others, but she can’t hide it from him. Tears prick at her eyes that she desperately fights back, her silver eyes glittering in the Fade’s emerald light. “We should get moving,” she says, shaking her head as she forces herself to snap out of the daze she’d found herself in. “We have little time as it is without us dawdling about.”
But Hawke doesn’t move. “What happened to your brothers, Inquisitor?”
She visibly swallows, unable to meet the Champion’s gaze. “They died. Seldras was… murdered by a noble from Kirkwall when the war began who saw just another ‘knife-eared mage’ who needed to put down. Mihren… Mihren was at the Conclave.” The death of her younger brother is still fresh in her mind, that much he can tell. It’s not even been a year, and the mark on her hand is proof that she’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it is by pure luck that she had survived when her brother had not.
Cassandra knows this. She’d been the one to tell her that she’d been the only one to surviving the explosion. Even then, the Seeker looks away, the proud warrior shrinking in on herself. “The Inquisitor is right. We should keep moving.”
“Running won’t make it any less true,” the Nightmare sings. “Although… Perhaps I should be afraid, facing the most powerful members of the Inquisition. Are you afraid, Cole? I can help you forget. Just like you help other people. We’re so much alike, you and I.”
Compassion is still flickering between his two forms, a green haze outlining his body. “No.” He says little else, barely able to stay solid let alone reply to the Nightmare’s childish taunts.
Solas almost reaches for him, and in the moment of weakness, the Nightmare slips back in through the cracks of his barriers, whispering in his ear. You do not deserve her. Do you truly think she will love you when she learns who you truly are? You will lose her, it says. When she finds out what you are, what you intend to do, you will lose her. She carries the soul of the woman you’ve already failed once before, and you will fail her once again.
Still, he ignores the Nightmare’s antagonising, keeping his feet moving one after the other.
Have you nothing to say in your defence? the Nightmare asks, unable to keep its laughter out of its voice. Does nothing matter to you but your own victory? This is why you will fail. This is why she will be the one who sees you fall. You know what you must do to succeed, but have you the strength to do it? There is blood on your hands that will never be able to wash off.
Solas hesitates, lingering behind the group a moment longer. Nothing is inevitable. What will come to pass will come to pass with or without me. I have a duty to the People, and I must see it through.
What of her? You have started to fall in love with her, have you not? You have begun to care for her more than you care about your cause.
And Solas doesn’t have an answer to that question.