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All This Shit Is Weird

Chapter Text

T: So, where should I start?
V: It’s your story. Start wherever you want.
T: I don’t know how to do this. You’re the writer.
V: Don’t worry about making it sound good; that’s my job. Just… start talking and we’ll see where it takes us.
T: … That’s not really the title you’re going with, is it?
V: Oh, that’s uhh… just ignore those notes. Titles are the hardest part.
T: Harder than the beginning?
V: Actually beginnings are easy.
T: So you say. I'm still not sure this is a good idea.
V: Come on, stop being so modest. I'm telling you, people will want to hear the story straight from the source.
T: It's not modesty. I just get the feeling the Chantry would prefer I stop contradicting their image of me.
V: Since when do you give a shit what the Chantry wants?
T: Heh, fair point. But people always think they want the truth until they hear it.
V: Don't worry about what the readers will think. Believe me, you'll never make them all happy. You wanted to tell your story.
T: I did. I do.
V: So... go right ahead.

It started for everyone else the moment I tumbled out of the Fade to collapse onto a smoking ruin before amazed and terrified witnesses. For me, it started with falling. That is my first and only memory of the beginning.

Witnesses have said that I stepped out of the Fade, wreathed in light and flames, with Holy Andraste guiding me from behind. There have come to be many versions of this moment over the years; poems, epics, songs, theatrical reenactments, novels and so-called historical recountings. Eventually, even a new addition to the Chant was proposed by some of the most devout, though I myself have always denounced the idea. Nevermind the gall of trying to canonize me while I still live - the last thing the Chant needs is to be longer.

In truth, all I remember is falling. Things I would learn later would give me more context, but I haven’t been able to remember any of it on my own. Well, except for the fear. Years later, and the fear of that place stays with me. I had no idea what I was even afraid of, only that I had to escape. That was my last thought when I collapsed onto the rough ground and lost consciousness.

Escape.

Thus, my first perceptions upon waking were of deathly fear and a vague remnant of vertigo. It was difficult to see, so initially I was only aware of feeling… enclosed. I was disoriented and close to panicking, so I concentrated on steadying my breathing and heartbeat until I could make sense of things.

Soon, I was calm enough to realize that it was hard to see because the room I was in was small and dark. I could hear the gutter of torch flame, but the light seemed to be blocked by something. There was the sound of shifting metal and leather and steady breathing. I wasn’t alone. As I listened, I could hear several bodies around me, and as my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw several pairs of armored boots forming an arc around me. Not only was I not alone; I was surrounded, a prisoner.

Whose prisoner?

I frowned and lifted my gaze. I was kneeling on a cold stone floor. That explained the aching in my knees and tingling in my legs. Maker knows how long I must have been sitting in that position. I tried to stand, but met with resistance and the sound of chains rattling. I looked down to see my hands bound in heavy shackles, which were in turn chained to the floor of the cell, directly in front of where I knelt. Someone clearly thought I was a threat. Still, this seemed excessive for a captured apostate.

A twinge in my left hand made me wince, and I twisted it around to see my palm. Initially, it looked normal, but then I felt… not quite pain, but something more akin to the tingling in my legs, only sharper, fiercer, angrier. All concentrated into a small point in the center of my palm. As I stared, a bright light suddenly flashed, and I gasped, blinking at the intensity. What was that? I checked my palm again, but the light was gone, though the tingling remained, steadily pulsing. I heard some of the soldiers curse and step back, and took no comfort in their fear. Frightened soldiers too often lead to dead mages.

Before I could begin to make sense of the situation, however, I would be introduced to two of the most important people in my life.

Much has been made of the Left and Right Hands of Divine Justinia V, and rightly so. Both are fierce, valiant, and determined women, unwavering in their faith even as their understanding of it changed. That much I can confirm as truth. The rest is… rather more complicated.

V: Pffeh! “Complicated” isn’t the word I’d use.
T: Hey, don’t interrupt my train of thought!
V: Right, sorry, ignore me.

What do I mean by that…

Well, for starters, if Cassandra had had her way, I’d likely have been killed before even waking. That is something the stories often forget. My first impression of her as she came marching into the room was that she wanted blood, and I was the most likely target.

You have to understand - I am a mage. Too many people have tried to ignore or downplay this, but it is part of who I am, and it is important to me that it is not forgotten. I had spent most of my life until that point inside the Circle. For as long as I could remember, I had been looked upon with a mixture of resentment and fear, and all actions of mine had been treated with suspicion. I listened to them sing of my evil nature practically every day for years during compulsory Chant attendance. At any given moment a Templar could decide my life wasn’t worth the risk and snuff it out and would likely never have to give a reason beyond “What if...”

All of this meant that I was keenly aware of my precarious situation, that anything I did could be twisted and used as justification for my execution. I felt, as I so often had before, helpless. So I held still, made sure my securely bound hands were visible, and kept my gaze lowered. And I tried very hard not to wince as the two women approached me and stopped.

“Tell me why we shouldn’t just kill you now,” the angry woman demanded as she paced around me like a predator sizing up its prey. I kept my face still, but my heart dropped at her words. “The Conclave is destroyed. Everyone who attended is dead. Except for you.”

I frowned, trying to process what she was saying. The Conclave… Mages and Templars gathered together for the first time since the mages had risen up in rebellion to talk peace. Destroyed? Did she mean literally? All chance of peace certainly gone. Everyone dead… Except for me. That was when I began to understand the severity of my situation. I wasn’t just an apostate to them, I was a mass murderer. And likely nothing I could say would have changed their minds.

The woman was now standing next to me, and as she reached down I tensed, but she only grabbed my hand; my left hand, the one with the unnatural glow.

“Explain this!” She was practically fuming as she held my hand aloft, straining the shackles that held it locked to the stone beneath us.

“I… can’t,” was all I managed to say.

“What do you mean you can’t?” Her grip on my hand tightened painfully. My heart began to race and I had to stop myself from hyperventilating as her demands crashed down on me and I realized I had no answers for her. I tried to come up with something, anything to tell her, but there was… nothing.

My last memories were disjointed, broken, missing. I had no recollection of even being at the Conclave, let alone an explosion. I began to tremble, losing control of my composure. I had nothing to tell them, because I couldn’t remember anything they might want to know. I was sure in that moment I was going to die.

Desperately, I insisted, “I don’t know what that is, or how it got there!”

“You’re lying!” The woman moved to strike me and I shut my eyes instinctively against the killing blow.

No blow landed; instead there was a shuffling of movement, and then I heard another voice say, “We need her, Cassandra.” I opened my eyes to see the second woman had moved to intercept the first. Her demeanor was much calmer than her counterpart’s, and I hoped against all likelihood that she at least might listen to me.

“Whatever you think I did, I’m innocent!” I shouted, wanting to say it just so it would be heard, not expecting it to be believed.

The second woman turned to face me. “Do you remember what happened? How this began?” she asked. I noticed both their voices were accented, and wondered if we were still anywhere near the Conclave, or indeed even within the borders of Ferelden.

I reached into my memories, trying to make sense of what must have been my last waking moments. An image came to mind of landscape passing by me quickly. “I remember running,” I started tentatively. Why had I been running? That sense of urgency, it was from… “Things were chasing me. And then...” Had I been running from them, or toward something? There had been a steep incline, and at the top… “A woman?”

That got both women’s attention. Their looks were hungry as they waited for me to continue.

“She reached out to me, but then…” Then everything had shifted, and I was falling, but why and from where I couldn’t be sure.

The women stared at me a moment longer, seeming to hope that I would have more detail, but there was nothing after that, and so I said nothing. The angry one - Cassandra, the second woman had called her - seemed to have calmed somewhat. She broke her gaze with me and directed her companion - Leliana, as she was apparently named - to leave, something about a forward camp, and…

“I will take her to the rift.”

As the calmer of the two walked out of the room and Cassandra started toward me again I flinched, but her anger had subsided, and she only knelt to undo my shackles. My hope at possibly being given my freedom was short-lived, however, as she firmly bound my hands before me with rope instead. At least I was able to walk under my own power now.

“What did happen?” I ventured as she lifted me to my feet. I stumbled briefly, my legs still tingling painfully from the position I’d been left in. I lurched forward, but Cassandra caught and held me until I regained my balance. It seemed to take her little effort to hold me upright, and I felt her solid strength as she waited patiently. She seemed an entirely different woman from the cloud of wrath that had stormed in demanding answers from me only a moment ago.

When I had composed myself, she released me. “It will be easier to show you,” she said, and began to walk out of the room, clearly expecting me to follow. Having no other recourse and no reason to stay, I started after her.

I was concentrating on not falling over again for the first few steps, so I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings as I was led down a dark corridor and up a flight of stairs. The floor above was far more open, and I assumed from the high ceiling it must have been a chantry. Cassandra checked that I was still close, then turned and headed toward the large doors at the end of the great hall. Compared to the prison cell below, the hall felt expansive. My breathing came easier without the oppressive stone so close around me.

Still, it was a modest size for a chantry, and I was suddenly confronted with large wooden doors being opened by silent guards who nodded in deference to Cassandra. Blinding light poured in from outside, and my eyes needed time to adjust. It was another moment before I realized the light wasn’t coming entirely from the sun. There was a hue to it that was wrong, somehow; wrong in the same way as the light coming from my hand. I blinked to adjust my sight, and quickly my gaze was drawn upward.

I saw it then for the first time, and my world tilted.

Chapter Text

V: You okay?
T: Sorry. I… still see it sometimes, when I dream. I’ve never really forgotten that feeling.
V: We can take a break, if you need it.
T: No, I’m fine. I can keep going.
V: Okay, if you’re sure.
T: I will take a swig of that flask though.

“We call it the Breach,” Cassandra was saying, but I was barely listening. I could only gape in terror beneath its sickly light. Breach was a kind name; to me it looked like a gaping wound, tearing through the sky and spreading infection. As I watched, dark shapes fell from its depths to the earth below, and a sound like lightning nearly deafened me. Everything about it seemed corrupted, twisted, and evil.

“...It’s not the only such rift, only the largest,” Cassandra continued. “All were caused by the explosion at the Conclave.”

“An explosion can do that?” I asked incredulously, still staring at the horror above, unable to look away.

“This one did,” Cassandra said plainly. “Unless we act, the Breach may grow until it swallows the world.”

As if it heard her, the Breach rumbled a great, deep threat, its light flashed and blinded me again, and then---

I cried out as the sensation in my hand sharpened; it felt as if it was burning my very flesh away, and I could feel it spreading across my palm, eating away at my hand. Never before had I known pain like that. After a moment that felt like an age, the burning lessened. I opened my eyes, half expecting my hand to be nothing but bone and seared tendon, but it was whole. The ground dug into my aching knees; I must have collapsed in the throes of my agony. I was breathing heavily, and could feel a bead of sweat trailing down my temple.

Cassandra stood over me, a silhouette against the cursed light. “Each time the Breach expands, your mark spreads. And it is killing you. It may be the key to stopping this, but there isn’t much time.”

That was a lot of information to process at once. And it is killing you… The words echoed in my mind, getting louder with each repetition and setting my head to pounding. I clung to the words that had followed, trying not to let panic take over.

“You say it may be the key,” I began to ask. I had to stop and clear my throat, surprised at how hoarse my voice had become. “To doing what?”

“Closing the Breach,” Cassandra answered, still standing over me. “Whether that’s possible is something we shall discover shortly. It is our only chance, however. And yours.” She was eyeing me carefully, and the way she spoke of my fate as merely an afterthought made it clear she cared for me only inasmuch as I seemed to be tied directly to the Breach.

“You still think I did this? To myself?” I asked, gesturing at my hand incredulously.

“Not intentionally. Something clearly went wrong,” Cassandra answered, lifting one brow. She sounded so sure of her suspicion.

“And if I’m not responsible?”

“Someone is, and you are our only suspect. You wish to prove your innocence? This is the only way.”

She made no mention of whether I would survive the proving, or what it could possibly entail, or whether what she was asking - demanding - of me was even possible.

“So I don’t really have a choice about this.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness from my tone, and was not sorry when I saw her answering scowl.

“None of us has a choice.” Cassandra reached down and pulled me to my feet in an instant, leading me away from the building before I could regain my balance. I stumbled, but she managed to keep me on my feet with only her hand wrapped firmly around my upper arm. She kept her pace slow but purposeful. Between her strength and my weak legs still slowly recovering, I had no illusions of escape while she was close.

As we continued on, I saw small buildings of log and thatch sparsely assorted, with a simple dirt pathway cutting through and leading down toward a modest but sturdy wooden gate. The chantry towered above it all, clearly meant to be the focus of this development, meager as it was. Lining the pathway was a throng of people, many of whom were staring upward with expressions of horror. Some made protective gestures, others openly wept. Those that weren’t focused on the sky, however, were glaring at me.

The hatred in their eyes was palpable as they followed our slow progress toward the gate. I had long ago grown used to the sneering suspicion of Templars, but this was different; these people wanted my head.

Cassandra’s kept pace for both of us, steady and resolute. She seemed less agitated with the situation than I, but then again she wasn’t on the receiving end of those looks. For the first time, I was glad for her sturdy presence.

“The people of Haven mourn our Most Holy, Divine Justinia,” she was saying. “The Conclave was hers.” There was a slight tremble to her voice. “A chance for peace between mages and templars. She brought their leaders together. Now, they are dead.”

I frowned, remembering her earlier explanation of how the Breach came to be. Caused by an explosion… Oh, Maker. I looked back at the crowd, now seeing the pain behind the hatred in their glares. Their Divine dead, along with any hope for peace. And, naturally, they blamed the sole survivor of the disaster - me.

It’s a wonder I’ve lasted this long, I thought in amazement. The skin between my shoulder blades prickled with the collective resentment of dozens - hundreds? - of souls who thought they had every reason to hate me. A part of me couldn’t help but wonder if they might be right, and I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

We reached the gate, and two soldiers dutifully opened it, nodding in deference to Cassandra. Clearly, she held authority here. I remembered none of the guards had objected when she unshackled me. Not to mention none of the mob behind us had dared make a move on me with her as my escort. Was she the one in charge? I noticed belatedly she wore the symbol of Andraste prominently across her chestplate. Not a templar; she lacked the uniform. What then?

“We lash out, like the sky,” Cassandra continued. “But we must think beyond ourselves, as she did. Until the Breach is sealed.” She glanced upward then, but though her gaze was pointed toward the Breach - indeed it was impossible not to look in its direction when looking up - she seemed to be looking past it. Her expression was sorrowful, pensive. I got the feeling her words were as much for her own benefit as mine. She stood in silence for a moment; then, as if coming to a decision, she reached to the dagger at her side.

I tensed, and began looking around for a likely path of escape, fearing this had all been a ruse to lead me willingly to my own execution. I discovered to my dismay we were on a bridge, with the gate shut behind me and a second gate still shut ahead as the only visible means of entry or exit.

Cassandra turned to me, her expression resolute, but the sorrow was gone. “There will be a trial,” she said as she took a step toward me. “I can promise no more.”

What? I froze temporarily in confusion, and in that swift instant she had closed the gap between us and in one smooth flick of her wrist, the rope that bound my hands was cut. My hands were free.

“Come, it is not far.” She sheathed her dagger, and without another glance to me, she turned and marched down the bridge toward the next gate.

I stood there in amazement for a moment. A trial? Mages didn’t get trials. I stared at her receding back; she was clearly not waiting for me, confident that I would follow, having no other recourse. Could it be possible that she was unaware I was a mage?

I contemplated this as I rubbed my sore wrists, and started down the path at a swift pace.

“Where are you taking me?” I called after her.

Cassandra slowed enough to allow me to catch up to her, but did not turn around. “Your mark must be tested on something smaller than the Breach,” she said over her shoulder.

I tried not to think too hard about what that meant, still puzzling out the last few moments since I woke. In all that time, no one had addressed me as an apostate or mage, no one threatened imposing the Rite of Tranquility, and as far as I could tell I was not found with any kind of staff or spellbook. There was the mark, yes, but they didn’t seem to equate that with magic; or at least, not the same kind taught and regulated by the Chantry and the Circles. Indeed, this was certainly like no magic I had ever heard of in all my years of study and training.

It was not only possible that they were unaware of my status, but entirely likely, given the circumstances. Which meant that if I could gain enough distance, escape was within my grasp after all.

I looked out over the snow-covered landscape, trying to judge my chances at surviving in the wild. Unfortunately, the sickly green light covering the hills was an unpleasant reminder that things were not quite so simple. My eyes lifted of their own volition up to the sky once more, at the massive doom looming ever present above us all. First, I would have to take care of that. Then, I would plan my escape.

Assuming I survived the first part.

Chapter Text

V: Wait, is that true?
T: I promised you the truth, didn’t I? I wasn’t naive enough to believe I would actually get a fair trial.
V: It’s just so weird to think of you actually just… up and leaving.
T: We both know I’m not the selfless hero of legend the Chantry keeps trying to make me out to be.
V: Well, who ever is? Shit, I doubt even Andraste herself lived up to her own legend.
T: Ugh, please spare me the comparisons to Andraste.
V: Right, right, sorry. Didn’t mean anything by it. Let’s just pick up where you left off.

I had thought the Breach was the worst thing I would see that day, but I was unprepared for the devastation caused by the explosion that created it.

In all the many histories of battles I had read, attention was rarely paid to what comes after victory or defeat. Still, I imagined it must have looked something like the scene laid out before me on that bridge. Wounded soldiers rested here and there, clutching wounds, staring into the distance with glazed eyes, openly weeping or crying out in pain. Many looked lost, questions left unspoken because they had no one to ask. None here had expected to confront death any more than I had today. There had been no enemy to defeat, no glory to be won. Only that gaping void above, and the horror left in its shadow below.

Chantry sisters and revered mothers tended to some, offering comfort or reciting the Chant to gathered listeners. One young looking man clutched his knees into a fetal position, rocking back and forth. His mouth moved, but no sound came out, or else he was whispering too softly to be heard. As we came near, a sister came to check on him. She crouched to lay a hand on his shoulder, but he did not respond. She spoke to him in gentle tones, but he seemed not to hear her. After a moment, she sadly stood and moved on. He continued rocking as we passed him.

There were bodies as well; lifeless, mangled, bloodied, and gruesome, with glassy-eyed, expressions of surprise or pain telling the story of their final moments. They lay in rows, waiting to be covered with blankets or canvas by the living, to be wrapped and tied and prepared for the pyre. Heavy, limp bundles were being loaded onto wagons, ready to be carried off. More mothers and sisters were mumbling the appropriate words over them to send them on their journey into the Void.

Since that day, I’ve seen many battles and witnessed more death and destruction than I care to remember. Each one weighs heavily on me, but none so much as that first day on the bridge.

V: Here.
T: No, I’m fine.
V: Take it. You need a drink. Bad.
T: ...Thanks.
V: Go ahead and finish it if you want.
T: Are you kidding? We haven’t even gotten to the really hard part yet.
V: Do you mean the Breach, or… ?
T: No, I don’t mean the Breach.

The bridge was a relatively short distance across, but it felt far longer. Neither Cassandra nor I spoke as we took in the terrible scene around us. The soldiers at the far end let us through the second gate without comment, and indeed barely seemed to notice us at all except for a nearly automatic nod in deference to Cassandra as one of them handed her a shield.

The path turned left past the gate and up a hill where it ran up against the edge of a forest. The air was cold out beyond the shelter of the village’s meager walls, but the wind was still and quiet. It would have felt isolated but for the barricades and frightened soldiers that lined the path in silence, watching the hill ahead with weapons drawn.

I glanced curiously at them as we approached, but just then the silence was broken by several men appearing over the crest and running toward us, crying out in fear about the end of the world as they came. They did not stop for us, nor did the soldiers attempt to bar their way, and they banged on the gate behind us until they were let through. The gate shut firmly once more a moment later.

I frowned, my dread growing. Something is very wrong. An explosion would certainly mean casualties, but why the armed soldiers? Why the barred gates? Why barricades and drawn weapons? They were deathly afraid of something, and it couldn’t be just the Breach above if they were expecting it to come hurtling over that hill at any moment. And whatever it was, we were going toward it.

Cassandra, of course, paid no attention to any of this as she continued her grim march forward, one hand resting on the pommel of her sword, the shield hoisted onto her shoulders. She seemed to know what to expect, at least. I eyed the treeline once more, wondering how far I would get if I started running right now. As I was surveying the density of the trees for sufficient cover, however, I was blinded by a green flash of light followed closely by another wave of searing pain, much like the one that struck me back in the village.

I felt my knees hit the hard, frozen ground as I collapsed once again. My voice sounded hoarse and strangled as I cried out, and I struggled to regain my composure as I gripped my left wrist and stared at my palm as the light pulsed, flickered, then faded. It took some time before I was able to steady my ragged breathing.

“The pulses are coming faster now,” Cassandra noted as she stood over me in patient vigil. “The larger the Breach grows, the more rifts appear.” She had been looking upward, but now turned her gaze down to me. “The more demons we face.”

Demons…

My thoughts were scattered, but I tried to focus through the pounding headache that had started. Demons would explain what everyone was so terrified of, what they were fortifying against and guarding the village from. But they also meant something far more disturbing. Demons coming from the Breach could mean only one thing.

No.

One thing at a time. I shook my head against the thought, focusing instead on standing, refusing Cassandra’s offered hand, but noting her nod of approval when I was on my own two feet and ready to proceed. So she respects strength? Or stubbornness? Or perhaps she just doesn’t distinguish between the two.

We continued on down the road. By now, we were over the hill and out of sight of the gate and its guards. It was eerily quiet without the scurrying and barked orders of other soldiers nearby. I took the brief calm as a chance to think through my situation more carefully.

Examining my hand, I saw that the light had nearly disappeared, but a narrow slit remained, an ember of sickly green. I could still feel it in me, barely concealed beneath my flesh. Its cool pallor contrasted with my normally warm brown tone. A thunderous warning emanated from the Breach above, a grim reminder that I was anchored to this disaster whether I liked it or not. I watched it churn and rumble above us, discolouring the landscape below just as the ember in my hand discoloured the skin around it.

“How did I survive the blast?” I asked. It seemed unfathomable.

“They said you… stepped out of a rift, then fell unconscious,” Cassandra answered, not turning her head as she continued to march just ahead of me. “They say a woman was in the rift behind you. No one knows who she was.”

The woman at the top of the hill, I remembered. Had she been helping me, or chasing me? Why did I remember falling if I was seen stepping out of a rift? Every answer I got only led to more questions. Nothing about this made any sense. Cassandra paused at last, and nodded in the direction of the valley spread below and before us.

“Everything farther in the valley was laid to waste, including the Temple of Sacred Ashes. I suppose you’ll see soon enough.”

I looked where she had beckoned and saw snow-laden hillsides, bordered by the mountains behind me and at the far horizon. The Breach had so discoloured the sky that I could scarcely tell whether it was day or night. Every so often, a meteor trailing dark clouds would issue forth from the Breach, falling to the ground below. Flames dotted the landscape, growing more concentrated in a certain spot some distance from us in the heart of the valley. Where the Temple used to stand, I realized.

From here, I could see where the path we were taking was leading us. We were descending into the valley onto a small bridge, passing over the river where it curved back and forth through the uneven terrain.

Before we were halfway over the bridge, however, a wall of green light blocked our path, and I felt the impact of what must have been one of those meteors as it struck the stone. I had no time to collect myself; the ground dropped out from underneath me and I tumbled end over end, coming to land hard on my side. I felt a sharp pain in my ribs and hoped they weren’t broken as I tried to regain my bearings.

I had fallen to the river below, which thankfully had frozen over in the harsh mountain cold. A grunt and movement from behind me told me Cassandra had landed nearby. As I looked back to check, another meteor surged down and struck the river only yards from us with a deafening crash. I quickly tried to stand, thinking to get to the river shore in case the impact had cracked the ice. Cassandra stood her ground, sword at the ready and facing the spot where the meteor had struck.

I followed her gaze and saw no impact crater, but instead a dark shadow. I watched in growing horror as the shadow formed into black crystals that jutted upward from the ice. The crystals swiftly twisted themselves into a figure that could only be described as the ghastly shadow in the vague shape of a person.

Oh, sweet Maker! I hadn’t wanted to face the implication before when Cassandra had mentioned demons coming from the rifts, but here was unavoidable proof of a truly disturbing realization. If demons were coming from the Breach, that could only mean it linked directly to the Fade. And a hole that large that led to the Fade could only mean worldwide catastrophe.

I stood, frozen in horror with the knowledge that there was nowhere I could run that would allow me to escape this doom. The Breach would continue to grow, causing untold damage to the Veil, nevermind how much it was already strained. The Veil was the only barrier separating the waking world from the Fade. And if that collapsed? There was no telling how much suffering would be unleashed upon the world then.

“Stay behind me!” Cassandra did not spare a single glance for me; in an instant, her shield was hoisted in her off hand and she was toe to toe with the shadow, and I was alone.

Run, my mind whispered. With Cassandra distracted this was likely the best chance I would get. A second shadow began to take shape barely three paces from me. Run.

Cassandra was still locked in her own battle and could not stop me, and this second demon was between her and me. I could run, and she would be trapped, unable to pursue. But that would mean leaving her outnumbered and flanked.

Stay behind me! Her last words lingered in my thoughts. She hadn’t hesitated to protect me, even though I was her prisoner. Even though she believed me to be a murderer and the one responsible for all the death and destruction she had seen these last few hours. As the shadow rose from the ground and began to solidify, I spared one last glance at the shoreline… and there, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a staff laying haphazardly across an abandoned crate.

Looking back now, I can appreciate the significance of this moment. I was at a crossroads, but didn’t realize it then. At the time, I only saw the clear choice presented to me - run, and leave this woman to her fate, taking my chances that I could gain enough distance from the Breach that it would no longer hurt me. Or stay and fight, and do what I could to stop this mess from getting worse.

V: Not much of a choice, when you put it like that.
T: You’re right, it wasn’t much of a choice at all.
V: There’s the Inquisitor I know.

I picked up the staff.

Cursing my foolishness and the Maker for His sense of timing, I turned to face the demon. It was a Shade, the studious part of my mind recalled. I had studied all the various spirit types, had been trained in the most effective battle strategies for each, practiced and drilled regularly ever since I passed my Harrowing, like the good little tool I was intended to be. Still, it is altogether a different matter to face one in the flesh, with no senior enchanters standing ready to jump in if I got in over my head. I had no idea if I was ready for this, but my decision was made. No turning back now.

The Shade was already advancing on me, and there was no more time to think. With a steadying breath, I reached down into myself, to the power that sat ever ready at my core. I felt the familiar spark in response to my summon, and channeled it into the staff, where it readily flowed and sizzled with potential, mingling with the energy infused there; winter energy, I could tell from the feel of it. How fitting, given the climate. I focused on that energy, getting a feel for its limits and potential, projecting it toward my intended target. All of this happened within a single moment.

I let my training take over as I pointed the staff and unleashed a flurry of icy blasts against the advancing Shade. The third strike hit home and froze it in place, exactly as I’d hoped. Before it could break free I spun the staff overhead and brought it down with a solid crack, summoning a lighting bolt down on top of us both. I felt the power of the storm spell surround me for just an instant, let it energize me as I lifted the staff to unleash another series of freezing blasts. I began a steady march backward, continuing my assault as it followed, keeping myself always just out of its reach while it frantically lashed out at me, ignoring the damage I dealt it though I knew it was hurting.

Before I knew it, the thing let out a pitiful shriek and dissolved before me. Urgently, I looked across the ice to Cassandra, but she had just finished dispatching her own foe and was turning back toward me. I scanned our surroundings, not wanting to be caught off guard again, and was relieved to see no more shadows moving nearby.

“It’s ov---” I started, but my breath caught as I was suddenly nose-to-tip with a blade, and Cassandra’s fierce glare.

“Drop your weapon! Now.”

You’ve got to be kidding me! I stared back at her, incredulous at her command. I wanted to shout at her, to vent all my frustration at this madness onto her. I wanted to swing that stupid staff around and knock sense into her thick skull. For the briefest instant, I regretted not taking my chance to run.

“Do you really think I need a staff to be dangerous?” I challenged her.

“Is that supposed to reassure me?”

“I haven’t used my magic on you yet.”

I stood my ground, meeting Cassandra’s glare with my own, bolstered by my righteous fury at a lifetime of imprisonment and suspicious glares, of always being treated like a sleeping demon no matter how hard I worked to prove myself otherwise. I had given up my one advantage, my one hope of getting a fair trial without the taint of my abilities poisoning my chances. I may as well own this moment, with head held high.

The river had grown quiet in the aftermath of our small battle, with only my own panting and the occasional cracking of the ice to be heard. Finally, Cassandra sighed, her shoulders relaxing slightly.

“You’re right,” she admitted grudgingly as she sheathed her sword. “You don’t need a staff, but you should have one. I cannot protect you.”

I could scarcely believe my eyes as she turned and started walking away. Had I just won that standoff? I started across the frozen surface after her, but after a few paces, she paused and turned back to look at me. Her expression had softened, and she looked almost… Remorseful? I waited, wary, in case she changed her mind.

“I should remember that you did not attempt to run,” she said with a contemplative frown, almost as if to herself. Then, she turned back to the path ahead of her and continued on.

I stood there, amazed at the direction things had just gone. I got the feeling we had both just entered uncharted territory. A mage and a representative of the Chantry, choosing to trust each other. Cassandra had chosen to move forward, once more without looking back. How could I do any less?

Before she could get too far ahead of me, I moved to follow after her.

Chapter Text

More fighting followed, and Cassandra and I fell into a pattern; she took point, making herself the bigger target, while I stayed at a distance and hurled ice spells using my newly acquired staff to slow the demons’ progress. If too many got near, I would summon storms with my own power reserves to strike at them with lightning. It sounds simple, but even with the staff to supplement my abilities, it was draining.

Until that day, I had never endured any kind of sustained fighting. The most I had ever done was quick ambushes, meant only to defend against any Templars on our trail, then turn and flee with the few of us who remained from Ostwick’s Circle. All Circle mages are trained in battle magic, of course. Unfortunately, there is no way to prepare us for the stamina required in extended combat.

So much of what I experienced that first day after the Breach opened was entirely new, but all novelty was wasted on me while I fought battle after battle. Each one left me more drained, and it wasn’t long before my feet began to drag. I don’t know how long we were out there; Maker, I wasn’t even sure when I’d last eaten. Cassandra seemed to know where we were going, and I didn’t question her. We traveled for a while in unspoken understanding in this way; her in the lead, me trailing behind, setting my course by those squared shoulders of hers, panting and heaving and wondering where her endless energy came from.

After some time - I couldn’t say how long exactly - I heard what had become the familiar sounds of fighting, seemingly coming from just over a rise not far ahead. It took another moment before I picked out the distinct sounds of spellcraft. Cassandra heard it too, and picked up her pace to reach the top of the hill. I sighed and wearily followed.

Once I caught up with her, still trying to catch my breath, I was greeted with yet another spectacle I would not come to appreciate the oddity of until much later. Two combatants - an elf and a dwarf - faced off against a handful of demons. I knew the elf for an apostate almost immediately from the feel of his spells and the make of his staff. The dwarf had what may have been a crossbow, though its design was unusual, and he was loading and shooting bolts at incredible speed into the enemies before him.

The true oddity, however, came not from the two fighters but from what they fought beneath: what could only be described as a tear in the air, hovering several yards off the ground, out of reach. The tear itself wasn’t from anything solid that I could see; it was an opening in the air itself, with nothing below or behind it that it touched. The ground below it was pulsing, and shadows took shape and clawed at the unlikely pair still holding strong against them. Shades again, some part of me noted. Its sickly green aura matched the glow coming from my hand, and as we drew nearer I felt the tingling in my left palm intensify, as if drawn toward it.

For some reason, it filled me with dread. I didn’t understand why, except that it was obviously connected to the Breach. And to me. My palm, this new horror and the demons it seemed to spawn, the great gaping wound in the sky above… I was part of all this, somehow, whether I wanted to admit it or not.

Cassandra said lunged forward without waiting for me, her sword already drawn. Not taking the time to wonder why we were helping two strangers, I pushed my thoughts aside, hoisted my staff once more and set about helping dispatch this latest foul throng.

It went far quicker with more to help, and soon the last of the Shades were dispatched. Before I had a chance to take a breath, however, I felt a hand wrap tightly around my left wrist. I turned in momentary panic, thinking I had missed an enemy, and met the urgent gaze of the apostate elf.

“Quickly, before more come through!” he shouted, thrusting my hand up to the gash in the air.

Energy flowed through my hand, both like and unlike the sensation I felt before when the Breach expanded. My nerves were on fire, but it wasn’t painful; or at least, pain wasn’t the right word for it. It poured into me through the mark from the rift, filling me with that fire, making everything burn and leaving char and ashes in its wake. Instinctively, I recoiled, but whether because of the elf’s grip or some other force, I was helpless, frozen with my arm outstretched. All I could do was wait, terror-stricken, for it to fill me until I burst open like the sky above.

Then, suddenly, it was over. The tear before us was gone, and though my hand trembled in the aftermath, I was whole. The searing had subsided, leaving only the memory behind.

V: Was it like that every time?
T: Yes.
V: Shit… It never looked like you enjoyed it, but I can’t believe I never noticed how… intense it was for you.
T: I was unprepared that first time, but believe it or not I got used to it after a while. I just wish I knew a better way to describe it. Like… being set on fire and dipped in a frozen pond at the same time.
V: That certainly sounds painful.
T: I know, but it’s more complicated than that.
V: … How about a stronger drink?

The apostate released my hand. My ears rang, my vision was spotty, and my skin prickled. I felt all eyes on me, as I looked to the apostate in bewilderment.

“What did you do?” I demanded.

“I did nothing,” he responded in an even tone. “The credit is yours.” Credit? I was incredulous. He could have killed me with that little stunt, and he was implying that I was thanking him?

Cassandra was beside us now, looking between me and the now empty spot in the air just above us. I flexed my palm, still sensitive, and stared up at the same spot. Only a moment ago it held what must have been a tear in the Veil, a direct hole into the Fade.

“I closed that thing…” I said aloud as the connection at last hit me.

“Whatever magic opened the Breach in the sky also placed that mark upon your hand.” The elf glanced up at the sky where it was still green and torn and angry. Then, he returned his gaze to me. “I theorized the mark might be able to close the rifts that have opened in the Breach’s wake, and it seems I was correct.”

He sounded undaunted by all this, and unsurprised in his assertion. I got the impression that he was used to being correct, or at least being believed. How strange for an apostate to be so confident in his own authority.

Cassandra stepped forward, and I tensed, wondering what she would make of him and his theory. Instead of accusations or scrutiny, however, she asked with barely concealed hope sparking in her eyes, “Meaning it could also close the Breach itself?”

How interesting. Was she desperate for any possibility of victory, or did she actually trust him?

“Possibly,” he nodded, then turned his dark eyes back to me. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.” His tone hadn’t changed as he spoke, sounding for all the world as though this was a perfectly normal thing to tell someone.

Imagine having the fate of the world suddenly depend on you; the staggering weight of that responsibility, stated as plainly as a comment about the weather. I couldn’t begin to fathom the scale, the enormity of all it implied… Just beginning to think about it was making me dizzy.

A casual voice broke through the haze just then.

“Here I thought we’d be ass-deep in demons forever.” The dwarf stepped forward, adjusting his coat and bearing a ready smirk. “Varric Tethras,” he said as he looked up at me. “Rogue, storyteller, and occasionally unwelcome tagalong.” With that last comment, he transferred his gaze to Cassandra and offered her a wink, which she met with a roll of her eyes and disgusted grunt.

Well, at least I’m not the only one she isn’t pleased with today, I thought. Still, I couldn’t make any sense of who these two were or how Cassandra seemed to know them. Varric’s name sounded familiar, somehow, but I couldn’t place it. “Are you with the Chantry, or… ?”

The elf chuckled in response, and I immediately felt foolish for even asking. “Was that a serious question?”

Varric, at least, was more tactful. “Technically, I’m a prisoner, just like you.”

No, not just like me, I thought grimly, clenching my fist; it still tingled, though the sensation was beginning to subside. So it closes rifts. That was… something, at least. More than I had ten minutes ago.

Cassandra and Varric were now bickering over his reasons for remaining. It seemed he was meant to speak to the Divine about something, but recent events being what they were, he was left stranded here and had taken it upon himself to offer assistance. The elf, who I realized had yet to tell me his name, was setting about gathering his pack and reorganizing its contents. None of them seemed very concerned with me at the moment.

My mind was already going to work trying to make sense of all that had happened, but each time my thoughts returned to the Breach, reason was overwhelmed by dread. How much will it hurt when I try to close that? I had to wonder. Panic quickened my pulse, and my hands trembled. No! I couldn’t afford to lose it now. With slow, deep breaths, I managed to regain my focus. Keep it small, I told myself. Keep it simple.

“So I closed the rift,” I said, getting everyone’s attention. “What now?” Step by step. Simple tasks. Don’t think about the big picture. That was how I was going to get through this.

“Now we go to meet Leliana,” Cassandra answered. I recognized the name - the second woman who had interrogated me back at the village. I wondered how she could have gotten so far ahead of us before remembering that we had been waylaid at every turn by demons. Likely she had the good sense or luck to stay out of sight along her way.

“What a great idea!” Varric exclaimed, hoisting the strange crossbow over his shoulder. It looked unbearably heavy, but he seemed to have no trouble with it at all.

“Absolutely not!” Cassandra turned back to Varric. There was a story there, but I doubted either of them were willing to share just then. Seeming to realize her outburst was disproportionate, she pulled back slightly, and when she spoke again her tone was more even. “Your help is appreciated Varric, but---”

“Have you been in the valley lately, Seeker?” Varric interrupted. “Your soldiers aren’t in control anymore.” There was an unsettling thought. Could that mean the fighting would be worse the further we descended? I remembered with despair how exhausted I was. “You need me.” That last point was delivered almost gleefully, and elicited another disgusted grunt from Cassandra. I was now determined to know the story between these two. I was also sure to get a less violent response from Varric, so I resolved to ask him about it later.

If there is a later… The thought formed before I could quash it. Between the pain in my hand, the rifts that spat out demons, and the Breach itself, death was becoming less abstract with each passing moment.

Ultimately, Cassandra must have decided that arguing against more allies was foolish. With a resigned sigh, she oriented herself in the direction we were heading and called to us to follow. I was grateful; the aches and fatigue set off by continuing our relentless march was enough for now at least to distract me from the looming terror of what we were marching toward.

The apostate moved beside me as we walked and offered a polite smile, still behaving as though this were an average day for him.

“My name is Solas, if there are to be introductions,” he said. I smiled weakly in response, glad for more distraction from my own thoughts. “I’m pleased to see you still live.”

Still?

“He means, ‘I kept that mark from killing you while you slept’,” Varric clarified, quickening his steps to keep up.

Another delightful thought to repress. It took great effort not to stare in horror down at the mark embedded into my palm. I breathed in, slowly, trying to calm the rising panic - and bile - before it overwhelmed me. Solas was looking at me, sympathy apparent in that steady gaze of his. He probably knew better than anyone else what this thing was doing to me. Probably more than me.

“You seem to know a great deal about it all,” I remarked to him. It sounded more bitter than I had intended.

“Like you, Solas is an apostate,” Cassandra explained unnecessarily over her shoulder. She was already several paces ahead.

“Technically, all mages are now apostates,” Solas corrected. He was right, I knew. Since the Circles voted for rebellion, none of us could call ourselves citizens of the Chantry any longer. Still, I could tell Solas’s techniques were not Circle-trained. He was an apostate long before the Circles were abolished. “My travels have allowed me to learn much of the Fade, far beyond the experience of any Circle mage,” he continued. I tried not to bristle at the subtle jibe. “I came to offer whatever help I can give with the Breach. If it is not closed, we are all doomed, regardless of origin.”

Everyone seemed in agreement on that point, at least. The Breach, insistent that it not be forgotten, rumbled more threats of destruction from its vantage.

“And what will you do once this is all over?” I asked, curious what life would look like, if---No! One step at a time, remember?

“One hopes that those in power will remember who helped, and who did not,” Solas replied. He, at least, sounded sure that there would be something after… After. “Seeker Pentaghast,” he said, addressing Cassandra. “You should know, the magic involved here is unlike any I have ever seen. Your prisoner is a mage, but I find it difficult to imagine any mage having such power.”

T: …
V: … You okay?
T: Mmm? Oh, sorry, I suppose I trailed off there. Where was I?

At the time, I was grateful that Solas seemed to be defending my innocence, even while I resented him speaking about me as if I were not walking right there next to him. I was getting rather tired of people referring to me as some sort of anomaly or mystery that must be solved. Still, Cassandra at least seemed to accept this information with a nod.

“Understood.” Then, to the rest of us she added, “We must get to the forward camp quickly.”

“Well,” Varric said, walking past me. “Bianca’s excited!”

Bianca? Who else do I need to meet now… I wondered with annoyance, before realizing he was apparently referring to his crossbow. With Cassandra already several paces ahead, Varric not far behind, and Solas starting off after a brief nod to me, there was nothing for it but to continue on. I inhaled deeply, hoping the bracing cold of the mountains would rejuvenate me, and continued off down the path to join our newly grown company.

Chapter Text

With Cassandra leading the way, we continued on toward the forward camp, our progress intermittently halted by more shades and wraiths as we went. Both Solas and Varric were more than capable holding their own against attackers, but their styles and personalities were as different from each other as I was from Cassandra. It was a terribly strange sight to behold, all of us fighting side by side against a common enemy.

V: Why would that seem strange?
T: Remember, I’d been locked in the Circle most of my life until that point. I’d only ever fought in heavily guarded training sessions, and then only with and against other mages.
V: Mmm, good point. I keep forgetting how sheltered you were back then.
T: Most people do. Or they politely refrain from reminding me.

Neither Cassandra nor Solas seemed particularly verbose, and I spent most of that time too exhausted to say much of anything, but Varric seemed to delight in conversation. From what I could tell, he was deliberately trying to get a rise out of Cassandra in particular. It was working with surprising ease. Admittedly, I hadn’t known her long, but Cassandra seemed the unflappable type. I hazarded a guess to Solas - making sure both were out of earshot first - that the two were old lovers, but that earned only a wry laugh and shake of his head in response.

When he tired of provoking Cassandra, Varric turned his attention to me, peppering me with questions in between skirmishes.

“So I take it you’re from the Free Marches?”

“Oh?” I panted, struggling. The others had to pause frequently to allow me to catch up. I began to resent the looks of pity in their eyes, ashamed of my weakness and angry that my years confined indoors had left me at a significant disadvantage. Not their fault, I knew, but still immensely frustrating. It made me irritable and curt.

“Accent,” Varric explained. “I’m from Kirkwall, but you’re from… further east, maybe?”

“Is this another kind of interrogation?” I asked. It came out harsher than I’d intended, but Varric took it in stride.

“Oh, I’m sure Cassandra has done plenty of that,” he snarked, directing his comment ahead of us, where Cassandra led the party forward. Her shoulders stiffened and her fists clenched at her sides. I couldn’t help but snicker a little, despite myself, but quickly covered it with a sigh of exhaustion when she glared over her shoulder in my direction.

Wait… Kirkwall? I wondered briefly if that meant he had been witness to the uprising at the Circle there. The story of how the rebellion began had been passed back and forth so many times it had already reached legendary status to most mages. I wanted to ask about it, but I had enough air in my lungs for breathing or talking, not both.

As we began ascending yet another hill - to my everlasting dismay - the mark on my hand flared up again. I had to pause to collect myself, but was privately proud that I managed not to cry out. Cassandra turned and waited quietly, her brows drawn close in a concerned scowl. Solas looked equally troubled, and equally unsurprised. Varric cursed and jumped back.

“Shit, are you alright?” he asked. I could only shake my head sharply, knowing if I opened my mouth nothing would come out but a scream. It was spreading; I could feel it taking over my palm, climbing into my wrist, trying to worm its way up my arm. It felt like a sickness, like corruption. Part of my mind wondered horror-struck if this is what the taint felt like.

“We must hurry, before the mark consumes her,” I heard Solas saying to Cassandra.

“Hold on, we haven’t much further,” she called out to me, gesturing further up the hill.

I nodded, and after a moment the pain subsided enough for me to continue. There was awkward silence as I took several unsteady steps in the direction of the hillcrest. Every step grew easier than the one before, however, and soon I gained a second wind, determined to get this thing out of me as soon as possible. I was grateful for the distraction when Varric decided to resume his line of questioning, unperturbed by my earlier bluntness or what had just transpired.

“So… are you innocent?”

“I don’t remember what happened.”

Varric clicked his tongue in dismay. “That’ll get you every time. Should have spun a story.”

“That’s what you would have done,” Cassandra called back over her shoulder, still firmly in the lead. Maker, where did she get all that energy? She wasn’t even remotely out of breath!

Varric shrugged, unapologetic. “It’s more believable, and less prone to result in premature execution.”

I began to assemble pieces to the puzzle of his story by then, at least. Clearly he’d also been imprisoned by Cassandra, though for what I wasn’t sure. Most likely it was something to do with the uprising in Kirkwall; that being his home couldn’t be a coincidence. And I had the feeling that I’d heard his name before…

Shortly after that, though, we reached another hill and I was forced to transfer my concentration on steadying my breathing and counting my footsteps; I found that helped keep my mind from wandering to dark places when the conversation lulled, and distracted me from the growing ache in my lungs and limbs. Or the ever-present tingling in my left palm.

I must have been concentrating more than I realized, for I didn’t notice the distant shouting or the unholy roar of another rift until we were nearly upon it. Several soldiers were battling beneath it, crying out for help, eyes wide in terror behind their helmets.

“We must seal it, quickly!” I heard Solas shout from beside me. Blinking myself back to the moment, I somehow managed to summon the will for a chain of lightning to hit on the small cluster of demons, drawing their attention away from the soldiers as Cassandra moved in with a downward slash across the torso of the nearest shade, while Varric launched bolt after bolt into the creatures from the opposite side he’d somehow managed to sneak to without anyone noticing.

I fell into a battle rhythm that was quickly growing familiar, and before I knew it all were dispatched. I was just breathing a sigh of relief when I realized the rift was still there, and I could see movement from the other side. More were coming through.

“Hurry! Use the mark!” Solas shouted, and I cursed my slow wit. Of course, I had no idea how to use the mark, exactly. I recalled our first meeting; he had grabbed my hand and thrust it upward, aiming it at the rift. I mimicked that motion, and almost immediately the awful feeling of a flame that burns but does not consume became all I knew for a brief moment, before it faded just as suddenly and I was left standing there, the same as I was before. Except there was a difference now. The pain that had lingered in my palm had receded this time, and I felt… filled.

Looking down at my hand, I was dismayed to see the mark still there. At least the pain was gone for now. Solas approached me and laid a hand on my shoulder, though whether it was in gratitude or concern, I couldn’t tell. Cassandra was calling to the soldiers to open the gate, and then his hand was gone.

“We are clear for the moment,” Solas said before moving on. “Well done.”

“Whatever that thing is, it’s useful,” Varric said as he passed me.

The scene on the other side of the gate was ghastly, much like the first one I had crossed just outside the village where we’d started. Though, where that one had looked like the aftermath of a great battle, with soldiers being tended to physically and spiritually, this bridge was clearly still in the midst of the chaos wrought by the Breach. Not quite the front lines, but very close to them. People ran back and forth in urgency, and I dodged this way and that to stay out of their paths. The Breach was louder here, too; more insistent. It raged overhead while soldiers and priests and medics ran to and fro in vain beneath it.

Once, when I was still an apprentice back at the Circle, one of the younger students had been practicing a fire spell in the library when it got out of his control. Too afraid to say anything, he had merely fled the room, hoping to avoid trouble. Before anyone knew it, the flames had taken over an entire wing, devouring the dry paper and wood as would a starving child at a buffet. It quickly grew beyond any of our apprentice abilities to quell by magic, so we resorted to batting at it desperately with damp cloths. Eventually, several senior enchanters arrived and were able to get it under control, but not before it had gorged itself on dozens of tomes of great value, costing an untold amount of damage to the furniture and scorching the very stone.

These people running around the bridge had the same look in their eyes as they hurried about - as if they were battling a raging inferno armed with nothing but damp cloth. It was a look of desperation, of knowing the battle was already lost, but too afraid to give up and face the flames.

If Cassandra was right, and that I somehow caused all this… I shuddered, remembering that poor, frightened little boy. I had seen him flee the room but hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. Others had seen him too, for it hadn’t taken long before he was identified as the source of the disaster. Hugging myself to stop the trembling, I remembered the tears that had streaked twin paths down his plump cheeks, his mouth open in a screaming plea as he was dragged off, his feet kicking in vain at the ground, held by his arms by two silent Templars, impassive behind their featureless helmets. They were taking him to the room on the top floor, the one reserved but for a single purpose.

I tried not to think of what these terrified people would do to me if they found me guilty.

Ahead of me Cassandra was heading toward someone -- no, two people -- leaning over a desk erected hastily to the side, toward the far end of the bridge. Varric and Solas were off to the other side, staying out of the way and watching the two with interest. As I approached, it was apparent that they were having a heated argument. The one facing me, a man, dressed as a Chantry official of some rank or other, was trying to shout down the woman opposite him.

The woman - whom I now recognized as Leliana, the second woman from the cell where I first regained consciousness - was giving as good as she got. “The prisoner must get to the Temple of Sacred Ashes!” she insisted. “It is our only chance!” They were arguing about me? I cautiously crept closer.

“You have already caused enough trouble without resorting to this exercise in futility… ” The official continued wildly gesticulating, while Leliana continued attempting to talk over him. I was almost beginning to enjoy the show, when unfortunately the official noticed my presence. His displeasure was apparent.

Leliana turned and spotted us. “You made it,” she said flatly. For an instant, her face relaxed with what might have been relief, but it was gone so quickly I couldn’t be sure. In its place her expression became a neutral mask, impossible to discern. She turned back to the loud one behind her. “Chancellor Roderick, this is---”

“I know who she is,” he growled in her direction, though now his eyes were locked on me. He glared with a hatred that reminded me uncomfortably of the villagers back at the Chantry. It took effort not to fidget under that glare. After sufficiently sizing me up, he turned his attention to Cassandra, who had taken up a position next to Leliana at the desk. “As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take this criminal to Val Royeaux to face execution!”

Wait, execution? My eyes widened, and suddenly the crying child was forefront in my mind again as I waited for Cassandra’s response, not daring to turn and meet her gaze.

“Order me?” Cassandra merely scoffed, unimpressed with the authoritative tone in his voice. “You are a glorified clerk, a bureaucrat!”

“And you are a thug!” the chancellor argued. “But a thug who supposedly serves the Chantry!”

“We serve the Most Holy, Chancellor, as you well know.” Leliana stepped in.

“Justinia is dead!” Roderick dismissed her comment and I heard Cassandra’s gasp at his cold impertinence. “We must elect her replacement, and obey her orders on the matter!”

The three of them converged on each other, debating amongst themselves as to my ultimate fate, as if I was not a living, breathing person standing right there before them. Rage and indignation began to rise within me. I had spent my entire life being discussed and debated over, listened to others weigh in on the risks and benefits of allowing my continued existence. In all that time, I had been forced to push down my anger and fear, knowing the consequences of allowing it to take over would only serve as an excuse to them that I was too great a risk. The hubris, the hypocrisy of it all was infuriating, and for the first time in my life, I had the leverage needed to ensure that I was no longer ignored. I was done pushing down my feelings.

“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here!” I demanded, my voice carrying above the argument, giving the others pause. All three turned to look at me, and at least Cassandra had the grace to look embarrassed. Leliana’s face remained inscrutable. Chancellor Roderick was only more infuriated at the gall that I should dare to speak up for myself.

“You shouldn’t even be here!” he spat at me, his face turning red. He looked as though he was ready to vault the table and throttle me, and I was more than ready for him to try it, but Cassandra stepped between us, and whatever was writ on her face made Roderick calm himself enough to resume their argument in a more even tone. “Call a retreat, Seeker. Our position here is hopeless.”

Just like that, I was an afterthought again. All my rage was worth no more than a momentary annoyance to them. I could hardly believe it. I was there, and it was my life being drained from me while they stood there debating troop movements. I could feel the tingling creeping back into me, each beat of the pulse in my palm growing more insistent, and fear swept in to replace the anger. I could feel my chest expand and contract as I gasped for breath, feeling like everything was collapsing around me. My heartbeat filled my ears. I heard only disparate words here and there, and I struggled to make sense of them.

“... to the temple, it’s the quickest… “

“... charge as a distraction… through the mountains… “

“... too risky… “

“Listen to me… “

Suddenly, everything stopped. The world flashed green, and I clenched my teeth on another cry as I felt that same pain, pulling me up, trying to draw me into the sky and swallow me. What would happen if I went through that Breach, I wondered? Would my very soul disappear as if I never was? Would anyone remember me, remember that I hadn’t wanted this, that I tried to fix it?

Then the pain was gone. I was still standing there on the bridge, surrounded by people all looking at me in a multitude of expressions. Solas and Varric looked worried, many others were terrified, Leliana was intrigued, Roderick was making warding symbols with his hands and backing away, and Cassandra…

Cassandra stood before me, meeting my gaze unflinching. Her eyes were clear with purpose, her jaw set. She did not pity me, nor did she fear me.

“How do you think we should proceed?” she asked. The question was so ludicrous I almost laughed.

“Now you’re asking me what I think?”

“You have the mark,” Solas pointedly reminded everyone, though his comment was to me.

“And you are the one we must keep alive,” Cassandra added. “Since we cannot agree on our own…”

For the first time, I was given authority over my own fate. I was allowed to make a choice. As absurd as it may sound, I was profoundly grateful to her for that. I was sure at that point that whatever this mark was, it was killing me. She had given me the opportunity to choose how I go. I will always be grateful to Cassandra for that moment.

I tried to recall what they had been debating while I was blindly panicking. Something about a mountain pass; Leliana insisted that was the safer path. But no, Cassandra had said they’d lost a scout troop there, hadn’t she? The other choice, what was it? Direct charge. Swiftest path between any two points was a straight line. I clenched my left fist, feeling the lingering sensation of the otherworldly poison trying to climb its way up my arm. My decision was made.

“I say we charge,” I said with a nod. “I won’t survive long enough for your trial…” I hesitated, knowing in my soul that I spoke the truth, but not wanting to admit it out loud. Still, nothing for it, so I continued. “Whatever happens, happens now.”

Cassandra nodded, accepting the choice instantly. She turned to Leliana and gave a few short commands, then Leliana turned to carry them out. Roderick had a parting rebuke, but I was no longer paying attention. A choice had been made, and we had the path laid out before us. This time, I took the lead. From here, it was easy to determine our route, setting my compass by the great ashen cloud ahead.

Chapter Text

T: No, you are not calling it that.
V: Aw, come on, everyone loves the romance angle!
T: Absolutely not.
V: Fine… You’re about as much fun as Curly about this you know.
T: I’ll take that as a compliment.
V: You would.

Chapter Text

Looking back now, I don’t think I acknowledged at the time how readily Solas and Varric agreed to join us for the push to the site where the Temple of Sacred Ashes once stood. I didn’t know their reasons for staying with me at the time, nor did I realize the risk they were taking upon themselves in different ways. All I knew was we were walking toward possibly the greatest disaster in living memory after the Fifth Blight, and without a word being said, both men stood by my side. None of us knew what we would be facing, but at least I knew who I would be facing it with. That was not something I was used to; relying on others. Another novelty I would not come to fully appreciate until much later.

The giant smoking crater where the Temple used to stand was before and below us, spread out across the valley in ruins. Together with the soldiers under Cassandra’s command, we started forward, our faces and shoulders set with the grim purpose given to us. I tried to focus only on placing one foot in front of the other and not wonder about what horrors might await us when we reached the spot directly below that Breach.

This close to the center, I began to spot mages and Templars among the injured. Mages are easy enough to recognize if one is paying attention, though the exact reason is hard to describe to anyone not attuned to the Fade. Suffice to say, the air is more energized around mages, filled with potential, as if the invisible currents of magical aura are waiting expectantly to be turned to corporeal purpose.

Templars are also easily recognized, but for different reasons. Their armor makes them easy enough for anyone to spot, but a mage would know them regardless from the way they felt. It’s nearly the exact opposite feel a mage gives off; the air around a Templar feels more… firm, more solid, for lack of a better word. I once heard a colleague describe the sensation as a kind of obstinacy, a refusal of the very will of the world around you to bend or respond to your summons. I hadn’t noticed the difference until I was forced to flee Faxhold and Ostwick with the rest of my Circle - the ones who survived the purge, anyway - and found myself free of the presence of Templars for the first time since I was a child.

It’s a misconception, though, that Templars always negate magic without having to try. In actual fact, they must deliberately invoke their abilities in order to cancel our own. In a Circle, most Templars are trained to constantly nullify magic anywhere that isn’t an approved training area. However, this is hardly practical outside a Circle, and so Templars are harder to identify when on the run. Those few of us left had to learn to attune ourselves to that particular sensation, that flatness of the air, that stubbornness of will. Once it had been discerned, we knew to flee as far and as fast as we could.

After spending the last year or so on the run, I’d gotten quite astute at sensing them at a distance. It took a great deal of willpower not to run in the opposite direction the instant I noticed their presence. I expected one of them to challenge me, or to feel the uncomfortable scrutiny I had grown up with, but none of them paid me any mind, keeping their attentions on their own injuries or other fallen brethren. After spending my life under the suspicious gaze of Templars, to be ignored by them entirely was an odd experience.

Continuing forward, we began to see more of the soldiers combatting the army of demons that seemed to cluster more densely as we grew closer to the epicenter. The sounds of battle were all around us now, but the fighting was carefully kept at a distance by smaller squads posted further ahead. It was their job to clear a path so we - so I - could get to the Breach. We saw the cost of that whenever we came upon the aftermath of one of their encounters with the terrors of the Fade. I heard Cassandra recite prayers for their souls to find peace with the Maker whenever we passed another series of bodies. I could only make apologies and promise that their sacrifice would not be wasted. I tried not to think about whether their lives would have been spared if I had chosen the path through the mountains instead; the choice was made, and there was no turning back.

It wasn’t long before we came upon another rift. We were well past the bridge at that point, and nearly to the Temple itself. Solas called out the warning first, but I was beginning to sense them on my own. A familiar crackle in the air always preceded them. It was daunting to think of coming so close to the Fade here in the waking world, and I noted how no one was willing to state it out loud, though everyone must have understood the rifts for what they were as well as I. Perhaps some things are easier to accept with a bit of plausible deniability.

The few remaining soldiers were already locked in combat with the demons and appeared to be having a more difficult time of it. Cassandra tore through three Shades that had one poor fighter surrounded, and I hit a pair of Wraiths that had been attempting to flank another with a bolt of lightning, causing a chain effect. Magic came much easier closer to the rifts, for which I was grateful, as my own stamina was waning fast. Before long, the enemies were dispatched, and it was on me to close the tear they came through. Reluctantly, I thrust my hand toward it and endured the fire that does not burn, and was disturbed to find that I was actually growing used to the sensation.

“Sealed, as before,” Solas said, coming to stand next to me. “You are becoming quite proficient at this.” I sensed a hint of approval in his tone, and wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or unsettled that he was right.

“Let’s hope it works on the big one,” Varric added. I nodded my wholehearted agreement.

One of the soldiers that had just been giving orders to the others approached and addressed Cassandra, greeting her with familiarity. Others on the field deferred to him as well, I noticed; likely he had some rank over them. He must have asked her about the rift, for after a moment she stepped back and gestured to me to step forward.

“Do not congratulate me, Commander,” she said as I came closer. “This is the prisoner’s doing.”

“Is it?” The soldier - commander, I noted - transferred his gaze to me, and I felt cold scrutiny behind his amber eyes as he addressed me. “I hope they’re right about you. We’ve lost a lot of people getting you here.” I felt another pang of guilt, wondering once more if I should have taken the other path. Hoping that I wasn’t the cause of all this chaos and pain and terror. Fearing that I was.

For the moment, all I could do was helplessly shrug in response. “You’re not the only one hoping that.”

“We’ll see soon enough, won’t we?” he said. He paused for a moment, as if there was more he wanted to say. Instead, he turned to Cassandra, and gestured further afield. “The way to the Temple should be clear. Leliana will try to meet you there.”

Cassandra nodded. “Then we must move quickly. Give us time, Commander.” I flinched, knowing this request would undoubtedly mean more casualties, more lives sacrificed so I could have my one desperate attempt at fixing this disaster, and we didn’t even know for sure whether it would work.

I found myself under the stern gaze of the Commander again. Surely he knew the cost better than I. How long had he been out here trying in vain to contain all this damage? He tried to keep his expression neutral, but the bags under his eyes and the slouch in his shoulders betrayed his exhaustion. Maker, I was exhausted and I’d only been at this for, what? A few hours? He had the look of a man who hadn’t seen a bed in days. I wondered not for the first time how long all this had been going on before I had woken up chained to the floor of that dungeon.

As he turned to leave, he addressed me once more. “Maker watch over you… for all our sakes.” Strangely, it sounded as if he actually meant it.

I watched him jog off to join the rest of his company, taking the arm of an injured soldier struggling to keep up with the others. After a brief pause, I turned back to face the direction of the Temple. Belatedly, I realized I hadn’t even gotten his name.

C: Pardon the interruption, I just need to--
V: --Oh, good. Curly! Give me a sec, will you?
C: Oooh no. I was told to stay clear of this room while you two worked. I just needed a candle from the desk there…
V: I just wanted to get your first impressions of the Lady Herald.
C: Hah! I’m not fool enough to answer that. I’ve read your books.
V: I have no clue what you could possibly be inferring.
T: What’s wrong, afraid you’ll offend me?
C: That’s not what I--
V: --Come on, it’s for posterity. No exaggerated prose, I promise.
C: I have no interest in helping you turn a retelling of Tess’s accomplishments into some silly star-crossed lovers romance.
V: It can be both!
T: I told you he would hate that title.
C: The answer is no.
V: Alright, alright. But there’s nothing wrong with a little romantic subplot. People eat that shit up.
C: Clearly…
T: Your Book of the Champion was one of your most popular works, and it was a biography.
V: A heavily exaggerated biography. And if you’ll recall, there was a fair bit of romance in that too.
T: Fair point.
V: At least give me your first thoughts of each other. It is relevant to this chapter, right?
C: Andraste preserve me… Fine, but to be honest there’s not much to tell.
V: You expect me to believe she didn’t leave an impression on you?
C: Quite the opposite, just not what you’re expecting.
V: Oh?
C: All I can really remember of that moment was how afraid she looked. I’d heard the rumor that they’d caught the person who destroyed the Temple, but when I saw her, I refused to believe she was the one responsible. She looked… terrified.
T: I was.
V: Perfectly rational reaction to the situation at hand, if you ask me. Theresa, your turn now.
T: Well, I’ve already told you. He just looked so exhausted. And very much like he didn’t want to be there.
C: Heh, well I’ll admit I did tend to have a permanent scowl on my face in those days.
V: And for a long while after.
C and T: …
V: Sorry, did I kill the mood?
C: Maker’s breath…
T: I did warn you to stay away.
V: Wait, don’t leave yet! I have follow-ups!

Chapter Text

Nothing could have prepared me for the Temple of Sacred Ashes. My worst nightmares had never been that cruelly vivid. The ground still blew out smoke that smelled acrid and electric. It reminded me of the scent that came from the rifts, only now undercut by char and cooked meat. I wasn’t sure at first where the scent of meat came from, but then I saw the first of many burned corpses scattered across the valley and the realization hit me with an awful clarity as I fought back a wave of nausea.

I still dream of those poor souls, the grim statues left in tribute to the grave that was once a holy place, their faces contorted in fear and pain. Many were kneeling or throwing their arms up in futile attempts to fend off the coming doom, forever frozen in their last moments. It must have been agonizing. Flames still danced at their feet, melting them into the ground and turning them into horrifying permanent fixtures. Not all were intact; here and there we would find limbs, a skull, a torso.

It was hot here, and everywhere around us the land was blackened and laid bare. The force of the explosion had torn through everything in a wide radius surrounding the Temple. Wherever I looked, I saw the aftermath of death and destruction. And above it all, the open maw of the Breach growled hungrily. From here, it seemed to block out the whole sky, casting perpetual night over the landscape below.

I survived this? I couldn’t fathom it, gazing out over the ravaged landscape.

“That is where our soldiers found you.” I started; I hadn’t noticed Cassandra come to stand next to me. She nodded to a spot several yards ahead, not meeting my gaze. I looked to where she indicated, but could see no difference, nothing to distinguish that specific area from anywhere else. “They said you stepped out of the Fade. They said a woman was in the rift behind you. No one knows who she was.”

I frowned, trying to remember. There was a steep hill, and at the top… I could almost see her, the outline, a silhouette of light. Barely an outline, but clearly a woman, with one arm outstretched. Warning? Or beckoning?

A hand on my shoulder forced me back into the present once more, and I looked beside me where Cassandra still stood. Ahead of us, Solas and Varric had stopped to look back, likely wondering what was keeping us. I glanced back to the spot where I was found, hoping to recapture some glimmer of that image again, to glean anything from that emptiness where memory should be, but there was nothing.

Nothing but a crater.

My past had nothing for me, and the present held only questions. As for my future… I flexed my hand, the left one, feeling the poison within it, still spreading with a will that was terrible and unceasing. I looked ahead to the pair of strangers inexplicably loyal despite the inherent danger we were all about to walk into. I looked to my side to lock eyes with Cassandra; my captor and my defender. They were waiting for me to continue forward. However short my future may be, at least it was mine to shape. That was something I’d never had before.

Clenching my fist, I inhaled deeply of the pungent air, and stepped forward to do what I could to fix this mess, and hopefully, save my own skin in the process.

We came out the other side of the archway together. Almost immediately, a flash of sickly green blinded us for a moment before drawing our gaze out and up… up… up.

Up.

It was the biggest rift we’d seen yet, and it hovered high in the air, well below the Breach but still far above our heads. I could see the trail of energy connecting the two, almost like a leash. It was hard to tell if the rift was being fed or was drawing power on its own, but I could see the flow so clearly it almost seemed solid, tangible. I was reminded uncomfortably of the feeling of being filled after closing a rift. It gave the illusion that the Breach was much closer than it was; or perhaps it made the rift seem so high up as to be unreachable.

“That is a long way up,” Varric voiced my own sentiment rather succinctly. Solas and Cassandra were silent, his gaze solemn and her mouth agape.

I hadn’t realized how intently I was staring at the massive gaping wound in the air above us until I was startled by armored boots coming to a halt behind us, and Cassandra called out to someone she knew. I turned to see Leliana, having arrived just after us. I spared a nod for her before turning back to contemplate how exactly I was going to even reach the blighted thing in front of me.

She and Cassandra shared words or orders, I wasn’t sure which. I was busy wondering whether the mark in my hand would be enough to close a rift of this size, and what effect it could possibly have on the Breach itself. Would it take all I had? What if I made things worse? After a moment, Cassandra stepped into my field of vision, all the same questions write on her face. Neither of us gave voice to them. There would have been little point in stating the obvious.

Instead, Cassandra said plainly, “This is your chance to end this. Are you ready?”

My chance. I would only get one. And it was too late to turn back now. I nodded.

“I’m assuming you have a plan to get me up there?”

“No,” Solas shook his head. “This rift was the first, and is the key. Seal it, and perhaps we seal the Breach.”

He sounded so certain. At least that made one of us. Well, and it was as good a plan as any other. Cassandra nodded.

“Then let’s find a way down. And be careful.”

Down seemed counterintuitive, but she was right. There was no way to get any higher, and it was impossible to reach the rift from the landing we’d come out on. Throughout the day - Maker, had it only been a day? - I had noticed there was a certain radius wherein the mark in my hand was able to interact with the rifts. I’d been able to intuit the size of each radius as we went along, dependant on each respective rift, and I could tell from where we were standing that we were too far from this one for me to be of any use.

So, down it was. With all the damage, it was difficult to tell whether the architecture pointing us down toward a singular focal point was intended or an accident of the explosion. Either way, it was obviously the origin point of the explosion. We tentatively worked our way around the broken stonework, attempting to find a path.

We didn’t get far before a booming voice echoed through the courtyard, so loud it pounded through my head, making it impossible to determine its origin. It took a moment for me to even comprehend that they were words being spoken, and I had to concentrate to process them.

“NOW IS THE HOUR OF OUR VICTORY. BRING FORTH THE SACRIFICE.”

I frantically scanned the area, but everyone else looked just as confused and alarmed as I. Soldiers were stationed at various points across the circumference of the balcony, and some were below already. All were looking in different directions, trying to find the source.

“What are we hearing?” Cassandra wondered, the fear and bewilderment clear in her voice and plain on her face.

“At a guess? The person who created the Breach.” Solas kept his gaze on the ground, face unreadable. His voice was markedly even, and I marveled at how calm he appeared. I noticed he was pointedly not looking at me, while others were now waiting on my word. Well, and if that voice belonged to the one who did all this, I was most eager to meet the bastard.

We continued picking our way carefully downward, when I heard Varric exclaim from behind me.

“You know that’s red lyrium, Seeker,” he said, for the first time sounding genuinely unsettled. I looked around to see what he meant, and saw several red crystals jutting out of the walls and floor ahead of us. Their fierce, bright color was at such contrast to the darkly foreboding burnt ruins and sickly muted green of the rift and the Breach that it hurt my eyes to look. I’d heard of red lyrium only through the rumors coming out of Kirkwall, but the descriptions hardly did it justice.

“I see it, Varric,” Cassandra responded.

“But what’s it doing here?” Varric was clearly agitated by its presence.

“Magic could have drawn on lyrium beneath the Temple, corrupted it,” Solas guessed.

“It’s evil,” Varric insisted. “Whatever you do, don’t touch it!” He and Cassandra both gave the stuff a wide berth, and Solas and I followed suit as we continued toward the path leading down into the courtyard.

“KEEP THE SACRIFICE STILL.” The voice again reverberated from everywhere and nowhere.

“SOMEONE HELP ME!” A second voice, belonging to a woman and sounding greatly imperiled, joined the first. It hit me like a thunderclap; I knew that voice! It stirred something in my memory, but even as I tried to reach that part of my mind that could put a face to the voice, it slipped back behind the fog and out of reach. I was left grasping desperately, more frustrated than before, as all around me turned their heads this way and that, trying to find the voice’s origin in the corporeal world.

Except Cassandra, who gasped with sudden recognition.

“That is Divine Justinia’s voice!”

How is that possible? I had assumed, given the grief-stricken tone and expression Cassandra exhibited whenever the Grand Divine was brought up, that there had been no doubt of her passing, that there had been a body or evidence of some kind. So, how were we hearing her voice now?

Looking up at the gigantic rift above, it suddenly made sense. If rifts were tears in the Veil, and by extension direct links to the Fade, it was possible the Fade was tapping into the memory of this place, making it interact with the waking world, causing the past to bleed through into the present.

I shook my head. It almost beggared belief, but the proof was right before our eyes. If the Veil was truly becoming that unstable… I shuddered at the possibilities that implied.

Finally, we reached a low enough outcropping of rocks that enabled us to jump down to the bottom of the crater, and we approached the base of that great and terrifying rift. I felt the air itself pulsate around me like a heartbeat. The ruins were all saturated with whatever energy was frothing forth from the Breach. Bright veins glowed and faded in waves through the fragmented walls that remained. It felt like walking into the core of some great beast.

Even the rift was different here. Instead of a simple tear, there was an ever-shifting mass of sharp-edged, jutting shapes that looked like crystals. It was impossible to tell if they were tangible or just clearer manifestations than the ones we’d faced previously, but they felt more solid.

I tried to puzzle out what that could mean, but I must have gotten too close, as I suddenly felt the air shift and my surroundings changed drastically.

I found myself standing in a room, surrounded by thick stone walls, whole and untouched by the explosion. It was dim, the torches hung at the four corners doing little to stave off the darkness. A woman hung suspended in the air before me, looking at me with terrified eyes.

“SOMEONE HELP ME!” The same echo of a memory resounded. It came from that woman.

A bright flash forced me to shut my eyes lest I become blinded, and when I opened them again I was back in the ruins of the crater, surrounded by bewildered soldiers. But the echoes weren’t finished.

“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?”

“That was your voice!” Cassandra declared from behind me, and if I did not know fear before, I knew it then. I had never heard my own voice through another’s ears before, and so had scarcely recognized it. Once Cassandra said it, however, I knew there could be no mistake; that was me. I had spoken to the Grand Divine before, yet I had no recollection of it. I felt the panic beginning to rise again. Why could I not remember? Just what had happened to me and how was it connected to all this chaos? Cassandra, too, was still trying to comprehend. “Most Holy called out to you, but… “

Then the rift took me by the hand.

I know no other way to describe what happened. My hand jerked upward of its own accord, and I felt as if I were being led, even though I was standing still. I was helpless, at the mercy of a will I could not hope to understand or combat. There was another flash of white light, and I was once again in the dark room, with the terrified woman hanging in the air before me.

This time, I recognized her as Grand Divine Justinia. A portrait of her had hung in Faxhold’s great hall for as long as I could remember, though here she appeared far older than the smooth features of the oil canvas. Behind her were several sets of eyes, red with menace and disembodied in the darkness left unpenetrated by the torchlight. A second figure, vague enough as to be indistinguishable, stood between us. It gazed impassionately down at the woman, even as she looked to me for aid, though I knew I could offer none.

Above them all, I sensed rather than saw another pair of eyes watching all this unfold. They were immense, yet inconspicuous somehow. Their colour eluded me; indeed even now I am unable to discern what they truly looked like. I knew only that they watched, and waited. It unnerved me more than anything else I saw that terrible day, though I did not understand why then.

“What’s going on here?” It was my own voice speaking now, from my own mouth, but I had not consciously spoken the words. Both figures turned to look at me, as I knew they would. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but likely it had to do with the unsettling sense that I had seen all this unfold before, and knew how it would end.

“Run while you can! Warn them!” the image of Divine Justinia pleaded to me. I remained frozen in place.

“We have an intruder,” the faceless silhouette said to those menacing red eyes. “Kill her, now.”

With another flash of white light, the echoes disappeared, and I was returned to the ruined courtyard as before. I was trying to make sense of what I’d just seen when I was jerked roughly from behind. Cassandra’s fierce, accusatory eyes were inches from mine.

“You were there!” she declared. Grabbing me by the shoulders, she shook me with every question as she demanded answers. “Who attacked? Was this vision true? What are we seeing?”

“I don’t remember!” I broke her grasp on me and stepped backward. I was reeling, not just from her grip, but from all I had seen. I could no longer deny that I had anything to do with all this, but nor could I remember what part I had played. What if I was responsible?

No! I couldn’t bare to think of it. I would never…

Solas stepped between us, directed our gaze upward to the rift.

“Echoes of what happened here. The Fade bleeds into this place.” His words brought me little comfort, merely confirming what I already knew, but they seemed to placate Cassandra for the moment. She clearly wanted to continue her barrage of questions, but held her tongue and settled her gaze on Solas, content for now to allow him to provide answers when she could not find any from me. “This rift is not sealed, but it is closed… albeit temporarily,” he explained. “I believe with the mark, the rift can be opened and then sealed properly and safely.” I waited for the catch. “However, opening the rift will likely attract attention from the other side.” There it was.

Cassandra caught on to his meaning swiftly.

“That means demons. Stand ready!” Her last statement was a command, shouted for the benefit of all who still stood guard over the courtyard. There was a brief flurry of activity as soldiers ran to and fro, taking better positions and knocking bows, drawing swords, preparing themselves. It all had the feel of a great inhale, then a pause of held breath while they waited. Only belatedly did I realize they were waiting on me.

Cassandra nodded to me, and I turned to face the rift. I noticed almost absently that I was holding my own breath as I lifted my left hand and pointed it toward the rift, not knowing whether the mark would be able to open as well as close. Solas seemed certain, and so I tried to take hold of that, to allow his confidence to bolster me. It took only a moment before I felt it; my nerves all alight, an inferno that encompassed only me.

Except this time it was different.

I should have known, beforehand; if closing a rift left me feeling overfilled with energy, opening one would logically have done the opposite. Too late, I tried to stop the flow of energy being pulled from me, already feeling the weakness waiting behind it. I hadn’t noticed until that moment how much I was being sustained by the energies I had been drawing from the rifts I had closed throughout the day. As it drained out of me, I felt my legs shake and my body collapse with the fatigue that was left.

I fell to the ground, no longer able to stand under my own strength. Above us, the rift was now open, and to my horror, movement was already stirring on the other side.

A great, armored, towering creature materialized from the rift and fell to the ground, shaking the fragile foundations. It announced its arrival with a great roar, and I let out the breath I’d been holding in a string of curses lost to its cacophony. A pride demon stood before us, almost tall enough to reach the balcony where the archers stood waiting, its frame massive and pierced with spikes. Its multitude of eyes quickly found me, regarding me with targeted malice.

I was powerless, frozen to the ground, weak as a newborn babe.

“Now!”

Cassandra’s order yielded a wave of arrows hurtling through the air, but they seemed to have little effect on the demon. It began marching toward me, and I cursed again. Desperately, I crawled backward, trying in vain to find the strength to stand and run, or even to summon a spell. But I had nothing left. The rift had taken everything.

Suddenly, Solas stood before me, and I felt the steadying calm of his magical aura as he summoned a barrier to lay over us both. With a sweeping motion, he called forth a burst of freezing cold wind that halted the demon in its tracks.

From there, it was chaos. I remember little of what came next, but I know there was a cacophony of shouting and steel against flesh and arrows flying and the electric crackle of the Pride demon’s enormous whip as it flew through the air. I remember the searing pain I felt when it flicked out toward me and wrapped around my torso. I think I was flung through the air then, as the next thing I knew was the hard ground against my face and a lingering ache in my knees, hands, and side. At some point, more demons must have come through; I found myself apart from any allies and surrounded by shades and wisps. I managed to find the strength to stand, then, having no choice but to run for my life. Every muscle screamed at me in protest as I dodged attacks and it was impossible to summon spells. Bereft of my magic, I was reduced to using my staff as a bludgeoning weapon to defend myself.

In desperation, I tried reaching out my left hand and willing the rift to close, hoping I would be able to draw on the energy it had taken from me. To my dismay, the burning sensation lasted only a moment before subsiding, and before I opened my eyes I knew it had failed. The rift was still above us, hovering in defiance of every sense of logic and sanity I had learned to trust in my life.

But something else had changed too. The Pride was kneeling as if in pain, and the few arrows still flying toward it actually seemed to be sticking.

“What did you do?!” A hand grabbed me by the arm and I was turned forcefully around to meet Leliana’s surprised expression.

Cassandra was faster to grasp what had happened. “The demon is vulnerable! Now!” At that, the others laid into the Pride with renewed vigour. Leliana quickly released my arm and resumed putting arrow after arrow to notch on her bow, releasing each with precision and a fluid motion that only came with extensive practice.

Other demons around me were advancing, and I wearily fended them off with what little energy I had left, temporarily boosted by my disrupting of the rift. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. I soon found myself struggling to stay upright and seeking cover to catch my breath. I felt the second skin of Solas’s barrier once again, but didn’t see him in the chaos of the battle. My body protested every movement, and everything within me cried out desperately for rest. It was all I could do to remain conscious and dodge the Pride’s stinging electric whip.

After what felt like an age, the demon finally fell to the swords and arrows of Leliana’s and Cassandra’s forces. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, but it was short-lived as I saw all eyes turning to me expectantly once more. In my adrenaline-addled and exhausted state, I couldn’t fathom why until Cassandra shouted to me.

“Now! Close the rift!”

The rift… right.

I lifted my hand out of habit, bracing for the impact of the Fade to engulf me again. Only this time it was worse. Far worse. I was being burned alive from the inside. I tried to break the connection, but my hand was held in place, no longer under my own power. I pulled harder, trying desperately to break away, but it was no use. The energy poured into me, but it was too much, too big, too volatile. I was coming undone, and there was nothing I could do about it. All my strength was sapped, I had no magic left in me, had barely the fortitude to remain standing. I had nothing left with which to fight.

Visions swam before me, disembodied and familiar.

A pair of cold, grey eyes regarding me with cool dispassion, a twinge of curiosity giving them pause.

The Divine, eyes pleading and desperate.

Myself, standing alone in the darkness, a dagger held in one shaking hand.

The face of a woman I didn’t recognize, serene and unconcerned in sleep, dark hair laying in waves around her oval face, spread out around her on a soft pillow. I raised the dagger---

No!

The word came to mind on its own. I was still burning, but some part of me wasn’t ready to give in yet. I latched onto that word, pulling every ounce of will and strength left in me, and instinctively I pushed back into the rift with everything I had. I felt a resounding rush of energy going upward, back into the Breach far above.

Then everything went dark, and I knew nothing more.

Chapter Text

V: So, now we get into the birth of the legend.
T: No, now I explain why I’m not a legend. Don’t forget why I agreed to do this.
V: All I’m saying is folks love a good story.
T: Clearly. But a good story shouldn’t preclude the truth.
V: Who said it did? If anything, the truth helps a good story. Shit, some of the craziest parts of my stories are based on real events.
T: Like your Tale of the Champion?
V: Hey, now, let’s not go there. We both know I wasn’t going for honesty with that one.
T: Yes, but the rest of Thedas doesn’t know that. That’s the problem.

Consciousness slowly returned. Shadows lingered in my thoughts as I slowly regained my bearings: portals into the Fade, a brilliant silhouette reaching out to me, a room of darkness and menacing eyes. The cold grip of a dagger suspended above a sleeping face. Impassive eyes watching it all unfold from afar.

I awoke further, and sensations began to register. I was lying on a soft bed, covered in thick blankets. People were talking somewhere out of sight, too faint to comprehend. The bed was warm, but my face was cold. I shifted to pull the covers overhead. At once, a wave of pain swept through me, culminating in a splitting headache. As I reached up to clutch at my temples, a glint of green light flashed from my left palm. I paused, remembering.

So. Not a dream then.

A gasp and a thud from elsewhere in the room caught my attention, and I looked up to see a slight elven girl who looked scarcely past her teens quivering before me.

“I didn’t know you were awake, I swear!” she exclaimed, breathless.

I frowned, confused. “Is this another prison?”

“I… no? At least, I don’t think so.” She couldn’t have possibly sounded less certain. I looked around, noting wooden slat walls and a solitary window opposite from where I was lying. It was daylight outside.

“Then where am I?” The throbbing in my head had not subsided. Slowly, I sat upright, rubbing at my temples in a futile gesture. She waffled, wringing her hands, as if unsure whether to answer. “Tell me!” I demanded, exasperated.

The poor girl jumped, and I regretted my harsh tone instantly. My gaze softened, though I wasn’t sure why she looked so terrified of me. I was about to apologize when a familiar face came up beside her and laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. It took me a moment to place a name with the face, but once I remembered, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to see Solas had survived the battle.

“It’s alright,” he was saying to the girl. “She is not like the others.” The girl seemed to take comfort from that, but still looked shaken.

“I beg your forgiveness,” she muttered to Solas, then turned to me. “And your blessing! I am but a humble servant!” My frown returned, now more confused than ever. My blessing? What could that possibly mean? “You are back in Haven, my lady,” she continued, answering my earlier question. “They say you saved us. The Breach stopped growing, just like the mark on your hand. It’s all anyone has talked about for the past three days!”

I looked down to my palm again, belatedly realizing that it no longer hurt. The glow seemed fainter as well, less piercing. I was pondering the possibility of now being allowed to leave, when I processed her last comment.

Three days?

Well, they hadn’t executed me; I supposed that was something. Perhaps my efforts had earned me some leniency. Or perhaps they were waiting to see if I would have the decency to die on my own. I looked back up. Solas was waiting quietly, hands clasped behind him, looking almost casual. Sunlight streamed inside from the doorway behind him, casting his shadow on the brightly colored rug that covered the dirt floor. The girl was bent over, gathering the spilled objects from the crate she’d dropped upon seeing me wake - the thud I’d heard a moment ago.

“So a trial happens now, I suppose?” I asked. Solas shrugged.

“I don’t know anything about that,” the girl said, lifting herself from the ground, crate now righted and neatly re-packed. She still seemed nervous, but at least she was looking me in the eye now. “I’m sure Lady Cassandra will want to know you’ve wakened. She said, ‘At once!’”

That seemed in keeping with what I’d come to know of Cassandra. It didn’t necessarily mean trouble for me yet, but it wasn’t likely to be good either.

“And where is she?”

“In the Chantry with the Lord Chancellor.” She placed the crate next to the desk, out of the way, then began tentatively retreating toward the door, clearly anxious to leave. I was tempted to try to get her to stay and answer more questions, but Solas nodded and smiled at her, and she seemed to take that as dismissal. “‘At once!’ she said!” the girl repeated, almost like a warning, before she fled the cabin. You’d have thought the room was on fire.

She left the door open. Solas remained.

“How are you feeling, Theresa?” he asked.

“I’ve been better,” I replied. Thankfully, my headache had subsided, and the overall aching had lessened to a dull soreness. I felt weak, hungry, and slightly dizzy. On the other hand, I was alive, and the searing pain in my palm seemed to have abated for now. “But I’ve been worse too,” I amended. Solas nodded, apparently fine with this answer. He wasn’t one to pry, I recalled.

I sat on the bed a moment, half expecting a squad of soldiers to come in and place me in shackles again. When that didn’t happen, I stood and took quick stock of my surroundings. The room didn’t look much like a prison cell; rather, it looked like someone’s home. Hopefully, no one had been displaced on my part, though looking around that certainly seemed to be the case. There were hanging furs and paintings, shelves filled with jars and books and candles, assorted barrels and even a chest, all too neatly arranged for this to be a storage room. A small desk and chair were tucked into the corner near the window. Walking over to it, I noticed several scattered papers weighed down against the errant breeze by an ornate stone carving of a dog, clearly the most expensive thing in the small cabin.

Fereldens… I thought, rolling my eyes.

“So, I take it I’m not under arrest?” I turned to glance at Solas over my shoulder.

“Not at the moment, though I would be lying if I didn’t confess to some uncertainty as to whether that continues.”

I sniffed in amusement. We agreed on that, certainly.

Turning back to the desk, I scanned the notes briefly and realized that they were about me. Someone had been keeping tabs on me while I slept, caring for me. Apparently, my survival had been a near thing. I shuddered, though that may have been from the mountain wind slithering in through the open door, a not so gentle reminder that I was expected elsewhere.

“I suppose I shouldn’t keep Cassandra waiting.”

“She’s not known for her patience,” Solas agreed with the hint of a wry smirk. He remained where he was.

“You’re meant to escort me.”

“I’m afraid so.” He had the grace to sound apologetic.

“Why you?” I asked. His brows rose in response, and I winced, realizing the question had sounded harsher than intended. “I mean, why not a templar?”

“Ah, I suppose my efforts to keep you alive for the second time now have earned me enough trust to play turnkey. Rest assured, they are keeping a close eye on this cabin.”

“How long before they come storming in demanding the demons depart our bodies or die?” I asked in jest. It earned a chuckle from Solas.

“Should be any moment now.”

I laughed, the first time in a while. However, another shiver brought my attention to a new problem; I was in the mountains and only just noticed I was bereft of all but my undershirt and hose. Luckily, the crate the elf had brought was full of warm clothes. I rifled through the folds, quickly deciding on a warm woolen tunic and some thick canvas trousers that fit snugly around my legs. A pair of fur-lined boots also looked like they would fit, and would cover my lower legs. Using a simple leather thong, I tied my tangled mass of hair out of my face and into a low horsetail. I scanned the room in vain for a staff. Unsurprisingly, none were present. That would have been too much to hope for.

As I dressed, a new thought occurred to me. “Has the village been mistreating that girl?”

Solas, who had turned politely to face away while I dressed - a fact I found rather endearing, considering we had been talking face to face only moments ago - cocked his head slightly.

“The elf? Not that I know of,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“She seemed pretty skittish around me.”

“Ah, that’s… something else.”

“The mark?”

Solas hesitated before answering. “Yes.”

I pondered that as I finished lacing my boots. “You told her I’m not like the others.”

“Oh, that.” An edge of bitterness flavored his voice. “She came here as a ‘kind donation’ from a Ferelden nobleman.” I could hear his snarl as it twisted itself around the words.

“Donation?” I asked, incredulous. The word was rather innocuous for all it implied.

“Her story is not mine to tell,” he said. “But suffice to say, it is not a happy one. I am glad the advisors granted her full employment status, with pay. They seemed to find the entire notion as distasteful as I.”

“Advisors?”

“Forgive me, I forget how much has happened since…” He stopped himself then. “Well, you will see soon enough. Ready to go?”

I almost pressed him further, but it would only delay us. He’d been more forthcoming than most so far, and I didn’t wish to push my luck with his good graces.

“Yes.” I moved forward, then, hesitating, turned back to the crate. After a moment’s pause, I reached for a set of knitted, fingerless gloves, and pulled them on as well. As I’d hoped, the mark’s light was at least partially diminished by the thick material, if not wholly hidden. I sighed with resignation.

Well, at least I was warm now.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Together, we walked through the open door. Whatever I had been expecting, I was wholly unprepared for the sight of saluting soldiers and what appeared to be the entire village gathered outside. They all fell silent when I stepped from the tiny cabin, gawking at me, pointing with hushed whispers. I stood frozen in momentary panic, but neither the soldiers nor the villagers made any moves toward me. The Chantry’s vaulted roof was visible over the meager buildings on the path ahead. Solas stood beside me, waiting.

Well then.

With Solas as my escort, I started down the path. The crowd quickly parted before us. I expected looks of fear or hatred, but instead saw gratitude and admiration writ in their faces. That was new. And very unsettling. Fear and hatred I was used to; this was so completely foreign that I didn’t know what to do, except quicken my pace to move past them. Everywhere I looked, soldiers were saluting me, and complete strangers were waving, smiling, or kneeling. Kneeling. And as I walked, the whispers followed.

“---stopped the Breach---”

“---supposed to close it---”

“---lots of rifts left, little cracks in the sky---”

“---can seal those, she’s the Herald of Andraste.”

“Walk safely, Herald of Andraste.”

“Blessings upon you, Herald of Andraste!”

That last title was called out in more variations as we continued. I frowned, leaning closer to Solas.

“Do they mean me?” I asked quietly.

“Yes, it seems your efforts have earned you a new title, much to the chagrin of the Chantry.” He didn’t sound at all displeased at the notion of the Chantry’s discomfort. “Rather impressive sounding, isn’t it?”

“This can’t be real,” I muttered. “How am I the Herald of Andraste?”

“A desperate grasp at hope,” Solas waved dismissively upward. “There were many witnesses to your efforts in the temple ruins. And they’ve heard the rumor of a woman seen behind you in the rift where you were first discovered.” I shuddered, remembering the disjointed images from the Fade; a glowing silhouette that might have been the shape of a woman. “Many have convinced themselves that was Andraste, and you are her chosen.”

As the path turned and my eyes were drawn upward, I paused to take in the sight. The Breach still haunted the sky above the peaks, but now it appeared to be more stable, quieter.

“I failed,” I said, still staring.

“Yes and no,” Solas said. “The Breach remains open, but it has stabilized. Your mark as well.”

I flexed my left palm at his mention of the mark. He was right of course; like the Breach, it felt less hungry now. Still, it wasn’t over. The by now familiar light flickered in my periphery, and that slow dread returned to settle in the pit of my stomach. The mark hadn’t claimed my life yet, but I had to wonder when it would grow tired of waiting.

It seemed I now existed in a curious state of limbo. Waiting to see if I would be arrested, tried, and executed. Or perhaps waiting for this infection to worm its way through my body. How long would it take to consume me completely? Why had my attempt to close the Breach failed?

I remembered my first view of it as I exited the Chantry as Cassandra’s prisoner. It felt longer than a mere three days. Then, the villagers had leered at me. They would likely have torn me limb from limb had Cassandra not been there, her hand protectively on my shoulder, guiding me down the path to help fix the disaster they all blamed me for. Now it was Solas who guided me in the opposite direction, and the crowd that had once wanted my head now knelt in my wake. It almost beggared belief, how much my situation had changed in such a small amount of time.

I took some small comfort from that. If they still needed me, after all, they couldn’t execute me just yet.

We reached the Chantry, and Solas’s pace slowed to a halt.

“Here is where I leave you,” he said. “I wish you luck.”

I nodded my thanks to him, and with renewed confidence, I pushed open the heavy wooden doors.

Chapter Text

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The few lit torches scattered along the stone walls were a poor substitute for the bright sunshine and white snow from outside. I blinked, waiting, and took in my surroundings. Now that I wasn’t being led through here in shackles under fear of death, I was able to observe with a much different perspective. The great hall itself was not as expansive as it had felt then - having more frame of reference than one cramped stone cell adjusted my perception somewhat. Pillars separated the main throughway from the alcoves along both sides, where I saw a few small groups or pairs of women in Chantry robes alternately chatting and seeing to various tasks. One pair of sisters was lighting votives and uttering prayers, while others nearby in dusted and swept. A cleric crossed the room ahead carrying assorted papers in her arms. All were pointedly not looking at me, I noticed, though my entrance had been impossible to miss given the tremendous groan of the aging doors I’d come through.

Muffled voices were coming from somewhere ahead, loud enough that it was clear there was a heated argument happening behind closed doors. One of the voices sounded like Cassandra. I made my way down the great hall in search of the voices, and found they were coming from the door at the far end, directly ahead. They were discussing me, I realized when I drew closer.

“I do not believe she is guilty.” That was Cassandra. Her distinctive accent and firm, assured tone was unmistakable. She sounded distinctly displeased, though given her demeanor so far perhaps that was just her usual tone.

“The prisoner failed, Seeker. The Breach is still in the sky. For all you know, she intended it this way.” A second voice, male, vaguely familiar. That was unsurprising; since when has being of use to others ever protected mages? I considered running again, wondering whether the newly appreciative crowd would try to stop me.

“I do not believe that.” Cassandra again. That was surprising; she trusted me. Even more surprisingly, I trusted her in return. She had promised I would be given a fair trial when she cut my bonds, before leading me into the valley toward the Breach. She had allowed me to keep the staff I’d found later to defend myself against the demons attacking from the rifts. She had protected me when it would have been easier to let me die. Weighing my odds, I realized my chances were better relying on her support against the Chantry over the untamed mountain wilderness with no food, no staff, and no idea where to go.

Hoping I was making the right choice, I thrust open the door, ready to speak in my own defence.

“---not for you to decide!” the man had been saying, stopped short by my entrance. I recognized him; we’d encountered him on our way to the Breach, I recalled. Another high-ranking Chantry official. Rodger? Romulus? Cassandra stood hunched over a table looking like she was trying to push it into the stone below in her frustration. A third person - Leliana, I remembered - stood beside her facing the man. All three had turned to look at me when I entered, their argument briefly forgotten. It was the man - Roderick, I now remembered - who recovered fastest. “Chain her!” he commanded to the two guards standing on either side of the door. “I want her prepared for travel to the capital for trial.”

“Disregard that,” Cassandra said with badly concealed annoyance. “And leave us.”

Thankfully, the guards obeyed the latter, and turned to leave, closing the door behind them. Awkward silence was left in their wake.

“You walk a dangerous line, Seeker,” Roderick turned to Cassandra. He was trying to intimidate her with a cool tone and narrowed eyes, but it was hard to be imposing next to her. She easily met his gaze and squared her shoulders against him, giving him pause. I’d seen enough pissing contests between templars and Chantry officials to know Cassandra had the high ground here. She wasn’t exactly a templar, but seemed near enough. Judging by the deference the soldiers gave her, the title of Seeker carried at least as much weight, if not more. It looked like I had chosen correctly, for the moment at least.

“The Breach is stable,” Cassandra said, unimpressed by Roderick’s display. “But it is still a threat. I will not ignore it.”

And already I was forgotten again. It felt just like home. Still, I hadn’t come here to stand idle and look pretty.

“I did everything I could to close the Breach,” I said, forcing them to acknowledge my presence. “It almost killed me.”

“Yet you live.” Roderick barely inclined his head in my direction as he addressed me. “A convenient result, insofar as you’re concerned.”

Yes, how inconsiderate of me to go on living when you’ve personally decided my guilt already. I kept my face expressionless as I bit down on the inside of my cheek; a trick I learned as a child to prevent punishment for insubordination. I may have been boiling beneath the surface, but my face was a mask of neutrality.

“Have a care, Chancellor,” Cassandra threatened, having no such qualms about letting her growing rage show. “The Breach is not the only threat we face.”

“Someone was behind the explosion at the Conclave,” Leliana said, stepping forward, hands clasped behind her back. As much as I would have liked to see Cassandra lay out the Chancellor, it was likely more productive that Leliana stepped in when she did. “Someone Most Holy did not expect. Perhaps they died with the others… or have allies who yet live.” She looked pointedly at the Chancellor, and he took her meaning instantly.

“I am a suspect?” He practically sputtered with indignancy.

“You, and many others.”

“... But not the prisoner?”

“I have a name,” I interjected through clenched teeth.

“I heard the voices in the Temple,” Cassandra interjected. “The Divine called to Theresa for help.”

Flashes from the Temple returned to mind. An aged woman garbed in splendid Chantry robes, held captive to a great shadow with eyes that held no warmth. So they had seen it too. I flexed my left hand, wondering for the hundredth time what the mark’s true purpose was, and how it related to Divine Justinia’s death.

“So her survival, that thing on her hand… all a coincidence?” The Chancellor was still skeptical, and though I was loathe to admit it, I was in agreement.

“Providence,” Cassandra countered. “The Maker sent her to us in our darkest hour.”

The Herald of Andraste. The villagers outside had called me that. They expected me to be, what? Some kind of prophet? A savior? My blood chilled at the prospect.

“You can’t honestly believe that I’m any kind of… chosen one?” I asked, incredulous.

“We are all subject to the will of the Maker, whether we wish it or not,” Cassandra replied with the fervor of a believer. I recalled her title of Seeker, and was not comforted. This was a joke, a farce. It had to be. “No matter what I may believe, I cannot pretend that you were not exactly what we needed when we needed it.”

I shook my head in futile denial, willing it to be undone.

“The Breach remains,” Leliana said. “And your mark is our only hope of closing it.”

All my life, I’d been made to feel that my existence was a threat, an inconvenience. I was a danger to those around me simply because of who I was. Now, suddenly, all that was reversed. My world was shifted, all that I had been taught flipped on its head. Nothing about this made sense.

“This is not for you to decide!” Chancellor Roderick gave one last attempt to wrest control of the situation back. Cassandra wordlessly walked to the back of the room where a locked chest sat upon a table. Using a skeleton key strapped to a ring around her belt, she unlocked it, pulled an absurdly thick and heavy-looking tome from its depths, and crossed back to the table, where she slammed it down upon the table between Leliana and the Chancellor.

“You know what this is, Chancellor.” It was not a question. She continued, not waiting for a response. “A writ from the Divine, granting us authority to act. As of this moment, I declare the Inquisition reborn.” She advanced on Roderick as he backed away, invading his space, punctuating each statement with a fierce poke to his chest. “We will close the Breach, we will find those responsible, and we will restore order.” Roderick was now backed against the wall. “With or without your approval.”

Roderick’s face was red with fury, but whatever he wanted to say, he thought better of it and instead stormed out of the room. I’d almost have felt sorry for him if he hadn’t just been arguing passionately for my arrest and execution.

“We aren’t ready,” Leliana said to Cassandra when he was gone. “We have no leader, no numbers, and now, no Chantry support.” That last part sounded like a recrimination. Cassandra sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.

“We have no choice. We must act now,” she insisted. “With you at our side.” That was to me. I found myself on the receiving end of both women’s expectant gazes once again. Not a place I particularly liked being, considering where it tended to lead me.

“You want to start a holy war,” I said. I knew my histories well enough to know what another Inquisition would likely mean. I’d spent countless hours in Faxhold’s library, eyes straining in the dim candlelight, back and legs aching from sitting in awkward positions on uncomfortable chairs while I poured over account after account of the Exalted Marches and the foundation of the Chantry and its Templars. I had been trying to understand how things could have gone so wrong, how we could have gotten the messages so twisted. I never found any satisfying answers.

“We are already at war,” Cassandra said. “You are already involved. Its mark is upon you. As to whether the war is holy…“ she shook her head. “That depends on what we discover.”

They were right of course. We had gotten no closer to discovering how the Breach had been created in the first place, and as long as it was still open, I couldn’t just walk away from this. Still, I needed to ask.

“And if I refuse?”

Both women looked at each other. Whatever passed between them was left unspoken, but Cassandra gave a curt nod. They’d been expecting that question.

“You can go, if you wish,” Leliana said. I was wary enough to wait for the “but” that she left out, but it was Cassandra who finished the thought.

“You should know that while some believe you chosen, many still think you guilty. The Inquisition can only protect you if you are with us.” Ah, there it was. The words were not spoken without sympathy, yet I knew an ultimatum when I heard one. “It will not be easy if you stay, but you cannot pretend this has not changed you.”

She was right, I had to admit. Before all this started, I was alone and afraid. A lifetime of imprisonment and abuse had left me without trust or allies. The few friendships I’d had came with strings attached, and my only family connections were severed the day I was sent away to the Circle. Most of those I’d known growing up had been killed when Faxhold was purged, and the few who survived that had likely been in the temple during the explosion. Now, everything I was had been stripped away, replaced with a burden of responsibility I’d never wanted. The rage I’d felt all my life trapped in a fortress for others’ comfort was nothing compared to the fear I felt when I looked up at the sky and beheld the Breach for the first time. The injustices I’d suffered paled in comparison to the pain that coursed through my body when the mark in my hand flared. I had a bigger threat to face, and whether I liked it or not, I seemed to be the only one capable of fixing things.

I still had no memories of the event itself, and was no closer to finding out how I had survived, or how I was connected to all this. I would never find those answers if I ran away now. I looked to the two women before me, patiently awaiting my response, already confident they knew what it would be. I realized ruefully that I knew as well. They would use me, I knew. I would be a figurehead, a public idol that they would shove in front of rifts as proof that their cause was righteous. They would use me as a puppet, and in return, they would ensure that the Chantry could not use me as a scapegoat. It sounded depressingly similar to the bargain offered to every mage brought to a Circle: serve their needs and obey their rules, in exchange for a wall between us and the angry mob. It was a choice that was no choice at all.

I sighed. Leliana smiled, seeing my defeat writ on my face. I would have to be wary of her; somehow I suspected her hand orchestrating this trap.

“Help us fix this, before it’s too late.” Cassandra stepped forward and extended her hand to me. It seemed a genuine attempt at fellowship. I was stuck, and they knew it, but they were at least willing to pretend out of respect. Something else I wasn’t used to receiving. Today was a day of many firsts.

I reached out and shook Cassandra’s hand.

So much for freedom.

Chapter Text

T: Varric, what a surprise! We weren’t supposed to meet today.
V: Hey, Herald. Hope I’m not interrupting anything?
T: Not at all, Cullen’s taken Ellie to Chant for the afternoon. I’m just wondering who you’re hiding from?
V: You let him take your baby girl to Chant? I thought you hated all that stuff.
T: It was part of our negotiation. I agree to let him raise her as Andrastian if he agrees that I get to train her if she turns out to be a mage.
V: Huh, that’s actually pretty reasonable. Glad you’re making it work.
T: You haven’t answered my question.
V: Sorry?
T: Who are you hiding from?
V: What! No one! Why would you even suggest---
T: ---Varric…
V: … Choir Boy’s in town.
T: Ah, I remember hearing something about that. Trade negotiations, right?
V: And already I’m bored out of my mind. I need a break, just for a few hours.
T: You know this is one of the first places Aveline’s going to look for you, right?
V: Yeah, so you could just say you haven’t seen me?
T: Absolutely not. Nowhere in our agreement did it include lying to the captain of the guard.
V: Oh, come on, she likes you! You could get away with it!
T: Hah! I don’t know if we’re talking about the same Aveline here.
V: Look, I’ll take the fall when she finds out, I swear. I’m used to her being mad at me.
T: *Sigh* Alright, come in.
V: I owe you one!
T: I’ll start a running tab.
V: Okay, I’ve got all my notes from last time. We left off right after the Inquisition was officially declared, right?

The first few days after the birds flew carrying the official declaration of the Inquisition’s formation were chaotic to say the least. Everyone was rushing to preemptively minimize any public outcry of heresy. Not to mention the logistical nightmare of all those left homeless or displaced by the Temple’s destruction, from food to housing to medical treatment. Then there was the needs of the Inquisition itself; training and arming soldiers, recruiting volunteers, gathering any intel that could be gleaned from the ashes and ruins that might point to a perpetrator, sending out feelers to local nobility who might be tentative allies.

I was mostly forgotten in that time, and as a result found myself in a strange kind of limbo. I was not under anyone’s immediate supervision, and so spent my time learning my way around Haven. So long as I stayed within its walls, no one seemed to care where I went. This was a freedom I wasn’t used to. I’d been under scrutiny and behind fortress walls most of my life. Once I was free of those, I was forced to live on the run, fearing trackers could find me at any moment. To be ignored entirely was an altogether new experience. I enjoyed it immensely.

Inevitably, however, it had to come to an end. After several days, I was summoned into the room at the back of the Chantry that had been converted into a makeshift strategy room. A great map of Thedas was laid over the massive table, held down at each corner by thick candles, the wax already melting into shapeless pools over the stiff parchment. So many displaced missives, scrolls, and books were laid haphazardly on any available surface not taken up by the map that I could well have believed a terrible storm had blown through just moments before. Standing around the table was the group I would come to know later as the Advisors Council.

V: Or “Terrible Threesome”, depending on who you asked.
T: Well, in those early days, maybe the “Fearsome Foursome”?
V: Ha! That’s good. Can I use that?
T: It’s all yours.

Cassandra and Leliana were both there, and two others - Cullen, the apparent commander of the Inquisition’s army, whom I recalled as the soldier we’d met on the battlefield on our way to the Breach, and a woman clearly born of nobility named Josephine Montiliyet, who seemed to be in charge of diplomatic matters. A wise move, in my thinking, as I had seen no evidence of diplomacy or tact in any of the other three present at the time.

Presumably, they’d intended to include me in their plans for the Breach thanks to my status as the only one alive capable of closing it. In reality, however, it quickly became apparent that they couldn’t agree on anything, least of all the best route forward to close the Breach. They all knew the Mark in my hand alone wouldn’t be enough, but while Leliana wanted to increase its power by recruiting what remained of the core group of rebel mages, Cullen vehemently disagreed, citing the danger inherent in pouring more power into a thing none of us truly understood.

I might have agreed with him on that notion, were it not for his proposed solution.

“Templars could suppress the Breach,” he insisted. “Weaken it so---”

“Pure speculation,” Leliana countered, to my relief. The very mention of Templars was enough to put me on edge.

“I was a Templar,” Cullen growled. “I know what they’re capable of.”

“You’re a Templar?” My mind reflexively went into a brief panic before I could regain control. I was alarmed, though of course it made perfect sense. All Templars had been summoned to the Conclave, just as the mages had. Still, the fact that it was logical that the Inquisition would have a Templar amongst its chief advisors was small comfort. Suddenly, I wanted to be anywhere else. The room felt confining, and my shoulders stiffened. Had I known that I would be forced to work closely with a Templar, I would have been far more obstinate about leaving.

“I was.” Cullen gave me barely a sideways glance. “But no longer.”

I scoffed, shaking my head. Templars don’t leave the Order, everyone knew that. They could certainly be excommunicated, but that tended to result in them living on the streets begging for scraps or anything they could sell for their next fix. A Templar cut off from the Chantry’s supply of lyrium was a sorry sight. Cullen didn’t look like he was hurting overmuch to me. And yet, now I was paying attention, he lacked the familiar stubborn aura of a Templar. Interesting. If the others noticed my skepticism, however, they gave no acknowledgement of it.

Cullen resumed his argument with Leliana until Josephine jumped in and pointed out the futility, as neither the mages nor the Templars would so much as agree to meet us at this point. The Inquisition, it seemed, was deeply unpopular since the Chantry had officially denounced us -- and me specifically.

“They still think I’m guilty.” I shook my head in disbelief. It seemed I was to be the public scapegoat of this disaster after all. I flexed my left hand, trying to quell the doubt that lingered in the back of my mind.

“Shouldn’t they be busy arguing over who’s going to become Divine?” Cullen sneered.

“I’m afraid that is not the entirety of it any longer.” Josephine sighed. “Some are calling her ‘the Herald of Andraste’, and that frightens the Chantry. The remaining Clerics have declared it blasphemy, and we heretics for harboring her.”

I recalled the whispers of the crowd back in the village the other day. They believed I spoke for Andraste. I scoffed. It was patently ridiculous. Solas had called it a desperate grasp at hope. It sounded like mild delusion to me.

Cullen asked how the notion had come about, and Casssandra explained about the many witnesses to my failed efforts to close the Breach, and those who reported seeing a woman through the rift where I was first found.

I frowned, trying again to form a clearer picture from the stilted fragments of memory from my time in the rift, again coming up short. The woman made of light, standing above, beckoning down to me. I had assumed it was a spirit. But Andraste? That wasn’t possible.

“You’ve tried to disabuse people of this notion I hope?” I asked.

“We have not.” Cassandra was blunt, surprised I had even asked.

“The belief that you are chosen by Andraste Herself is quite possibly the only thing preventing us from being stormed by the Chantry’s forces,” Josephine explained.

“That and the Chantry has no forces left to speak of,” Cullen added.

“You know as well as I that if they were united in this matter, they would have found a way to storm Haven by now,” Cassandra said. Cullen seemed to know better than to retort, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture that was neither disagreement nor acquiescence.

“In any case,” Josephine interjected with practiced patience, the merest stiffening of her shoulders the only indication of what might be annoyance. “The public’s divided opinion on the matter, coupled with the Chantry’s own in-fighting, are our saving graces for the time being.”

“‘The Herald of Andraste’. Quite the title,” Cullen sneered again. I was beginning to think disdain was the only emotion he was capable of. “One can hardly blame them for declaring blasphemy.”

“I’m no herald of anything. Particularly Andraste.” I raised my chin in defiance, stubbornly insisting they listen. I couldn’t let them hold up my name as some sort of idol to perpetuate their misguided faith.

“I’m sure the Chantry would agree,” Cullen muttered.

“People are desperate for a sign of hope,” Leliana cut in before I could retort. “For some, she is that sign.”

“And to others, a symbol of everything that’s gone wrong,” Josephine added.

And in the middle was me, pulled apart by both factions. I listened in dismay as they argued on for some time over how best to take advantage of the situation, wondering how I had managed to free myself from the Circle only to become ensnared in a new kind of prison. The walls were invisible in this one, but no less constricting. Even if I ran out that door and never stopped running, I would not get far before I encountered someone who knew who I was, what I was. The Mark’s glow was difficult to hide, even with gloves, and once my identity was known, those who found me would either want to worship me or turn me over to the Chantry. Or worse.

As I listened to their bickering, I felt like I was back at the forward camp, before reaching the Breach. Once again, I was being left out of the conversation centered around my fate. I sighed loudly, growing weary of having to insist on my own inclusion.

“Doesn’t anyone care what I think?” I practically shouted to make sure I was heard. The arguing paused. Four pairs of eyes turned to fixate on me. It made me hesitate, but I’d already started, and wasn’t about to stop. Trying to channel the righteous anger I felt in that valley, I continued. “I agreed to stay, but we all know I didn’t really have a choice. For whatever reason, I’m the only one who can close the Breach. Because of this.” I raised my left hand, flexing it open to display the ever-present green glow emanating from it, lowered it again. “I know I don’t really have a say in how the Inquisition moves forward, but I want to make it absolutely clear now that I will not participate in anything I find objectionable. And I won’t allow you to ignore me anymore. You don’t have to listen to my opinions, but you will at least hear them.”

I crossed my arms and set my shoulders, trying to emulate Cassandra’s adamant immovability. Josephine had the good grace to appear embarrassed, while Leliana’s face remained implacable as always. Cassandra had both brows raised but was otherwise calm, looking at me as a parent might watch a toddler’s tantrum pass without comment. Cullen seemed surprised and indignant, as if my reaction was entirely unwarranted and had come out of nowhere. Perhaps from his perspective, it had.

After a beat, they all exchanged glances, though whatever passed between them in that moment I couldn’t be sure. Cassandra nodded to Leliana, who looked between Cullen and Josephine. Cullen shook his head and sighed, apparently conceding some unspoken point. Josephine looked through the scattered papers on the table for a moment. When she found the one she wanted, she handed it over to me.

“There is actually something you can do.”

V: Heh, I forgot how much you and Curly didn’t get along back then.
T: It’s strange to think on now, but we hardly knew each other in those days. And both of us were carrying old ghosts around…
V: So, now seems like a good time to bring up how we ended up getting sent out on our first assignment to---
A: You cowardly worm!
V: A-Aveline! You got here quick. I was hoping you’d try the Hanged Man first.
A: I did. It’s not that big of a place, Varric. It didn’t take long to confirm you weren’t there.
T: I did warn him this wasn’t the best hiding spot.
A: Yet you let him stay anyway? I would have thought you of all people would remind him of his responsibilities.
T: I figured it would make your job easier if I kept him in one place.
V: Wait, you were just biding time?
A: Ah, sound thinking. You have my thanks. Viscount, let’s go. You have a trade agreement to negotiate.
V: Ugh, but I’m terrible at that!
A: That’s why Bran is doing the actual negotiating. But you still need to be there to make it official.
V: Seems pointless, if you ask me…
A: I didn’t.
T: Have fun you two!
V: I won’t forget this, Herald.

Chapter Text

We had been in the Hinterlands for three days now. Our official mission, as decided on by the advisors, was to rescue Revered Mother Giselle from the Crossroads, where she and her sect were in danger of the nearby fighting between the ongoing mage and Templar conflict. Unofficially, we were meant to put a good face on the newly formed Inquisition and do what we could to spread word of the cause. That was the agreed upon terms for allowing me to accompany the group out of Haven, despite my still somewhat precarious role. Despite my protests, it seemed the title of “Herald of Andraste” wasn’t going away any time soon, so as far as the advisors were concerned, we may as well use it to our advantage.

Progress was slow, partially due to the aggressively uneven terrain. Mostly, though, it was because of me.

Frequent stops were necessary to allow me time to catch up, or to give me a chance to rest. It was humiliating, made all the more awkward by Cassandra’s gruff stares. Solas was taciturn as well, but I had come to know this for his natural state, and learned not to take it personally. Varric, apparently not used to such tight-lipped company, frequently attempted to fill the awkward silences with jokes, or tales of his prior companions, usually featuring the Champion of Kirkwall prominently in some manner. This did little to lighten the mood; indeed, Cassandra only grew more surly with each tale.

For my part, I wasn’t able to contribute much to the conversations. I was regularly out of breath, whether from the exertion or from my clogged sinuses. My nose began running after the first day and had yet to cease, leading to more difficulty breathing, leading to me slowing what little progress we were making even more. Though it was yet in the early days of Spring, with a lingering chill in the air, I quickly grew overheated as my body was unused to such constant exertion. My feet ached with every step. Blisters formed and broke throughout the day as we made our slow way across the sprawling hillsides and descended through valleys.

As if to compound the issue, the Mark in my left palm alternated between a dull, throbbing ache that seeped into my very bones and an urgent, nearly painful itch that I soon realized indicated a rift was nearby. Per Cassandra’s orders, we gave them a wide berth for now. Glad though I was to avoid conflict in my exhausted state, that naturally meant more miles tacked onto our journey.

In short, I was miserable.

I was worse than useless; I was a burden, serving only to slow the others down. They were too polite to say as much, of course, if not entirely too polite to imply.

“Hold up!” Varric called out to the party ahead.

Despite its raspy quality, Varric knew how to make his voice carry when he needed to; by his own admission, a side effect of spending so much time in busy taverns and pubs. Of course, in the wide open fields, there wasn’t much impeding the replies from being heard, even at a distance.

“Perhaps we should make camp for the night?” Solas offered.

Cassandra’s sigh traveled effortlessly over the distance to me. She turned back from her place at the lead, the very picture of impatience with arms crossed and leaning back on one hip. I was too far back to read the details of her face, but my mind filled in the familiar frown likely etched there.

“It’s barely past midday!” Her tone was incredulous. “We need to make more progress or we won’t reach the Crossroads before they’re completely overrun.”

“At this rate, maybe we’ll get lucky and the fighting will already be over by the time we get there,” Varric muttered from a few meters ahead. He was trying to make light of it, but even he sounded frustrated. He may have fared better with travel than me, but we shared a general distaste for the wilderness.

I gritted my teeth, holding my tongue on the bitter responses that came to mind. It wasn’t their fault I was so slow. Instead I focused on placing one blistered foot in front of the other, continuing my weary progress forward. As I slowly drew closer, it became apparent that their attention had shifted; all three, now that Varric had caught up, were looking with interest at a point on the ground ahead, their voices now too low for me to overhear. Whatever it was, it was hidden within the tall grasses that marked the edge of one of many farmers’ crops in the area. I’d come to recognize them by their unnaturally uniform shape and size. This one looked to be growing wheat.

By the time I was within a stone’s throw, their hushed conversation abruptly ceased. Cassandra, avoiding both my gaze and the spot on the ground, continued on across the field. She said nothing.

“What is it?” I asked, trying to steady my heavy breathing.

“We should continue on.” Cassandra did not elaborate or break pace.

I glanced at Solas, who was carefully expressionless. He shook his head to me, and followed after her.

I continued forward to the spot they had been examining. The valley spread out all around us, coming up against the mountainous horizon on multiple sides. My feet ached all the more thinking of the distance between here and those mountains. It quickly became apparent what had caught their attention.

A small body lay face down, weighing down the grass and creating an odd sort of pockmark in the otherwise uniform growth. The maggots had been at him; he’d been dead for some time, though not so long he was unrecognizable as a young boy. I guessed him to be no older than ten. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but at the time I was grateful he lay face down. I was still unused to death, terrified of the thought of seeing his face, cheeks still round with baby fat, eyes open but unseeing. Three arrows protruded from his back, the blood from the wounds long dried, staining his plain tunic in small rivers that flowed down into the earth below him.

No other bodies were nearby. I wondered where his family was, whether they knew he was dead. I wondered who had killed him and why. I wondered what his name was.

“Bandits.”

I started; I hadn’t known anyone was nearby. Varric stood beside me, his expression uncharacteristically solemn.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Arrow shafts look homemade,” he nodded to the corpse. “Feathers are too messy, crudely fastened, probably from the local crows.” I frowned, tried to look more closely to see if he was right, but I couldn’t bring myself to stare for more than a moment. “His belt’s been sliced. Probably made off with a coin purse or whatever weapons he might’ve had.”

“Since when do you know so much about analyzing a dead body?”

“I’ve been around.” Varric grimaced. I decided against pressing for details.

“Why kill him if all they wanted was to rob him?” I asked instead.

“You heard the scouts back at base camp. The local supplies are scarce from… all the fighting.”

“From the mage rebellion, you mean.” I hadn’t missed the hesitation in his voice, and couldn’t help but feel defensive at the implication of a connection. “We only wanted freedom, not for… this.”

“I’m not saying that,” Varric raised his hands in a placating gesture. “But every war means innocents die. There’s no getting around it.”

“So we should all just accept our cages without question?” I felt the fury rise in me, heard my voice rise slightly.

Varric only sighed. “I’m not saying that,” he repeated. “All I’m saying is… Well, look at the kid.” I looked, forcing my gaze to remain steady on the body. He had sandy blond hair, cropped short, now disheveled and matted with dirt and grime. He looked thin, almost emaciated, as if he hadn’t had a full meal in a long time. His clothes were roughspun and ill-fitting, and far too thin for so early in the year.

I tried, for just a moment, to imagine what his final moments must have been like, how scared and in pain he must have been. Instead, my memory flashed back to another boy from my own past, his face stained with tears, his mouth open in a futile wail as two Templars dragged him away to the room on the top floor of Faxhold Circle.

All possible retorts I would have made grew quiet. I leaned heavily on my staff, reeling at the unexpected memory, and swallowed against the sudden lump in my throat. Varric watched quietly, ready to catch me if I should faint. After a moment, he handed me his canteen.

“Look like you need this,” he offered. I took it gratefully, drank, and promptly spluttered and coughed. A bitter liquid that was clearly not water stung the back of my throat. Varric grimaced. “Guess I should have warned you, sorry.”

“What in the void is that?” I managed between coughs, handing the dangerous brew back to him.

“Special brew out of Kirkwall.” He grinned. “Can’t remember what it’s called.” He took a swig for himself, then returned it to its place at his belt.

“Why don’t you carry water?”

“Oh I do. You just looked like you needed something stronger.” He started off after Cassandra and Solas. “C’mon, let’s not let them get too far ahead again.”

I sighed, or tried to; the deep breath in started another round of coughing. I spared one more glance at the body, then resumed limping after the others.

We didn’t make it to the Crossroads that day. Too many paths were blocked by the rough terrain. To my shame and no one’s surprise, I wasn’t as nimble as the others, necessitating much doubling back and rerouting. Eventually, Cassandra was forced to concede that we must needs make camp for the night, and we settled into a small clearing in a wooded area, with a small outcropping of rock jutting out to create a sort of makeshift ceiling of protection.

Of course, I was worse than useless with many of the tasks of setting up camp, just as I was with traversing the wilds. I did what little I could, and stayed out of the way the rest of the time. By the time the sun had sunk low in the sky and we had all eaten our cold rations - Cassandra refused to risk a fire - I was more exhausted than I ever remembered being. Eventually, I settled with my pack under the covering of rocks, seeking comfort in the solidness of its roof above me.

Solas came over to sit next to me as I unraveled my bedroll, offering a small pouch in one hand. “Healing salve,” he explained before I could ask. “For your muscles.”

I took it, gratefully, and began rubbing it into my shoulders. It smelled strongly of elfroot and something else - deep mushroom, perhaps - and relief was quick. I felt the knots begin to slowly unravel, and muscles I hadn’t even known were tense began to ease. I sighed.

“You seem to be having a rough time of it.”

“How could you tell?” I laughed without humor. “I spent most of my life in an aging seaside fortress meant to keep me imprisoned. I’ve not spent this much time out of doors since I was a child.”

“But the Circles rebelled, what? Almost three years ago now?” Varric asked from where he lounged against his pack.

“Some of them did,” I amended, not meeting his gaze. “Others took longer.”

Something in my tone must have signaled to both of them that topic was taboo. Varric changed the subject, and it was not mentioned again.

We settled into a polite unease, still unsure of each other, keeping conversations light and shallow. Varric pulled out a well-worn leather bound journal and began scratching notes into it with a charcoal pencil, muttering to himself every few minutes. Cassandra, in her quest to ignore Varric as much as possible, busied herself about camp: re-straightening her bedroll, unpacking and re-packing her bag, polishing her shield. It was quite impressive how much noise she was capable of making despite speaking not a word in all that time. Solas, in contrast, remained near me in companionable silence. I thought initially he might have been meditating until I noticed his eyes following the movements of various birds and small critters darting about in the trees and underbrush around us.

With so little energy left to me, I had no choice but to sit and recover. The salve helped somewhat, but my blisters needed to be cleaned and wrapped to prevent infection. I set about this in grim silence as my thoughts wandered back to the body we’d left in the field. Unsurprisingly, it did not improve my mood.

“We will sleep in shifts tonight,” Cassandra announced after a while. “I didn’t like the look of some of the houses we passed today.”

“Agreed,” Solas nodded. “Clear evidence that bandits have run amok in this area.” It was true, the few homes we’d seen had been abandoned, most with evidence of thievery and ransacking. I wondered whether we might stumble across the ones responsible for the body in the field.

“We should have lit a pyre for that boy.” The others paused in their debate of who would take the first shift to look at me quizzically, and I realized I’d said that thought aloud. There was an awkward beat before Cassandra spoke.

“Your concern is admirable,” she said, slowly. “But we cannot stop and burn every body we come across out here. I fear it will only be the first of many, and we do not have the time or manpower to devote to such a task.”

I nodded, embarrassed, and didn’t press the matter.

“Hey, you two finally agree on something,” Varric declared with forced enthusiasm. “Must be a miracle!” Cassandra scoffed in disgust, a familiar sound by now.

“You surprise me,” Solas said to me. “I didn’t take you for one to believe in such sentimentality.”

“Respect for the dead is not mere sentiment,” Cassandra argued, indignant. Solas ignored her, waiting for my response.

I was at a loss for a moment, not sure where the thought had come from. He was right; I had never been the sort to care overmuch for how the dead were treated. It had always been my way of thinking that any respect for the dead was solely for the comfort of the living. It wasn’t the disposal of his body that troubled me. I frowned, thinking.

Guilt. The word intruded on my mind, derailed my train of thought. But why should I feel guilty?

The boy from Faxhold. The library fire. A memory well over a decade old and yet as fresh in my mind as the image of that lifeless body facedown in a field.

“Theresa?” Solas’s voice pulled me from my thoughts. Cassandra had returned to busying herself by sharpening her blade near her bedroll. The scratching of quill on parchment continued as Varric tried to catch what light was left from the setting sun. “Does it pain you?” Solas prompted, gesturing to my hands; I’d been running my fingers over the Mark and hadn’t noticed.

I frowned, stilled my hands and tentatively flexed the left one. It hadn’t been hurting. I couldn’t explain the absent-minded gesture, and so merely shook my head no in response. He waited, relentlessly patient, expecting more. I hesitated, still unsure of the reason behind this mood that had come over me. I almost dismissed it entirely, but something in me wanted to confide in him, to trust that his interest was genuine. Perhaps a sense of camaraderie for a fellow mage. I swallowed, gathering my thoughts.

“That boy reminded me of another,” I started. “From the Circle. From many years ago.”

“I see,” Solas said after a moment. “A friend?”

“No,” I frowned, still unsure why this memory tugged at me so, after so long. “I barely knew him. He had only been there a few months, when…” I paused, took a breath, continued. “He’d been practicing spells in the library one afternoon. He shouldn’t have been, of course. He was only weeks into his lessons, no one was there to supervise him. But he was curious, I imagine. He lost control of a fire spell, and it spread quickly.”

“Naturally.”

“Within moments it consumed dozens of shelves of tomes and scrolls. He’d hidden in the farthest corner he could find to practice, you see; the gated section where the oldest and most valuable scrolls were kept.”

“Ironic, to lose so much knowledge to an accident brought about in pursuit of it.”

“Yes,” I agreed bitterly.

“You were able to quell the flames?”

“Eventually,” I nodded. “But it was a very costly mistake.”

“For your Circle? Or for the boy?” His tone was neutral, belying the darkness implied in that question.

“Both.” I looked up into Solas’s pale eyes with some effort. For some reason, I found it difficult to hold his gaze for long. “Do you know what the Rite of Tranquility is?” His mouth hardened into a thin line; the only outward sign of his inner thoughts. He nodded. The sound of Cassandra’s whetstone paused, resumed. Varric’s quill scratching had long since ceased. “They dragged him away from his bed the next night. Likely, they intended to get it done while the rest of us slept, but he made such a racket when they took him… ”

“They’d use such torture for a mere accident?” Solas kept his voice calm, but his eyes blazed and I could see the muscles in his jaw clenching.

“Tranquility is meant as a precaution, not torture,” Cassandra insisted, though whether she was arguing with Solas or trying to convince herself was unclear.

“Come on, Seeker,” Varric said, shaking his head. “You’re not that naive. Not after Kirkwall.”

Cassandra opened her mouth as if to counter, but said nothing. The name of the ancient city state seemed to hang like a cloud over them both. I’d heard stories of what happened there, had dismissed most of them as rumor and exaggeration. Now, though, looking at their hunched backs and haunted expressions, I wondered if perhaps more of it was true than I’d thought.

Maker knew, my own Circle had its share of horrible tales.

“Every mage lives in fear of it.” I lowered my eyes again, staring at my hands where they lay folded in the center of my crossed legs. “There was a room reserved for rituals that require Templars; creating phylacteries, Harrowings… and Rites of Tranquility. Our Circle was built in an ancient Tevinter lighthouse, so the upper rooms are only accessible by a single staircase. They marked the very top room exclusively for those rituals. Going up those steps can feel like a march of death when you know not every mage who ascends will come back down.” A shudder ran the length of my spine, unbidden, as I recalled my own Harrowing, and the uncertainty preceding it. I had been half convinced while being escorted ever upward that I was going to be made Tranquil myself.

V: Hang on, they didn’t tell you it was your Harrowing?
T: No, not until I was already locked in the room upstairs.
V: Why not?
T: *sigh* That’s a longer story than we have time for just now.
V: Why else am I here if not to hear you tell your story?
T: We can get to that if you like. Just, not today.
V: Alright, but I’m leaving a note in the margin so I don’t forget.

The others had been silent for some time, each of us lost in our thoughts. My words hung in the air about the camp like a fog, dimming the mood.

Solas sat very still next to me. Though I could not bring myself to look up, I could feel his gaze over me like a cloak. Suddenly, swiftly, his hands reached out to cover mine. It was meant as comfort, I think, but I withdrew reflexively, not used to gentle touch. I regretted my rudeness the very next moment. I looked up apologetically; however, where I expected to see offense, I saw fury. Not for me, I knew, but for my tormentors. The bitterness I felt was matched in his eyes, deceptively light for the burning rage they contained. A moment of understanding passed between us, born of shared experience. I didn’t know then what he had endured, but I knew better than to ask.

Then it passed, and he withdrew his hands, sitting back a bit and drawing his knees up close to him, laying both arms over them casually. Granting me merciful space.

“It is easy to see how Tranquility can seem like a kind of death,” he said. I nodded.

“The boy they brought back down was not the same one who was taken up. He went by the same name, had all the same memories, but he no longer felt emotion. He no longer...wanted...anything.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Cassandra said. “Tranquil aren’t stripped entirely of emotion, it doesn’t work that way.”

“It does,” I said, keeping my voice as steady as I could as I turned to face her. “It does work that way. A Tranquil may have preferences, but they don’t have desire. More importantly for the Templars, they don’t actively pursue those preferences. They obey, above all else. That overrides whatever they may...prefer. They’re made agreeable.”

Cassandra scoffed and shook her head, but said nothing else. I felt a familiar rage rising in my chest, but my response was interrupted by Varric.

“Why so extreme? From what I heard, your Knight Commander wasn’t anywhere near as demented as ours.”

And suddenly, I realized what was truly eating at me. The epiphany felt like the fog had lifted, and everything came back into focus.

“Some of the mages brought to Faxhold have ties to local noble families.” I didn’t elaborate on that fact; either they all knew the significance of my family name or they didn’t. I would not reopen that particular wound willingly. Not today. “Most don’t.” Solas frowned, not understanding. “That boy had no one. No important relatives to object to the Templars’ mistreatment. No one to seek redemption against the mages who turned him in.” I swallowed past my shame, continued. “That’s why it was so easy to point the finger at him. Why his punishment was so quickly meted out that the First Enchanter hadn’t even been consulted.”

“You were one of those mages.” His tone was not accusatory, but hearing it spoken aloud stirred up many conflicting emotions, and I had to lower my gaze again.

“Not me alone,” I shook my head, knowing I sounded defensive, unable to help it. “All of us were questioned. But I did nothing to try to hide the truth. I did nothing to try to protect him. And someone had to pay for all that damage.”

“If you are blaming yourself, don’t.” Cassandra now sat facing us, all pretense of sword sharpening forgotten. “You did what was expected of you. The Templars’ abuse of their position is not your doing.”

I did not respond, instead glancing aside at Solas. He raised his brows in mute alliance. It was not worth another argument, and I was tired, drained both physically and emotionally from the days’ events.

The others seemed to agree. Cassandra, offering to take the first watch, stood and stretched her long, solid limbs, and walked out several yards to what she must have determined was our perimeter. Solas rose from the ground in one smooth motion, making his way to his own bedroll where he’d laid it out under the open sky. Varric, no longer able to write in the low light that remained, put away his journal and pulled out a pipe to smoke.

I sighed, feeling suddenly very heavy. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to curl up into a soft bed and sleep for days. I looked forlornly at my own inadequate bedroll, with no pillow save for my travel pack, and a single blanket, too thin and itchy to be comfortable. I was too exhausted to care.

Still, I could not sleep yet. I quashed every screaming complaint in my body as I rose awkwardly to a stand and went to beg a spare piece of parchment and charcoal pencil from Varric. He obliged without question, lost in his own thoughts, and I returned to my spot under the rocks, patting down a bit of earth to make a flat enough writing surface. Despite the darkness, I found that the unsettling glow from my palm provided just enough light to write by. I was momentarily grateful that I was right-handed. At the top of the page, I jotted a quick note:

Hinterlands, Day Three - A boy of about ten, face down in a field, slain by arrows

Then, I folded the parchment neatly and stuck it in an inner pocket of my travel pack, along with the charcoal. Finally, I allowed myself to lie down and sleep.

Tomorrow would be another day. There would be more bodies without names. I meant to record as many as I could. Even if nothing could be done for their remains, at least this small remembrance might keep their memories alive in the Fade.

Chapter Text

“Theresa.”

A soft voice pulled me far too soon from my slumber. Slowly, carefully, I shifted under my blanket, feeling my muscles already protesting another night on the cold, hard ground. I opened one bleary eye to see Solas leaning over me through the opening of my tent, one hand extended, poised, but not quite touching my shoulder.

“What is it?” I asked, propping myself up on one elbow while I wiped the sleep from my eyes with the other hand.

“Smoke.”

I blinked, not understanding the brief response, but he had already retreated. I was left to don my outer gear in a state of half-awake confusion. Once I was dressed, I exited the tent with many a grunt and moan, my body still not recovered from the prior days’ exertions.

It was still dark out, adding to my consternation. Cassandra and Varric were both already up and readying themselves. Cassandra was buckling her sword belt, her bag neatly packed and slung over one shoulder, her shield over the other. Varric was making adjustments to his crossbow---

V: ---Bianca.
T: ...Must you?
V: Call her by her proper name and there’ll be no need for interruptions.
T: *sigh*

Varric was making adjustments to Bianca, his own pack laying on the ground beside him. Solas, who traveled lightest out of all of us and preferred to sleep under the open sky, had little more than his staff and a satchel to carry. He was lingering a few yards away, looking over his shoulder at us every few moments. For one as stoic as him, it made him look quite anxious to be on the move. Everyone’s expressions were solemn.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Solas spotted a smokestack during his watch.” Cassandra, still fastening her sword belt, gestured with her chin toward the western sky, in the direction Solas was waiting eagerly. Following her direction, I could discern faintly the outline of a dark plume of smoke against the night sky, rising steadily over the sparse treeline. “He insists we investigate.” There was barely concealed annoyance behind that remark; I suspected I’d slept through an argument between the two.

“It could just be another camp nearby,” I offered, still not understanding the urgency and less than happy at being dragged from badly needed sleep.

Solas shook his head. “I walked the Fade to see if there was danger. I felt fear and pain from that direction.”

“You can do that?” I was awestruck. We had no lyrium on hand. Suddenly his reticence about his past made more sense. Dreamers were a rarity, and fiercely hunted and policed by the Templars when discovered. Many thought the gift lost completely. Cassandra’s sour mood now also made more sense. I glanced quickly over at her, noting now that she was keeping her hand close to her sword hilt, had angled herself so Solas was always in her periphery.

Why would he reveal this to her? What could that smoke signify that was so vital we must leave immediately?

Given everyone’s mood, I decided against pressing the matter further. Instead, I went about tearing down my clumsily assembled tent canvas and rolling it along with my bedroll into my pack as best I could. My head was swimming with questions for Solas, but I dared not ask any of them while Cassandra loomed nearby, brimming with disapproval.

With my things gathered and my staff firmly in hand, we set off in the direction of the smoke, Solas leading the way. I kept pace as best I could, but before long I had once again fallen behind the others. Using my staff as support, I huffed and I hobbled after them, wincing as I felt my blisters breaking all over again within my boots. Determinedly pressing on, I managed to keep Cassandra’s squared shoulders and dark hair in sight ahead of me as, after some time, we approached the crest of a hill. Judging by the closeness of the looming cloud, now nearly overhead, its source was likely just on the other side.

I took a moment at the top of the hill to catch my breath, standing with the others who had all paused there. The sky was still dark, but grew lighter near the horizon; it was closer to dawn than I’d initially thought. The rocky outcroppings that cut through a good portion of the countryside here rose into a low wall that watched over the valley below like a stone guardian.

Following the smoke’s path backward toward the ground, I saw the ashes of a cabin that had once sat comfortably against the steep rockside, looking out upon the idyllic hills. Now, it was a smouldering ruin.

The smell of burning flesh hit me, carried by the smoke as it stung my eyes and coated the inside of my mouth. I coughed and retched, covering my mouth with the kerchief I wore about my neck. I was reminded, to my horror, of the charred bodies from the crater below the Breach, frozen in positions of surprise and anguish in their moment of death. I swallowed hard against the rising bile in my throat.

The others all looked as dour as me; they’d smelled it too. We were too late.

Even so, we were compelled to descend and get a closer look. As we approached, Varric and Cassandra both elected to cover their faces for protection, but Solas refused, appearing unaffected by the thick smoke. We stopped several yards back, out of reach of the flames. Solas looked back to me, holding his staff aloft and gesturing toward the inferno. I quickly understood his meaning.

Coming to stand beside him, trying to breathe as shallowly as I could even through my kerchief, I reached forward with my own staff, mirroring his stance. Pulling up that energy from deep within my core, I directed it into the staff, sending a burst of cold air and frost out the staff’s head and into the base of the flames. Solas did the same. Together, we concentrated as the flames balked, unwilling to cede their newly claimed territory but unable to withstand the steadfast icy onslaught.

It was going well, until the wind shifted and a plume of smoke hit me directly in the eyes, blinding me for a moment and forcing my focus to waver. My spell broke, and I collapsed to my knees in a fit of coughing. A hand was planted lightly on my shoulder, and without looking up I knew its source. I felt Solas’s steadfast stillness emanating through his palm, suffusing it into me. After a moment, I managed to regain control of my breathing, and rose to resume the spell.

It took some time, but we were eventually able to quell the flames, only the embers left still flickering with life. I received an approving nod from Solas, and felt a swell of pride, though I wasn’t sure why. It was a simple spell meant for a mundane purpose. Still, it was a small victory at the end of a long line of shortcomings on my part, so I did not entirely begrudge myself a feeling of success.

We’d come soon enough that the cabin wasn’t entirely consumed; there was still enough of the walls left to ascertain the size and shape of the home, enough of the furniture left to count two beds, a trunk, a cauldron still clinging to the remnants of a stubborn crossbeam that refused to collapse with the rest of its neighbors. Enough remained to tell a grim story.

Cassandra stepped forward, carefully picking through the embers. One wall was still mostly standing, blocking our line of sight. When she emerged on the other side, she was carrying a long pole with what looked like the burnt but distinct shape of a morningstar on one end.

No, not a morningstar.

I squinted, looking more carefully. It was a familiar design, meant to represent a snowflake, rendered in spherical shape, indicating its focus on channeling ice magic. This was a mage’s staff.

Solas bowed his head, his only outward sign of emotion. Varric swore. I felt the bile rising in my throat again.

“Apostates,” Cassandra declared. Her tone was saddened, but there was an underlying hint of judgement that I did not miss.

“A distinction without a difference, isn’t it?” The question sounded more bitter than I’d intended. Cassandra’s eyes shot a warning at me. I glared back, silent but defiant.
.
“Why didn’t they leave?” Varric wondered.

I stepped forward, shaking, but needing to see for myself. It didn’t take long before I saw what I was searching for; two bodies, burnt beyond all hope of recognition, skin crisped and blackened by the heat. The sickly sweet smell that was far too familiar to me now was overwhelming, and I was glad for the kerchief hiding my face. I didn’t want Cassandra to see my expression just then. Both bodies were near what used to be the door, arms outstretched in their efforts to escape.

“They were locked in.” Despite the lingering flames and embers around me, I felt an icy chill run down my spine. For a moment, I was back in Faxhold’s library, smelling the burning paper and hearing the frightened screams of my peers attempting to put out the flames. With the next breath, I was under the Breach, seeing the aftermath of the explosion all around me, blackened faces contorted in silent screams that would never stop.

“Theresa.” A calm, low voice cut through my panicked thoughts. Solas, standing beside me, keeping me grounded. My throat burned and my chest ached, but I held his gaze and managed to steady myself after a moment.

“Wouldn’t mages have been able to stop the fire?” Varric asked.

“Not if the ones who set the fire were Templars,” Solas said, eyes still locked with mine. I gave him a brief nod of thanks, and a small sign of reassurance that I was fine.

“Templars would have captured them,” Cassandra shook her head, shifting her gaze to him. Solas pressed his lips together in a thin line, but said nothing. I laughed, a short, derisive snort, before I could think to stop myself. Her glare returned to me, but I would not be silenced this time.

“For a Seeker, you’re embarrassingly naive about Templars.”

“Excuse me?” Her voice held an edge now, one I hadn’t heard before. I was approaching a dangerous line, but I could feel the rage rising in me. I clenched my hands where they clung to my own staff; the same staff I’d picked up in a moment of sheer desperation when demons had set upon me and Cassandra on our way to the Breach. Its design was similar to the one she was currently holding so irreverently. For some reason, that enraged me further.

“Templars are hate-filled zealots!” I spat at her. “Clearly, they’re using this rebellion as an excuse to exterminate every mage they can find!”

“And whose fault is that?” Cassandra demanded.

“The College of Enchanters voted to dissolve the Circles! The Templars had no right to---”

“---To do their duty and uphold their vows? The mages tore down the very system meant to keep them safe!”

“Safe?” I laughed at the absurdity. “We were never safe in the Circles. You’re forgetting I was raised in one. I could tell you stories of Templars that would make your blood run cold!”

“And I could say the same for your kind! As far as I’m concerned, every mage is now an apostate, and a danger to the public!”

“Then so am I! The only difference is you have a use for me! You need me to fix this disaster before you throw me to the wolves!”

I was right in her face now, so close I could smell the leather and metal of her armor. She held her ground, not giving an inch to the diminutive mage before her. Her knuckles were white where she clung to the half-burnt staff, held like a barrier between us. Somehow, she had the strength of will to restrain herself as I unleashed my fury at her. Solas was at my side again, his calm demeanor a stark contrast to my blazing temper. Then, a hand grasped at my forearm, making me jump. I turned to see Varric, hand firm but gentle, not pulling me back but only trying to get my attention.

“Let it go, Herald,” he said softly. “We aren’t getting anywhere if we start tearing each other’s throats out.”

“You can say that?” I spat, refusing to be silenced. “You saw what was happening! You saw what the Templars did to us in Kirkwall!”

It was a line I’d never seen nor expected to look for in the even-tempered dwarf, but once I mentioned Kirkwall, I knew I’d crossed it. He grew very still, the cloth covering the lower half of his face shifting slightly as his jaw clenched. His eyes, normally kind and dancing with humor, now looked cold. A tense moment passed between us.

“Yeah,” he nodded. His voice was low, and he picked his words carefully. “And I saw the mages do just as bad and worse. Let it go. No one wins this fight, believe me.”

I wanted to say more, to keep yelling, to shout the injustice of all this to the Void at the top of my lungs. More than anything, I wanted to find the Templars who burned these two mages alive and deliver the same fate to them. But whether from the uncharacteristic sadness in Varric’s voice, or the steady presence of Solas at my shoulder, or the repentant silence of Cassandra, I felt the rage dissipate like a fire deprived of oxygen. I sighed, releasing the tension in my shoulders, and held up one hand in a gesture of surrender.

“Thank you,” he said, relinquishing his grip on my arm.

I didn’t reply. My left fist ached; I’d been clenching it so tightly I felt the indents left by my nails. I flexed my fingers slowly, and lightened the death grip on my staff with my right hand.

“I know you may not like it---” Cassandra started, but I didn’t wait for her to finish. I turned back toward the embers of the cabin and began sifting through the ashes once more. I wasn’t going to argue with her, but that didn’t mean I had to listen to what she had to say either. She was silent for a few moments, then heaved a sigh of her own.

A hateful quiet fell between us for several moments, punctuated by the crackling of lingering flames as they fed off the bits of wood and other fuel that remained. I concentrated on my breathing, continued flexing the fingers of my left hand in and out, wondering why the mark in my palm ached so.

Varric spoke first.

“Well, I think we all feel a little better getting that off our chest, don’t we?” His light tone had returned, but sounded forced, condescending, as if he were speaking to two children who had been caught fighting over a toy. It was exactly the wrong thing to say. Cassandra turned all her paused rage onto him, stepping toward him as she threw down the staff.

Whatever she was about to say - or do - to Varric was interrupted by a crash. The burning structure was already far from stable, and whether it was our shouting voices or energy inadvertently expelled by me - or just enough damage done by the flames - what remained of the forward-facing wall and crossbeam collapsed in a heap of smoke and ruin, right on top of all four of us.

Instinctively, I crouched down and threw my arms over my head. I waited for the impact, but after a moment when I was not buried beneath ash and wood, I tentatively looked up. My vision was awash with a translucent field of magical energy, coloring the world around me ever so slightly blue. I recognized the cool tingling of a barrier spell, and looked beside me to see Solas standing with staff held aloft. His face was a mask of concentration as he maintained the spell against the last of the falling rubble. A piece fell against Cassandra’s outstretched arms, who flinched but did not look pained. I knew from past experience that she would not have felt the impact; the flinch likely just a reflex.

“Quick thinking, Chuckles,” Varric said, his voice partially distorted by the barrier.

“You’re referring to me, I presume,” Solas said. Now the danger had passed, he lowered his staff, allowing the spell to fade. My vision returned to normal, and I saw the barriers retreating from the others as well. “I merely reacted, nothing more.”

“Faster than the rest of us,” Cassandra observed. “You have my thanks.”

“I do not want it.” Solas turned, not quite meeting her gaze over his shoulder. “But you are welcome.” Without looking to the rest of us, he walked off down the hillside.

Cassandra watched him go, brow furrowed in what may have been interest, or annoyance. I thought for a moment she might try to stop him, but she merely sighed and shook her head.

“Come on, we should continue on. The Crossroads shouldn’t be far.” She paused, and though I turned away I could feel her studying me. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

She gave one last glance at the pile of ashes that had once been someone’s home, then shrugged her shield back into place, and started off down the hill after Solas. Varric looked back to me with a shrug and followed.

I heard their bootsteps growing fainter, but I stayed rooted to the spot, not ready to leave yet. I was being petulant, I knew, but it was nice to entertain the illusion of freedom, however fleetingly.

It felt callous to just leave the bodies where we found them like this. I took a moment to jot them down in my list of the unnamed dead, just under the boy from the field. Perhaps once we were able to liberate this Mother Giselle from the Crossroads, I could show it to her and request they send someone to collect the remains. It seemed rather more idealistic than I was normally given to, but the ever-present itching in my left palm reminded me that if ever there was a time for idealism, it was now.

Restless, I reached down, picking at the debris, until my hand came across something colder than its surroundings; a small trinket that somehow felt familiar. My hand closed around it and pulled from the ashes a small glass vial, charred like the rest of its surroundings, but still whole, the stopper’s seal unbroken. The telltale aura of a spell clung to it and, shaking it, I felt liquid move within. I frowned. Could this be a phylactery? Why would these mages be carrying their own phylacteries?

“Theresa?” Solas called from behind me. Likely he was sent by Cassandra when they realized I wasn’t following. I marked for the first time that he’d never once referred to me as “Herald”, and I felt a small surge of relief at that. To him, at least, I was just a person. “We must continue on.”

He was right, of course. We had a job to do here. I considered the phylactery for a moment, then, impulsively, threw it sharply to the ground. I took no small amount of satisfaction in the resulting shattering of glass and the gentle sigh of the spell dissipating. It was a redundant gesture; phylacteries were no use in tracking dead mages. Still, it felt good.

I gave the ruin one last look before departing. My memory lingered on the sight of the crater beneath the Breach, the bodies that remained, forever frozen in their final moments of life. The sense of immolation I felt when I closed a rift, or when I had stabilized the Breach; that feeling of being melted down and reforged, of being overfilled and drained all at once. I flexed my left hand.

We’d avoided any rifts we’d come across thus far, but we knew from reports that several of them had cropped up in the area. It was part of the reason we were here. I would be feeling that sensation again I knew, and likely soon. The thought left me restless. I suddenly wanted to be far away from this place.

Turning on my heel, I made my way down the hillside, joining Solas as we followed after Cassandra, toward the Crossroads.

Chapter Text

After our confrontation, the journey was tensely quiet. Cassandra stormed ahead of us, marching across the rocky terrain with little heed for any obstacles, leaving the rest of us to scramble after her. We had been sent to the Hinterlands with a specific mission, and she was determined that we should fulfill it as quickly as possible, anxious about the fate of the Chantry sisters, and Mother Giselle in particular. No more distractions would be tolerated.

I knew little of this Mother Giselle, save that she was a potential ally for our fledgling Inquisition. She had sent an urgent message to Haven asking for our help shortly after the Breach threw most of Thedas into turmoil. As one of the only Chantry officials willing to speak to us, we could hardly refuse the call. The only problem had been that, with all the myriad tasks that needed sorting in those days immediately following the Breach’s creation, there had been no one to send to her aid.

Until I had walked into an advisors’ meeting and demanded to be taken seriously.

“Pick up the pace!” Cassandra called back, loud enough to make me jump, even from yards ahead. Late morning sun glinted off the shield hanging from her back, bright enough that I could pick out the brown highlights in her dark hair. “If we hurry we may reach the Crossroads before noon.”

Varric and I groaned, knowing that meant hours of trekking ahead of us. Having been raised in the comforts of the city most of his life, he shared my distaste for wilderness travel. It had led to a bond of sorts between us. Solas paused to wait for us both to catch up. He smiled indulgently, but I did not miss the hint of amusement in his eyes. Reluctant though he was to speak of his past, he was clearly the best-traveled among us. He could easily match pace with Cassandra, but repeatedly slowed to prevent me from falling too far behind.

I had decided to be grateful for this, rather than embarrassed. Despite his reticence, he seemed to prefer having me nearby. His companionable silence was more than welcome, especially now Cassandra and I were emphatically not on speaking terms. In fact, her mood had grown sour enough that she was hardly talking to any of us. Mostly, she just barked orders.

“Hurry up!”

“Rest here.”

“Carry that.”

“Be silent!”

That last was usually directed at Varric, who continued to delight in egging her on. When he wasn’t being deliberately antagonistic, he would go on at length about one topic or another, determined that we not travel in silence. Occasionally he asked for our input, though for the most part it was a one-sided conversation. I began to suspect he just liked the sound of his own voice.

V: Excuse me?
T: Oh, I’m sorry. Are you about to tell me how stoic and tight-lipped you are?
V: You should be thankful! If not for me, the only other options you had for conversation in those days were Chuckles and Ser Barking Orders.
T: I wasn’t complaining. Besides, Solas was a great deal friendlier than most gave him credit for.
V: Yeah, maybe to certain people. You know, you weren’t exactly the most cheery traveling companion in those days either.
T: Oh, trust me, I’m aware of how insufferable I was. Like as not many still consider me so.
V: Yeah, maybe, but who cares about them?
T: You probably should at least a little, the way you go on so loudly in my defense…
V: Fancy titles and strongly worded denouncements don’t scare me, Herald. Now, where were we?

“Shit!” My foot caught between two rocks I hadn’t noticed in my path, and a jolt of pain shot through my right ankle. Solas was there in an instant, catching me and preventing me from tumbling forward.

“Are you alright?” he asked. He waited patiently as I leaned on his shoulder to awkwardly dislodge my trapped foot. To my relief, I was able to bear weight on it with little trouble. Not sprained, at least.

I nodded sullenly, muttering, “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

Cassandra’s exasperated sigh echoed back to us, and I felt my cheeks flush. As if I wasn’t already enough of a burden, now it seemed I wasn’t even capable of walking a straight line. These last few days seemed to be catching up with me, and our early morning and interrupted sleep hadn’t helped.

“Do not be frustrated,” he said, paying no mind to her bristling impatience. “It will take time to grow comfortable with travel, and I imagine you’ve not had the opportunity before this.”

“There wasn’t much call for camping skills in the Circle,” I agreed with a bitter smile. “And after I left, I spent most of my time in hiding rather than traveling.”

I did not specify the circumstances of my desperate flight from Faxhold. Nor did I add that the months following were tainted with near-constant terror, interspersed with mad dashes to a new location when I was discovered by templar hunters or outed as a mage to those around me. I was relieved Solas did not press further, again thankful for his introspective nature.

We gestured to Cassandra that all was well, and continued on picking our way down the steadily descending hillside toward the valley below. We were following what appeared to be an overgrown shepherd’s trail that hugged the rockside through the hills pointing downward, in hopes that it would lead to a main highway that connected to the Crossroads.

“Had you spent much time at all outdoors before then?” From anyone else it would have felt like a rebuke, but Solas sounded genuinely curious.

“We had a courtyard, of sorts, for gardening,” I replied. “We only got to use it if the templars approved. And only certain plants were allowed.” I smiled self-consciously, aware of how pitiful that likely sounded to one as worldly as him. Gardening duty had been one of the most sought-after chores at the Circle. The few times I was able to tend to the plants were among my few pleasant memories growing up.

“I’m sorry,” Solas said.

As an apostate, likely he’d spent his whole life avoiding Circles like mine. I envied him his freedom, not for the first time. I remembered something then, and was about to ask him about walking the Fade as a Dreamer, but just then our attention was drawn to Varric, who let out a loud groan.

“Are we there yet?” We all three looked over to see him leaning against a boulder, shaking one boot in his hand as several small pebbles fell out. “This is fun and all, but I really miss civilization.”

Cassandra, out of what little patience she had left for the day, marched over and stood looming, her shadow falling over him ominously. Varric squinted up at her with apprehension.

“You have been told your presence is no longer required, dwarf,” Cassandra growled, her fists clenched firmly at her sides. I was sure she would strike him, but after a few breaths, she regained control. “You can leave at any time.” With another huff, she turned on her heel and trapsed back down the hill, not sparing any of us another glance.

Varric, with a great deal more muttering and cursing (though he notably waited until she was out of earshot), roused himself and proceeded to refasten his boot laces.

“She has a point,” Solas remarked as we resumed our downhill trek. “You could have left at any time. Why have you stayed?”

Varric grunted. “I like to think I’m as selfish and irresponsible as the next guy, but this?” He looked upward, where the edge of the rumbling green shadow of the Breach still hung low in the sky, like a demonic constellation pointing toward Haven. He lowered his gaze and shuddered. My palm ached with the memories of that night, and I flexed it to ease the discomfort. For a whie he said nothing more as we walked. I thought that was the end of his response, but he continued, his voice uncharacteristically solemn for the second time that day. “Thousands of people died on that mountain. I was almost one of them. And now there’s a hole in the sky?” He shook his head. “Even I can’t walk away and just leave that to sort itself out.”

“Well said,” Solas remarked, either surprise or approval lightening his voice. Perhaps both.

I nodded my agreement, biting my tongue on the injustice of my own circumstances. I may not have had a choice, but I didn’t have the heart to detract from someone else’s selflessness.

V: “Selfless” might be going a bit far.
T: One of these days, you’re going to have to come to terms with the horrifying truth that you are a good person.
V: ...Naw.

“In any case,” Varric continued. “I’ll take this over the Deep Roads any day.”

“You’ve been to the Deep Roads?” Solas raised one brow. “I thought you said you were from Kirkwall.”

“He went there hunting treasure with Hawke,” I blurted before I thought to stop myself. A beat of surprised silence followed.

“You’ve read my book?” Varric chuckled, giving me a sideways glance. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for a fan.”

“Nor I,” Solas remarked. “There must not have been much decent fiction in your Circle’s library.”

My face felt warm, and I lowered my gaze in hopes they wouldn’t notice my blushing. I’d eventually recalled why Varric’s name had sounded so familiar upon our first meeting. A copy of the Tale of the Champion had somehow found its way to Faxhold’s library not long before the senior enchanters first started their whispers of joining the rebellion. Indeed, I credited that book with finally convincing them things could not remain as they were for much longer. And of course, once I knew Varric for its author, it hadn’t taken me long after that to discern the reason behind Cassandra’s pointed animosity toward him. I had a belated laugh then at my initial suspicion that the two were old lovers, though I knew better than to share the joke with either of them.

“Sneer all you like, Chuckles,” Varric sighed in mock exasperation. “It’s gonna keep right on being my best selling work.”

“Much to the chagrin of scholarly writers everywhere.”

“I seriously doubt the scholarly writers are even a little bit threatened by---” But just then he was interrupted by a soft grunt as he bumped into Solas, who had stopped in his tracks right in front of him.

When I looked back, Solas was staring fixedly into the distance, head poised, listening.

“What is it?” I asked.

“We’re not alone.”

Solas’s answer was almost instantly followed by the ring of Cassandra’s unsheathed sword echoing against the rockside, as she turned in one smooth motion toward a voice calling from overhead. I turned to see, to my shock, a short, plump figure perched atop one of the rocky outcroppings near where she stood. Both their hands were held up in a peaceful gesture, but a bow and quiver of arrows conspicuously poked out over one shoulder.

“No need for that, Seeker!” the figure called out in a light, feminine voice. “I’m on your side.”

“You’re with the Inquisition?” Cassandra asked, making no move yet to sheath her sword.

The figure nodded, and leapt agilely to the ground, lowering the hood that shadowed their face to reveal a young, befreckled dwarf woman with strawberry blonde hair neatly pulled back in a braided bun.

“Yes ser, Lace Harding. I’m one of the scouts sent ahead of you by Sister Nightingale.” After a moment’s consideration, Cassandra sheathed her sword and took the young woman’s offered hand in a firm handshake. I blinked in confusion at the mention of a Sister Nightingale, but quickly concluded that could only be Leliana, recalling she had mentioned during our last meeting that she had scouts in the area sending her reports. Harding looked over the rest of us as we approached, her wide eyes stopping last on me. “You must be who all the fuss is about. It’s an honor to meet you, Herald.”

There was respect and awe in her voice, and I shifted uncomfortably under such reverence, nodding and mumbling something by way of greeting in response.

“We’re on our way to the Crossroads,” Cassandra said to her, all business. “What is the status?”

“Well you haven’t come a moment too soon,” Harding responded. “Things have been degrading quickly down there. You’re lucky you haven’t run into much trouble yet.”

“What happened?”

“Yesterday, a group of Templars came in and drove all the Inquisition presence out, declaring the Crossroads under their protection.” Her sarcasm at that notion made it evident such protection had not been asked for. “A nearby faction of apostates soon got wind of that, and they stormed in early this morning. The two sides have been in steady conflict all day.”

“And Mother Giselle and the other sisters?”

“Trapped there, until the fighting stops.” Harding was grim. “We tried to convince them to leave with us, but Mother Giselle refused. Said she wouldn’t abandon the people there.”

“But she’s still alive?” Cassandra sounded desperately hopeful.

Harding nodded. “But there’s no telling how much longer they’ll last. These people don’t seem to be distinguishing between their enemies and innocent bystanders.” Her gaze lowered momentarily to the ground, and a hint of sadness tinged her voice. I remembered the boy in the field, and wondered how many more corpses were littering these hillsides, belying the idyllic countryside. How many of them had been slain by mages?

No.

I suppressed that thought almost as soon as it surfaced, refusing to believe it.

“Then we haven’t a moment to lose.” Cassandra gestured to us, and told the scout to lead the way.

We resumed our trek with renewed urgency. Harding was in the lead now, nimbly navigating among the stones and tangled grass. Soon, we began to see the signs of fighting she had referred to. Here and there, fresh scorch marks or patches of frost told of battle spells. Occasionally, I spotted untriggered elemental mines, waiting patiently to unleash their deadly attacks on any who stumbled over them. Solas and I called out warnings, pointing them out where we saw them. The wildlife had fled the area, leaving the rocky hills eerily silent.

As we passed homes - most barely more than huts with thatched roofs and log walls, sealed with moss and half grown over with vines - we saw evidence of thievery and pillaging. Doors were broken and left open, and gardens were left unattended and overgrown. Some, like the one we encountered this morning, were set aflame and left to burn. To my relief, I did not detect the frighteningly familiar scent of burning flesh, but we could only hope the occupants had been able to vacate.

It was near midday when we first heard the fighting. The sun beamed down weakly from overhead, providing little relief against the chilled breeze of early spring. Despite this, I was sweating beneath my leather jacket and thick linen tunic. The little hairs on my arms and neck perked up with the familiar sensation of spellcraft in the air. Beside me, Solas tilted his head in the direction of its source; he’d detected it too. The ground had at last evened out, and Harding led us to a main highway, wide and straight, the dirt bare and firmly compacted from heavy travel, now ominously empty.

“It’s not far,” she said, pointing off down the road. “You should hit the Crossroads shortly if you go straight from here.”

“You’re not coming?” Cassandra asked.

Harding shook her head. “I left a group of scouts in the hills overlooking the fighting. I’m heading there, and we’ll provide ranged support. Just be on the lookout for arrows.”

“Don’t hit us,” Varric commented unhelpfully.

“Not to worry,” Harding said with a wink. “I’m a crack shot.”

And with that, she left us, deftly climbing one of the nearby trees and using it to lever herself onto the cliff above and out of sight. None of us heard her retreat. We were alone, with the sounds of fighting coming from ahead.

The others hurried forward, down the wide road. I did the best I could, pathetically hobbling after them. No longer waiting for me, they continued at their own pace, and the gap quickly grew between us. Even Solas was far ahead before long. Grimacing, I focused my attention on the slowly increasing sounds of fighting, coming from the cluster of buildings I now saw ahead. With every step, a knot grew and tightened in the pit of my stomach. When I at last reached the Crossroads, chest heaving, I found myself confronted with a fierce battle.

We hadn’t seen fighting - real fighting - since our attempt to close the Breach had failed. I had forgotten the chaos, the smell, the noise that accompanied a battlefield. Even then, that battle had been against demons. What I saw before me now were people that looked very much like me. They were scattered about a wide intersection-turned-town-square, surrounded by sturdy, single-story buildings, all a flurry of motion as each attacked and defended, a swirling maelstrom of violence.

Mages hurled spells, punctuated with flourishes from their staffs. I knew those spells, had been trained in the safe and lawful casting of them since I was a child. These were Circle mages, but they had long since abandoned their conditioning, casting indiscriminately in wide arcs and funnels, striking enemies and bystanders alike.

The Templars were no better, attacking with more mundane weapons, but wielded just as carelessly. I felt the familiar dip in connection with the Fade that was the Templars’ skill, but there were far too many mages for them to be able to suppress all of us. Unfortunately, they were compensating by mercilessly cutting down all in their path, staff or no.

Both factions had gone mad, and neither seemed to care for anything beyond killing as many of the other side as they could, no matter the damage to anything else.

I froze. There had only been one other time when I had been forced to fight people, and even then I had only templars to fend off, under threat of my own death if I refused. It was altogether a different experience than what I’d seen at the Breach, but no less horrific in my mind. I had never fought other mages before.

The few civilians left who hadn’t already fled or been cut down were desperately trying to stay out of the way. Somewhere in between them all were a third faction that took me a moment to place until I caught sight of one bearing the flaming eye that was Andraste’s sigil. Those were the Inquisition soldiers Scout Harding had mentioned.

Just as I made the connection, I heard a swift woosh as an arrow flew across my field of vision, striking a nearby templar soldier square in the chest, just as he was about to land a killing blow on a cowering civilian. The templar fell, gurgling as his mouth filled with blood, but still the poor woman stood rooted to the ground where she crouched, quivering with fear, mere feet from where I stood.

I moved forward and attempted to coax her into standing. She was near enough to the edge of the fighting that she stood a good chance of fleeing with her life, but as I gestured urgently to her, urging her to move, she shook her head and cringed at my approach, eyes wide in fright.

Unfortunately, out in the open as we were, it wasn’t long before someone took notice. Even more unfortunately for me, it was a mage who spotted us first.

She was several yards away. I locked eyes with her entirely by chance, but once she saw me, hiding or running were no longer options - for the woman I was beckoning to, or for me. I’m not sure why she decided we were enemies, or if she even thought long enough to make the choice. I suppose it didn’t matter either way. In one fluid motion that was both agonizingly slow and too fast to track, her staff turned on us and a funnel of flame burst forth from its tip.

I moved to counter, acting purely on instinct. I lifted my own staff with a surety come from years of training, and gathered energy to bring forth a blast of frigid air that carved a path through the flames, forcing them to turn split apart and sputter out harmlessly on either side of me. From behind, I heard the woman let out a terrified cry. I looked back, afraid she’d been burned despite my efforts, but instead saw her frantically running for the treeline that bordered the eastern side of the square.

Good.

That brief distraction cost me, however. When I turned back, I was struck full force by a stone projectile, shaped and accelerated by the opposing mage. Flung from my feet, I landed hard on my back and felt my head strike off the cobblestones, leaving me momentarily stunned. Pain blossomed from the back of my head all the way down my spine, radiating around to my chest where the Stonefist spell had landed.

I knew I had to get up, that a delay could be fatal, that the other mage would press her advantage as I lay there helpless, but I could not move. I wanted to cry out to her that I wasn’t her enemy, that I would have gladly helped her dispatch the templars, but the breath was knocked out of me from the rough landing, and all I could do was sputter and cough, trying to regain my focus. I saw her priming another attack, and realized she was going to kill me.

I had no time to think, only react.

The crackling energy of storm magic was there, waiting in abundance on the other side of the Veil. I reached out with my will and pulled it through, summoning a powerful lightning bolt down upon her. There was a deafening CRACK as it struck her solidly on the chest, then she fell to the ground, motionless.

I had only a second to scramble to my feet, as the sound had attracted other combatants. They quickly asserted that I was an enemy, and all at once I found a small group of mages descending on me. Frantically, I looked around for allies, but saw no one I recognized. I was alone.

I pleaded with the advancing crowd, tried desperately to make them see I was one of them, that I didn’t want to fight any of them. But all they saw was the body of their fallen comrade, slain at my hand. They attacked, and there was nothing I could do but defend myself.

Instinct took over quickly. I countered their attacks and unleashed a flurry of spells of my own, pulling the incorporeal energy through the Veil like flour through a sieve, willing it to take shape as I commanded. My staff was in constant motion, directing attacks this way and that in an arc before me. When one mage fell, another would rush forward to avenge them. There seemed to be no end to them. I hadn’t had cause for such prolonged, sustained use of my spellcraft since the Breach, and already I was starting from a weakened position, exhausted as I was from the days of travel. Even so, I refused to fall. When I ran out of strength to summon my own spells, I relied on the staff to channel the necessary energy to attack. With every spell that landed, knocking me from my feet, singeing my clothes and hair, freezing my limbs, I gave as good as I got. I kept my mind focused on the lessons I’d absorbed in my many years in the Circle, tried to pretend this was just another sparring session.

Battle has a strange effect on one’s perception of time. I don’t know how long it went on. I maneuvered through the street, keeping distance between myself and any attackers. I faced off against templar and mage alike, the initial horror of having to kill quickly overridden by my determination to survive.

Eventually, finally, it did end. Silence at last fell over the square, smoke and mist hovering close to the ground, lending an unsettling atmosphere to the scene. Bodies covered the square, blood staining the cobblestones below. Here and there, arrows protruded. The air was thick with the stench of death. Here and there, Inquisition soldiers milled about; some standing under their own power, others leaning on comrades. Those few mages and templars who hadn’t fallen were retreating. It seemed there would be no prisoners today.

I stood in the midst of it, panting and sweating, hackles still raised against a threat that had, for the moment, passed. Looking up, I noted the sun was still high overhead. It felt like hours since we’d first arrived, but the sun had barely moved. My hair had gotten loose from its braid and fell in a tangled black mass across my shoulders, tendrils clinging to my sweat-drenched face.

Slowly, I scanned over the bodies, dreading seeing a face I recognized. The chance was slim, but these mages had clearly been Circle-trained. I’d quickly lost track of the few survivors of Faxhold in the months after our desperate flight; it was possible some of those here had come from Ostwick. To my relief, however, none of the dead I saw were known to me.

The mechanical clanking of Bianca was heard some distance off, and I looked across the sea of bodies to where Varric stood, holstering the hulking weapon to its place over his shoulder. He saw me and nodded, a tired smirk pulling at one side of his mouth. He looked disheveled, but unhurt. Solas was not far from him, surrounded by bodies wearing Templar arms and armor. He looked to have not a scratch on him, but was leaning heavily on his staff as he caught his breath.

I began picking my way gingerly toward them, wanting to be near familiarity, when I almost stumbled over Cassandra, bent and kneeling above a body armed in Templar colors. Her sword, unsheathed and bloodied, hung limply from her hand. Her face was neutral, but her eyes were reddened, as if she’d been crying. She was staring down at the lifeless young man, her normally imposing figure shrunk down to human scale.

I hesitated, unsure whether I should speak, or what to say, but she broke the silence first.

“I knew him.” Her voice was flat, hollow, empty of its usual commanding authority. She did not look up. “His name was Jamis. I thought him a good man. Just now… I saw him cut down a mother and child without hesitation.”

I said nothing, watching her carefully. She was shaking slightly, whether from exhaustion or horror, I couldn’t have said. I had been lucky; none of the dead wore faces from my past. To be forced to cut down someone I knew, someone I once considered a friend? I felt a surge of sympathy for her. She had been willing to vouch for me when most would rather have executed me and been done with it. She had been the first to give me a choice - a real choice - and had stood by my decision afterward. Whatever she thought about the Mage Rebellion, she was the first person who ever placed trust in me. I could never wholly forget that.

Uncertain how to help, I stood beside her in silence while she recited the Chant in whispered verses. Whether my presence gave some small comfort or not, she gave no outward sign. Ever stalwart, it didn’t take her long to recover. Standing with a deep sigh, she wiped her sword on her pant leg and sheathed it. After a moment, she looked up at me. Almost immediately, her expression changed as she assessed my sorry state.

“You’re hurt!” she exclaimed, loud enough to catch the attention of Varric and Solas, who were approaching wearily.

“It’s not my blood,” I tried to say, only I couldn’t manage to get the words out. I realized I was swaying on my feet. Looking down, I saw a deep crimson stain running down my tunic. I had assumed it was from those I slew, but now I saw it was pouring forth from a large gash in my right flank. Something had cut through leather and cloth to tear raggedly at my flesh, and in my adrenaline soaked panic for survival I hadn’t noticed.

I looked up to the concerned expressions of my companions. Cassandra said something, but it sounded like it was coming from far away, and I couldn’t make it out. Before I could ask her to repeat, I swayed once more, coming up against something hard, and everything went black.

Chapter Text

V: Here.
T: I’m fine, I don’t need it.
V: Just take a drink. You’re tenser than a dwarven family reunion right now.
T: …
V: Better?
T: A little. Still hate the taste though.
V: Heh. Well, you don’t drink for the flavor. If you want we can take a break here?
T: No, I’m fine. I can keep going. There’s another good hour left of sunlight.
V: Alright, if you’re sure.

When next I opened my eyes, I was lying on a stiff cot, covered in clean, wool blankets. I was indoors, somewhere unfamiliar. Thick, wooden beams framed a vaulted ceiling above me. Sunlight streamed in through several small windows across the wall opposite me.

I shifted, and immediately wished I hadn’t as a wave of pain swept across my torso and forced the air from my lungs.

“Lie still, child,” a deep, motherly voice said from beside me. “Do not reopen your injuries.” I turned to my right and saw a woman kneeling there. Her skin, deep brown and marked by age, was only slightly darker than my own. She had kind eyes that looked down at me with genuine concern. The crisp white of the Chantry robes she wore marked her as high ranking. Her accent was strongly Orlesian, but she spoke in Common.

“What happened?” I asked after a few deep breaths.

“You were badly hurt in the fighting, and so were brought inside so the healers could mend you.”

Her hands gently pushed me back into the cot, urging me to relax. She moved the blankets and lifted my undershirt slightly, where I saw a bandage was wrapped around my abdomen. With deft, practiced motions, she checked the wound underneath for new bleeding. I lay quietly while she looked, my gaze fixed pointedly up at the ceiling, afraid to see the injury for myself.

“You lost quite a bit of blood, I’m afraid, but by the Maker’s grace, the healers were able to stop it in time. You’ll be weak for some days, though, until your body is able to replenish what was lost.”

She reaffixed the bandage in place, satisfied that I’d not reopened the wound, and lowered my shirt.

“Thank you,” I said.

“It is I who should thank you.” She took my hand in hers. Her grip was warm and firm, and she smiled kindly, the laughter lines in her face deepening. “You and your companions from the Inquisition have helped save me and my flock from harm, at great risk to yourselves.”

Finally, I pieced together who this woman must be.

“Mother Giselle?”

She nodded.

“Take this time to rest, child. You have a hard road ahead of you.” Her eyes flitted for only a moment over to my left hand, where the ominous, ever present glow of the mark shone dimly in the afternoon light.

“You know who I am?” It was a foolish question. She chuckled lightly, and I felt oddly self-conscious, like a child being patiently humored by a parent.

“You are the one they are calling the Herald of Andraste.” Her voice gave added weight to the title, reminding me of the awe with which Scout Harding had addressed me.

I shifted uncomfortably, but a twinge of pain reminded me to be still.

“Not through any choice of mine.”

That earned another chuckle. “We seldom have much to say in our own fate, I’m sad to say.”

“You agree with them?” I couldn’t help the note of incredulity as I asked.

“I do not presume to know the Maker’s intentions.”

Deciding not to argue the point, I looked around. I was in a long, rectangular room, with rows of cots to either side and across the wall opposite me. Likely once a meeting hall, now it served as a makeshift healer’s room. Several other beds were occupied, some attended to by Chantry sisters and mage healers in their cumbersome Circle robes. Most were resting peacefully, though a few were grasping at wounds while awaiting treatment. No one I knew appeared to be among them.

“Where are my…the ones I was traveling with?” I wasn’t sure yet what to call them. Allies? Companions?

“They are aiding in the preparations for the funeral rites.” Mother Giselle indicated toward one end of the hall, where a door stood open and through which I could see many people moving back and forth outside. Some were carrying bundles of wood or large sacks. Others, working in pairs, were carrying bodies. “So many dead,” she said, the smile and warmth gone from her face, replaced by sadness.

I noted the relatively small number of wounded, and swallowed against the urge to retch. I wasn’t yet ready to remember the battle, but the memories flooded my mind regardless. The blank surprise of the first mage I’d killed. The smell of singed hair. The stinging cold of a frost spell I couldn’t dodge. The dizziness of constant motion and hyper-awareness of my instinct to survive, to fight.

How many had I slain? Had any of my spells caught innocents in the crossfire? It was just like my final night at Faxhold all over again. Old memories of death mingled with new. Breathing was suddenly hard, and as I started to heave I felt a fresh burst of pain from my flank.

Urgent voices and a sudden flurry of motion sounded around me, and I felt cool hands pressed to my forehead and chest, holding me back. The coolness spread from those hands to my flesh, down into my core. It was soothing, not painful like the battle spells I’d endured; this was meant to calm, to heal. Looking up, I found myself under the care of a mage, her pale blue eyes glazed over in concentration as her spell worked its way into me.

Once the pain and nausea subsided, I nodded my thanks. She bowed low to me, smiling shyly, before moving on to another patient. She looked young, barely old enough to have passed her Harrowing. I wondered if she had even gotten the chance before the Circles were dissolved.

“You work with mages?” I asked of Mother Giselle, who was waiting nearby.

“Magic is no more or less evil than a soldier’s blade. Those here have turned it to noble purpose. There are others who have fallen prey to their darkest impulses and have become lost. They turn aside from the Maker’s purpose for them.”

I wanted to argue, but after what I saw today, I no longer had the energy or the will. I took stock of her once more, noting how she stayed on my right side. There was a hint of wariness in how she looked at me. She was studying me, just as I was her.

“Why did you send for us?” I asked.

“I sent for you.”

“Me?”

“I know of the Chantry’s denouncement,” she said, coming to sit next to me once more, still on my right. “And I’m familiar with those behind it. But you are an unknown. I wanted to see the truth behind the tale for myself.”

“And now that you’ve seen me?”

She said nothing for a moment, studying me again. At last, she looked over to my left hand. Realizing I’d been clenching it into a fist, I relaxed, flexing it outward, causing the green glow to tint the golden brown of her eyes in the instant before she looked away again. She muttered something to herself, and I detected the familiar rhythms of the Chant. Regaining her courage, she met my eyes again. Whatever she saw there seemed to comfort her; it eased her shoulders, and smoothed the tension from her face.

“I honestly don’t know if you were sent by fate to help us, but I hope.” She sounded more confident than her words indicated. “Hope is what is needed now. Hope, to combat the fear. Fear makes us desperate, but not beyond reason. Those who decry you as a heretic have heard only frightful tales of you. Go to them. Give them something else to believe. Show them you are no demon to be feared.”

“They want to execute me, and you think I should just walk up to them?” I raised one brow in doubt, unsure if she was aware of how impossible a task that sounded to me.

“You are no longer alone. They cannot imprison or attack you.”

“They can try.” They would try. I remembered the determined fury on Chancellor Roderick’s face as he’d stormed out of Haven’s chantry.

“Let me put it this way.” She paused, picking her words carefully. “You needn’t convince them all. You just need some of them to… doubt. Their power is their unified voice. Take that from them and you receive the time you need.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

She sighed, a sad sort of exasperation in her face now. “I won’t lie to you. Many of the remaining clerics are grandstanding, hoping to increase their chances of becoming the next Divine. And in that goal, you are an obstacle.” I blinked, unsure how to interpret that. “The people will listen to your rallying call as they will listen to no other. You could build the Inquisition into a powerful force that could deliver us… or destroy us.”

I could think of nothing to say. I wanted to laugh, and to cry. I wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear from the waking world. I wanted to get up and run out the door of that hall and never stop running until the land itself stopped and met the sea. What I did instead was stare, blinking, back at Mother Giselle, this powerful woman who had just laid the fate of Thedas at my feet and smiled indulgently at me as if she were providing a great favor.

It would have been comical, if it wasn’t so terrifying. I thought of Cassandra scoffing at the very idea of me at the head of the Inquisition. Then I remembered that she had taken to calling me the Herald herself. And she wasn’t alone. The title was spreading faster than we had thought possible. Just as I’d feared upon first hearing it, wherever we went my left palm betrayed me, and those who recognized the mark looked on me with a reverence that left me profoundly unnerved.

Mother Giselle left me then, with the firm but gentle directive that I was to lie still and rest until the morning. I took the opportunity, grateful to have the small comfort of a bed above the ground for a change. One of the Inquisition’s scouts came to check on me after some time, and must have reported my condition to Cassandra, who came to my cot asking after my welfare.

Neither of us spoke of the battle, but I noted a gentleness to her tone that hadn’t been there before. For my part, I found my own bitterness had softened toward her. For the moment, at least, we seemed to have forged a truce.

Solas and Varric came to check on me as well, both noticeably glad I was recovering. It warmed my heart more than I cared to admit at the time to be the subject of such concern. It had been a long time since I’d felt cared for in such a manner. I made sure to thank them for getting me to the healers so quickly, and expressed my relief that all three were relatively unharmed from the battle. Both men brushed off my comments in their usual manner - Solas with quiet grace, Varric with casual bravado - then returned to their duties aiding in the clean up.

By the time the sun’s light through the windows had started to fade to a deep red, much of the activity outside had calmed. In the twilight, I could hear Mother Giselle’s voice, clear and confident and mournful, reciting the last rites. The telltale crackling of flames and the scent of smoke soon followed as the funeral pyres were lit. They would burn long into the night. Settling myself down under the blankets, I finally allowed sleep to take me.

Unfortunately, I was to find no solace in sleep that night.

I dreamt that I was one of the bodies lying on the funeral pyre, with mourners surrounding me, reading the last rites. No matter how I shouted and screamed, I could not drown out their recitations. No matter how I thrashed and kicked, I could not lift myself from the pyre. When the flames started to rise around me, I was helpless to stop my own immolation. It felt just like the Breach.

I awoke in a cold sweat at dawn with the dream vivid in my memory. My wound was healed, and the pain was gone. What remained instead was a lingering sense of dread. I didn’t know it then, but that dread was to be my constant companion for a long time afterward.

Chapter Text

“You’re leaving.”

The voice stopped me in my tracks, and I turned to face Solas, who stood not three paces behind me. It was dark, but the night sky was clear and the moon nearly full. I could see he was wearing his coat, satchel slung across his shoulder. Leaning idly on his staff, he looked for all the world like he’d been waiting here for me. I hadn’t heard even a hint of his approach.

“How did you…?”

“You’ve had your eyes fixed on the horizon since the moment I met you,” he answered with the barest hint of a smirk. “I knew it was only a matter of time before you tried this.”

“And you’re here to stop me?”

I was already calculating my chances of getting my staff out before he could disarm me. A wide cast without the staff would be faster, but less controlled and more noticeable. That was the last thing I wanted. The camp was still fast asleep behind me - behind us - and I wanted to keep it that way.

“Do I look as though I intend to stop you?” He made a gesture that encompassed himself, staff, satchel, and all.

“You want to come with me?” I was dubious.

“You’ll note that I am not standing in your way.”

He was still leaning on his staff, deceptively casual. I wasn’t fooled; I had seen him cast often enough to know he could have it readied in a blink if need be.

“Why?”

Solas shifted his weight, taking a deep breath of the frosty air, exhaling wisps of fog. Unlike Haven, the Hinterlands lay below the snow line. Still, spring was slow to catch on this close to the mountains, and the temperature dropped quite low most nights. He seemed unbothered by the chill.

“Because, though I am loathe to admit it, I agree with Cassandra,” he said. His smirk widened slightly, though still did not reach his eyes, giving him a rueful expression. “Surely you’ve noticed how most greet you when they realize who you are?”

“I don’t intend to introduce myself as Andraste’s Herald everywhere I go.”

“Of course,” he acknowledged with a small chuckle. “But it’s hard to hide the most obvious indication of that title.”

He was right, of course. Even with the thick leather of my glove covering it, the unnatural glow emanating from my left palm was barely dimmed, making anonymity impossible. Everywhere we went, people quickly marked me as the Herald of Andraste, and their reaction was always exactly as I’d feared; either they were awe-struck or terrified. I was either an idol of worship, or a demon to be exorcised.

And every time I saw their faces change, Mother Giselle’s words echoed in my mind.

“The people will listen to your rallying call as they will listen to no other. You could build the Inquisition into a powerful force that could deliver us… or destroy us.”

Whether I wanted it or no, I had become the face of the Inquisition. No, worse than that; I was their icon. A puppet, to be brought out and used whenever needed. Because I had an ability no one else possessed. Or understood.

We were not far from a rift even now, I recalled bitterly. We passed it on the way to the farmlands, where we’d made camp for the night. Maker knew how many more were scattered across the Hinterlands, or all of Ferelden, for that matter. We had even been getting reports that they were appearing in Orlais. There truly may not be any escape from this curse.

Solas was infuriatingly quiet, his unspoken surety grating at me.

Cassandra had deemed getting to the Crossroads a higher priority, and so the rifts had been left unaddressed our first few days here. Now the area was under Inquisition control, however, the rifts needed to be dealt with.

On her orders, we’d spent the last few days wandering the countryside chasing after reported sightings. And where there were rifts, demons were sure to be nearby, for they vigorously defended their portals into the waking world. Which meant each discovery required fighting, which was harrowing and taxing all on its own. Then there was the closing of the rifts themselves. Each time, I was left feeling both drained and overfilled, broken down and reforged.

It was exhausting, to say the least.

To make matters worse, there were still rogue factions of the templar-mage war, determined to wreak as much havoc on the peaceful farmlands and hillsides as possible. So, in addition to fending off demons and closing rifts, I’d been fighting mage and templar alike, forced to strike down those I had once counted allies, kin. Raised under the cruel blades of the Order as I had been, I could understand the rage that made them want to continue the war, but seeing fellow mages lowered to such depravity hurt more than I could admit to the others.

The physical toll was one thing, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional torment of these last few days. It had become too much to bear. So here I was, ready to flee, desperate to escape. Running away in the middle of the night, like a coward.

“This isn’t my problem to fix!” I hissed at Solas, tears blurring my vision. I wiped at my eyes roughly, furious at their betrayal.

“No, it isn’t,” Solas agreed.

“I didn’t create this mess!”

“I know.”

His face was impassive as he looked back at me, unblinking at my growing rage. How could he be so certain? I was incensed, and he was being far too agreeable. I threw down my staff and closed the gap between us, grabbing a fistful of his coat in my right hand and thrusting my left palm into that damnably calm face. He didn’t so much as flinch.

“Why should this cursed thing mean I have to stay and risk my life for people who would just as soon hang me for a blasphemer and a murderer?” Now I was nearly shouting, but Solas remained still, unblinking. “Why am I the one who has to fix this?”

“Because you are the only one who can fix this,” Solas said simply, an ocean of sympathy evident in his pale eyes.

I knew his words for truth, but I hated him all the more for speaking it. I released my grip. I was trembling, tears blurring my vision once again. This time, I couldn’t stop them, and they fell in twin trails down my cheeks. I wanted to run, but I was too afraid to be on my own. A sob tore from my throat, and I turned away in a vain attempt to hide my grief.

For a long while, neither of us spoke. The camp remained silent behind us, and the only sound came from my own ragged breathing. It took time to regain control over my emotions, but Solas remained patient behind me. Finally, I was able to speak.

“Would you really let me go?”

“Yes.”

“But you would come with me.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

I believed him, but I couldn’t understand. I’m not sure why I needed to know, but the answer suddenly felt very important.

“Because you are both right and wrong,” he said. I heard footsteps, felt him approach. Still, I didn’t turn, not ready to look him in the eye. “None of this is your fault, no. But it is your responsibility.”

“You don’t know that!” I turned then, defiance rising in me, outweighing my shame. “You can’t possibly know this isn’t my fault! Even I don’t know this isn’t my fault!”

There it was. The nagging doubt in the back of my mind that I’d been trying so hard to ignore, to push down and repress, spoken aloud at last.

What if I had caused the explosion?

“You didn’t do it,” Solas said. A simple statement, so confidently given. It left no room for doubt.

“How do you know?” I demanded.

He merely shrugged. “Because I know you. Whatever the circumstances may be that led to you receiving that mark, they were not of your making.”

I tried to take comfort from that, but still the injustice of it all left me feeling defeated.

“But it’s still apparently my responsibility to undo?”

“It’s not fair,” he agreed. “But fairness is a small concern when we are weighing it against the fate of all of Thedas.”

How could I possibly argue with that?

“Are you always so damnably sure of yourself?” I asked. I tried to sound bitter, but the anger had left me almost entirely, like a great wind had died, leaving only quiet. I breathed deeply of the night air and let out a heavy sigh. The cold was normally bracing, but tonight I hardly felt it, too wrapped up in my own thoughts as I was. Reaching down, I picked up my staff, then straightened and faced the tents with their sleeping occupants.

“Most of the time,” he said as he came to stand next to me. “It’s not a virtue.”

“Neither is cowardice.”

“You are no coward.”

“Aren’t I?”

Solas turned to face me, smiling his sad smile. “You didn’t leave.”

Without waiting for my response, he strolled forward and returned to his bedroll where it was propped against a tree trunk, never once looking back at me.

So damnably sure.

Shaking my head, I returned to my tent, unburdened myself of my pack and lay my staff next to my bed roll. Then, too restless to sleep, I went outside to instead sit beside the dying embers of the campfire, and watched the moon sink low in the sky. By the time it had grown too faint to see and the sun’s light had started creeping up from the horizon, I was woken by Cassandra’s firm hand shaking my shoulder. She was telling me to get a bowl of porridge to give me strength.

Today we would tackle more rifts.

V: So, how many times did you try to escape?
T: That was the last time.
V: Really? Huh…
T: You sound disappointed.
V: Seriously? I mean, maybe I should be, but ever since you told me about that first time with Cassandra on your way to the Breach, it got me thinking.
T: Oh?
V: It’s honestly pretty surprising you didn’t try to escape more than that. Or that it was Chuckles who dragged you back instead of, you know, the Seeker.
T: No, I’m sure she suspected, but she never said anything. And Solas had promised to keep that night between us.
V: Hmm.
T: What?
V: Nothing, just… I guess I missed more than I thought.
T: You’re not the only one.
V: You okay?
T: Actually, do you mind if we take a break for today? I need to--
V: --Yeah no problem, don’t worry about it. I’ve got a stack of letters I’ve been neglecting anyway. Just let me know when you’re ready for another session.
T: Thanks. Oh, here’s your flask back.
V: … Keep it.

Chapter Text

Returning to Haven was a strange experience for me. It struck me when we first spotted the sharpened points of logs that served as its perimeter wall poking above the treeline; not so much the makings of a secure fortress as a stern insistence on isolation. As we navigated the snow-laden forest, I wondered if this was what coming home felt like for most people. Though I had only spent a few scant days there prior to my excursion to the Hinterlands, it had become familiar. And returning to a familiar place was a wholly foreign concept.

I had only vague memories of my family’s estate before being carted off to the Circle at age twelve. Thereafter, Faxhold had been home, but of course I was never permitted to leave it - until I was given no choice. Even then, returning was altogether an impossibility, for several reasons. After that, nowhere was home, as at any moment I could be forced to flee whatever hiding place I’d secured, never to return. It had begun to feel as though familiarity had become a luxury I could no longer afford.

Yet here I found myself, in the company of those I had begun to know well, returning to a place of peace and welcoming. A strange experience, indeed, but also comforting. Now, I saw it with new eyes.

I marveled at the orange and red hues of the setting sun, reflected off the flat, stark whiteness of the frozen lake. The semi-sweet scent of wild elfroot conflicted with the sharp bitterness of deathroot, all layered over the crisp pine which grew in abundance here. Some of the villagers were out picking the valuable herbs and placing them in large baskets hung from their waists. And everywhere, snow spread across the ground like a thick blanket and hung from the tree branches in patches, weighing them down. In the valley below, spring was beginning to take hold. Up here, nestled amidst vast mountain peaks, winter was still in full force.

The biting cold of the wind made me shiver, and I pulled my cloak tighter with one hand. The other held fast to Cassandra’s belt, keeping me in place behind her on the saddle we shared. Our mount - an even-tempered, chestnut brown mare - pricked her ears this way and that at the myriad of new sounds as we continued our approach. Beside us, Solas and Varric shared a dappled white and grey gelding; Solas in front, guiding the reigns, Varric behind, clinging to his waist much like I clung to Cassandra’s. We shared a private look of annoyed resignation at the indignity.

After patrolling the Hinterlands for several weeks, we had finally managed to quell enough of the fighting from bandits, mages, and templars to reach a besieged horse breeder by the name of Dennet. Harding - none the worse for wear after the Crossroads battle and newly promoted to lead scout - had pointed us in his direction. It was well done, for his prowess with the beasts was greatly lauded by not just the local farmers, but many noteworthy noble families and military commanders across Thedas.

With great effort, we managed to convince him to lend his expertise - and mounts - to our cause. That had convinced Cassandra that we deserved some down time. Finally, after weeks of sleeping on uncomfortable, root-infested ground and walking for hours on end, of fighting demons and crazed templars and, sadly, even mages, we could return to what had become the main base of operations for the Inquisition. It was no exaggeration to say we were all looking forward to a hot meal, eaten at a real table, and falling asleep on a soft bed, under a solid roof.

As we approached the modest outer gate, the landscape suddenly emptied; many of the trees in a wide berth from the wall had been cut down. Almost immediately once we passed under the gate, we could see why.

The Inquisition’s three advisors - the Terrible Threesome, as Varric had taken to calling them - had not been idle while we were gone. The field that nestled between the lake and the inner wall had been flattened and cleared of all underbrush, and the felled trees had there been put to a multitude of uses.

Practice dummies and archery targets were arranged in rows, and a great number of soldiers - many more than when we left - were wailing away at them with training swords. Nearby, watchful trainers alternated shouting praise and rebukes, at times stepping forward to demonstrate a proper grip or point out an error in technique. I noted with apprehension how many of those trainers wore the flaming sword of Andraste on their breast.

Every spare inch of the grand field that wasn’t dedicated to training was given over to an erratic and haphazard sea of tents, all presumably occupied by refugees, from their plain clothes and lack of arms or armor. In fact, many looked not so different from the farmers and villagers in the Hinterlands. The sheer number of them was staggering; there must have been hundreds, and these were in addition to those already crowded into Haven proper. As we descended the sloping hillside within the outer gate, we could see in the center of the tent city a great line of men and women, elderly and children, waiting for their helping of whatever was being served by heaping spoonfuls from several large cauldrons hanging above smouldering fires.

I could hear a smith’s hammer ringing and, looking up, I saw smoke pouring from a chimney above what could only be the armory, hugging the inner wall. As I observed, a young elf barely past childhood was carting a wheelbarrow full of fresh-forged swords, steering it toward the training grounds.

Several new buildings had gone up as well; hasty constructions that likely were only meant as placeholders until more permanent arrangements could be made, all jutting out at odd angles from unexpected places.

And everywhere people bustled back and forth.

Haven had become very busy in our absence. And very noisy. Bitterly, I wondered at the odds of me actually getting any sleep tonight, after all.

“Cullen has done well,” Cassandra voiced her approval, looking out over the scene.

I gave no response; in truth, it all looked like pandemonium to me. As well, my mood soured at the reminder that a templar was in charge of all those trainees. The thought made my skin prickle, and with every group of soldiers we passed, I couldn’t help but feel like a target they were sizing up.

“Cassandra!”

A voice called out, and we all turned to see Commander Cullen himself, standing not far off and waving us over. His full chest plate reflected the setting sun as he stood facing us, leaving me with nothing but a silhouetted impression of his ridiculous pauldrons to identify him by. Cassandra returned his wave and veered our shared mount over to him. As we approached, he was finishing a discussion with another soldier, who promptly hurried off in the direction of the armory. The Commander turned to appraise us with a quick nod.

“Good to see you all returned safely,” he said. I did not miss the quick darting of his eyes over to me as he spoke.

Yes. I defied him silently with an inscrutable stare. I’m still here.

Remembering my near-escape a fortnight ago, however, I remained quiet. Thankfully, Solas had kept that night between the two of us, but I still cringed at its memory. I hoped no one ever learned of my moment of weakness; that shame, I would keep to myself.

Cassandra dismounted, swinging one leg smoothly over the horse’s neck and landing with solid grace in front of the Commander. The two shared a warm handshake, and for a fleeting moment I thought I even saw Cassandra smile, ever so slightly.

“It is good to be back,” she responded. “You’ve done wonders here.”

“Things are still barely organized chaos.” He waved off her compliment. “Still, we were happy to receive the influx of recruits out of the Hinterlands. It seems you’ve not been idle yourselves.”

He looked over to me again, where I was gingerly attempting to make my own way down from the saddle. Realizing I was under his scrutiny, I hesitated and my foot caught in the stirrup, nearly tumbling me face first into the dirt. Cassandra, belatedly noticing my struggle, reached out a steady hand, which I took, and managed to plant feet to ground without further humiliation. Even so, I heard Varric snicker behind me from his vantage point, still saddled behind Solas. The Commander coughed into his fist, but I had a sneaking suspicion he was covering a laugh of his own. Wonderful. I glowered down at the ground, my mood now thoroughly ruined.

“Sister Leliana’s scouts have sent reports of your activities,” he continued after a moment. “Mother Giselle arrived only a few days ahead of you, and she’s brought many refugees with her who attribute your interference with saving their lives. She herself says it was you who convinced her to join our cause.” That last was meant for me, and I frowned, looking up to meet his appraisal. “Well done.”

I mumbled somewhat in response, too distracted trying to find the hint of sarcasm in his words or see the edges of the trap to be properly gracious for the compliment.

While I was in my thoughts, he and Cassandra spoke at some length about the newly erected training grounds, using terms and phrases I was unfamiliar with. Varric and Solas had both dismounted, coming to stand next to me and mutter about whether they were still needed. I shifted from foot to foot, impatient to be on my way as well. I had just begun to wonder whether anyone would notice if I just wandered off when the Commander finally seemed to remember his courtesies.

“You must be exhausted,” he said to all four of us. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid Sister Leliana and Lady Montilyet will want your report straight away.” He ran one gloved hand across his wheat-blond hair, where it came to rest at the back of his neck for a moment before returning hesitantly to hang from his belt. “You’ll find them both in the strategy room, most like.” He gestured toward the chantry.

Cassandra, to her credit, only sighed with mild annoyance, nodding. Then, pausing, she asked, “Shouldn’t you also be there for our report?”

“Mmm? Oh, I… Right. I suppose so.” He seemed genuinely surprised by the notion, though I couldn’t fathom how one could forget a thing like being appointed lead commander of an entire army. “I’ll be there momentarily. There are still some things here that require my attention. Do not wait for me if I’m delayed.”

He was already walking off toward an incident he’d noticed unfolding between two of the recruits; it appeared a disagreement was about to turn physical. He was yards away before his strong bellow sounded, echoing over the field and causing many who heard it - myself included - to jump in surprise. With other business pressing, however, we did not stay to witness its resolution.

We continued on toward the inner gate, and I could see the steepled chantry rooftop looming above the other buildings. Solas and Varric quickly veered off toward the pub once we were past the inner wall. I attempted to follow, but didn’t get far.

“Mistress Trevelyan, if you please,” Cassandra beckoned. “Leliana and Josephine will want to question you regarding your conversation with Mother Giselle, among other things.”

I resisted the urge to groan in frustration, barely. I’d been hoping the Commander’s remark about reporting had not included me. I caught the tantalizing aroma of whatever was being served from the pub; some sort of thick stew, I guessed. My mouth began to water, and my stomach grumbled its protest at the delay.

“Surely you’re better suited to give them any information they require?”

“You are the Herald of Andraste. Your thoughts on these matters are important.”

I had to appreciate the irony; now, when I wanted nothing more than to be left alone, they sought my council. Still, I could hardly protest if I wanted to continue being included in such meetings. With a resigned sigh, I allowed myself to be led up the path, away from the warm light of the pub and toward the imposing doors of the chantry.

Like outside, the great hall was buzzing with activity. Everywhere women in white robes of various ranks from revered mother to lay-sister went to and fro; lighting candles, folding blankets, counting stacks of pots, shuffling papers, carrying books and scrolls. Some I recognized from the Crossroads, others had been there since the Breach, and still others were entirely new to me.

The Inquisition had not been idle, indeed.

Leliana was talking to one of the lay-sisters. My eyes had initially skipped over her, hidden as she was beneath a drab shroud that obscured the bright wisps of her copper-colored hair. It wasn’t until she waved us over, looking not even a little surprised to see us, that I recognized her.

“Cassandra, Herald, I’m pleased you made it before sundown,” she said when we approached. Turning to the young woman she’d been talking to, she said, “Please send for Josephine and tell her they’ve arrived. We will meet her in the war room.” The young woman nodded and ran off toward one of the side rooms to carry on the message.

We both followed Leliana into the room situated at the very end of the great hall behind a thick wooden door that groaned petulantly as it opened. I had to pause, squinting in the dim light emanating from candles marking the corners of the enormous table that took up much of the available space. The great map of Thedas was still draped over it. Once my eyes adjusted, I noticed there were many new markers scattered across the map.

While I was scanning over them, Lady Josephine entered, a flurry of papers in her arms, apologies and pleasant perfume in her wake. Her deep brunette hair was elegantly coiffed in a style that reminded me of some of the favored styles in Ostwick. Her meticulously crafted cloth-of-gold blouse could not have been a further contrast from Leliana’s simple leather-and-chainmail tunic and Cassandra’s full breastplate. I detected the telltale rolling consonants of an Antivan accent when she spoke, and my mind wandered momentarily, trying to place her family name among the many noble relations Ostwick associated with.

My thoughts were interrupted, however, when Josephine was settled enough to have a look around the room.

“Where is the Commander?” she asked. “Shouldn’t he be here for this?”

“We spoke with him on our way in,” Cassandra answered. “He said he would join us presently, but not to wait for him.”

Leliana and Josephine exchanged a meaningful look. Josephine raised one delicate eyebrow before making a note on the parchment she carried. Leliana walked over to the door, opened it, and said something to the guard outside before returning to her place across from Cassandra and me at the great table.

“Trouble?” Cassandra asked.

“No, nothing unusual.” Leliana side-stepped the question, already pouring over some missives lying in a pile before her.

Josephine stepped in to explain.

“He has been diligent with his duties, to be sure, but his time management can be… lacking at times.”

“Meaning?” Cassandra crossed her arms, not willing to leave it at that.

“If he had his way, he’d never leave the training field,” Leliana sighed. “He certainly has a knack with the recruits, but we need him here more than out there.”

“Has he been neglectful?”

“Certainly not,” Josephine quickly backtracked. “However, I fear he may be…” She seemed to struggle to find the right phrasing.

“You know how he is by now,” Leliana said with a dismissive shrug.

Whatever that meant, I would not find out, for at that moment the Commander himself came through the door with a beleaguered sigh.

“You needn’t have sent a guard to fetch me, like some wayward dog,” he grumbled. “I was already on my way, but an argument started up in the square that required interference.”

Leliana merely shrugged again, her face implacable, while Josephine changed the topic gracefully to the matter at hand. After a few moments of shuffling papers and resituating various markers on the map, the interrogation began.

V: Interrogation?
T: Well, maybe that’s a bit uncharitable.
V: Maybe a bit dramatic?
T: Says the man who keeps bringing up his own interrogation every day or so.
V: Hey now, I haven’t--
T: --Yesterday during your meeting with Wycome’s council representatives.
V: … How did you hear about that?
T: Aveline, of course.
V: Shit, I keep forgetting you two have those playdates.
T: “Playdates”?
V: Yeah, your little tykes play in the grass and you two sit and gossip about me.
T: It’s not always about you. And I wouldn’t use the word “gossip”, exactly…

They wanted to know everything about our time in the Hinterlands. This amounted to quite a lot of intensive questioning. Leliana was particularly interested in my conversation with Mother Giselle, asking a multitude of questions about the most minute details: her tone, her stance, a particular word choice, her amount of eye contact, and so on. Maker knows how much time passed, and by the end of things my head was fair swimming.

In the end, Leliana simply asked, “Did she sound genuine to you?”

I blinked at that, so far beyond being able to process any more information that I was momentarily unable to form a response. Four pairs of eyes were focused on me, awaiting my opinion.

I resisted the urge to simply shrug, wanting nothing more than to give up and try to get a plate of whatever food was left at the pub, thinking miserably that it was all likely either eaten or cold by now. But I held my tongue, chiding my ingratitude, remembering that I had wanted to be afforded this level of respect. If I wanted to keep it, I’d better justify it.

I took a deep breath, trying to think back to my conversation with the revered mother. The advice she gave had sounded well informed, though I did not pretend to know the inner machinations of the Chantry. Instead, I focused on my memory of her, not her words. I remembered the kindness in her eyes, how she had looked directly into mine when she thanked me. She had clearly feared the mark in my hand, but as I myself held no small amount of trepidation toward it, I could hardly blame her for that.

I was a mage, and the bearer of an accursed disfigurement that somehow connected me directly to the Fade. On top of that, the Chantry had openly declared me anathema. Yet despite all that, she had asked to see me, specifically, to make up her own mind.

After a moment, I looked up into Leliana’s piercing grey eyes, and nodded.

“Yes, I think so. Or at the very least, I can see no possible benefit for her aside from what she claims; that she does not want more innocents harmed while the Chantry fails to act.”

Leliana and Josephine shared another look, then both glanced over to the Commander. He considered me for a moment, and I had to stop myself from fidgeting under the weight of his hooded gaze, ignoring the twinge of guilt in the back of my mind.

I had deliberately withheld only one detail - Giselle’s prediction that the rise or fall of the Inquisition would fall on me. Not out of false modesty or personal stake; Maker knew I would run from the hall that very moment if I knew I could truly escape the responsibility. It simply unnerved me too much; even Solas did not know of it.

If the Commander knew any of that, however, he showed no sign. After a moment, he nodded over to his colleagues. I felt my shoulders lower slightly, and fists I hadn’t known I was clenching eased open.

“Good, then that’s settled,” Josephine said, making more notes on the parchment she carried. It was supported by a grand flat board that looked impossibly awkward, but she balanced it with little effort. “We will begin making plans to meet with the Revered Mother Hevara, the highest ranking of the names Mother Giselle gave us. It will take some time to arrange, as she is currently stationed in Val Royeaux.”

Orlais, I thought with dismay, hoping Josephine was right in her estimate. My back ached at the thought of such a long trek so soon after our recent return.

“In the meantime, we must begin planning our next move,” Leliana said, pouring once more over the numerous markers on the map. “The Breach still needs sealed, and we haven’t the resources to do it ourselves.”

“We should go to Therinfall Redoubt,” the Commander responded at once. “And try to meet with what remains of the Order.”

Leliana shook her head.

“We’ve still not heard anything from them. We have no idea whether they would be amenable to an alliance---”

“---Or just execute me on sight,” I finished for her, quashing what was sure to be an attempt at downplaying how dangerous such a proposition would be.

“But we’ve not heard from the mages either,” he pressed, leaning toward me. “And we must begin taking steps to counteract---”

“---No.” My voice rose slightly, and I felt my heartbeat rising with it. “I will not approach Templars for aid. I told you already I will not participate in aught I find objectionable.”

“But this isn’t just about y---”

“NO!”

I shouted this time, feeling the tenuous control I had been maintaining in the face of fatigue and hunger and defensiveness slip from my grasp. At that same moment, a bright flash burst from my palm, filling the room with its lurid color and making me double over in pain.

It was over in a blink, but I was a moment longer recovering, gasping and trying to steady my racing pulse. When I looked up again, I was met with terrified stares. The Commander’s hand was gripping the hilt of his sword. Leliana and Josephine had both backed away from the table, nearly hugging the opposite wall. Cassandra, however, was beside me, one hand gripping my elbow to steady me.

“Maker…” Josephine muttered, one hand rising to cover her mouth, then lowering again. “Are you alright?”

I nodded, but my ragged breathing and trembling hand belied any assurances I might make.

“It hasn’t done that since you stabilized the Breach,” Cassandra said, concern plain in her voice.

“It’s done this before?” The Commander was aghast at the notion. I recalled that only Cassandra and Leliana had witnessed the mark’s effect on me before now.

“I’m fine,” I insisted through gritted teeth, placing my hands on the table for stability. The pain had subsided and my breathing had normalized, but the room felt like it was spinning and my chest still throbbed with the pounding of my heartbeat.

Maintain control, I told myself. You cannot lose yourself now.

“We still know so little about… whatever that is,” Leliana muttered.

“Perhaps we should adjourn for the evening,” Josephine said. “It was inconsiderate of us to expect you to report here without even the courtesy of a meal and a night’s rest.”

“Quite,” I heard the Commander say.

His hand had moved away from his sword and hung in a balled fist at his side. His jaw clenched, and I saw fear flickering in his eyes, turning them from cool amber to bright golden flames. He looked like a taut string, ready to break at any moment. He looked, every inch, like a Templar who had spotted an abomination.

For a brief moment, my mind returned to the Circle: halls lined by men and women like him, straight-backed and cold-eyed, ever watchful, sword hands hovering over their hilts in silent warning.

I was suffocating; the room felt entirely too small to breathe in. The scrape of parchment and tiny gutterings of candles suddenly felt like a booming cacophony. I couldn’t breathe.

No! Maintain control…

He lunged toward me, launching his attack. Instinctively, I backed away - right into Cassandra, who remained stalwart behind me. With nowhere to go, my panic only grew.

“Stop!” I shrieked.

He paused, arms extended toward me in aid, not attack.

“I’m only trying to help.”

“I don’t want your help!”

The room was quiet again, and everyone fell still. He backed away, settling at the far wall with arms crossed. Even from there, I could hear his breathing, deliberately steady and extended. Belatedly, I noticed his sword had remained sheathed.

“You need rest,” Cassandra said. I recognized the firm command in her voice. That was an order, not sympathy.

“I’m fine,” I repeated, but even I could hear the ragged quality of my voice. After a moment, I relented, nodding.

It was agreed that we would pick up tomorrow evening after dinner, then there were parting words and forced courtesies uttered. Leliana left first, wishing me well on her way out. Still leaning over the table, I felt the Commander’s retreat and breathed easier with him out of the room. Cassandra hesitated at the doorway, waiting for me. As we both turned to leave, however, Josephine spoke up.

“Mistress Trevelyan, my apologies, but if I could speak to you in private for just a moment?”

Cassandra gave me a questioning glance, and I nodded reassurance, unsurprised at the delay. I had suspected I might be held to task for my behavior. She left, closing the door behind her at Josephine’s request, and I braced myself for the lecture I was expecting.

“I assume you’ll want me to apologize to the Commander?” I asked, too weary to put up much defiance.

“Actually, I wanted to speak with you about another matter,” Josephine said, pulling a piece of parchment from the folds of her waistcoat. The hesitance in her voice gave me pause, and I waited, frowning, for her to continue. “We have been sending volunteers to the site of the explosion to search for bodies or … anything that could identify the many dead there. We’ve been receiving daily reports of any confirmed names, and… this came just three days ago.”

She handed the parchment to me, and I unfolded it. It was a list of names, along with titles for those who had them. It didn’t take me long to realize why I was being shown this. Halfway down the list, two names immediately jumped out:

Trevelyan, Dexter, Bann of Ostwick
Trevelyan, Maxwell, heir to Trevelyan estate

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Josephine.

Chapter Text

Am I a terrible person, I wonder, to admit that I felt nothing?

I stared down at the two names on the parchment with no emotion, save mild surprise. My father and brother, confirmed as two of many hundreds of casualties from the explosion that ripped the Temple of Sacred Ashes and any chance at peace between mages and Templars to pieces.

I had barely given them a thought in years; my own family, my blood.

Not knowing what else to say, I thanked Josephine for telling me, and left. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. Outside, the sun had fully retreated behind the mountain’s peaks and darkness had settled over the village. I wandered down the leftward path toward the tavern, distantly recalling that I had yet to take my evening meal. Though my appetite had fled, I knew I needed to eat. However, the closer I got to the boisterous singing and raucous laughter of patrons deep in their cups, the less I desired to be in the midst of it. I would not find solitude there.

The feeling of imprisonment was rising again, making me hug at my arms and check over my shoulder. Everywhere I went, it felt as though eyes and whispers followed me. Solitude felt like a dream I could no longer remember. When had I last been truly alone?

I was contemplating the benefits of just finishing off the last of my trail rations and pitching my tent in whatever empty space I could find with the other refugees, when I heard a commotion rising not far off. It was coming from behind me, down the path toward the inner gate. I paused, listening, but all I could ascertain from this distance was that several people were shouting.

I looked around, realizing I knew of no other way to get to the field from here, and let out a string of curses under my breath. Whatever was going on out there, I would have to wade through it if I wanted to sleep tonight. Not willing to delay any longer, I moved warily in that direction, hoping I would not be noticed.

When I reached the source of the noise, however, it became obvious that would not be possible.

A sizeable crowd had gathered, shouting and gesticulating, clearly agitated. As I stood there, feeling very exposed and trying to find a path through the group, I began processing the shouts and cries.

“Mages killed the Divine!”

“Justice for the Divine!”

“Mages tore open the sky!”

Oh Maker, this wasn’t good.

I gripped my staff instinctively, glad I had not stowed it anywhere prior to the meeting. I hoped it would not be necessary, but it made me feel safer.

Still keeping my distance, I examined the crowd more closely. It was divided into two factions; one side was mostly comprised of villagers, soldiers, and Templars - with more than a few Chantry robes mixed in - while the other was almost entirely mages, recently arrived from the Hinterlands or among the few survivors of the Breach. I noted with surprise that some Chantry sisters were among them as well, if not nearly in the same numbers as their counterparts on the opposing side. Mother Giselle was among the mages, raising her hands in a peaceful gesture, but whatever she was saying was easily drowned out by the rage of the crowd.

Commander Cullen and Cassandra were in the center of it all, making of themselves a defensive wall between the two factions, while Leliana appeared to be trying to get the mages rounded up and away to safety, with the aid of some of her scouts and runners.

They weren’t having much success; things were looking ugly.

One young man, bearing the mark of a Tranquil on his forehead and looking still in his teens, was pushed to the ground and repeatedly kicked by two soldiers. I watched, petrified, afraid I was about to see the poor boy stomped to death, when Cassandra shoved the men off him, shouting them down in her fiercely imposing voice.

Finding my legs could now move, I rushed forward through a momentary gap between pressing bodies. I knelt over the boy, holding my staff protectively above me. Here, in the midst of the aggression, it was loud; a cacophony of pure rage that made it impossible to hear anything but the shouting as it rose ever higher, utterly indistinguishable from one voice to the other. Everywhere around me bodies pressed in, making me flinch, afraid I was about to feel the next blow at any moment. I frantically looked around, trying to find an escape route, wondering if I had the strength to lift the lad in my arms.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the attackers manage to get past Cassandra and was raising his fist for another onslaught. His face was contorted and reddened with rage, with eyes focused only on his target. I covered myself and the Tranquil in a barrier spell. It was patchy, hurried, but it did the trick for the first blow at least.

The man reeled back, surprised, but it wasn’t from the barrier.

My left palm was pulsing brightly, its fierce ache radiating up my arm, covering us all in its sickly pallor. It nearly caused me to lose focus on the barrier, but I gritted my teeth and counted my breaths until the pulsing - and the pain - dimmed. Still, the effect it had on the crowd was noticeable.

Almost at once, it had grown very quiet. Everyone had paused, momentarily blinded by the light. Now, they were all watching me, expectant, fearful. Enraptured.

“The people will listen to your rallying call as they will listen to no other.”

I ignored them all, and turned back to the boy under my protection.

“Are you badly hurt?” I asked him, leaning close so only he could hear me, but keeping my eyes on the crowd around us for new threats.

“I believe a rib may be broken,” he replied in the eerie monotone of his kind. I repressed a shudder. His face was contorted in pain, and he was struggling to keep his breathing shallow.

“Here.”

I gingerly took one of his arms over my shoulders and lifted us both to a standing position. One of the sisters spotted us and gestured that she would take him for treatment, and I allowed him to be transferred to her care.

“Thank you, Herald,” he said as he limped away, escorted by the sister and a scout.

Behind me, the Commander and Cassandra had managed to get the would-be rioters cowed enough to begin dispersing. Leliana had rounded most of the mages up and was leading them away from the scene.

“But Knight-Captain!” one of the Templars shouted in protest, addressing the Commander, who rounded on him in an instant.

“That is not my title!” he spat, getting very close to the other’s face. “We are not Templars any longer! We are all members of the Inquisition!”

“And what does that mean, exactly?” a voice called out, pitched to carry above the remaining din. Heads turned, and I recognized Chancellor Roderick as he stepped forward, exuding snide confidence.

“Back already?” the Commander sneered. “Haven’t you done enough?”

I wondered what that could mean, but Roderick wasn’t about to answer, at least not directly. Instead, he took a position that ensured he would be seen by all remaining members of the crowd, and when he next spoke, though he was addressing the Commander, it was quite apparent he was playing to the crowd, gesticulating grandly and giving his voice the familiar rhythm of a sermon, rather than a debate.

“I’m curious, Commander, as to how your Inquisition and its ‘Herald’---” he drew out the word as if it were a vulgar curse. “---will restore order as you’ve promised.”

His gaze lingered on me then, eyes brimming with hate, and I was aware that many others followed his lead, waiting for my response. I merely returned his glare, keeping my face carefully blank, though I was seething below the surface. I was certain then that he had been the one to instigate this argument, somehow, likely hoping it would result in a riot. I was furious, but knew there was no point in accusing him. Likely, that would just be playing into his hands.

For a moment, it looked like the Chancellor might say more, but the Commander stepped between us.

“Of course you are,” he said, sounding thoroughly unimpressed with this display of rhetoric. Then, he turned to those still standing about who had paused to hear the Chancellor’s little speech. Using a more authoritative tone, he addressed them. “Back to your duties, all of you!”

The soldiers and Templars obeyed immediately, and soon the civilians began to wander off as well. Now the crowd was dispersing at last, I felt my pulse lower and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.

I was not to have peace yet, however, for Chancellor Roderick remained, continuing his argument with Cassandra and the Commander.

“As if the continuing war between mages and Templars wasn’t bad enough,” I heard Cassandra saying. “Now you’ve got them blaming each other for what happened at the Conclave! How dare you invoke Divine Justinia’s death to stir chaos!”

It seemed I was not the only one who had made that assumption.

Against my better judgement, I decided to remain and keep Cassandra from doing anything rash; I knew how deeply she had felt the Divine’s death, and I knew her temper.

“We need a proper authority to guide these people back to order!” the Chancellor countered. Now his audience was gone, he had dispensed with the grand gestures, but his voice sounded oddly more earnest than before.

“Who, you?” the Commander scoffed. “Random clerics not important enough to be at the Conclave?”

“The rebel Inquisition and its so-called ‘Herald of Andraste’? I think not!” Roderick spat the words back, and pointed over to me. Clearly, this was something he was never going to let go.

I sighed, knowing that I could deny the title ‘til my face turned blue for all the difference it would make. I tried a different tack.

“If the ‘proper authority’ hadn’t completely failed, the Conclave wouldn’t have been needed.”

But Roderick was ready for that as well.

“So you suggest I blame the Chantry and exalt a murderer? What of justice?”

I bit my tongue on several unwise retorts, mostly regarding who the real murderers were, and stayed silent.

“That won’t help restore order in the here and now,” Cassandra said.

“Order will never be restored so long as this rebellion is allowed to fester!”

Roderick turned on his heel and marched off toward the chantry, at long last leaving us in peace. We all watched him go, none of us daring to say anything else that might trigger his about face until he was well out of ear shot.

“Cullen.” Cassandra crossed her arms and took a deep breath. “Remind me why we’re allowing the Chancellor to stay?”

“He’s toothless,” the Commander replied, shaking his head. “There’s no point turning him into a martyr just because he runs at the mouth. He’s a good indicator of what to expect in Val Royeaux, however.”

He looked aside at me for only a brief moment as he said that. I imagined he had more than his share of reservations at sending me to the heart of the most powerful opposing force to our newly-fledged Inquisition.

“He’s not toothless if enough people are listening,” I said. “You’re naive if you believe words are powerless.”

“Eh, that’s not quite what I meant.”

He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, shifting his weight from foot to foot slowly. Cassandra was watching this swaying carefully, I noticed.

“He’s still insisting on my execution.” I shook my head. “He’s one of the highest ranking Chantry authorities left in Haven. And you think he’s harmless?”

He sighed, a deep exasperated sound.

“If you insist on continuing to antagonize him, of course he will continue to shout you down.”

I was incensed. Me, antagonize him? But before I could launch into another tirade, Cassandra stepped between us.

“It has been a long day, for all of us. We should try to get some rest.”

I agreed, having had my fill of crowds and company for the night. I bade them good night and headed toward the inner gate. Twilight had completely faded and the night sky hung dark and velvet over Haven. The great glowing monstrosity of the Breach overpowered much of the stars, but the white disc of the moon was still visible. I hoped it would be enough light to pitch my tent by.

“Herald.”

I turned automatically at the address, then cursed myself; not only was I growing accustomed to the accursed moniker, but it had been the Commander who called, and I was thoroughly not in the mood to be chastised any further today. However, when I turned and met his gaze, I saw the hardened lines of his face had softened somewhat, into confusion.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To find a place to sleep,” I said, indicating toward the gate. “It has been a very long day, and I assume no one was intending I help keep watch.”

Not waiting for a reply, I turned and started off again; however, as I walked, I felt the space between my shoulder blades itch, and I had the familiar suspicion of someone watching me. Turning, I caught the barest twitch of the Commander’s head as he turned away to address Cassandra beside him.

I frowned.

Once a Templar, always a Templar, I thought with little surprise.

I decided to ignore him and continued toward the gate. I didn’t get far, however, before I heard my unwanted title called out yet again, this time by Cassandra, who was now running after me. Again, I swore under my breath. It seemed solitude was a dream too far. Turning to face her, I crossed my arms and waited, taking care to keep my face neutral.

“I was reminded that we have been neglectful in our responsibility to you,” she said. I raised one brow, wondering where this could possibly be leading. “We have set aside one of the cabins for your personal use while you are in Haven. And I believe Josephine has arranged for your dinner to be sent there since our meeting ran longer than expected. I can show you the way, if you like?”

Without waiting for my reply, though Maker knows what I would have even said in my complete shock, she walked past me and led me away from the gate. I followed her to a small cul de sac of short, single room cabins tucked away from the main throughways of Haven’s central square. She pointed to the one at the top of the arc they were arranged in, indicating that one as mine.

“Hopefully it will suit,” she said, apparently unaware of just how grand a gesture this felt to me.

“Th.. thank you,” I stammered. Then, remembering, I asked, “Was this what the Commander was talking to you about?”

“Of course,” she said, brows raised in surprise. “What had you thought we were discussing?”

I paused, then shook my head. “Nothing, nevermind.”

She considered me for a moment, then sighed. “You do him wrong, you know. You should at least give him a chance.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, but only just. “Should I?’

All at once, she was directly in front of me, close enough that I had no choice but to meet her gaze. A familiar touch of annoyance lit her eyes, changing their usual deep brown to burning embers of bronze.

“Enough.” She wasn’t shouting. Her voice carried none of the pure, unfiltered rage of when she accused me of causing the Breach; nor did her glare hold the quiet menace of when I was shouting my fury at her over the ruins of a burning cabin. This was something I hadn’t yet seen from her. She looked… sad? Disappointed? “You are truly determined to hate him, aren’t you?”

I blinked in shock, then my indignation rose.

“I’m not just being stubborn!” I said. “He’s a Templar! I’ve suffered at the hands of dozens like him.”

“No.” Cassandra shook her head, infuriatingly confident for someone who knew nothing of my life beyond the past month. “Not like Cullen, I can assure you.”

“Oh can you? Would you say the same of all the others we saw out in that field training today? Every one of them must have just been misunderstood?”

“I did not say he has done no wrong---”

“---No, you’re only saying I should ignore all of that because, what? You are fond of him?”

“Fond of him?”

She looked genuinely perplexed at that, but I held up my hand to forestall any argument.

“It doesn’t matter why. I don’t care. And I don’t care what sins he thinks are forgiven by being here. I’ll not be his placeholder for salvation.”

With that, I pushed past her toward the cabin.

“Everyone in that field has made mistakes,” she said to my retreating form.

I paused, turned back.

“Templars do not ‘make mistakes’,” I said. “What they do, they do out of either misguided belief that it is the right thing, or deliberate malice. Either way, mages suffer.”

“You are right,” Cassandra nodded, though I could tell it pained her. “Mages have suffered under the system as it was, but so have Templars. Maybe not to the same degree,” she quickly added, quashing my argument just as I opened my mouth to voice it. “But they have also been used for the sake of doctrine we should all now be questioning.”

I shook my head, not sure what she was getting at, but not quite able to bring myself to care. Cassandra turned slightly, nodding in the direction of the wall that marked the borders of Haven proper. Beyond it, I knew, lay the immense and disorderly city of tents. It was meager protection from the cold I could feel beginning to set in with the night winds.

“There’s not a single person camped in that field out there or housed in the chantry here who hasn’t lost loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods, and more.”

“That’s not---”

“---Not fair? No, it isn’t. And I know you had no choice in any of this, but neither do most of them. I do not envy you your part in all this.” Her tone softened, eyes flicking down momentarily to my left hand, its ever-present glow an anchor tying me to the center of the chaos unfolding around us all. “And I understand why you are hesitant to trust Templars---”

“---I doubt that---”

“---But I will not have you dismiss the efforts of those who are here willingly, trying to do the right thing.”

She turned back to face me, then, and I could see an untold story in the sadness behind her eyes. Whether that sadness was for herself, or the refugees, or the Commander, I couldn’t say.

“The Order doesn’t just allow its Templars to walk away,” I said, still defiant.

“Who said he waited for their permission?” That caught me off guard, and I said nothing. “You left the Circle by choice, did you not?”

“Not… exactly.” I bristled, wary now.

“I was under the impression you hated your life there?” She raised one brow, studying me.

“It’s… complicated.”

I looked away, toward the wall, and would not say more. Cassandra considered me another moment, but must have decided it wasn’t worth it to pry.

“In either case, you agree it is possible for a mage to walk away.” She shrugged. “Why not a Templar?”

Again, I had no answer. She was right, though I was loathe to admit it. A question nagged at me, however.

“Why did he leave the Order?”

“That… is not my story to tell,” she hesitated. “Not what you wanted to hear, I’m sure.”

She smiled slightly in response to my consternation. She opened her mouth, then closed it, running one hand through her hair, as if unsure what to say next. Finally, she shrugged again.

“You cannot continue being selfish with your sense of injustice. There is more than enough to go around.”

I took a deep breath and nodded, reluctantly, too exhausted to argue further. Her point made, she bade me good night and left me alone at last. For the first time in many long days, I had solitude. Eagerly, I retreated to my own private cabin, escaping the rapidly dropping temperature.

The cabin was small but warm, thanks to an iron stove that doubled as a fireplace, recently lit and stoked to a welcoming glow. A bowl of thick stew sat atop it, kept warm by the flames below. A pitcher of cool water sat on a bedside table, along with a bowl for washing. The bed was low, with thick wooden posts and a thin mattress under layers of soft quilts and furs, topped with two down-filled pillows. A single window and door took up the wall facing the cul de sac, with another window on the opposite wall that looked out onto the thick growth of coniferous trees that grew everywhere at this altitude. The fresh smell of pine suffused the entire room, mingling with the inviting scent of the waiting food.

Hungrily, I dug into the stew, using the stale bread it came with to soak up the dregs. In mere moments, I’d devoured the lot of it, sighing contentedly. My mood was much improved with a full stomach.

I stoked the fire back up, adding another log to ensure it lasted the night. Then, I washed my face thoroughly, scrubbing with the rough cloth left folded by the bowl, and changed out of my travel gear, clicking my tongue in dismay at their filthy state. Hopefully there would be time to wash them before we had to set out again.

I also noted several tears in the leather overcoat and leggings, and the tunic I had worn underneath was nearly threadbare. Well, I’d had these for some months now, I remembered. The underclothes had been mine since the Circle, but most of the rest had been … acquired … in desperation after my rather unceremonious flight from Faxhold. Much of it was ill-fitting and none of it matched, but in the months since being forced out of the Circle, I’d had no other options. In all that time, there hadn’t been many opportunities for patchwork. I anticipated they weren’t likely to last another long journey. Well, that was a problem for tomorrow.

Speaking of which…

Rooting through my bag, I found the list of unnamed dead I had been keeping, folded carefully into an inner pocket. The list had grown to nearly fill the page by now. I made a mental note to find Mother Giselle tomorrow, and speak to her about possible last rites.

Unbidden, my thoughts returned to my own dead. Maxwell, my brother, my oldest sibling and heir to the Trevelyan line. And my father…

He’d had an open face, with a smile that always reached his eyes. I remembered the many lectures I’d get from Mother for escaping my lessons to climb the trees in the courtyard; in those days I spent every moment I could out-of-doors. Father would always shrug off Mother’s exasperations at my recklessness with a laugh.

Many had told me when I was young that I favored him more than her, who was fair-skinned with grey eyes and auburn hair that she always pulled into elaborate styles atop her head. I, meanwhile, had Father’s high cheekbones and golden-brown skin that always grew slightly darker in the warm sunlight of Ostwick’s summers. I had his thick, black hair as well, and eyes the color of deep, rich soil, such a dark brown they were almost black.

I remembered his winning smile belying the sobering gravity in his eyes on one particular day, as he crouched down to my level, my tiny hands wrapped in his, and his conspiratorial whisper.

“We will keep it between us, won’t we? Our little secret.”

Had I passed his corpse on my way to the Breach?

I shuddered, and tried to put it out of my mind, readying myself for bed. However, exhausted as I was, sleep remained stubbornly elusive. I tossed about for an interminable amount of time before finally giving up and rising to pace about the cabin, searching for something to occupy my thoughts.

In my days at Faxhold, I’d peruse the library, searching for texts about histories, or magical theory, or philosophy; our steady trade with the noble families of Ostwick guaranteed new entries almost constantly. Here, the only books to be found were dusty old religious tomes, which wouldn’t do at all.

Still, I was restless; I needed a change of scenery. With no other ideas, I headed for the door, then quickly doubled back to don shoes and grab the top blanket from my bed. Then, I left the cabin to try to walk off my unease.

V: You know, it’s weird, I don’t think I ever remember you talking about your family in all the time I’ve known you.
T: It’s not a burden I share lightly.
V: Say no more. Believe me, I know how awkward families can get. I guess I always figured you just didn’t remember them well.
T: No, memory and distance weren’t the real issue.
V: Nobility, huh? Well, I don’t wanna get you too side-tracked. We can get into that another time.
T: Thank you.

Out in the mountain air, I instantly felt calmer. A light snowfall had started sometime during the night, and a new veil of snow hung over the heavily trodden earth. The moon hung high in the sky, nearly full, but its light was outdone by the Breach, seen from nearly all angles at Haven. It cast the night air in a pale green glow, more than enough to see by. Doing the math in my head, I realized the moon’s phase meant it had been only a month since the Breach had been created. Only a month since the Inquisition had been formed in response.

I closed my eyes, breathing deeply to help settle my nerves. The air was biting cold, and smelled of campfires, ale, stew, metalwork, manure, hay, and myriad other things too subtle and intertwined to identify. It smelled of Haven; not quite home, no, but familiar.

What was not familiar was the quiet.

I was accustomed to the sounds of Haven during the day; the hammering, the people, the chants, the shouting, the clashing of steel. I had yet to explore the village by night. With all the fires doused, the training field empty, and all the people retreated to their beds, the only sound I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees.

In the Circle, sleeping quarters were shared in groups of a dozen or so, and we were locked in after quiet hours each night. Every sound made would bounce off the stone walls, and there was always movement with so many people in one room. Between shifting positions, whispered conversations, and other… recreational activities… it was almost never entirely silent.

Later, when I was on my own and on the run, every sound was fraught with the terror of the unknown. It was impossible to enjoy the peaceful quiet when I was straining to listen for potential threats.

I shuddered, as much from the memory as the cold. In all the activity of the last month, I had nearly forgotten the nightmare of that time before the Conclave, forced to die or flee, unprepared for the harshness of the world outside the stone fortress I had spent my life in until that point. It felt like it had happened to another person.

Well, and I supposed I had become another person. Looking down at the ever-present glow in my left palm, I frowned. Things had changed a great deal for me since then.

The mark had flared up twice today, and I wasn’t sure why. That was… concerning.

This isn’t helping, I told myself. I had come out here to clear my thoughts, not stir up every growing concern taking up space in my mind.

So, I walked. Past the other cabins, all their doors closed and windows dark, their occupants sound asleep inside. Past the pub, with the sound of garbled singing coming through the warm glow of the windows, its few remaining patrons too drunk to recall all the words to whatever they were singing. Past the chantry, tall and foreboding in the pale light.

I walked at a slow but steady pace, with no particular destination, just wanting to keep moving. The ache in my muscles had finally started to subside, but my limbs were still stiff, and the cold wasn’t helping. Soon, I reached the inner gates, shut for the night. I didn’t bother asking the guards posted to let me through. Instead, I turned left, following the path as it hugged the tall pointed logs that comprised the protective inner wall, our last line of defense against possible attack. I wondered if it would stop demons, then quickly quelled such thoughts. I was trying to clear my mind, I reminded myself.

Eventually, I came to the first of several trebuchets I had noted being built upon our arrival. It didn’t look complete, though I couldn’t say for certain, as this was the first I’d ever seen one in person.

Fascinated, I crept forward, one arm poking out from the protection of the quilt to run my hand over the smoothly sanded wooden beams of its frame. It was massive. And complicated. There were so many moving parts, I couldn’t begin to make sense of how it might work. My hand came up against a lever, and as I was examining it, trying to figure out what it might do, a voice from behind caused me to jump.

“Please don’t.”

Commander Cullen stood several paces away, looking much less imposing out of his armor and fur-accented pauldrons. Instead, he wore a simple quilted doublet and leather trousers that seemed barely warm enough to contend with the frigid mountain air, though he appeared unbothered. His heavy boots had left tracks in the fresh snow behind him, indicating he’d been wandering the perimeter paths. He nodded to the lever I’d been examining.

“At this time of night, launching the trebuchet without warning is likely to cause quite the fuss in camp.”

I could swear he was being sarcastic, but there was not a hint of humor in his tone. Though his face was not contorted in its customary scowl, he still regarded me warily. His posture was guarded. Mercifully, he kept his distance.

“Right.” I withdrew my hand back under the quilt, and took a step away from the machine, keeping myself angled halfway back toward the way I’d come.

His face softened, and he cleared his throat.

“I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I shook my head.

“I just… wasn’t expecting anyone else to be out here.”

I was suddenly very aware of the fact that it was just the two of us. I cast about hoping to find a nearby guard or other restless villager, but there was no one else. I was alone with a Templar.

“You do him wrong.”

No, not a Templar, as he has repeatedly insisted. Doubtful though I still was, I had to admit - now that I thought to check - I didn’t detect the familiar obstinate aura that was indicative of those of the Order. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? It was most curious; I’d never heard of someone successfully leaving the Order. Not with their sanity in tact, and certainly not willingly.

“I could say the same,” he said. His eyes narrowed slightly. “Couldn’t sleep?”

I lowered my gaze, giving no reply. I was still not certain how to act around him. My instincts shouted at me to leave, but his actions today confounded me. He loudly denounced his previous title as a Templar, yet he insisted we still try to contact them for aid. He had stepped between me and Chancellor Roderick, almost protectively. Yet he was quick to put hand to sword when the mark began acting out during the meeting.

I glanced over to his belt; he had no weapon on him now. At least, none I could see.

Perhaps sensing my caution, he cleared his throat again before continuing.

“I, uh, wanted to… to apologize to you.”

I glanced up in surprise. When I again gave no response, he continued.

“I’m not sure what I did to frighten you so at the meeting, but I never intended you any harm.” He ran one hand through his hair, mussing the carefully combed blond locks. “S-so I am… sorry.”

I was dumbfounded.

After a beat, he fidgeted with something in his pocket, seeming to cast about for something else to say.

“Well… I… won’t intrude if you prefer solitude.”

After a brief pause, he turned and started off down the path, back the way he came. I watched him walk away for a moment, hesitant. Though I was relieved at his departure, Cassandra’s words echoed in my mind once more. Against my better judgement, I spoke up.

“Wait.”

He paused, turning back to me, brows raised in cautious curiosity. I took a moment to organize my thoughts.

“What happened at the meeting today… My past experiences with Templars has left me…” I searched for the right word. “...Untrusting. I didn’t mean to react the way I did. So, I suppose, I’m… sorry as well.”

His brows rose a fraction further. Clearly not what he had expected to hear. Well, at least we were both in uncharted territory then.

“I don’t know what drove you to leave the Order, and I won’t ask,” I said. “But I can at least appreciate that you’re here trying to help. To do the right thing, whatever that is. And that puts us somewhat in the same boat, I suppose. So.” I shrugged. “Fresh start?”

“Fresh start.”

He nodded, even allowed one corner of his mouth to pull slightly in the barest hint of a smile. It was a much better look than his usual scowl, I had to admit. There was a long beat of silence as we both tried to get our bearings. Presently, he resumed fidgeting with whatever was in his pocket. He pulled out a pipe and small pouch of tobacco.

“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked.

I shook my head, a little surprised someone as rigid and upright as him would participate in such a hobby.

“Blame the dwarf,” he answered in response to my bemusement. “He introduced it to me after I, ah, took ill during our trip here over the Waking Sea.”

I nodded, understanding. I’d seen Varric light his own pipe quite often during our travels to the Hinterlands and back; it was a favorite nighttime activity of his.

“This is why you’re out so late?” I asked, a little dubious. “To smoke?”

“I… yes.” It sounded as though he might say more, but he instead busied himself with packing a few dried leaves into the pipe, then pulling a small tinderbox from his other pocket to light it. I watched as he quietly took a few puffs on the pipe, unleashing wispy clouds with each exhale. “What about you?” he asked.

“Our little secret.”

I shrugged, pulling the quilt closer around me. “I just… couldn’t sleep. So I decided to take a walk. I was curious about these,” I nodded to the incomplete trebuchet.

“Fascinating machines, aren’t they?” There was a hint of pride as he looked up at the massive weapon. “I found a schematic for them in an old book on Orlesian siege warfare. They’re supposed to be able to hurl objects much larger and across much farther distances than traditional catapults.”

“I’ve heard of them, but never seen one in person before,” I admitted. “They’re quite impressive.”

“Truly? I admit I hadn’t expected such things to be of interest to you.”

“And why not?” I asked, allowing slight offense to creep into my voice, brows raised expectantly.

“Oh, I… hm.”

He stammered for a moment, realizing he’d been caught out in his bias. I had to fight to keep the smirk from showing on my face, finding petty satisfaction in his discomfort. After a moment, I had to relent.

“No, it’s alright. I suppose I haven’t demonstrated an interest in much of anything while I’ve been here.”

“It’s quite understandable, given what you’ve been through.”

Sympathy was another thing I hadn’t looked for in a Templar.

Former Templar, I had to remind myself. I had promised a fresh start. Still, admitting vulnerability felt a step too far. Oblivious, he continued.

“Oh, I was sorry to hear about your loss. Your father and brother? Josephine mentioned she gave you the news after our meeting.”

My heart constricted, and I felt myself withdraw instinctively inward, making a mask of my face once again, devoid of all emotion.

“I should get some sleep,” I said quietly, not meeting his gaze.

Without waiting for a reply, I bid him goodnight and retreated back down the path I’d come. I didn’t feel safe enough to cry until I was inside my empty cabin, with the door shut. Even then, I sheltered my grief deep beneath the multitude of covers on the bed, my face buried in the pillow.

Chapter Text

At some point during the pre-dawn hours, after all my tears were spent, I fell asleep at last. I lay in bed for some time after waking the next morning, still restless. Thoughts flitted half-formed into my mind, only to be replaced by others just as incomplete.

And over and over again, Cassandra’s words from last night repeated themselves.

“You cannot continue being selfish with your sense of injustice.”

The words ate at me. It wasn’t as though I’d been refusing to help. I was closing the rifts, at great personal pain. I was trekking all over creation fighting in the name of the Inquisition, helping those I could, restoring peace where possible. All that, despite the injustice of my fate.

And you never let anyone forget that, do you?

I recalled the taunts of the other apprentices at Faxhold that haunted my childhood.

Spoiled, they would call me. Sullen. Selfish.

“Such wasted potential. You must think of more than just your selfish desires.”

The memory of my mother’s imperious look of disappointment picked away at old hurts, making my cheeks flush in a familiar sense of shame.

“There’s not a single person camped in that field out there or housed in the chantry here who hasn’t lost loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods, and more.”

Selfish… my thoughts agreed.

Had I not readily accepted the gift of a private cabin with little thought to all those forced to suffer the mountain winds in meager tents? Was I not accustomed to eating hot food regularly at the tavern while they all were forced to subsist on gruel and stale bread?

And what of my traveling companions? Had I not been surly and confrontational since our first meeting? Have I not been making the strategy meetings with the advisors exclusively about my discomfort and pain, with little disregard for the innumerable other concerns they were shouldered with?

I had been keeping them all at a distance, expecting them to treat me like I was still back in the Circle, like I was still a prisoner. I was not used to being given this much autonomy, this much trust. This was uncharted territory for me and, I suspected, for everyone else as well. I was not a Circle mage anymore. I needed to stop acting like one. I would need to do better.

Eventually, my restlessness turned to purpose. I roused myself and dressed, making my way down to the lake with a bar of lye soap and the towel from the nightstand. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had the chance for a real bath, and unfortunately here my only option was the half-frozen lake that bordered the training field. I had debated whether the cold was worth it, but ultimately my eagerness to rid myself of weeks of accumulated layers of travel grime and grit won out.

It took some hiking before I found a bend that was out of sight of the rest of the field, shielded by some cattail bushes. Then I quickly stripped down, bore the arctic waters and scrubbed as swiftly as I could before toweling off and dressing again. Not out of any sense of modesty - the cramped conditions of Faxhold didn’t allow for much of that - but moreover the unfamiliarity of this area and these people had me more self-conscious than was my wont. I knew what was acceptable at the Circle; here was another matter.

Finally clean, I headed shivering to the tavern in search of breakfast and warmth. It was well into morning by then, and so it was quite crowded, but I managed to find a spot near the fireplace where I gratefully warmed my hands a moment before making my inquiries of the barkeep. Her name was Flissa, and she informed me with a proud smile that she was in fact the owner of the tavern - The Singing Maiden. We joked at how appropriate the name was considering the vociferous patrons who seemed to take up residency there each night.

Breakfast was a simple bowl of porridge augmented with dried fruits and honey, but I gratefully scarfed it down, along with a mug of hot tea provided by a harried Flissa, who nonetheless smiled sweetly when I thanked her.

Varric found me there, and we engaged in light chatter as I nursed my tea and allowed the warmth from the fire to seep into my bones. We were frequently interrupted by other patrons, as it seemed word had gotten around as to his identity as the author of the infamous Tale of the Champion. Many of them had questions as to the veracity of this event or that - some less politely phrased as outright doubt - but most of them simply wanted to gush. He bore it with patience and grace for the most part, but I saw the subtle clenching of his jaw and the newfound tenseness of his posture. I gave him an understanding nod and sympathetic smile when he excused himself to find some peace and quiet elsewhere.

With appetite satiated and the cold of the morning’s frigid cleanse finally melted away, I ran through all the tasks I wanted to get to in my mind, contemplating on where to start. There was no summons from the advisors until the evening, and no set date on when we might next depart, therefore no immediate travel plans to prepare for. I realized I had the entire day to myself.

My first thought was to seek out Solas, for there was much I wanted to discuss with him. First and foremost, I needed to ask his thoughts about the mark’s flare-ups yesterday. Also, I had been meaning to discuss the Fade - and his abilities as a Dreamer - in more detail now we were out from under Cassandra’s ever-vigilant glare. However, when I searched, he was not in the pub nor anywhere nearby, and I had no idea where to start looking for him.

Ah well, perhaps that was for the better. I had plenty I wanted to accomplish today, and in any case Haven was a small enough village; I was likely to come across him at some point.

So instead, I made my way to the chantry, where I asked of a few of the sisters where I might find Mother Giselle. One of them pointed me toward the requisitions tent, where she was helping calculate supply needs for the newly arrived refugees. I politely waited until they were through before asking an audience of her.

“Herald, what can I do for you?” she asked.

Her face still held the warm regard I remembered, though her eyes now showed a pull of weariness. It looked like the road had not been kind to her, and her advanced age had likely only made the journey harder. I hesitated, suddenly aware of how ridiculous my request would sound.

“I wanted to ask you something, but I’m not sure exactly what can be done about it,” I started, fussing at the hem of my jacket in my uncertainty.

I was still uneasy around her thanks to her ominous prediction, and now I was feeling guilty for taking more of her time when she looked so tired. I pulled from my pocket the list of unnamed dead I’d been collecting. It had grown quite long in the days since I’d first met her at the Crossroads, taking up nearly a full page now. I showed it to her and explained its origin and my initial desire to see something done for those listed.

“I know it’s impractical to collect their bodies,” I said, fidgeting again as I tried to understand my own motives. “But I was hoping maybe a final rite could be made, in absentia, to help lay them to rest?”

She considered it for a moment, eyes darting over the list. “I think I know of a few passages that will do,” she said eventually, and I found myself under her warm consideration again. “You have done a noble thing.”

“I wish we could have done more,” I said, remembering the multitude we’d found over the past weeks, especially the very first - the sandy-haired young boy in the wheat field, slain by arrows. It felt terribly cruel leaving them all where they lay, but with only four of us and an endless list of more pressing tasks at hand, there wasn’t much we could do then. Now, we could at least do this much.

“Do not let the demons of doubt detract from a good deed. The dead heed your compassion, and I am sure they take comfort from it.”

She placed a hand on my shoulder and smiled, and I managed to resist the urge to flinch. The growing knot of guilt in my stomach loosened, just the tiniest bit. I returned her smile genuinely, and thanked her, resolving to continue the list and bring her updates when next I returned to Haven.

“You needn’t do this all yourself,” she cautioned as I was turning to leave. “Perhaps you could mention this to Sister Leliana? I understand she has many scouts under her command, and their range is growing wider every day. They would be a great help in this task.”

I paused, considering. I hadn’t thought to mention this to anyone else, but her advice was sound, once again, and I made a mental note to bring it up this evening when next I would see the advisors.

My next task took me to the armory, easily found by the continuous plume of black smoke rising from its chimney. I needed a new set of trousers, and the leather travel coat I’d been relying on was gaining far too many holes for my meager skills to patch.

Once there, I was directed toward a short, stocky man by the name of Harritt hammering away at a sword. He had a gruff voice, made little eye contact, and spoke bluntly to just about everyone. Most seemed to find him off-putting, but I rather liked his candidness. I explained what I needed, and he took some quick measurements, promising to add it to the list but with the caveat that I’d likely be waiting several days for its completion.

“Wait.” He called me back as I was turning to leave. I noticed his eyes were now locked to my left palm, and the cursed glow that the glove I wore was only barely able to disguise. “You didn’ say you was the Herald,” he said.

“No, I didn’t.”

In fact, I had deliberately avoided saying as much. I felt more than a little foolish to think I could escape notice here, so close to the Breach, where the title had been born. Harritt scratched at an old burn on his arm, looking me full in the face for the first time, taking the measure of me.

After a moment, he said, simply, “I’ll have your clothes done by the end of today.”

Then, before I could protest, he turned back to the anvil where I’d found him and the rhythmic pounding of his hammer resumed. I sighed, deciding it would be untoward to complain about preferential treatment, and let it be.

While I stood in the sunlight, pondering the rumbling Breach above - for it tended to draw one’s attention no matter where one looked - I noticed a new building that hadn’t been there before my excursion to the Hinterlands. It was a simple construction, built as a long rectangle with a low thatched roof and log walls. The log beams were too slender to provide much insulation; they must have been from the few trees left in the area after the training grounds were set up.

Impulsively, I decided to investigate. Inside, it was immediately apparent that it was meant to serve as a stable for Horsemaster Dennet’s mounts. I had learned over the course of yesterday’s reports from Josephine and Leliana that he had arranged for a handful of well-trained Ferelden Forders to be delivered, and they had arrived just ahead of us.

The stable’s smell reminded me of my time in the Hinterlands, of farmland and hay and manure; not the most pleasant of scents, but I was growing accustomed to it. What I was not accustomed to were the great beasts that occupied the stable. Four large horses had taken up residence in the hastily erected stalls, and all of them were instantly alerted to my presence, looking out at me over their low gates, ears perked forward with curiosity.

I tentatively approached one, remembering my disastrous attempts at riding astride at Dennet’s farm. More often than not I’d ended up flung off into the nearest puddle, and on the few occasions I’d managed to keep myself in the saddle I’d been scared out of my wits until Cassandra had taken pity on me and brought the beast to heel.

The steed had a deep brown coat with a wide white stripe down its nose. Large, expectant eyes looked out at me with uncanny intelligence. It was unnerving. I almost turned around to retreat to the safety of my cabin, but determination or stubbornness kept me there.

Slowly, gingerly, I approached the horse with one hand outstretched, and he sniffed at the palm before shaking his head and backing away. I laughed, in spite of my nervousness. I’d held out my left hand without thinking.

“I’m not so fond of it either,” I said to him. He looked back at me warily.

Trying again, I reached out with my right hand, offering it up for appraisal. Unfortunately, the horse wanted none of it, backing away and whinnying at me with indignation. Frustrated, I took another step and reached out more determinedly, only to be rejected once again. I tried mimicking the soothing noises I’d heard Dennet and his daughter making, tried waiting patiently, tried backing up. Nothing seemed to make a difference.

“It’s because you’re nervous.”

I jumped at the unexpected voice, and turned to see Cassandra framed against the stable entrance, astride a fifth horse that was saddled and bridled. How long had she been there?

“Excuse me?” I asked.

She dismounted with effortless grace, and I couldn’t help an annoyed grimace.

“Horses are sensitive beasts,” she said. She began loosening the fasteners on the bridle with one hand, using her free hand to gently rub at the underside of the horse’s jawline. “They can sense even slight mood changes, and they are prone to skittishness.”

I watched in silence as she finished removing the bridle and hung it neatly on a nearby hook, then started unbuckling the saddle. All the while, the horse stood patiently, seeming to appreciate the attention.

Her lecture the night before had been running through the back of my mind most of the day. I’d been in no mood to listen then, and though I had come to acknowledge, at least to myself, that she’d had a point, I wasn’t yet ready to look past the bitterness it had dredged up. So, I was left not knowing what to say.

Fortunately, she spoke first.

“I hear you spoke to Cullen last night.”

With the riding gear properly stowed, she set about brushing down the horse, starting at its flank. She kept her gaze on her task, not looking over at me.

“How did you hear that?”

“Leliana isn’t the only one with a vast network of spies,” she replied casually, concentrating on the horse’s coat with a slight frown. “I’ve set them all to watch your every move.”

I stared, mouth agape, unsure how to respond. It took a moment to realize she was joking.

“Cullen told you.”

“Cullen told me.”

She looked over the horse’s long, curved back at me, mouth quirked in the barest hint of a smirk. The long, swishing strokes of her brush continued, and she moved across to the other side, facing away from me.

“About what you said last night,” I started, summoning the courage at last. The coarse brush paused only briefly, then continued. “You may have had a point---”

“---No.”

The brushing ceased, and she turned back to me, arms crossed, face pinched slightly into what might have been annoyance, or might have been guilt.

“It was wrong of me to insist you process all this at any pace but your own,” she said. “I should not have been so harsh with you.”

“But you were right,” I tried to insist, but she forestalled my protest with an upheld hand and a stern look.

“Whether either of us was in the right is not the point,” she said. “We were both tired and agitated, and I should not have taken my frustrations out on you.”

That almost sounded like an apology. I blinked, trying to reorient myself.

“I just… I never thanked you properly,” I said. “For giving me a chance. A choice. About how to face the Breach.” I hugged my arms close to myself, making myself small, not looking up to meet her eyes. Uncharted territory was tricky to navigate. “You placed trust in me before anyone else. I… owe you for that.”

“You owe me nothing.” She sounded surprised that I would even suggest such a thing. “It was simply the right thing to do.”

“How do we know the right thing?”

“We don’t.” She shrugged. “But our mission is clear enough. ‘Close the Breach, find those responsible, and restore order.’”

I remembered. The mental image of her backing Chancellor Roderick against the wall in her fierce stubbornness made me smile in spite of myself.

“For what it’s worth,” she continued. “You’ve been holding up admirably, considering the circumstances.”

“Have I?” I scoffed, remembering with a cringe my near-flight in the middle of a dark night in the Hinterlands. “I’ve been nothing but a burden. I can’t even ride my own mount.”

“But you haven’t given up. No one expects you to be masterful at this. There’s not a one of us who knows what comes next, myself included. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water. And as for riding…” She walked her horse into an empty stall, shutting the gate behind it. “There’s no reason you can’t learn. I could teach you, if you like.”

I almost scoffed again, before I realized her offer was genuine. It was a kind offer, given without any strings that I could see. Despite my own reservations, I found I hadn’t the heart to refuse.

“Alright.”

“Good,” she nodded. “Then let us begin.”

She gestured to the horse I’d been trying to familiarize myself with, who perked up from his pile of hay, munching curiously.

“Now?”

“Never a better time than the present.”

Suddenly I was regretting my decision.

“I-I don’t… even know how to fit a saddle.”

Cassandra’s mouth twitched.

“Then we’ll start there,” she said, unphased.

T: … You can stop laughing at any time.
V: Sorry, sorry… Just remembering your first riding attempt back at Dennett’s farm.
T: Don’t remind me.
V: The look on your face when that horse took off at full gallop!
T: …
V: Then you went face first into that puddle…
T: You’re still laughing.
V: No no no… I’m good, I’ll stop.
T: …
T: Any time now.
V: Phew! Okay, now I’m good. Where were we?

Much to my surprise, Cassandra was a patient teacher, guiding me methodically through the steps of saddling and bridling. In short order, the horse was properly fitted, and I was carefully astride under Cassandra’s watchful guidance, and we were slowly making our way along the path that led up into the hills behind Haven.

It was slow going, as both myself and my mount were ill at ease with me at the reigns. Still, it was a pleasant day, the winds were calm, and our path took us far from the crowds and noise of the training field and main square of the chantry.

As we made our way in companionable silence, I noticed her casting what were clearly meant to be surreptitious glances at me every so often. It might have unnerved me, except I knew her moods well enough by now to see it was not out of malice or suspicion. I was content at first to allow her to decide to speak on her own, but after several minutes I grew weary of waiting.

“Is there something in my teeth?” I asked.

“What?”

My random question startled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up at me from her place at the horse’s bridle. Her expression was pure confusion, and I barely managed to hold in an amused chuckle.

“You seem as if you want to ask me something.”

“Am I that obvious?”

“I’m afraid so.”

She sighed, ruffling the back of her short, raven hair, leaving it slightly mussed. It was odd to see her so out of sorts.

“It occurs to me that I don’t know much about you,” she said at last.

From her hesitation, I sensed that wasn’t what was really occupying her thoughts. Since it would have been useless to pry, however, I didn’t challenge the feint.

“What do you want to know?” I asked instead.

“I’m… not sure. You’re from Ostwick’s Circle, correct?”

“You know that I am.” Now I was the one on edge; that was not a topic I considered open for the asking. “At least until the rebellion began.”

“Yes, I suppose that… would have required you to stay on the move.” There was a pause, then she continued, either heedless of my discomfort or disregarding it. “Tell me, do you consider the Free Marches your home? Are you eager to go back?”

I had decided that was enough of this line of questions.

“That’s no business of yours.”

“True enough.”

Her gaze returned to the path ahead, and we both fell silent as she guided the horse around a sharp turn in the path. When it led up into a steep incline, she instructed me to lean forward in the saddle, and I obeyed, feeling the horse’s surge of energy propelling us both forward a few short yards to the crest of the hill. Cassandra was all business again, her voice flat and commanding, impersonal, and I regretted my earlier harshness.

“If I ever go back, it will be too soon,” I admitted.

She cast another glance at me, then returned her attention to the path ahead as we continued upward on a more steady incline.

“I understand. I… suppose I feel the same about my own family.”

My brows rose at that small crumb of information. It was quite possibly the first time she’d ever volunteered anything about her past, I realized. Not wanting to risk overstepping, I decided to keep the topic on myself for now.

“You know my family?”

“As I understand it, the Trevelyans are a large clan with a rather clever coat-of-arms, and strong ties to the Chantry.”

I grimaced at the blunt, euphemistic summation. I’d heard far too many debates in my early years - and indeed, even at the Circle - about that accursed coat-of-arms, and whether the sigil was a workhorse or warhorse, whether it was meant to represent both or simply that its true origin had been forgotten over time. I cared little either way, for it was not my sigil, and had not been for many years.

And the less said about their relationship with the Chantry the better.

“They’ve also been in the business of strategic marriage alliances with most of the Free Marches and even into the Tevinter Imperium for generations,” I added bitterly.

“And Nevarra. I think we may share a cousin or two in common.”

“Truly?”

I had to confess, I’d not heard much of the Pentaghast line, though it had sounded vaguely familiar when I’d first heard the name. Finally, something clicked into place; her elevated accent, her family name…

“You’re part of the Nevarran royal line?”

I was amazed; to look at her, nobility was the last thing that came to mind - and that was to her credit, at least in my thinking. I’d spent much of my own life trying to remove the same assumption about myself, though not with quite as much success.

“The Pentaghasts are the royal house of Nevarra,” she admitted with a sneer. “I am… “ Her expression went thoughtful for a moment, then, “Seventy-eighth in line for the throne. Or I was, before I joined the Seekers of Truth.”

“You joined to get away?”

“It was a life worth getting away from.” Her sneer held a particular resentment I was all too familiar with.

“You’re not on good terms with your family then.”

“If I ever go back, it will be too soon,” she echoed my earlier sentiment, making me smirk. Perhaps we had more in common that I’d assumed.

“I heard about your loss,” she said quietly. “Your father and brother?”

“Yes, my oldest brother,” I replied, feeling the impulse to retreat within myself again, but fighting it this time. I couldn’t run from these feelings forever. “I hadn’t seen or heard from either of them in years.”

“Do you miss them?”

“No,” I said at once, then rethought. “Maybe.” I paused, thinking on the grief that had overcome me last night, trying to understand it. “I suppose I miss what they could have been. Should have been. If that makes sense.”

Cassandra smiled.

“It makes perfect sense.”

We had come to a precipice that looked out over the landscape, and I carefully dismounted with Cassandra’s steady hand for support. While she fastened the horse to a low-hanging branch with the reigns, I stepped to the edge and looked out over the snow-laden hills below, realizing we were overlooking Haven itself. The chantry was immediately recognizable as the largest building by far, and from there it was easy to pick out the layout of the rest of the small village.

Cassandra came to stand beside me, and together we admired the view in awed silence. The training field was a mosaic of movement, figures too small to make out - no, there, that was the Commander, certainly, with his enormous fur pauldrons - going to and fro in small patches, executing drills. I watched two groups mimic a charge, weaving their contrasting-colored flags and tunics into a tapestry of swirling momentum that then separated to circle around, regroup, and charge again. It was mesmerizing, and I nearly allowed myself to forget the horrifying context they practiced under.

I heard a heavy sigh beside me as Cassandra sat down, her legs dangling precariously over the ledge.

“Did I do the right thing?” she asked.

I looked down at her, incredulous. Where had that come from? She gestured down at the small army below.

“What I have set in motion here could destroy everything I have revered my whole life. One day they might write about me as a traitor, a madwoman, a fool. And they may be right.”

Ah. This is what had been on her mind.

Cautiously, apprehensive of the enormous drop below us, I leaned down to sit beside her. I wasn’t sure what to say at first, but I knew what she wanted to hear.

“What does your faith tell you?”

She regarded me, eyes narrowed in suspicion, likely wondering if I was belittling her. I returned her gaze with no pretense, brows raised in question, waiting.

“I believe you are innocent,” she said at last, turning back to the spectacle below as the troops began an arching flank maneuver. “I believe more is going on here than we can see. And I believe no one else cares to do anything about it. They will stand in the fire and complain that it is hot. But is this the Maker’s will? I can only guess.”

Mother Giselle’s words returned to me once more. She had made no special claims to know the Maker’s will either. Strangely, it made me trust them both more. But that also raised another question I’d been too afraid to ask until now.

“You don’t think I’m the Herald of Andraste?” I allowed just a hint of sarcasm to creep into my voice, mocking the absurd title ever so slightly, making light of my own fears.

One corner of Cassandra’s mouth quirked up, but her expression was genuine when she replied.

“I think you were sent to help us, whether you wanted to or not.”

I smiled at that, despite myself. She continued.

“I hope you were. But the Maker’s help takes many forms.” She favored me with another long scrutiny. “Sometimes it’s difficult to discern who it truly benefits, or how.”

I thought on that, gazing out over the field again. This time, my eyes passed over the troops to see the chaotic city of tents and the multitude of newly homeless it sheltered. The sun was nearly at its apex, and I watched several cauldrons being set up to serve the midday meal. Bright white figures whom I recognized as Chantry mothers and sisters were working their way through the crowd, handing out items or speaking to this person or that. They were all heretics, according to the Chantry proper, which sat an entire country away from this epicenter and decried everything that we were doing.

They were heretics… and I was an apostate. But I doubted that mattered to the people below.

“What’s going to happen now?” I asked.

Cassandra took a deep, bracing breath before responding.

“Now we deal with the Chantry’s panic over you before they do even more harm.” She looked up, and I followed her gaze, eyes guided instinctively toward the gaping wound that hung there. “Then we close the Breach. We are the only ones who can.”

I should have resented that “we”, but in truth I was grateful for the reminder that I did not have to face that thing alone. I repressed a shudder, trying not to remember how the last attempt had ended.

“After that,” Cassandra continued. “We find out who is responsible for this chaos, and we end them. And if there are consequences to be paid for what I have done, I pay them. I only pray it is not too high.”

“Isn’t it a bit late to worry about it now?”

“We have only just begun.”

That made me look over to her once more, and in her face I saw such a fierce determination that her eyes fairly glowed with it. I realized, in that one moment, that I would follow her through a great many trials - that I already had, in fact - and not give it a second thought. I found, to my great surprise, that I admired her more than anyone I had ever met.

Then she chuckled, and the moment passed. I smiled quizzically, unsure of the cause for her sudden change in mood.

“My trainers all used to say that I was too brash, I needed to think before I act. You can see how well I listened. I misjudged you in the beginning, did I not? I thought the answer was before me, clear as day. I cannot afford to be so careless again.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt tears welling up at that. I had been denying my own involvement to everyone, including myself, but the truth was doubt still gnawed at me in the darkest corners of my mind. I dared not ever voice them - only Solas had ever witnessed that fear brought out in me - but I knew others still carried the same doubts. It was a greater relief than I had expected to hear Cassandra of all people so frankly expressing her belief in my innocence.

“I cannot say I’m not grateful to hear that,” I said, trying to keep behind my mask of sarcasm, not ready for her to hear the depths of my emotions just then.

“I can be harsh, I know,” she admitted, kindness softening her voice.

She was quiet another moment, long enough for me to recognize that she was about to ask another tricky question, and was trying to formulate the words in her mind. I braced myself.

“You’ve said you don’t believe you were chosen,” she started, decidedly looking down at the fields below, though her eyes were unfocused. “Does that mean… you also don’t believe in the Maker?”

I had not braced myself nearly enough for that question.

I took a deep breath, held it, released it. I was genuinely at a loss for words. I could have lied, could have said the same practiced lie I’d learned to repeat throughout my years in the Circle. One didn’t long avoid the wrath of the Templars by loudly disavowing religious doctrines. After all, was Cassandra not also part of the Chantry? Had she not just espoused her own faith in the very religion she was disobeying when she openly declared the Inquisition reborn?

But no. I knew her better than that, respected her more than that. So, I told the truth.

“I honestly don’t know.”

I had spent many years trying to reconcile my faith with the prison I’d been forced to inhabit, the suspicion I endured, the abuse I was subjected to. In the end, I knew my belief didn’t matter. I would suffer all the same whether I believed or not, and so I had stopped caring. For many years, I uttered the Chant out of habit, giving it no thought or time in my mind, believing my energy better spent on expanding my knowledge as much as the Enchanters and our library allowed. This was the first time I had been forced to actually confront those thoughts again. I wasn’t sure I was ready to.

Thankfully, Cassandra chose not to pry further.

“I suppose it doesn’t really matter now,” she said, rising with a grunt and wiping stray pieces of underbrush from her trousers, then offering me a hand up. “I have to believe we were put on this path for a reason, even if you do not. Now, it simply remains to see where it leads us.”

“Back to the tavern, I hope,” I said, glad for a distraction. “I believe it is past time for midday meal.”

She chuckled as she helped me re-mount the horse to return to Haven.