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Such Soft Decay

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PROLOGUE

The Tower

Jewel’s boots smacked against black rock. He was running, his pursuers ever gaining on him, within reach of the fur-trimmed hem of his jerkin; they could reach out and touch it if they pleased. In a foggy panic, thoughts of please don't let them fucking touch me filling his head, he didn’t watch his footing and the heel of his left boot caught on a raised piece of rock and sent him face-forward down to the ground. He felt a tug at his boot and kicked blindly before he staggered to his feet. He felt his foot connect with something but he didn’t like the way he couldn’t quite identify the shape of what he’d hit. A shrill howl erupted behind him, then directly in his left ear, then oscillating around his head in all directions. It warped, first a barking, high-pitched tone like some wild dog, then something else, a note that tapped into an older fear.

His left hand burned and pulsed, sometimes it felt as though it were about to burst, as if something in it were pushing aside his finger bones to escape. The pain went deep and traveled up his forearm and farther, but the worst of it was in his palm. He couldn't get a good look at it as he ran, but he tore off his glove in frustration.

Running up a jagged, high-incline staircase of stone, passing floating masses of stone with cold white light shining from small holes. Another screaming howl erupting behind him, a shrieking undertone like metal in a tunnel, all around his head. The sound bounced around him like it came not from the thing behind him, but from the air itself, then it dropped off into a low groan like a sea-beast.

Top of the stairs, almost there, almost to a glowing figure at the top. Jewel reached his aching left hand out to the apparition, praying to anything that was listening, making hasty bargains in his head - I’ll stop, I’ll stop, I’ll do better if you let me leave - and when he’d almost gotten close enough to touch the glowing thing’s outstretched hand, there was a blinding flash of pale green and white glow and then he stepped out, suddenly on ground that truly felt solid and real, cold mountain air hitting him. He saw spots of red under his feet and he wondered if it was blood but it seemed so, so bright. And then he tilted forward and collapsed into the pebbles and meltwater below.

Jewel’s last cognizant memory before the world blurred out was the nudge of a Fereldan-style furred boot at his horns, the feeling of loose strands of his hair dipping into the puddle, and a voice he didn’t recognize saying, “An oxman? Maker, did them Qunari send him to do this?”

 

 

Leliana sat, hands folded delicately, tempering the snarl of anger and frustration and grief in her gut with an attempt to think of kinder times. Ten years ago, sitting up in Katre Brosca’s small tent before the sun even rose. They were somewhere in the Brecilian Forest, preparing for a venture deeper into the thick wilderness in search of a clan of Dalish. They'd spent the previous day searching and came up with nothing for their troubles but the tiny scratches of blackberry bushes and stings from every mosquito in the region. Leliana was plaiting Katre’s thick blonde hair into heavy braids while Katre sat in front of her, intently rubbing scented oil into her beard.

She’d told Leliana of how dwarven girls in Orzammar would wear their hair and beards, the styles that were popular among the loftier castes versus what was more commonplace in Dust Town. Practical, simple styles for the bruisers like Katre and gaudy decor for the ladies of the night. Conversely, the ones who came to the surface - even moreso the ones born there - would shave their faces, something to fit in with human fashions, to avoid awkward stares or comments or what have you. Katre didn’t opt for this.

“Like I give a nug’s ass about human standards,” Katre said, voice lilting and scratchy, “Even less so bein’ a Grey Warden. Y’know people keep asking me why I don’t shave, like the archdemon’s gonna win unless I’ve got a smooth face.”

Leliana loved that about her, but then, she loved everything about her. Delicate pink ribbons in her braids, rough-and-tumble Duster mannerisms, thick-muscled arms that could lift a tavern girl on each one. She told stories, too, and sometimes they'd spend the whole night up exchanging stories.

Back in the present day, the ground was cold and Justinia was dead and there was an unconscious qunari man in the cells kept barely alive by the joint efforts of Adan and Solas. That man either murdered her friend, or he was another victim of whatever bastard did.

Leliana heard the sound of boots in the snow outside. She looked up from her thoughts and one of her agents – a slim elven woman with dark skin and braided hair - was ducking into her tent, carrying a heavy satchel of papers. She swung it from her shoulder in a smooth motion.

“Weaver.”

“I tracked down what I could in the timeframe. He's from a company called the Valo-Kas.”

Leliana nodded. A less skilled spymaster might be surprised that 'grey skin and white hair' would get their investigation anywhere, but Leliana was a very skilled spymaster, and her people knew how to use specifics, to connect small pieces. “Report, then.”

“Right. Jewel Adaar, thirty-six years old. Has a sister in the Valo-Kas but she wasn’t at the conclave. They said as soon as the Temple went up, she left for home. There’s a small Vashoth village outside Ansburg, he has a mother there. His history is just...mercenary work, mostly out of the Free Marches but he spent some time in Orlais when he was in his early twenties.”

Leliana was quiet a moment, then spoke: “Were the rest of the Valo-Kas dressed as he was?”

“More or less. Adaar's is personalized, but they all were like that. Basic leather and chainmail, then their own accessories. Scarves, jewelry, boots...”

“Orlesian knee-highs, yes. He has gilded horns, fine furs, and ornate Orlesian boots. Rather interesting for a qunari mercenary out of Ansburg, no? You can tell a lot about a person by their shoes.”

“Fancy earrings, too.” Weaver passed the aforementioned objects into Leliana’s hand, then wryly added, “They match his eyes.”

Leliana held one up for a closer inspection. A thick gold square, rounded at the edges, an oval of lavender moonstone set in the middle. A tiny maker’s mark stamped in the image of a lithe courser dog, like the sighthounds of Nevarra, and the initials “G.H.”

“Thank you for your report,” Leliana sighed, calm veneer difficult to keep in place in the chaos and trauma, “Let me know if you find anything else we can use.”

Weaver nodded wordlessly as she slipped out of the tent.

As she left, Leliana set the satchel onto a table in the corner of the tent, next to the rest of the items she'd had her agents gather from the man in the temple:

A leather utility belt with a Free Marches buckle but braided in Qunari style. Older, likely brought from his home village. A small, badly-scorched bag which contained a nice but worn set of lockpicks. A dagger, freshly sharpened, with a gem-studded hilt. A dented flask with a relatively tasteful engraving of a nude woman in an orchard. A set of poison vials – Adder's Kiss, Magebane, Deathroot. The remains of a set of tins of Vitaar in various colors. A handheld crossbow with a grappling chain attached to it.

And now, a pair of pricey earrings and a stack of papers full of notes on one Jewel Adaar. Leliana glanced over them, skimming for things Weaver didn't already mention. The gist of it summed up to a qunari mercenary with fine tastes, but not consistent wealth. Adaar spent most of his earnings on fine clothes and tavern drinks, and his Tal-Vashoth mother was allegedly a mage, as was his sister. Of course, this was to be taken with a grain of salt, but she trusted Weaver's information enough.

It all spoke of something that didn’t quite ring as “qunari infiltrator” in Leliana’s head. Their spies were rarely of the large grey variety, far more often they sent Viddathari - elves and humans - to be their inconspicuous eyes on the South. If they were to send a man like the one in the cell, well...the expensive jewelry and clothes, the mercenary band itself showing nothing that’d indicate a false Vashoth plant...none of it added up in her head despite how easy it might be to assume that yes, the Conclave was blown to a crater by oxman invaders. They'd never have sent someone who'd stand out the way Adaar must have, even from his fellow qunari, and it all felt too...slapdash for an attack from them anyhow. Then again...there was Kirkwall.

Leliana poured herself a Rivaini pinotage and swirled it in the small brass cup. Took in the rich scent of it, let it take her back to her memories for another moment. Notes of coffee and cherry and an almost savory hint in there somewhere. It was the last of the bottle she’d received years ago in a package from Warden-Commander Katre Brosca’s imposing keep in Amaranthine. Before she’d vanished from the world. As far as most people knew, anyhow. It swirled deep, dark red, like the story Katre told her about drinking blood from a chalice.

The last drink they'd shared together was in a cabin near the Korcari wilds. Katre was there ostensibly to research the old ruin she'd looked for Warden treaties in all those years ago, but mostly it was an excuse to borrow a friend's remote hunting cabin and get some time alone with Leliana.

They didn't drink wine that night, but some particularly nice ale (a gift from Oghren, apparently, who had proven himself a rather apt brewer and a half-decent Warden) and venison steaks. They sat on a pelt on the floor by the fire, pressed together close, and shared dinner as Katre told animated stories about her time with the other Wardens. She was especially fond of Nathaniel Howe, a man she insisted “made up for what a bellend his father was”, and she told Leliana about the rather impressive wolf-dog he'd acquired as a ranger. When she mentioned familiar names, Urtok looked up from the deerbone he was nursing and wagged his stump of a tail.

And back again in the present day, Katre and Urtok were nowhere close and Justinia was dead. A few of the people gathered at Haven had dogs, though. Leliana could hear them in the camp. There was at least one Mabari, and that brought her a modicum of comfort, if only because it reminded her of her love's attachment to that massive dog of hers.

Justinia was dead. It kept slipping into her thoughts. The pain would ebb a moment, then come back to constrict around her heart again.

She heard boots in the snow again and turned in time to once again greet Weaver. This time, Weaver looked a bit more harried.

“Yes?” Leliana asked, putting the papers back down.

“Sister Nightingale, the prisoner's awake.”

 

 

Chapter Text

THE WRATH OF HEAVEN

 

Drifting in and out of consciousness wasn't new to Jewel. At that rate, neither was waking up on a cold stone floor, or waking up with his hands cuffed, or with no memory of the night before. The sudden crackle from his left hand was, though, and he lurched away from his own limb in surprise when it happened. His vision came slowly into focus and he could see that the mark on his palm was far from the usual scrapes he came to with. It was an odd swirl pattern, reminding him a little of a fingerprint. More alarming, it was green. His first thought was it'd gone septic or something but in his knowledge infected wounds didn't glow like that. A sickly light, like the sky before a funnel-cloud. He felt feverish and weak, and it didn't help his condition to look at it.

The Anchor

The sharp clang of the cell door opening hurt Jewel's ears and he winced. Two strangers entered, and in the dim light it was hard to really see their faces. The first one was easier, though, as she got in Jewel's face pretty much immediately. She was a stony-faced woman with short, dark hair, tan skin, and a thick accent Jewel couldn't immediately place.

“Tell me why we shouldn't kill you now.”

Alright, not off to the best start. Not the worst thing he'd been greeted with either, though. He thought about asking her if it was a trick question, but before he had the opportunity to be a wise ass, the woman continued speaking.

She said, “The Conclave is destroyed. Everyone who attended is dead. Except for you.”

Jewel did not respond. It probably looked defiant or something but mostly his head was still spinning too fast to know what to say. He couldn't even immediately recall what she meant by the Conclave, until it came flooding back in a flurry of disjointed memories. A job with a few members of the Valo-Kas, extra hired swords to keep the peace. Peace for what? The Conclave was...mages and templars, right? Right. Something trying to settle their spat. And then it all went tits up.

The woman grabbed his left hand sharply, chafing his skin against the metal of the manacles.

“Explain this!”

The glowing scar on his hand snapped to life again, a popping lightning sound in the air.

Jewel's voice was hoarse. “I...can't.”

“What do you mean you can't?” The woman asked incredulously.

“I mean I don't know what the fuck that is,” Jewel elaborated, now settling her with a defiant look. He was in the hands of humans, which likely meant they wouldn't believe a word he said, so why bother trying to be nice about it? The only saving grace was perhaps that he wasn't anywhere near Kirkwall last he checked.

The woman shoved Jewel's cuffed hands down violently and reached to her side where Jewel quickly noted a sword sat sheathed.

“You're lying!”

The other person in the room, a pale red-haired woman in a purple hood, finally spoke up as she moved forward to grab her companion's arm, restraining her gently.

“We need him, Cassandra.” Her accent was Orlesian. He couldn't place the exact dialect.

Jewel weighed his options. “Look, you two might wanna be more specific,” he said, noting how his jaw clicked uncomfortably, “What exactly do you think I did and how drunk was I?”

“Do you remember what happened?” the Orlesian continued, “Any of it?”

Jewel paused again. He felt a sensation of tilting, just slightly, like tame vertigo. “I...remember running. I was on stone, I slipped once or twice. Everything was the most...awful color. Things were chasing me, I didn't get a good look at them. And then there was a...woman. I think.”

“A woman?” the Orlesian asked.

“I said I think. She was kind of glowing, so I don't know how much I trust my memory. But whatever it was reached out to me and then I was facedown in a puddle.”

There was a pregnant pause as the two women seemed to consider what Jewel told them.

“Go to the forward camp, Leliana,” the dark-haired woman said, “I will take him to the rift.”

The name Leliana rung a bell but it was just a first name, so Jewel didn't place much stock in it. Leliana left the room without another word and Jewel was displeased to find that he was left with the angrier of the two – Cassandra.

He wanted to rub his aching head, but he couldn't reach with the manacles on. “What did happen?”

This time Cassandra didn't snarl her words at him, at least. “It...will be easier to show you.”

She pulled Jewel to his feet by the arm, slightly gentler than he expected. Not by much, though. It hurt his knees to stand up after Maker knows how long kneeling, and the headrush he got nearly brought him back to that position, but he steadied himself like it was another night peeling himself off the floor of a tavern and let Cassandra lead him through the damp stone-brick hallway and up a small stairway. He didn't really take in the room she led him through after that.

When she took him outside, the light blinded him for a moment. It was like he hadn't seen the sun in days, and the snow blanketing everything left him in a glare of white for a small eternity before his vision cleared and then the tilting sensation began again. Like up and down were readying to switch places. Then a flash of green.

Jewel raised his eyes towards it, and stopped in his tracks.

The hole in the sky was massive, a bright maelstrom in the clouds with huge fractured pieces of stone suspended along a column of green light reaching down somewhere in the mountains. Occasionally, flashes of what looked like lightning came and stayed a few seconds longer than they should have.

“We call it the Breach,” Cassandra explained, “It's a rift in the Veil that grows larger with each passing hour. It's not the only such rift, just the largest. All were caused by the explosion at the conclave.”

It was more straightforward than anything else they'd told Jewel up to this point. He absorbed Cassandra's words a moment.

“Explosion? There was--What...what kind of explosion can even do that?”

Cassandra pursed her lips. “We assume it was magical.”

“What, like that Chantry in Kirkwall?”

“...Perhaps. But that's not what’s important. Unless we act, the Breach may grow until it swallows the world.”

The maelstrom suddenly pulsed, one earthshaking rumble and another green flash across the sky. As it did, a burning pain spiked through Jewel's palm again sending green light from the mark and traveling up his arm. It drained all the warmth from the rest of his body in a wave, like falling through ice into a freezing river. He felt the bones in his hand shift again, shoved to the side as the mark seemed to bulge outward and grow. Jewel fell to his knees with a breathless cry.

Cassandra knelt in front of him, voice quieter now. “Each time the Breach expands, your mark spreads. And it is killing you.”

Jewel looked up through hazy eyes and asked, “And...what do you want me to do about that?”

“Your mark may be the key to stopping this, but there isn't much time.”

“And if I help you, will I live through it?”

“We have no way of knowing,” Cassandra said, “But you might.”

“So I might live? Damn,” Jewel said, with a wry smile and facetious disappointment. At Cassandra's raised eyebrow he slightly raised his cuffed hands disarmingly. “That was a joke.”

Cassandra frowned at him, unimpressed. She pulled Jewel up to his feet again by his cuffs and steadied him with a strong arm. If Jewel was in a more coherent state, it might've been a more enjoyable experience - he was rarely one to complain about being manhandled by a good firm hand – but presently his head felt like it was splitting open and every jolt of the Breach growing larger thrummed through his arm like a dreadful heartbeat.

“I gather I don't have much of a choice in this?” Jewel asked, closing his eyes against the snowblind for a moment before he was finally steadied and lead forward again.

“None of us have a choice,” Cassandra said.

She lead Jewel through what he now was able to grasp was a small village. Little wooden-plank houses enclosed by a wall of old, worn stone. Stylized statues of Mabari hounds. All clearly old structures. Newer additions were in the form of tents, fire pits surrounded by log benches, and tables covered in paperwork. A small crowd had gathered, and Jewel guessed it was the entirety of the people there. A pale man with pock-marked skin and a thick red mustache spat at his feet. A woman with dark brown hair in a tavern apron ducked fearfully behind a wooden pole. Most of them stayed at a distance, full of hate and fear, which was...not unfamiliar. A young soldier tried to rush forward, hand in the process of pulling his sword from its sheath, but the older man beside him grabbed his shoulder and held him back.

“They have decided your guilt,” Cassandra said, “They need it. The people of Haven mourn our Most Holy, Divine Justinia. The Conclave was hers.”

“So the Divine is dead, that explains why everyone's more ready to kill me than usual.” Jewel eyed the crowd for familiar faces as the slow, cold panic of remembering he didn't come alone set in. He was with a small group, a contingent of the Valo-Kas but not the entire company. He didn't see anyone he knew, but a modicum of relief was brought when he remembered neither Silver nor Sorrel had joined him on this particular job. A few less letters home to worry about, then.

“It was a chance for peace between mages and templars,” Cassandra continued, though Jewel got the distinct impression she didn't like his wry tone one bit, “She brought their leaders together. Now, they are dead.”

They walked to what seemed to be the edge of the village, houses giving way to rock faces and dense pine trees, all covered in glittering snow.  

“We lash out, like the sky,” she continued, “But we must think beyond ourselves, as she did. Until the Breach is sealed.”

Now away from the villagers, Cassandra paused to unlock Jewel's manacles. No longer bound, Jewel was blessedly free to rub his aching wrists, relieved enough by that to refrain from making some comment on Cassandra’s very dramatic speech.

“There will be a trial,” Cassandra said

“So where are you taking me?”

“Your mark must be tested on something smaller than the Breach.”

They approached a bridge bustling with frantic, terrified life. Two guards stood at the first gate, looking haggard and pale. Wounded soldiers leaned against the stone railing, some of them listening in while a Chantry Brother shakily recited sections of the chant to other gathered people. One of the soldiers in earshot was curled into a fetal position, gently rocking herself. Several others were resting, either hurt or exhausted, on the crates strewn about the bridge.

As they walked forward, they passed other robed Chantry folks, tending to the more gravely wounded. Closer to the end of the bridge, the wounded turned to wrapped bodies, first laid out in neat rows as a woman paced around them with a board and papers clutched in chapped red hands. The neat rows became a pile closer to the second gate as they ran out of room for the dead.

Jewel noticed no one he recognized, which was less comforting than it should have been. Nobody else survived the blast, but he doubted these humans would be piling up oxman bodies and trying to find their families. Canvas-and-rope wrapped corpses on a wagon, but the wagon wasn't hooked to any beast of burden. Chances were every horse in a hundred mile radius was spooked off by the chaos.

“Open the gate! We are headed into the valley!” Cassandra's sharp voice rang out to the soldiers guarding a second door at the end of the bridge.

The path took a left turn and snaked its way up into the dark cliffs covered in fresh snow, an unseasonably thin coating. They passed a spiked barricade and nearly smacked into three more soldiers running past, faces ashen and feet unsteady.

“Maker, it's the end of the world!” one cried. His face was wet with tears.

They passed a blur of upended wagons and makeshift barricades and bodies that hadn't been collected yet. An elven man was impaled through the chest on the branch of a fallen tree.

Jewel was knocked out of that observation by another echoing shockwave from the Breach that brought him violently to his knees. He landed hard on the rocks with his glowing, crackling arm raised like the sky was drawing it in. Screaming hurt Jewel's throat. When it stopped, he instinctively reached for his flask, only then realizing he'd been stripped of his effects.

“The pulses are coming faster now,” Cassandra said, but the rest of her words faded into a garbled blur as Jewel's vision went spotty from the pain.

Panting, he asked, “H...how am not dead?”

“They say you...stepped out of a rift, then fell unconscious. Some say a woman was in the rift behind you. No one knows who she was.”

“I remember somebody. Maybe I was just shitfaced.”  

Cassandra eyed him disapprovingly. “Everything farther in the valley was laid waste, including the Temple of Sacred Ashes.”

“Yeah, refresh my memory, what is that?”

“You don't know of the resting place of Andraste's ashes? I...suppose you'll see soon enough.”

As they approached the bridge, they passed more bodies. A small and stout one, probably a dwarf, was at the bottom of a ravine, somehow crammed between the crags of the rocks in a way they never should've fit. A human woman lay curled up under one of the wagons, half of her body burned to the bone. She looked like she'd dragged herself from farther up the mountain path, streaks of blood and bits of tissue caught on the rocks. His foot caught on the arm of a bronze-skinned body with elegant twisting horns – one broken off pitifully – and hemorrhaged eyes flooded with red staring up at him, and he fell forward. He stuck his hands out to brace himself but he landed on the qunari's chest and his hands sunk into the crushed ribcage under his coat. He recoiled, falling on his ass in the snow and dragging himself from the body. He knew the man's face. Meraad, a proper Tal-Vashoth, barrel-chested and stoic. Never one he got along with well, admittedly, but plenty attractive. They'd still fucked.

Jewel's last memory of Meraad was his massive, boxy hand pulling a bottle right from Jewel's lips, trailing a splatter of wine down his bare chest. He aggressively told him, “That is enough, Adaar. You need to be fit enough for tomorrow.”

“Fuck off, it's just a guard job. I can break up fights between spoiled circle mages and nineteen-year-old templars with a hangover.”

“Oh please,” said another voice, a pale woman with bone-white hair and capped horns, “You're fucking useless when you’re wasted.”

Jewel shook his head to clear the memory and stopped looking closely at the bodies. The rest of them were faceless to him now that he was unwilling to look, to remember familiar people, to see the many ways a body can twist and stretch when it's been hurled across a mountain.

Cassandra lead him to another bridge, this one smaller. At the end of it were a few more soldiers with a wagon, this one actually attached to a horse. It looked terrified.

They made it nearly to the center of the bridge before something unidentifiable with a sleek, glassy surface and rays of blinding green light came down inches from their feet and struck the bridge, instantly collapsing the stone bricks out from under their feet. Jewel lost track of Cassandra in the fall, sprawling onto the ice below. It groaned, but he didn't fall through. He landed hard on his arm that sent a bone-deep shock of pain up to his shoulder. It hurt like a bitch but part of him found it refreshing to feel real world pain again, something besides whatever was glowing out of his hand. He'd wrenched a shoulder before, that was familiar.

A pool of inky black bubbled up from the ice and rays of green pierced through it in a way that light shouldn't have bent. Jewel rolled out of the way just quick enough to avoid the thing that rose out of the bubbling hole. It was hard to wrap his mind around it, a hunched and sickly looking thing that seemed to lack a definitive form. Just a hump of discolored skin with a loose approximation of a head and front limbs.

He'd seen demons before, but never in a corporeal state inches from him. Or maybe he had, if that's what had been chasing him in the Fade. Before then, he'd only seen them in hints, snatches of a memory he'd rather forget.

(A feverish glaze on Sorrel's eyes, his limbs  jittering like seconds were missing from the motion; Silver's body arching backwards before falling limp to the floor with the life gone out of her; the smell of his mother's perfume and blood permeating the room, smell of resin and salt and copper)

“Stay behind me!” Cassandra yelled, unsheathing her sword and stepping in front of Jewel. He would have gladly obliged, but the instant she moved to strike the first creature, a second appeared, its sickly melted form slipping between them and cornering him against the rubble and boxes from the bridge collapse. He wished Silver was here to be a know-it-all about the thing. Then again, if she was here, she'd probably be dead.

Jewel reached to his belt, but it wasn't there. When he glanced, however, he noticed one almost too-convenient dagger lying in the rocks, and near it was what he was fairly certain was part of a tent pole, but it was something he could hit demons with and that was enough for him for this precise moment.

He swung at it with the dagger, not the graceful spin of his training but a haphazard and panicked slash-and-block using the tent pole to parry. He dragged the dull dagger across the surface of the thing's skin – purple-grey like the preserved corpses of animals he saw after the spring thaw as a child – and watched it catch and tear open to spill black ichor onto the ice. When he spun to slice at the creature again, he stepped in the fluid. His boot stuck to it like pitch and while he couldn't truly feel it through the leather, something about touching it still felt vile.

While Jewel was hindered by the pitch-blood, the demon reared again, bringing its arms down to rake its claws down his right arm. It didn't draw blood, but it left scratch marks on his glove. With his free leg, Jewel turned and kicked the thing hard, knocking it back and causing it to spin out on the ice. Just for a brief moment, but enough of one to plunge the tent pole through the top of its head. It screamed, a sound that assaulted him from all around, then seemingly collapsed into nothing more than a puddle of the pitch-blood and scraps of whatever tissue the beast was composed of.

Jewel let go of the tent pole and stepped back from his kill in time for Cassandra to pull her sword free from her own adversary. By the looks of the puddles of ooze around her, she'd taken out at least two. Jewel stepped over one of the spills, glancing from side to side in case they'd missed any. He wasn't really in a hurry to fight any more of those, but he'd rather be prepared for it at least. Maybe then he'd avoid getting tar on his boots again.

Satisfied that there were no more whatevers about to leap out of the ground this very moment, Jewel caught his breath.

“It's over. For the moment, I suppose.”

Cassandra seemed less than impressed. She squared up and brandished her sword at Jewel, making him feel rather small in comparison to her clear ability, despite being easily twice her size.

“Drop your weapon. Now.” She looked like she could probably cut his marked hand off and use it herself if need be, a theory Jewel didn't entirely feel like testing. But he didn't need to be caught unarmed.

“If you're gonna lead me through a bunch of fucking demons, you'll have to at least trust me enough to let me defend myself.”

“Give me one reason to trust you.”

“If I kill you and make a run for it, the hole in the sky will probably tear me apart. I don't exactly have much to gain doing that.”

Cassandra looked displeased, but more like the concession to Jewel's point was what displeased her so much. She wore a hardened face as she looked Jewel up and down, likely assessing what shape he was in. Which, admittedly, wasn't his best.

“You're right,” she sighed, “I alone cannot protect you, and I cannot expect you to be defenseless, your life so threatened as it is. And...I should remember you have not attempted to run.”

Jewel nodded at her. “Well in that case, let's try to find something better than a tent pole for me.”

That got what might almost have been a smile out of Cassandra. “Very well.”

They crested a small hill, stepping over blue-black stones mixed with slush and puddles where the snow had melted. The crest dropped off at a sharp incline where the rock and snow gave way to the frozen river below. A few paces down it, they came across the corpse of a human woman. She wasn't a mage or a templar, so she likely had some sort of Chantry involvement. She'd been depressingly young, by the looks of her, when she'd been killed. It was hard to tell precisely how she'd died, the only hint being the strange web of cracks under her in the ice, almost like she'd landed there hard enough to break it, though nobody else seemed to be lying in such a way.

Cassandra knelt down beside the body as Jewel took to unsheathing the young woman's two daggers. They were nothing fancy, but they were effective and probably better than the dull blade he'd picked up at the bridge. He took the sheaths for the daggers; however, he could tell he wouldn't be able to fit into the woman's belt.

“Go to the Maker's side,” Cassandra said quietly from her seat beside the body.

Jewel didn't pay her any mind and instead searched the area, hoping to stumble across something he could use as a belt. He came to the unsettling conclusion that likely the only belt he'd be able to find and fit into would belong to Meraad. He thought about going back, climbing up the broken pieces of the bridge, taking the road back to where he'd seen Meraad's body. His mashed-up ribcage, those bright red-stained eyes. He could probably do it, it wouldn't be the first time he saw someone he knew dead, but he was in no hurry to make the memory any fresher. He decided to just carry the daggers. It wasn't likely they'd get much time between demon attacks anyhow.

After leaving the woman's body behind and proceeding up ancient foot-worn stone steps embedded in a hill, they came across another cluster of corpses along the left bank of the river, this being four mages. Jewel rifled through their belongings for anything useful. The most useful find was on an older human – a small satchel with a few potions ( three vials of lyrium and one-and-a-half of a healing draught) – and second to that was the flask he kept in his breast pocket. It was a simple Free Marches design, nothing particularly impressive to look at, but when Jewel shook it experimentally, he could hear something liquid inside. Good enough for me.

“A canteen?” Cassandra asked him, briefly looking up.

Jewel shot her the most genuine grin he'd had all morning. “Better.” He took one drink of the flask and offered it to Cassandra without even pausing to tell her what it contained as he swallowed. Seeing her hesitation, though, he cleared his throat and continued, “It's whiskey, if you're wondering.”

Cassandra simply replied, “I was not.”

The next staircase they came across was much steeper than the first, and the elf lying dead at the foot of them looked like they'd fallen the whole way down. The amount of blood on the steps implied the fall wasn't what killed them, however. Jewel stepped over them carefully and didn't look too closely. Only a quarter of the way up the stairs, he began to feel his legs burning from the strain, likely from the length of time he spent kneeling on a stone floor. Equal parts lack of use for however long he was out and bruising from the stone itself, he supposed. A third of the way up, and he stopped to twist the cap on the flask and take another pull. Heat filled his veins and traveled down through his body, relaxing his legs just enough to dull the pain of exertion. He replaced the cap and caught up to Cassandra.

“We're almost to the rift,” she told him, seemingly not even winded, “You can hear the fighting.”

Jewel hadn't been listening to much, but now that it was brought to his attention, he could hear the faint but steadily-growing sound of voices calling out, more things howling and snarling, and something else under it all. A glassy shattering and something like a rush of running water or the faint hiss of a distant crowd. Jewel sprinted the last few steps to match Cassandra's pace.

“Who's fighting?” he asked, voice betraying the strain from the action.

“You'll see soon enough.”

Chapter Text

THE WRATH OF HEAVEN, PART 2

 

Jewel landed in pebbles and meltwater for the second time in recent memory, but this time solidly on his feet, in a taught combat stance with the dead Chantry girl's daggers in his hands and the dead Circle mage's flask tucked lovingly into his satchel. Luckily, the demons made it pretty easy to discern precisely which side he was to be fighting on – a handful of soldiers in the same armor clashing against more things Jewel didn't know enough about to really name. The only two that stood out were one elven mage (pale and bald with an assortment of rags for clothes) and one dwarf (with expensive clothes and the most complicated crossbow he'd ever seen), both in the fray amongst the soldiers, firing spells and bolts – respectively – into the horrors from -

It was a hole in the air, glowing bright green to match Jewel's hand, which crackled a bit the closer he got. Inside, he couldn't really see anything besides warped images he couldn't make heads or tails of. It looked like a cracked mirror. More alarming, though, was the feeling it gave Jewel. Not simply fear or curiosity, but a strong sense of a connection, and an instability in the thing he could repair. Or perhaps exploit. The sense of tilting came back.

He didn't choose to linger on the feeling but instead fell into his training, easier this time. He was more awake now and the feverish feeling of before had waned. He wasn't the most lucid he'd ever been, but it wasn't that much of an obstacle.

When he twisted the last of the creatures around and sent it directly onto Cassandra's sword, he still felt like he could stand, which was an improvement over the trip up the stairs. The thing screamed and as it succumbed to Cassandra's righteous strike to its heart (assuming it had one), it suddenly locked its grey, cloudy eyes on Jewel's. For a split second before the life flickered out of the beast, he felt very much like it was reading him. It was deeply interested in him in a way Fade creatures never had been before.

Suddenly his wrist was grabbed by a slender, pale hand and the bald elf mage was there, aiming Jewel's marked palm at the green tear.

“Quickly!” the elf shouted, “Before more come through!”

Jewel was not given a choice in the matter, rather, he was held up to the glowing mass like a talisman and something pulled in his mind, an unplaceable command like the mark knew what it was doing more than Jewel did. And then the gash in the air pulled together, like a wound knitting in the blink of an eye. A loud crack! followed, and then only the final scraps of demon-flesh and other gruesome materials fell to the slushy ground and the rift was shut.

Yanking his hand back in shock, Jewel turned to level the elf with his best incredulous look. He took a moment to think of anything to actually say. “What...did you just do?”

“I did nothing,” the elf said, in a rather smooth voice, “The credit is yours.”

Jewel snorted. “You mean it was this thing-” he waved his left hand, palm facing the elf, “-yeah? How?”

“Whatever magic opened the Breach in the sky also placed that mark upon your hand,” the elf's voice was melodic, rhythmic. Jewel found it a touch strange, but he knew plenty of strange people. The elf continued, “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.”

“Meaning it could also close the Breach itself,” Cassandra theorized. She stood next to Jewel, seeming not entirely comfortable with any of her current company.

“Possibly,” the elf said, then looked at Jewel with an almost curious expression, “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.”

That was a statement Jewel didn't like. He was already in too deep with these people but he felt like he'd only woken up about five minutes ago. He kept his expression cool though, kept an amiable way of holding himself. He was about to make a joke, 'No pressure, right?', or just take another drink when the dwarf with the crossbow spoke up from the other side of the space.

“Good to know! Here I thought we'd be ass-deep in demons forever.” His voice was thankfully casual, pleasantly rough and friendly. He walked right over to Jewel, planting the butt of his crossbow into the snow and holding a gloved hand out to Jewel. Jewel shook it cautiously, mostly just surprised at the lack of animosity. Or weird mystique or whatever it was the elf had been going for.

“Varric Tethras,” the dwarf introduced, “Rogue, storyteller, and occasionally unwelcome tagalong.” He gave Cassandra a wink at that which Jewel almost missed because he was struck with the recognition of who this was.

“Shit, really? I've read some of your books,” Jewel said with a laugh, “I'm Jewel. Nobody's asked today, but it's been a bit chaotic. Are you with the Chantry, or...?”

The elf chuckled from behind him. “Was that a serious question?”

“Technically I'm a prisoner, just like you,” Varric told him. He seemed far more relaxed about said situation, but then, Jewel probably seemed a lot more relaxed than he was feeling, too.

“I brought you here to tell your story to the Divine,” Cassandra said, “Clearly that is no longer necessary.”

“Yet, here I am. Lucky for you.”

Jewel wasn't sure where to go with all that and he didn't feel like getting suckered into some other debate about current events, so he ended up just looking back to Varric.

“That's...a nice crossbow you have there. Never seen one like it.”

Varric looked like he'd been waiting for Jewel to ask. “Ah, isn't she? Bianca and I have been through a lot together.”

“Bianca, huh?” Silver had named for her staves. One was Arabella, the one with the skull of a small wildcat at the top, but he couldn't really remember any of the others. It wasn't like he asked much these days.

“Of course. She'll be great company in the valley.”

Jewel instantly liked Varric. Maybe some of it was him just knowing who he was, maybe some was knowing he was in the same boat – someone else Cassandra had evidently press-ganged into this endeavor.

“So,” Jewel said, turning to the rest but staying closer to Varric, “I closed your rift. Now what?”

“Now, we go to meet Leliana,” Cassandra replied.

“What a great idea!” Varric hoisted Bianca up onto his back again, apparently ready to go. He fidgeted with the straps on his gloves as he spoke.

“Absolutely not,” Cassandra huffed, “Your help is appreciated, Varric, but-”

“Have you been in the valley lately, Seeker?” Varric chuckled, “Your soldiers aren't in control anymore. You need me.”

Varric looked terribly smug and it made Cassandra roll her eyes and make another sound of distaste, but she didn't argue any more than that. There was a beat, and then the elf spoke up.

“My name is Solas, if there are to be introductions. I'm pleased to see you still live.” He gave Jewel a slight smile. The next thing he heard piqued his interested considerably more.

“He means, 'I kept that mark from killing you while you slept',” Varric provided.

Jewel raised an eyebrow at Solas, finally giving the man more than his passing attention. He wasn't sold on much of this but learning what happened to his hand was a priority.

“How? Do you know what it is?”

“Solas is an apostate,” Cassandra interrupted, “Well-versed in such matters.”

Jewel couldn't hide his sigh from her, waiting for the inevitable bickering. He glazed over a bit while Solas explained, lapsing into that slightly melodic tone again, that the magic that caused the Breach probably far surpassed anything a Circle mage or even a lifelong apostate could do. Jewel's thoughts drifted to Kirkwall but...well, a hole in the sky was probably a lot harder to pull off than just blowing up one building.

“To answer your question, it was healing magic and minor wards. But I fear your mark is now past the point where those can help you.”

“I kinda figured, yeah.”

Cassandra sheathed her sword and walked past the others towards a few broken planks of wood blocking off the path ahead. “This way, down the bank,” she said, “We must get to the forward camp quickly.”

Solas followed her quietly, leaving Jewel standing beside Varric for a moment as they hung back.

“Well,” Varric said almost cheerfully, “Bianca's excited.”

 

The path they followed beyond the rubble was steep, cut into the side of the mountain. It was mostly pebbles and slush, and tricky coatings of ice in the shadiest areas, slowing their progress to nearly a crawl to avoid jeopardizing the future of the world if Jewel took a tumble and broke his neck. The frozen river swelled again where the path let out, leaving a broad, open space to walk across. To the east, there was a cabin still intact, but even from the distance the small group could see a corpse at the foot of the porch steps. There was a path continuing beyond the cabin that Cassandra lead them towards. She told them to be careful of the ice, and the four slowed their pace.

“We had Qunari in Kirkwall,” Varric said, falling into step with Jewel as they made their way cautiously across the river. “A whole boatload of them. They were your typical cheerless sort, then they tried to take over the city and kill everyone.”

Jewel would've quipped something about how his village had to lie low for a while when that happened. His mother's increasing paranoia, the mercenary company he was with back then losing the majority of their work. But he eyed Varric a moment, trying to gauge how accusatory this statement was meant to be. Kirkwallers were still awfully touchy about it. Varric continued.

“But I'm guessing you don't actually follow the Qun, do you? You're Tal-Vashoth.”

He wasn't wrong, but Jewel didn't hold back his mild annoyance.

“Afraid I'll try to convert you?” he asked slyly.

“Well, you haven't recited a single quote from the Prophet Koslun yet, plus all the Orlesian fabrics and the drinking. So unless this is a very in-depth act, I'd say it's all pretty telling.”

Jewel was readying another clever retort, trying to slip into that disarming humor, when he felt his palm jolt again, that white-hot deep pain like a stake driven all the way through it to the bones, then the electric snap traveling up his arm, like the time Silver got him with a lightning spell, a vibration through his muscles coupled with the pressure under his skin like the mark was trying to tear him apart from the inside. He almost lost his footing on the ice, but he caught himself this time. He cradled his glowing hand in the crook of his other arm and hissed in pain as the pulse rippled through him for a short eternity.

“Shit, are you alright?” Varric asked, voice hoarse and quiet. He placed a hand on Jewels's right arm. The concern was...nice, and genuine, Jewel supposed.

Cassandra turned to face him, more sympathetic than she'd been before. “I know it's difficult, but we must keep moving.”

“My magic cannot stop the mark from growing further,” Solas added with a nod towards Cassandra, “We must hurry, before the mark consumes him.”

Jewel was still shaking off the vibrating sting of the mark when they reached the next set of stone stairs and he found himself trailing behind again. Varric asked him if he was innocent at some point, and Jewel tiredly repeated the same thing he'd been telling people what somehow felt like all day: He didn't remember. Even now, with his relative clarity, his memory since he arrived at Haven felt like it was shot full of holes; he could see flashes in his head, conversations with Shokrakar, with Sorrel, with Silver. He could remember arguing with Meraad ( and Meraad fucking him, and Meraad's bright red eyes staring sightless into the Breach ) and he could remember a long walk up a mountain path. A great looming building in the low-hanging morning clouds. The black rock in the sickly green glow of another place, his boots slipping, the howl that surrounded him. And he couldn't even really speak to the significance of the all, or if some weren't just older memories his mind tried to use to fill the gaps.

Continuing their upward trek, the party passed a few more dead. Some clearly thrown from the blast, torn to pieces by the sheer force. Others looked like they'd survived long enough to crawl for a while. An increasing number of them were badly burned. They passed by a few burning wagons, but the farther they got, the less any wooden structures even survived at all. Anything close to the center of it was likely turned to ash in seconds.

The next gate they encountered had a rift in front of it, and Jewel felt the mark pulse on his hand in response. It began to nudge at his fingerbones again. Blessedly, this one spat out only a few weak things. Perhaps there were rifts of greater interest elsewhere. He didn't feel like going off to look for them, of course. When he'd gotten it closed – in a way he had yet to really understand – he heard Cassandra's voice cut through the chill air.

“The rift is gone! Open the gate!”

Jewel heard a soldier reply to her but he was more focused on the way the tilting sensation came back a moment. He shook it off easily enough this time. When he looked down at his palm, the glow had receded just slightly.

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

Varric clapped Jewel as far up on the back as he could reach. “Whatever that thing on your hand is, it's useful.”

They stepped onto another bridge, full of another cluster of soldiers, Chantry folk, and wrapped bodies on wagons; although all seemed a bit more organized than the first such place they entered. This camp had a tent set up partway down the bridge, taking up about half its width, and outside it stood a small desk covered in a mess of papers held back from the mountain wind by a few rocks. The woman in purple from before was there (her name was....something with an L, Jewel recalled) and she was caught up in an argument with a middle-aged man in a Chantry robe. Jewel caught the end of it as he approached behind Cassandra.

“-without resorting to this exercise in futility.”

“I have caused trouble?”

“You, Cassandra, the Most Holy – haven't you all done enough already?”

“You're not in command here!”

“Enough! I will not have it!”

Jewel was frankly surprised the Chantry brother, or whatever he was, didn't notice him faster, all things considered. He seemed awfully intent on winning the argument with the woman Jewel was fairly sure was named Leliana, and it wasn't until the small group drew closer that he looked up past her shoulder and scanned his eyes over Jewel. The man had light skin, scruffy facial hair, and a ruddy nose and cheeks. He drew his face into a poisonous glare, but refused to really meet Jewel's eyes.

“Ah,” he said, “Here they come.”

Leliana turned around with an expression the spoke of relief both for the party's safety and the break from dealing with the man.

“You made it,” she said, greeting Cassandra with a nod, then Jewel, “Chancellor Roderick, this is-”

“I know who he is,” the man cut off, stepping back from the desk slightly, “As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take this criminal to Val Royeaux to face execution.”

And they were getting into it again. Jewel didn't pay attention, drifting in and out as they barked at each other over Chantry-related matters he couldn't bring himself to care about. After another drink from the dead man's flask and another glance up at the Breach (which reminded him of his precarious situation), he finally rolled his eyes and spoke up.

“So none of you are actually in charge here.”

“You killed everyone who was in charge!” Roderick spat, “And if Seeker Cassandra had any sense, you would be on a carriage to Val Royeaux in chains!”

“At least take me to dinner first,” Jewel snorted as he screwed the cap back onto the flask.

Roderick was appalled enough to not have a response, or maybe the day was just wearing on him, too. Either way, he sighed, and turned back to Cassandra.

“Call a retreat, Seeker. Our position here is hopeless.”

“We can stop this before it's too late,” insisted Cassandra, her voice earnest; she was convinced that Jewel was the answer here. No pressure, right?

Roderick started to protest, but Cassandra wasn't listening to his insistence that they'd never survive long enough to actually reach the temple.

“We must get directly to the temple, take the quickest route.” Cassandra said, directed at the group behind her instead of Roderick.

“But not the safest,” Leliana replied with a shake of her head, “Our forces can charge as a distraction while we go through the mountains.” She pointed in the direction of what Jewel presumed was a mountain path. More climbing and more rocks to slip on, excellent.

“We lost contact with an entire squad on that path!”

“Listen to me!” Roderick cut into the argument again, “Abandon this now, before more lives are lost.”

As if on cue, reacting to the bickering, the Breach let out another shockwave as it pulsed larger in the sky, and Jewel nearly crumpled to the ground again when the mark pounded in his bones and tore his skin open farther, or at least it felt like it did. He staggered forward and caught himself on the wooden desk and leaned heavy against it while he tried to collect himself. Varric put a hand on his arm.  Cassandra just looked him over with what might have been concern, at least for their ticket to close the Breach if not for Jewel himself. Then, to Jewel's utter surprise, she asked him a question.

“How do you think we should proceed?”

Jewel hissed a breath in through his teeth and flexed his left hand as the pain subsided. At least, as much as he figured it was going to.

“Now you want to know what I think?”

“You have the mark,” Solas stated matter-of-factly, like it was a perfectly sensible answer.

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

Jewel sighed and pushed off the desk to stand fully back up, looking down at the others for a moment. Then he reached into the satchel on his hip and dug his hand around until his fingers brushed something cold and hard, little ridges on its rim. He pulled the coin out and rested it on his fist, and as the party watched perplexed, he flicked his thumb and the coin flipped into the air. He caught it swiftly and slapped it onto his other arm.

“Tails,” he said, “Mountain path.”

Cassandra's expression was a mix of confusion and irritation and perhaps embarrassment, as she'd built up Jewel as the key to solving this whole issue. And here he was, in front of the very vocal Chantry opposition, deciding their fate on a coin toss. Leliana watched carefully, but her face was harder to read.

“Leliana,” Cassandra said after a few seconds that felt longer, “Bring everyone left in the valley. Everyone.”

Roderick shook his head, crossing his arms as he watched the small party collect any belongings they'd sat down and ready themselves to leave. He spoke as they walked past him.

“On your head be the consequences, Seeker.”

Chapter Text

THE WRATH OF HEAVEN, PART 3

 

The mountain air grew thinner up the narrow path, and the snow gathered thick on the rocky ground. It stung Jewel's nose and lungs, but cooled some of the pulsing heat from the irritated skin around the mark. They had funneled into single-file with Cassandra in the lead, Jewel following behind her, then Varric, and Solas bringing up the rear. Another chill wind rushed through and cut like daggers through to the bone, the sort of cold that couldn't be eased with a sturdy coat. Before long, however, they got their reprieve in the form of a tall, very old-looking ladder leading up into a passage through the mountains.

“What manner of tunnel is this?” Solas asked, raising his voice above the wind.

“Part of an old mining complex.” Cassandra called back as she began up the ladder. “These mountains are full of such paths.”

Jewel followed behind her, testing his weight on the ladder first. It creaked in a way he wasn't fond of in the least, but it held for the moment.

“And your missing soldiers are in there somewhere?” Varric seemed to understand Jewel's idea, at least, and waited a moment before following. When Cassandra reached the top of it, Varric climbed on. Solas' voice called out over the wind again.

“Along with whatever has detained them.”

There was a second ladder that held strong, but the third creaked a little louder, and that time Jewel went last, climbing up it carefully but quickly. On the third to last rung, he felt the wood under his boot groan and crack and the ladder swayed with the strain, pulling away from the rock face. In time with the ladder, his stomach took a steep dive and Jewel hastened his climb and caught onto the cliff edge just as another rung snapped under his foot and the ladder pulled farther from the mountain side.

Varric whistled at the distance of the drop. “Guess we're not going back this way.”

“What, you think we're coming back?” Jewel asked with a breathless laugh.

The brief moment of what was almost levity was broken by a cutting gust a freezing air. For the first second, it seemed like another mountain breeze, painfully cold but by no means unusual, until Jewel felt it curl around his chest like a massive fist and squeeze him tight. It felt like a brace, like a tight bandage on broken ribs that made it hurt to breathe, and it stole all the warmth from him in an instant. He pitched forward and caught himself on a rock, feeling a sudden heaviness wrap around his mind. A fog that felt hopeless, a familiar urge for an ending lurking around his head. He wasn't exactly a stranger to the feeling, but it came on so abruptly it didn't feel natural. He'd never felt so tired so quickly before. He almost didn't notice that the cold breeze had come in a single beam from the dark, gaping mouth of the tunnel.

It swallowed any light from outside and was almost entirely encased in ice, so thick it looked dark blue in places. Snow piled up in the corners, drifting in swirls across the slick patches.

“A demon of despair,” Solas stated, confidence in his voice but his fingers tightening around his staff until his knuckles turned white.

A shrill scream from the tunnel confirmed his words. A sound followed; familiar again, like shattering glass and a lonely wind through a pale winter night.

(The feel of snow pressing into his bare hands and beginning to soak his light clothes. A silhouette in the doorframe and light spilling out into a long ribbon cast over his body in the night. Mistakes and hasty words but nothing left inside. It was over, over, over.)

“It'll try to drain your will,” Cassandra's voice called out, slicing through the fog, “Don't let it get a hold of you!”

The interruption was enough to shake Jewel free long enough to get a grip on his salvaged daggers and right himself on his feet, steadying himself as Solas cast a magelight spell into the void mouth of the mineshaft before them. It floated into the darkness, reflecting off the icicles and first illuminating only old stone and rusted metal before it cast its light over a terrible figure in the center.

The thing stood with its back to them, hunched over and looking like little more than a pile of rags. Then it turned its upper half around, leaving its bottom half rigid and unmoving, and looked towards the party. It had a humanoid body from what could be seen but its face possessed what was almost a muzzle, a little like a horse's, the bridge of it starting thinner and then swelling to thick jaws that ended in an almost human mouth, but for the massive pointed teeth that bulged past its lips. The magelight glinted off its eyes, shaped like a human’s but reflecting like a wolf by a fire.

Despair

Jewel had little time to react to its wretched appearance before another icy wind hit him, this time in a beam from the beast's mouth, and he only barely managed to roll out of the way before it could stop him in his tracks.

The despair demon barely moved. It only twisted itself, agonizingly slowly, and slowed the entire party around it, until it took one particularly rough hit from Cassandra's shield and screamed piercingly loud before swirling, twisting itself up faster like it was made of putty under its rags, and then nearly flew down the tunnel and vanished.

They only found it again by the sudden, cloying grip of hopelessness as they rounded a corner and found the thing once again hunched over, heaving and rocking itself.

It send a bolt of ice at Cassandra but she blocked and it glanced off her shoulder, shattering harmlessly on the stone floor. She rolled (more effectively than Jewel had before) out of the way of the demon's spout of ice and misery, then got to her feet at its side and swung low before it could turn again. Her blade pierced it with ease, but when she tried to drag it through, it slowed and stuck. She wrenched the sword through bones that seemed to be in nonsensical places and when it finally bisected the wailing beast, it came out covered in a thick black tar sticking in long strings to the blade.

The demon was still alive when it fell to the ice-coated floor of the tunnel. It reached its knobby arms forward, five-jointed fingers curled up nearly into spirals, and began to pull itself in Jewel's direction with an anguished expression across its long face. As it dragged itself, it stretched at about where its ribcage should be, elongating its midsection to reach its target.

Jewel sidestepped it so quickly he nearly slipped on the ice and just barely caught his balance in time to avoid the demon's grasp. He didn't even know what it would do with him in its current state. He didn't want to know.

It turned and opened its mouth wider, letting out its miserable windy screech, and then in the blink of an eye, Cassandra's sword sunk into the top of its head and pinned it into the ice.

When the demon's pale flesh began to melt and rot into the floor, Cassandra pulled her sword free with a disgusted grunt.

The rest of the tunnel contained a few scattered Fade creatures. Mostly just ghostly, nondescript things that darted out of view as soon as anyone looked towards them, things Solas explained had probably been drawn past the Veil by accident and were more frightened and confused than they were malicious. It didn't bring Jewel much comfort, however. Nothing did, after feeling the despair demon's presence coil around him, wrapping a cold iron cage around his heart.

The tunnel opened up a few turns in, putting the party along a few small balconies. They overlooked nothing but darkness that swallowed up Solas' magelight spell much like the demon had done. Jewel thought he could see movement in the deep, but when nothing lunged out to attack them, the group moved on.

 

The four of them stood on the rim of the crater for a moment that felt like an hour. There were traces of a structure, just a few small sections of doorways and crumbling walls all blown over like the trees. Jutting up from the center were jagged black rocks streaked with pulsing green lines that reminded Jewel of little parasitic worms. The rocks also looked a bit like the ones he'd seen in the Fade, slick and wet and cold. There were scattered figures lying amidst the stone and ash, but they seemed small and indistinct. Upon closer inspection as the party began its slow, careful climb down into the crater, they were burned beyond recognition, but their terror was captured in the poses in which they died – hands curled into claws, covering their faces or reaching out, mouths hanging wide open. Some weren't more than bones.

“That is where our soldiers found you,” Cassandra suddenly said, motioning towards what probably used to be a pillar and a section of wall.

There was a slightly more intact section of the temple ahead, with what remained of some walls and doorways. Jewel carefully sidestepped more charred remains and pointedly did not look at them, too worried he'd see one with familiar horns.

“The breach is a long way up,” Varric said breathlessly.

Jewel looked.

The breach was above their heads now. A cavernous hole bored into the sky like a cave in ice, swirling clouds and fade debris and whatever other arcane energy it possessed around in a massive maelstrom that dwarfed the moon. It pulled pieces of the temple into its space, floating them up like time had frozen in the midst of the explosion. It kept them suspended the way they'd broken apart. It even held pieces of the mountain itself, holding them up like trophies to show the world the damage it had wrought. And at the center of it all, a column of green light poured down into the center of the temple crater, flowing like a waterfall down to a massive bulging growth of ugly green fade-crystals and crackling light hanging in the air.

It felt to Jewel like time slowed. The edges of his vision grew a dark vignette and his left hand began to pulse harder, back to that feeling of pull and tilt and shove, his finger bones pushing out of place again and the thrum of pain that traveled up, up into his arm and beyond. He didn't fall this time.

“You're here!” a now familiar Orlesian accent called out, “Thank the Maker.”

Leliana approached the party from behind with a few soldiers in the same gear Jewel had been seeing all day at her side. She looked remarkably put together given the circumstances, a calm and steady gaze and only the barest hint of distress in her voice.

“Leliana, have your men take up positions around the temple,” Cassandra said urgently.

Without a word, Leliana nodded and walked away, with the handful of soldiers following her. Cassandra watched her for a moment, then turned back to Jewel, her face looking somehow both more haggard and more hopeful. The hope that this would be over soon.

“This is your chance to end this,” she said, “Are you ready?”

On the spot again, Jewel sighed and peered around at the rift connected to the breach by its umbilical cord of green lightning. He still sort of wanted to run and never look back, but he kept his body language nice and loose, shrugging and answering,

“I know I'm tall, but I don't think I can reach all the way up there.”

Varric was the only one who seemed a little entertained. Cassandra looked like she wanted to backhand Jewel for being a smartass, an expression he was familiar with, at least.

“The rift,” Solas said simply, motioning to the green crystals rather than the cavern in the sky, “It was the first and is the key. Seal it, and perhaps-”

“Alright, alright, rift. Got it,” Jewel said, waving him off. If there was ever a time to be a person of few words...

Leliana materialized out of the shadows yet again when they began to follow the remnants of a path that circled down to the rift crater. It was nothing but rubble and the shell of walls now, with massive growths of the slick black stone jutting from the ground and cutting some of the remaining structure open. Upon a closer look, the stone itself looked...almost like thatching, criss-crossed lines like hundreds of scars making up its surface. It looked organic, almost.

The first time the voice boomed from the center of the crater, everybody in the party nearly lost their balance.

It was a deep, reverberating sound that came from all around (like the howl, like those fucking things chasing-) and seemed to rattle the chest. It sounded...calm, however. Old.

 

Now is the hour of our victory. Bring forth the sacrifice.

 

Cassandra was the first to speak, showing more alarm than she had thus far.

“What are we hearing?”

“At a guess?” Solas replied, “The person who created the Breach.”

They passed two archers overlooking the rift, who both nodded to Leliana and kept to their posts. They looked less alarmed by the voice. Perhaps they'd been here longer, heard it before. It didn't sound...natural, like it came from a person. It sounded like it came from all around, another piece of the Fade drawn forth.

Red danced in Jewel's vision and threw him for a loop as he has the brief question of when he'd begun to bleed. Then, a realization. It was not blood. It was stones, massive crystals of gleaming red that made his vision swim and sent a high-pitched ringing into his ears. The tilting sensation became pronounced dizziness and he felt his stomach clench painfully with it. He could barely make out Varric’s words in the ringing sound.

“You know this stuff is-”

“I see it, Varric.” Cassandra’s tone was sharp.

“But what’s it doing here?”

Solas offered his theory. “Magic could have drawn on lyrium beneath the temple, corrupted it…”

Varric made an offput sound and sidestepped one of the clusters of crystals on the ground. “Well, it’s evil. Whatever you do, don’t touch it.”

At the mention of lyrium, Jewel’s memory was jogged a bit; he’d ready something about this but he was jarred from the thought by the reverberating voices coming from the air.

 

Keep the sacrifice still.

 

Someone ! Help me!

 

The second voice was different - that of an old woman, by the sound of it. Orlesian accent. He didn’t need to hear Cassandra’s words to piece together who it was.

“That is Divine Justinia!”

Past the next pile-up of rubble and red lyrium, the woman’s voice repeated her plea for help. This time the voice that followed hers was different.

 

Someone! Help me!

 

What’s going on here?

 

The mark crackled again, but this time Jewel hardly noticed it beneath his reeling at hearing his own voice rumbling down from the Breach. He sounded so…tired. Probably the hangover , he thought.

“That is your voice!” Cassandra said, aghast, “Most Holy called out to you, but…”

Jewel was about to answer insisting he still didn’t remember any of this, when another flash came down from the Breach and scattered light reflected from the mirror-like shards of Fade material bulging out of the rift in the center of the crater. From it reflected the ghostly figures from which the fragments of conversations had been emanating.

The first figure was Jewel himself, presumably, just a barely-visible mirage with his distinct horn shape. His voice rumbled through again.

 

What’s going on here?

 

Justiana’s headdress marked the mirage of her, just a silhouette of green light.

 

Run while you can! Warn them!

 

The third figure was harder to pinpoint. It seemed larger than the others, a mass of strange shapes and edges that made it hard to identify beyond the long, bony arm it reached out as it pointed one finger outwards and spoke:

 

We have an intruder. Slay the qunari.

 

Cassandra whirled on Jewel in an instant with her eyes wide and frantic, once again scrambling for that bit of information, some answer she’d been missing.

“So you were there! Who attached? And the Divine, she…?” She grabbed Jewel’s shoulders roughly, “Was this vision true? What are we seeing?”

Of course she’d demand it again, the thing Jewel couldn’t provide - his memory. As if she was the one suffering the most for its absence.

Jewel shoved her off and snapped, “I don’t remember!”

“Echoes of what happened here,” Solas provided, calmly ignoring the squabble as he stepped closer to the rift, “The Fade bleeds into this place.”

Solas continued to speak, explaining something of re-opening and re-closing the rift, et cetera. Jewel only half listened, enraptured more by the ghostly images of what supposedly happened here and the magnetic pull of the rift on his mark.

Solas caught his attention, repeated himself, and added a warning;

“It is like that interfering with the rift will draw attention from the other side.”

“That means demons,” Cassandra said loudly, proclaiming what Solas had only been implying, “Stand ready!”

Leliana’s people and probably some others were already perched in locations around the center of the temple, and gave her decisive nods as she spoke her harsh commands.

Leliana herself was perched in a high corner, bow at the ready, and with one hand signal the others nocked their arrows into place.

Left with only the expectation to do what they’d dragged him here for, Jewel stepped forward towards the rift. He moved slow, cautious, grasped with apprehension that outweighed his desire to get this over with. It was significantly larger than the past few rifts they’d bumped into, and this one had some high stakes packaged with it.

He reached his hand outward - still unsure exactly how the mark worked - and to the best of his ability, pulled. Open it first, then seal it properly, like a door with a coat caught in it. He didn’t know how it worked, but he had to hope for the best. Or for Solas to run over and correct him or something.

That turned out to be unnecessary, however, as the pulsing feeling returned, as did the tilt to his equilibrium, and he felt a harsh tug in his hand as the green light burst from the mark and sought the rift like a beacon. One sharp tug and the rift burst open.

The first thing to fall out was the size of a barn, the massive shape of it obscuring Jewel’s vision and making it difficult to see what exactly it was. Its skin was rough and scaly, with large glossy patches that reached outward like spines. Jewel felt its roar deep in his chest and when the beast turned to look at him, he saw a multitude of glowing pinprick eyes in its face.

He only barely registered Cassandra yelling a command at the archers above before a hail of arrows came forth from all directions. A few pierced the spaces between the demon’s scales, but most bounced harmlessly off its armor. It raised one tree-trunk arm and blocked the arrows that flew towards its face.

Jewel cleared his head and focused on the fight. Dodge, roll, cut low on the beast’s legs, slip the dagger between the plates on its heels. A few smaller creatures followed it from the rift but were comparatively easy to dispatch - just minor demons feeding on the scraps of the colossal thing before them.

“We must strip its defenses, wear it down!” Cassandra called out over the chaos, clear despite the cacophony around her, “Disrupt the rift!”

When Jewel glanced up towards it, the mirror shard growths from the rift were back, reflecting memories and the faces of beasts trying to claw their way through in a panic. Jewel whirled as gracefully as he could manage through the things surrounding him, slicing them quick and debilitating, before he found an open and relatively clear space to reach the rift with. He held his hand up, watched his wrist shake, and silently prayed he wouldn’t be interrupted.

It worked and sent a shockwave from the rift that knocked the gargantuan beast to its knees. Off guard, it took Cassandra’s sword through the plates on its belly and arrows in two of its eyes. Another howl that shook Jewel’s ribs.

It felt like it should have been a long battle, but battles were never as long as they seemed in the books. This beast was massive, but weakened immensely by the blast from a rift this size, and in mere moments it was mostly blinded and found itself on the receiving end of Cassandra’s blade. Jewel dispatched the stragglers from the rift, and then, when it was a wavering and weakened thing, he heard Cassandra’s voice.

“Do it!”

Jewel was doubled over again, the wave of vertigo mixing with exhaustion and briefly rendering him incapacitated, but he shook it off like another hangover and stepped to the rift.

Things scratched at its edges, but it wasn’t stable enough anymore to act as a portal. Only a wound in the sky, ready to be haphazardly healed.

This time his hand almost moved of its own volition, the mark pulling and snapping, feeling like it would break his arm to pieces as it lunged for the rift, and before Jewel knew what he was doing, another rope of pale green light connected his mark to the rift.

It was so, so bright. Blinding white and green, brighter than the sun, burning into Jewel’s eyes so quickly that he used his free arm to block it from his vision. He wanted to let go. The mark was buzzing in his bones, it felt like it was vibrating his body apart. A lightning spell gone wrong.

And then the edges of his vision darkened, and the world was black again.




Chapter Text

INTERLUDE - OUTSIDE ANSBURG

 

The quickest route to Ansburg was to follow the Imperial Highway to Amaranthine and take ship to Wycome, a route that might normally take a week or two, but could be pushed down to a few days if one singular traveler really pushed their pace. After that, it was either a slog through the delta on the coast and a trek through the Weyrs, or a slog through dense woodlands to the edge of the Minanter River, where there was a bridge to get to Ansburg.

Silver Adaar might normally have chosen the river delta; she was always fond of that sort of soggy, flooded expanse of flat land under grey skies. But for the sake of speed, she took a game trail through the forest and found herself deposited at the old bridge outside of Ansburg. She stopped only long enough to resupply and sell off the exhausted horse she’d rode in on to purchase another one. After she lashed bags of dried meat and beans to the saddle of the dapple mare she’d bought, Silver climbed on and trotted her out of the limits of the city before breaking her into a full-tilt gallop onto the narrow dirt road that lead into the moors.

With that effort, by that evening, she was barreling down the one and only road into the nameless Vashoth village. It was more a scattering of farms and little else, and most of them went into Ansburg for trade. A valley protected the village, cradling each of its farms in soft grass and heather and rolling fog that the hills disappeared up into, making them look like they went up for miles.

Silver’s horse was panting as she brought her down the muddy dirt path to her childhood home. It was a simple enough farmhouse with an old stone base and walls of smoothed clay over the sparse wooden frame. When she swung herself off the horse and pulled back her hood, Silver heard a sudden clatter from inside the house and within seconds, Hellebore Adaar had burst the front door open with wide and relieved eyes. As the door opened, one of the farm cats slipped inside, eager to escape the air’s chill. Hellebore was in a simple grey farm dress with an apron tied over it loosely and she didn’t even flinch when she splattered mud from the pathway onto it as she ran to meet Silver.

She didn’t speak until she had her daughter wrapped in her arms.

“I heard something terrible happened in the mountains,” she said, “That there were...a lot of dead.”

“Yeah,” Silver answered, shifting her weight as her mother loosened her grasp. “I wasn’t at the Conclave, but I was close enough to see it, and…”

Hellebore eyed her warily, and then heaved a sigh. “Your brother isn’t with you. Is he dead?”

Silver never quite knew how to respond to her mother’s rather blunt words when it came to Jewel, but she didn’t have time to think about it today.

“I don’t know. Probably? They said everyone who was in the temple thing died, but then they said someone didn’t? And some people weren’t even in the temple and they didn’t die. I really don’t know.”

“We’ll find out if they’ll send us his effects, I suppose,” Hellebore said, grim and calm and straightening out her apron. “Come in, girl. You look freezing.”

The house had not changed much from when Silver saw it last. Still the same modest Free Marches farmhouse with a sparse, efficient interior that belied her mother’s roots in Qunari lands. Everything neatly organized into shelves, everything stacked to save space. It held beautiful macramé tapestries on the walls and a few holding bottles or plant pots, woven in colorful dyed hemp. Hellebore bent to the floor to clean up the bowl that had fallen when she saw her daughter approach. She set it aside and instead moved to one of the upper cupboards, slipping a small key from her breast pocket to unlock its door and pull out a bottle of white wine.

The key was hardly necessary anymore, but it had become so force of habit many years ago. It gave Silver the briefest pause as Hellebore poured a cup for each of them.

The wine was a tart farm wine, simple but nice enough. One of the farm cats leapt delicately onto the dining table as Silver sat down and rubbed its soft head against the back of her hand.

She found herself at a loss for what else to say. After a moment’s pause in the dimming light of evening, she looked up from the wine.

“I don’t know where Sorrel is, either,” she said, “He wasn’t at the Conclave, I think he stayed in the town. But besides that….I dunno.”

“Did you look for him?” Hellebore asked impatiently, suddenly far more engaged in the conversation, “You know he wanders. If Templars-”

“He can handle himself against Templars, mama.”

“And what about possession? You know he’s sensitive. I’ve heard whatever happened was magical, what was it? How dangerous for him?”

At the barrage of questions, Silver swallowed the rest of her wine in one take.

“I don’t know much,” she insisted, “All I know is there was some kind of...huge explosion in the mountains, or something. Real big, bright green light. So I guess it was magical, it damn well wasn’t gaatlok.”

Hellebore swirled her cup in her hand. “Hearing things about demons. Find Sorrel and make sure he’s alright.”

There was a much longer pause as Silver weighed her options. She wanted to agree with her mother on most things, felt that pull to be on the same side. But eventually, she spoke again.

“And Jewel? It doesn’t feel right to just…”

“If he’s alive, he’ll turn up. If not, then...well. That’s that, then. Not much to say about it.”

 

family meeting

--

 

WAKING UP IN HAVEN

 

The first thing Jewel noticed was the sound of rustling from one side. Something small, tiny feet pattering about in a very small space. Then the sound of what he quickly realized was a bird, ruffling its feathers. He opened his eyes and blinked away the blurriness as he took in his surroundings. Besides the bird, it was quiet, and blessedly warm. Old rustic wooden plank walls, equally old and rustic wooden furniture. The nightstand next to the bed he was lying on had a small cup on it and Jewel sat up to reach for it when the door to the cabin opened and a young elven woman stepped in.

She had short red hair and was so alarmed when she saw Jewel stirring that she dropped the wooden box in her hands and gasped.

“Oh! I didn’t know you were awake, I swear!”

It was more the reaction Jewel was used to, most people found him a little startling at first. Although he wasn’t exactly in any position to go on a rampage and burn down a city or anything.

He rubbed a hand over his face and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“This another prison?” he asked, pressing his fingers to his eyes as he felt the beginnings of a headache.

“I...no?” the elf responded, backing away, “At least I don’t think so?”

“Alright, that’s an improvement. So where am I?”

He expected and anticipated the alarm and fear, but was actually surprised when the woman fell roughly to her knees, not even caring that she landed on a hard floor, as if in supplication.

“I beg your forgiveness a-and your blessing,” she said fearfully, “I am but a humble servant.”

“Well the begging is a little much.”

Somewhat confused, the woman got to her feet and wrung her hands. She was still nervous.

“You’re back in Haven, my lord. They say you saved us,” she explained, “The hole in the sky stopped growing, it’s all anyone’s talked about for the last three days!”

Jewel blinked in surprise and reached for the cup on the nightstand, which he was mildly disappointed but not surprised to find was full of tea.

“I’ve been out for three days? What was wrong with me?” Besides the obvious, he supposed.

“That’s all I heard, I don’t know nothing besides that.”

“Alright, alright,” Jewel sighed, “So now what?”

“I’m sure Lady Cassandra will want to know you’ve wakened,” the woman replied, already backing away towards the door, “She said, ‘at once’.”

“Aaand she’s where now?”

“In the Chantry, arguing with the Lord Chancellor. ‘At once,’ she said!”

With that, the elven woman hurried out the door and left Jewel alone in the cabin with his hands wrapped around a much too small cup of tea. He brought it to his lips and looked around the room again.

There was a small stack of papers on the bedside table, which Jewel picked up and skimmed while he drank.

They were observation notes about him, seemingly confirming he’d been unconscious for the past three days.

(...Clammy. Shallow breathing. Pulse over-fast. Not responsive. Pupils dilated...)

(A lot of thrashing. Mutters about too many eyes. Something about "the grey.")

(Two attempts so far by locals to break into the chantry to kill my patient.)

They last one made Jewel snort. Figures. He down the rest of the tea in one gulp and carefully stood up. The tea, thankfully, was some sort of elfroot mixture that dulled the aches in his body and gave him at least the energy he needed to cross the room and kneel by a small chest that piqued his curiosity.

It was unlocked, surprisingly, and when he lifted the lid, it contained a few familiar items.

Jewel hadn’t even realized just how much he’d missed his things. His flask, his real one and not one he’d taken off a dead man in the valley, was even still half full. The tattered remains of his Valo-Kas gear were in the box as well, though largely unsalvageable. He was dressed, currently, in a simple beige shirt and grey pants, both arguably the ugliest things he’d ever had on  his body but they were keeping him warm. Determined not to look entirely fucking terrible, however, he undid the top few buttons and put on his belt before he stepped out of the cabin.

He was nearly shocked back inside when he saw the crowd outside the door - somewhere around fifty people were all lined up against a path to the stairs, right at the edges, chatting quietly and excitedly amongst themselves until they heard the door. Then they all turned to look at Jewel, this time with significantly less desire to kill him than before.

He didn’t really listen to their gossip until he heard a phrase that threw him more than the others.

“That’s him,” said one of the villagers, “That’s the Herald of Andraste.”

And oh, he’d been called worse things, and for a split second there was something not altogether unpleasant about having such a grandiose title, but if there hadn’t been enough pressure before, well…

He kept walking.

Entering the Chantry, he could hear Chancellor Roderick from across the building, still yelling as indignant as he could presumably muster.

“...gone completely mad? He should be taken to Val Royeaux immediately to be tried by...whomever becomes the next Divine!”

“I do not believe he is guilty.” Jewel was actually somewhat glad to hear Cassandra. If nothing else she didn’t give Roderick much leeway to argue.

Jewel slowed his walk to listen in.

“The Qunari failed, Seeker. The Breach is still in the sky. For all you know, he intended it this way!”

“I do not believe that.”

“That is not for you to decide. Your duty is to serve the Ch-”

Jewel pushed the door open perhaps a little harder than he’d intended, but the timing was hard to resist. He stepped in the room and gave Cassandra a nod. She, Roderick, and Leliana stood around a table in the center of the room, upon which was a map and an assortment of other papers.

Without hesitation, Roderick called to the two Templar guards by the door.

“Chain him! I want him prepared for travel to the Capital for trial.”

“Disregard that,” Cassandra said without looking up from the map on the table, “And leave us.”

The Templars pounded fists to their chests and left the room without a word, which left Roderick in a brief state of speechlessness that Jewel laughed at under his breath.

“You walk a dangerous line, Seeker,” he finally growled.

“The Breach is stable but it is still a threat I will not ignore,” Cassandra answered, unphased by his frustrated attempts.

“Let me guess,” Jewel interjected, “You need my help again.”

Roderick fixed him with a glare. “You have done plenty. Your actions will be taken into account during-”

“Have a care, Chancellor,” Cassandra interrupted, low and careful words, “The Breach is not the only threat we face.”

Jewel found himself drifting again after that while the three returned to bickering, back and forth about whether or not Jewel was the cause of the explosion, all mostly uninteresting with the exception of hearing Roderick’s sputtering confusion upon being named a suspect himself. That was satisfying.

Then Jewel heard Cassandra say, “The Maker sent him to us in our darkest hour.”

Which explained the Herald title, he supposed. But Jewel put his hands up defensively and gave a nervous laugh. “That’s….quite the jump from wanting to kill me.”

“I was wrong. Perhaps I still am,” Cassandra answered, unwavering, “I will not pretend you were not exactly what we needed when we needed it.”

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

Chancellor Roderick seemed ready to protest again but his words were cut off with a resounding thump! as Cassandra slammed a thick, heavy book onto the table. It made the Chancellor and Jewel both jump slightly.

“You know what this is, Chancellor?” Cassandra asked, then continued, “A write from the Divine, granting us the authority to act. As of this moment, I declare the Inquisition reborn.”

She backed Roderick up against the wall, pointing at his chest as she continued speaking.

“We will close the Breach, we will find those responsible, and we will restore order. With or without your approval.”

Roderick looked as though he was looking for a way to respond, something threatening to say, but ultimately, the man clamped his mouth shut and slipped past Jewel out the door, leaving him with only Cassandra and Leliana.

“Rebuilding the Inquisition of old,” Leliana said, sighing, “We aren’t ready. We have no leader, no numbers, and now no Chantry support.”

“That should not be unfamiliar to you, after the Fifth Blight,” Cassandra replied. Leliana looked impassive at this. “Ultimately we have no choice. We must act now.”

Jewel was about to stop listening again when he heard Cassandra address him this time.

“With you at our side,” she told him.

Jewel’s eyes grew wider at the address. “And if I don’t want any part of this?”

“You can go, if you wish,” Leliana told him simply, “However, we can only help you if you are with us. Not all believe you to be chosen.”

“It will not be easy,” Cassandra said, “But you cannot pretend this has no changed you.”

Jewel absolutely could if he wanted to. And he very much did, he wanted to run as soon as possible. But there was a glowing sore on his hand and a hole in the sky and something telling him, quietly in the back of his head, that he shouldn’t leave yet.

He sighed and rubbed his face. “Y’know, when I got here, I certainly didn’t expect this outcome.”

“Neither did we,” Leliana answered.

“Help us fix this, before it’s too late.” Cassandra offered Jewel her hand.

After a reluctant moment, Jewel caught it in a firm handshake, a slight smile on his lips and icy dread in his stomach.

--

They gave Jewel the rest of the day to get his bearings, at least. It wasn’t much but it left him time to get acquainted with Haven. It was a dreary little mountain town with a strange feeling about it, but at least it had a tavern.

The first person he met was a barmaid who nearly screamed when he walked up. He recognized her from the crowd that watched him the first time they brought him out of the dungeons. Jewel ignored that and sat down at the counter, feeling far too big for the entire building, and ordered a bottle of wine. He tried to make himself look unapproachable, which he was usually good at, but it didn’t stop the barmaid from talking to him.

Leave me alone, leave me alone, fuck’s sake , he thought, but instead shot her a wry smile as she rambled about the Maker. Said that sending a Qunari was Andraste testing them

“I think everyone is worthy of love,” she said, “The Maker just makes some of us larger and...greyer...than others, and-”

“Relax,” Jewel told her, “I don’t plan on doing anything terrifying. I just want that bottle of wine.”

He flashed her his best grin, one gold tooth glinting in the candlelight. He leaned on his arm. Had to make himself seem approachable now, if she was going to do this, and he’d rather not scare the poor girl anyhow.

“If you wanted to close the Breach, I wouldn’t mind,” she told him with a tiny laugh as she turned to grab a bottle from the haphazardly-built shelf behind her.

Jewel ended up smalltalking her a bit as he drank, hearing the boring details of her acquisition of the tavern and directions to whoever he was supposed to meet about town.

The next turned out to be an apothecary, a rather rough-looking man in a circle robe who greeted Jewel far less timidly.

“Look who’s back from the dead. Again. Shouldn’t be surprised, you oxmen are tough as old leather.”

He didn’t say it maliciously, but it made Jewel prickle a little all the same. He didn’t let it show and thanked the man for keeping him alive. He did not, however, plan on running errands even when Adan complained of Seeker Cassandra’s disregard for their supplies, or something.

(Later that night, however, he’d meet Adan again in the tavern; several drinks in, they’d strike up a conversation about some old bastard’s notes that Jewel’s drunken self would offer to find.)

 

The smith was one of the others that’d been standing around, gawking at him as he was lead about in chains like a circus animal. He didn’t fuss at him much, though, just passed him newly-crafted armor to replace his old, ruined uniform.

Jewel came out from behind Harritt’s house changed into the set - a leather jerkin and impressively tight pants with a leather jacket draped over that conformed surprisingly well to his body. A few adjustments maybe, but nothing major. The boots were only to the ankle, however, which was a shame.

“How’s the new gear fit?” Harritt asked.

Jewel shrugged. “Don’t suppose it matters.”

“‘Course it does. World’s gone mad. My gear will see you through whatever she throws at you.”

When he offered custom work, it piqued Jewel’s interest a bit more.

“I’ll draw up adjustments, then.” Before he left, Jewel pulled a bolt of scrap fabric from a box and wrapped it around his waist. He pulled it tight, like a cinch belt, and tied it into a tasteful knot in the front.

(And by the next day, he’d have long leather sleeves tucked into ornate leather gloves adorned with sleek armor plating up to his elbow. Clawlike armor on the fingers that gave his hands a grace he liked.)

 

He met others. Minaeve studied creatures but hardly seemed interested in conversation (though he had the passing thought she’d enjoy talking to Silver), Threnn was...Fereldan, and there were a pair of templars he didn’t disturb but definitely listened in on.

 

After the brief respite (and a bottle of wine), Jewel was summoned right back to the Maker-damned Chantry to meet the other important people. Cassandra met him at the large wooden doors and fell in step with him towards the back room where they’d been before. She was silent for a moment, watching Jewel as he slipped his glove off to look at the imprint on his hand again, rolling his fingers back and forth to check they still moved as dexterously as before.

“Does it trouble you?” she asked, eventually.

‘No shit,’ Jewel thought, ‘It’s a glowing hole in my hand.’

What he ultimately spoke, however, was, “Just wish I could get rid of it.”

Cassandra tilted her head. “We have need of it yet.”

“So you’ve mentioned.”

She explained more of Solas’ apparent ideas - that the Mark needed more power, the same level that opened the Breach. Why Solas was the expert on this, Jewel wasn’t sure, but he just shot Cassandra a dreary grin.

“What harm could there be in powering up shit we barely understand?” he asked dryly.

“Hold on to that sense of humor.”

The important people in question were past the door into the back room - which now contained a few more chairs and a few less storage boxes, as well as a large, worn-out map of Ferelden and Orlais spread across the table in the center.

Commander Cullen was a quiet, tired-looking man with surprisingly nicely-maintained blonde hair and a gait that suggested old injuries. He carried himself awkwardly, a little to the side, like his hip hurt him. He exhaustedly told Jewel of the losses in the valley.

(It would not be until much later that Jewel realized he was talking about soldiers Jewel lead the group away from on a coin toss.)

The next was one Lady Josephine Montilyet, who was gorgeous , Jewel thought, with her wavy dark hair in pretty swirls around her face where it wasn’t tied back and her elaborate clothes of rich fabrics over tan skin. It was no surprise she was the ambassador, with her fine dress and the parchment she carried. Her eyes widened a fraction when she looked Jewel over and told him,

“You’re….even taller than I’d heard.”

Jewel winked at her as Cassandra explained her duties.

Leliana was the last in the lineup, and Jewel had already met her very briefly. She still seemed a bit closed off, hands behind her back and her eyes watching him with cold calculation. She spoke with a slightly dour tone to her otherwise soft voice.

“My position here involves a degree of-”

“She is our spymaster.”

“...Yes. Tactfully put, Cassandra.”

Jewel thought all three of them were easy on the eyes, but he kept that to himself. First impressions and all.

“That’s an impressive bunch of titles,” he told them.

The room devolved quickly into bickering about mages and templars, of-fucking-course, and Jewel leaned back and dug around in his satchel for a cigarette. He didn’t find any, which did not improve his day.

“The Chantry has denounced us,” Josephine said eventually, “And you, specifically.”

Jewel snort-laughed as he fished around in his coat, before remembering it was new and had nothing in it.

“That didn’t take long.”

“Shouldn’t they be busy arguing over who’s going to become divine?” Cullen said with no small amount of bitterness.

Josephine turned to Jewel again.

“Some are calling you - a Qunari - the ‘Herald of Andraste’. That frightens them.”

“Shit, it frightens me, too,” Jewel told her, “It wasn’t like it was my idea.”

The rest of the meeting established that they were powerless to approach either faction for help, and that they were card-carrying heretics now, according to the Chantry. Their only shot, apparently was a Chantry mother apparently somewhere in the Hinterlands. A reasonable sort, perhaps. Jewel wasn’t keen to be an Inquisition Agent out running errands, but at the same time...getting out of Haven might feel nice.

 

The next morning, so early it was still mostly dark out, Jewel followed Cassandra to the stables and they, along with Varric and Solas, mounted the rather tired and ratty-looking horses they’d been provided and started out, down the mountain path. Jewel felt like shit, but at least he didn’t have to walk.

Chapter Text

THE HINTERLANDS

 

Scout Harding was a young-looking dwarven woman with red hair, a face full of freckles, and a long scar down one side from ear to chin. She bore no other visible damage yet still had a somewhat rough look about her, the sort that anyone growing up in rural Ferelden might.

Harding stepped into the road to meet Jewel in lightweight scout armor featuring the Inquisition’s sword-and-eye emblem stamped into the breastplate.

“The Herald of Andraste,” she greeted, all very professional-toned and respectful, which was still a trip for Jewel to get used to. “I’ve heard the stories about what you did at the Breach. I might not know much about the Qunari, but you’ll get no backtalk here. That’s a promise.”

Jewel shrugged. “Don’t feel bad, I don’t know much about the Qunari, either.”

She looked slightly perplexed, but continued, introducing herself to Jewel and his small band of companions.

“Harding, huh?” Varric asked, “Ever been to Kirkwall’s Hightown?”

Harding raised an eyebrow, just slightly. “Can’t say that I have. Why?”

“You’d be Harding in--ah, never mind.”

Jewel joined Cassandra in her eye roll, then slipped into a tone more personable. “I’m starting to worry about all these ‘stories’.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to worry about,” Harding said, a hint of a facetious tone, “They only say you’re the last great hope for Thedas.”

“Oh, still? Wonderful.”

Following a briefing of their duties - find the horsemaster, talk to some other important people, find this Mother Giselle, secure a place called the Crossroads - Jewel was grateful they were allowed to rest at camp first. It was growing late in the day and traveling the area at night might not be the safest thing to throw their rather tired last great hope for Thedas into, so instead, Jewel found himself seated around a smoldering fire picking at his dinner of ram meat.

Cassandra kept her distance, but Solas did not. He sat beside Jewel, a light and curious look upon his face. His eyes were high-set and piercing, but his voice was disarmingly calm.

“The Chosen of Andraste,” he said, more a comment than a greeting, “A blessed hero sent to save us all.”

Jewel felt like telling him to shove it, but another swallow from the wine bottle in his hand and he was prepared to humor him.

“Am I riding in on a shining steed?” he asked, droll but not too clearly annoyed.

“I would have suggested a griffon, but sadly, they are extinct. Joke as you will, posturing is necessary.”

There was a pause, then Solas continued. Jewel was getting the distinct impression the elf very much liked to hear himself talk.

“I’ve journeyed deep into the Fade in ancient ruins and battlefields to see the dreams of lost civilizations,” he spoke, melodically again, lapsing into a rhythm Jewel could not place, “I’ve watched as hosts of spirits clash to reenact the bloody past in ancient wars both famous and forgotten. Every great war has its heroes. I’m just curious what kind you’ll be.”

Jewel kept his expression easy and amused.

“The best-looking one, at least.”

“I...can think of worse things, I suppose. I will stay then, at least until the Breach has been closed.”

“Didn’t realize that was in doubt,” Jewel commented as he swirled the wine bottle in his hand.

“I am an apostate surrounded by Chantry forces in the middle of a mage rebellion.”

Jewel put his hands up. “Alright, fair enough.”

The rest of their conversation turned to whether or not Cassandra might protect Solas and...more vague comments about the fate of the world, a topic which Jewel was growing damn tired of by now. Still, it seemed smart to keep on his companions’ good side lest they start suspecting him of blowing up the Conclave again, so he humored Solas. Asked him questions, then follow-up questions, increasingly loudly and easily as he polished off the bottle of wine. Some of the stories were at least genuinely interesting. He didn’t have to fake all his reactions.

 

The following morning they were out in earnest to deal with whatever plagued the Hinterlands. Jewel stepped out of his tent into the dawn light and pulled the sash around his waist tight, already sheathing his daggers - new ones, one of which was a two sided crescent-shaped blade he was very grateful for - and checking his belt for his effects. Poisons, vitaar, grappling hook.

He saw Cassandra and Varric sitting by the cookpot over the fire, dutifully ignoring each other as they ate their breakfast. Jewel only wandered over for a cup of coffee for his hangover. He was halfway through rolling a cigarette when Cassandra stepped in front of him and blocked the sunlight.

“Come. We must reach the Crossroads, and soon.”

Jewel looked up with a sigh and fixed hazy eyes on her. He paused for a while, then said, “You’re in my light.”

“Ugh. This matter is more important than your vices, I assure you.”

“Agree to disagree.”

It was Varric who finally interjected, patting a boxy hand on Jewel’s shoulder.

“Come on, the sooner we get there, the sooner we get this over with,” he told him, clearly appealing to Jewel’s desire to be literally anywhere else, but there was a hint of solidarity in it. Though Jewel doubted anyone truly wanted to be involved in this kind of thing.

He hastily finished rolling the cigarette and tucked it into the pocket of his coat and straightened out his belt lazily.

“Fine, let’s do this.”

 

They traveled to the mouth of the clearing they’d camped in, following a winding dirt path no larger than a game trail until it reached the nearest identifiable road - which was also mostly dirt with only the faintest remnants of old stone. It was marked by a stone Ferelden beacon in the shape of a stylized mabari.

And around a corner of rock, the first evidence of the Mage-Templar War marred the otherwise beautiful landscape.

Piled-up bodies to the side of the road, both Templar armor and Circle robes, all recent and pincushioned with arrows in precise, deadly places. A few yards farther, a young-looking mage with blond hair was down on his knees, and Jewel almost took him for being alive until he got close enough to see the Templar sword driven through his chest and his wide, glassy eyes fogging up and staring at nothing but the rock face across from him. Three templar bodies surrounded him, armor still identifiable but smoke pouring from it and in through only the holes in the helmet where skin was visible could anyone see how the skin had blistered and cooked. The air still held the faint charge of electrical magic.

Farther down, a solid spire of ice grew from the ground and held several templars in place, impaled on the frozen spikes and encased in ice themselves, like glass sculptures. Jewel wasn’t sure if the mage was inside the ice spire, and if so, whether or not it had killed them.

“Inquisition forces!” Cassandra called out, knocking her hand into Jewel’s arm to get his attention, “They’re trying to protect the refugees!”

The forces in question were sparse, but they held their positions as a band of templars ran at them with flailing swords, a frantic motion that didn’t even resemble their proper training.

“Hold,” Cassandra still tried, “We are not apostates.”

The only response was a templar’s frantic battlecry and a sword cutting through the air towards her, which she blocked, throwing the templar off balance and to the ground.

No option to talk them down, then.

Jewel twisted in the Harlequin motions he’d learned in Orlais, now a little easier with the time he’d had to recover, and brought his crescent blade down in a swipe across the nearest templar, hitting their sword and dodge-rolling away before they could throw him to the dirt. An arrow found itself lodged in the templar’s throat and he went down with a gurgle leaving Jewel only enough time to flash a grin at Varric as he got back to his feet.

The Mage forces came from east and the Templars from the west in small groups of disorganized, panicked people, some wild-eyed and panting like animals and others simply confused and terrified.

In the middle, Inquisition forces followed Cassandra’s lead, brief attempts to de-escalate but it never reached the ears of the frenzied combatants. Jewel pulled one vial - Magebane glimmering shifting shades of orange and fuschia - and pulled the stopper out with his teeth, watching the oily substance collect at the end of the dabber. He slid the blades in one synchronized motion across the dabber and then slid the cap back onto the vial and the vial back into its holster.

“We are no Templars!” he heard Solas call as a few of the mages fired shots of every spell they knew towards the Inquisition.

Jewel drew the grappling hook crossbow from its place at his side and aimed it lazily at one of the mages. The barbed end burst forward, then plunged itself into the chest cavity of a mage with bloodshot eyes and greasy black hair. Went in low, and out, hooking into the back of his ribcage and pulling the chain line taut. He couldn’t get away when Jewel’s poisoned blade sliced his side.

The squabble ended with the last stragglers of Mages and Templars finally fell back and fled; Templars ran west and took a turn up into the rocky hills, and Mages fled east into the Witchwood. The Inquisition’s forces did not opt to chase them down. They were well and frightened off for a while yet.

Jewel hoisted himself onto one of the ancient stone walls bordering the paths of the Crossroads and retrieved his flask while Inquisition people began to filter into the burned-out mess of the old trading hub. Getting a decent look at it without the battle in the way, it was just that, an old trading hub with three or four small buildings (one currently on fire) built into the slope of the land, some ponds below the stone foundations of the houses, and one very large statue of who Jewel presumed was Andraste in pale stone. Probably a stone cheaper than marble.

To Jewel’s relief, Cassandra busied herself directing the Inquisition’s work around the village and Solas was occupied putting out spot fires with magic.

With the others distracted, Varric made his way coolly to where Jewel had seated himself and joined him on the stone wall.

“So…” Varric began, climbing onto the wall with a bit more trouble than Jewel had, “Now that Cassandra’s out of earshot, are you holding up alright?”

He asked it cautiously but with genuine warmth and concern that put Jewel a bit more at ease. Concern for him as a person, and not for his magic hand, or Andraste, or whatever.  

“I’m fine,” Jewel lied.

“You go from being the most wanted criminal in Thedas to joining the armies of the faithful. Most people would have...spread that out, over more than one day.”

“Alright. I’m not fine.” Jewel leaned back and crossed his right leg over his left as he got comfortable. “ None of this shit should’ve happened.”

Varric smiled sadly at him.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said, “For days now we’ve been staring at the Breach, watching demons and Maker-knows-what fall out of it. Bad for morale would be an understatement. I still can’t believe anyone was in there and lived.”

Jewel laughed weakly. “ I’m not even sure I really did.”

“If this is just the Maker winding us up, I hope there’s a damn good punchline coming.”

Branches cracked, and the conversation paused a moment, which gave Jewel a bit of relief from having to talk, but there was nothing, and Varric continued his spiel. At least it was far more tolerable than Solas.

“You might wanna consider running at the first opportunity. I’ve written enough tragedies to see where this is going.”

Jewel...well. He didn’t know what to make of that, it was certainly his own first thought. But here he was, for some unknown fucking reason, still with the Inquisition. He could run, he thought. Leave Haven, tell them he’s collecting herbs in the surrounding woods or something equally banal, then disappear into the hills and never come back. Find someplace to wait for this whole thing to blow over. Or kill him, as the case may be.

“Apparently everyone needs me to stick around and play hero,” he finally replied.

“Heroes are everywhere,” Varric said with a shake of his head, “But the hole in the sky? That’s beyond heroes. We’re going to need a miracle.”

 

--

 

It was late afternoon by the time the Crossroads were set up enough for the meeting. Jewel eavesdropped as he walked quietly up the stone steps to the healer’s tent where Mother Giselle had set herself up. She was an older woman with dark skin and a thick Orlesian accent, dressed in the full red-and-white Chantry garb of her title, but she knelt in the dirt with little regard for keeping the fabric pristine. She was speaking to a man on a cot in Inquisition armor. When Jewel looked at him more closely, he could see the man’s forearm was at a strange, painful angle and his breastplate was dented deep.

“There are mages here who can heal your wounds,” she told him softly, “Lie still.”

“Don’t--let them touch me, Mother,” the man rasped, “Their magic-”

“Turned to noble purpose, their magic is surely no more evil than your blade,” Mother Giselle said calmly. The mage standing behind her - a young man in Circle robes and pale blond hair - shifted on his feet as he waited to be able to move closer.

“But…” the soldier began.

“Hush, dear boy,” Giselle soothed, “Allow them to ease your suffering.”

The soldier didn’t say anything else, but seemed to relent, lying back down on the cot and allowing the mage to step closer to him.

At that point, Jewel moved forward and waited for Giselle to notice his presence. Which, as usual, did not take very long.

“You must be the one they’re calling the Herald of Andraste.”

“Not through any choice of mine,” Jewel replied tiredly.

Mother Giselle gave a quiet laugh. “We seldom have much say in our fate, I’m sad to tell you.”

“So, what, you agree with them?” Jewel was not looking forward to another person believing him chosen in some way, Maker knows he had enough of that.

“I don’t presume to know the Maker’s intentions, for any of us. But I did not ask you to come simply to debate with me.”

“Sooo...why am I here, then?” Jewel asked flatly.

Mother Giselle motioned to Jewel and then began to walk away from the healer’s tent.

“I know of the Chantry’s denouncement, and I’m familiar with those behind it. I won’t lie to you - some of them are grandstanding, hoping to increase their chances of becoming the new Divine. Some are simply terrified. So many good people, senselessly taken from us…”

Jewel shrugged. “Don’t you stand with the rest of the Chantry?”

“With no Divine, we are each left to our own conscience - and mine tells me this: Go to them. Convince the remaining clerics you are no demon to be feared.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna be so easy. What, I just show up, say hi, flash the glowy hand? You don’t think that’ll just scare them worse?”

“Because you are...Qunari?” Giselle asked knowingly, tilting her head.

“Qunari leading an upstart organization the Chantry hates tends to make people a little skittish, yeah.”

“They have heard only frightful tales of you. Give them something else to believe.”

“How, pray tell, do you expect me to actually do that?”

Ignoring Jewel’s increasingly exasperated tone, Giselle replied calmly again.

“Let me put it this way: You needn’t convince them all. You just need some of them to…. doubt .”

 

--

 

The conversation with Mother Giselle left Jewel….unsettled. Sure, it was helpful, and now with a little more time for Josephine to work her magic, they’d be able to broker some peace with the remains of the Chantry, but then she’d given him some speech on fucking hope and like everything else thus far, it only put more weight on his cracking foundation.

(Hope is what we need now. The people will listen to your rallying call, as they will listen to no other.)

(You could build the Inquisition into a force that will deliver us...or destroy us.)

No pressure, no pressure. Running at the first opportunity sounded better and better.

A pasty man called Corporal Something-Or-Other was a ways up the hill and not-so-subtly informed Jewel that people needed food and blankets and whatever else that was definitely not Jewel’s responsibility, but he kept as civil as he could manage, with minimal visible exhaustion. That mask of playful sarcasm and charm that usually worked on people.

They followed a narrow trail through steep rock faces to avoid the bustle of the main roads. The path doglegged and lead up a hill to a clearing with a waterfall and resulting pond dotted with lilypads and blood lotus flowers. On the other side of the pond from the clearing was a tree with an old hunter’s stand built up into it, and down the cliffs below them was what Cassandra helpfully informed Jewel was the King’s Road. He knew that much, he’d been to Ferelden a handful of times before.

What was more unprecedented was the stone pillar on the overlook with….a skull on it.

“What the fuck is that?” Jewel asked out loud.

The skull was resting atop the pillar with a magical sigil carved beneath it, lit up in glowing blue. There was a hole in the back of the skull with the same glow.

Jewel approached it cautiously and skirted around it to see the front, where he realized some sort of crystal was embedded in one eye socket.

Perhaps most alarming, however, was the skull itself - at first nobody in the group could place it, until Varric spoke up.

“Anyone else think it looks…too big?”

“Something is...very wrong with this,” Cassandra said carefully.

Jewel examined it a moment. To his deep discomfort, Varric was correct - to a point. The face of the skull was normal in size. But the cranium was massive, bigger than Jewel’s own head, bulging out like it had been made of something stretchy and pliable. He didn’t want to touch it. And yet, there was...a compulsion to, the lyrium in the carvings singing to Jewel despite his lack of magic. He leaned in, swaying on his feet as he gently pressed his eye to the hole in the back of the swollen skull.

It magnified the King’s Road a bit, like a spyglass, and despite Jewel only peering in with one eye, a muffling, echoing air seemed to envelop his whole head. Sounded like the world was underwater.

He was about to pull his head back when he saw a glint in the distance. It had not been there before, he was sure of it, but looking through the skull lit up something down in the ruins of the road. A bright gleam telling him something was there to be found. The skull lit up a few more - two in the hills towards the Witchwood, and one seemingly inside the half-collapsed fort full of Templars.

He yanked his head back finally and shook it to clear the last remnants of that sound-muffling from his ears.

“It...lit up some things,” he said, “Down on the road.”

“Of course, it had to be a skull that lights up creepy shit,” Varric said.

“It is an ocularum,” Solas provided helpfully, “A Tevinter object. Whoever put this here was searching for something.”

“Ugh, well can we get someone to take it down? It’s unnerving.”

Solas circled the pillar, inspecting it carefully. “Perhaps. But we should see what it’s found for us first, in my opinion.”

“I guess .”

 

--

 

The King’s Road was reached through another narrow hillside bath, just barely big enough for the party to travel single-file through rock outcroppings and thorny bushes. The way down was a left hand turn into a steep incline lined in tall rock formations, some reaching all the way to the other side in a land bridge with long late-summer vines hanging down towards the ground. Another mabari beacon sat vigil alongside the path. It was beautiful despite the conditions of their destination.

This battlefield put the Crossroads to shame. The buildings there were old masonry, pieces of forts that looked ancient to Jewel - although he didn’t know that much about architecture - and mostly sunken into the flooded landscape. One stone tower was cracked in half and sat split open like a broken tooth. The water on the ground could be from anything from heavy rain before the Inquisition’s arrival to meltwater from the mages’ ice spells, some of which were still frozen in stubborn pillars of ice jutting from the dirt.

Look at this,” Cassandra said in awe as she stepped out from the shelter of the path, “The apostates have gone mad with power.”

“The templars aren’t looking any better here,” Varric noted.

Jewel gave a laugh that was more of a huff. “Think we can just...let this play out and go around?”

As it turned out, they almost could. For the most part, the mages and templars were preoccupied with one another. The Inquisition’s forces couldn’t really break this particular dust-up as easily as the last one, so the party skirted the King’s Road battlefield. They were only stopped by Jewel when he came to a halt next to a burning house.

Something...popped in  his head, in a sense. Then a sound, a low ringing from his right side as he leaned over, that weak vertigo like when the Breach pulsed. He didn’t lose his footing this time.

“We must continue on if we are to-”

Jewel held a hand up to signal Cassandra to stop talking. It worked, but she looked like she might punch him the next time she got the chance.

Jewel peered through the charred still-burning wood of the house. He felt smoke around him, stinging his eyes and clouding his lungs. He registered his feet moving, stepping up the stone stairs to a hole in the wooden walls just large enough to slip through, much to the confusion of the others.

It was beneath the floorboards, which were mostly burned away. Covered in dirt but shining through it, and Jewel dug into the dirt with his claw-armored hands and pulled the object free.

It was a rather simple stone slab, with somewhat offputting designs engraved in it and a faint glow that matched the lyrium sigil on the ocularum. Jewel held it in his hand as he stepped out of the burning house to meet his baffled companions.

That’s what the skull helped you find?” Varric laughed uncomfortably as Jewel displayed it, “Right. Not ominous at all.”

Jewel coughed and shook his head to free himself of the smoke he’d breathed.

“Maybe someone at Haven’ll have some bright idea,” he said.

Jewel knew where the other three or so objects were supposed to be, but he didn’t plan to look for them yet, not when their presence was starting to be noticed by the rogue templars and apostates, none of which seemed to register that they were anything but enemies.

They fought even harder here, Jewel learned, as a templar’s shield bash laid him flat on his back with the wind knocked out of him, a brief moment where the world went blurry and he worried he’d broken a rib. It passed, but it was the hardest he’d been hit by a shield in a long time.

After picking their way around the area, taking great care to stick to the farthest outskirts and give the damaged fort a wide berth, there was a palpable relief in the party when they could see the battle thinning in the distance, down a road towards an old wooden bridge.

The bridge itself was a simple one and had collapsed in the middle, damaged in the fighting. But the water wasn’t deep and Solas, Varric, and Cassandra were able to carefully hop over the sunken section. Jewel’s weight made the already stressed planks groan, but he jumped over as gracefully as he could and crossed to the other side. It grew quiet rather quickly as they got farther from the fighting, up a much more intact cobblestone road.

Cresting a hill, Jewel paused. In the fading glow of the evening, stained green from the Breach, something moved through the trees on the hilltop. Its form was dark and near impossible to make out in the dense copse of trees, but when it turned, the dying light glinted off its eyes, and another pair beside it. Then two more sets of eyes, moving through the shadows in slow, smooth motions.

The first wolf charged from the trees so quickly Jewel could barely tell what it was until it was upon him, a sickly green glow to its eyes that Jewel realized all too late was not the typical reflection of an animal’s eyes in the darkness.

“Oh fuck !” was all he got out before he was knocked backwards by the beast, smaller than him by moving fast enough to barrel him over with little resistance.

The group scattered instantly and drew their weapons; Varric shot a bolt from Bianca into the wolf that landed on Jewel, but even as it ran through the animal’s shoulder blades and out the other side to embed itself in a nearby tree, the wolf paid no heed. He sent another through it’s ribs, but somehow it still garnered no reaction. Jewel’s hands were barely holding the sides of its neck as it relentlessly snapped at him, saliva foaming at the corners of its mouth and blood trailing down its tongue. It wheezed and air whistled through its punctured lungs, but the wolf didn’t stop until Jewel kicked its underside and knocked it off of him, then brought his crescent dagger down onto its neck, one hand on the grip and the other on the blade itself as he pressed down as hard as he could onto the wolf’s throat. Its snarling turned to a sickly gurgle before it ceased moving.

When he looked up, Solas had frozen one of the wolves in place and Cassandra was knocking one off its course with her shield, throwing it into the dirt hard enough to hear something in its body crack as it landed.

One wolf was unaccounted for until it tore from the trees to the side and leapt onto Varric’s back, knocking him facedown into the stones of the path. It sank its teeth into the back of his neck, as if it were desperate to tear at flesh wherever it was uncovered.

Jewel aimed his grappling hook at it and fired without hesitation. The hook pierced the wolf’s stomach. Instead of trying to grapple onto it, he pulled back, yanking the animal from Varric and opening a massive gash in the soft flesh of its underbelly in the process. The wolf fell to the ground in a mix of wet dirt and blood, entrails spilling from the wound. Somehow, it still attempted to stand up, until another bolt was sent into its head. It died with a pitiful, deep whine.  

Jewel stepped back from the grisly sight and heaved a breath.

“No normal wolf would fight with such determination,” Cassandra panted.

“The Breach may have driven them mad,” Solas offered, “Or perhaps a demon took command of the pack.”

“Both of those options sound fantastic ,” Jewel deadpanned. “Wonder if I could salvage any of the pelts. These would make a nice coat.”

“Maybe a rug,” Varric suggested.

Jewel’s hands shook and he could still hear the wolf’s snarls in his ears, the tilting sensation that seemed to keep happening. He took another trembling pull from his flask before continuing to follow the road to the farmlands.

Blessedly free from the worst of the Hinterlands’ troubles, Horsemaster Dennet’s family farm was the largest one in the swath of farmland they crossed, with a large field penned off for druffalo and an even larger one for horses, attached to which was an impressively huge stable. The farmhouse itself was larger than most houses in the region but just as austere and the few other buildings belonging to the family were smaller, but still in better shape than most.

Horsemaster Dennet himself was best described as...blunt. A handsome, older man with dark skin and a short white beard, a few scars from the roughness of farm life that added to his rugged looks.

“So you’re the Inquisition, eh?” he greeted, without the reverence Jewel had been hearing for the past however long. It was kind of a welcome change. “Hear you’re trying to bring order back. High time someone did. Never thought it’d be one of you big brutes, though.”

He said it with little animosity, just a passing comment, but Jewel still felt compelled to ask, “There a problem with me?”

“What?” Dennet asked, slightly surprised, “I’ve got no quarrel with the Qunari. No idea how you ride without your feet dragging on the ground, but that’s between you and the mount. Which I hear you’re looking for.”

“Fair enough,” Jewel said with an easy shrug. “Anyway. Is there a particular reason you’re making me come here to ask you in person?”

“I can’t just send a hundred of the finest horses in Ferelden down the road like you’d send a letter,” the man replied gruffly, “Every bandit between here and Haven’d be on them like flies on crap. You’ll have mounts once I know they won’t end up as a cold winter’s breakfast.”

“Alright, alright. So what errand do you have for me?” Jewel was anticipating something annoying. Preferably with fewer mad wolves, but he figured he wouldn’t be so lucky.

“My wife Elaina manages the farms, and Bron’s in charge of my guards. They’ll tell you what they need. ‘Till then, you deserve better than whatever knock-kneed plow nag they gave you.”

“That we can agree on,” Jewel answered. The horse they’d given him was...surly, at best, and seemed to struggle with his weight, not like the massive draft horses they kept on the farm back home.

“My daughter Seanna’s got a few already saddled for your little band here. The big chestnut stallion is yours; take care of him, and he’ll take care of you, Inquisition.”  

--

 

The horse in question was the sort of massive draft horse they raised in Jewel’s home village, which was....more comforting than he expected. He was a big stallion, young enough to have plenty of energy and old enough to be well-behaved, Seanna informed him.

She was a cheerful young woman, medium-tan with short cropped hair and dimples when she smiled and introduced each of the members of Jewel’s small team to their new mounts.

Jewel greeted his horse with the same caution he’d always been taught, getting to know the big animal before he planned on riding him anywhere. He was a dark liver chestnut with a white stripe down his face, a flaxen mane and tail, and lightly feathered feet. All around a pretty impressive creature, Jewel thought, even if he might have preferred a more interesting color. He didn’t really have the ambition to complain about that, and instead gently petted the horse’s nose.

The horse looked...bored, if horses could look like that, and Jewel smirked as he patted it.

“Yeah, I don’t really wanna be here, either,” he mumbled.

The animal blinked and gave a light snort.

“His name is Bosun,” a voice offered helpfully behind him - Seanna’s, Jewel realized.

“Like...the nautical term?”

Seanna shrugged. “We already had a Captain.”

Bosun

--

 

They set camp at a small pond and tied their mounts, then traveled on foot past the farms towards a dip in the land, a grassy hill among the rock faces that lead down to a shallow stream too large to be a creek and too small to be a river. There was a pass directly across from the hill, so narrow and rocky Jewel wasn’t sure he’d fit all the way through. Cassandra was still in the lead and followed Elaina’s instructions - ignoring the narrow passage and leading the party alongside the stream. The rocks were steep and left the group very little room, but single-file kept anyone from having to get their feet wet.

“The mages and templars chose a poor location for working out their differences,” Solas commented dryly.

They reached a cluster of rocks and fallen trees laid across the stream where the water began to pick up speed, and slowed their pace.

Not far from that, thankfully, was the location they’d been looking for - a hollow in the basalt columns. It was a maze of the tall rock formations, but did not take long to search.

 

puppies

 

The snarls of the wolves echoed around the rocks and swirled like fog around the party’s heads. Warped, hollow sounds, and then the first wolf was upon them, a great silver beast lunging from atop a rock ledge and knocking Cassandra back. She lost her balance for just a moment before righting herself.

That one moment set off the others and Jewel barely had time to poison his crescent blade before somewhere around five wolves came down from the rocks and charged the group with a ferocity unlike the usually more skittish creatures. They didn’t stalk and hide from the firelight, they burst out with wild eyes and dripping mouths and when Jewel caught one through the chest with his blade, it kept snapping at him until the last of the life fled its body.

He was struggling to dislodge the dagger from the ribs of the wolf, hearing it scrape sickeningly as it caught, when a bone-deep pain burst into the top of his right hip. The massive grey-brown wolf’s teeth seemed to cut through the fabric of his coat and sash with alarming, unnatural strength and he caught the glint of green in the creature’s glassy pupils as he turned in an attempt to dislodge it. Blood already bubbled up from around its teeth and soaked the fabric bolt around his waist as the wolf shook its head, tearing into Jewel’s flesh relentlessly.

The cracking of what could’ve sounded like bones or tree branches came forth from behind him. Something screamed, a buzzy and disjointed sound that came from all directions, and the wolf was pulled off of him with no effort by the thin-limbed and somehow blurry creature before him. It held the wolf by its scruff for a split second before tossing it aside like a discarded letter into a wastebasket.

Released from the wolf’s grip and placed into that of some horrible demon of fear, Jewel scrambled backwards on the dirt, just enough to grab the handle of the dagger that wasn’t stuck in a wolf’s ribs. When he grabbed the one that was, he yanked as hard as he could, hearing the bones crack as he pulled it out still covered in blood and tissue.

He caught sight of Cassandra behind the creature and gave her a knowing glance.

Readying himself, Jewel kept eye contact with the demon - arguably not his best idea - and circled it, watching it as it watched him back, curious and hungry. Drawn by his fears.

When Jewel slashed at it he did it with one practiced swish-and-twirl motion and knocked it back just a second, then it screamed at him with its wide, boneless mouth, just flaps of skin lined with blunt teeth. It raised its claws to swipe, poised to cut Jewel to ribbons and call the wolves to eat what was left, when without warning a beacon of gold light crashed through it, up to the sky with a shrill sound, and before the now stunned and smoldering thing could rear back up, Cassandra’s sword cut through the green-tinged flesh of its throat, slicing through its hanging jaw, and its head dropped to the ground with a spray of black blood. It began to decay in rapid-motion before them.

The wolves, suddenly freed of their binds, scattered - fleeing deeper into the caves and hollows with tails tucked and shrill, frightened, but ultimately natural-sounding howls and cries.

“Now,” Cassandra said, “The farmers should be safe from the wolves.”

“I expect the wolves are also pleased to be freed from the demon’s control,” Solas said calmly.

Jewel heaved himself onto one of the lower rock columns to catch his breath. He pulled his flask out and took a drink from it. For the pain, he thought. Blood was pouring down the side of his pants where his hip was bitten.

“Good for them. Any of you got bandages?”

 

--

Coming back to Haven felt like returning to prison after one’s been freed. The soldiers were crammed into tents and training in scattered groups around their camp, noisily clashing swords and shields together. Chantry folk and mages who escaped the conclave’s blast bickered amongst one another. All too damn noisy and maddeningly busy, and not like a party Jewel could actually enjoy but the sort of busy that comprised entirely of people he wanted nothing to do with.

It only got worse as he neared the Chantry, the ambient clatter of a village overflowing with people being replaced by the sound of a mob of people all yelling at one another, clustered around the Chantry doors.

“Your kind killed the Most Holy,” said a templar, slowly circling the mage across from him in full armor.

“Lies,” the mage scoffed angrily, “Your kind let her die!”

“Shut your mouth, mage!” the templar snapped, hand to his sheathed sword as the crowd’s roaring reached a fever pitch.

Someone in the confused cluster of people yelled, “We should cage the lot of you!”

The templar almost managed to pull his sword, and the mage’s staff was already crackling with arcane energy when Cullen planted himself between the two with a sharp bark of an order.

“Enough!”

“Knight-Captain-”
“That is not my title,” Cullen  interrupted, “We are not templars any longer. We are all part of the Inquisition!”

He pointed fingers at each of the two as he spoke and both templar and mage backed down, looking like scolded dogs.

“And what does that mean, exactly?”

Jewel groaned to himself. Chancellor Roderick cut through the crowd, stepping up to Cullen as smug as ever.

“Back already, Chancellor?”

“I’m curious, Commander, as to how this Inquisition and its ‘Herald’ will restore order as you’ve promised.”

Cullen looked positively exhausted. “Of course you are.”

He scattered the crowd, sending them all back to their respective duties and leaving only himself and Roderick in front of the Chantry doors. Jewel finally bothered to wander up close enough to get in on the conversation, though only half paying attention to another rehash of bickering.

“- now they’re blaming each other for the Divine’s death.”

“Which is why we require a proper authority to guide them back to order.”

“Who, you? Random clerics who weren’t important enough to be at the conclave?”

“The rebel Inquisition, and its so-called ‘Herald of Andraste’? I think not!”

“I dunno,” Jewel finally interjected, “Seems about as functional as any young family.”

“How many families are on the verge of splitting into open warfare with themselves?” Roderick asked, holding himself like he’d won the argument already.

Oh, you have no idea, Jewel thought.

He was sure Roderick had plenty more to say and Cullen had a few tired retorts left to him. He patted the templar on the shoulder and moved past him.

“Don’t let anyone riot while we’re gone.”

 

Chapter Text

--

VAL ROYEAUX

 

“The city still mourns.”

Cassandra lead the party down a walkway of perfectly-placed stone bricks.

The Summer Bazaar was tucked gently among tall white marble buildings, guarded by elegant wrought-iron gates. Deep green vines with the bright bursts of color from exotic flowers and shrubs decorated pedestals, tall spires pointed to the sky with heavy golden winged lions at their tops. The Avenue of Reflective Thought, with somewhere around eighteen pointed arches in its blue walls and a statue of an Andrastian martyr under each, was where they were to be met by the Inquisition scout - one of Leliana’s people. As they reached the meeting place, an Orlesian couple stopped to gawk before the masked woman in her extravagant dress gasped and shrank back upon Jewel’s approach, almost tipping right over in shock. It was about as warm a reception as he expected, really, people running in fear was actually significantly less strange than Andrastians regarding him as some Holy symbol. He almost missed it.

“Just a guess, Seeker,” Varric said, “But I think they all know who we are.”

“Your skills of observation never fail to impress me, Varric.”

Jewel kept a hand on his flask as they traveled into the Summer Bazaar, but it was almost empty, and all the shops were closed. Any other day, and he would’ve stopped to take it all in - the cornflower breezeways, the arch in the center of the plaza with huge red silk shadecloth hung in a spoke pattern between the arch and surrounding towers, the mounted dragon’s head in Le Masque Du Lion Café (which he hadn’t been allowed to enter last time he was here). Instead, they walked towards a gilded wooden platform set up as a stage on which the Chantry folk were standing, readying their speeches for the growing crowd.

“Good people of Val Royeaux,” the pale, elderly Chantry mother at the forefront began, “Hear me! Together we mourn our Divine. Her naive and beautiful heart, silenced by teachery! You wonder what will become of her murderer? Well, wonder no more!”

One templar already stood beside her, a young man with dark skin and pale green eyes, diligently watching her speech.

“Behold - the so-called Herald of Andraste!” the Mother declared, pointing a bony, accusing finger at Jewel, “Claiming to rise where our beloved fell. We say this is a false prophet ! A wicked Qunari, sent to subvert the Maker’s word!”

( A wee-ked qun-ah-ri, in her thick Orlesian accent)

Jewel held up a finger to the woman as he finished the last of the contents of his flask and screwed the cap back on.

“Look lady, I--” he paused, just a second to catch a glimpse of Cassandra’s vaguely worried expression, and sighed. Eye roll, straighten shoulders, slip into a more suitable self for public speaking, understood. He cleared his throat. “I make no such claim! I don’t believe I was sent here by Andraste or the Maker. I am simply trying to close the Breach, which you’ll remember threatens us all.”

Cassandra looked approving, more than she ever had since Jewel met her, in fact.

“It’s true,” she said, “The Inquisition seeks only to end this madness before it is too late!”

The Chantry mother pointed again, this time swinging her hand to the side towards an armored group making their way to the stage. Her robes flowed dramatically with the motion.

“It is already too late!”

When she started rambling about the Templars’ return, stepping aside proudly to display them and assure the people they were here to protect, Jewel began to glance around for a quick escape route, slip through the throngs of masked Orlesians before he had to take an armored fist to the face or a sword through the gut.

Maybe it’s time to cut my lo-

The woman’s voice was suddenly cut off by a sharp blow to the back of her head by one of the arriving men. She made a sickly guh! sound as she fell forward and landed on the floor of the stage with her robes pooling around her gaunt frame. There was no blood, but she crumpled in a disquieting manner.

The crowd gasped and scattered back a few feet and the other Chantry mothers dropped to their knees beside the fallen one, looking to her then back towards the templars in abject confusion. Even the Templar that had already stood there, the young man, looked about as appalled as the audience.

“Still yourself,” said the man in the most decorated of the ceremonial armor, carrying himself with an air of pride, “She is beneath us.”

He patted the younger man’s shoulder as he spoke, a gesture both comforting and intimidating, and then turned to face the crowd. He was older, light-skinned with grey hair pulled into a ponytail and rough stubble. He had a small mouth and piercing eyes, and when he turned, something in them made Jewel uneasy. A feeling like crossing a frozen river, unsure if the ice was safe or if you’d plunge into the frigid depths to be swept under and drowned in the cold.

Still, the entrance he made was having his man punch out an elderly Chantry mother. Jewel wasn’t sure if that was ballsy or pathetic.

He watched the man carefully, and the man watched him back.

“That display supposed to impress me?” Jewel asked.

“On the contrary. It wasn’t for you at all.” The Lord Seeker turned, and stepped off the platform, as though his work here was done.

“Lord Seeker Lucius,” Cassandra began, stepping after him, “It’s imperative that-”

“You will not address me.”

She stopped in her tracks and gaped at the man. “Lord Seeker?”

Despite his words, the Lord Seeker stopped, putting out an arm to halt his men, and stood a few feet from Cassandra’s party. Proud posture but wild-eyed, armor glinting in the sunlight that came through the shadecloth.

“Creating a heretical movement, raising up a puppet as Andraste’s prophet? You should be ashamed,” the Lord Seeker said voice steady but coiled tight just under the surface, “You should all be ashamed! The templars failed no one when they left the Chantry to purge the mages!”

He raised a hand accusingly and pointed, leather creasing under gleaming metal. His armor was ceremonial and pristine.

“You are the ones who have failed,” he continued, “You who’d leash our righteous swords with doubt and fear!”

Jewel took a careful step back as he pointed, one foot tilted outward, poised to dodge if the man’s anger hit a boiling point. The Lord Seeker kept talking.

“If you came to appeal to the Chantry, you are too late. The only destiny here that demands respect is mine.

Finally, he paused long enough for Jewel to get a word in, finally waiting for a response.

“So, what?” Jewel laughed, narrowing his eyes, reminding himself to hold deceptively relaxed, “You just came to make speeches at me?”

“I came to see what frightens old women so, and to laugh,” the Lord Seeker sneered.

“But Lord Seeker…” the man who interrupted was the one from the stage, pale green eyes full of concern, “What if he really was-”

“You are called to a higher purpose,” said one of his compatriots, dressed in leathers and a helmet with its circle insignia torn off, a man with sallow skin and bloodshot eyes, “Do not question!”

I will make the templar order a power that stands alone against the void,” the Lord Seeker said, still projecting his voice, still bubbling with something underneath his steady tone, “ We deserve recognition! Independence! You have shown me nothing. And the Inquisition...less than nothing. Templars! Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection. We march !”

He gave a hand signal, swinging his wrist in a flicking motion and pointed the way back to the gateway to the bazaar, and left without a further word to Cassandra or the others. The man from the stage hesitated, then followed, but seemed to keep a bit of distance from his peers.

Varric, who’d carefully stood a few yards away near the center of the plaza to keep a subtle vantage point should things go tits-up again, sauntered his way back with a puzzled, tired expression.

“Charming fellow, isn’t he?”

Cassandra was still somewhat stunned from the exchange. “Has Lord Seeker Lucius gone mad?”

“How well did you say you know this guy?” Jewel asked.

“He took over the Seekers of Truth two years ago, after Lord Seeker Lambert’s death. He was always a decent man, never given to ambition like this...this is very bizarre.”

“So that’s a no on Templars, I guess.”

“I wouldn’t write them off so quickly. There must be those in the order who see what he’s becoming. Either way, we should inform the others.”

 

--

Jewel was stalling. He hadn’t been to Val Royeaux in years and while most of the shops battened down the hatches as soon as he’d arrived, a handful of market stalls stayed open, valuing his coin (or perhaps, controversy) more than they valued keeping oxmen out of their place of business.

The café still wouldn’t let him in, but Flissa would probably give him drinks for free back at Haven.

The most appealing shop available was a jewelry stall selling mostly pieces trimmed with pearls or small ceramic flowers. Enamel cameo necklaces, some with flowers and some with faces. He was rolling a gold ring with a labradorite stone between his fingers, wondering how hard it’d be to pocket it before the merchant realized, when he was addressed from behind.

A young man in an impeccable Circle of Magi robe approached him politely. He was soft-voiced and Orlesian, and as he spoke he handed Jewel a small but ornate envelope, powder blue with a gold-leaf Circle emblem on the face of it.

“You are the Herald of Andraste, are you not? I have an invitation for you.”

Changing his mind about correcting the use of that title, Jewel pulled the small ornate dagger from his belt and leaned on the jewelry stall as he slid it carefully along the top of the envelope. Inside was a small, flat card with decorative golden designs imprinted into the corners and elegant calligraphy reading:

Master Jewel Adaar,

 

You are cordially invited to attend my salon

held at the Chateau of Duke Bastien De Ghislain.

 

Yours,

Vivienne De Fer

First Enchanter of Montsimmard

Enchanter to the Imperial Court

 

Jewel tilted the card in his hand carefully, watching the glint of the ink and gold-leaf in the sun. The mage cleared his throat.

“Madame De Fer would like your answer to the invitation as soon as possible, serah.”

Jewel flashed him a smile, charming as can be. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

When Varric raised his eyebrows, Jewel simply shrugged, palming the ring as the merchant briefly watched the mage, and told him, “Well look at

that, now I have a perfectly good reason to be out shopping.”

 

--

 

Jewel did not bring the others to the Duke De Ghislain’s estate. Josephine had already prepared boarding at a moderately-priced inn and a carriage to take Jewel to the chateau, riding through the evening past fields of downy grass and into the sparse forests around the hills. Luscious trees were grown around the building in tall, manicured spires. Lilypads dotted reflecting pools with statues of Chevaliers on horseback placed in the center.

The heels of Jewel’s boots clicked on the marble floor as he entered and he paused only to check that his hair was in place and tightened the sash around his waist. The Inquisition had yet to actually start paying him for whatever his job technically was, so his outfit for the salon was his leather armor and coat he’d been wearing all through the Hinterlands. He had time to wrap a new bolt of fabric around his waist, mend any tears he’d missed before coming to Val Royeaux, and slip the labradorite ring onto his finger, but he was still wearing his field armor no matter what work he did on it. Maker knows he’d make an entrance either way, at least.

“Master Adaar, of the Inquisition,” announced a man in a simple but well-made pale blue tunic. He eyed Jewel, about as politely as an Orlesian could probably manage when a qunari showed up to a high-class party.

Jewel gave him a wink and moved on. The occupants of the room all looked him over, but it was only a couple by a stone fountain that motioned him over to speak with them. The man was slim, and wore a tight blue-and-ivory tunic with gold trim and a leather-wrapped gold mask with matching leather boots and gloves. The heavyset woman beside him wore a gold-trim turquoise dress with a frilled collar so high it covered her mouth, a maroon capelet draped over her broad shoulders, a silver half-mask, and a tilted hat with flowers upon it the color of sunsets. She waved delicately at Jewel.

With a wry smile and a swagger that probably told the entire room he’d started in on drinks before he even got here, Jewel took and kissed each of the couple’s hands.

The man looked a little thrown, his prepared greeting off-kilter from the unexpected treatment from his new qunari acquaintance. He smiled, however, a faint blush tinting his dark tan cheeks.

“A-a pleasure, ser,” he said with a calm laugh, “We so rarely have any chance to meet anyone new. Let alone someone as...interesting as yourself.”

“Well I’m about as new as you can get, I wager,” Jewel laughed. Cute things, he thought, Both of them.

“You must be a guest of Madame de Fer,” the man continued, but not without giving Jewel the once-over. “Or Duke Bastien?”

“Are you here on business?” the woman beside him asked, mirroring her companion’s move to look Jewel up and down.

“Madame de Fer invited me.”

“I have heard the most curious tales of you,” she said, “I cannot imagine even half of them are true.”

Her tone was polite, but almost hopeful.

“Naturally, everything you’ve heard? Completely true,” Jewel responded, deadpan and playful.

“Better and better,” she replied. “The Inquisition should attend more of th-”

“The Inquisition!” a voice tumbled half-drunkenly down the stairs, “What a load of pigshit.”

Jewel watched the man, another human full of bluster and gin coming down the marble stairs in a tight silver-trimmed outfit.

“Washed-up sisters and crazed Seekers? No one can take that seriously.”

Jewel grabbed a champagne flute from a passing server and watched the man silently. He was small, to which Jewel’s slightly inebriated mind said, I could probably toss him into the woods like a twig?

Regardless of whether that was true or not, the image made him snort into his drink.

“Everyone knows it’s just an excuse for a bunch of political outcasts to grab power.”

“I mean, probably,” Jewel said. “You going somewhere with this?”

“In front of all these people, you admit to being a pretentious usurper!”

Jewel swallowed the rest of the champagne and tried to signal for the waiter’s return. He was mostly thinking about that, not about the man approaching him in his white doublet and his floppy headwrap.

“We know what your organization truly is. If you were a man of honor, you’d step outside and answer the charges!”

“Uh-huh. I’m probably not,” Jewel said. It was hard to focus on the man’s words, he was mostly distracted by the realization of his supremely ugly boots and the soothing haze of the drink.

He only began to step back when the man reached behind his shoulder and wrapped his small hands around the hilt of an ornamental sword.

Jewel backed up, just a few steps, hand going to the small dagger on his belt, when the swift cracked-glass sound of ice magic crossed the room and the man quite literally froze. His midsection was coated in ice, holding him still with one arm thrown behind him.

“My dear Marquis,” said the woman on the stairs, stepping out of the darkness and into the moonlight below, “How unkind of you to use such language in my house...to my guests.”

She was gorgeous and graceful, moving with an air of authority and class that Jewel only hoped he could ever match.

Her dress was made of shimmering silver silk, with a swooping boned plunge-neck corset built-in - white to match the white scalloped edges of the stiff ruffled sleeves - and golden trim. She wore a hat that curved up into the shape of horns and a gleaming mask that looked higher quality than the others thus far.

The fabric draped over and clung to her hips, one long silk bolt hanging down between her slim legs. She wore soft leather boots (Jewel made a mental note to ask where she got them) and her sleeves were a softer blue brocade fabric.

She stepped down to the floor and walked around the Marquis in a fluid motion. Her skin was beautifully dark and her eyes were dark grey.

“You know such rudeness is intolerable,” she continued.

“Madame Vivienne!” the marquis cried, “I-I humbly beg your pardon!”

“You should. Whatever am I going to do with you, my dear?”

Jewel was, frankly, content to just watch and enjoy the smugness of the man getting in trouble for berating him, but to his surprise, Madame Vivienne turned to him with a small, polite smile.

“My lord, you’re the wounded party in this unfortunate affair,” she said, “What would you have me do with this foolish, foolish man.”

Jewel blinked in surprise.

“I don’t know him. Do whatever you want.”

Smile curling at the edges, Vivienne turned back around.

“Poor Marquis,” she said, hand on the man’s chin, “Issuing challenges and hurling insults like some Fereldan dog-lord. And all dressed up in your Aunt Solange’s doublet.”

She snapped her slim fingers and the ice vanished into the air, leaving the Marquis shivering and coughing.

“Didn’t she give you that to wear to the Grand Tourney?” Vivienne asked him. “To think, all the brave Chevaliers who will be competing left for Markham this morning...and you’re still here.”

Jewel caught the attention of the server, finally, and plucked another champagne flute from their platter as he watched.

“Were you hoping to sate your damaged pride by defeating the Herald of Andraste in a public duel, or did you simply think his dagger would end the shame of your failure?”

It was a rhetorical question, only to dress the man down as he shrunk away from her words and Jewel’s entertained gaze.

“Run along, my dear,” she said as the Marquis finally turned to leave the parlor, “Do give my regards to your aunt.”

When she turned to Jewel, her smile was more genuine, but calculated. Her mask was small, not really hiding her expression, her eyes, or her high cheekbones, but made of delicate, expensive silver with blue enamel inlay.

“I’m delighted you could attend this little gathering,” she told Jewel as she began towards a window, tilting her head to indicate Jewel follow. “I’ve so wanted to meet you.”

She introduced herself more formally. First Enchanter of Monsimmard, Enchantress to the Imperial Court. The things that were on the gilded invitation Jewel had received in the summer bazaar.

“That Marquis going to be a problem?” Jewel asked, leaning against the windowsill.

“His aunt is the Vicomtesse of Mont-de-Glace. Not a powerful family, but well-respected and very devout. Alphonse be disowned for this.”

The conversation that followed was mostly about people Jewel didn’t know, and about this Alphonse’s poor reputation. He nodded along, rather outclassed, but liked hearing about the man’s fuck-ups at least.

“Your salon has certainly exceeded my expectations so far,” Jewel stated. He’d have said such a thing either way, but this time he was being honest.

As he spoke a server passed with hors d'oeuvres and Jewel picked up one tiny pear-almond tarte and one tiny pudding-like thing he couldn’t identify with some kind of little seeds in it.

“I’m glad to keep you entertained, my dear,” Vivienne said with calm amusement. “I wanted to meet you face-to-face. It is important to consider one’s connections carefully.”

As she spoke about the Divine, and the Chantry, and the same world-saving speech that everyone else had been into the past few weeks (months? however long it’d been, Jewel lost track), she was calculating Jewel. He knew that much. Watching, observing, measuring. Probably passing judgment but she still stayed cordial and didn’t seem to carry any particular disdain for him. Yet.

“As the leader of the last loyal mages of Thedas,” she finally said primly, “I feel it only right that I lend my assistance to your cause.”

So, a loyalist mage. He hadn’t really connected the dots until now, but it fit, considering she kept her circle and court titles and wasn’t living in the woods. Mother would backhand me for this, Jewel thought. Without hesitation, he answered.

“We’d be pretty blessed to have someone so influential and beautiful with us.”

Vivienne laughed, a smile that creased around her eyes. “Aren’t you charming? This is purely professional, of course.”

Jewel smiled back at her. “Well, the Inquisition would be happy to have you, Madame Vivienne.”

“Great things are beginning, my dear,” Vivienne replied, “I can promise you that.”

Chapter Text

OUTSIDE A VAL ROYEAUX INN

 

They carriage dropped Jewel off in front of the marble inn the Inquisition was stationed in some four hours of socialization later. He’d have preferred to stay at the party, enjoy the extravagance, keep calling the server back for champagne and maybe find the couple from before for a tumble if they were the curious type. Naturally, though, the carriage arrived to usher him back before he could make those plans. He assumed it was Cassandra’s doing.

He stepped out and felt the world tilt and sway in a more familiar way this time. The slideshow vision of drunkenness made his trip to the door arduous. He paused, though. The Inquisition waited inside, with Cassandra’s disapproving stare and Solas’ incessant fucking stories and while there was a lot of appeal to a nicer bed than he’d get in Haven, Jewel’s flask was almost empty and his patience was thin.

He turned around and meandered back down the steps, measured - wide but careful steps to prove how not-wasted he was, but he nearly missed the bottom step. He righted himself and let the cool air sober him up before he started down the street. Had to be at least one store in Val Royeaux that would let him in and sold liquor. It was a big city.

Jewel was finishing having a piss in an alleyway when the arrow thwacked into the wooden shutters beside him. He jumped back and almost forgot to tuck his dick back into his pants, which would’ve been a great way to be discovered assassinated. Still, whoever tried to take him out had missed.

He inspected the arrow and noticed two things: that the fletching was made of red feathers and that there was a small scroll attached to the shaft. Presumably some batshit message from someone calling Jewel a heretic, an oxman, the antithesis of Andraste, et cetera. Jewel pulled it from its bindings and unfurled it. The handwriting was messy, but legible.

 

People say you're special. I want to help, and I can bring everyone.

There's a baddie in Val Royeaux. I hear he wants to hurt you. Have a search for the red things in the market, the docks, and 'round the cafe, and maybe you'll meet him first. Bring swords.

 

Friends of Red Jenny

 

Well. That was something.

 

--

 

The drawing in the note was kind of terrible, but Jewel could follow it at least in the loosest sense. It took him down the stone-brick path and back through the Avenue Of Reflective Thought, back into the Summer Bazaar. Of course, the wrought-iron gates were shut for the night, but when was the last time a gate stopped Jewel?

He picked the lock and slipped into the Bazaar, stopping only to prop the gate open with a rock from the decorative gardens.

The first and closest location lead him up a flight of stairs, to the upper level of the bazaar where other indoor shops were located in a ring around the center. There were a few tiny access paths back into the residential areas nearby to the Bazaar. It was on the corner of one of these raised walkways, beside shuttered business windows, where he located the first of three….whatevers.

This one was a large red sock. Jewel initially didn’t even know if it was actually related to the scavenger hunt he’d been sent on (and he’d kind of forgotten why he decided to follow the clues in the first place) but inside it he found a scrap of parchment, hastily torn from an ornate document. The bit of writing on the corner of the paper read:

 

-and we are to obey well. We meet at three bells to discuss how best to serve the new way.

 

Beneath it, a significantly less learned handwritten note:

 

Herald go at time. Praise Adrast.

 

It made little sense, but Jewel pocketed the note and left the sock on the walkway.

 

The second was a stable report, marked with red paint. It was slipped under a table in the cafe - which at least Jewel could get into now that it was empty for the night - and read:

Thank you Friends for helping good Lady Keris. Saw those who asked about the Herald enter third passage. Could not stay to see them exit.

 

Jewel added it to the other message in his pocket.

 

The third took him to the docks. Past where the stage had been set up - now gone like it had never been there, blocking a path, and down a small walkway with high walls leading up to shops and expensive homes.

The docks in question weren’t commercial, however, but instead made up the boat launch of the Miroir de la Mère, a massive reflecting pool stretching out to surround the Summer Bazaar before its steep edge leading to the cultivated gardens of the rest of Val Royeaux.

The pool housed many decorative gondolas, all in mahogany wood with ornate swirled carvings and tiny cabins that Jewel would probably never fit into, but were no doubt nice for rich humans to lounge about in. The boats were mostly empty and tied to the small dock. A few, however, floated lazily farther out into the pool with faint lights inside. At least one was rocking enthusiastically.

And here Jewel was, stepping over a pile of dead fish in a discarded net looking for some other red thing. He did not intend to investigate disgusting dead fish any further, but his boot hit a loose sheet of parchment that rolled over one of the rotted creatures and his curiosity overtook him.

 

Reservoir Stocking Evaluation

 

  • Tremors.
  • Floating.
  • Taste is off.
  • Water birds die off.

 

 

Restocking failed, fish not fit, do not consume.

His rational mind told him it was probably the reflective lead lining at the bottom of the pool, something he’d read about in books about places he was not allowed to visit, but an uncomfortable corner of his mind held a less satisfying explanation that scuttled about in the darkness.

(Mottled grey fish bobbing on the surface of the water, bumping up against the riverbank with black sores bursting from beneath their scales. Thin, bony cows and sheep staggering with milky eyes. Smell of rotten grass and blood and sickness as the shrill desperate howls rose behind him.)

He stepped past and decided to pack that thought back away, find the next object, and get far from the dock. What he found next to canvas bags and wood barrels beyond the graveyard of fish was a small red handkerchief, folded around a key. He pulled its small note from its wrappings and read it.

 

Key lifted from drunk swearing about Herald. Don’t know what door. I’m out, my debt is paid.

 

Jewel pocketed the key, still wrapped in the handkerchief, and took hurried - if still somewhat wobby and intoxicated - steps away from the docks.

He frankly wasn’t sure how he pieced it all together in this state - he’d later describe the night as a bit of a fucking haze - but he had a time, a path, and a key. Some back alley deep into Val Royeaux, a good length walk from the inn he hoped he’d be able to find again. He didn’t go back for the others. He briefly considered it, of course. Varric could hit anything or anyone. Cassandra’s shield bash kicked like a horse. Solas was a mage, and Jewel knew his fair share of combat mages. And the note read ‘bring swords’ but here he was, sauntering down the backalleys on his own.

He could take a fight. Most humans were rather fragile to him and Orlesians were exceptionally soft; fuck, most of ‘em would probably back off just seeing an oxman coming at them. Which was entertaining in its own right when, among other qunari, Jewel was considered pretty slender and small. To humans? He was a fucking giant, and a heretical one at that. It remained to be seen if their desire to purge heretics would win out against their fear of Jewel’s general size and, as it had been so astutely put before, ‘foreign nature’.

Whatever this back-alley meeting was, it had guards. That was Jewel’s first assessment. So more than just a handful of rumor-spreaders. There were only two in the first courtyard Jewel passed through, and they wore light ornamental cuirasses, greaves, and bracers but the rest of their bodies were left open. Covered only by high-quality fabric that tore easily under assault from daggers. A kick to the first man’s chest bent the face of the decorative lion inward and sent him stumbling back with a low wheeze as he realized his chest was being constricted. He fell backwards against a pile of barrels and crates, and dropped his sword.

The second guard, to Jewel’s mild surprise, dropped his as well and went to his companion’s side, holding hands up to Jewel in a sign of defeat.

“W-we’re just doing our job,” he said, “It’s not worth this, just go!”

Jewel snorted, watching the pair of them for a moment. Fuckin’ amateurs, whoever set this up. He slipped his daggers back into their respective sheaths and pulled the edges of his leather coat beneath his sash to straighten it out.

“Long as you’re not trying to stab me anymore, I don’t give a shit.”

He kept walking, through another small passage. The layout was hard to parse, likely just due to the city’s age. This was an older part of Val Royeaux and you couldn’t just undo the entire layout to add more houses so easily.

The fireball that whoosh ed past his head close enough to feel on his cheek took Jewel by surprise. It exploded onto the wall behind him and left a smoldering patch on the surface.

“Herald of Andraste!” the voice rolled the r’s in a syruppy Val Royeaux accent. Another slim Orlesian man, tight doublet with those little decorated leather boots and a copper mask with a sharp pointed nose. Jewel was unsure if he was a mage, or if he simply had one standing behind him to throw fireballs for dramatic effect.

Jewel blinked. “Yeah?”

He didn’t actually intend to listen, of course. Took a shot from the flask while the man talked and the resurgence of alcohol turned it to a distant fizzy drone that he didn’t have to pay attention to.

What did break through, however, was a scream from another man, one meant to be guarding a door. He was in a blue overcoat and his face was completely covered in a hooded mask, so all Jewel could really tell was something had incapacitated him. And then an elf stepped over him.

A young-looking elf girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, with choppy blonde hair looking like it’d been cut with a rusty dagger, a round face with wide-set eyes and the pockets of acne on ruddy cheeks that further confirmed her age to Jewel. And what the fuck was she wearing? Some tattered red thing that hardly qualified as a shirt, yellow plaid leggings with mismatched patches sewn in, flimsy leather shoes. No armor but a lightweight leather cuirass over her chest. The kid looked like a damned ragdoll. Her slim hands were tight around a bow and she aimed the point of an arrow with red feathers at the man.

“Just say ‘what’!” she called out in a very different, very Fereldan accent.

The Orlesian man whirled on his heel. “ What is th-

He was cut off by the elf girl’s arrow, one bright red streak through the blue night, one split second and then it embedded itself firmly through his open mouth. All the way to the back of his throat and out the other side, at just the right angle for a through-and-through without getting caught on his spine. He stayed standing a moment, arched in shock and trying to form words around the gurgle of blood pooling in his throat. The second arrow slammed through the left eyehole of his mask and out the other end, through the leather headwrap. Bits of tissue clung to it as the man buckled and fell backwards. The first shot might have been survivable, with the right surgeon and some luck. The second...considerably less so, even if the elf girl hadn’t come over and yanked her used arrow right back out of the man’s eye.

“Euugh,” she groaned, “Squishy one but you heard me, right? ‘Just say what.’ Rich tits always try for more than they deserve.”

“Who the fuck was that?” Jewel asked. He stepped over and nudged the man’s limp boot with his shoe. He wouldn’t fit into any of these clothes by a long shot, but he bent over (despite the swirl it put on his vision) and checked him for jewelry.

A few rings he could sell but not fit into (the man’s hands had been quite small compared to Jewel’s) and a pair of earrings he sort of liked.

“No idea, I dunno this idiot from manners,” she said, bracing her foot on the man’s shoulder to wrench the second arrow out from his throat, “Blah, blah, blah, obey me! Arrow in my face!”

“Nice rings, at least.” Jewel commented boredly.

The elf wiped the arrows on the man’s doublet and tucked them back into her quiver.

“So, you followed the notes well enough, glad to see you’re…” She paused, giving Jewel the once-over she must have skipped earlier.

Little slow on the uptake.

“You’re big, ” she said, which was admittedly an improvement over outright screaming, “Real big. From the north, yeah? Rivain or...north.”

Jewel snorted. “Close enough. Grew up around Ansburg, though.”

“I mean it’s all good, innit? Important thing is, you glow. You’re the Herald thingy.”

“...Sure, why not?” Jewel said, blinking some of the haze from his eyes. Either she hadn’t noticed he was drunk and alone, or she didn’t care. He pulled the glove off his left hand and waved it for the elf to see. The mark wasn’t acting up at the moment, but it still pulsed its sleepy green in the dark and the skin around it still looked reddish and angry.

“Anyway, my people just said the Inquisition should look at this arsehole.”

“Your people? You some kinda elf militia?”

The girl snort-laughed. “ No, people-people. Name’s Sera. You come alone?”

“Just came from a party,” Jewel answered. “And if you’d met the people I have to go back to at the inn, you’d get why I’m out here alone.”

Sera shrugged. “ ‘s all good. This is cover, get ‘round it.”

Jewel looked around at the alleyway. More crates and barrels and whatever else one would hide behind for cover in a fight. Convenient, but cover wasn’t really his style.

“So they’ve got friends coming.”

“Reinforcements, yeah!” Sera said as she ducked behind a crate, “Don’t worry, someone tipped me their equipment shed.”

Jewel was expecting an easier fight. And, well...he supposed it kind of was, as the men that came running at him with swords were all some variation of nude from the waist down. Some had smallclothes on, at least one had loose sleep pants, a few were sprinting at him with their dicks swinging in the breeze like they meant to dress that way.

Oh, he’d laugh about it later, but for now he dodged a sword-swing and yelled out,

“Why didn’t you take their weapons?!”

“Because no breeches!” Sera yelled back with an impish, crackly giggle, and then she was back to yelling whatever ass-themed insults she had prepared for this.

Luckily the lack of armor to the legs and the mens’ terror for the safety of their respective bits did make the fight easier. Only one stayed around long enough for Jewel to land a good slice from his hipbone to his knee, and then he staggered away with a spray of blood following him until he fell to the ground either unconscious or dead a few meters away. The others began to scatter, disappearing around corners with cuts to their bare legs.

“Friends really came through with that tip,” Sera laughed. She hoisted herself onto the edge of a marble staircase.

“Well. It didn’t not work.” Jewel sat on a crate, facing her from a few feet away. He took another pull from his flask and offered it over to Sera, who accepted it gleefully.

“You’re gonna be fun as shite,” she said, “Thought you’d be some stuck up noble or into that Qun rubbish or somethin’ but you’re not, are you?”

“People keep asking me that like it’s not obvious if you ever actually met a proper Qunari.”

“Anyway, so. Herald of Andraste. I’d like to join. You’re kind of an agent, right?”

Jewel leaned back. “Something like that. But I can’t go around just takin’ in any nutjob that wants to join, so tell me who you are first.”

“Nah, I get ya. It’s like this. I sent you a note to look for hidden stuff by my friends. Friends of Red Jenny, that’s me. Well, I’m one. So’s a fence in Montfort, some woman in Kirkwall. Three of ‘em in Starkhaven, brothers or somethin’.”

“The name is familiar.”

“It’s just a name, yeah? Lets little people - ‘friends’ - be part of somethin’ and stick it to nobles they hate.”

Jewel gave her a somewhat dismissive wave. “Yeah, I get you. So it’s a connections thing. Sort of.”

“Sort of. Here, in your face: I’m Sera, the Friends of Red Jenny are sort of out there, I use them to help you. Plus arrows.”

Jewel could have asked for a more in depth explanation and certainly he would have had to if he’d brought Cassandra along and this would become a whole production. But he’d wandered off drunk to piss in an alley and started following scavenger hunt clues all on his own, so he had the freedom to bypass the drudgery and make a call. And this Sera, well. A little on the crazy side, but she seemed like she’d be fun to knock a few drinks back with and she was wicked with the bow. And the thought of how much she was liable to agitate Cassandra and Solas was at least a small deciding factor.

“You need people, and I wanna get everything back to normal,” Sera added.

Jewel grinned. Flashed her his gold tooth, turning on the old charm. She didn’t react the charmed way the Orlesians at the party did, but matched it instead.

“Works for me.”

“Yes! Get in good before you’re too big to like!”

“Know how to get to Haven?”

“I can read a map , arsehole,” Sera snickered, “But anyway, yeah, Haven. See you there, Herald! This will be grand.”

 

--

 

Sera first walked Jewel back to the inn, with a comfortable familiarity with the backalleys about her that didn’t come as a surprise. Then she climbed to the rooftop of a neighboring building and gave Jewel a wave as she disappeared into the night. Low clouds were beginning to hang in the night sky and blot out the moons, but it was still a blue and vibrant night. Jewel leaned against the wall and almost pulled a cigarette before he realized where he was, and where Silver was right about now (most likely back in Ansburg, telling Mother that he was dead) and that he lacked her proficiencey in fire spells to light it for him. He didn’t have matches on him, so he tucked the cigarette back into his pocket and stepped into the main lobby of the inn.

It was nearly empty, save for two Inquisition soldiers playing a late night card game, and a man at the counter - a burly dwarven fellow with dark almond-shaped eyes and dark brown hair pulled back into one long braid. He had a thick, well-groomed beard that tapered to a point and he leaned against the counter calmly as he poked through a book. Looked like one of Varric’s.

He glanced up to Jewel and gave him a polite smile. “Figure you’re Adaar,” he said, “Unless there’s another qunari with gold horns I’m supposed to be lookin’ for.”

“You’ve got the wrong man, I’m innocent,” Jewel slurred teasingly, hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. “Yeah, I’m Adaar. Let me guess, Cassandra…”

“The human lady with the short hair, dour look on her face?”

“Sounds like her.”

The dwarf laughed quietly. “She’s upstairs. Second-to-last door on the left. Said you were supposed to be back hours ago, I told her I saw you wander off and figured you just needed air. Looked pretty wobbly there, Adaar.”

Jewel leaned against the counter in a fluid, all too boneless motion. “Well, that’s probably because I’m drunk. I’ll go smooth it over with her.”

innkeeper

He gave the dwarf a wink before he pushed back off of his counter and towards a dark staircase to the side of the building.

The hallway it lead to was narrow and the rooms were clearly built more recently into the old building. But it was strong marble that clicked under his heels and was a far cry from the creaky wood plank buildings he’d stayed in all over the Free Marches and Ferelden, or the rough-hewn quarry stone blocks that made up a flophouse in Kirkwall once upon a time (a few years before that scuffle with the Arishok, when a band of qunari mercs could still get a room there).

Cassandra was standing by the door in a simple tunic and pants, arms crossed over her chest.

“Where have you been?” she asked, in a tone that cut into a far too familiar vein for Jewel’s liking.

(Hellebore Adaar’s calculating lavender eyes, mirror of Jewel’s own. Tiny pinprick scars around her lips pressed into a thin line as she blocked the doorway. “Where have you been, boy? Why can’t you just do what’s asked of you, like your sister, like Sorrel, like anybody else?” )

(“Why can’t you just fuck off, you harpy bitch? Maybe I just wanted to go out.”)

Jewel’s lips curled back in a grin, but not a comfortable one.

“Important Inquisition agent business,” he said, “Making new connections, rubbing shoulders, getting us fresh blood.”

“Ugh. Connections at a brewery, one assumes.”

“Don’t I fuckin’ wish. Anyways, I gotta go pass out before we head back to Shithole. Haven. Whatever.”

Cassandra grabbed his arm with force as he tried to brush past her.

“Grand Enchanter Fiona spoke with us--”

“Don’t care. G’night, Cassie baby!”

Cassandra looked like she was about to speak again, but Jewel slammed the room door shut behind him and landed face-down on the small bed before she could get an audible word out.

Chapter Text

OUTSIDE ANSBURG, 9:18 DRAGON, DRACONIS

 

It hadn’t stopped raining for nine days. Thick sheets of it coming down, converging into creeks that carved their way through the saturated earth and left the yellowing grass brushed down flat. Pathways washed out. Crops drowned. Livestock drowned. Kasaanda’s roof collapsed and the Sataa children found her dead where a beam had held her under the floodwaters.

“Up now, Jewel!”

Hellebore Adaar’s voice was sharp with a thick Par Vollen accent. She didn’t bother knocking on Jewel’s door, only threw it open hard enough to slam against the wall and startle Jewel awake before her yelling got the chance to.

“Ugh--what?!”

“I said up,” Hellebore snapped, “Flood. Kasaanda’s dead.”

Jewel groaned and sank back into his bed, pulling threadbare covers up around himself despite their meager protection from the chill.

“What am I s’posed to do about that?”

“Keep the same from happening to us, fool boy.”

She left Jewel without the opportunity to protest and stepped out of the room silently, leaving its door wide open. Jewel could hear her going to the next room over, again throwing open the door but this time in a calmer tone, calling Silver to wake up.

 

--

 

Jewel stepped into the floodwaters of the field, which came up to his knees and swirled angrily around him as it continued its flow down the slopes of the valley. It was that awful murky brown that hid whatever vile things it swept along with it and when it roiled and splashed, he half expected something horrible to burst to the surface.

Silver was standing barefoot where she’d been placed, on a rock large enough to avoid submersion. She’d grabbed a stick from the detritus and used it to poke at things that floated past her.

Silver was a gawky kid, all at bony angles with long pewter hair that usually hung down in two thin braids, but in the early morning hours as she stood investigating flood debris in her nightgown, her hair was loose and tangling every which way with the wind.

Jewel had pulled his hair into a bun and followed his mother. By now the rain was coming down so thickly that it was almost difficult to breathe without choking on the water, and the fog blinded him beyond a few feet, but he kept his eyes on her angular form and allowed himself to be lead, grudgingly, into the barn. Its floor was more or less dry.

“It’s not even flooded!” Jewel protested, “Its fine, can we go back in?”

“It will become flooded,” came his mother’s curt response.

Jewel groaned as loud and pronounced as he could, but his mother paid him little mind and, with one swift pull of a rope, opened the trap door to the barn basement. She slipped inside and returned seconds later with a sandbag in her arms and tossed it over the edge of the trap door.

“Barrier around the barn first!” Hellebore called, voice raised over the rain. “I bring them up, you stack them!”

Jewel glowered at her at first, but a clap of thunder and the sound of the rain beating down harder on the roof of the building shut his mouth and he hoisted the heavy bag over his wiry shoulder and took off at a brisk pace for the open barn door.

One sandbag down, back for the next, just as the rain began to mix with hail and sleet, rattling on the barn roof in a popping rhythm that sounded just briefly like the snapping of wood. Back at the trap door, where now some ten sandbags had been tossed up, there was a shared split-second of terror between the Adaar family as they glanced at one another. Praying silently to anyone listening that the barn wasn’t collapsing. When Jewel noticed the balls of ice bouncing off the muddy ground outside, he breathed easier.

“Next bag,” Hellebore commanded, handing another over to him and then turning to pull two up herself, one slung over each shoulder, to pick up Jewel’s slack. Slim and angular, Hellebore might have at first glance struck someone as frail, but her musculature was strong and lean, hardened from farm work.

Three more bags slammed in a pile against the outer level of the barn. They needed far, far more and the rain was blinding now, but if Jewel began to slow, Hellebore snapped at him again. Sometimes she lapsed into Qunlat as they carried bags in their relay out of the barn storage and out to surround the building.

Jewel’s arms were burning and his hands had gone numb in the biting chill, that nasty limbo where it was bitter cold, but just warm enough that the clouds spit out only sleet and rain, and the ground turned to grey mud around Jewel’s boots.

He sank into the ground, and by the time they’d surrounded two outer walls with bags, Jewel was shaking violently with every movement, beginning to cough as the cold air chilled his lungs and throat, his hair falling out of its bun and tangling with the mud that splattered him.

He saw the barn cats, all huddled into their corner of the loft, fur fluffed out and paws tucked under their bodies. Their modest amount of livestock, too, curled into their respective hiding places. Sheep, pigs, chickens, one dairy cow, two usually calm plow horses now twitching with nervous energy. Jewel couldn’t tell if any had been lost, and they likely wouldn’t know until the flood was over and a head count was possible.

Hey !”

Over the thunderclaps and rain, a voice made Jewel and Hellebore both turn towards the barn entrance.

“Hey, let me help!”

Silver, in her oversized nightgown, bare feet coated in mud, straight pewter hair plasted slick to her face. Hellebore’s farm dog, a mid-sized mongrel with some Markham Sheepdog blood amongst his unknown ancestry, was at her heels. He barked insistently over the rain and refused to move from the young girl’s side.

“Silver, no! ” Hellebore snapped, and left Jewel to the bags as she ran to her daughter. She knelt down in front of her, speaking quick and urgent. “Back to where I left you. It isn’t safe.”

“Jewel gets to come out!”

Jewel is sandbagging the barn. You go stay safe. Take the dog with you.”

Silver grudgingly left, and Jewel and Hellebore stayed through the morning and into the grey day, barricading the barn as the floodwaters rose and rose. By midday, the barn was blocked off safely, and the places where water might cut through to the house were sufficiently stopped up.

 

The rain didn’t let up for another three days.

 

--

 

RETURNING TO HAVEN

 

Jewel didn’t so much dream about the flood. He just woke up remembering it. He’d been thirteen at the time, and it was the first time he’d seen a corpse. Kasaanda - a pale, middle-aged qunari woman who lived alone and mended clothes to make ends meet - was dragged out from under the heavy beams of her house when the rain finally stopped long enough to recover her. She wasn’t wrapped, as most of the older villagers were first-generation. They may be Tal-Vashoth but the treatment of a dead body as some insignificant husk stuck tight to them, and they pulled her out in plain sight with Jewel watching from the sandbag barricades he was inspecting.

She was bloated and bruise-colored, and Jewel had woken up thinking about her stiff blackened fingers and slack jaw sunken into her neck.

Death wasn’t unfamiliar, and nowadays it was hardly the sort of thing he’d consider traumatizing as a concept. But it had been the first time he’d seen it. And so grotesque.

(“I can’t stop thinking about that lady’s face,” he told his mother.

Hellebore rolled her lavender eyes. “It’s only a husk. Empty shell. Stop fussing like a human and finish what I told you to do.”)

He stopped telling her things so directly after that, but some part of him always felt like he should tell her things. It was what you were supposed to do, right?

Slowly, the sound of creaking wood and heavy footsteps came into focus, accompanied by rhythmic thumps and soft wind. A draft came in through the carriage walls, chilling the small surfaces of Jewel’s skin that it touched.

Cassandra was awake beside him, thumbing through a book. Jewel would’ve preferred to share a carriage with Varric, but Cassandra wanted to keep an eye on him. He was sure Varric was having fun listening to Solas tell him some story about wisps showing him an ancient irrigation system, or some shit.

Cassandra acknowledged him waking, but didn’t speak. They sat in silence for a while after, and only when Jewel was near falling back asleep, did Cassandra finally break it.

“It...occurs to me I don’t actually know much about you.”

Jewel tilted his head. “Really? Even with that six-pound file Leliana has on me?”

“I suppose I could ask her. But I’d rather hear it from you.”

“Don’t get excited,” Jewel snorted, “I’m from a shitty little Vashoth village outside Ansburg.”

“I...suppose I never thought about where the Vashoth might actually live.”

“Most people don’t.”

“Would it be pointless to ask if you were eager to return there?”

“I did just said it’s shitty. If I ever go back, it’ll be too soon.”

Cassandra looked mildly surprised, but her tone stayed as even as ever. “Really? That’s….”

“It’s complicated, okay?” Jewel waved her off dismissively, “And not as interesting as it sounds.”

Cassandra regarded him with a calculating gaze, taking a moment to think and decide on what to ask him next. Slowly, she spoke,

“You...don’t believe you are chosen. Am I correct assuming you also don’t believe in the Maker?”

Jewel raised his eyebrows at her, more entertained than anything. “Bit of a jump from asking about my hometown.”

“It’s pertinent.”

“I guess. Anyway, no, I don’t believe in the Maker. But I don’t follow the Qun either if you’re worried about that. You’ve got that look.

“I wasn’t! And I don’t!”

Ooh, defensive.”

“Ugh.”

--

The carriage was intercepted five miles from the Hinterlands crossroads by a hooded runner, accompanied by a medium-sized white hunting dog. The runner crossed one arm over his chest and bowed to Cassandra and Jewel when the pair stepped out. The second carriage pulled to a halt behind them.

“Lady Cassandra,” the runner greeted, “Glad I caught you while you were still in the area. Missive for you.”

He rather cheerfully pulled a rolled-up parchment from inside his coat, and handed it to Cassandra. Its red wax seal bore the insignia of the Inquisition.

Jewel flipped a gold coin off his thumb to the runner, who caught it in nimble fingers. He was young, and blushed when Jewel winked at him, then took back off down the dirt road with the little white dog at his heels.

Why must you make doll-eyes at everyone you meet?” Cassandra asked, exhausted.

“Gotta agree with the Seeker on that one,” Varric added as he sauntered over from the second carriage. “That kid’s probably too young for you anyway.”

Jewel shrugged. “He’s not even my type. It’s just fun. And just how old do you think I am?”

“I’ve seen your file.”

“If we could get back to the matter at hand-” Cassandra interrupted, tracing her finger over the parchment and abridging it for the others “-the missive is important. Leliana says she is concerned because Grey Wardens have been...disappearing. They’re normally reclusive, but...Leliana has contacts-”

“Well you don’t have to be vague there, she’s been fucking the Hero of Fereldan for upwards of ten years.” Jewel leaned back against the carriage boredly.

“- anyways, the Wardens of Fereldan have been impossible to get in contact with….She thinks the timing is. Curious. She tried to contact the Wardens of Orlais...and they have also disappeared.”

“And she’s telling us this because…?”

Cassandra glanced back at the page. “She’s heard news of a Warden in the Hinterlands. A man named Blackwall.”

“Aaaand she wants us to look for him,” Jewel finished.

“Precisely.”

--

 

LAKE LUTHIAS

 

The small contingent - still comprised of Jewel, Cassandra, Varric, and Solas - made their way south from one of their camps, following a narrow path on its winding course into the hills. It took a sharp route upwards and spat them out next to a lake that Jewel didn’t know the name of, curved alongside the bank of pebbles sinking into thick mud, then it veered up an incline towards basalt columns where a waterfall poured down and left prismatic colors in the mist.

Jewel was feeling like absolute shit. Groggy and slow, like when he’d first woken up with the mark. His limbs felt heavy.

Varric must have noticed it (which would stand to reason, the man seemed observant) because he fell into line beside Jewel on the trail and asked him, in a quiet voice,

“You feeling okay?”

Jewel pinched the bridge of his nose, but nodded. “Yeah. Think I’m just coming down with something.”

Varric didn’t look like he believed him, but he didn’t press.

The Warden’s cabin was on the other side of the lake, just a tumble-down shack between a rotting dock and a large rock face. To the left-hand side of the cabin was a modest woodpile and an iron pot over a cooking fire; to the right were bags of dry goods and one wooden barrel. Out front, there was a drying rack made of sticks lashed together, holding out fish to cure.

The Warden himself was out there, too, pacing in front of three scrawny young men. He sounded like he was giving them a speech, some rousing thing to encourage his men, probably about integrity or honor or some such nonsense, Jewel presumed.

“-you’re not hiding, you’re holding ,” he said as the Inquisition came within earshot, “Elsewise it’s useless.”

“Hate to interrupt his training exercise,” Varric said wryly. Jewel gave a quiet chuckle beside him, but Cassandra scoffed.

“Surely he can make time to-”

Jewel strode ahead, cutting her off with a wave of his hand. “Hey, Blackwall, right?”

The man whirled on him with simultaneous intensity and confusion. He looked a touch startled, but it was impossible to discern if that was from the interruption, or from Jewel’s appearance.

“You’re--how do you know my name? Who--”

He wasn’t able to finish before he glanced to the side, and his shield arm shot out as high as it could go around Jewel’s neck and shoulder, catching the arrow that flew at him from the trees.

They looked like run of the mill bandits, the archer in drab brown leathers and a worn iron helmet. The other three or so came from around the trees, running with stock swords raised and furious cries. It was probably by sheer luck that they’d almost caught Jewel in the throat with an arrow.

Blackwall gave Jewel a stern face and a nod.

“That’s it, help or get out. We’re dealing with these idiots first.”

Jewel felt blank, a clockwork mechanism of remembered fight techniques as he slid one dagger across the throat of the man that’d shot at him and spun in the air to bring the other down in a intersecting line across the first cut. Blood splattered the front of his coat. The other two fell in their own visceral manners; one with a crossbow bolt through his neck - severed spinal cord, instant - and the other to Cassandra’s shield bash caving in one side of his head. The stragglers bolted when they found themselves outmatched.

The farmers had fought, but none managed a kill. Probably for the best, since they all recoiled at the sight of the fallen bandits, one vomiting when his eyes fell on the shield’s handiwork.

Blackwall planted his chipped sword into the dirt as he crossed the grass over to the dead bandit with Varric’s bolt through his neck.

“Sorry bastards,” he said.

He turned back to the gaggle of farmers, deathly pale yet accomplished, and began to speak to them again.

In a word, Jewel would describe Warden Blackwall as boring . Oh, there was a certain rakish appeal to the man with his shaggy dark hair and exquisitely-groomed beard, the slight wrinkles around his eyes making him look seasoned and handsome. Solidly built. Gravelly voice with a pleasing Marcher accent. But when he spoke to the farmers, it was all conscripts and honor . Jewel faded back in at the end of his speech.

“...even if - well, thieves are made, not born,” Blackwall said. Jewel wasn’t sure why the statement disquieted him.

He told them they’d saved themselves - kind of a lie, given that the Inquisition did most of the fighting and the farmers seemed rattled by it all - and ushered them back in the direction of the farmlands in the valley below.

Jewel leaned towards Varric. “Sure you don’t wanna take this one?”

“Hey, you’re the face of this thing,” Varric replied in an almost-whisper, “Wouldn’t want to step on your toes, Herald.

Jewel wasn’t sure how long the Herald shtick would manage to supercede people’s thoughts about his race and appearance, but he shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

When Blackwall looked at him, it was with calculation and caution. He had a terribly serious expression to him.

“You’re no farmer,” he said, “Mercenary, then? Who sent you?”

“Down boy, nobody’s sending oxman mercenaries after you.”

Blackwall looked mildly surprised, then asked, “I didn’t s-...Well, who are you, then?”

“Depends on who you ask, these days.”

“Well I’m asking you. Stop dancing.”

It was a lucky break that Cassandra decided to step in then. “We’re Inquisition,” she told the Warden, “Investigating the Divine’s murder and the recent activities of the Grey Wardens.”

“We’ve been told they up and disappeared,” Jewel added helpfully.

Maker’s Balls, the Wardens and the Divine?” Blackwall was about to protest farther, when he stopped himself, “No, you’re asking, so you don’t really know.”

“If you have something to tell us, then say it,” Jewel said, a pointed look at the man.

“Fine. First off, I didn’t know they disappeared. But we do that, right? No more Blight, job done. Wardens’re the first thing forgotten. But one thing I’ll tell you - no Warden killed the Divine, our purpose isn’t political.”

“But it is holding bandit-farmer fight clubs, huh?”

“This was different,” Blackwall said defensively, “I was in the area recruiting, fought some demons, heard about the stealing. I ‘conscripted’ them and told them to stand. Next time, they won’t need me.”
“Yeah, they looked real triumphant, the vomit really made it.”

“Grey Wardens can inspire , make you better than you think you are.”

I’m gonna puke next if he doesn’t drop this honorable warrior thing, Jewel thought, but put on his least irritable look and told him, “You’re not helping. We’re no farther ahead than we were before.”

As he brushed past Blackwall with a motion for his companions to follow, the man’s hand shot out, and caught his arm.

“Hold a moment--Inquisition….agent, did you say?”

“I didn’t, but yeah.”

“The Divine is dead and the sky’s torn open. Events like these...Thinking we’re absent is almost as bad as thinking we’re involved. Maybe you need a Warden. Need me.”

Jewel blew out a sigh and turned, hands on his hips. “No offense, but what can one singular Warden do that’s so special?”

Blackwall’s answer was the first bit of spirit the man showed, in Jewel’s eyes.

“Save the fucking world, if pressed.”

 

Chapter Text

HAVEN

 

Getting back to Haven was almost a relief, after the detour. It was crowded, freezing, and smelled like dogs and horses, but Haven had the small tavern, a few real beds, and the company of at least a few people who weren’t Solas or Cassandra.

Jewel visited Josephine first.

He leaned against her doorframe as she scratched dutifully at her parchment, feather-quill flicking rapidly with every careful word. She occasionally paused to review her work before returning right back into the quick rhythm of writing. It took a moment or two for her to look up at Jewel, but when she did it was not with any surprise. She greeted him with a polite, cordial smile.

“Ah, Master Adaar-”

“That’s really weird to hear, you know.”

“Just….Ser Adaar, then?”

Jewel shrugged in response. He’d already lost interest in fussing about it. Josephine continued.

“Ah….anyway. As you are Tal-Vashoth, there have been a lot of questions pertaining to your.... history and…” She paused, uneasy, tapping her chin with the feather as she tried to piece together a polite way to ask an invasive question. Eventually, she gave up. “Ugh, there is no easy way to ask you your opinion on the Qun.”

It was a common enough question from humans.

“Don’t really have much of one. I wasn’t raised in it, if that’s what you’re asking,” He gave her facetious grin, then spoke low and conspiratorial, “All I know is they probably wouldn’t let me drink.”

“Ah, probably not, no,” Josephine laughed quietly, “I’ll make note of that. I admit I don’t know much about the Qun, however.”

She was probably baiting Jewel (politely) for more of an insight, but Jewel shrugged. “Me neither.”  

Josephine paused, considering the answer before she continued.

“You know, your mercenary work was not nearly as inflammatory. People are fabricating the wildest tales about your heroics.”

Jewel finally sat himself down in a chair in front of Josephine, feet propped up on the desk.

“Yeah? Can’t beat the real thing, I was pretty desirable.”

“Leliana found a letter from your previous company. She said your previous captain, a...Mister Tully, praised you very highly.” She smiled in a way that denoted more cordial politeness, but underneath, an energetic desire to know the nosey details of Jewel’s previous work.

Jewel nearly choked on his drink. “William ‘ Iron Ass ’ Tully praised me? Are you fucking with me right now?”

“That’s quite the moniker.”

“Well it’s accurate. He was a stuck up hardass who underpaid me and my sister, that’s why we left. And then he deducted five gold from our last payment.”

“Whatever for…?”

“ ‘Poor morale’ or something. Fucker.”

Josephine pursed her lips. “Well…he had nothing but praise for your skill in combat. He went so far as to claim they’d have lost entire battles without you, although he failed to mention what part you played.”

Jewel finally sighed, laughing quietly as he pulled his feet from the desk and instead leaned himself over it, closer to Josephine.

“If you wanna hear stories, just ask me.”

Josephine nodded. “A...alright, then, yes. I would very much like to hear one of these stories.”

It was a story Jewel told frequently.

“We were dealing with this bandit gang, pretty big one. One of our guys had a contact to get us a barrel of gaatlok - er, Qunari blackpowder - and I was in charge of rigging it up underneath a bridge on our employer’s property. The look on their reinforcements’ faces when they realized what they were standing on…”

 

--

Jewel made it two steps out of the Chantry doors before somebody else stopped him. It was a young man in worn but well-maintained armor, with tan skin and auburn hair in a sleek undercut. He stood with a soldier’s posture but a bit more relaxed than Cullen’s folks, confident and calm.

“Excuse me,” the man said curtly, “I’m here to deliver a message but I’m having a hard time getting anyone to talk to me.”

This was one of perhaps three people who’d spoken to Jewel like a person, rather than a holy relic or a feral dog, so he stopped his stride. He pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket and held it against the torch burning in its sconce on the side of the building to light it.

“Yeah? Who’re you?”

“Cremisius Acclassi, Lieutenant with the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company. We mostly work out of Orlais and Nevarra.”

Jewel took a drag before he answered and held it a moment, tight in his chest. He had the courtesy not to blow it out in the man’s face.

“Think I’ve heard the name before, but that’s all I know.”

The lieutenant continued. “We got word of Tevinter mercenaries gathering on the Storm Coast. My company commander Iron Bull offers the information free of charge.”

“Uh- huh , so the catch…?”

“Not a catch,” Cremisius replied, “An offer to see what the Bull’s Chargers could do for the Inquisition. If you’re interested, meet us there and watch us work.”

Jewel threw his head back in an exasperated sigh. “Who keeps telling everyone I’m the recruiter?”

“You offered to speak to me,” Cremisius pointed out. He stayed rather impassive through the display.

“Point taken. So what’s so special about your group?”
“We’re loyal, we’re tough, and we don’t break contracts. We’ve got references. You’re in Valo-Kas, right? You know talk is cheap.”

Jewel held the cigarette in his mouth, muffling his speech as he patted around his chest for his flask. “I guess so, yes. Anything I should know about your commander?”

Cremisius sounded almost uncertain in his next words, like he was hesitant with how to phrase it.

“Iron Bull? He’s a Qunari, like you,” he motioned to Jewel’s tall frame, “He’s...big, got the horns…all of it.”

It was enough to pique Jewel’s interest more than the rest of it. At the very least maybe he’d be meeting somebody who wouldn’t look at him like he was part of a traveling circus, he supposed.

Cremisius continued, this time back to his collected self, “He leads from the front, he pays us well, and he’s a lot smarter than the last bastard I worked for. Best of all, he’s professional . You’re the first time he’s gone out of his way to pick a side.”

“What,” Jewel laughed, “Me specifically, or the Inquisition?”

“Well, the Inquisition. But people say you’re pretty pivotal,” Cremisius pointed lightly at Jewel’s hand, “He wants to meet you. Thinks you’re doing good work.”

Jewel paused, which hopefully looked like he was mulling over the decision, as he focused on getting the cap off the flask in his hand. “Alright,” he finally said, “I’ll bite. Work it out with the scouts, they’re better at maps than me. Ask for Harding.”

 

THE STORM COAST

 

The rain came down in blinding sheets on the Storm Coast. It was a grey, foggy place where the chill from the ocean and the freezing rain cut to your core, dripped down the bridge of your nose, seeped into your bones and left you with hands numb and shaking. That was how Jewel found himself that morning, dismounting Bosun at the freshly set up Inquisition camp and hitching him to a tree by his rain-slick tent. The path to the pebbled beach was treacherous and increasingly narrow, so they’d have to leave their mounts and make the rest of the trek on foot to the meeting place. It was a cut through steep, dark grey cliffs dotted with trees and brush that faded up, up, up into the low-lying clouds of fog until they looked like they never ended. Sometimes the sound of a mountain ram bleating or a wolf’s lonely howl would echo down the inclines.

Jewel leaned his head against one of the tall rock faces surrounding the camp and let its cool surface ease the pain in his head. It was thick and cloying, like his brain was sticking to the inside of his skull. Still, he’d never hear the end of it if he missed this meeting on a hangover and Scout Harding had greeted him with reports of Warden goings-on and hostile strangers here as well, so he tried to shake it off. He felt briefly envious of the glamours mages could use because he could already feel the fucking look he was getting from Cassandra. She wasn’t even coming with him for this, but he was certain she knew he was fucking up anyway.

“Your mercenaries’ rendezvous should be on the beach, following this path,” Scout Harding broke the silence as she walked cautiously over to Jewel. She held a map in her hands, but motioned at the path at the edge of camp before she showed its drawn counterpart. “I saw the Tevinters they were talking about, too, though I’m not sure what they’re up to, exactly.”

Jewel nodded. It was the best he had. “Thanks.”

He pushed himself off of the stone he’d leaned against and made a vain attempt to wipe the droplets of rainwater from his face. He was, ultimately, forced to accept that he’d be wet and freezing for this entire trip. He saw Vivienne, wrapped in a royal blue hooded cloak, casting a faint barrier on herself to presumably protect her silken robes from the rain. Jewel had half a thought to ask her to do the same for him but he doubted she’d waste the mana on that.

Sera, conversely, was sopping wet and kept grinning defiantly up at the grey clouds in the sky. Jewel didn’t ask anything about that, either.

He’d brought Blackwall to help with whatever Warden activity he was meant to be traipsing around here looking for, mostly at Leliana’s behest. Blackwall was making a show of checking over Harding’s map, and Jewel didn’t pay any attention to him.

When he’d gathered the team together again, he didn’t really know what to say. He settled on, “Alright. Let’s get this one over with.”

They found the Tevinters on the beach, where the steep cliffs opened up to a wide, unstable area of rockfalls and rotted logs, leading out to the expanse of pebbles and algae along the edge of the Waking Sea. The Bull’s Chargers, it turned out, had started without them.

There was blood foaming in the puddles left by low tide, staining the slimy green of the algae and sloshing around the mercenaries’ boots. The Chargers’ armor was coordinated in mahogany-colored leather and dark brushed metal plating, decorated with fabrics of forest green and maroon.

The man Jewel had to assume was their leader (the only Qunari he could see in the group) was wearing...less clothing than expected. Just leather strapped over one shoulder and in a thick belt around his waist and baggy striped pants. And damn if he wasn’t a big one, too, taller and wider than Jewel by a good bit and his voice carried easily over the din of battle.

There were only a handful of the Tevinters left by the time Jewel’s group actually arrived, but one of them was trying to be clever - creeping up behind the mercenary leader as he swung that massive battleaxe around like it weighed nothing. Jewel had half a mind to just see how it played out and watch the (admittedly ballsy) Tevinter get cleaved in half, but the last thing he needed was for it to work. And to look bad by not even fighting.

He motioned Sera to flank around a rock formation and let Blackwall and Vivienne figure their own positions out. He saw Vivienne lay down runic ice mines as he pulled his grappling hook and fired it at a massive fallen tree hanging over the edge of the cliff above the battle.

It was old and rotting but it’d hold for a bit - all 280 pounds of him - long enough to gain an advantage. The tree creaked as he swung himself around it, and groaned louder when he landed atop the portion hanging over the cliff, but it held fast while he dumped the last of his Adder’s Kiss over his blades. Then he dropped.

He landed between the Tevinter and the Iron Bull, legs braced in the grey pebbles and sand, and plunged the dripping blades into the space just above the Tevinter’s collarbone - a hollow where his armor left a small gap and the flesh was softer. Blood welled up slowly around the daggers, then came out in a spout when Jewel kicked the man back and watched him collapse against the cliff face. He clawed helplessly at his neck as the poison began its work. Jewel had done his part, evidently, watching Vivienne spear the last remaining Tevinter with a thick, pointed bolt of ice, and the noise died down.

To Jewel’s surprise, the Chargers’ captain whirled around with a big wide grin, arms open, taking the whole sight in with a hearty laugh. Jewel got a good look at him now - dark grey skin, wide-set pointed horns, and sharp facial features. His shoulders and forearms were covered in elaborate black vitaar patterns. He was missing his left eye, but the other was lively pale green.

Hot damn , it’s true,” he said, with a faint but distinct accent that reminded Jewel of a villager back home that liked to buy an impressive amount of his mother’s moonshine, “Ah, the Chantry must love you.”

Jewel actually gave a small but genuine smile. “Yeah, they wanna throw me a parade.”

The captain held a massive hand out for Jewel to shake. He noted the Bull was missing the last two fingers on his left side. The captain looked him over, appraising him. “Well, they outfitted you well enough, you must be doing pretty good.”

Jewel tried to think of a proper greeting but the words clicked around uselessly in his head. S-H-something, the first generation villagers used to say it. Sten, they’d have called this one, but then again he was ordering a mixed bag of mercenaries around in Ferelden so he was likely Tal-Vashoth anyway. Jewel wasn’t about to give the man something to laugh at with his tenuous grasp of Qunlat. The Josephine in his head swished her quill at him, gently reminded him it wouldn’t do to look that amateurish in front of potential hires; keep up appearances, et cetera.

“I see I’m not the only one,” he settled on, amiable, cocking his hip as he spoke but keeping eye contact with The Iron Bull instead of looking him up and down like he would have if he wasn’t expected to settle on a business proposal with the man.

“I get by,” The Bull responded with an easy shrug. He moved to a nearby rock to sit down, keeping a bit of his weight off the braced ankle.

“I assume you remember my lieutenant,” he continued with a nod towards the young man - Cremisius, who evidently went by Krem more often - that had stepped up to him.

“Good to see you again,” the lieutenant said with a quick glance to Jewel, then back at the Bull, “Throatcutters are done, chief.”

“Already? Check ‘em again. Don’t want any of those Vint bastards getting away. No offense.” Bull began to rub at his knee on the bad side.

“None taken. Least a bastard knows who his mother was, puts ‘em one up on you qunari, right?” Krem looked between the two of them slyly, and slipped back out.

“Anyway,” the Bull said, “You got a name you want me using? You got this look when I said Herald.”

“Oh, you want my real name? You know how to treat a guy,” Jewel used tired laughter to disguise his genuine surprise at the question, “Jewel Adaar. Use whichever, my sister’s not here so the last name won’t get too confusing.”

Recognition came over the Bull’s face at the Qunlat surname.

Adaar. I like that. Not sure where your parents were going with Jewel, though.”

Jewel shrugged. “My sister’s name is Silver. Think mother just wasn’t sure what to name us so she picked...words.”

“Fair enough.” The Bull laughed and gestured at Jewel with his hand as he spoke. “So, you’ve seen us fight. We’re expensive, but we’re worth it.”

“Mhm.” Jewel felt the rain drip irritatingly over his eyelids and the growing anxiety to get out of this shit weather. “How much are you planning on running me up?”

“Wouldn’t cost you anything personally. Unless you wanna buy drinks later.”

Which, oh , a much smoother starting point than Jewel had expected, at least. The rest of the negotiations, he learned, would go through Josephine, which suited him just fine. He’d planned on foisting it off on her, anyhow.

“Well, shit, your Chargers seem like an excellent company.”

“They are,” the Bull laughed quietly, “But you’re not just getting the boys. You’re getting me. You need a frontline bodyguard, I’m your man. Whatever it is, demons? Dragons? The bigger, the better.”

Jewel willed himself not to say something too worthy of Cassandra’s ire. But Cassandra wasn’t here. His saving grace here, he figured, was mostly that his head pounded from his hangover and his mouth still tasted like bile. He settled on a smirk, light and friendly but the point was there.

“Sold.”

It was all going remarkably well until the Bull took him aside, a few yards farther from the group. He got up gingerly, motioning for Jewel to come along as he strode along the beach. The ground was slick under their feet with algae and it smelled rancid (to Jewel).

“One more thing,” he intoned, leaning closer in subtle communication that this wasn’t a matter for the rest of the gathered people to hear, “Might be useful, might piss you off. Ever hear of the Ben-Hassrath?”

 

Chapter Text

THE STORM COAST

 

The Herald….was a mess. The Bull could see that within the first day of knowing him. He fought with flashy Orlesian flair but he spoke a Marcher dialect. He carried himself with this lazy hip-swing confidence that belied his permanent exhaustion. Fingers shaking around the neck of a bottle, that glazed over sick dog look, irritable tensing of the jaw and shoulders when he hadn’t had a drink in too long. The Ben-Hassrath had sent the Bull to assess the Inquisition and particularly its de-facto figurehead, but he found Jewel Adaar to be neither the rabid Tal-Vashoth the Qun expected, nor the heretical oxman proselytizer the Chantry feared. He wasn’t even really in a position much more important than agent . Just a Vashoth merc with a drinking problem. Somebody never meant to get mixed up in this kinda shit. 

He’d been worried there for a moment when he’d given Jewel his true profession. Naturally, he’d have let it be if Jewel told him to fuck off, but it’d make for an awful short report back home. 

As it stood, though, Jewel hadn’t immediately run for the hills. He tensed, just a touch, possibly didn’t even jump to the Bull actually being Ben-Hassrath. Maybe he thought they were just after him for something or other.

“My mother used to talk about them some. Honestly I used to think she made them up just to spook me, but they’re, uh...like, enforcers and spies, right?”

“Yeah, that’s them.” The Bull paused a moment. “Or, well... us.” 

And there was the reaction he’d more anticipated as Jewel stepped back and tried to hide that he was poised to reach for the knife on the back of his belt.

The Bull continued, unphased. “The Ben-Hassrath are concerned about the Breach. Magic out of control? That could cause trouble everywhere. I’ve been ordered to join the Inquisition, get close to the people in charge, and report back.” 

“Alright, back up,” Jewel snapped, stepping back again, this time reaching outright for the dagger. It drew brief attention from the others, something the Bull hoped to smooth over damn quickly. “I know what you people do, you think I’m gonna trust you?” 

“Well, yeah,” Bull said coolly, “Or tell me to leave. Either way’s fine. But I will tell you, I also get reports from Ben-Hassrath agents all over Orlais. You sign me on, I’ll share ‘em with your people.” 

That at least made Jewel’s shoulders drop slightly. He lowered his voice. “Okay. Thinking on it. But, I mean - you’re Ben-Hassrath and you just told me? Like that?”

“Look, whatever happened at that Conclave thing, it’s bad. That needs to get sorted out fast. So whatever I am, I’m on your side. Besides, I’d have been tipped sooner or later, better you hear it up front.” 

Jewel took a steadying breath. 

The Bull observed. At a glance, Jewel didn’t look much like most Tal-Vashoth he’d seen and he certainly didn’t look Qunari, all dressed up with that Orlesian jewelry and a silk sash around his waist. He was pretty, the Bull thought, in a real threadbare kinda way. And he had not missed the way the man looked him over. Too soon to psychoanalyze the guy, but he was liable to cave easily enough with the right attention, the right offers. He sweetened the pot.

“You wanna talk Tal-Vashoth, you and me can do that in detail some other time. Short version? If you’re not terrorizing innocent people, I’ve got no problem with you.” 

Jewel’s eyes finally softened, back from skeptical to just...tired. 

“Fine. You run those ‘reports’ of yours -” he waved his hand dismissively “- past Leliana before sending them. She has to approve everything. If this is some kinda trick, I’ll feed you to Cassandra.” 

The Bull flashed him an easy grin, and watched the standoffishness slip farther from his face. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

--

The roster changed the next morning, Blackwall sent ahead with a contingent of Inquisition scouts to handle tracking the Wardens and the Iron Bull replacing him. It was to cover more ground, Jewel said - still unsure why he was even being deferred to - and certainly not because given the choice he found the Bull more interesting to talk to. 

They found the missing patrol at the top of a steep hill, past a winding incline of a road carved into the cliffs. It was three Inquisition scouts, a small group, and all of them were dead. The first was sprawled in the doorway of a wet-rotted shack and the second and third were inside; all were killed by a blade. The meager information that could be gleaned from waterlogged reports named the group that had killed them as The Blades of Hessarian. An ambitious title, Vivienne called it. 

Jewel ran his fingernail across the smeared words of the reports as he read. “Something here about challenging their leader.”

“Might not be a bad idea,” Bull commented, “If you can get the others to follow you instead, they’d be a useful bunch to have.” 

“Lemme guess, it can’t be simple as just walkin’ up and punchin’ him, yeah?” Sera interjected. 

Jewel blew out a breath. “Nope. There’s...schematics for some...looks like a necklace? I’ve got the metal I need but it calls for Deepstalker hide and I’ve never even seen one of those.”

“What never?” the Bull asked with slight amusement to his voice, “Nasty little fuckers, live in caves.”

Jewel folded and pocketed the schematics. “Yeah, I like to steer clear of caves if I can. Which evidently, I can’t.”

They had to traverse the slippery rocks back to the main camp after that, to check Harding’s map for caves, and by the time they reached it, the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. With little confidence in trying to navigate this region at night, they settled in to wait for sunrise. 

Jewel took the opportunity to mend a few minor tears in his armor, plopping himself on a log with his leather coat on his lap and a bottle down by his feet. 

 He was surprisingly good with his hands after a few drinks to calm that tremor, the Bull noted. 

A few more drinks and one patched coat later, Jewel shared his flask and toasted to Bull, drunkenly welcoming him into the fold as they watched from afar as a giant blundered around the grey beach. When the bottle was emptied he dangled it between his slender fingers for a moment before he leaned back and tossed it down the embankment to the rocks below. It disappeared into the darkness and shattered. 

The rain hadn’t let up by the next morning. The Bull found Jewel a few yards past the edge of camp, leaning his forehead against a tree while he spat one last round of yellow bile onto the pine needles where he’d already expelled all of last night’s liquor. His pallor, the rain trickling down his face, dark bags under his lavender eyes - he looked like absolute shit and it was going to be an interesting fuckin’ letter to the Ben-Hassrath, that was for sure. But Bull gave him a pat on the shoulder and handed him his waterskin.

“Too much last night, huh?” he asked amicably, “Here, you’re dehydrated. I know all about it.”

Jewel spit one more time and wiped his mouth, staining his nightshirt sleeve in glaring contrast to his lavishly painted nails.

“Dunno if you could tell, but this isn’t my first hangover.” 

“Yyyyeah, it shows.”

Jewel shrugged. “Well, they still let me lead these little excursions, so I must not be doing too bad.”

“If you say so.” 

“Ouch. Look if you ever find anyone else willing to take this Agent job, lemme know. I’ve got plenty of things I’d rather be doing.”

He wiggled his fingers dismissively as he spoke. Played it like he didn’t care, but the defensiveness bled through the page. 

--

Per Harding’s directions, the party picked their way along the bottom of the steep embankment past the main camp, towards the basalt cliff faces that hid tight-squeeze crevices for nasty little creatures to hide in. Jewel had to duck to make it into the opening and Bull had to go in sideways. It was pitch black and so thickly damp inside that it felt hard to breathe. There was a constant sound of things dripping to the floor, and of things cracking and groaning under the weight of the mountain. 

The first passage grew so narrow at points that they all began to turn sideways, inching along the claustrophobic squeeze for some few yards before it opened to a larger room of the cave. By now the faint light from outside was mostly lost, and the stone corridors were bathed in oily darkness. 

“Can’t see shit in here,” The Bull grumbled. 

“Allow me, darling,” Vivienne’s voice was calm and smooth as she glided past the others and snapped her fingers. The flourishing spell summed a mage-light orb that floated around her, filled the room with soft pale blue light. 

And from behind her, the reflection of tiny eyes, and the chirruping of small creatures before they disappeared farther into the inky crags. 

Jewel glanced at Sera, the smallest member of the group. “Any chance I can just send you in?”

“Pfft, get fucked.” 

 

--

 

The cave was not terribly large, but with the mage-light wisp about, it became clear that it opened up into a open central room filled with dim, faint shapes that didn’t fit in - too many straight edges and too much symmetry. It left Jewel momentarily puzzling over what he was looking at before the mage-light floated delicately over at Vivienne’s hand motion and illuminated the forms. 

“It’s a camp,” Jewel pointed out dully. 

Vivienne gave it a disdainful once-over. “Dreadful place to spend the night, but I suppose it’s protected from the elements.”

There were two tattered tents - makeshift things of deerskin draped over old driftwood logs. A long since burned-out firepit sat between them, made out of a circle of rocks. The center still held ashes. Jewel opened the flap of the first tent with his dagger and grimaced at the sight: a lump in the old blankets, the faintest view of wispy hair poking out from the pillows, and two dessicated hands clasped over one another around the hilt of a rusted knife. 

“Not well enough, I guess, ‘cause they’re dead in here. Great.” 

Sera peeked in around Jewel’s side. “Eeuughh.” 

“Might still have stuff we can use, though,” Bull commented. 

Jewel dropped the first tent flap and pulled open the second. Another body, this time with the blankets in a pile in the corner, leaving nothing to obscure the hollow ribcage. Next to the body’s contorted, unidentifiable face, sat a dusty backpack. Which Jewel was not looking

forward to having to touch, but here he was - reaching inside to slip the edge of his dagger under one of the rotted straps. He pulled it close enough to grab with a gloved hand and brought it out of the tent.

“If there’s something nasty in here, I’m firing all of you.” 

He pulled open the strings of the bag and they fell apart in his hands. The bag itself, however, held together as Jewel dumped the contents onto the stone floor. 

In the center of the pile, surrounded by empty bottles with sticky stains of old poison inside and a few rusted pieces of jewelry, lay two folded sections of scaled reptilian hide. 

“Huh,” Jewel snorted, “Maybe I am blessed. Hope this is the right creepy cave animal skin ‘cause it’s what they’re getting.” 

 

--

 

They’d have to wait on the crest if they sent away for it, naturally. After debating it with Harding for a solid twenty minutes, Jewel grabbed the chunks of stone and the old hides and stalked back to the log by the fire and once again, sat himself down with the schematics. 

It was a garish thing, the size of Jewel’s hand. A thick diamond-shaped pendant of wrapped deepstalker hide with a divot in the center for the serpentstone. When Jewel realized he had to polish the damn thing himself, he almost threw the entire crest into the Waking Sea. 

The Bull sympathetically passed him a mug. Jewel didn’t ask what it was and barely paid attention to it, only nodding satisfactorily when it burned in his throat. He decided to add the decorative embroidery to the crest before he felt like slogging through the damn serpentstone.

Jewel pulled a thick piece of thread taut and bit it off. “So. You said we could talk Tal-Vashoth, yeah?” 

“Mhmm.” 

“I don’t meet too many who know what it means to be qunari.” 

Bull put a hand up and stopped him there. “You’re not qunari. You’re Tal-Vashoth. World of difference.” 

Briefly offput, Jewel recovered with a roll of his eyes. “Yeah, well I still grew up looking like this -” he motioned to himself with the needle in his hand “-in the Free Marches. How many humans you think know the difference?” 

Bull shrugged, and conceded. “Yeah, fair enough. You don’t come off like a murdering bandit so I guess we’re fine.” 

“The night is young.” 

Bull humored Jewel with a smirk. “Alright, you wanna know anything in particular?” 

“Well you bristled at me being Vashoth almost as much as I did at you being Ben-Hassrath, but I don’t really know...a ton about all that.” 

“You never even grew up with the Qun, right? So you wouldn’t know what your parents or...whoever didn’t tell you.” 

Jewel jabbed the needle into the crest a little harder. “Mother didn’t like to talk about it. Least not to me.”  

The notes of bitterness weren’t even attempted to be contained. Bull nodded, easy, going along with it. “Sounds like something was rough back home.” 

Another hard jab. “What, you don’t have mommy issues under the Qun?” He paused, corrected himself, “No, I guess you wouldn’t, that’s right.”

“Yeah, no parents like that. I gather that’s a big deal for you folks.”

“Mother didn’t talk much about that, either. I know it’s a communal thing, that’s about it.”

“Tamassrans do all the usual parent stuff, just, in big groups of kids your own age rather than individual families.” 

Jewel flashed him a grin with that gold tooth. “Y’know, I’ve met plenty of Tal-Vashoth who grew up under the Qun and not a damn one was able to put it so concisely.” 

“It’s not as complicated as they make it sound,” the Bull laughed, “It’s just too long for a quick chat, and if you don’t have much context...it gets hard to put into words. I just know enough about both worlds to actually put it in words that make sense to you.” 

“Yeah? That’s…a lot less interesting than I expected. Really killing the mystique there.” 

“That’s what I’m here for.” 

Mercy's Crest

--

 

HAVEN

 

The next report came in, tied to the delicate leg of a messenger bird:

 

Herald challenged Blades leader. They work for us now. 

The second was longer - a missive brought in by a runner that was water-stained and smelled like the ocean air. Leliana unwrapped it with deft hands and scanned over Weaver’s handwriting. 

Adaar recruited us a mercenary company, The Bull’s Chargers. Took their leader with him as something of a bodyguard. He’s Qunari so I suppose they get along. Attached are testimonials I could dig up around Orlais. [...]

So far we have abandoned Warden camps, but no Wardens. Ser Blackwall is bringing back anything useful from there. Nothing that sounded like it belonged to Warden-Commander Brosca, I’m afraid. They left logs, which I’ve also sent along. [...]

Spotted a giant roaming the beach and warned the Herald. Also spotted a high dragon overhead - looked like a storm-breather - but it didn’t seem interested in our affairs. We suspect it nests on an island off the coast. [...]

A few of us are staying for cleanup on the Blades of Hessarian, but the Herald and his contingent should be on their way back to Haven by now. [...]

Be sure the tavern is stocked. 

 

Leliana almost let a smile cross her lips at Weaver’s report, almost. But she had some praying to do.