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‘The… uh… magister will be here shortly,’ Grand Enchanter Fiona says, in the same faltering, pause-filled, distracted voice as when she was expressing her surprise at the Inquisition seeking her out in Redcliffe. 'You can discuss your… offer of alliance, was it?… with him’.

Lavellan regards her for a moment, studying her face - which is similar to hers, in a way, if you looked past the lines of age and the lack of intricately branching ink lines on the forehead, cheekbones, and chin: like the younger elf’s, it is framed by sleek black hair, with light eyes stark against brown skin.

Except that Fiona’s eyes are unfocused, puzzled hesitation swimming in their green depths, almost as if she were recovering from a head wound.

This makes Lavellan frown in concern, while behind her back, another Enchanter, the poised, icily collected Lady Vivienne, clicks her tongue in disapproval. But the younger elf chooses not to dwell on it further - Fiona would probably say that she has no idea what Lavellan is talking about, again, and her expression would grow even more… concussed.

So instead, Lavellan plops down into the nearest vacant chair and, with a flourish of magic, pulls a ball of brightly coloured yarn - blue to match her eager gaze - as well as a pair of long, dark, age-polished wooden knitting needles.

'Very well,’ she announces cheerfully. 'I will wait. You wouldn’t happen to need a pair of mittens, would you, Enchanter? Ferelden must be so frightfully cold for someone from Orlais’.

'You knit?’ Fiona asks, a surge of curiosity pulling her out of her daze. 'With what we heard of you, it seems a rather… Tame craft to practice’.

'Hah, yes, I know!’ Lavellan beams, knocking her needles together and bobbing one of her feet in the air as she settles in her seat cross-legged. 'I am too young and too demon-stabby to make mittens and other cutesy garments! But knitting helps me think. In my clan, we breed our halla long-fleeced, and they allow us to sheer off the excess to keep ourselves warm in the mountain winters. Every Lavellan knows how to knit, even the Keeper’s appren… Ah!’

Lavellan has been accompanying the explanation her clan’s customs with very animated gestures (with Fiona listening, eyebrows raised in interest, and Vivienne smiling indulgently behind her, tracing the contours of her mage’s staff with a perfectly manicured hand in a fingerless glove, which, while crafted less artfully than the lest of her clothing, matches the colour scheme perfectly and is obviously well cared for). And these gestures, at some point, make her yarn roll off down to the floor.

A tiny mage child - probably just taken from their family by Templars before the Circles fell - who has been huddling in between two slightly older apprentices at another table, poking clumsily at their porridge and staring at the strangers from underneath the rim of a feathered cap with two oversized ear flaps tied under the chin, slips off their seat and waddles towards the colourful ball.

Once their soft, short fingers manage to grab hold of the yarn, they take a broad step forward, intending to bring it back to Lavellan, but are scarcely able to keep their balance. They would have most certainly stretched out on the tavern’s grime-caked, creaky floor, had a sturdy rope, woven out of green light, not wrapped around their waste and pulled them to their feet. The tiny mageling stares at the bizarre conjured thing, struggling to make up their mind whether to inspect it or burst into tears - and Lavellan, who has been guiding the rope’s motions from her seat, hurries to give them a reassuring smile and, biting her lips in concentration… augment’s the rope’s design. With a soft pop, it receives a pair of half-transparent googly eyes on the end closer to the child. It taps them playfully on the shoulder, like a harmless, friendly serpent from a picture book about animals, and then withdraws, locking its coils over the ball of yarn.

'That was very gracious of you, da'len,’ Lavellan says in a warm, gentle voice, spinning the returned ball in mid-air, while the googly serpent dances beside it, grinning toothlessly.

'But I’ve got this!’

The two apprentices that were watching over the child, while they were ploughing through their porridge, stir in apprehension.

'That’s not how you are supposed to use magic,’ one of them says, in the hoarse, breaking voice of a boy on the cusp of manhood. 'Magic is for battle, not games’.

'He is right, you know,’ Vivienne cuts in, the line of her mouth so terse and her gaze so judgemental that the little serpent wilts under it, shrinking and shrinking until it vanishes in a puff of green smoke. 'You really should not encourage these impressionable youths to play with fire, darling’.

'It is not fire, though,’ Lavellan objects softly, and looks up at Vivienne with such sincerity that the latter relaxes her guarded stance, ever so slightly, the shadow of that indulgent smile returning, likely involuntarily. 'I know your Circles teach da'len that magic is a weapon that can backfire if mishandled. But it’s not just a weapon. It’s a tool. It can be used to pad knitwear like mine, making it even warmer; or to draw a rune on the bottom of a heavy backpack so it seems light as a feather; or to guide a caravan through the snow… Sure, a tool can hurt you if it falls on your face…’

This draws a snicker from the apprentices, and Vivienne freezes back into a rigid statue, her smile wiped off her tightly clenched mouth.

'But that doesn’t mean you have to be afraid! Here, let me show you!’

…When the magister finally arrives - a tall, imposing figure in a broad red hood that casts a dense shadow over his aged, unreadable face - he finds Lady Lavellan, messenger of the southern Inquisition, standing on a chair, a half-knitted blue scarf thrown dramatically over her shoulder. The two Enchanters are scrutinizing her with narrowed eyes (the elf’s twinkle in amusement, the human’s are framed with lines of concern), and there is a whole gaggle of children drinking in her every move, as she juggles a motley assortment of kitchenware high above the ground, laying out a dinner tray telekinetically without touching a single spoon or spilling a single drop of soup.

Perhaps unknowingly, perhaps for added effect (in the case of the magister’s… former apprentice, it would have been the latter), she has positioned herself right in a broad bream of orange evening light slicing through the window, and the glimmering motes of dust circle slowly around her young, smiling, thickly freckled face… Which makes her little performance even more enchanting to watch - even for an ominous stranger from Tevinter.

The magister falters before he speaks and thus makes his presence known. She does not see his eyes widen, pupils dilating and brow creasing in an expression of unspoken, unacknowledged longing… For a different, brighter, better time. A time spent far away, back north. Back home.

All she sees, when his lowered, unnaturally silky voice breaks through the excited murmurs of the children - who all shrink away in fear as soon as they spot him approaching - is a mask. Darkened. And again, unreadable.

'I see you of the Inquisition have already started treating the rebel mages as if they were yours,’ he says, and the pale, haggard young man who has walked in by his side shuts his bruised eyes momentarily, wincing.

'They are not mine.’

Lavellan sets down the tray carefully, climbs down into the seat, and corrects the magister, gently but firmly, just as she did Vivienne, unafraid to hold his gaze (she could well be the first elf in his experience to do so, but he does not seem to pay it much heed, instead preoccupied with… something else).

'They are their own people’.

'But you do need their help, yes?’ he insists, pulling himself a chair opposite her with magic, a ghost of a smile pulling at one corner of his upper lip – for he uses the same spell as she just did.

'And as I extended my offer of protection first, you will have to settle the matter with me’.

'Yes, about that…’ she taps the tip of her broad-bridged, cat-like nose thoughtfully. 'I do have a lot of questions for you’.

'Of course,’ he acknowledges - and again, there is that… spark in his eyes. Clear, lively spark, which makes his gaze appear almost as youthful as hers… Before it flickers off, giving way to crushing weariness. And that something that has been preoccupying him. Something that nearly brings the young man to the verge of tears, as he flexes his fist around a crumpled piece of paper.

'What would you like to know?’

Chapter Text

Looking at them, you would have thought they were comrades in arms that have just carved their way through packs upon packs of demonic creatures, which now lay curled up on the dusty, long-uncleaned floor, their spindly-limbed, toothy-stomached, triangular-headed forms made even more grotesque in the rippling, almost underwater aura of the green sky that is visible in oozing, acidic patches through the gaps in the crumbling roof.

Looking at them, you would have thought that they have made this journey together. That they have trekked into the very heart of a battered castle that sinks ever more into decay under a sunless, green-choked sky. That they have navigated the maze of dusky, gore-splattered rooms, where red crystals protrude out of the walls, emitting cloying heat in feverish breaths, and where a deathly silence clings to everything, like unseen but dense cobwebs, which are pulled taut and sometimes snap when a distant scream echoes through the abandoned hallways. That they have done it all side by side - two men and a woman, two Tevinters and a Dalish elf - and now, after yet another confrontation with demons, the older of the Tevinters has succumbed to his wounds, and his companions are keeping him company in his final moments: the woman, Lady Lavellan of the Inquisition, by kneeling next to him and cradling his head in her lap; and the man, graciously self-introduced as ‘Dorian Pavus, most recently of Minrathous’, by standing guard, staff clasped so tightly that the knuckles of his otherwise sun-bronzed hands stand out as pale lentils.

You would have thought… You would have thought wrong.

The truth is that, but a few moments before, the older man - the magister, trapped in the throne room of the castle that he himself once seized, jerking convulsively with paranoia and lack of sleep - lashed out at them, and summoned demons to tear them apart.

The truth is that, but a few steps away, Lavellan and Dorian’s other companions have gathered, looking over the battlefield, which is still wreathed in purplish-grey ribbons of lingering magic, with their faces ravaged by months upon months of torture and isolation in chambers with parasitic crystals lining the walls, crawling under the captives’ flesh like ticks with diamond-hard, crimson carapaces and gorging themselves on their blood and marrow and brain matter.

The truth is that, with but a single husky outcry, one of those sombre, harrowed figures - a short-haired woman in scraps of tarnished armour that once bore the insignia of the Seekers of truth - broke through the magister’s barrier, the vividly turquoise shards of disrupted magic slicing at her half-crystallized flesh more ferociously than any broken glass, and plunged her blade into his stomach before he could release the charge of electric energy that he was aiming at Dorian. At his own apprentice, who was standing, face drawn into a determined expression, between him and Lavellan. Between him and the target he never did manage to claim, the prize he never did manage to lay at the feet of his dark master, the 'Elder One’.

And yet. And yet, the very same target is now holding on to him, a small brown hand, speckled with freckles just as her blotchy, twitching face, travelling in soothing strokes along the side of his clammy, clay-grey face, and large blue eyes holding his gaze again. Just as back at the tavern. Before he dropped all pretenses of courteousness and, in an attempt to erase her from time, instead flung her and Dorian one year ahead. Into a future where his master rules the world, just as he promised. Into a future that is…

'Wrong…’ he croaks, his chest heaving in a tremendous struggle to stay alive just a moment longer, to hold in just enough air to speak.

'This is… wrong…’

'Oh, this isn’t what you were counting on, is it?’ Dorian snaps, the whiteness of his knuckles now mirrored in crescent folds under his eyes. 'Not the beautiful glorious golden age for Tevinter that your cult was in such a hurry to usher in?’

He tries to sound accusing, angry, scornful - but his question ends in a sniffle that he does not quite manage to hide, even as he presses his forehead against the adornment at the upper tip of his staff.

'No…’ the magister mouths, his voice seemingly crisscrossed by bloodied cracks, just as his lips are, while something moist clenches at the back of his throat.

'This is not… All I ever wanted… was to…’

'To save your da'len,’ Lavellan nods, slanting her eyes in the direction of another prostrate form that is not a dead demon. The magister’s son, who perished, despite all of his father’s ever more desperate, ever more insane plans to save him.

Drained for years by the darkspawn taint, he ended his days as a mindless ghoul, pale-eyed and unable to speak or to walk on to legs or to endure bright light. Felled by the unwavering wrench of a dagger across his throat, as the Inquisition’s Spymaster - herself clearly subjected to the taint, with her head looking like a skull dipped in lumpy wax - pulled him, wriggling and whimpering as a captured feral animal, towards her, and spat into his father’s face,

'I want the world back’.

…'I understand. I… I read your journals. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but we were looking for a way to escape this place. You have lived through horrible, horrible pain. I guessed as much when I glanced at you in Redcliffe - but now… Now I know’.

Lavellan repeats the last two words, intermingling them with the first two - 'I know. I know. I understand’, - over and over again, folding herself almost in two and planting a kiss on the magister’s cold, sweat-filmed forehead. All the while, her fingers keep stroking, wiping away the murky tears that stream noiselessly out of his glazed eyes, reflecting the flashes of green overhead.

'I know. I understand. We will fix this’.

'How?’ he asks, strangled. 'I… I tried… And failed…’

'Dorian thinks we can reverse your spell,’ she tells him, through tears of her own, a droplet dangling off her small, tattooed chin. 'Return us to the point in time when you confronted us. Before the world turned into… this’.

'Dorian…’ he slurs after her, almost blissfully - and then adds, rolling his head woodenly to the side, trying to discern his apprentice's silhouette with his blurry vision,

'Please’.

'Well, how can I refuse if my mentor has given me homework?’ Dorian quips - but the magister does not answer. His chest moves no more, and his body suddenly presses down heavily onto Lavellan’s knees.

'He is gone,’ she mutters, in a small voice, moving her hand to his eyes to slip his eyelids shut.

'Not for long if I can help it,’ Dorian retorts with rather artificial self-assurance. 'Now, could you please hand me his amulet so we might set to work?’

Chapter Text

The valley of the lake that hugs the rocky outskirts of Redcliffe Village is all ablaze with the last flares of sunset embers. The colours appear almost unreal: the rich purple of the sky, with generous, creamy dabs of blue and lilac clouds here and there; the smooth gold of the vast, calm waters; the thread-thin yellow flash of the horizon that separates them; and the omnipresent green funnel of the Breach, contained in its hungry growth for the time being and awaiting the Inquisition’s new mage allies to march off and seal it shut, hopefully once and for all.

The air is clear and crisp, and from the hilltop, the landscape unfurls for miles and miles, from the smattering of thatched toy cottages along tiny matchstick piers that jut into the bowl of gold, to the hazy blue mountains on the horizon, with a kaleidoscopic burst of hues lighting up on their slopes now and again as the clouds cloaking their peaks drift across the Breach and the sun shines through them.

The young man stands still, alone with his thoughts on the hill’s summit, in the deepening shadow of the old windmill’s wistfully creaking carcass. His hands are clasped behind his back, and his ashen-white face, with blackened veins faintly visible through paper-thin skin, is turned up towards the sunlight, catching the very last of the day’s warmth. Bracing himself for the approach of darkness.

He breathes in, slowly, savouring the freshness of the nippy southern evening - but has to abruptly exhale as his solitude is interrupted by the sound of rushed footsteps and occasional panting.

‘Lord Felix!’ a woman’s voice calls to him - and his round-eye look of being caught by surprise gives way to a genial smile.

It is her. The Inquisition’s Herald. The brave Dalish who worked to tirelessly, and combated such horrors, to stop the Venatori from enslaving the rebel mages and, eventually, unravelling the whole world. She is hurrying towards him, winded from the long upward climb and flailing her raised-up arms to draw attention. Her face is lit up by her usual friendly grin, and the elaborate net of black braids that crisscross her head has become frizzy from dashing about in the outdoors.

'I hate to disturb you, really! Contemplation is very important!’ she wheezes, dragging her slightly chubby frame up the final few yards, leaning on her staff as support.

'But your carriage has arrived - you know, the one that is supposed to take you straight to the nearest sea port - and some people… may have started to worry where you’ve gotten to! I had a hunch that you would go to a place kind of like this… to be alone… and went out to look for you before they launched an official search party!’

He shakes his head, his smile turning a little wry.

'Just Felix, please! So… Are the good King and Queen so impatient to see me gone?’

Lavellan half-laughs, half-coughs.

'Yeah, um… Something like that. Their subjects are good people, they really are - I should know, I helped quite a few of them return order to their homesteads after the demons clawed through them - but Tevinters… kind of make them uneasy. Especially after what happened in Denerim ten years ago. Which is very unfair to you, and to Dorian - I am sorry’.

'What of Dorian?’ Felix asks, voice shifting up in pitch with emotion. 'He said goodbye… In his joking, Dorian way… But I was not quite certain what he is going to do with himself, now that… the Venatori mess has been dealt with’.

'Oh, he is leaving with the Inquisition!’ Lavellan’s blue eyes twinkle fondly. 'He wants to keep helping, and I am so happy for it!.. I just wished more people acknowledged how heroic he had been during our travels to the future. I was a sobbing wreck most of the time, but he kept his head on his shoulders and brought us back!’

'You best not bring it up, or his head will swell so much he will need a servant with a fork for his neck to help hold it in place,’ Felix chuckles - and adds, softer, sadder,

'It is good that Dorian is coming with you. He functions best when he has a purpose. I… I will miss him. I will miss this. Standing up to the Venatori, proving that not every Tevinter wants to see the world burn… I would have gladly joined the Inquisition as well, if I were not…’

He clears his throat and concludes, with a forcefully cheerful intonation,

'There is little point moping now. I have made peace with what’s to come. Let’s not keep the royal couple waiting’.

He even reaches to Lavellan, offering to walk downhill arm in arm - but the moment they brush against one another, their surroundings change without warning, and without any logical explanation save for… magic?

The saturated purple and orange of the sky seeks away into a light midday blue, which then becomes obscured by lush foliage, which soars up in a splashing, rustling dark-green jet, as tall slender trees shoot out of the soil, straightening their trunks and lifting up their curly heads in a matter of seconds. The ground itself flattens, slabs of marble spreading over it as if someone had thrown down a pristine white sheet and it had then mysteriously solidified. And the view over the village, the lake, and the mountains is painted over in hasty brush strokes, presently replaced by a large, carefully tended garden, with cozy little terraces framed by carved balustrades and impeccably raked paths all running towards the centre, where there is a large oval lawn and an ornate gazebo on the bank of a small, sleepily gurgling creek.

Felix blinks, his eyes enormous on his pale face, like sparkling black saucers.

'That’s… That’s our country estate!’ he says, a bit shakily. 'I grew up here… I spent my uni holidays here… I… How did we get all the way to… Oh, wait… Wait!’

He swerves around and, trampling quite carelessly over the grass, yanks a flower out of a nearby shrub, clipped painstakingly to look like a roaring dragon, not a single leafy 'scale’ out of place. Hardly does the branch that held the flower let out a small dry 'snap!’, when a new blossom springs forth in its stead. An exact copy of the one Felix has just plucked.

'We are in the Fade, aren’t we?’ Felix deduces, collecting himself and tucking the flower in his hand behind one of the many confusing leather adornments of his robe.

'Did your Mark do this? Throw us inside my memories?’  

'That’s likely the best explanation,’ Lavellan nods, dancing eagerly on her tiptoes as she looks about, mesmerized quite in spite of herself. 'My friend Solas theorized that something like this could happen, though I have no control over it, yet… My, it’s probably nosy of me - but this place is so gorgeous!’

'A wedding gift from my maternal grandparents,’ Felix explains absently, meandering down one of the paths, closer and closer to the gazebo. 'They spared no expense; hired the best artists and architects to do the landscaping with magic… Maker, I have forgotten how much I loved coming here… It has been… A few years since I last visited… When I… um… fell ill, Father took me to Minrathous, where he could access libraries and healers and the Circle’s laboratories… Of course, that also meant the Venatori would track him down with more ease… More passersby to point you in the right direction when you are in the capital…’

'It’s all in the past now,’ Lavellan interrupts him, softly but insistently. 'A different past. A bitter past. This past is sweet. Happy. Isn’t it?’

'Bittersweet, I think…’

He trails off, and Lavellan does not attempt to pick up the conversation again, simply following his gaze towards the gazebo - and the little family inside.

A tiny boy, perhaps the same age as the chubby mageling that helped her get her ball of knitting yarn in Redcliffe - though, of course, better dressed, all fluttering silks and glinting, intricate embroidery.

A woman with springy copper locks and potion-stained hands, which the two onlookers - unnoticed, probably even invisible to the people in the memory - get quite a good view of, since she has rolled up her sleeves in order to cast a barrier spell when the boy, intensely preoccupied by chasing a butterfly, almost trips over his own feet.

And a man.

The man.

The man Lavellan has already seen. Surveying her from the other end of an impromptu negotiations table, hiding inklings of some buried pain under the layer of pointed, fake courteousness, with a shadow lurking behind his stretched-out smile. Snarling at her, drained of all colour in the searing green light of a spell, spouting jumbled speeches about the rise of Tevinter, screaming that she should never have existed. Dying in her arms in a twisted world under a Breach-filled sky, all his pain now spilling out into the open. All his fear, and regret, and grief.

He is free of that in this memory. He is younger, with longer hair untouched by grey, with no lines etched into his skin except the sun-like rays in the corners of his eyes. Tokens of frequent smiles.

He is smiling now as well - no, laughing, although the spirits of the Fade are playing out this vision with scarcely any sound. Just as the barrier encloses the boy, he adds a little magic of his own, and the bouncy green and blue bubble soars into the air, higher than the butterfly the child has been chasing, raining sparkles over the grass, while the tiny traveller smooshes his palms and his round, squirrel-cheeked face against its side, watching the garden zoom past him with a grin of wonderment. And the father laughs and laughs, flushed with movement and fresh air and mirth, his eyes radiating a warmth that would be utterly astounding, utterly unexpected for anyone who only knew him as the invader that barged into Redcliffe and tried to unravel the fabric of time.

'Your… your parents seem so wonderful,’ Lavellan says, transfixed on the beaming, elated face of her supposed enemy.

'They were,’ Felix sighs, glancing from the man to the woman to the boy, who has been carried within his bubble down to his father’s chest level and is now resting in his arms, the magic having worn off.

'They married for love, you know. Very uncommon among the Alti… Tevinter nobles. Named me Felix, meaning Happy or Fortunate, because they considered my birth the best thing that had ever happened to them. Father… he… He poured his heart and soul into caring for both me and Mother. And then… the darkspawn…’

He pinches his nose bridge, an inky vein protruding along his throat.

'It just… It broke him. By the time we came south, I could not recognize him. The man who had told me bedtime stories and comforted me when I cried had been replaced with… a stranger. A cultist parroting all that nonsense about the Elder One. And now… Now I will die knowing that… the father that I once knew is gone forever. That’s… That’s far, far worse than death itself’.

'No, Felix, please don’t say that!’ Lavellan cries out, voice shrill like a wounded bird’s - and before either of them can properly process what she is doing, she wraps her arms around him and places her hand on top of his head, drawing him into a long, swaying embrace.

'He is still in there… Your papae - your real papae. I saw him look up at you when he dropped to his knees and surrendered. I saw him cling on to you when you sat next to him and told him everything was going to be all right. I saw him. He is not gone anywhere. He is in a lot of pain, but he has friends in the Inquisition who might make the pain ebb away. He has Dorian - and myself. I will be asking mercy for him. Demanding it, if my glowing hand gives me any authority’.

'Mercy?’ Felix echoes incredulously, drawing away from her to search her face. 'After everything he did? I mean… I would be grateful for it, because I love him, but… In my rational mind, I know that he cannot possibly deserve it…’

Lavellan smirks in subtle self-deprecation.

'I never think with my mind, Felix. I think with my heart. My mentor Deshanna has always told me that it would make me a poor leader, because a leader needs to be just and firm, but… Being just and firm hurts my flimsy little feelings too much’.

And with that, comes the jolt of awakening. They find themselves back on the hilltop, with the valley below already submerged into waves of twilight blue. Darkness has fallen - yet when they descend into it, it is in assured strides.

Chapter Text


‘Wait just a moment there!’ Dorian’s voice rings through the long, narrow, frost-crusted passages underneath Haven’s Chantry, loud and perhaps more outraged than the situation demands.

 

'Your researcher - Minaeve, as I recall - has set up her station upstairs! You are dragging me downstairs! Which means that you did not, in fact, bring me here so I could help you with your critter studies! What a woeful breach of my trust! And here I thought you were my one confidante and protector here in the barbaric south!’

 

'I… I did bend the truth; I am sorry,’ Lavellan admits, the apology escaping her lips in three forceful gushes of white vapour. 'You would not have agreed to come otherwise’.

 

Dorian frowns, suspiciously scanning the small, round-hipped figure that is standing in front of him, already having descended a couple of steps onto the undercroft’s lowest level… Where the Inquisition keeps their prisoners. Including the one transferred to their custody by the Fereldan crown.

 

'You want me to talk to Alexius, don’t you?’ Dorian asks at length, his shoulders sagging as his mock affront ebbs away. 'I told you it was out of the question! I have fulfilled… the deathbed plea that he does not even remember any longer; that ought to suffice. I have no wish to see him the way he is now. That wretched soul in the dungeon is not the man I remember. Or want to remember’.

 

'He is all the more wretched because he is alone,’ Lavellan remarks, her voice no louder than the sighs of a swirly, silver-peppered draught that breaks through the gap under the Chantry doors. 'And so are you. I can only do so much to cheer you up’.

 

Dorian makes a vague scoffing noise.

'I have been alone most of my sentient life, and look at how gorgeous and brilliant I have turned out! And I am more than prepared to be even more alone, now that Felix has left, and my only other… sane countryman doesn’t trust me because he is a Soporati and I am an Altus, and the sole link to my last is rotting away in those dismal cells, and…’

 

He cuts himself short, exhaling in what sounds like surprise, tinged with pain, and unconsciously rests his hand over his heart.

'Vishante kaffas, woman! For someone so tiny and adorable, you are a master manipulator’.

 

Lavellan’s bushy, almost triangular eyebrows fly up into her hair line.

'I… I don’t want to be,’ she protests, a whimper breaking through. 'The Elder One is a manipulator; he sends his people to prey on those in pain, with false promises of help. When I promise to help, I really mean it’.

'And you tend to keep your promises, as a good part of the Fereldan countryside ought to testify… If this place even has a good part,’ Dorian assures her, brows arched sincerely.

'I… I apologize for my clumsy jest. That was unworthy of me. Let’s go prod the old man. Beats watching him die, at any rate’.

 

It turns out that Dorian may have spoken too soon.

 

 

 

After they finish their slow, grunting downward climb, with feet always threatening to miss the slippery steps, so worn that they resemble lumps of soap, and with one arm outstretched to seek the support of the rough, cracking masonwork, they find the imprisoned magister squatting behind his row of bars, which in the poor lighting appear to be lines of perfectly black ink, slashing his crouched body into several sections. Like a chilling omen of what the Inquisition’s executioners might do to him.

 

At first, Dorian and Lavellan stop in their tracks, exchanging an unblinking stare, both pricked somewhere in the softest part of their stomach by the same disturbing thought.

 

'Hello?’ Dorian calls out, snapping his fingers to conjure a wisp of green, heatless fire, to take a better look ahead.

 

'Maker’s breath, man, what are you doing down there? You have not gone feral, have you? Like…’

He swallows, and Lavellan lays her hand on his many-strapped sleeve, a grave understanding constricting her chest underneath a self-knitted scarf.

 

'I think he is watching something,’ she whispers, her keen elven eyes turning into reflective, pupil-less orbs in the aura of the wisp. 'Oh… Oh no’.

 

Leaving a flabbergasted, frowning Dorian behind, she flings herself towards the cell’s door, the white smoke of a Fade Step spell distorting her silhouette for a couple of seconds. When her curvy, knitwear-wrapped figure solidifies again, she clutches frantically at the bars and squeaks out, her burning eyes starting from the squatting prisoner to a small cluster of fungi that have peeped through a slanting gap between two uneven floor slabs. Their lyrium-blue caps are shaped like tiny bells, and peppered with bulging specks of white along the edge. A pretty sight, endearing even - reminiscent of tales of fairies one might tell a child… And yet Lavellan’s reaction is devoid of any 'Awws’.

'Please, Serah Alexius! Be careful observing those - and don’t, please, please don’t touch them with your bare hands, or, Creators forbid, ingest them! They may look cute, but they are extremely poisonous! Especially after their caps begin to spread out and flatten! I know what I am talking about; I have studied this!’

 

Startled by the unannounced disturbance, he drops from the balls of his feet to his knees, his fingertips meeting the damp floor. But then, he straightens up, his movements slightly stilted by the shackles that bind his hands and feet together with rather short chains, and turns around, letting Lavellan see his face - unshaven and somehow with about a dozen more lines since he last walked in the sunlight, poked in the back by a guardsman’s sword.

'So have I,’ he says simply, his voice so monotone that Lavellan instinctively raises her eyes to his forehead, to check for the sunburst brand that betrays one of the shem Chantry’s Tranquil.

 

'You don’t plan to…’ she stutters, thrusting her hand through the bars to grasp at his soiled fingers. 'No, please - please don’t!’

'Why shouldn’t I?’ he hisses bitterly through his teeth, jerking his hand away.

'The Inquisition wishes to dispose of me either way, does it not? I merely think it would be more fair if I was the one who punished myself, rather than you southerners. Because you…’

 

His thin, parched lips crawl unnaturally into a leer.

'You think your hatred of me is strong? Oh, you have no idea’.

 

'Don’t make me summon a fist of stone and slap you with it,’ Dorian - who has only just caught up, his skin turning a shade greyer with each Alexius’ word - joins in, looming over Lavellan’s shoulder.

'If Felix were here, it would have crushed him to hear you speak like this. And it is rather… unpleasant for the two of us as well. We have already witnessed your demise, you know. Once was more than enough’.

 

Alexius grits his teeth even tighter than before.

 

'That’s the whole point, Dorian,’ he says, dipping his head. 'Felix is not here. Soon, he will no longer be here… at all. All because of me. All because I did not try hard enough to protect him. How…’

His voice rises into a bark that almost wakes up the jailor, who is dozing on a rickety stool at the furthest end of the corridor.

 

'How is that fair? That he is dying, and I am still here? I, who was not even there to keep him from harm? Who was too busy being a self-important magisterial seat-warmer - while he and Livia, my Livia, were being torn apart by darkspawn? Who was ready to sell the world for him - and still failed? Over and over and over? How is that fair, Dorian?’

 

'It’s not fair,’ Dorian agrees, and Lavellan lets go of the bars and lifts her hands to her mouth as she watches his eyes brim over with molten steel.

'But you know what else is not fair? That one of best, wisest, kindest men that I have ever known - the man to whom I once compared all others - has been reduced to a grovelling lunatic digging through dirt for his own poison! That he keeps blaming himself for something that he could not have foreseen, and lets that blame mangle him beyond recognition! And that…’

 

He shuts his eyes, banging a tightly balled fist against the bars, at a frustrated loss for words, and huffing loudly.

When he tears his eyes open again, his usually impeccable kohl a streaking mess, his jaw is squared and his nostrils are flaring.

 

'That his apprentice, his best friend, his one remaining source of support, once snapped at him to “move on” and then… stormed out, too impatient, too prideful to pause and listen… And that this apprentice… has almost ignored him now, too, even though they both are so… So alone’.

 

Alexius staggers back, also rendered speechless.

 

'Dorian… Puerus…’ he mumbles in confusion, not even aware that he has backtracked so deep into his cell that his heel has squashed the blue fungi. 'It’s… It’s all right… I know you had reasons to leave me behind…’

 

'But I came back, didn’t I?’ Dorian goes on quietly. 'And so can you. At least, Lavellan here seems convinced that you can’.

 

'I am convinced!’ Lavellan exclaims emphatically, both her hands flying into the air. 'You are not an evil man, Serah - not in your heart of hearts! If you - please, please, please! - keep yourself alive, you can undo at least some of your… mistakes. You can help us fight the Venatori, push back the Elder One, restore your homeland the way Felix would have wanted, the way Dorian still wants…’

 

Just like at the Gull and Lantern, what seems like aeons ago, when he first saw her, excitedly showing off her magic in front of enchanted children, meeting Lavellan’s gaze gives Alexius pause. When he speaks up again, his voice loses almost all of its previous pained harshness.

 

'I… I wish I could believe as ardently as you that this is possible. But even with the two of you on my side, the Inquisition will still see me as a maleficar. A slaver. A would-be murderer. As it should’.

 

'Not if I can help it,’ Lavellan says, with a deep, solemn intake of air. 'If there is a trial - and the King and Queen instructed us to give you one, probably after the Breach isn’t a threat any more - I will vouch for you’.

 

'Vouch for your captured enemy?’ Alexius asks, his eyes brightening with what appears to be… something akin to genial amusement. 'Is your heart truly this big?’

 

'You have only seen a tiny bit of it,’ Dorian says, sounding like he is grateful for a chance to breathe evenly again, and making a subtle gesture to cast a sparkling bluish spell aimed to clear off his kohl-smeared face.

'Perhaps next time we visit, she will tell you about how she hugged that bandit, who apparently had turned to the highway to feed his family, and held him close until his nose turned into an engorged red pear and he swore off his wicked ways, sobbing like a baby’.

 

Chapter Text

‘I… I dunno about this, Lady Herald,’ the jailor chews thickly on his words, mulling them over and over, as his key ring jingles weakly in his faltering hands.

'Seeker Pentaghast and Commander Cullen were kinda… insistent that he oughta stay put until we figure out what to do with him’.

Herald Lavellan - who has awkwardly wrinkled her wide-bridged nose, yet again, when hearing that title - rests her hands on her hips and gives him and mischievous grin.

'Well then, lethallin, I am happy to tell you that I have, indeed, figured out what to do with him! And with you! You are both invited to the feast table!’

The mention of a feast makes the jailor’s  stomach gurgle hopefully under the form-fitting bulge of his cuirass. But he still struggles to remain committed to his duty - and even jumps a little as the light of the jerking, smoke-coughing torch makes Lavellan’s shadow, with that thick braid wrapped around her head, stretch out at the shoulders, now resembling the silhouette of Seeker Pentaghast, here to test him and condemn him and flay him alive with the sheer power of a wrathful gaze alone.

'Seems to me, m'lady,’ he points out tentatively, turning over his shoulder to look at the frozen-up figure that is watching their little… discussion from a darkened cell.

'That this 'ere Vint didn’t do much to deserve it. Didn’t he threaten Your Ladyship? What if he tries to magick you again?’

'The whole of Haven deserves a little celebration after living right under the Breach for so long,’ Lavellan retorts, still smiling, but making it very clear to the jailor with her resolute stance that this is her final say on the matter. 'Prisoners included. All the others - those bandits I have fought in the Hinterlands - have already been released for the celebrations, haven’t they?’

Her eyes soften, for she has read the anxiousness in the jailor’s jittery shuffling and shifting gaze.

'Ah, you probably think that the magister is too dangerous? Please don’t worry about it. Should anything happen, I can… magick him right back - not that I will need to. I am quite confident that I won’t. But if Seeker Pentaghast or Commander Cullen tries to reprimand you for letting him go, I have a friend who will gladly distract them. Just say the code phrase, “Is that a bee on your shoulder?”, and she will fly right to your rescue, making loud rude noises… My friend, I mean, not the bee. Bees’ noises are not rude. Trust me, it’s a scheme we’ve tested out before - admittedly only on Cullen… But the distraction ought to be enough for you to escape, while I take the blame on myself’.

'Very… Very well, m'lady,’ the jailor concedes, sniffing and clearing his throat. 'I did kinda want to take a peek at the feast…’

'Please, don’t stop at just a peek! You deserve it too!’

A new, stronger jingle of the key ring - and the cell door screeches wide open, letting out the slightly slouching, stiff-legged prisoner, who is, after a meaningful look from Lavellan, relieved of the shackles around his wrists and ankles, with even more jingling.

'Hello again, Serah Alexius,’ Lavellan greets him, as the jailor scurries off, the call of the stomach now nigh on overpowering.

'They did it. My new friends did it. They powered up my Mark, and helped me seal the Breach. You were right, back in Redcliffe - it was ambitious, almost impossible; but our team actually pulled it off!.. Hence the grand celebration you will be soon enjoying’.

While she talks, she tirelessly shepherds him along dank underground corridors and up cramped stairwells and under the curving vaults of the spacious Chantry hall.

He follows obediently, like a man roused from deep sleep and still half-plunged into the oblivion of the Fade - and his unblinking eyes cannot seem to leave her face, which glows with pride for her 'new friends’, and is flushed with a mix of boisterous motion, and fresh air, and perhaps a dollop of alcohol… Though he cannot smell that in her breath (not that he leans in too close to sense it), and her eyes are clear, huge and fathomless like pools of potent lyrium.

When they have to walk in single file, he instead watches the back of her head, entwined in elaborate braids and covered with what appear to be tiny white flowers…

Yes, they are, in fact, flowers - but not live, not picked from any meadow; they are knitted out of fluffy, snowy wool, and a closer inspection of them brings a wandering smile to the prisoner’s face.

'Are those… what you were knitting as you came to talk, all those times before the Breach expedition? Pulling up that stool on the other side of my cell bars?’ he asks, and she nods brightly.

'I made something for you as well,’ she tells him, stopping on the Chantry threshold.

With a small wave of her hand, she magically parts the clasps of the satchel at her belt, and pulls out a fuzzy red hood, also knitted, with three recognizable triangular straps at the forehead and either side.

'Like the one you used to wear when we first met,’ she comments, guiding the hood telekinetically towards her companion’s head. 'It is quite cold out, especially for folks from up north - I think Dorian has hoarded all the scarves - and you haven’t been outdoors for so long, which makes you even more vulnerable. I hope this keeps you cozy. I imagined dragon spikes as I worked on it. Are those dragon spikes? I mean, symbolically?’

'I wouldn’t know,’ he confesses, cautiously adjusting the hood as it wraps itself over his bristle-covered skull. 'The Venatori just issued me and Felix two uniforms - probably to mark us as untouchable… for as long as I was useful to them - and we put them on’.

Her face falls.

'Oh, it’s… it’s a Venatori thing, is it? I assumed it was just Tevinter fashion… That’s… That’s probably too insensitive, then. Fenedhis, I should have researched it better! Like I have learned no lessons from all the times humans misunderstood our customs!’

'You needn’t berate yourself,’ he soothes her quietly, a wave of pink spreading over his sunken cheeks. Because he has already begun to feel warmer. Yes. For that reason.

'It’s wonderful. And it really does not compare to our kind being disrespectful of the Dalish. Which… come to think of it, I am probably going to be plenty of times. I regret to say that I… have met significantly fewer free elves than free humans. All the more so since I mostly employed human Liberati, myself. I suppose I will just have to use common sense and check myself before my… upbringing gets the better of me’.

'That’s a great start!’ she beams - before gesturing broadly at the scene that unfolds before them as soon as they pass through Chantry doors. 'Let’s leave food for thought for another time; here’s just regular food! Lots and lots of it!’

'Lots and lots’ is perhaps even an understatement. As far as eye can see, the narrow, street-like paths before the little snow-capped buildings (which all have lanterns hanging along the roofs, twinkling merrily like a second field of stars reflecting the rich smatterings of diamond dust up above) are lined with long, heavily laden tables that almost cave in under the weight of tall, majestically rotund pots of soup and stew and porridge wreathed in steam like the altars of some gluttonous pre-Andrastian deity. There are fires, too, burning round every corner, chubby bodies of pigs and fowl building up more and more glinting, honey-dripping crust with every turn of the spit. And in some places, the air is dense with the rich scent of freshly baked bread.

'Fereldan food is probably too bland for your taste,’ Lavellan comments, squinting at him curiously as he presses one hand against his stomach, trying to silence a most unbecoming gurgle (which makes him no less unrefined than that goofy jailor). 'But it is very filling! Maybe this time, you will actually have a proper meal. It was always so disheartening to see you leave your prison rations almost untouched’.

'I… I must admit I do not recall when I last noticed what was going into my mouth, or how much,’ he mutters, while ushered by the very determined elf through the bustling crowd of revellers (most of whom are thankfully too tipsy to pay heed to either his face or his hood). 'I saw eating… or sleeping… as a waste of time. An annoying hindrance as I was trying to work’.

'There will be no more of that now that you are my friend!’ she declares, with a mock air of imperiousness. 'Ah, and there is our table! I am back, everyone! And Serah Alexius is with me; even if you are not ready to forgive him, please let him rest among us, just for tonight!’

Barring Dorian, who perks up over the edge of the scarf cocoon he has made himself and waves a fork-speared piece of cheese in greeting, the company at the table - the Inquisition’s illustrious inner circle, in the flesh - reacts to Lavellan’s announcement with various degrees of astonishment and distrust.

Both of the women that accompanied their Herald to the ill-fated meeting at the Redcliffe Castle - First Enchanter Vivienne and Seeker Pentaghast - straighten up till their backs are not a degree less than perpendicular to the table, as Felix would note, and reach for their weapons, prudently placed by their side on their shared bench.

The mountain-tall one-eyed Qunari, whom Lavellan introduces as The Iron Bull, emphasis on the article, and who seems to occupy at least three seats, silently scans Alexius from head to toe, his gaze intent, prickly, and far more intelligent than one would expect from such a huge, bulky warrior (intelligent in a most unnerving, get-under-your-skin way).

The quiet man with a silver-specked black beard ('Hello, Blackwall!’ Lavellan calls to him) shakes his head slowly, saying, 'Trusting as always’, under his breath, but with wonderment rather than disapproval. While his neighbour, 'and this is my friend Sera’, a somewhat dishevelled blonde elf in a red shirt, several years Lavellan’s junior by the looks of her, sticks out her tongue and throws her bony leg in fraying plaidweave up onto the table, perhaps to be rude, perhaps to block Alexius from sitting next to her, or perhaps both.

The other elf, a clean-shaven man in a simple greenish tunic, whom Lavellan addresses reverently in their people’s tongue as 'hahren’, and then as 'Solas’, also tensens, eyes narrowing just barely. The pale, red-haired woman, 'Lady Nightingale’, does the same, and the frosty air seems to condense into veritable icy spikes around where she sits, while her transparently grey eyes flash, prickly like The Iron Bull’s.

The lady in a puff-sleeved gilded blouse and heavy ceremonial jewelry, to whom Lavellan eagerly bows, greeting her warmly as 'Ambassador Montilyet’, makes a small, cluck-like noise, and rockets to her feet, making certain that Alexius gets clean eating utensils and breaking into a rapid fire of Antivan-accented musings whether 'this gesture of good will to our opponents might paint us in a favourable light’.

The tall young man with ruthlessly combed-back flaxen hair, packed inside a full suit of armour even as he dines ('Commander Cullen, you should eat properly as well! I was serious about offering you the Knitted Mabari of Encouragement!’), is the most vocal about Alexius’ presence.

'Lady Lavellan, with all due respect, we cannot have him here! May I remind you that the man tried to kill you? It’s bad enough that you are allowing the mages from Fiona’s group to roam about unsupervised - but this is a maleficar of an entirely different calibre! You don’t seriously think that putting a wooly hat on him has made him tame?’

'Putting a wooly hat on him has made him warm,’ Lavellan cuts him off with a bold, challenging cheerfulness. 'He is here to eat, nothing more. You may scold me for this later, if you wish, but if we continue arguing right now, a bee just might land on your shoulder’.

Sera guffaws, whipping her leg off the table with a bang; Cullen blinks cluelessly, insisting that it’s too cold for bees, 'and what do bees even have to do with anything’. And amid all the commotion, Alexius finds himself seated in front of the set of cutlery the Ambassador has procured for him, while the last member of the inner circle who has remained unintroduced - a dwarf that does not resemble his kin from the Ambassadorium in anything but height, with more hair on his half-exposed chest than on his chin - is lumping generous scoops of slightly charred potato slices onto his plate.

'This is not the first time I have seen a bright-eyed young heroine adopt a shady character,’ he remarks after finally halting the potato stream. 'This can make a good story’.

“Shady implies that I intend to abuse the Herald’s hospitality,’ Alexius says testily, while attacking a potato with a fork - perhaps more viciously than necessary. 'I do not’.

'Good for you, Time Lord,’ the dwarf smirks. 'There will be no shortage of people itching to… have a word if you act otherwise. Myself and Bianca among the first’.

Alexius hurries to swallow his helping - which his stomach welcomes with more unbecoming noises - and cocks an eyebrow, his mouth twitching on the verge of a delighted grin.

'Bianca? As in… Bianca the crossbow? You wouldn’t happen to be Varric Tethras? Comrade of Danarius’ Bane?’

The dwarf chortles, a grin to mirror Alexius’ lighting up his rugged features.

'Is that how they call Fenris in Tevinter now? Sparkler didn’t tell me!’

The scarf cocoon stirs again, interested.

'I assume that’s a Magisterium thing,’ Dorian’s voice pipes up from under the woolen layers. 'Us youngsters generally refer to him as "the elf who rid us of the asshole”.

'Pretty much the same,’ Alexius quips offhandedly, and their corner of the feast table bursts into laughter… Although Alexius himself does not really partake in it, merely watching the others with a profound wistfulness, like he watched Lavellan at the Gull and Lantern.

But the ray-like lines in the corners of his eyes, long since overshadowed by the dark etchings of worry and anger and fear, do stand out for a moment - and when Lavellan sees that, she nearly melts, and the knitted blossoms in her hair are swathed in the pearly glow of passive magic.

And then, the war horn sounds.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, there was a man who knelt before a being of ancient power, struck to dumb, grovelling speechlessness by the sight of a magister of old, alive against all odds, back with ambitions to walk the Black City, as this glorious, glorious entity, and the other Dreamers of old, had already done once, and to revive a corruption-mired, war-drained empire.

Once upon a time, there was a man who looked with baited breath into the twisted features of this self-proclaimed god, who froze reverently on the ground, looking up at the red-veined face that was framed by deeply lodged shards of jagged ruby crystal, borne pridefully like a sovereign’s crown - and saw a promise of justice, of reprieve, of happiness, which was categorically, mercilessly denied to him, to his beautiful, beloved family, by all other forces of the world.

This man has now witnessed the idol of his feverish dreams sow panic and pain amid an unsuspecting crowd of carefree revellers, guilty of nothing except sharing the same village with this wrathful creature’s prey. He has seen the ancient magister emerge from the frothing, blue and silver clouds of the night, stepping forth onto a hilltop, with the familiar sallow knight in glow-bleeding black armour never far behind, and extend one skeletal hand imperiously into the valley below. A silent, simple command to the knight’s army of nearly mindless warriors — each of whom was force-fed burning, throbbing ruby mouthfuls until this caused them to crystallize from within, warping into their deity’s smaller, more feral likenesses. An order to slash, to torch, to claw until the snow underfoot turned into a slurping, filthy thawed stream of soot mixed in with blood.

Once upon a time, there was a man who repeated - wondering if he was going to start believing if he chanted it frequently enough - that once his new brethren, the faithful of the Elder One, claimed the entirety of the known world map, from one ocean to the other, Thedas would rise to the peace and prosperity that he had always hoped to see. The sweet, blessed future that he had imagined in such roseate, happily pastel colours when he was a naïve youth, with larger-than-life plans and a silly conviction that, once you weighed and measured all the ingredients, you could concoct a perfect society just as easily as an alchemical solution.

This man has now realized (no, ‘realized’ is too formal; 'been smacked in the face with, like with a sack of flour’ would describe it far more accurately) what his… his damned cult will really bring to Thedas. An endlessly spinning, all-consuming whirlpool of flames; another Breach, except one that has erupted on the ground rather than in the longsuffering sky. An infernal storm that, if not halted by some miracle (the sort of miracle he is too old to believe in), would soon spread from this doomed village to the next, and the next, and erase all of the southern Inquisition’s achievements. A world-shattering disaster that would make all the people saved, all the acclaim gathered, stop mattering.

And together with it, he has seen the faithful… the cultists of the Elder One unleash another, unseen whirlpool, also spreading at a sickening speed, permeating the shimmering, liquid-like broiling air whenever one might turn - a vortex woven out of ringing, choking screams. The final pleas of those not strong enough to stand against the steady river of marching crystal mounds, which he has watched, with glassy eyes and horrorstruck pinpoint pupils, as it advanced on and on and on, following the order to destroy with a bloodthirsty zeal, glinting red and orange, lava-like, in the roaring blaze.

Once upon a time, there was a man who was given an important job by his master, by his deity, by the wielder of the bait that he could not resist:  the vague whisper of a cure for his son and the ravings of a new era for his homeland. Both dying. Both out of his power to save.

Once upon a time, there was a man who was set on a mission that only someone with his magic would be able to complete, as a deep, rumbling voice said to him, while a black-clawed hand locked its vice-like grip around the crown of his pounding, bowed mortal head and pressed his sweating face into the floor in an even lower bow. Once upon a time, there was a man who was entrusted with cleansing the time’s current of the little elven thief, the insolent ra… no, he will not repeat the word, not now… The interloper who stole the Fade’s Anchor that was supposed to have been the Elder One’s.

Once upon a time, he was instructed to hunt her, to hate her… And yet. And yet.

This man has now seen her - Lady Lavellan, the Herald of Andraste, as some call her - climb into the most precarious corners of burning buildings, often assisted by teleportation. And reach in, even as the roof beams screamed and tilted over her head, ember flakes swelling along them like blisters. And pull out the woozy, spluttering villagers, right into the gentle turquoise embrace of the protective barrier that lingered until they trotted out and made a beeline to the hamlet’s sole stone building, the Chantry, their elven saviour smiling tenderly in their wake, not caring whether or not they thanked her.

He has seen her, and helped her.

After all, she so graciously freed him of his shackles, if supposedly only for one night, just before he found himself caught in the chaos of the Elder One’s arrival. In the few seconds that were at his disposal to make one rational decision before everything erupted into flames, he reasoned that he might as well make himself useful. If only to repay a debt of (inexplicable) kindness.

He has had the chance to fight by her side. Armed with a modest, standard-issue staff that Lavellan grabbed off a burning merchant’s stall and tossed to him across the battlefield (there may or may not have been a boyish smirk of self-satisfaction touching his lips as he managed to catch it). He is still rather rusty after the torpid, mind-numbing days (centuries?) in the dungeon - but capable enough to whip a couple of crystal warriors across the gawking, red-eyed imitation of a face with a long, zigzagging beam of shock energy, keeping them off Lavellan’s back while she cleared the planks of debris off some woman in a grimy apron, with a round face that looked like a dark-grey mask, topped by tufts of ruffled hair… Or zigzags of it, shaped just like the magical lightning charges.

He has had the chance to appreciate, with quiet surprise, how perfectly in-sync he moved with his former apprentice, even after all this time, with flaring golden circles and triangles of well-practiced sigils whirling rapidly all around them, interlacing and welling up with a pent-up charge and then exploding with a force that sent the crystal warriors flying comically above their heads and somewhere into the smoking haystacks in the background.

A chance to pretend, whilst riding the soaring wave of adrenaline, that they were truly, completely, back to their lost days of friendship; that he had never become that man, from the dark once-upon-a-time, that 'villainous cliché’ his apprentice had had no choice but to turn against.

And he has also had a chance to wonder at how seamlessly their duet suddenly became a trio, with Lavellan joining in, swift and assured like a chubby freckled force of nature, her blue eyes focused on the advancing monsters, her hair flying loose, with the little knitted blossoms still braided into it and bobbing up and down as she twirled her staff and traced sigils of her own - subtly different in execution but no less effective.

And he has guarded her, all mana drawn into a saturated, almost opaque barrier, resembling a turtle shell carved from jade, once the blasts of their magic died down and all of their adversaries lay still, in the caking river of gore that they themselves had splashed the streets with. For whenever  that happened, whenever an intense, gut-gripping battle dance ground to a halt, and they got a second or so of reprieve before a new wave of crystal attackers, Lavellan would always settle by the side of the monstrous, red-crusted bodies. And cradle the leering death masks that had once been the faces of men and women, before the ruby poison touched their lips. And whisper a few words in her tongue, the deep, full-chested, melodious 'uthenera’ being the most prominent.  

Once upon a time, there was a man who would never have fathomed joining his most undesirable enemy. Standing with her back to back against the inferno. Keeping watch over her as she paid her respects to the remains of the most monstrous, inhuman creatures. And yet. And yet.

And yet at this very moment, he is taking cover back inside the Chantry, stacked among all the others who, guided by Lavellan, escaped the Elder One’s bleeding, blazing reach - like so many eggs inside an overstuffed basket, lined with barricades of overturned pews. He is rammed against the cuirass of the Nevarran Seeker, who is giving him stormy looks… How could she not, if a rogue magister with murderous tendencies and the power to turn back time has not only left his shackles behind, but also gotten hold of a staff (albeit confiscated by Inquisition soldiers at the entrance).

But it does not matter right now. Right now, his full attention is on Lavellan, who has drawn herself up to her full height, in the centre of the small patch of free space, opposite the Commander of her forces. Declaring her intention to face the Elder One on her own. To keep him distracted long enough for the Inquisition to escape along a hidden side path - pointed out by a wounded Chantry cleric, who is now sagging, blood on his lips and greyish gauze over his pupils, into the arms of a ragged straw-haired youth in an impossibly large hat, who arrived ahead of the main horde, warning the Inquisition in a series of frantically recited riddles, and just might be some manner of spirit.

Once the evacuees are above the tree line on the mountainside, Lavellan is to use one of the few trebuchets that survived the raze of the crystal army, and fire it at the rocky slope. Burying the Elder One in an avalanche - along with Haven. And most likely, herself.

There is no way of knowing if any of these southerners even suspect this - but even if the plan works, it will only slow the Elder One down. Majestic or repulsive, he is the closest thing to a god that has ever walked this blighted world; if there is something out there that can… kill him, it would not be a particularly thick layer of snow. Lavellan, on the other hand, is mortal. Blindly agreeing to lay down her life just for the sake of buying some of that precious thing that this man, this cultist, this scheming assassin, this pawn of the Elder One, once grasped at so desperately, raced after so doggedly, till the chase wore the hinges of his mind thin.

Time.

Another pause. Another reprieve. Till a miracle happens - or, which is far more likely, the infernal whirlwind catches them all again. Till the nightmare of the Elder One’s reign comes true.

Once upon a time, there was a man that would have gloated at the futility of Lavellan’s quest. But that man can no longer break through the slicing pain - like a sore throat, but a hundred times stronger - that drowns out all else when, across the overcrowded Chantry hall, his eyes meet Lavellan’s.

'I am sorry,’ he hears himself say shakily, and the entire throng of Haven refugees falls silent at the sound of a voice that, once upon a time, cursed their Herald’s name.

'For calling you a mistake’.

'It’s all right,’ she whispers to him - just as his son did when they said goodbye forever - as she heads in broad strides towards the building’s tall, heavy front doors.

'Please don’t cry’.

He is not aware of the tears in his eyes. Once upon a time, they never would have been there.

Chapter Text

It is the appointed time. The long, motley living chain of farmers and mages and Chantry folk has finally completed its hasty retreat out of Haven, with more than a few stumbles and awkward bumps along the way, as they half-blindly followed the jittery thread of the hidden path among clumps of crackling, thorny dried brambles.

They are well above the trees now, the caravan of people clinging on to the barren, grey and white shoulders of the mountain like serpent coils. When Commander Cullen sees that they have passed the tree line, he makes a rapid chopping motion through the air, and the Iron Bull, the Inquisition’s mercenary captain (and openly declared spy for the Qun, but that is neither here nor there, now at least), nudges one of his people, a dwarf with a bushy black moustache peeking from under his leather hood and with a deep, brownish scar running across his face.

The fellow has made his escape (often scooped up off the ground by his giant of a chief when the snow got too deep) with a single signal flare clutched fervently to his chest, his whole demeanor just as protective as that of so many parents that have been climbing the mountain with arms wrapped around their young children. And now, it is finally his time to shine.

Rubbing his hands together, the dwarf sets the flare down, strikes out a spark with a bit of flint, and eyes Bull over his shoulder, mouth curling mischievously.

‘This baby is stuffed with my approximation of gaatlok,’ he announces with pride. 'I think I got it!’

'Nah,’ Bull chortles idly, grabbing the dwarf by collar (again) and yanking him out of harm’s way. 'You really don’t’.

 

 

Gaatlok or no, the signal flare does its job. With a hungry hiss, it zooms into the air and almost shatters the bluish-black dome of the sky with a burst of crimson. And before long, another burst, bright-gold with a trail of puffy smoke, mirrors it from the valley. A projectile from a trebuchet, launched into the mass of rock and snow that looms above the ashen waste that was once their village.

When hit, the mountain lets out a guttural, almost human 'Oof’, and sheds a part of its heavy white mantle. The avalanche is set in motion, unstoppable, voracious, crumpling the mighty pines as though they were intricate paper cutouts, licking up the first few scorched buildings at the bottom of the slope, like crisply burned bread crusts, and washing away everything… And everyone. Or rather, someone.

A single someone.

A lonesome straggler that has been halting time and again, standing still even as the rest of the refugees shoved past him, grousing and nearly knocking him off-balance. Facing against the caravan’s living current. Looking searchingly into the night, where the ravaged Haven lies, a fretful memory beyond a veil of snow rather than the visible outlines of an actual village, and where the Inquisition’s elven defender, Lady Lavellan, ought to have made her last stand.

 

He has been doing this so frequently, this lonesome straggler in a red knitted hat with three triangular flaps that beat about in the screeching mountain wind, that the distance between him and the tail of the caravan has been growing longer and longer. And when the avalanche hits, he finds himself frozen in the middle of a silent spread of pristine, icy colour, ranging from condensed blue ink to powdered silver. A lost, insignificant human dot marring the perfect vastness of the snow. With nothing in between him and the rushing, smothering tide of snow.

He breathes in, like a diver about to slash through a glassy, cliff-tall wave - as if preparing to let it swallow him, to carry him down, in a realm of endless, snow-blanketed sleep… But at the very last moment, when the ground under his spread-out feet already begins to heave, he smirks. And flexes his stiff, raw-crimson, frostbitten fingers, weaving a wisp of magic into being.

The wisp lights up his features from below, splashing specks of green onto his jutting cheekbones and the tip of his curving nose, which contrast all the more vividly with the coal-like shadows under his eyes and sunken cheeks. And for a moment, the silhouette of his woolen hat seems to turn into an exact copy of the hood that he used to wear as a time-traveling cultist and the sworn enemy of Lady Lavellan. But only for a moment - for in fact, there is nothing sinister about the spell that he is casting. It is merely the first inkling of a barrier, which envelops him a split second before he is swept off by the thundering stream of the avalanche.

The barrier bounces and lurches and rolls, like a glowing green pearl with the caster locked at its core. The river of snow, ever-swelling, tosses it up, ramming against the mangled tree trunks, and propels it through the abandoned buildings even as it fills them up - the lumpy cottage cheese stuffing for the burned bread - and swats at it with gigantic, deceptively soft cat paws. And still, the barrier holds. Up to a certain point.

 

Whirred into a mindless nausea by all the ups and downs and somersaults, the straggler almost fails to notice that his spell is wearing thin. Yet another thrust onto the branch of a half-snapped tree, clawed clean off its bark by the fire, comes as a rude awakening. The splintered wood, with a hardened, saw-like edge, punctures the shimmering green film of magic, reaching in far enough to sink into the mage’s side.

He yelps in pain, digging one hand into his own flesh, with healing energy coating his crooked fingers like the leather glove of a healer… or a butcher.

The barrier, in the meanwhile, continues to melt away; in less than a quarter of a minute, it is gone completely, with not even the initial green wisp remaining. With no summoned bubble to float in, the mage plummets down, travelling half of the dead tree’s height before his weakened, ragdoll-like body meets a snowdrift, and sinks within, as if submerging into porous white bath foam.

His impossible descent does not end there, however: the snowdrift, as it turns out, conceals the leering maw of a cave-in, which has gnawed a hole through the ceiling of  an underground passageway, perhaps the extension of the dungeons under Haven’s Chantry.

 

 

The icy 'bath foam’, along with a tangled net of tree roots, breaks the mage’s fall, and he lands in the passage’s floor with no broken limbs… That he can think of. His first concern is not his own, battered, scratched, grimy-faced self. It is the small elven figure curled up on the snow-powdered floor a few feet away from him, a mane of black hair trampled underneath a thrown-back head, the knitwork of the little decorative blossoms now soaked in… Blood?

 

'Of course,’ he whispers bitterly, dragging himself towards the elf and carefully turning her over to examine any wounds she may have, the ethereal 'gloves’ of restorative light back on both his hands.

'Of course…’

He winces at the sight of the elf’s closed eyes, eyelashes resting on her freckled cheeks without a flutter - and then impulsively brushes a stray lock out of her face.

'The Elder One takes what he wants and casts the husk aside… But you… you stood up to him nonetheless… You brave, brave girl…’

 

Underneath the matted hair at the top of the elf’s head, his glowing fingers find a soggy gash, which he hovers his hand over, inhaling deeply and clenching his jaw, pouring out all of the healing light that he can conjure, till the wound is sealed. Not as ambitious, perhaps, as closing the Breach in the sky, but… But the next best thing.

 

After treating the gash - which, thankfully, has not affected the skull - comes the time to bathe the elf’s whole body, from head to toe, in several pulses of magical aura, each bringing a little more colour to her round face, a little more rhythm to the rises and falls of her chest, a little more subtle motion to her facial features… And at long last, she shudders, and gasps, and jolts into a sitting pose, blinking her way into groggy wakefulness. Her face is crumpled up, as if after smooshing her cheek against a ruffled pillow, and her blue eyes are slightly unfocused - but gradually, they brighten up with recognition.

'Serah Alexius!’ she exclaims, a bit thickly. 'You… How are you here… of all places?.. How did you… find me?’

'You know me, Lady Lavellan,’ Alexius retorts, with a thin-lipped smile that, as always, never lingers - especially not when his eyes are dimmed with moisture. 'I am a master of timely intervention. I…’

His gaze darts down, and his forehead furrows, as he passes his hand over his eyes to wipe them off furtively.

'I was… concerned about how you fared against the Elder One, now that we are… hypothetically on the same side… So I… travelled down into the valley with the avalanche to check on you’.

He looks up, smiling again, though with little mirth.

'As one does’.

 

'You… rode the avalanche?! Creators’ mercy, that must have been incredible! How did you pull it off?! Did you conjure up a pair of skis for yourself? No, you probably wouldn’t know what skis are, would you? Unless you reinvented them! Aah, skis crafted from pure, concentrated magical energy rather than wood… Fantastic! Oh, oh - or did you just surround yourself with a barrier? I tried doing that once myself while sledding off a rocky ledge - my clan mostly follows the halla herds through the mountains, you see, and so I know a thing or two about winter games in the snow!.. Though this - this was no game! You could have gotten yourself killed! Don’t you remember your promise to me and Dorian?.. But gods… Riding an avalanche… I wish I had been there to see it!’

 

She chatters at a rapid, exhilarated speed, going in circles from wide-eyed admiration to concern back to admiration again - scarcely pausing as she hobbles back to her feet, sometimes leaning apologetically against Alexius, and then dusts herself off and trots down the passageway, where a blurred square of greyish light seems to promise a way out into open air. He follows her, explaining that he did, in fact, protect himself with a barrier, and allowing his mouth’s corner to slide up when she piles even more praise on him, berating him for his recklessness with the same breath.

'My landing was rather graceless, mind you,’ he points out, when they are already so close to the tunnel mouth that they can feel the current of air rippling in from the mountainside, swirling round their ankles as though they were wading in icy water.

'I mean, look at how dirty… Gah!’

 

Alexius staggers in place and bends forward, his hand pressed against his ribs. When he tears it away, shakily, his palm is wet and coloured red.

Gargling something incoherent, Lavellan darts over to catch him under his arm and pull it over her shoulders for support (since Alexius is taller than her, she only manages to do this because his knees are buckling).

'I… I may have impaled myself on a tree on my way down…’ he comments, cringing in pain. 'Patched myself up… With magic… But… the strain of… healing you… must have… reopened the wound…’

Shivering all over, looking like she is about to let out the most piteous, most helpless of bawls, Lavellan props him up against the passage wall and spreads her quaking fingers a fraction of an inch away from his ragged, blood-gorged clothes, healing sparks whizzing around her wrist till they blend into a ghostly bracelet.

'Gods…’ she stammers, her mouth twisting into a large overturned figure eight. 'I think this is the same spot where you were struck… in that horrid… dark future… when we… when you… I couldn’t…’

'Hush,’ he mouths, eyes sliding shut. The elf’s magic does sustain him, giving him enough strength to speak without every word turning into a groan - but it is flickering, jerking, flashing on and off with a scared sort of sizzle, for the caster is too upset to focus.

'You are beginning to sound like me. And we both know that does not bode well. Relax. Do not lose your wits on my account… Do not…’

 

He never finishes his little pep talk: when he opens his eyes again, Lavellan is no longer there for him to talk to.

 

Somehow, perhaps because the worn-through Veil responded to her distress, a rift has opened behind her back, right in the middle of her frantic fumbling with healing magic.

And out of the rift, like grubs pushing out of a mossy tree stump, two Despair demons have emerged, rags dancing in the draught like clots of smoke, and locked their skeletal hands, with long black nails and loose flakes of grey scaly skin, around both of Lavellan’s wrists, carrying her off before Alexius, ashen-pale and cursing through his teeth, can grab hold of her and tug her free.

While he falls back, forced to catch a breath and finish Lavellan’s work on his own half-patched wound, the creatures propel themselves out of the tunnel’s mouth, which apparently opens into a snowy crag, where nocturnal murk stews like dense, dark soup. Certainly too dense for the dazed, burning eyes of an old mage to pierce through. All Alexius can see, when he shuffles into the open,  the bloodied side of his body pulsing with healing magic, are two lingering spirals of blue vapour, left by the demons as they rocketed towards the sky, rather like the moustached dwarf’s signal flare, carrying a barely audibly struggling Lavellan with them… Intending to - do either plunge with her back into another rift, somewhere up there, or maybe toss her against the bone-shattering rock and then possess her scattered remains.

 

And amidst all this, he is but a straggler. Left behind. Useless. Just standing and huffing hoarsely and gaping out into the night. Out of ideas and out of magic. Unable to help Lavellan, just as he was once unable to defeat her.

 

'A lot of good my “checking” did her,’ he spits out bitterly, kicking a clump of snow in exasperation, even though it makes him grimace, his wound having flared up. 'A lot of good I ever did anyone’.

 

 

His thoughts, and the surrounding billows of murky soup, reach their darkest point - when a new pearl of green arcane essence bobs over his head, illuminating the mountainside like a dragon-sized Satinalia ornament.

It burns far stronger than Alexius’ barrier spell; indeed, its sides are pieced together from countless, ravenously lapping tongues of flame - and among those, he can discern the silhouettes of the two demons, arms thrown up, backs bent behind at an inhuman angle, little chunks of their rags and withered flesh dislodging from their grotesque carcasses and evaporating before his eyes.

In a few fleeting, blazing seconds, nothing remains of the demons - and the pearl of fire suddenly flattens into a glowing disk, which sends green ripples across the sky… Before the night swallows it all.

 

Just as on the slope before the avalanche, Alexius’ face is cast into stark light and shadow: there is a new spell wisp tracing loops around him, gold and silver and raining triangular ghostly shards, like bits of a shattered hour glass. These shards remain hanging in the air, and the whole world beyond their reflection-warping edges stops moving. Captured still as a painting. Frozen in time.

The whole world - except the lone mage, who, again, rushes across the silent spread of snow, heading to a place where the elf ought to fall, with no more demons to hold her up. He cannot see where she is exactly; he cannot know if she even survive the fury of those green flames - but he keeps moving, with the determination of an avalanche. And when the ghostly shards dissolve, like the demons dissolved, bit by tiny bit; and when time moves again - something soft and alive and crowned with flying hair drops into his blindly outstretched arms with a bump that knocks him onto his back.

Lavellan flops over, panting, clutching at her nose, which is leaking blood, just as her ears are (from rising so high above ground, or from enduring the green flames - of course); and spends a moment or so staring in blank silence into the face of the 'master of timely intervention’, who lies tense underneath her, his cheeks suddenly matching the colour of his wooly hat.

 

The scandalous implications of their pose do dawn on Lavellan in the end. She half-squeaks, half-gasps, thoroughly mortified, and rolls off to rest in the snow by Alexius’ side.

They lie in a rather stifled, awkward silence, broken only by the tingle of the healing spells they have blanketed themselves with - until Alexius clears his throat and remarks courteously,

'That was… An impressive display of magic’.

'Not as impressive as riding an avalanche, for certain!’ Lavellan says, exhaling in relief at the silence’s end. 'I just flailed my Mark around!’

She dangles her left hand in front of her face, and Alexius has to lift himself up on his elbow, eyes livened by that look of fascination that always makes him appear younger and less tired.

'Your Mark? The Anchor? The Elder One did not remove it?’

'He couldn’t. He said it was permanent. It was… heartbreaking to watch, really. All of the speeches he gave me were. He must have been so excited to meet his gods, but found only silence. To live with that kind of pain for a thousand years - I cannot imagine what it must have been like’.

Lavellan sighs, and Alexius raises his eyebrows, astonished.

'I… I first saw the Elder One as a god… Now, after all the fire and death in Haven, I am more inclined to believe him a monster… but you… You talk of him as though he were a person!’

'There is a person at the heart of every monster, I think…’ she tilts her head to look him in the eyes, smiling softly. 'It all depends on how deep down they hide, and how willing to emerge’.

Alexius’ breath scrapes against the back of his throat.

'I… uhm…’

He swallows, cheeks reddening again, and changes the subject.

'Speaking of emerging. Hopefully your… the Inquisition has seen that green flash. And sent someone to look for us, before we freeze to death’.

Chapter Text

They do get up eventually, glancing away from each other, as they suddenly relive the memory of how Lavellan fell from heaven - for the second time in the past few weeks, if some particularly bug-eyed town criers are to be believed - and tumbled all over her stiff, disheveled, but not too… protesting mage companion.

And their embarrassment even proves helpful: since Lavellan is to determined to look anywhere else but at Alexius, the wandering gaze of her shimmering, reflective eyes falls on what to him, is yet another patch of darkness among many other identical patches, but to her, is something most intriguing.

‘Well, what do you know!’ she sings, kneading a crunchy path through the snow and clapping her hand enthusiastically against the side of something that could, with equal chances, be a boulder, a dead animal, or a chunk of debris from the burned-down village.

Alexius responds with a vague 'Eh?’, squinting as he follows slowly in her footsteps. She coughs apologetically and, with a snap of her fingers that resounds through the crag with a sighing, eerie echo, creates an orb of bluish-white mage fire that chisels away the black of the night and reveals that the 'dead animal’ is, in fact, an overturned cart, with a wheel so loosened that it spins easily when Lavellan gives it a friendly push.

'I recognize these spindles!’ she announces, tapping her fingers against the wood. 'I helped replace them - you know, inserting them telekinetically after Ser Blackwall finished crafting them. This is Betty; Segritt, our merchant, used her to carry his goods… The Inquisition must have been in a great hurry if they forced him to abandon her… He was very attached to her, you see. Perhaps even more attached than to any living being’.

Alexius snorts quietly through his nose, smiling a crooked little smile.

'I once knew a magister who said that his mage staff was the only one he could trust; he called it… him Primus. Not as much an idiosyncrasy as you might think, especially in Tevinter. Well. At least we know we are on the right track. Shall we keep exploring?’

Lavellan beams in agreement, and they head past the cart, the floating orb mapping their way through the dark.

Progress is slow. Every now and then, one of them missteps among the snowdrifts and finds themself trapped, from the waist down, underneath a rimy crust that glitters in the orb’s light like a trove of diamonds - and seems just as hardened, requiring a lot of telekinetic flailing from both of the 'explorers’ to release its captive. And now and again, one of them fumbles to a complete halt, bending over and rubbing at the stilted brackets of their legs, tiny whines of pain beating against the back of their throat.

It is after they blunder into another sign if the Inquisition’s passing - a circle of cold ash, marking the spot a long-since extinguished campfire - that they finally decide they have trekked enough for the night.

'Gods,’ Lavellan mutters, laying herself down impulsively on the bed of soft, powdery grey. 'I thought I’d be prepared for this, after all the travels with my clan… But apparently I used my privilege as one of the Keeper's apprentices to ride in the aravel far too often. I can hear my leg bones scream… Oh, Cassandra would disapprove so much’.

'You were wounded in the head, and nearly abducted by demons,’ Alexius crouches by her side, adding a spell wisp of his own to her light orb in order to make absolutely certain that he takes a good look over her weary features. 'I daresay that is a better excuse than being too old and pampered for traversing the great outdoors’.

'And being stabbed by a tree,’ she reminds him, with one hand raised limply, index finger pointing up for emphasis (and with no visible intention to get up).

'And being stabbed by a tree,’ he agrees. 'Perhaps we should look for a sturdier shelter? For fear of sounding like a mother hen, I do not think it wise to reenact the tale of Rhodopis out in the open’.

He straightens up, offering Lavellan a hand - which she clutches after a moment’s hesitation, and pulls herself off the ground, ash streaking down her back in grey rivulets.

'If there was any wood nearby, we could have constructed a shack of some sort,’ she muses, letting her fingers rest in Alexius’ a fraction longer than necessary.

'We could use… this bothersome white substance,’ he nods at the snow at his feet (more as a pretext not to gape into her eyes for too long than anything else). 'There is a technique Tevinter mages use to pull whole pillars of stone out of the ground; I have only studied it in theory, but… I assume this, uh, “snow” is more pliable?’

'That sounds astounding!’ Lavellan is so enthused by the mental image of granite grinding its way towards the heavens, moulding into fantastical forms with the fluid softness of clay at the command of a master architect, that she claps her hands together… And then halts, suddenly sombre.

'I… I think the elves of Arlathan did something of the sort as well’.

Alexius frowns, and inclines his head.

'I understand. And apologize. My… rants about us ruling the world again probably wounded you deeply… And… Maker, it feels so… vile now! Standing in front of you, flaunting magic that ought to have been yours in the first place!’

'When we catch up with the Inquisition, I will ask Solas to take me to the Fade and find some spirits who still remember how the old spells were cast,’ Lavellan says, brushing her hand against his forearm in quiet reassurance. 'And perhaps you could seek out a being of Wisdom to teach you about the People’.

Her momentary touch makes him dip his head even lower, humbled.

'I will do just that. As many times as necessary. But for now - shelter. It would be even more vile to make vows to respect the elves while one of them wastes away right in front of me. This - this is me helping you, nothing more. Not showing you how your lost magic is supposed to be done. Feel free to laugh at me if I do not get it right’.

While talking to Lavellan, he has already started casting. The air around him churns and ripples with the unseen, yet powerful draw of magic; the layer of snow in front of Alexius rises and hunches into a small hillock - which then bursts, reshaping itself into a geyser-like jet of fine glittery powder. The jet holds up for a split second - and after that second flies by, it makes a muffled sneezing noise and dissolves into a cloud of cotton wool white, which cloaks Alexius head to foot and leaves him covered in the sticky snow like a hapless cook that grew overzealous with the flour.

Despite his previous wry remark, Lavellan does not laugh at him. Instead, she thumps the snow out of the clothing folds on his back, her cheeks and ear tips lighting up with a warm, glowing flush because of the… the motion. After the clueless flour-covered cook turns back into a ragged mage in a red wooly hat, Lavellan steps aside, gesturing for him to set to work again.

He rubs his scruffy, long-unshaven neck, breathes in and out, and thrusts his hands forward above another patch of snow. This time, the while jet lingers; while sustaining it in the air, Alexius adds a subtle undercurrent of blue glow to his telekinetic spell. The porous, slurping geyser hardens, shackled under a glossy outer crust of ice - the first pillar is ready. A bit crooked, certainly not as striking as the mighty stone spires erected by the Tevinter builders - and the elves they stole their lore from - but passable.

'More than passable,’ Lavellan responds to Alexius’ muttered comments, beaming.

After this point, it is easier to raise the snow into three more pillars, and then fill the spaces in between with walls and ceiling of conjured ice. Alexius initially intends to make them smooth, so that his spellcasting would result in a neat, symmetrical cube - but for all the extra layers of a bright orange aura that he has been summoning to keep himself warm (donning the fire magic like fuzzy shawls), his fingers are still too frozen to obey him properly. Whenever they twitch uncontrollably, distracting him and forcing him to glare down at his raw, cracking skin, grousing 'I had better not lose my hands after this’, the ice warps into lumps and spikes of many different sizes. So in the end, instead of a cube, Alexius presents Lavellan with some manner of… a gigantic chubby hedgehog, squished into a cage of four white pillars.

This time, she does laugh - but her laugh, soft as the tickle of butterfly wings, is not unkind.

'Well, this will certainly keep the wolves away!’ she says, before poking her head into the lopsided, trapezoid gap between the two front pillars that Alexius has left free of ice. 'And I suppose we can heat it up from the inside without melting anything if we cast flame runes on the ground?’

'We?’ Alexius echoes uncertainly. 'You won’t overexert yourself?’

'My legs are still screaming,’ Lavellan admits with a vague shrug, already standing inside the icy hedgehog’s belly, while tiny golden arcane symbols whirl above both her palms. Floating to the ground like falling autumn leaves, they touch down with a pulse of light and a barely inaudible yet melodious 'Twannng’ that dances through the shelter long after.

'But we were so quick and efficient when we drew runes together before - so if I help you here, we will be done faster. Especially if we pass the time talking’.

'Fair enough,’ Alexius has also squeezed inside, and is now busy tracing his own magic-infused, hovering fiery letters.

He works in bolder strokes than Lavellan, using a different alphabet - old Tevene rather than elven - and his runes burn into the frost-chained soil with a sizzle instead of a ringing note. But they still do their job, and soon enough, the spiky construct of snow and ice fills to the brim with golden light, like a phial with a benevolent potion.

And while that potion is brewing, Alexius and Lavellan keep talking - about something that he mentioned before in passing, when he saw her flop, exhausted, into the circle of ash. About the story, half-legend, half-historical account from a bygone age, of a young woman who once slept on a bed of cinders, but then found her way into the palace of an Archon during a grand ball, making his head and heart spin as they soared in a dance.

And when the runes are ready and the two travellers settle in for the night (at a respectful distance from one another, of course), with the spiky walls of their shelter shielding them from the lashes of an impending snowstorm - heralded by the dramatic wails of the wind outside - they both dream of dancing. Circling endlessly across a glittering ball room, with a polished floor that resembles a pool of molten gold, because of all the chandelier reflections, and a peculiar crystalline ceiling that is not unlike the ice spikes of their own giant 'hedgehog’, and casts off ever-shifting, ever-interlacing square specks of light onto every surface possible.

Neither of them can quite make out their partner’s features - not surprisingly, since it is likely a spirit. Nothing but a clump of ephemeral, greenish Fade clouds, given a sketchy human form.

But as the night congeals into the impenetrable predawn tar, and as the snowstorm flies into a full-blown rage, choking on its own howls, and as the rune magic begins to wane, the respectable distance grows shorter and shorter… And eventually, seeking to preserve the fading warmth for as long as possible - and yet, not even realizing how they are contorting themselves to do that - they wind up entwined in a most elaborate embrace, on top of the largest rune that still remains active.

Lavellan is sprawled with one leg across Alexius’ stomach, using the crook of his elbow as a head rest; and Alexius has buried his face into her shoulder, a dreamy smile lighting up his… uncharacteristically serene features every time her heart beats against his body.

And it is then that the spirit dancer takes a more definitive form.

In Alexius’ dream, it becomes a woman. Sometimes she is a human with flying copper curls; and sometimes, more and more often the closer the dawn, she is an elf with eyes blue as purest lyrium, and a smile that almost makes him trip over his own feet.

And in Lavellan’s dream, it is a man - always the same man. Middle-aged, quietly courteous… And so, so wonderful to imagine laughing. Enjoying himself. Being happy.

Chapter Text

The tale began with a question that Lavellan asked as she was in the middle of weaving flame runes, for heating up their ridiculous but cozy little shelter.

‘So… Who is Rhodopis anyway?’

'Ah, Rhodopis…’ Alexius replied, looking rather discomforted.

'The wife of one of our Archons. Perhaps the metaphor was not quite called for, since she was treated essentially as a slave for a certain time. I really do need to find myself a spirit of Wisdom, to be mindful of your People… I was referencing your choice of… bedding, because that’s the most well-known part of Rhodopis’ story’.

Then, Lavellan’s question was followed by more, each more eager than the next.

'Wait, wait - she was a slave, but then married an Archon? How did that come about?’

'Yes, quite a plot twist, isn’t it?’ Alexius told her, glancing up from the symbols he had just finished drawing.

'At this point, it’s no longer possible to tell the historical truth from the legends passed for such truth by court chronicles, but… The “biography” of Rhodopis that we officially learn and teach is, more or less, as follows.

'Rhodopis was the only, and much beloved daughter of a Soporati merchant - a non-mage citizen, who, despite all the wealth he had amassed, was doomed to second-class treatment by the mage nobles. Even his own second wife - a widowed member of a smaller house, with no magisterial seat but still fairly respected - treated him and Rhodopis as if they were inferior to her and her two mage daughters from her first marriage.

'And when her father passed - rumoured to have been poisoned for his inheritance - Rhodopis’ stepmother cast off all false propriety, and exiled the girl to the slaves’ quarters, expecting her to cook and clean and toil twice as hard as the actual household servants. The two stepsisters, too, delighted in tormenting her, putting jinxes and magical traps under her modest bed till she gave up and took to sleeping on a pile of cinders on the kitchen floor.

'This went on for several years, until one particularly lavish Satinalia ball, thrown by the Archon - young and unmarried at the time. He invited all the eligible women to dance with him, for three nights in a row, engaging in courtly conversation as they did so… And also, if they were bold enough and ambitious enough, to take part in complex magical games and challenges. All designed as a test of their grace, wit, and arcane mastery. The one who performed best would become the Archon’s wife - so naturally, Rhodopis’ stepmother dragged her birth daughters to the festivities almost faster than they could put on a ball gown, while Rhodopis herself, being both a magic-less Soporati and a lowly servant in her own home, was left behind.

'And as she sat on her bed of cinders, her knees folded under her, staring into the extinguished hearth and pondering her unfair fate, righteous anger began to rise up within her chest - and the hearth responded to it by crackling with a spark of flame. Unexpectedly, miraculously, Rhodopis had come into her magic - and the instant she realized it, she knew what she had to do. She pressed her hands, which now tingled with spell energy, against her slave rags, and transmuted them into luxurious festive clothing, down to her sandals, which had been coarse and crude and worn, but now glittered with gold and gems.

'She also caught a pair of mice and carried them out into the kitchen garden, turning them into majestic thoroughbred steeds; and picked up a gourd off the vegetable patch, which she transformed into a shining chariot. She drove this chariot to the Archon’s palace, where the ball was just beginning; somewhere along the way, as a precaution lest her stepmother spot her, she conjured up a full-face mask for herself - but even though he could not see her face, the Archon was utterly smitten the moment they shared their first dance and he heard her speak. A fairy-tale trope that was included later, I suppose. Although, now that I look back to my very first days knowing my future… my late wife… and also to spending time in yo… in the company of… It does not matter’.

This where the story was broken up by a strained pause, as Alexius had to collect himself. He only brought himself to continue when Lavellan abandoned her runes for a moment and took his hand in hers, under the pretext of healing the bleeding cracks that, at the time, were still eating through his flaking, frost-dried skin.

'Oh. Thank you. The Inquisition soldiers very prudently deprived me of my gauntlets… Though I confess I would have turned those claw adornments against myself before anyone else… But I digress. Back to the Archon.

'As I mentioned, he was quite taken with Rhodopis. And his feelings for her only grew more ardent when, for all three nights, she kept passing every single arcane test with flying colours - which, once again, goes to show how wildly exaggerated Rhodopis’ biography is. It would have hardly been feasible for an untrained savant, whose magic had awoken but a few hours before, to not only succeed in advanced transmutation, but also to turn into a bird and fly through flaming hoops, or levitate over a narrow stone well with spikes at the bottom, or beat a bound demon at a game of chess while floating upside down in a pocket realm of the Fade.

'But - but it would certainly have been splendid if all of Rhodopis’ exploits had actually happened… This part of the tale has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for the Soporati. It makes them believe that anyone, even the most hapless of beggars, can rise to greatness, so long as they are a gifted mage - and a Tevinter where that is, indeed, possible; where talent takes precedence before bloodlines and connections, is a Tevinter I would have loved to see young people grow up in… And, of course, children of all classes eat this story up when they are small… Felix included’.

A new pause followed here, and Alexius’ voice remained hoarse and the slightest bit unsteady through the next few sentences.

'Now then. As I was saying. Relying on her… newly discovered magical talent and… apparently… superhuman intuition, Rhodopis breezed through the Archon’s challenges…. But… when he presented her to his guests… as the winner and his chosen bride… the bow to the crowd made her mask slip off, and while the Archon still did not get a good look at her face… her stepmother recognized her… just as she had feared. Calling her an upstart slave, she… and her daughters, who had suffered some injuries during the trials, the gravity of which varies from retelling to retelling… sicced the palace guards on her, and Rhodopis had to flee.

'As she hid from the guards deep in the jungle, she took off one of her jewelled sandals and gave it to a serpent that she had ensnared with magic. The serpent crawled back to the palace and, descending down one of the supports of the Archon’s throne, dropped the sandal right into his lap. Amazed, the Archon knew that this was a sign from his mystery bride, and set out on a quest of no small scale, scouring the whole Imperium for a woman whom the sandal would fit.

'The sandal was, of course, enchanted, and whenever the wrong woman - including each of Rhodopis’ stepsisters - attempted to put it on, the gilt would spring aflame like cinders in the hearth, and scorch her till she had no choice but to kick the sandal off, shrieking. This scene repeated itself in every household with young mage daughters that the Archon visited, and as he was leaving yet another city, beginning to feel discouraged by his fruitless search, an oddly familiar beggar woman, barefoot and with twigs still in her hair from sleeping in the jungle, stepped out onto the road in front of him.

'That was…’ Alexius held his breath dramatically for a couple of seconds, ending in an involuntary chortle, as his air of mock suspense amused both Lavellan and himself, clearing off most of the clouds that yet lingered in his gaze after the mentions of his wife and Felix.

'That was Rhodopis, albeit with no mask and with her conjured dress reduced to rags. Somehow, the Archon determined that she was a mage - the story does not really elaborate, but I assume she used a spell in front of him, for instance to dry a puddle of mud in his path, which is a common enough motif in Tevinter’s romantic legends… Well then. Since she matched the age of the young mage women that had attended the ball - and also since he could not quite be rid of a sensation that he must have seen her somewhere before - the Archon, on a whim, produced the enchanted sandal and put it on her foot. And - I believe that this is where I am supposed to say “lo and behold” - for the first time since he had started out, the sandal did not burst into flames. More than that, Rhodopis was able to provide a second sandal to match, which she had kept wrapped safely in her rags. And thus, the Archon and his mystery bride were reunited; he likely kissed her passionately - as one does to when one’s search for one’s great love is finally over - and took her back to Minrathous, and…’

'Lived happily ever after?’ Lavellan suggested, her smile like an enormous flipped capital D.

Alexius squinted, stalling with an answer, and the letter D shrunk to a horizontal I.

'She… wasn’t poisoned like her father, was she?’

'No, not… exactly…’ Alexius admitted with a sigh. 'Her husband was assassinated by a political rival, and she had to go into exile, and to fight tooth and claw for her son’s right to become a magister. That is where the childish dream ends, and the poisoned reality of Tevinter begins’.

'But we can still savour the dream, can’t we?’ Lavellan said, as she settled down to rest at last, tilting her head and hugging her knees, her little figure swathed in the glow of the final rune.

'Especially when related by such a wonderful storyteller’.

Chapter Text

It has already been a few days since Lady Lavellan, the valiant Herald of Andraste, threw herself into the heart of a crushing avalanche and then emerged again, just as the musically inclined members of the Inquisition had started composing high-brow dirges in her honour. Miraculously unharmed (save for a freshly healed scar on her head, where the blighted monster calling himself the Elder One had hurled her against a trebuchet) and in the company of another monster, a rogue Tevinter magister that she had imprisoned.

The two of them walked in brusque strides - relieved to have gotten out of the frozen wilderness at last, and in a rush to meet Seeker Pentaghast’s and Commander Cullen’s search party halfway - almost flying along the broad, flattened tracks that had been left in the snow by the overloaded carts, crudely wrought horse shoes, and the massive paws of the hauler brontos. Both looked puffy and stiff-necked, as if after sleeping in an uncomfortable position, and sometimes exchanged sheepish, almost bashful glances - most unfitting for a shining champion of faith and a defeated maleficar.

Of course, the Commander and the Seeker, deeply concerned for the Herald’s safety (especially after the ordeal she had endured for the sake of everyone’s survival), would have none of this.

Upon their order, Lady Lavellan was immediately ushered to the most spacious and comfortable tent, away from the maleficar’s dangerous influence. The maleficar himself - to be interrogated by Sister Nightingale once the Inquisition found its bearings - was clapped in irons, as he had been before the feast in honour of closing the Breach, and given a Templar escort.

This upset the Herald, much to the surprise of her companions and followers - but her affronted reaction, and almost tearful insistence that the maleficar had ‘saved her life’, was written off to her head injury, and the Commander passed her on into the care of the healers. And once she had rested, she had a new momentous task awaiting her - which she has been preoccupied with ever since.

Upon instruction of her mentor, the reserved, mysterious apostate that had first studied her Divine Mark and taught her to wield it against the Fade’s direst horrors, Lady Lavellan has been guiding the Inquisition through the mountains, one slow, arduous climb after another.

She has been helping the endless caravan chart its course - north, ever north, to some hidden place among these silent, haughty peaks, which always loom in the background no matter how far the Inquisition has progressed. Pastel-pink and hazy lilac at dawn and dusk, solid-black at night against the yellowish moon disk and the hale-like smattering of stars in the sky, and blaring, blinding white in the midday sun.

She has been telling them encouraging tales of what awaits them in that place, of what the many-coloured mountains have been hiding. A fortress that has been resting, unclaimed, for centuries in the clutches of the snow, half-faded into legend. A stronghold that the Inquisition can call its home. Skyhold.

And throughout their entire journey, she has been zooming back and forth in parallel with the thread of the caravan, a succession of flash-like teleportation spells carrying her curvy body at a speed neither she, nor anyone else, even those more fit than her, would ever have reached on their own two feet. In between teleportations, she has been making frequent stops to talk to those people in the caravan that are lagging behind, or confused, or distressed. She has been trotting up to them, often tailed by a very bizarre snow formation, swept by the wind into the likeness of a human figure in an oversized, scarecrow-like hat. And greeting them from afar with a friendly wave and a smile that is… astoundingly like a regular person’s rather than a Divine Herald’s. Kind and open and genuinely excited by the prospect of helping them. Of sharing whatever she can give to make their weariness and hurt let them go.

Like an especially potent healing spell, like light turned to flowing honey. Something to treat a little old Orlesian Sister with a thin fuzz of curly hair framing her dried-apple face. For the poor thing is too used to the ever-burning braisers inside her sunny, grape-growing town’s Chantry, and too frail to fight the mountain winds.

Or an assuring hand clasp, a cautious walk back to the caravan’s path, and a few soothing whispered words in the tongue of her people. Something to calm down a lost, swaying elf, with one eye hidden by a dirty-pink bandage and the other pressed into a perpetual squint by folds of scarred flesh. For the selfless father has been maimed by a corrupted Templar that would have torn his two daughters limb from limb if he had not stood in the way. He is still getting used to seeing the world with only one eye, and always veers off-course as he attempts to find his girls in the crowd (it always takes the Herald  for him to realize that they are dozing off at the back of a moving cart, safe and sound, safe and sound).

Or a dance of happy, colourful flowers, drawn in the air with glittering brush strokes of magic, each with a simplistic, button-eyed smiling face peeking out from among the fluffy petals. Something to amuse the little flocks of children of all possible sizes and skin colours, many of them already bundled up into scarves and sweaters of the Herald’s making. From slouching, twig-necked human teenagers and their dwarven peers, toddler-sized yet already with their first chin hairs, to tiny elves that have not quite grown into their huge, conch-shaped ears, and even a young Qunari or two, who came to Haven along with their mercenary parents and keep bumping against trees and cart sides with  the itchy stubs of their growing horns. For even the oldest of these children, who claim to be brave and tough and ready to punch an archdemon in the teeth, and the youngest, who are carried around in wooly scarf slings by their siblings and can barely eat solid food, let alone properly process what happened in Haven - they are all visited at night by creatures from the Fade, which feed them images of burning buildings and panicking people that scurry like ants, darting from one scathing-red flame wall to the other. And after visions like that, a few silly summoned flowers might be just what they need to ease their minds.

 

Lady Lavellan has been doing this - giving away her time, her magic, her counsel, freely and readily and gladly - to everyone. Even the Tranquil.

Following the route to Skyhold in rigid-backed, vigorously marching pairs, they have been keeping to themselves, just as always - or perhaps, the rest of the Inquisition has been keeping away. Nobody wishes to spend more time in their company than absolutely necessary; nobody wishes to watch their sunburst-branded, expressionless faces, or to listen to their voices, grey and bland as the most watery gruel, never rising or falling past the same even tone. Nobody - except the elven apprentice mage named Minaeve, who always stays apace with them, apparently unfazed by the empty stares they give her; and also except for the Herald. She drops by at least once on each of her inspections of the caravan, enthusiastically pelting Minaeve with questions about how her day has been, and whether she and the Tranquil want for anything.

The apprentice is not too eager to answer, maybe due to her reserved nature (there isn’t anyone in the caravan who was ever heard her laugh; the Tranquil must have started to rub off), or maybe to some lingering tensions between her and Lady Lavellan. Rumour has it that Minaeve comes from a Dalish clan, just as the Herald herself, but instead of being raised as the right hand of the clan’s chieftain (Keeper is the elven word, some say), she was abandoned in the woods, to the mercy of either wild beasts or the Templars. But she does not push the Herald away, either, and whenever she reports that she and her charges are getting cold or tired or hungry (because, even with their hearts frozen up, the Tranquil’s muscles and stomachs still work as nature intended), Lady Lavellan teleports off and brings back whatever they ask for.

But one day, just as she arrives, carrying a pot of venison stew (recent catch of the Inquisition’s scouts in the mountains), raised aloft like the priceless spoils of a treasure hunter, the Tranquil also get another visitor. The Tevinter maleficar has tracked them down.

He approaches them almost at a run, pointedly ignoring the loud huffs and demands to 'Stop this instant and go back to the tent, or I’ll report you to the Commander!’ that keep coming from a young Templar in a suit of armour with a swirly-maned metal lion face adorning the chest piece. Her sleek bun of black hair has slid to the side as she races in his wake, one hand pressed against the (so far) sheathed blade that rattles at her side - but hurry as she might, he still leaves her in the snowy dust, despite being so much older. Like the Herald, he must have used magic to speed himself up - and that magic must have… malfunctioned somehow at some point, as magic does, backfiring into his face. How else would you explain the dazed expression that gets slapped with no warning across his lined face, as soon as he spots the Herald presenting the stew pot to the Tranquil? And the abrupt way in which he stops as well, almost careening into the snow? It has to be some manner of aftershock from a spell gone wrong - and it seems to have made him briefly forget how to speak as well!

'I… I… You are here…’ he mumbles, in between scraping coughs. 'I… I rather… I missed… I mean… It is good that you… Not because I was feeling… Because - because you should hear what I have to say, along with… the rest of the present company’.

'You missed me?’ the Herald mumbles back, also inexplicably hit by the aftershock. Flushed and vacant-eyed, she would have surely spilled the stew all over her trousers, scalding herself through the fabric and fennec fur padding (perhaps this was the maleficar’s plan: to get her injured?) - but a helpful Tranquil steps in to relieve her of her burden, and distribute the food among his brethren, who have pulled out spoons and bowls in a comical, yet unnerving unison.

'I… I missed you too! I have been trying so hard to visit you, to make sure you are being treated well - but Lysette…’ she gives the Templar a gently reproachful look, 'Has been keeping me away from the tent where they put you…’

'Commander Cullen gave me strict orders not to let you come into contact with the maleficar until the Inquisition claims the new base and settles down enough to run proper tests for blood magic,’ the Templar digs her heels into the snow, clangs her sabatons together, and says it all in a single breath.

'And that is a wise course of action, if I may. It does not do to paint all mages as villains, and after Haven, I have nothing but the utmost admiration for you and your abilities, Your Worship… But - with all due respect - you and the Tevinter spent too much time one on one. Knowing what he is capable of, there is no way of telling what he might try to do to you. To your mind. So I will now retrieve him and…’

The Herald tensens, as if struggling to restrain a cry of anguish.

'I… I know Commander Cullen means well… And now isn’t really the time to argue over this..’ she says weakly, her eyes lingering on the maleficar, who looks quite wounded as well, but bows down in bitter resignation.

'But could you please allow Serah Alexius to say what he came here to say, at least?’

Lysette makes a faint scowl, giving the maleficar a long side-eye.

'Well, he has already dragged me all the way here, hasn’t he? I could use a few moments of rest’.

'Your generosity humbles me, Ser knight,’ the maleficar sneers, lips curling into a dracolisk’s snarl - but all of the venom vanishes from his voice when he turns away from Lysette and towards the Tranquil.  In its stead, comes somberness that verges on pain… and fear, too.

'I… I have had a lot of time to reflect my past actions,’ the maleficar begins, lacing his fingers tightly together. 'Now that there is no more fire and panic and, um, tree-stabbing’.

He looks up at the Herald, both smiling for some reason at his nonsensical comment - but like the venom, the smile does not last.

'And I think… I think that you deserve to know why I really tried to… force some of you out of Redcliffe’.

'Was it not because you do not like us?’ asks one of the Tranquil, a slightly portly man with bushy eyebrows and blue eyes that would have been rather attractive were they not so… blank. 'Because you do not want to be reminded what mages can become?’

The maleficar winces.

'That is… not entirely untrue. Although… Although I wouldn’t say “become”… You can’t become a Tranquil; you can’t just go to bed one night and wake up severed from the Fade. Tranquility is something that is done to you, in a cruel, barbaric… But you know that better than I. And I do not want the good Ser Lysette here to murder me before I finish’.

He and the Templar both exchange another side-eye; then, he swallows, presses his clasped hands against his chest, and says, abruptly and bluntly,

'The Venatori have been hunting you. Purposely seeking to kill you off. Since before I arrived. And I am certain they will continue to do so long after, if the Inquisition does not take more of you in’.

Silence falls; the three unbranded women shudder in revulsion, while the Tranquil merely survey the maleficar. Without speaking - or blinking - until another one of them, an elven woman this time, raises a hand with the wooden stiffness of a nutcracker toy, requesting permission to ask a question. The maleficar takes a small step back when he sees this, obviously unsettled, but manages to croak out a faltering, 'Yes?’.

'Thank you for this information,’ the elf addresses him, just as impassively as if he had just told her what day of the week it was. 'You mentioned a purpose. May I... ask you what it is?’

The maleficar nods, his brow creasing.

'The Elder One is interested in an ancient temple, somewhere in the blighted wastelands of west Orlais. I am not… certain what he desires exactly, but whatever it is, it has been locked away for centuries, with the use of multiple locks… Which have multiple keys. Magical objects scattered all across Orlais, and Ferelden as well. And the most… disturbing part is…’

He inhales deeply, his hands now burrowing into the folds of his tattered garb like claws.

'The location of these keys can only been revealed if one scans the wilderness… through the eye of a Tranquil’s skull’.

The Herald bites into her fingernails, both her eyes and the tip of her nose turning pink and moist. Lysette draws herself up to her full height, tracing the triangular sign of Andraste’s pyre over her chest. And Minaeve looks over the Tranquil with a deep frown on her face, pulling at her robe’s sleeves till she begins to rip out the fur that adorns it, in large, sweat-soiled tufts.

'Are you saying… Your… Your kind… wanted to murder the Tranquil… to find clues in some Fen'Harel-touched scavenger hunt?’ she asks, her voice growing shriller with every syllable.

'And they have succeeded, in part,’ the maleficar says grimly, shutting his eyes and hanging his head. 'There is a… stash of skulls in Redcliffe… In a locked building, not far from the boat mooring… Some of the… skulls are already in use in the Hinterlands… Mounted into devices called the oculara… I assume there are even more of those in other regions where the keys are hidden… I… I saw some of the oculara research… And even though… I was quite enamoured with the cause at the time… I… I found it wrong… I thought that… That instead of luring you in with a false promise of shelter, to be slaughtered en masse… like I was ordered… I could exercise the certain… modicum of influence that I had among the Venatori… and send them off on a wild goose chase… while telling all the Tranquil in Redcliffe to leave… to get out of my sight… to find another place to stay… A place where… hopefully… no butchers would await you…’

He covers his eyes with the hand that was previously clutching at his chest, thumb and middle finger pressed into his temples.

'That wasn’t enough. Nowhere near enough’.

'Damn right it wasn’t!’ Minaeve cries out, no longer reserved as a Tranquil, with her fists balled and her eyes dry and harsh.

'Andraste preserve us! The advisors must know,’ Lysette says, square-jawed, as she grabs the maleficar's shoulder to lead him off.

'Yes’.

He does not flinch away.

'It is about time I was judged for my actual crimes, instead of the things I might have done’.

'I will still ask mercy for you, just as I promised,’ the Herald pipes up, reaching out to touch his arm. 'And I am making another promise. Once I am out in the field again, I will dismantle all the oculara I ever come across, and give the Tranquil a proper burial. The Elder One will not be getting what he wants, and any Tranquil still out there will be welcome in the Inquisition. Pass this on to the advisors too, Lysette, if that’s all right. I… I will stay here for a while. Offer comfort’.

'We are no longer capable of feeling the comfort you intend to give,’ the blue-eyed man intones in his gruel-like voice, accompanied by a low monotone rumble from all the others - evidently expressing agreement.

'But we appreciate it nonetheless. Our minds can still tell good from evil, and you have been good to us, just as Researcher Minaeve’.

He turns to the maleficar and, with no warning, hands him his stew bowl, still untouched.

'Your confession to us has also been good, Serah Alexius. I understand that admitting to wrongdoings is a painful process for the non-Tranquil. I do not know how to negate the pain that comes from feeling emotions, but I can offer you hot food to keep you comfortable on the physical level. I have no immediate need for this stew, because my metabolism differs from that of most my fellows, and I have not yet started to feel hungry, sated by my last meal. You might enjoy it instead’.

'I…’ the maleficar accepts the bowl, eyes darting from it to the Tranquil’s frozen face. 'I… Thank you - I never… I never learned your name, did I? I never learned anyone’s names except Fiona’s.

'I am Clemence,’ the Tranquil introduces himself dully.

'Yes, uh… That’s a…’ the maleficar clears his throat.

'A fitting name for a Tranquil,’ Clemence finishes for him, still dully. As ever.

'The non-Tranquil point it out quite frequently. I get the impression they assume that I was called thus when I passed the Rite, but that is not correct. My parents named me and all my siblings after various Andrastian virtues; I still recall an older sister by the name of Patience, for instance. My father was very devout, and most concerned about his children being vulnerable to demons; when I was taken to the Circle, he instructed the Templars to make me Tranquil as soon as I came of age. He was a very good father, I am told’.

The maleficar’s eyes flare with a spark of pent-up reddish mage fire. And the last thing he says, before Lysette finally ushers him back to his appointed spot in the caravan, is,

'Pardon my Orlesian - but he fucking wasn’t’.

'That is not Orlesian,’ Clemence corrects him. 'That is a profanity in the Common language’.

But the maleficar is already out of earshot.

Chapter Text

On the last night that the Inquisition spends in the mountains before the move into Skyhold, its Herald, Lady Lavellan, is visited by yet another one of the strikingly vivid, life-like dreams granted to her by her Mark.

She sees herself in the middle of a desert - as though standing in the palm of a giant’s hand, slightly cupped and callused with steeply rising sand hills, with curious windswept patterns running across it like life lines and veins. The hand raises her up towards a greyish-blue sky, which has just started paling from night to morning, but is still taken up by the round belly of the moon, which almost leans against the hazy dark bumps of rocks on the horizon. Bigger, brighter, clearer than Lavellan has ever seen. Or imagined.

‘This is so peculiar!’ she says to herself, with joy rather than bewilderment, and squats down to scoop up a handful of sand, which passes through her fingers with a soft, dry tickle - just as real sand would in the waking world. In the pearly glow of the predawn sky, she can even make out separate grains, clinging to her palm like she clings on to the colossal palm of this silent giant. Some are darker, some lighter, some feel smooth like the tiniest orbs of milky and yellowish glass, some have sharp prickly edges and twinkle like speckles of glitter.

'I have never visited a place like this… Why would I be dreaming of it - and in such detail, too?’

'I think it’s my doing,’ a man speaks up quietly a few paces behind her. 'I often see deserts in my dreams. I… I must have pulled you in without realizing’.

Lavellan perks up, ears rotating slightly in place like an alerted cat’s. In a rapid, magically aided twirl that whips the sand under her feet into a yellow cloud, she rises to her feet and turns to catch the intent, wondering, and perhaps ever so slightly excited gaze of two very familiar brown eyes.

'Serah Alexius!’ she stretches both arms forward, placing her fingertips over the upturned, slightly quaking hands of the man who addressed her: the aging mage in a red knitted hat, which has obviously seen a lot of wear and tear during the lengthy journey through the mountains, but is still stubbornly worn by its owner.

'We aren’t… sleeping the way we did in our little ice hut… you know? I am pretty sure we aren’t, or else I would be seeing Lysette’s outraged face instead of the moon… And then she would wake us both up and toss us back to the opposite sides of the camp!’

She chuckles, not without nervousness - but Alexius does not acknowledge her little jest. He does not take his hands away, but any light of pleasant surprise that may have shone through when he first laid eyes on Lavellan is completely extinguished. The lines on his forehead have deepened, his mouth is now a thin tight line, and his expression turns grimmer with every second.

'I don’t think you got caught in my dream because of… physical proximity. It is because of the… intensity of what will soon transpire inside my mind’.

He flinches, his lips’ line twisting into a curve.

'Tonight is the anniversary of… of my wife’s death. I regret to say that… that in a few minutes, this desert will distort and ripple; the ground will cave in under our feet, the sky will begin to bleed, and darkspawn will burst out, like larvae coming out of rotting flesh. At least… that is what usually happens. Maybe this year the demons will spice up the repertoire with something else along the same… lovely lines’.

It is at this point that he finally breaks his and Lavellan’s touch.

'Please hurry to wake up. I am best left to face this on my own. Even Dorian had to keep his visit brief… He.. he found me in just now.. before bedtime… to.. express his condolences… But then the guards started to whisper about “conspiring Vints”.

He weakly mimes air quotes, followed by a mirthless smirk.

'All for the best, really. You both have had your fill of horrors… caused by me. So please - please wake up. Before the dream becomes a nightmare’.

'No,’ she says. A short word, no more than a sigh. Even gentle, in a way. And yet also firm, leaving no room for objections.

And even if Alexius had tried to object, he would have been unable to. A fraction of a second after the word leaves Lavellan’s mouth, a pulse of mage fire, bright green along the edges, like lumps of duckweed  carpeting pools stagnant marshland water, and searing white in the coiling centre, runs through the veins of her left forearm, seeping in through her sleeve and completely blocking out the warm, earthy brown of her flesh from the wrist up.

Catching the air desperately with her wide-open mouth, Lavellan falls against Alexius’ shoulder. He holds her up in a wobbly, half-standing pose, not unlike the way she held him, stabbed by a tree branch, as they were escaping the ruins of Haven together. And stamped across his ashen face, there is an unspoken question. Is Lavellan’s agony what the demons have decided to add to the nightmares of losing his wife?

Lavellan’s hand twitches - and, with a fleshy squelch that makes her scream so loudly she almost retches, a burning white chain comes bursting out of her palm, wrought from the same flames as her flaring Mark. Link after link after link, it keeps unwinding, as though Lavellan’s hand were made of green and white yarn endlessly coming undone. Once it reaches a certain length (with both Lavellan and Alexius watching it in speechless horror), it flings itself somewhere towards the far end of the desert - rather like the grappling hooks that Lavellan’s mage and warrior companions wield in battle to reel in the enemy fighters for a finishing blow.

After this lash across the desert, the fiery chain pulls taut and then retracts, only not back into Lavellan’s palm - but into the far-off sandy corner where it landed. It zooms through the air with such force that both Lavellan and Alexius, who is still holding on to her, are lifted off the ground and propelled above what feels like miles and miles of sand, the moon rolling to the side somewhere in the corner of their eye and their stomachs lurching into a whistling emptiness.

Another pounding pulse, a sizzle of white - and the chain is gone. The devouring flames give Lavellan’s shaking limb a final lick and dissipate; and the two dreamers feel solid ground under their shuffling soles once more, the thudding impact of their landing making them unlock their… involuntary embrace.

U is up and down is down again; and the desert remains calm, with not a bleeding raindrop or a crawling darkspawn in sight.

The landscape in the place where the chain has brought them is fairly similar - except for a towering dead tree, white as a bone gnawed clean, and seemingly tiptoeing over the sand on thick exposed roots. Tucked among those roots, in a fishing net of shade, there is a small bedroll; and on that bedroll, blinking slowly in amazement, sits a young man with a sheet-white face and eyes so bruised that they look twice their size.

'Father?’ he asks with a stutter of disbelief, one arm bent in the elbow and pressed against his chest, fingers twitching in a barely noticeable reaching gesture. 'Herald? How… You aren’t really here, are you? You can’t be here! You are part of my dream! I distinctly remember falling asleep!’

'Well, uh… We are, but we aren’t spirits,’ Lavellan begins to explain, a bit out of breath at first, as she is still recovering from the flight - but then, more and more enthused, as her mind starts processing the magical theory behind what just happened.

Her keenness is so contagious that even Alexius (who has been brought into a helpless, half-melted stupor, scarcely capable of doing anything except mumble 'Felix…’ shakily over and over again), pulls himself together and listens in.

'It’s kind of like that vision of the garden you and I had in Redcliffe - only instead of visiting a memory, we have hopped into your dream. Across all this distance!’

Lavellan makes a pause - during which Alexius sinks, limp as if he has been wounded, onto the bedroll by his son’s side - and flexes her left hand’s fingers.

'My Mark brought us here. Perhaps because you two wanted so badly… consciously or not, it doesn’t matter… to spend this day… the day when you lost someone so dear to you… together’.

'I… I suppose we did!’ Felix agrees, smiling in a slightly dazed way, a tear rolling down his sunken, wax-like cheek, before his father grips at his shoulders and pulls him against his chest, planting a long, silent kiss on the top of his head.

They pass a few seconds like this, swaying from side to side, with Lavellan looking on, herself on the verge of melting. But sooner or later, Felix gently draws apart from his father and rubs the back of his neck sheepishly.

'I, er… I may have made a detour on my way back to Tevinter. I decided to cross the Blight-touched lands at the border of Orlais and the Anderfels, and take one last look… at the place. I feel like this will be a good way to tell Mother that I… that I will join her soon’.

Alexius stiffens, all of the half-inebriated bliss struck clean off his darkening features.

'You what?! Felix, this is too dangerous!’

'Look at me, Father,’ Felix smiles sadly, gesturing in front of his clammy-skinned gaunt face. 'I am long past worrying about danger. And I…’

His voice cracks, and he crumples back against his father’s chest.

'I miss her so much’.

'I miss her too, puerus,’ he whispers, stroking his son’s back - or rather, croaks, like someone has caught him, frog-like, into an invisible fist and squeezed him.

'Some days, it almost seems that time has dulled everything… This longing… to hear her voice, to touch her hand, to laugh with her at the rude lemons… You remember the rude lemons, right? And this… this agony… of knowing that I will never do it again… And then it all resurges, like a sword through the gut. But…’

He lifts his head and looks past Felix’s shoulder to get a glimpse of Lavellan, who is still hovering over the bedroll, her eyes glowing, pale and tearful, like two more moons, and her lower lip quivering.

'But the Lady Herald has suffered great pain to bring us here. I… I do not think it fair to keep having a conversation that does not include her’.

Felix makes a small 'Oh!’ sound and pulls back a second time.

'You are right! Herald - please! - come sit with us! It is such an honour to meet you again - I would hate you to feel unwelcome!’

'Gods…’ Lavellan sniffles loudly and flaps her hands in front of her. 'It’s quite all right! I don’t want to get in the way of your mourning! I can step aside to give you privacy!’

'My mother would only have approved of your presence,’ Felix insists, wriggling about to make room for Lavellan, and swallowing a lump to even out the ripples of emotion in his voice. 'She… She had a wonderful talent for making everyone feel at home. Taking in apprentices from all across the Imperium, uniting bright, determined people from all walks of life to further a common goal… Rather like what you do, in some respect’.

Lavellan brightens up, and nestles on the bedroll between the older and younger Alexius.

'That is the plan, yes. And, as long as I have my say, those people from all walks of life absolutely will include your father. Just as I promised’.

'Thank you for this second chance,’ Felix says earnestly - and then has to catch a breath and dab discreetly at the corners of his eyes.

'It… It… It will put me at great ease when I…’

By Lavellan’s side, Alexius shrinks. After momentarily glancing at him in concern, she throws back her head to look up. With her eyes reflecting the sky, where the moon has dived into a pool of sheer blue, and with the first rays of the morning washing over her upturned freckled face, she mouths softly before Felix can say that crushing word,

'Look, the new day has almost arrived… Like in that Chantry hymn everyone sang not so long ago… I have learned the words since then - do you know them, Felix? I believe they are very fitting. About the lost shepherd and the dark path and the light that awaits…’

Felix hmms in recognition under his breath.

'That is… familiar, yes. I heard the Orlesian version plenty of times. It would be… a wonderful song to wake up with’.

Lavellan bobs her head gingerly.

'I am glad you agree! So, how about we alternate - a line in Orlesian, then a line in Common? What about you, Serah Alexius?’

'I… I would rather just listen,’ he says, a bit vaguely, watching his son - a silhouette from his view point, backlit with strokes of gold - with a misty pall clouding his eyes as well.  'And… Please, call me Gereon’.

'And you, Gereon, can call me Sula,’ Lavellan responds readily, swivelling around to give both the father and son a genial smile. 'Short for Sulahn'Taren… Singing Mind in Common. Very appropriate, if I say so myself!.. All right then! After you, Felix!’

'As you say, Sula,’ Felix smiles back at her, the sadness never quite leaving him. But there is something about this sadness, some warm undertone, which feels… tinted gold somehow, like the colours of the dawn.

Breathing in and out a few times, he follows Lavellan’s gaze out into the celestial expanse, and begins, in a hushed voice, which then deepens almost unrecognizably as he draws out the final syllable,

'La nuit tombe…’

'And hope has fled…’ Lavellan continues, with a ringing, crystalline clarity.

'Apaise ton cœur…’

'The dawn will come…’

'La nuit est longue…’

'And the path is dark…’

'Lève les yeux…’

'For one day soon…’

'L'aurore viendra…’

They go through the song in this manner, Alexius hanging on to every word with his pupils dilated into starry black pools, until the very last refrain - and it is not until their voices merge into an echoing chorus of Common and Orlesian, that the desert, at long last, betrays the first sign of being a figment of the Fade. But instead of an ominous thunder roll, a gathering of the brooding darkness, a shriek of the darkspawn horde, this sign comes in the form of a vibrant, iridescent swirl of colour that blossoms against the blue and gold of the sky; then, there comes another, and another, spreading down onto the glittering sands as well; and before long, the whole place is an endless canvas, covered with chaotic yet pleasing strokes of paint, ranging anywhere from pink to purple, sea-green to teal, cherry to orange.

Lavellan gets up, mesmerized, and greets the eruption of colour with a breathless laugh. Behind her back, the two Tevinters exhale in admiration - but before the glee of wonderment carries them off after her, Alexius whispers to his son,

'Felix, it… It was an impulse… I… have to apologize… You must have been appalled… by me switching to first names with the Herald… right after sobbing over Livia…’

Felix scrutinizes him with a frown.

'You are overthinking, as always. Nothing could be further from my mind! I know how much you love Mother, and me - but your life won’t end with ours. That’s the whole point! If you were to find…’

Alexius recoils, on the verge of panic.

'Maker, no! We are just…’

He falters, searching for the right word - and smiles faintly when he finds it.

'Friends’.

'Then cherish her friendship,’ Felix tells him, as they both get to their feet and join Lavellan - Sula - in observing the hypnotic undulations of colour in the desert.

'Hers, and Dorian’s. Mother and I are leaving you in good hands’.

'I am not five years old,’ Alexius says, pretending to be insulted - and yet clinging to Felix’s shoulder with a quiet desperation.

'Hold on to that thought,’ Felix teases, the golden sadness cloaking both him and his father - and also Sula, who has found herself drawn into their one-armed hug.

'We will be checking on you, if we can… From whichever place comes next. I must say, I wouldn’t mind if it looked something like this. I wouldn’t mind at all’.

…The last night that the Inquisition spends in the mountains before the move into Skyhold is the last time when Gereon Alexius sees his son - or so he believes. And it is also the last time when Sula sees him, before he awakens to find Lysette the Templar and his other guards looming over him. Waiting to convoy him into the dungeons in the new stronghold.

Chapter Text

‘Lady Inquisitor’.

Sula Lavellan starts when Cullen speaks her new title, looking up at him with an involuntary twitch of her sensitive elven ears.

And not just because it is still alien to her, like being called by a stranger’s name, a name that she has to grow into like into uncomfortable hand-me-down clothing (getting used to 'Herald’ was challenge enough, to say nothing of the lofty, expectations-laden title of 'Second', apprentice to the Keeper, back in her clan - also a name that she never quite prepared herself to wear, always feeling its seams rub against her harshly instead of fitting her with natural ease).

It is the way he pronounces the word… So very (very!) differently from that elated cry in the courtyard of the newly claimed Skyhold, when the crowd roared behind his back, and even the always impeccably civil and collected Ambassador Montilyet little short of leapt up into the air with a girlish 'Whee!’. Which Sula really wishes she had not smothered so soon; there is no shame in being visibly excited, even if you are a figure of authority… Is there?

Now, in the half-darkness of his cluttered study, where the rays of light have drawn a burning golden cage through the window lattice, Cullen says 'Inquisitor’ very quietly. Hesitantly. Apologetically.

It leaves Sula with a nagging tension pulling at unseen strings inside her stomach. It’s all such a… muddled mix of things. On the one hand, she cannot help but pity him, as he awkwardly rustles through the stack of papers in front of him, having to deal with Templar reports even though he swore off everything he used to do back in the order (and even earned a few Mabaris of Encouragement for being such a wonderful commander, which line his desk in a chubby, grinning, bug-eyed row). But on the other hand, she is beginning to feel… upset. Because she knows what those papers contain.

'Thank you for your cooperation through all these tests. We… We have not found any symptoms of mind control. As recorded here, you have… A completely clean bill of health. As your advisor, I would deem you fully capable of judging Magister Alexius once Leliana is done interrogating him… I think he is at her rookery right now’.

He makes a guilty glance in the direction of the tall octagonal vial that stands on his desk, the knitted puppies gaping innocently at it, not knowing that it contains blood, drawn from the veins of the Tevinter prisoner before the door of his new cell in Skyhold’s dungeons clamoured shut behind him.

'Again,’ Sula says, voice quaking and fingers gripping a bit too tightly at the edge of Cullen’s desk - so that the vial wobbles in place and almost falls to the side.

The proportion of pity in the muddled mix decreases steeply - compared to her… other feelings.

'How many times has she brought him up there and sent him back down to the cells again… and brought him up there? How many times has she… grilled him? As many as you have grilled me?’

'I…’ Cullen splutters. 'I… I took no joy in examining you, Inquisitor. In treating you like a common apostate under suspicion of foul play. The last thing I want is to fall back into my own habits of… condemning mages simply for existing’.

'Then why have you?’ Sula asks, her heart clenching at how harsh her own voice sounds.

She… She is not usually like this! She tries to be kind and welcoming and warm! If she could catch those words into her fist and slam them back between her teeth, she would have… But they are out now, and they are followed by so many more.

'Why have you condemned us? Why don’t you just… let us exist? Talk to one another? Be friends? Why must I be barred from going down to those new dungeons - from seeing my own prisoner before I judge him? Why must I hear about how he is doing by eavesdropping on the guards? Or eavesdropping on Dorian yelling at the guards? Why must he…’

She sucks in her stomach, a shudder running up her spine as she imagines a familiar lone figure crouching on a smattering of coarse, prickly, haphazardly cut straw that does not quite cover the cold stone. A familiar profile against the striped, smoky-grey square of a prison window. Familiar eyes, dim and sunken again, like in Haven, when he watched deadly fungi grow from a crack in the floor, a dark temptation brewing in his mind.

'Why must he be kept alone, in the dark, deprived of the comfort that he needs so much, so soon after… a very painful date in his life? Thinking that I broke my promise to look out for him, that I forgot him? Denied all contact with me - and even with his own apprentice - with nothing but cold and silence in between interrogations?’

'Inquisitor, please!’ Cullen interjects - and Sula has to lock her hand around her own throat, petrified by the realization that she has almost started yelling at him.

She never… She never yells. She promised herself she would never yell at people, like her mother once yelled at her, before she came into her magic, before she was taken away by the Keeper, back when she was still a tiny nuisance with bandy fat little legs and a bubble coming out of her nose.

'We have been over this before! This is… different! This is not an innocent, Templar-hounded apprentice! Alexius joined a cult, spewed whole tirades on world domination, took part in a barbaric hunt for the Tranquil, and would have turned the world into a nightmarish wasteland if you hadn’t stopped him!’

Sula breathes deeply. In and out. In and out. Don’t yell. Never yell. Not like Mamae.

When she next speaks, she does get herself to quieten down - but fails to trample that little tremour that bubbles through towards the end of every question she asks Cullen.

'And is… Is believing that he can change… that he regrets what he did… Is seeing his softer side under all the hate and regret… so ridiculous that… the only explanation you can think of… Is blood magic? Mind control? Me being a helpless drooling puppet in the hands of a wicked magister?’

Cullen, whose eyes have been getting progressively rounder as Sula’s own eyes have been going dimmer and dimmer, stung by a multitude of tiny, white-hot needles, leans forward awkwardly across his table, nearly scattering the toy mabaris with the stiff motions of his steel-clad arms, and, as soon as he manages to reach Sula, taps her lightly above the elbow in a kind of stunted, uncertain imitation of a comforting pat.

'The alternative would be that you… merely try to see the best in everyone… And while that is… commendable…’ he says, making a lot of pauses that he fills up with small, vague noises at the back of his throat.

Not quite coughing, and not quite muttering, and not quite… Anything. They still are unmistakably there, those noises, and adding them all up, Sula can almost decipher a whisper, 'I profoundly disagree with you but saying it bluntly would make me feel even more terrible than I am feeling right now. So have some throat-clearing instead’.

In the meanwhile, out loud, Cullen keeps on trying to be polite.

’…You are a leader of a cause now. You have people under your banner… people that expect you to be firm… just… valiant… Not…’

'Not like me?’ Sula finishes, in a small voice, the needles escaping her eyes, with one farewell scrape, in a stream of tears, burning hot against her already flushed skin. 'I… I see. I am sorry’.

She really is. She had no right to clash with Cullen like this - when she is the one in the wrong.

She shouldn’t have acted so outraged. She shouldn’t have allowed herself to become so caught up in worrying for Gereon - in his own words, she shouldn’t allowed herself to sound like him. To be like him, when he was at his lowest, most broken point. Too blinded by wanting to protect… someone he cared about… to see his own mistakes.

She should have stopped and thought. She should have remembered why her titles, new and old, have rubbed her the wrong way. Because, like Gereon, she is also broken. Only in a different way. In a way that makes her unfit to be a leader.

'I… I need some air…’ she hears herself mumble - a clichéd excuse that she picked up from some human book or other.

Backtracking out of Cullen’s office with the slowness of a very confused turtle, almost falling over as she bumps against the door and it opens behind her, she does, indeed, hold her breath, her heart hammering, hugely swollen, against her lungs and stomach, until she finds herself on the battlements. Once she is out in the open, she exhales chokingly and whips around, grabbing at the edge of the stone parapet and staring out into the bizarre swirly pool of green and grey and kind of bluish blurred spots that the courtyard has turned into. Her cheeks feel moist, and her throat is parched, and her mind fills with the warped, distant sounds of a forest.

For a moment or so, she is sixteen years old again, lying on a deer skin cot with her stomach rising and falling steeply, and with the tree tops overhead all appearing to bow down and inspect her topless, goosebump-covered form, which is about to be bitten into by the hahren’s inking tools, primed with sacred ink. Her own blood, mixed in with a pigment that ought to make the vallaslin bright yellow, like the pollen of summertime flowers. Easy to notice on her brown skin. Easy to read.

When choosing a god to dedicate her coming of age to, she requested the life-giving branches of Mythal. The leader. The Keeper among the Creators. The dispenser of justice. She thought that this way, covered in Mythal’s vallaslin from head to toe, she would bring herself closer to what her mentor and her kin expected her to be. A wise, strong woman to stand at the helm of her clan. Fair, unerring, ruthless if necessary. Always with the best answers to ensure the clan’s survival.

But she… She saw no answers, either then or now. Not the right answers, anyway. Not the answers founded on firmness and valour. She has always fallen far beneath everyone’s expectations  - too soft, too forgiving, too trusting.

All that her enemies need to do is plead her sincerely enough, and she will gladly bring them up from their knees, and wipe away their tears, and smother them in a hug. Fenedhis, a part of her was even ready to soothe Corypheus when he talked about the dead whispers that rang through the Fade, instead of the voices of his gods.

And her new clan - her Inquisition - will not survive for long if she continues to be… like this. If she continues to be herself.

'Lady Lavellan… Is everything all right?’

Sula blinks away the last of the tears, and with them, the vision of the forest is washed off, the trees blending into dark watery streaks. The blurred pool freezes into the crisp outlines of Skyhold’s courtyard, with workers hurrying along the dirt paths with brick-laden carts, laying the foundation of the infirmary that Sula asked for after she raced about looking for that curious spirit, Cole, and saw the wounded laying right on the grass among puddles of rain water.

The battlements themselves come into focus too, and Sula sees the sturdy figure of Warden Blackwall - in the wooly shirt she knitted for him, grey and blue, with a silly white blob on the chest that is supposed to be a gryphon. She smiles instinctively upon seeing her handiwork put to good use - and then realizes that the Warden is displaying the shirt because he has taken off his padded jacket and thrown it on her still jerking shoulders.

'Was that… too much?’ he asks, an almost boyish fright in his voice, as he watches Sula pull the heavy fabric tighter around her. 'It has uh… been a while since I… comforted someone, but… Following your example… A little warmth seemed like a good idea…’

'It’s lovely,’ Sula says thickly through her clogged-up nose. 'But… I am afraid I set a bad example. For everyone’.

Blackwall frowns and nods brusquely at Cullen’s door.

'Is that what it was about?’

'In part, yes,’ Sula confesses, her cheeks flaring up at the thought of the… other part. 'But I wasn’t crying because Cullen hurt my feelings… I was crying because I have been this way for years, and still haven’t fixed myself. People want me to be a leader… back home, it was because I was born with magic; now it’s because I… I glow… And I can’t for the life of me kick myself into actually… acting the part’.

'I… I did not realize you felt this way…’ Blackwall mutters. His brow is still knitted, but his eyes, clear as an autumn creek, look up at Sula with sincere admiration.

'Like you were given a part that does not fit you…’

'Like wearing another person’s clothes,’ Sula chuckles mirthlessly, shrugging to bring more attention to the Warden’s jacket on her shoulders.

'But if anything, this… struggle makes you even more of an inspiration. Because if even the Herald of Andraste has to face misgivings, then maybe we simple peasants can amount to something too’.

'I… am an inspiration?’ Sula mouths, stretching her neck above the jacket’s collar like a bird hatchling peeking out of a nest.

'How can… a broken leader be an inspiration?’

'All those people out there,’ Blackwall gestures broadly in the direction of the courtyard, as he and Sula begin to slowly walk down one of the many flights of stairs that link the courtyard with the battlements.

'They don’t just follow you because you glow. There’s so much talk in the tavern every night… About how you tame wild beasts and dragons and Maker knows what monsters. With just a kind word or two’.

Sula half-huffs, half-snorts, both startled and the tiniest bit amused - just enough for the tightness in her chest, which yet lingers after all her sobs, to fall away.

'I don’t know where they get that from! Are the wild beasts… supposed to be those poor wolves that were following a demon? You know, the creature that had tricked them into accepting it as their pack leader, and would not leave them alone until I had to send it back to the Fade? Or…’

Her heart mellows with a memory of two mewling, fuzzy little creatures squeezing themselves out of a hole in a hollow log; and she can sense the first proper smile spread over her lips.

'Or the mother bear that was wandering all over the Hinterlands, weeping for her cubs, until I helped her find them in their hiding place, scared because a rift had opened near their home? Or…’

Her features darken subtly.

'Or another bear, the one who had escaped some human bann or other? After being tethered to a chain and poked with spears and used as a training dummy for the mabari? That one wasn’t beastly at all, he was just in a lot of pain!’

She strokes the air with her hand, almost feeling the bumpy scabs along the bear’s thick neck.

'As for dragons… You were there, you know those were just dragonlings! Also separated from their mother! Sure, they may have been the size of a pony, but by dragon standards, they were the smallest babies! You must remember how Bull cuddled one to his chest - and how excited he was when it licked him, and how sad when the mother dragon puffed smoke in his face and he had to let the baby go!’

'Oh, Fuzzhead and I are not living that down,’ Blackwall smirks into his beard - but promptly goes back to being serious.

'What I am saying is… You are not broken. The world is’.

He shakes his head for emphasis, while Sula gathers herself up underneath his jacket, chest clenching again - but with eagerness rather than pain.

'Oh, this place is going to the void in a handbasket, and in the middle of all this shit, it’s such a bloody relief to see someone who spreads kindness for a change. Someone who…’

Blackwall’s eyes glint, and he grunts to himself, flexing his neck.

'Who looks at a monster and sees that it’s not that monstrous at all. That it’s just hurting. And you are damn right it’s inspiring! Please… Please don’t lose that. You’ve got plenty of advisors to give the Inquisition its brains and its strategy… But you - you are its heart’.

Sula dips her head, so that only the tips of her ears are visible over the jacket now, glowing ember-red against the light of the sky above the stronghold. She and the Warden complete their descent in silence - a homely, comfortable silence, filled up with the warmth of the protective fabric and Sula’s own heart. Not entirely free of doubt, but… But better.

'Maker’s balls, this place is confusing, isn’t?’ Blackwall remarks offhandedly once they are down in the courtyard - perhaps aiming to ease Sula into a casual conversation to keep her spirits up. 'So many stairs and doors… Last night, I was trying to find the armoury, but I think I wound up in the corridor that leads to the prison cells’.

Sula makes a soft hum under her breath, the warmth now turning into a flaming, impulsive burst.

'I… I don’t suppose you could do that again? With a note some unknown person accidentally put in your pocket?

Chapter Text

There are moments when, if he tilts his head at a very specific angle, and squints in a very specific way, he can almost… almost pretend that she is there. Just beyond the bars. Sitting in a chair that she has brought with her (hovering it telekinetically like a misshapen kite), knitting at a lightning speed (the result of masterful skill combined with just a dollop of magic), and ready, at any moment, to look up at him. To smile at him. To talk to him. The way she did in Haven, so, so many times in the days before sealing the Breach.

No matter how busy she was with preparing for that… ambitious expedition, she would always find a moment to spare, several times a day, to dash into the dungeons - often followed by Dorian, but not always - and say hello to the imprisoned magister who, at the time, was still reeling under the weight of all his failures.

‘I cannot fathom why you keep coming,’ he would tell her, the words tasting less and less bitter upon his tongue with every visit. 'There is little to see here’.

And she would smile, dimples deepening on her freckled cheeks, and say, so softly, so simply,

'There is you’.

 

Alexius exhales, knowing full well that it will do little to alleviate the pain from the unseen hardwood stake that seems to have become lodged vertically inside his body, skewering everything from his stomach to his lungs. As if… As if he has been stabbed by a tree again. She would have laughed at that. No, no - he would have laughed, wry and self-deprecating, and she would have arched her eyebrows in concern and begged him to try and to steady himself. To breathe.

And breathe he does. Another try at exhaling - again, of little help, but he thinks he might have suffocated otherwise. Another useless squint into the darkness… And then - then, a low groan through his grinding teeth, as he realizes that years ago, in the throes of fighting for his family, he used to do exactly the same.

Now and then, the exhaustion after caring for Felix for some three (four? ten?) days straight would leave only a tiny corner of his mind still functioning, amid the all-consuming fiery haze, and, in his befuddled state, he could swear he saw Livia looking over his shoulder, ready to critique his research notes and then laugh into her hand as he reeled comically at her teasing.

At least… At least Sula is not dead. Maker forbid. Her being dead would mean that the Elder One would triumph - and after the fall of Haven, he cannot bear the thought.

She is not dead. And she had better stay this way!.. Her and Dorian both! They have a world to save, mistakes of stupid old men to undo, and well-deserved happiness to enjoy afterwards.

But even though she was not… taken, like Livia was, like Felix soon will be, Alexius doubts that they will ever meet again.

Not in the Fade, for one.

He spotted her once or twice during his long-promised search for a spirit of Wisdom that would educate him on the lore of the people that his compatriots only see as slaves.

She would try to reach for him, waving frantically through the ripples of green mist, but he always turned away, fearing that her Mark would erupt painfully like it had done last time.

'Stay safe, Sula,’ he would whisper, stepping back deeper into the mist (which had to be why his vision would always blur at that point). 'Stay away’.

And certainly not in the waking world. Not if her advisors have any say on the matter.

Alexius closes his eyes and passes his fingers over the narrow, ribbed scar on his hand, left by a Templar’s knife as they collected his blood for a phylactery. A drastic measure - which seemed to have unnerved even Fiona, who was there, hard-eyed and grimly silent, to watch her would-be slave master get shackled again - in case he ever decides to escape and defect to his old master.

The cut was not too deep; it should have healed by now… And yet it didn’t. Perhaps there is some enchantment at work here; perhaps it is on purpose - as a constant reminder that, after what he did, he cannot expect to be free again. Nor can he really expect mercy, because the one person who keeps vouching for him is being suspected of falling prey to blood magic.

With every stroke of his fingertips against the scar, Alexius can hear the Spymaster’s voice ever louder in his head. Probing. Searching. Sinking deep into his brain like a Nevarran mummification hook.

'What was the true purpose of your staying behind during the evacuation? Were you hoping to assist Corypheus as he confronted the Inquisitor? To make a new assassination attempt?’

'The Inquisitor appears to have high hopes for your redemption. Why is that? Did you plant those thoughts inside her head? Did you subject her to another ritual?’

'You defied the laws of time just to lay a trap for the Inquisitor - and now we are all expected to believe that you had a change of heart? That you and her have become friends? What are you hiding, Alexius? What is your motive?’

She is relentless, this woman with skin like the most delicate porcelain and eyes like the most deadly steel. She will likely call upon his guards once more, through one of those soft-stepping hooded runners of hers, and order to bring him up the dizzying spiral stairs for another round of questions tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. Never backing down. Never satisfied with his answers.

He… He did see her falter, the steel in her gaze cracking, whenever he became particularly insistent that yes, the Inquisitor had gifted him with her friendship, so shortly after exposing his failed attempt on her life; and yes, she had done so of her own volition. No blood magic. No mind games. Just because.

He did hear her voice slow down, trailing off to a vague murmur - as though she were suddenly preoccupied by recollections of… something. Something lighthearted, something cherished - maybe something from a time before she had turned into an unforgiving spymaster, a time when she was more porcelain than steel.

That kind of preoccupation would not be too unfamiliar to him - after all, he had the same lapse of wistfulness himself when he first saw Sula, crowned by specks of sunlight and teaching innocent domestic magic to gawking southern children. But then again, he may have well imagined this shift in the Spymaster’s demeanor. Just as he is imagining Sula being right here. Being close. Being her tender, kind self; happily and freely and unconditionally - just because she can. Just because.

 

On the other side of his hazy half-dreams, heavy footfalls pound through the darkness, making Alexius start - thus casting off the fragile illusion of the little curvy figure in a chair beside his cell.

A man’s voice, gruff and with a Marcher accent - definitely not the voice of any of the guards, who are all either Orlesian or Fereldan - loudly says something about being lost ('This… this isn’t the armoury, is it?’). And a few moments later, the already poor light, which trickles through the bars like watered-down dirty paint, is blocked out by someone’s broad back.

The back’s owner - some rude southern boor, apparently - shuffles for a bit on the spot, apologizing to the guards for wandering in where he does not belong, and then leaves. Which would have concluded this tiny incident (the sole break in the monotony of jail-interrogation-jail-interrogation) then and there, had Alexius not noticed the little square of white on the dark-grey stones. A slip of paper that the southerner dropped while he was fidgeting about in front of the prison bars. Intentionally?

Shrugging to himself - it is not like he has any worthier pastimes than inspecting someone else’s litter - Alexius picks the paper off the floor… And almost cries out loud.

There is writing on the paper - addressed to him, and signed… Signed with her name.

Of course - if she had written to him openly, the advisors would have only seen proof of the 'evil magister brainwashes the heroine into trusting him’ theory. So she had to devise a ruse, with that gruff-voiced Marcher acting as a go-between. Oh, clever, clever girl.

He needs to take a few breaths again before he can see clearly enough to make out what the letter is saying. The stake inside him has splintered, each fragment unfolding a pair - or several - of fluttering butterfly wings.

Oddly enough, the flutter is the most intense when he lingers on his name at the top of the paper slip, recalling mentally how she pronounced it in that beautiful, bittersweet dream he shared with her and Felix. The way she seemed to begin it with a little sigh… He cannot restrain the urge to pass his fingers over the letter’s heading, the floor almost swimming away from under his feet.

'Gereon,

I am so, so sorry I did not resist my advisors hard enough when they chose to keep us apart. I was doubting myself, you see - wondering if my mercy to you was a sign of weakness. But then, a good friend reminded me that it can, in fact, be a sign of strength. And now that the Commander has given me a “clean bill of health” regarding blood magic (they thought you had me under mind control; imagine that?!), I have requested to sit in judgement over you tomorrow. I will use this opportunity to officially invite you to join us as a researcher, so you can do what you do best - share your knowledge - in order to build a new life for yourself, away from Corypheus. I hope that the days that follow will be filled with better memories than your first impressions of being part of the Inquisition!

Welcome to the Herald’s Team. No stabby trees allowed here!

See you tomorrow.

Your friend,

Sula’

 

He stares at the paper for a butterfly-filled eternity, grinning like an utter fool, not even caring to point out to himself that these… sensations of his are peculiarly similar to how he danced about, smitten brainless, when he was twenty years old and doing research with his other friend - Livia of House Arida. Not even caring to pause and consider that the Marcher still has not left. That he is watching him from the corridor. Wondering.

Chapter Text

‘I had my seamstress design this dress for you while we were still stationed at Haven,’ Vivienne comments, nestling cross-legged on the long, pearly-satin sofa in the Inquisitor’s quarters and flipping idly through an intricately illustrated fashion catalogue - while behind a screen to her side, the Inquisitor, Sula Lavellan, continues to engage in a rustling struggle with a mound of white fabric (parts of which flop sometimes over the screen’s edge like seagull wings).

'No offense, darling, but I had one look at you and thought, “If this woodland child is to be presented as the voice of divine authority, she has to make an appropriate first impression”. My plan was to have you wear this during your meeting with the magister in Redcliffe - but there was a regrettable delay. By the time the dress was completed, we were all neck-deep in mountain snow, and I have only just now managed to send my seamstress directions to Skyhold. But, well, I dare say this is also fitting attire for judging prisoners’.

'You think?’ Sula asks, in a strained, muffled voice; and the seagull wings soar again.

'Of course,’ Vivienne puts down her catalogue for a moment and sighs softly. 'Morbid as it is, we must accept the fact. Public judgement is always a spectacle for idle gawkers. So why not make the most of it? Why not make them be in awe of you, darling?’

The rustle behind the screen intensifies, fueled by unspoken disapproval. Sula has to breathe in, very audibly, before she can reply to Vivienne. Her voice is shaky, but filled with conviction; if she were not hidden away from view, she would have given the Imperial Enchanter a very stern look - which would have been met with a reserved nod of encouragement.

'I… I am sorry - but I would never have stomached flaunting a pretty dress if I didn’t intend to pardon all my prisoners. So long as they assure me that they want to do better’.

Vivienne slaps the catalogue shut and straightens up.

'You do, darling?’ she asks cautiously, a swirl of rime coiling around her voice. 'Have you weighed all the consequences of such leniency? Have you reminded yourself that you are not resolving a domestic dispute? That the fate of all of Thedas hinges upon what transpires in the halls of Skyhold?’

'I have,’ Sula tells her, louder this time, the rustle gradually fading into silence. 'And it is not leniency; it is mercy. I have a whole speech prepared on the subject, don’t worry! I took some of your lessons in self-assurance… and also some other things I learned from my friends… and… kind of applied them to my own opinions. If that’s all right’.

Vivienne relaxes and leans back onto the sofa with an interested hum - and here comes that nod.

'Of course, my dear! It will be a delight to see you stand your ground’.

'Well, I will certainly try,’ Sula says - and emerges from behind the screen.

History has preserved no mention how Vivienne managed to calculate Sula’s measurements - the 'woodland child’ certainly did not pose for her; she was not even aware of the dress’s existence until the seamstress sent it in. But, that great mystery aside, the fabric fits perfectly.

It wraps round Sula’s curves in a feather-light caress - and then, somewhere mid-thigh, unfolds suddenly into a many-layered blossom, where the edge of every snow-white petal is trimmed with golden thread, to match the curling vines that form the dress’s belt, and the touches of embroidery along the diamond-shaped cut-outs on her chest (from the collar bones to just above her breasts), back, and along either of her sleeves, which are bell-shaped and puffed-up at the shoulder. Through those windows of exposed brown skin, Sula’s full-body vallaslin is clearly visible, and she cannot help but ponder it, stretching both arms forward and squishing up her chin to see the branching tattoo lines on her own chest.

'Is this on purpose?’ she asks, watching the branches shift as if in a rising wind as she bends her elbows.

Vivienne lets out an indulgent half-chuckle.

'Just an idea that occurred to me, darling – when I chanced to see that your vallaslin does not cover your face alone. I did say that this dress was meant for your Redcliffe negotiations. Nothing would have been a bolder statement for a Tevinter magister than a Dalish elf walking in, free and proud, with the markings of her status on display…’

Here, Sula turns her back to Vivienne for a moment or so. She does her best to pretend that she is still absorbed in twirling around in her new dress - but in reality, this is a ploy to hide her blushing face. When she looks back at Vivienne, the latter makes no indication whether she has seen through Sula, and goes on speaking as if nothing had happened.

’…And it will really work the same way on all the human dignitaries you are entertaining at Skyhold. You are different from them, my dear, and many still reel at the thought - so make them reel even more. Flaunt what makes you different. The sole way to win the Game is to rise above it. To gather all the strings in your fist, rather than let them tug at you. And that is only possible if you remember that there is a you to wield that fist in the first place’.

'I… I am still not certain that I have the guts for the Game,’ Sula admits, before striding up to Vivienne and, with no warning, throwing her arms around her. 'But today, your counsel will be of great use to me. Thank you’.

'Quite,’ Vivienne murmurs into Sula’s braided-up, freshly perfumed hair - a little ploy of her own. To hide a fond smile.

 

…The great hall is already full when she appears - a little bit like a cage in a menagerie (or so she whispers to herself, to make the expectant crowd less frightening). Stuffed to bursting point with a fussy flock of human-sized birds of every possible plumage, from the more sensible Fereldan grey and brown, to the screaming acid green and magenta of fan-flapping Orlesians. Many of them combine their clucking noises with glaring unblinkingly - like a chicken would - at the figure that is standing before the elevated platform where the Inquisitor is supposed to sit, bending under the weight of thick barbed chains that the guards have twisted round its arms and wrists. This figure… Her prisoner… Her friend… Also resembles a bird, in a way. Ruffled and alert, rounded eyes filled not with bitter derision, not with despair, not with loathing - in equal parts towards the Inquisition and himself - like when her forces first captured him; but with a fretful hope.

He gasps, ever so slightly, when she finally steps out of the door that opens onto the stairwell to her quarters. And when their eyes meet, when his gaze fills with a warm glow that then resurges, just as bright, within her chest, she almost ruins the grand impression that she and Vivienne have all planned out, by stepping blindly onto the hem of that hundred-petal skirt - which could have well resulted in her toppling over and planting her face forcefully into the floor, legs sticking out with a frantic wriggle that would have doubtlessly amused Sera.

But somehow, she keeps her balance, gritting her teeth to lock in a panicked 'Ow!’ when her feet (secretly bare, Dalish-fashion, under all the white fabric) get momentarily tangled up. A little shuffle on the spot to get the dress’s hem in place, and she is able to look on, head held high, while the whole room around her echoes her friend’s gasp, tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold. Especially when she walks past that wonderful stained glass window, with green flower stalks and frolicking mabaris and everything: a gift from the Denerim craftsmen for helping their king and queen. She imagines that the many-coloured splashes of dappled sunlight must look really pretty and whimsical on a white dress - and under different circumstances, she would have stopped and danced a little, to see how light and shadow would play on the spinning, blossoming skirt. But she has an important speech to make.

She does not sit on the throne that Josephine so thoughtfully picked out for her, once the hall was cleared of the rubble that had built up since Skyhold’s last owners abandoned the place. Instead, she stops in front of it, teetering on the very edge of the platform, with just a few steps separating her from her chained friend. Giving him a small nod, she presses her fists against her sides, breathes in (again, quite audibly; hopefully, enough to drown out that ruckus her hammering heart has been raising), and calls to the menagerie (funny, not frightening; funny, not frightening) with a girlish smile,

'Hello friends!’

The crowd responds with a few scattered, not too enthusiastic 'huhs’ - and Sula, sensing that her greeting did not quite qualify as standing her ground, throws her head even higher, clears her throat, and starts over, her speech more and more fluid (and her cheeks more and more scorched) as she goes along.

'Friends of the Inquisition! Perhaps many of you have come here to enjoy a bloody spectacle - a vengeful warrior, cutting off her enemies’ heads left and right. In that case, I am afraid you will have to leave disappointed. Both on this day, and on any other day in the future. There shall be no beheadings here; no bloodshed other than what we have to see in the battlefield!’

She pushes herself on tiptoe, fingers playing with the gilded rims of her sleeves.

'You insist on calling me the Herald of Andraste - and while I did not ask for this, or believe in this, the rumours about me are so overwhelming that I have no choice but to give in. Very well - let me be the Herald of Andraste. But do you know what kind of Andraste I will be the Herald of? Not the Andraste that destroys heathens; not the Andraste that blesses Exalted Marches; not the Andraste that shuts her door in the face of worshippers because they are not the right kind!’

This raises a rumble of excitement among the elves and the dwarves in the back rows of the crowd - and Sula grins at them, and unclenches her fists, her hands soaring up in a succession of animated gestures.

'No - if I absolutely must carry that mantle, I want to a mantle that fits. Otherwise I will be to consumed by squirming in clothing that was meant for another person’s shoulders. I want to carry the mantle of Andraste that a lonely, starving mother prays to in an Elvhen alienage, begging for one more day on earth for her sick child. I want to carry the mantle of Andraste that a healer keeps in his thoughts as he walks through the embers of a battlefield, searching for survivors, not caring which crest they wear. I want to carry the mantle of Andraste that smiles over simple village weddings and lingers in the smoke of soup kitchens and is called to, again and again, by little boys and girls as they learn how to read. I want to carry the mantle of Andraste that you Chantry folk call the Lady of Mercy. I want to be what fits my mind and heart. The Herald of Mercy - starting from today!’

She pauses dramatically, and nods at her friend, her grin fading and her brow knitting with concentration.

'Before you, stands a magister of Tevinter who once did terrible things. He reversed the flow of time to catch the rebel mages right after the Conclave, when they were most helpless, and signed them away into servitude; he became involved in a plot to hunt down the Chantry’s most neglected, most abused children - the Tranquil… And he was also supposed to kill me. But - and that is a most crucial but! - he did that upon the orders of another. A dark master, an ancient darkspawn we now know as Corypheus, who told him lies about a better and happier future both for his family and for his country. Lies that wounded him, first and foremost, when they shattered into pieces. That does not excuse, or erase, what he did; that does not absolve him - but it gives him a quality that sets him apart from the cackling Tevinter villains that you would read about in a book. Regret’.

She bites into her lips, rocking back and forth on her bare feet as she readies herself for the next part of the speech. The heartfelt part that she has recited in her head so many times, inevitably ending up ashamed of herself, of her rush to hug and comfort all and sundry… But now - thanks to Blackwall, and thanks to Vivienne (bizarre as it sounds to put their names side by side like this) - she is ashamed no more.

'And this regret - and all the pain that comes with it - is why I have already forgiven him. I do not command you to forgive him as well - but I ask you to understand. You, who have crafted such beautiful statues of Maferath weeping over what he did to his wife; you, who find it in your hearts to wonder if Loghain MacTir truly did do the right thing at Ostagar; you who, judging from all of your myths and histories that I have studied, have respect for those who regret. This prisoner - just like every other prisoner that comes before me with a heart filled with pure, sincere regret - will be understood, and respected, and accepted as part of the Inquisition. I am hereby recruiting him as a researcher - for that is what he was, before darkness came into his life. That is what he might yet return to, if we show him mercy. And will that not be more amazing than cutting his life short?’

'My, my, darling, you do have opinions, don’t you…’ Vivienne purrs, surveying the platform through an elegant pair of dwarf-made opera glasses, little finger extended. 'And you are showing some backbone when expressing them. The woodland child is growing up’.

And then, in the same breath, she raises her voice at Blackwall, who is standing a pace or two away, petrified and transfixed on the figure in white,

'Darling, do kindly shut your mouth. You will suck in all the flies in the room. Unless that is your intention; I wouldn’t put it past you’.

'And the Lady strikes a blow against a hobo again!’ Dorian comments. 'I need to step up my snark game next time’.

He narrows his eyes as he speaks, to show amusement - and also, as another ploy. To hide that listening to the Inquisitor pardon his former mentor has made them red and moist.

Chapter Text

‘I have another book for you!’

'Ah, wonderful! If that is no trouble, could you put it on that shelf over there, while I finish up my notes? I really have to round up this sentence, and then I am entirely at your disposal.’

But Sula does not move. She remains the way she is - standing on the threshold of her Tevinter researcher’s quarters: a small, clean room, with more tome and scroll stacks than actual furniture, but with a tall window to let through plenty of light and air, and remind him that he is no longer a prisoner.

She picked out this little corner herself, making certain that it is easy to reach from the library - the favourite haunt of Dorian, who will now have plenty of opportunity to drop in. To discuss magic theory, of course. And if he and his one-time mentor decide to remember their old friendship in Tevinter, or mysteriously find themselves in the possession of a bottle of brandy, which might just be a personal gift to the Illustrious Lady Inquisitor from a frilly-sleeved, flourishingly bowing merchant with an Antivan accent, for saving him from bandits on the wild forest paths of rural Ferelden - what of it?

When Sula first discovered the room, tearing through the cobwebs to see that shining window, like an explorer in the heart of an overgrown Elvhen temple, its walls were nothing but stone, coated with cracking yellowish plaster. Blank and cold and rather depressing to look at.

But just as the researcher was about to move in, clean-shaven at last and dressed in modest but crisply washed Circle-style robes, he and his guard escort found their Inquisitor in the middle of… decorating. Or rather - as Sula is well aware herself, always flushing and shaking her head when she recalls what a mess she made - dancing amid the snowdrift-like, canvas-covered shapes of the bed and the desk and the small thick-legged chair and the yet empty clothing chest. She had borrowed a palette of Elvhen pigments from Solas and just, more or less, threw them at the unpainted walls, with plenty of leaps and twirls to make the process even more exhilarating, and with bluish, shimmering trails of magic trailing after her vivaciously moving figure. The magic would in with the spurts of colour, creating peculiar, slightly leaky shapes until not an inch of the original plaster remained.  Reminiscent, in a way, of how the desert dreamscape had transformed when Sula and Felix sang the dawn hymn.

She has, however, been considerate enough to choose a different range of pigments than the blue and gold and lilac and cherry that had melted into one another back then. The last thing that poor Gereon needs now, when his path to redemption is yet a tremulous, delicate thread, is to wake up every morning to a reminder of the final meeting with his dying son.

She has mostly gone for deep, woodland greens - dark and fresh like the colours she imagines Gereon seeing in the lush rain forests of his far-off northern home. Everyone needs a touch of home: she did, after all, knit Josephine a striped mat of sky-blue, white, and aquamarine, weaving in a sigil that makes it produce a faint sea wave rumble once stepped on. Cole’s suggestion - and what a brilliant one at that!

And she did request that the bed in her own quarters be covered with fur pelts, like the ones her clan mates would bring in from the hunt.

She does not possess enough magic to splinter all of Skyhold into enchanted little corners with life-like illusions of everyone’s favourite place in Thedas - and even if she could, a few of her companions would have had misgivings about the idea. So, small but thoughtful details will have to do.

Maybe, to make Gereon’s room even more like a Tevinter jungle, she ought to suggest a couple of fern-like potted plants. Something needs to help cleanse the air after all the alchemical experiments! But even like this, with a foliage… ish explosion of green where the boring plaster once was, it looks quite refreshing. And not just to her eyes, either - when she was done with her paint-throwing, she glanced over her shoulder, absentmindedly wiping her slightly sweating face with the back of her pigment-speckled hand, the first thing she saw was the broadest, happiest, loveliest smile Gereon had ever shared with her. With his teeth showing, making this quite unlike his usual crooked smirks, and with his eyes gleaming like… like carnelian crescents! (She may or may not have burrowed through the library’s Mineralogy section to find a volume where precious stones were sorted by colour, and gone through the Brown Gems list… for no particular reason).

And ever since that day, she has been coming back here, again and again. For a chance of seeing that smile return. Most of the time, she has been bringing books - tomes from the looted Circle collections, which she and Vivienne have been looking for among twisting brambles and under debris piles and in muddied, scarred chests stuffed under rocky ledges by bandits. She has been picking out the collections of angular diagrams and many-tiered formulas and elaborate hypotheses that Gereon might find useful in his research: the topic that interests him currently, from what he told her, is whether horseshoes can be magically augmented to make the Inquisition’s mounts cross the terrain faster without overexerting themselves. So anything that mentions speed spells, goes to him. Like the book that she is still clutching, in no hurry to place it where Gereon has asked her to.

Frowning. Quiet. Scanning every inch of his figure as he keeps toiling away in his chair, with his quill flying over the parchment while his free hand (the one that is not actually blocked by the chair’s back from where Sula is watching) is resting on his notes’ other side, with the sleeve pulled up and clutched in his fist.

The sleeve. Sleeves. It’s always the sleeves. During all of their meetings, he has kept fidgeting with his sleeves. Clasping at him with his fingers. Never using his hands freely. Not even to accept the books.

He is excited to receive them, Sula can tell: he smiles - almost the kind of smile that she is longing for - and thanks her, and eagerly discusses the contents of the books she brought before, his voice almost as fast-paced as hers when she asks her questions. But he never, ever as much as touches the covers in her presence, always suggesting that she leave the books for him on a shelf or set them down wherever he invites her to seat (either on the bed or the only chair). She would not have minded doing that, for he always addresses her as a helpful friend, not an elven slave at his beck and call… Except - except that she suspects that there’s more to it than just him being too caught up in his research. That something is amiss. Something that keeps him from moving his hands too much, lest his sleeves fall back and reveal… What?

'Gereon,’ she asks suddenly, striding up to his desk and thudding the book right beside him, which makes him start, 'What’s wrong with your hands?’

'My..? Nothing is wrong with my hands!’ he protests, not too convincingly, even as he drops his quill, ruining that important sentence with a blot of ink, and tugs at his sleeve.

'You sounded much more believable when you explained to me how you had allied with Fiona,’ she notes in a lowered voice - and, leaning closer, presses her hand gently against the side of his face. A gesture that comes as a peel of thunder for them both - judging by how Sula’s heart somersaults in her chest, and how Gereon’s skin flares with heat under her palm.

'Please, Gereon…’ she says, barely hearing herself through the new somersaults. 'You know you can tell me anything. Me and Dorian will do whatever we can to help you find your way. We are not losing you like we did in the dark future. If you have tried… again…’

He pushes his chair away to look her over. His eyes are thrown so wide open that it is almost painful to watch their whites, and he seems both shocked and moved.

'Sula, no! Please don’t think that! I… I am perfectly fine, considering… It’s just…’

He exhales in frustration, giving up on stringing the right words together, and finally rolls his sleeves back. What Sula sees, contrary to that sick feeling that has begun to rise in her stomach, threatening to stifle her heightened heartbeat, are not scars. Well, except for the one left from making his phylactery… Which, incidentally, is still in Cullen’s office, making her come very close to scowling whenever she sees it. Tempting her to run up and smash it against the floor (but she knows that Cullen, with the painful history he has with mages, deserves as much understanding as Gereon, and always makes a mental note to give him a little more time; any day now, he will see for himself that the phylactery is not needed; she believes in him, and the Knitted Mabaris of Encouragement do too).

No, these are not scars. These are manacles. Thick, squarish bracelets with a pulsing blue pattern etched into them.

'They are supposed to burn at my skin if I ever attempt casting a spell unsupervised,’ Gereon says simply, instinctively seeking to interlace his fingers with Sula’s. 'I am to wear them whenever I am out of the guards’ sight; but your Spymaster has hinted that I might be allowed to take a walk without them once a day for good behaviour. I…’

He grips Sula’s hand a little tighter.

'I did not wish you to see them… because I knew that it would upset you… make you think that you are not doing enough to protect me…’

He swallows and chuckles weakly.

'Dorian does not know either. I am afraid I still have not tried that brandy with him…’

'That’s not right…’ Sula mumbles, eyes huge and brimming over with biting liquid salt. 'A phylactery, I can… allow… for a time… So long as it just stands there… not doing anything… But these? These are just cruel! What if there is an emergency? What if you have to cast a spell to defend yourself? How did Leliana approve this? She told me she hated what the Circles were doing to mages - and this is worse than… than a lot of Circles! This just… defeats the whole point of me being merciful! If they… insist on going behind my back… and… and… and I can’t do anything useful except sob! Again!’

'Carissima’, Alexius suddenly whispers to her in Tevene, letting go of her hand to wipe away the first gushing tears with a slow, almost reverent stroke of his thumb. 'Dearest… There is no need to punish yourself… Although I know how tempting that is… You have been more than merciful… You have made me want to live again… And if part of that life is to be passed while wearing shackles… It’s a small price to pay’.

She gulps down an oncoming sniffle, and he draws his hand away from her face, cupping it round her forearm instead, while bumping his forehead softly against hers.

'I… I get to warm myself in the sun… to research magic… I can see Dorian, and you, whenever I wish… I made peace with Felix… Sometimes… It even seems to me that I might be happy… in some remote future… after Corypheus is gone. Do not worry for me. I do not deserve it. I do not deserve any of this. And yet, here I am. Pushing on. Like my boy always wanted. That is enough; more than enough’.

'I will still fight for you, Gereon; I will fight for my mercy…’ she mouths, settling her breath with a profound shudder. Their heads are no longer touching - but their lips are level, the distance between growing shorter… and shorter…

The window pane rattles loudly, almost aggressively. Sula jerks, as if her bedclothes had been whisked away and she were facing a rude awakening in the middle of sweetest Fade visions. Staggering off to the window, she meets the judgmental beady eye of a raven, which has a rolled-up message tied to its paw.

'It must be… for me…’ she explains, gaze wandering and words half-slurred. 'Some soldiers have gone… missing… out in the marshes… And I have been expecting an update… I will return, once I am done with this!’

'I will be here,’ Alexius tells her as farewell - and the instant she is out of his quarters, he buries his face in his hands and rests his torso on the desk, kicking at the waste paper basket under the table and cursing himself.

Later on, as Sula gathers her companions to leave for the treacherous bogs of the Fallow Mire, she will approach Cole for insight into what might await them in the heavy fog and in the sunken streets of plague-ravaged villages, where corpses are rumoured to rise from the tar-like waters. And his cryptic greeting of the day will be,

'Two women dancing in his heart; he is scared that he is hurting the one that’s alive and betraying the one that’s dead’.

But she will be too absorbed in her rush to reach the missing soldiers in time, and Cole will make no further comments before he disappears and reappears again at the first campsite on the road to the mire, daggers on the ready to put some shambling plague husks to rest.

Chapter Text

‘One circle around the stables ought to be enough for the first field test,’ Alexius says, squinting impatiently over Master Dennet’s shoulder. 'If my calculations are correct, the horse ought to cover the distance so quickly that we will not even see it move. Which is why the volunteer’s account of her experiences is going to be so important. So that…’

His lips curl slightly.

'So that you are absolutely certain that I am not tricking you’.

Arcanist Dagna, who has been given a square, tightly packed bale of hay to watch the experiment from, turns towards him with a lot of grassy rustling, and says brightly,

'Oh, this is no trick - I can vouch for that! It ought to work like a charm! And speaking of quick! You have been doing your research at a fantastic speed! One day, this is all just a theory - and the next, you bring me and Harritt finished blueprints!’

'The tome that the Inquisitor gave me before she left was just what I needed… for a breakthrough,’ Alexius replies, smiling thinly and switching his gaze to his hands for some reason.

 

The Inquisitor has not yet returned from the Fallow Mire. And thus her Tevinter researcher is still wearing his magic-suppressing shackles, what with no-one else to speak up for him. Though he does get a sympathetic glance from the experiment’s volunteer, Scout Harding (Spymaster Leliana insisted on a dwarf, who would be less likely to get injured in a blast of magic if something backfired, and the Arcanist, seated comfortably on her throne of hay, has been tasked with instructing the Horsemaster on fitting the enchanted horseshoes). It might, in fact, even be a friendly wink, which she gives him when she braves a stack of stools by the horse’s side and then flings herself onto its back, raising her arms with a small 'Yay!’ like a carnival performer once her feet find the (thoughtfully shortened) stirrups.

The bracelets of dense, stony grey seem even heavier to look at than to wear, and the blue patterns on them shimmer in and out in time with Alexius’ heartbeat, which quickens when Harding balances on top of the stool stack and prepares to mount the horse, and then relaxes when the snorting, clueless beast does not spontaneously combust underneath her. Despite all of Dennet’s grumbling - which was nigh on incessant while he was clanking about with the 'weird glowy things’, as he calls the faintly whirring, lyrium-infused horseshoes that Alexius designed and Dagna and Harritt crafted. Also, 'no surer way to maim a bloody good horse’. And 'stupid Tevinter fancy - what’s wrong with travelling at normal speeds and respecting your mounts?’.

The horse passes a few more seconds perfectly uncombusted and unmaimed. Presently, Harding clears her throat, wriggles about in the creaking saddle - and says, with a slightly forced cheerfulness,

'So… Here goes nothing!’

'You will be fine,’ Alexius assures her, his manacles’ pulse going haywire again. 'Just take a deep breath and wait until Arcanist Dagna counts to three’.

As one last token of encouragement before the experiment goes off, he edges closer to the horse, readjusts the reins, and pats its neck… And then, the whole world grows smudged and muddled. As though the stable and the courtyard wall behind it were nothing but a doodle traced with a stick on the sea shore, only to be licked off the damp sand by a rolling wave. And this wave now froths all around Alexius, thrashing against his chest, filling his head with a loud, frenzied drumming and his throat and mouth with a briny, bloodied prickle - while he hangs on for dear life, gripping with a bone-crushing force at the hand of poor Scout Harding, who reaches for him, the whites of her eyes flashing through the overwhelming haze, and somehow manages to pull him into the saddle behind her.

Once he is on horseback, the wave recedes somewhat - but his and Harding’s surroundings are still a confusing blur, sometimes white and grey, sometimes green and brown, then grey again, then blue, blue, blue, with a touch of bright salad-ish clumps along the bottom edge. And the drums still pound through their ears, more rapid than the patter of torrential rain - so rapid that it is not until Alexius slants his eyes down, clenching his teeth into a cage for his ricocheting stomach, and sees the whirring motion of the glowing horseshoes, that he realizes that the sound is the clopping of the mount’s hooves. Except sped up. Sped up far more than he intended.

'I think…’ he screams inaudibly, not even particularly counting on Harding hearing him. 'I think the damned animal has escaped Skyhold, and is taking us across the countryside!’

'No offense,’ the dwarf screams back - as loudly as she can, Alexius guesses, and yet still unable to make her words into anything more than a half-coherent echo at the back of his skull. 'But this is not what I had in mind when I said I’d be happy to help! When will this wear off?’

'When the horse stops! In theory!’

'All… All right! Let’s try giving him a hint!’

Some kicks and rein pulls and desperately mouthed 'Whoahs’ later, the horse finally indulges them and ambles to a halt. The horseshoes light up one last time, and then cool down into darkness, now almost indistinguishable from the regular ones that Dennet would have used if he had his way. The blur, while still a bit confusing, is no longer rushing past them: it is merely mist, entirely mundane, non-magical in nature… Or so it would appear.

Alexius dismounts first, wincing as his Inquisition-issued shoes (meant for little more than walking from his quarters to the library or the Undercroft and back again across a very solid, very durable stone floor) sink with a wet, smacking noise into something cold and mushy. When he helps the dwarf down, she frowns and glances about, studying the rolls of mist as they reveal and then obscure the dark greyish blobs that are supposed to be… Some manner of standing stones?

'Oh, look, I am back in the Fallow More,’ she sighs. 'I was… not looking forward to returning to this place after I first scouted it out. Why couldn’t you pick somewhere sunnier, eh, fella?’

She makes a shoving gesture in the direction of the horse, who barely looks up at her from the patch of soggy moss that he instantly began to graze upon making his stop. If horses could shrug, he definitely would have.

'Maybe the horse did not choose the destination…’ Alexius remarks, making a pause not as much to consider his theory as to rip his feet free of the muck… Which takes him a truly grave sacrifice: a pair of once dry shoes.

'Maybe it’s… part of the magic… because the place is currently on everyone’s minds… What with the lost soldiers… And the Inquisitor being here… Oh, fasta fucking vaas, the wretched mud puddle has dared to swallow up my footwear!’

As if on purpose, the muck responds to his spitting mix of Tevene and Common curses with a booming belch. Backing away onto dry ground, Alexius scans the bumps of moss for anything remotely resembling a stick, grousing in a no less cranky way than the Horsemaster. But by the time when he does discover a solitary, half-rotten pole, which rises, at a rather dejected-looking angle, out of a strip of blue-black water on the other side of the dry path - perhaps the last remnant of a now sunken fence - all annoyance is gone from his expression. In its stead, comes anxiousness.

'Sul… The Inquisitor walks like this all the time,’ he says, the corners of his mouth sagging down in a distraught expression. 'Being Dalish… I imagine she is used to crossing woods and meadows barefoot - but this… this ghastly marsh? The soil is so cold and… slime-like here, and the water reeks of disease!’

He yanks at the pole, intending to brandish it for emphasis - but it is lodged too tightly too budge… And not within that slimy soil, which almost makes Alexius retch as it oozes between his curled up bare toes. Within the clutches of a bony hand, wrapped loosely into colourless wrinkly flesh that almost appears to emit a pallid glow through the drifting tufts of mist.

Drawing an abrupt, whistling breath of surprise, Alexius pulls the pole harder. And so does the hand, which gradually crawls further and further up the decaying wood, like some kind of malformed crab, exposing more and more of the equally colourless, thick-veined arm; and then, a shoulder, a neck - a huge knot of sinews, tangled up like the roots of a sun-starved plant; and a face, or what’s left of it. Empty-eyed, with skin almost peeled off down to the bone, which has been tinted algae-green from all this time in the bog. The… being’s lower jaw is missing, but it does not prevent it from making the most shattering of feral shrieks, before it lurches out of the water, bony claws aimed at Alexius’ face.

At least this means that it has finally let go of the pole - which Alexius, at last, jerks out of the silt, splashing dense, oily mud all over himself. A quick smirk flickering across his features, he places his hands on the pole like he would on a mage’s staff, and, with an elaborate twirl, uses it to hit the risen corpse across the stomach, knocking it back into the water.

'Wow!’ Harding comments, not without approval. 'You sure are resourceful!’

'I can’t use magic, but my staff-wielding skills are still applicable,’ he says, unable to contain the smugness - and busy splintering the skull of another corpse, which began to stir, bubbles clustering around its nose slits, when the knocked-out undead hit the water.

'My only wish is that… that the Inquisitor could see me now…’

'And why’s that?’ Harding quips, whipping out her bow - which she never put away, even as she volunteered for experiment. Very fortuitous, that - for there are more undead emerging from the blue-black pool, gurgling and grunting and grasping. The ones that Alexius cannot reach with his pole, Harding hits with her arrows, under their sharp chins, or in the middle of their root-like throats, or deep into the mud-leaking holes where their eyes once were. (And all the while, the horse keeps munching on moss, not even thinking of bolting away in fear, as many other horses would; probably because travels with the Inquisition have made him desensitized).

'Do you want to impress her?’

'What?! No! How… That is a very… inappropriate insinuation, Scout!’ Alexius gasps in affront, ramming the bottom tip of his pole emphatically into a walking corpse’s ribcage.

'I just want to show the Inquisitor that I am capable of making myself useful in… in various ways… Damn, I made it worse, didn’t I?’

'You kind of did,’ Harding agrees, chuckling to herself before she releases her bow string.

They pass a brief while in silence, shoving and shooting the undead back into the mire… Then, Harding speaks up again, more serious this time.

'You know, I have a feeling that these will just keep coming on and on until we exhaust ourselves. Do your… uh… mage senses tell you how to deal with this…’

'More productively?’ Alexius finishes with a nod. 'Well, the Veil is behaving very erratically here, for one… A lot of spirits coming through to possess the dead… I am not really an expert - my late wife was - but I can tell… intuitively… that one of the disruptions in the Veil seems to originate from… somewhere over there…’

He disengages from fighting for a moment - Harding hurries to finish off the corpse that he has been whipping with his pole, lest it get ideas about chewing off the distracted mage’s arm - and points up the dry path, where a tiny hut sits, crouching in the blurred shadow of the great stones.

'I don’t believe that dealing with that… disturbance will put all of the undead to rest… But it will make things easier’.

'Let’s head out then!’ Harding concludes, firing a farewell arrow in the midst of the shambling corpses, and seating herself back in the saddle with Alexius’ help..

The enchanted horseshoes thrum back into action, and the next thing they know, they are at the cottage door. Seen up close, it is more than enough to instill a sensation of foreboding even into a dwarf (but not in the horse: he has dawdled off to graze again) There is Fade-green light streaming from every crack in the waterlogged walls - and those cracks are numerous, and wide, so much so that the broad green beams might as well be the only thing holding the hut together.

'Andraste’s little kettle…’ Harding whispers, jaw hanging loose. 'What do you think is in there? A demon? Several demons? A rift? We can’t close a rift without the Inquisitor…’

But Alexius waves her away impatiently, leaning forward to listen through one of the cracks. Harding mirrors his pose - and before long, they catch the sounds coming from the hut. Sighs. And sobs. Warped, twisting into multiple echoes, not fully human… But unmistakable.

'A lesson I learned from the Inquisitor,’ Alexius murmurs, smiling with a softness that makes Harding blink, astounded. 'Before rushing in to slay your foe, look for signs of pain and regret. I would not have been standing here today if it were not for this philosophy’.

'So… What’s your plan?’ Harding mouths.

Alexius glances at her - and pushes at the three or four loose planks that serve the hut as a door.

'Do what the Inquisitor would have done. Go in. Talk. Try to understand’.

Chapter Text

The lowlanders find the Skywatcher to be of a formidable size, including those who were led by the tiny black-haired elf with eyes like the calm gaze of the Lady of the Skies, and with healing hands that can seal the burning green wounds in the Lady’s skin. They gaped at him like he was a mountain walking - except maybe for the pale boy, the one who ripples through the waters of the world like an augur’s apprentice, human and spirit made one. But he did have to throw back his head to look into the Skywatcher’s face, holding on to his broad-rimmed hat, which had gathered rain water like the leaf of one of the robust, healthy plants back home in the northern valleys, where this place’s sickness has not seeped.

They noticed how tall he was, as all lowlanders do - but not these other two, the ones that he found after the sky-eyed healer left, by following the lines of the bird flocks to an abandoned hut bleeding more green flames. No, they are not even aware of his presence, mountain-like as he is.

So he just stands in the doorway, where he has been guided by the messengers of the Lady, who are always so loud and agitated above this dying place, circling on and on and yet not descending upon the black bogs to take away the souls of the dead and clear off their unneeded flesh.

He just stands, and watches. As he always does. As is his duty. To watch, and to help with the healing and the honoured sky burials if need arises. These two lowlanders, they do not need him to step in, at least for now.

The human one, the one of whom the birds talked in steep zigzags, in dark lines of pain, is also a healer. It is with a healer’s thoughts that he has walked in, shielding his face from the flaming green, and pushed his way forward, up to the table - the only piece of furniture inside the hut that has not yet turned to moss - where the Nameless sits. Lost. Forgotten, by the departed souls of the sunken village, and, at times, by herself. Half-melted into the spirit world. And yet, still lingering, untouched by the cleansing birds or by the fire that lowlanders use to see off their dead. Still staring into her crumpled notes, where half the letters have been washed off by time and water and tears, and thinking. Incessant, undying thoughts that will keep upsetting the balance, for as long as they rattle on in the yellowish skull that sits, lilting and cocooned into cobwebs of old dry flesh, on the neck of the Nameless.

That much is evident from the feeling in the Skywatcher’s bones, the understanding that the green flame that writhes within the hut’s walls, and rouses at least some of the undead, comes from the pain that the Nameless feels, sobbing into the gathering mist. And it will keep on burning until that pain is healed.

The lowlander’s bones, old like the Skywatcher’s, must have told him the same, setting the course of his thoughts towards healing. And so he approaches the Nameless at her table, his dwarf companion stepping softly on tiptoe a small distance behind, bow readied just in case - and looks straight into her dead eyes, and calls out softly,

‘Greetings… I understand you are… experiencing some strong emotions. Perhaps I can help with that?’

The Nameless straightens her crackling spine, her skull tilting slowly on her neck, up and down, to take in the sight of the lowlander. Barefoot. Shivering - mayhap with the cold, mayhap with fear of raw magic that sizzles here, mayhap with both. Soaked in marsh water. Armed with naught by a dirty stick. But intent on helping. On healing.

The skeletal hand slides, jittery and snail-paced, towards the notes that the Nameless has been trying to make sense of. The free aura swirls, forming a likeness of another hand, ghostly and yet more firm than that of the Nameless. The hand picks up those of the notes that are yet bound together (feebly) into a crinkled journal, and carries them across the room to the lowlander, who accepts them with a small shudder (meanwhile, the dwarf has knitted her freckle-specked brow, uncertain where to point her bow to protect her companion).

The ghostly hand dissolves into thin air with a muffled hiss. The wet pages flip heavily under the lowlander’s fingertips, and the blotchy writing forms a story - which he retells out loud, again meeting the eyes of the Nameless, who is soon to be nameless no more.

'So… Ira Gardiner… That’s your name, then? Was your name? Your village got hit by a plague, and you did all you could to help; you brewed medicine with any clean water you could come by; you ground herbs until your fingertips bled… And it still wasn’t enough. Those who didn’t flee in time, perished. And you blamed yourself…’

His voice is different now, coming from deep within his chest, like he is not speaking just of the Nameless - of Ira. But also, of himself.

'And now, your guilt, your grief is keeping you from finding peace… And also, adding to the disruptions of the Veil’.

A dry groan chatters at the back of Ira’s throat, and the lowlander corrects himself.

'No, I should not have said that. It will only make you feel guiltier. It is…’

He smirks faintly.

'It is probably telling that I am saying this to a corpse, but… I know what you’ve been through, Ira. I know what it is like, sitting by a loved one’s bedside… watching the fever blind their eyes…  begging them to hold on just a little longer… not to slip away…’

He tosses his head from side to side, to shake off the pall of darkness that has fallen over his shoulders, weighing him down like Ira is being weighed down.

'And I want to tell you what I have been told, by… by people who matter to me. It’s not your fault. You did your best. Everyone…’

He swallows.

'Everyone dies… And you cannot be held accountable for every death you were unable to prevent - simply because you ran out of time. Rest now. Rest, Ira Gardiner. It’s going to be all right’.

Blinking off the searing reflections of the green blaze, he places Ira’s waterlogged journal back on the table. Gently. Almost reverently. She watches his fingers smooth the wrinkled cover, her skull inclined - also, perhaps, as a show of reverence. And of gratitude.

And when he steps back, the scarce patch of skin that has yet been preserved on Ira’s face, grey and mouldy and drained of the juices of life, twitches and crawls to the side, shaping a dead, twisted likeness of a smile. As soon as that smile fades, there is a low signing sound, and Ira’s forlorn carcass crumbles away into soft, cloudy ash; and then, the hut is plunged into darkness. And all is quiet in the mist.

 

… 'Hang on, I think I had a little bit of flint somewhere!’ the dwarf’s voice speaks up, after a few moments have trickled away.

'Let’s hope the water didn’t ruin it! Ah! There! Fine dwarven crafts in action!’

A new flicker of light in the murk of the hut - but this time, it is warm and homely.

'I bet you wanted the Inquisitor to see this too!’ the dwarf says, her highlighted grin sailing in the dark like a crescent moon. 'How you banished the undead without casting a single spell!’

'I doubt this took care of all the undead in the marsh,’ the lowlander points out.

'No, it did not,’ the Skywatcher agrees, deeming that it is time to make his presence known. 'But the waters are calmer now. Just as the Lady of the Skies forewarned through her bird messengers’.

'Eek!’ the dwarf almost drops her precious spark of light onto the damp floor, where it would have been licked away like salt under a deer’s tongue. 'All right… All right… I suppose this is the Maker sending me payback for creeping up on people from behind as a joke. You… You are one of those Avvar tribesmen that keep cropping up here, aren’t you?’

'Yes,’ the Skywatcher says. 'But I have no part in the foolish trophy hunt led by our chief’s son. I am here to look at the wounds in my Lady’s skin. Your Inquisition has healed them well, and I have no quarrel with you’.

'Wait!’ the lowlander raises his hand, fear branded across his face. 'Elaborate on “trophy hunt”.

The Skywatcher sighs. That was too lofty a word for this, in truth.

'Instead of keeping our enemies at bay like he was told, our chief’s whelp has decided to measure the strength of our god against yours. He and his hunters have taken some of your soldiers to the ruins of Hargrave Keep, up on the hill where the moon rises - as a lure for your Herald of Andraste. If she is to reclaim her people, she must fight her challenger to the death’.

'Whoah…’ the dwarf whispers. 'I… did not know that. I left back for Skyhold before Her Worship arrived. She… She’s gotta be fine, though; and… her friend Sera too… Right?’

'Show us the way, Avvar,’ the lowlander snaps, his face like snow, his voice like ice, his eyes like fire, and his stick almost as formidable as a blade as he points it at the Skywatcher’s chest. Almost.

He is lucky that the Skywatcher does have no quarrel with the Inquisition.

'Very well. Follow me. Don’t touch the water’.

Chapter Text

Hargrave Keep, abandoned to the slashing wet winds and the green waves of decay and the clawing hands of the ever-restless undead, has all but scattered across the marsh into a heap of mismatched, useless, lichen-covered rocks. There is little left of the stone hall where the Inquisitor and her Avvar challenger face each other. Just a stretch of slippery floor, turned into a warped black mirror by the incessant drizzle and the slurping groundwater that keeps seeping through the mossy cracks. The ceiling has largely caved in, leaving a tremendous uneven gap, through which the rising moon shines, foggy like a cataract, through the fumes of white and grey and blue that billow above the heavily breathing swamplands.

And in this dim, distorting light, the Avvar resemble ghosts - or even bizarre, grotesque monsters from the deepest woodlands that a mother would scare unruly children with. Tall, clad in tightly clinging, warpaint-soaked furs - including baggy masks with beast horns and antler of various sizes strapped to them - they crouch along the jagged line of the back wall. Watching silently. Biding their time. While the man that appears to be their ringleader - for the curving, blade-like horns adorning his mask are the largest, and the war hammer that he carries is the most massive, hewn from solid rock - stands in the hall’s centre, towering over the black-braided elf, who has not yet prepared her mage’s staff for battle, and waves her hand in choppy motions and flops her bare foot against the wet floor every time she hears her companions’ weapons clang behind her back. Indicating that it is not yet time to charge. That she yet hopes to resolve this peacefully - through talking.

‘I always try my best to respectfully follow other people’s customs, Serah Hand of Korth,’ she says pleasantly, glancing up at the Avvar. Eye contact is hard, what with his mask on, so she decides to focus on the protruding tip of his flaming red beard.

'But it is not too fair, fighting me as a symbol of the lowlander faith. Because I do not worship Andraste; I would make a poor champion! If you wanted to see if Mythal was stronger than Korth, or if you wanted to fight Cassandra, who has a far greater, far purer faith in Andraste than most humans I have met…’

She smiles over her shoulder at the somewhat disgruntled Nevarran warrior, and turns back to the Avvar.

'Then I would have understood. But like this, me for Andraste and you for Korth - it just isn’t right. Besides, your kinsman, the priest of the Lady of the Skies, said that… That what you are doing here is not, in fact, part of the Avvar customs. That you came up with the idea all by yourself, against the wishes of your clan and your father. So… this honourable duel of ours, it does not look to be so honourable after all, does it? I would even say…’

She cocks her head and arches her eyebrows meaningfully.

'That it was a little bit inconsiderate of you. You know. Coming here with the people you are supposed to be in charge of, the people who follow you because they must, because you are the chief’s son; the people who, perhaps, would very much rather be at home now, enjoying a mead and a warm meal. Dragging them into the heart of a rather inhospitable swamp - and then abducting the Inquisition soldiers, who came here to help, to secure the roads and put down at least some of those undead! Please, please, just think over your actions! Haven’t you gone through enough lengths already? Don’t you have other duties awaiting you?’

She spreads out her arms, continuing to look at the Avvar searchingly.

'Here I am; you have succeeded in bringing me here, and have seen me with your own eyes! So how about we both call it a day and take our respective followers back home?’

The red beard ruffles in defiance, and the Avvar booms from beneath the paint-caked goat skin,

'Your tongue is long as the Trickster Imhar’s, but you will not trick me into leaving! I shall finish what I started! Clan kin, dispose of these other lowlanders, while I deal with their Herald!’

Cassandra scarcely has time to gasp in outrage and, at long last, unsheathe her weapon, as the very first Avvar arrow thunks past her, grazing her shoulder, before the ringleader’s hammer soars along a breakneck curve and freezes over the Inquisitor’s head, ready to smash her into very well-meaning but lifeless paste.

She flinches instinctively, bracing for the blow - but instead finds herself locked within the safe confines of a large, shimmering bubble of turquoise light. A barrier, cast by a mage that has just stumbled in, barefoot and limping, with his robes a torn, muddy mess from the ankle almost up to the waist, tailed by a very determined freckled dwarf, who introduces herself by firing a rapid volley of arrows to throw a few of the Avvar clan kin, potato-sack-like, off the wall, skewering their aim so that their arrows hit the puddles on the floor rather than the target between the eyes of Cassandra or the Inquisitor’s fellow elf, Sera.

The latter is very excited to see the dwarf, and bellows, 'Eeey, it’s Lacey-Lace!’ across the hall, while joining the newcomer in the archery display, puncturing Avvar chests and mouths and cringing with comical exaggeration at every jet of blood that erupts, squelching, after her shots (by contrast, 'Lacey-Lace’’s shots get a 'Wrrrow!’ of appreciation from her).

Where the two archers do not get the horn-crowned figures, they fall (after making a few more desperate shots, which Cassandra blocks with her shield) to the lacerating strikes of two daggers. These two blades are wielded, it seems, by a gust of black and red vapours that trail along the wall, only occasionally solidifying into the silhouette of a lanky young man in an oversized hat.

In the battle’s foreground, the Avvar is knocked back, his hammer having met the barrier with a fountain of bright blue sparks. While he is still dazed by the impact, Cassandra blocks another arrow and then, with her back covered by Sera, takes the opportunity to whip around and hurl a seething glare at the mage.

'You are not supposed to be here! How did you escape Skyhold?! Is Harding your new kidnapping victim?!’

'Cassandra, please!’ the Inquisitor nearly sobs, also making a full-face turn inside her barrier and pressing her palms against its inner surface. 'Can’t you see he is in pain?! Gereon, stop! You can’t keep this up!’

'I am fine!’ he calls back to her - even though it could not be more glaringly obvious that he is not fine. The thick, broad bands around his wrists are burning like white-hot metal - except coloured an even more vivid, more searing blue than the sparks from the barrier. There is blood trickling down his hands, tracing new and new stripes across his blistering skin - and still, he does not cease his spellcasting, charging up the protective shield around the Inquisitor… For the Avvar archers sometimes try to get through to the Inquisitor, and their ringleader has begun to return to his senses, one low grunt at a time.

Spotting him stir out of the corner of her eye, Cassandra has no choice but to fling herself back into the fray… But she never gets to dice the 'Hand of Korth’ with her blade: Sera prevents that, hollering from a pile of mossy debris she has climbed,

'Oi, stand back, Cass! I am gonna use the bees!’

Cassandra obeys, her expression not too approving, and, true to her word, Sera detaches a clinking glass jar from her lopsided belt and tosses it forward, with as much force as she can. The jar shatters against the floor between the Avvar and the glowing barrier bubble, releasing a dark, buzzing swarm. A miriad of small angry insects, which, the moment they taste freedom, propel themselves onto the Hand of Korth, covering him in a dense, wriggling, humming layer, and stinging, stinging, stinging, until he turns into a bushel of ripe, glistening tomatoes packed into goatskin.

'Let us retreat!’ Cassandra cries, pointing at a passage that runs along the hall’s perimeter and, unlike most of the place, still has a roof.

Sera follows perkily, grabbing Lace Harding by the hand and giving it several playful swings (even though they are in the middle of escaping an enraged bee swarm). The smoky hatted figure solidifies by the side of the panting, bleeding mage, lending him a bony shoulder in a patchwork shirt to lean on. Swaying with pain, the mage involuntarily extinguishes his spell; the barrier bubble bursts, and the Inquisitor has to dart across the hall, hunching forward and hugging her own head to shield it from the bees. Seconds before ducking into the roofed passage, she slips on the glassy floor, and drops awkwardly to her knee, covering the rest of the distance in a dramatic slide, which would probably have ended with an exceptionally painful smash against the wall if she hadn’t driven herself into the mage, wrapping her arms around his leg.

'Sula!’ he exclaims incoherently, his neck turning crimson. 'I… I mean… Inquisitor! Let me help you up… Are you injured?’

'I am not, but you are!’ she blurts out, tugging at his hands as soon as she straightens her legs.

As he reluctantly turns them over, showing her where the skin is weeping the most blood and ooze, she clicks her tongue and tentatively taps his healthy flesh, sending a soothing sea-blue pulse of restorative energy towards the burns (thankfully, the glowing bands are only set off by the prisoner’s own magic, and her spell does its job, bringing a look of relief… and even pleasure to his face).

'Creators, look at your poor, poor wrists! I was right to call these shackles cruel!’

'Well, yeah,’ Sera reminds the Inquisitor, as soon as she takes her eyes off the bee swarm, which has apparently declared its job complete and zoomed towards the broken ceiling, melting into the blurred moonlight.

'The old fart is still doing payback for the shite he pulled!’

'He did banish the skeleton lady that was making the undead restless,’ Harding cuts in. 'And he was very… eager to rush in and protect the Inquisitor. And he got the speedy horseshoes to work! That’s how we got here! Riding a very… speedy horse’.

'I want details,’ Cassandra demands sharply - and Harding does provide her with all details, up to theatrical ghost noises that make Sera snort with laughter and lean down to ruffle the dwarf’s carefully braided-up hair as a sign of fondness.

While discussing the incredible feats of the 'old fart’ - who walks in silence, nursing his newly scarred wrists and lifting his gaze now and again to find the Inquisitor beam at him, nearly vibrating with bubbly admiration - they follow the passage to a small wooden door, miraculously preserved amid all this dilapidation and moisture. Once thrown open by a a kick of Cassandra’s boot, it reveals a tiny room, where the missing soldiers are packed like brooms in a supply closet, with little to no standing space, and with rags twisted into goat-smelling knots around their hands and mouths. Before long, their bonds fall off, cut by a dagger - one out a pair of twins - that is clutched in a helpful pale hand in a fraying brown mitten, wiped clean of Avvar blood.

The freed soldiers flock around the Inquisitor, all their 'I knew you’d come’s and 'Maker bless you, Your Worship’s blending into a gleeful, tumultuous chorus. The Inquisitor indulges them for half a minute or so, but then her freckled face grows sombre; she excuses herself and slips out, back into the main hall, where the Avvar corpses still rest, colouring the floor’s watery mirror a dark shade of crimson.

'The Skywatcher will be there to see you off soon,’ she intones, in a mournful, slightly singsong way, while crouching beside the nearest corpse - a woman in loosely fitting fur pants and vest that are crossed by bold diagonal lines of white and blue warpaint.

'I am so, so sorry you never did get that mead and hot meal’.

'Don’t… bawl too much… lowlander…’ a slurred, nasally, unrecognizable voice tells her. As she discovers, swiveling her head after a quick apologetic squeeze at the dead woman’s ashen, hardened fingers, the voice is coming from the lumpy, bee-ravaged form of the Hand of Korth, sprawled next his discarded, now harmless war hammer.

'Should I help him sleep?’ the smoky hatted figure asks, swirling into being at the Avvar’s feet.

'Quick kiss of steel among the bee stings; a stupid death to end a stupid life. There will be no special rituals to coax the birds into bringing my soul back for rebirth. Father will be glad to get rid of the idiot boy at last’.

'No, Cole - wait!’ the Inquisitor jumps up - only to kneel before the Hand of Korth next.

'Is that why you disobeyed your father?’ she asks, her widened, sincere eyes reflecting the horned mask through the large glinting specks of unshed tears of pity. 'Because… Because he doesn’t love you?’

The red beard quivers.

'I am… a runt… a… useless brat… never as good as my… brothers… I thought… if I fought for the gods’ glory…’

The Inquisitor exhales, knitting her eyebrows with a knowing look.

'You wanted to prove to your clan - and to yourself - that you are good for something. That you can do more than what they expect of you. Perhaps fighting for the Inquisition will fit the bill? If I take you to my stronghold to be healed; if I give you a second chance - will you agree to join us, rather than challenge us to duels? You will be facing demons and cultists and feral victims of red lyrium; that is probably leagues ahead of what your brothers can say for themselves, isn’t it?’

The mask ripples with a belaboured breath, and the Hand of Korth huffs weakly in what sounds like agreement. After hovering a glow-swathed hand for a few moments over the most tomato-like parts of the Avvar’s neck and arms, to at least somewhat deflate the swellings with healing magic, the Inquisitor plants her fingertips against the floor, preparing to get up… And finds herself being brought to her feet, again, by the supportive arm of her mage… friend.

'Oh, Sula, my friend,’ he murmurs, with a thread-thin, wistful smile. 'Is there any adversary you wouldn’t try to adopt?’

'Well,’ she tells him earnestly, gaze pausing on his face, as if his words to her - 'my friend’ in particular - were a puzzling riddle.

'None of them are quite like you’.

She bites her lips, stumbling back.

'I… I mean… This sounded…’ she takes a gulp of air and digs her nails into her palms, holding herself back from saying… something.

'I am glad you have come to consider me a friend, as I… as I you. This is why you called me that… that Tevene word, right? Because I am your dearest friend?’

He does not give her a direct answer, instead asking a question of his own, mouth looping downward.

'Did what… what happened in my quarters make you… frightened? Discomforted in any way? Do you wish us to… refrain from seeking each other’s company?’

'Gods, no!’ her hands fly into the air in an agitated flap. 'I was just about to ask you the same thing! Whether I made things weird for you! If I didn’t, then I will be happy to keep visiting you every chance I get!’

'Please do,’ he mouths. There seems to be a…  tremour of emotion breaking through his hushed voice. But as to what emotion it is, the Inquisitor has no time to deduce - for her companions need her again.

Chapter Text

The advisors to Her Ladyship Inquisitor, Sula Lavellan, dedicated as always to protecting their leader from all the vipers of the world - including those she is unafraid to embrace, convinced that their venom has run dry - have convened, not once and not twice and certainly over the course of more than one day, to discuss the fate of one Gereon Alexius. A former Venatori, useful as a researcher but far from trustworthy - most certainly far from trustworthy, if you listen to Commander Cullen, utterly appalled by the leaps that his phylactery was making on his table, thrumming with heat and emitting a scarlet glow, when he somehow escaped Skyhold and travelled on a magically galloping horse all the way to the Fallow Mire.

‘Travelled by accident!’ Scout Harding - the chief witness of the fiasco - has repeatedly told the council of advisors, backed enthusiastically by Lady Sula herself, who quite literally begins to glow at the mere mention of Alexius’ escapades in the mire. And of this experiments as well. Which - even though they did not take the direction everyone had been counting on - apparently, have been enough to impress everyone. Except Master Dennet.

'He gave those horseshoes even more oomph than intended!’ Scout Harding has assured the council - again, repeatedly - with Sula bouncing on tiptoe in the background, ready to sprout iridescent dragonfly wings and take off.

'And got rid of a bunch of undead! And - even though it hurt him - shielded Her Worship from that Avvar brute!’

The 'Avvar Brute’s name is Alvor Movransson - or, as he himself has started referring to himself, in a wry jest (because his birth father never wanted to have much to do with him), Alvor Lavellansson, adopted by the lowlander Herald. Once the warlike, hammer-hauling Hand of Korth - now the still warlike, still hammer-hauling member of the Bull’s Chargers, the Inquisition’s motley mercenary crew, which was more than willing to welcome the disgraced Avvar into its ranks… Not the least bit because their captain has wasted no words in hinting that he finds redheads attractive. But that is a story for another time.

Now, the advisors have weighed Harding’s account with careful thought, and not without loud war room debate. And, at long last, they have reached a verdict: the phylactery is to remain, as a precaution, but the magic-suppressing shackles, designed to make any prisoner writhe in burning agony each time he casts a spell, are to be removed.

'If Alexius’ first instinct was to leap to the defense of the woman who had forgiven him for his crimes…’ said Spymaster Leliana before she cast her final vote, surveying the others in the war room with a long gaze - intent, yet lacking its usual cutting edge - and not even making too much effort to flinch away when Sula flung herself at her in a grateful embrace.

'Then perhaps mercy does have its uses’.

It has been decided. The shackles must go.

This is why Alexius is here, in Seeker Cassandra’s modest quarters - which are nothing but a crammed triangular spot under the roof of the sweltering, clamour-filled armoury, with a bedroll, a stool that serves both for sitting and for storing a handful of the most essential belongings (including a thick, book-sized bundle masquerading as a stack of clean shirts), and a sword rack.

This is why he has gotten up at that uncertain, woozy hour when the sky turns an almost Breach-like green with the first inklings of sunrise, and has come to meet the Seeker, as she instructed him, before she leaves for her morning spar. This is why - so she can use those peculiar abilities of hers, completely unheard of in Tevinter, to smash the shackles into pieces. Officially, at least. Unofficially, though… Well.

After the Seeker steps to him, stern and brusque and already clad in a full set of armour, and places her hand on his shackles, a soft push of energy coursing between them, Alexius attempts a conversation, through an involuntary grimace of discomfort,

'Su… The Inquisitor will be so happy to see me free of these. In fact, she… she wanted to come here with me, to witness the moment with her own eyes. But she was too tired last night, after mapping the locations of Warden artifacts with that, uh… broad, bearded Marcher - Blackwall?.. I told her to sleep in; Maker knows she deserves it’.

The Seeker starts and tensens at the mention of the Maker’s name - perhaps surprised to hear it invoked by a 'godless Tevinter’, especially one who was once so ready to worship a darkspawn magister.

She does not cut him short, however - not yet. Her attention is needed on the shackles, which rattle around Alexius’ wrists, with flares of blue streaking along their surface, shaping into sharp zigzags, like bolts of lightning - or fissures.

The process must be painful to him, nearly as painful as when the shackles erupted into punishing flames when he cloaked the Inquisitor with a magical barrier. His breathing grows fast and shallow, and his lips tremble, an unuttered outcry fluttering against them - but the sensation soon passes. The shackles fall apart along the glowing fissures, crumbling into a wisp of grey dust the moment the Seeker reaches to catch their fragments. While she dusts herself off, Alexius makes a deep-chested sound, half-intake of air, half-hum, and flexes his hands - covered in gnarly scars from his last dabble in forbidden spellcasting, and from the phylactery blood-sampling, but most satisfyingly free.

But the Seeker does not let him relish this freedom for too long. When he looks up from his wrists to meet her eyes, he sees a flashing thunderstorm.

'I did what I supposed to - and now we have a chance to… talk,’ she says. And then the thunderstorm is fully unleashed.

'What is going on between you and Sula? What did you apologize for in Hargrave Keep?!’

The questions come like the strikes of the smith hammers, which are already ringing through the armoury down below, despite the early hour. Before he knows it, Alexius finds himself squashed into the corner where the slanting roof meets the floor, dangerously close to knocking over the Seeker’s little stool - and with any path to esca… prudently planned teleportation blocked by this fuming, glowering, loud woman, who is pointing an accusing finger at his chest.

'Do not try to deny it! I heard you talk! You did something that might have frightened Sula! She may have forgiven you - she forgives everything - but that does not mean you deserved it! I must know if you harmed her, you scheming cultist!’

'If you find me so vile, then why did you just remove my shackles?’ Alexius asks acidly, trying as best he can to recoil from the Seeker’s prodding.

'The advisors recognize your value as a researcher,’ she explains reluctantly… And then the thunderstorm is back again.

'You are given some freedoms because you are expected to serve the Inquisition. But no duty, no obligation will ever stop me from cutting off any parts you do not need to do your research if you made my… my friend fear you!’

'She is my friend also!’ Alexius protests.

'It may be hard to wrap your head around, for you… Templars and Templars But In Different Armour… But spending time with her… seeing her believe in me… It has been… inspiring. In a way that serving Corypheus could never be. It… It has finally begun to fill up the void that was left when…’

He snaps his mouth shut without finishing; spends the next few seconds in silence, gritting his teeth and trying to muster composure by inhaling through widened, quivering nostrils - and  speaks up again, before the Seeker’s glare ignites his eyebrows.

'But none of that matters to you, does it? You just want an answer to your question. And considering that you have me cornered… and that I would be loathe to lose my… freedoms again by, say, Mind-blasting you out of the way… not to mention that Sula actually speaks fondly of you… and I cannot betray her trust…’

'Get on with it!’ the Seeker huffs. 'You still have not given me an answer!’

Alexius shuts his eyes for just a fraction longer than it takes to make a single blink.

'I… while having a private conversation with Sula… trying to reassure her that I do not want for anything… I… I called her a Tevene endearment, and… If one of your ravens had not arrived to interrupt us… I would have kissed her’.

It turns out that the sword rack is closer to them than it first appeared to Alexius. All it takes the Seeker is one broad whoosh of her arm - and the blade’s hilt is already tightly clutched in her hand, the steely edge inches away from Alexius’ throat.

'You… Disgusting lecher! How - how dare you?! After all that Sula has done for you - when she should have killed you on the spot!’

'She should have,’ Alexius agrees, his voice suddenly grey as a Tranquil’s, and his lids sliding shut again.

'But she did not. And I know better than to repay her by… trying to seduce her’.

He opens his eyes and chokes down a lump in his throat.

'I may have had a lapse of foolishness, but I swore to myself it would never happen again. If you instantly made this… assumption, then others will too. It is all far too unsavoury… what with my age, and my past, and…’

He shudders, his distaste looking so real that the Seeker lowers her sword and takes a step back, freezing up in wonderment.

'And the fact that I am a widower, and might… might end up treating Sula as a replacement for my late wife, rather than her own person, perhaps without even realizing it. I… I have seen it happen. Magisters casting glamour spells on elven slaves to reenact the part of a lost spouse. I… dread turning into one of them. Worry not, Seeker - I know all my faults. Deeply. Intimately. I…’

Alexius’ voice rises in pitch - and then rushes down into a muffled breath, like a diver leaping off a cliff.

'I love Sula too much to subject her to… this’.

He moves his hand through the air, outlining his own silhouette with a barking, bitter laugh.

'Wait…’

The blade slips, clanking, back onto its rack; the Seeker’s eyes are now bewildered saucers, and the storm has all but cleared.

'You - you love her?’

'Of course I do,’ Alexius says, eyes lighting up. 'As someone who is grateful to have her for a friend. A dear, if unexpected friend. And also…’

He shakes his head and blurts out - perhaps made frank by insufficient sleep.

'As a blundering old fool who melts every time he looks into her eyes’.  

The Seeker’s eyebrows knit in concentration, as she studies the faraway look that clouded Alexius’ features, probably despite his own will. A look of recollecting the many, many meetings he and Sula have had over the past weeks. First in the Haven dungeons, and then in Skyhold, all the more frequent when the advisors were just about to settle his shackles’ fate.

Those meetings; those animated book discussions in the library, which are sometimes attended by the Inquisition’s other mages and which Vivienne has described as 'delightful, even with the company our darling Inquisitor chooses to keep’; those lengthy walks in the Skyhold garden, of which the Spymaster’s watchmen write in their reports, 'no incidents noted, except the unusual application of certain blooming plants to make flower crowns’ - they have never received much approval from the advisors. But now, as the Seeker imagines memories of them floating past Alexius, like fluffy pink dawntime clouds - with the clinging shreds of sleepiness only making the visions of the Fade more vivid - the remnants of her mistrust and outrage fall aside, turning to dust like the mage’s shackles.

'Maker!’ she exclaims. 'You are serious! You have fallen in love with her!’

Her eyes dart to the 'shirt stack’, and two pink spots appear on her cheekbones.

'A vanquished villain, pining after the brave heroine who…’

Alexius starts awake from his reverie and traces the direction of her gaze with an insulted scowl.

'Do not speak of me as if I were a character from a book, Seeker,’ he says dryly, gathering himself up. 'You have pulled your precious information out of me; giggling over it like it was some sappy story gives you no credit. Better tell me - what do you intend to do with what you’ve learned? How do you plan to expose me? To mock me?’

The Seeker draws herself to her full height as well - but oddly enough, her stance is far from menacing.

'I shall not be doing anything of the sort!’ she retorts vehemently.

'I will… merely keep an eye on you to see if your intentions are pure; and if they are…’

She smiles to herself and tosses her head resolutely.

'I might do what Sula would have done in my shoes. I might… help. Since Sula is not currently… with anyone… that I know of…’

She clears her throat, struggling not to look back at the shirt stack again.

'Not that it is any of my business, but… rumours in Skyhold are inescapable…’

Alexius narrows his eyes, surprised and slightly amused.

'Did you just go from trying to murder me to offering to become my wingwoman?’

It is not long after he asks this that his face falls, and he averts his eyes, his frown lines deepening.

'I am… flattered, as much as bewildered… But as I said. This is not a book. I am lucky to have been given Sula’s friendship. I shall not ask for anything else’.

Chapter Text

The creature begins with a female form. The generally do, these poor corrupted spirits of Love and Purpose that humans call desire demons - and in Sula’s case, this form could work just as well as male. Sometimes, it even does, waking a sort of… pulse at the bottom of her stomach and making the clouds of the Fade shift from green to gauzy, warm pink and vibrant, blossoming purple - but not for long.

Still, the spirit still keeps trying.

Its half-naked body stretches and quivers, distorting like a reflection in a warped mirror and covering itself with an ever-changing array of clothes that seem to condense from those very same clouds.

First, the creature gains a pair of long thin legs, with scabby knees poking through the sloppily sewn-up holes in a pair of leggings, which, although still tinted pinkish-purple, are getting crisscrossed, inch by inch, by the black slanting patterns of plaidweave; and spindle-like, restless arms, with one tattered sleeve rolled up above a bony elbow, the other stretched all the way down, almost hiding the five retracting demon claws; and soft lips that stretch into a grin, meant to be playful, beckoning, but full of greyish triangles of razor-sharp teeth.

Then, when Sula does not respond in the way that the spirit (evidently) wanted her to, the plaid pattern is washed away, and the lanky elven figure fills out, mirroring Sula’s own curves; the sleeves are now symmetrical, blooming into puffs and ruffles and glinting with a metallic sheen (still purple, though); the choppy fair hair, which looks as if the creature took the expression ‘strawberry blonde’ rather literally, darkens and gathers itself into a dainty updo, two loose curls forming a bouncy frame on either side of a toothy leer.

When this vision does not leave a lasting impression either, the spirit hisses in frustration. The curves harden into muscle, and the glint of the puffed fabric gains more in common with actual metal - a purple cuirass weighing on the shoulders of a purple woman with sharp cheekbones and a scar across her face and a burning scowl that could both frighten and arouse.

Still, nothing. A faint hint at excitement that soon passes, like it did before; far from enough to satisfy the spirit. With a gnash of its razor teeth, it shrinks down into the silhouette of a dwarf. The scar yet remains, but the lilac-shaded skin of the huffing, impatient creature now sports a carpet of freckles. Sula gives it a smile of reconciliation, but is still not as entangled into the spirit’s snares. So, after a moment of consideration, it moves on from the women to the men.

Her facial scar shortening and sliding to her lip, the female dwarf sprouts up into a knight in glittering pink cuirass, adorned with a pelt of luxurious purple fur; the creature tries and tries and tries to curl its mouth into a seductive grin - but all it does is make Sula angry.

'All right, your lady visions may have been pretty, but this part… is really inconsiderate of you!’ she cries out, bushy eyebrows knitted tightly together. She may have even leapt closer to the spirit and poked it reproachfully - but her feet refuse to obey her, as it happens in dreams sometimes. So all she can do is breathe loudly and toss her head from side to side.

'Cullen has suffered a lot at the hands of spirits like you! Impersonating him is like a bad joke! Come to think of it, you should not have included Sera either! She is terrified of Fade creatures!’

'Very well,’ the spirit snarls, its voice splitting up at the back of its throat into a dozen echoes, some of them ominously deep, others shrill like the voice of a sulky child. 'I will give you someone who isn’t!’

The knight’s cuirass softens into a light linen tunic, and his cloud of curly hair dissipates, sculpting a shaved head with prominent elven ears. But Sula does not reach out, does not grasp at the roseate apparition, does not whisper the elf’s name - nor does she do any of this when the spirit, groaning in exasperation, has the elf grow a mane of hair and an impressive beard, or when its form rapidly swells to exaggerated size, with muscles rippling through scarred purplish flesh and a pair of horns pointing up.

'No, it can’t be!’ the spirit booms, a flame flickering in this form’s only eye. 'This mortal’s shape has worked so many times in the dreams of others! This place should start getting hot and humid like the Par-Vollen jungle! It did last night, for that red-bearded Avvar! I would have taken his mind, if some other mortal goon hadn’t poured a pail of water over him to wake him up! You can’t resist my visions forever! You are capable of desire, little Lavellan; I can sense it! What ignites it, then? What gets your blood racing?’

In the middle of its vehement monologue, the spirit - still enormous as a Qunari, grabs Sula by the wrist, as Corypheus once did during their confrontation. For the first time since the dream began, she leaves the spot that she was glued to, soaring up in the creature’s grip till their eyes are level.

'It does not do to act so violently when in Bull’s disguise,’ she tells the spirit softly. 'He is very intelligent and sensitive under his muscular exterior. And he never hurts his lovers, unless they ask him to’.

But her reprimand falls on deaf ears. Nostrils wide, teeth bared and clenched, the purple Qunari burrows its gaze deep into her features, till it seems to enter the very core of her brain. And at that point, there is a sudden blurry whoosh, as the spirit’s figure shrinks back to regular human size, and it and Sula both plummet down from the height where it lifted her.

The landing they make is unexpectedly soft - just a tiny bump under Sula’s soles before her surroundings fall into place, and she looks up to see the lined face of a middle-aged mage with short hair growing in dark bristles on his head and under his thin lips.

Unlike the other visions, he does not remain decked into shades of pink purple for longer than a second: scarcely do Sula’s eyes fixate on him, round and unblinking, with dilated pupils, when the natural colours of skin and robe cloth rush over him in a tide that begins where their hands still touch, and ends in a… carnelian spark in his watchful eyes.

'So this… This is the object of your desire?’ the spirit says, the triangular tips of its teeth smoothing down as it slowly articulates every word.

'Curious. I… I only came into being recently, and as of yet, I have never encountered mortals lusting after anyone who looks like this. So… unsmooth… So worn down… Very unlike the usual fantasy I create. You… don’t happen to have an explanation? A reason to help me understand?’

'You are a spirit,’ Sula says, a flushed breathlessness making all the warm aura of this pocket of the Fade condense on her cheeks and within her chest. 'You are the one who can shape dreams. Who can show me my own memories’.

The mage apparition nods, and gazes into her eyes again, tilting her head up with one hand in a slow, caressing gesture - which makes her swallow loudly and let out a tiny, squeaky pant. The abstract rocks and mist trails of the Fade slide together, building into the replica of a small yet cozy room with green-painted walls, where, at a table laden with potion vials, some squat and square, some big and round, some tall and no broader than a finger, two figures stand, heads bowed down in concentration. Another Sula, wearing a protective net over her hair and a coarse, reagent-splashed apron - and another 'unsmooth’ mage, in a similar apron, holding up a phial that is gushing out chunks of glowing froth.

'I think it’s working,’ the mage’s memory copy says, a smile on his face. 'An enhanced lyrium tonic, with minimal harmful effect! Oh, the suggestion of your friend Adan was inspired!’

'I will pass it on,’ Sula’s copy replies. 'Maybe this will finally convince him to come discuss alchemy with you in person. So few people trust either you, or Dorian… But I will keep running in between as an intermediary until they change their minds about “shady Vints”. That’s what I’m here for!’

'You are giving yourself too little credit,’ the mage shakes his head in gentle reproach, while his smile fills with a beaming radiance. 'You are so, so much more than a mere courier! Your own ideas are absolutely brilliant! That last time, when you suggested an improvement to our little heating runes on the floor? Making them controllable, even by non-mages? One foot tap to decrease the temperature, two taps to increase? I think I actually woke up smiling last night when I remembered you drawing those formulae with a bit of charcoal!’

'How about when I ran out of paper, and you suggested Dorian’s pristine white sleeve?’ Sula continues his line of reminiscences, thoughtfully directing the phial to a safe spot on the table with a glowing green telekinetic thread, so that it does not get knocked over when they both burst out laughing.

'Will you be really peeling grapes for him for a week as moral compensation?’

'No, of course not! But only for lack of decent grapes in this corner of nowhere!’ the mage quips back at her, wiping the corner of his eye and shaking his head again, as if in wonder at his own mirth.

Both Sula’s, the dreamer and the memory, gaze upon him for a little while longer, taking in every laugh line with a sparkle of fondness in their eyes - but presently, the little room rearranges itself, transforming into a shadowy stone gallery that looks out into a courtyard, where everything is distant and blurred, hastily painted in the blue shades of evening. A Chantry sister’s white robe floats by, wraith-like, the quiet murmur of the Chant drowned out by the shrill chirps of some nocturnal insect. Against the yellow glare of the flames that weave and sigh in a brazier’s stone bowl, tall garden plants rise in inky black lacework, swinging in the breeze.

The two figures are back again, this time sitting on a bench against the gallery’s wall and lazily watching fireflies drift by like embers of the brazier - evidently tired after a long day’s work. The memory of Sula has crawled onto the bench entirely, folding her legs under her body and resting her head on the mage’s shoulder.

'You… Use flame runes here as well?’ he says, hovering his hand absently over her hair - and pulling it away just as it nearly touches her. 'For climate control?’

'Yes,’ Sula confirms, through a yawn. 'Subtle ones, to avoid a fire hazard… But yes. Certainly. Otherwise, many plants would have died. And I still need so many… At least I am not planting trees like my ancestors did… We would have run out of room…’

'Any… Specific choice of seeds this time?’ he asks, in a solemnly hushed voice.

'Hortensia,’ she replies, letting her eyes slide shut and frowning a little bit. 'Because that was her name. The Tranquil from the ocularum on that forest path. Vivienne helped identify her… By… a broken front tooth… and… another tooth… that was… cast from metal… She was… from Montsimmard apparently… Vivienne had her craft runes… very of… ten…’

She jolts in place, slipping her feet back to the ground.

'Creators, but that is disrespectful! Falling asleep while talking of such serious things!’

'It is the opposite of disrespectful,’ the mage argues, offering her an arm as they both get up and slowly begin walking towards the door that leads back into the castle.

'You know perfectly well that you are so exhausted all the time because you dedicate every waking hour to thinking of others. I was just like that at your age. Bouncing between research and teaching and drafting bills and being personally involved in Felix’s upbringing… Burning the candle at both ends, thinking my body could take it if I just drank another cup of coffee… Until one day I dozed off when the Magisterium was in session’.

'Oh my!’ Sula tears her eyes wide open. 'Did you get in trouble?’

'Not really. Apparently, my snoring was not the most senseless contribution to the debate. Now, let’s get you to your quarters. If you need incentive to get those eight hours of sleep, imagine an upset Ambassador Montilyet when she hands you a report and you respond with a snore’.

'That would be disastrous! Worse than being stabbed by a tree!’ Sula chuckles… And the vision morphs once more.

It is broad daylight now, and the dreaming Sula and her spirit companion are seeing their copies - as silhouettes drenched in sun’s gold, climb a steep castle wall, by teleporting from one window sill or other jutting ledge to the other, until they are standing on the top of the tallest tower, the wind whipping up their robes into flapping balloons.

'You were right!’ the mage bellows through the whistling air. 'The view from here is astounding! But how did it even occur to you to get here?’

'Sera and I thought up a challenge of putting funny hats on all the turrets!’ Sula screams back, laughing as the wind stirs her hair into the likeness of a giant bird’s nest. 'She scaled the walls all on her own - which was actually quite awe-inspiring to watch! And I teleported along her path, ready to cast a barrier in case she fell! I also provided the funny hats!’

She pauses, taking a deep breath and surveying the entirety of her sprawling fortress, which shines in the blaring light like a jewelled bracelet slipped onto the hand of the mountain range - dark and with sharp fingernails painted a frosty white with some blue outlines and silver glitter.

'I don’t know if Sera noticed how gorgeous the view was, because she was more focused on the hats - but I did, and then I thought… Now that you can cast magic again, you could teleport back up here with me! And enjoy the beauty of it all for a little bit - as a celebration!’

'Thank you!’ he cries, also filling his chest with a long draught of crispy freshness.

'This is even better than the brandy! And it seems to be making me lightheaded, too! Must be the height! You… You have a very creative way of thinking, Sula! It’s part of what makes your company so delightful!’

'You are very kind! Or very drunk on mountain air!’ she teases, even as her freckled face darkens with a blush.

'Don’t worry! Once we are down and I sober up, I will be clucking at you for risking breaking your neck!’ he promises, laughing - and the golden light fades.

With it, fades the memory of Sula, and Sula the dreamer is left one on one with the spirit, who is still wearing the mask of her mage… friend.

'Friend? That is what draws him to you? Him being your friend?’ the spirit asks insistently, its lips nearly brushing against Sula’s cheekbone. 'There are so, so many more memories like this… You two mortals laughing together..  studying together… sitting in silence together… Are they truly the key?’

'They are all I have to offer,’ Sula says, sighing and half-closing her eyes as the spirit accompanies each new question with a stroke of its hand - his hand, so very real - along her face and neck. 'Being around him, seeing him grow, heal, rediscover himself… it makes me happy…’

'But some things could make you even happier, yes?’ the spirit purrs, now intermingling the strokes with kisses. Hot breathe against her skin, then soothed by the cooling wet touches of its lips… his lips… Caringly exploring what they can reach above the cut of her robes, soon to move underneath…

'No,’ Sula says shakily, blinking hard and placing her hand on the spirit’s chest to draw it away. 'This is wrong. I can’t indulge my secret thoughts like this. I… I almost confessed to him in Hargrave Keep, but he explained that he values my friendship… and… did not add anything else. I don’t think he feels the same way’.

'But you can make him feel,’ the spirit says - and in a blink, it is kneeling at her feet, kissing the hem of her robes. 'If you and I become one, you will possess magic that shall bind him to your will…’

'You want me to do the same thing to him that everyone suspected him of doing to me?!’ Sula blurts out, all in one breath, before yanking her robe angrily out of the spirit’s reach. 'No! Never! I… I love him! And if you were your former self, you would have understood?’

'My… My former self?’

For the first time during their encounter, the spirit stumbles over its own words.

'You said that you came into being only recently! Before that, you had to have been a true spirit - a being embodying love, or devotion, or purpose!’ Sula tells the creature with heartfelt conviction, even as her hand fingers the spots where its lips once touched her skin.

'And then, something frightened or confused or angered you, causing you to change your nature! So how about, for the rest of this dream, you get to be the one who helps me understand - what made you this way? What hurt you?’

'But…’ the spirit croaks as it straightens up, its colours blending into purple again.

'No,’ Sula cuts it off. 'You will not be tempting me. Gereon does not love me, not in a romantic way; and from what I have heard of his wife, I understand him perfectly. No-one will ever replace her, and it would be wrong to try. I am done talking on the subject - but I can talk about you, if you like’.

The spirit bares its teeth, half-opening its mouth uncertainly.

'Well…’ it begins, clearing its throat as a mortal would. 'It all started with this chevalier salivating over an elven servant…’

Chapter Text

‘Cole and I call her Gina,’ Sula explains, through the knock-knock-knock of the knitting pins, which are dancing in front of her, so fast that they almost blur together, as she directs them with magic to twist and pull the bright green yarn till it becomes a hat for Solas. As soon as the Inquisition has enough influence to explore the area, they will have to answer that call for help from the frozen region of Emprise du Lion - which means that every companion is getting a set of warm knitwear in their preferred colours.

'Because she prefers appearing as a mortal woman - or an approximation of a mortal woman, at any rate. And because she used to be a spirit of Imagination’. You know. Gina. Ima-Gina-tion. I hope it makes sense’.

'She likes the name,’ Cole chimes in, dangling his feet on the top of the scaffolding that Solas uses to paint the rotunda.

'She does!’ Sula beams.

'She is actually really friendly, once she stops trying to possess you and calms down a little! And she has such a touching story! She used to be friends with a young elven woman, a servant in an Orlesian household. They created the most magical worlds within her mind, to brighten up the grey routine. And then…’

Sula sighs, the pins slowing down.

'A relative that was staying over - a chevalier, apparently - started stalking her. Nothing came of it, and her employer made the rare right choice and took her side, kicking him out… But she became distrustful. Closed-off. Absorbed in her grey routine to keep troubling thoughts at bay. She stopped visiting Gina - who was so heartbroken that she became a desire demon’.

'Mortal eyes to see through, mortal mind to guide her, mortal body to run and run and find her friend,’ Cole chants, staring somewhere through one of Solas’ frescoes. 'I… I don’t usually like when demons want to do this, but she is not very good at being a demon. The corruption did not quite soak through, a bit of her is still whole. A cookie half-dipped into scathing tea. She remembers - remembers enough to wonder if what she is doing is wrong. So Sula brought her to me, and we both helped’.

'She still looks like a desire demon, but I think Cole talked her into becoming more like her old self. A spirit of Imagination… Very naughty imagination, but still,’ Sula chuckles, with a faint blush. 'She is much happier like this, I think - merely entertaining dreamers with risqué visions instead of getting under their skin. And if Cole and I manage to find her friend and get them to talk, she will reach her happiest!’

Solas gives her an incredulous smile.

'So you have now added a corrupted spirits to the official list of beings you have befriended? I never thought I would encounter someone so… open-minded!’

'Well, I am sure there are beings beyond the reach of even my friendship,’ Sula smiles. 'Like the Dread Wolf, for instance’.

Solas’ stance grows stiff - in a subtle, scarcely noticeable way, but enough for Cole to perk up with keen interest. Neither of them gets to give Sula any reply, however, because this is when Dorian leans over the railing of the rotunda’s second level, right over their heads, and calls out, in a tone far graver than the usual teasing remarks he is so fond of tossing at Solas from above,

'Sula? Could you come up here? There is something I have to show you’.

'Of course, I will be right up!’

She bids Solas and Cole goodbye with a swift nod, lays her knitting down on the sofa with a remark that she will 'come finish it later’, and teleports away to the second floor, with a soft rustling sound, like book pages bring turned over. Cole looks up in her wake with his pale-blue eyes, makes a slow, cat-like blink, and breathes out a very small, very concerned 'Oh no’. With that, he vanishes as well, leaving Solas to ponder something that, perhaps, only the creatures from 'the deepest reaches of the Fade’ would understand.

 

Sula finds Dorian pacing to and fro in front of the window alcove he has claimed in the library. There is a letter in his hand, penned by the same hand that sent the Inquisition all those thank you notes for backing the voices of protest in the Magisterium. Only instead of the usual neat cursive, the ink sprawls over the paper in shaky loops.

'It’s about Felix,’ Dorian explains, nearly crumpling the letter in his fist. 'Mae says he… never made it back from his pilgrimage to the site of his mother’s death. She suspects… and I am afraid I agree with her… that the blighted desert claimed him. Maybe it was the darkspawn, maybe the sickness, but…’

His final sentence escapes his lips with a shuddering breath.

'He is gone; this is it - he is gone’.

'Oh, Dorian,’ Sula whimpers squeakily, drawing him to her chest and clutching tight at his back.

'He… he used to sneak me sweets when we were in our late teens, as I was working late on research in his parents’ home,’ Dorian whispers suddenly, crumpling up as the letter in his grasp. 'Long, long past curfew. “Don’t get in trouble on my account,” I would tell him. “I like trouble,” he’d say…’

He shudders again and pulls himself free of the embrace.

'We have to tell Gereon’.

This is the first time he has referred to his former mentor by first name, and it comes out in a stranger’s voice. Shrill and strangled, and even more tremulous than the voice in which Dorian spoke of him in the dark future.

Sula nods and turns in the direction of that little room with green walls. So, so close to the library.

'Thank you,’ Dorian says, clearing his throat. 'For being here for both of us. I am… glad that Felix was not the only decent soul kicking around Thedas’.

 

 

… They catch Alexius in the middle of what looks like a new magical project. Assisted by a very twitchy, apprehensive mage with long, straight dark hair and an unkempt stubble.

The fellow’s name is Levyn - Levyn of Witchwood, as some of Fiona’s people call him, with an undertone of reverent breathlessness that he does not seem to like very much. Apparently, he has been lurking around the Fereldan hills and forests ever since the Blight, like some kind of jolly steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor highwayman out of folk legend. Helping stray apostates vanish into the wilderness, and defending an occasional caravan of non-mage merchants from a respectful distance: dispatching bandits and aggressive wildlife with a few charges of chain lightning and then blending into the shrubbery before the merchants came to their senses, processed that they had been rescued by a hedge mage, and decided to summon the Templars.

Or rather, he used to do this, up until one of the Inquisition officers stationed in the Hinterlands suggested that Sula steal blankets from apostate caches scattered around the hills, to keep the refugees at the Crossroads camp warm.

She had just been fished out of the Fade back then, and thus no-one would listen to her when she insisted that she could actually knit some blankets all by herself, and with a bit of magic added to the mix, it would take far less time than trekking along the burning, rogue-Templar-besieged roads and delving into little saves for buried supply chests. So, off to rob the apostates she went - except that their supplies were zealously guarded by Levyn, who even dared confront Sula as she was about to empty one of the caches… But did not last very long, falling apart into a jumbled apology for being so hostile, all mashed together with a reminder that runaway mages needed to survive the coming cold too, and an impulsive offer to join the Inquisition, if they were indeed trying to do something about all the demons.

The offer was accepted, with Sula’s usual readiness; new blankets were knitted, enough for the apostates and refugees alike; and Levyn has been with the Inquisition ever since, mostly keeping to himself and darting out of the room whenever Spymaster Leliana is mentioned.

Alexius has sought his input once or twice, often frustrated by how limited the knowledge of many southern Circle mages is, and interested in the experiences of a hedge mage, for whom, much like for Sula, magic is not a flaming war axe mounted haphazardly on a wall and ready to fall and cause an explosion at the slightest sneeze, but a vital tool needed for survival. Levyn has helped him, but always with reluctance - maybe fearing, like so many others, what the wicked magister might do to his mind if they talk one on one for too long. Now, too, he does not need to be asked twice to bolt out of the door, so that Sula and Dorian can break the news.

He takes it far more calmly than either of them expected. Far too calmly even. There are no tears, no cries of pain, no lurches onto his knees in shaking desperation, like when the realization that Felix was doomed, despite all of his fighting, his plotting, his sinking lower and lower till his own apprentice had to fight him, first hit him in the throne room of Redcliffe Castle.

All he does is stumble in place, searching for the corner of his desk for support, and look straight ahead. Look. And look. And look. Without uttering the faintest noise; without making the smallest blink. Boring his gaze into Sula and Dorian but not really seeing them, his eyes two still pools of brown. And then - then, they are not brown any longer. They are black, blacker than the pall of the murkiest, most clouded night, with no distinction between the pupil or the iris or the sclera. Just… two holes of all-consuming nothingness, lodged in between unmoving eyelids.

Horrified, Sula claps her hand against her mouth, her own eyes turning ever redder and wetter as she searches in vain for any signs of the man she used to make laugh, amid the chiseled iciness of this pale, black-eyed mask.

Dorian, though, finds the strength to look away - and swears through his teeth when he notices a circle of rime glint on the wood under Alexius’ fingertips. It spreads, with a frosty crackle, right before his eyes; not a second passes before the whole desk is layered with branching crystalline growths, which promptly proceed to invade the walls and the bed and the book stacks, like mould would.

'Kaffas… What is this…’ Dorian mutters, looking wildly around. 'Gereon - what’s going on with you? Are you casting a spell? No… No, it’s some kind of possession, isn’t it? Tell me you have not allowed yourself to become possessed! Dammit, haven’t you learned anything?!’

'It’s Despair!’ Cole’s voice crops up behind his and Sula’s back, accompanied by a soft creak of the door.

'It has always been there, in the corner of his mind. I did not want to pay attention to it at first, because he hurt people - but his hurt hurts you, hurts my friends, so I started listening to Despair. Clawing, gnawing, puncturing something inside him sometimes, when the nights are too long and lonely and there is no soft warm shoulder beside him to hug in bed. You two have made it small, shrivelled - but now it’s big again, and hungry. It wants to swallow him whole - and it is far better at being a demon than Gina’.

Chapter Text

'Cole, my good friend,’ Dorian begins, with his voice lowered meaningfully and a puff of creamy vapour accompanying every syllable, while the fuzzy white coat of rime, which by now has covered every inch of Alexius’ quarters (including the hapless potted ferns Sula gifted him not too long ago), keeps accumulating new and new layers, which steadily harden into thick, glistening blueish-white spikes.

Dorian is still in mid-sentence when the little room moulds into a frosty cave, with him and the spirit boy standing at its mouth - the glazed-over, slab-like door that lets a tiny current of sparkling snowflakes escape out into the corridor - and with Sula shivering in the middle, fruitlessly grabbing at the shoulders of the black-eyed statue that was once Alexius. Whispering his name through her chattering teeth. Trying to cup his icy cheeks in her shaking hands, only to yank them away, so frostbitten that they begin to bleed.

'I thought you did not need a door to… operate. Kindly close it after yourself, so we can keep… this contained’.

'I did not open the door for myself,’ Cole says quietly. 'I opened it for him. He can help’.

He steps aside, not making an imprint on the powdery white carpet that has concealed the floor, and reveals that he has pulled Levyn the hedge mage back into the room with him.

The door slides back into place after Levyn, and not a moment afterwards, it is already plasters shut by a lumpy, translucent seal of dark-blue. A few moments more, and it becomes indistinguishable from the frosted walls. They are shut in: Alexius, still unresponsive; Sula; Dorian; Cole - and Levyn.

'I… I don’t know how I can help…’ the latter mumbles, tucking in his elbows and passing his hands over his forearms in swift, rubbing motions. 'I don’t want to be here!’

'The ritual,’ Cole intones, gliding behind him and eyeing him thoughtfully from under his hat’s rim.

'Ten years ago, in the village that you fear, a fear that feeds your fear of him,’ he points enigmatically at Alexius.

'Shadows stretching from the corners, each one a Templar, then a demon, then your own dark, accursed twin… A droplet of poison in a gilded cup. The price of peace, promised by the man on a stolen throne, who himself has not known peace for so long. But then - then it all goes wrong, wrong, wrong; the boy should not have done this, he shouldn’t! But he did, and the yellow mist rolls in, rot and rust and undying groans on the wind, and the demon licks her lips, not a friend, not like Gina. My fault. My fault. Will Surana even look at me now?’

'All right, all right - enough!’ Levyn cries out, throwing up his arms, while Dorian’s gaze lingers on his distraught face, a flicker of pity in his eyes.

'I do know… have heard of a ritual. That is supposed to… Help a mage battle a demon in another mage’s mind, preventing possession. But it’s too painstaking; it requires either a blood sacrifice, or an enormous mana pool…’

'Or friends,’ Cole says - and even though the addition sounds rather childish, Dorian, who would have usually scoffed, remains serious, instinctively leaning on Sula as she finally lets go of Alexius and shuffles closer to their little huddle, struggling not to slip on the icy floor.

'Friends like me, and Sula. We are both good at slipping into minds, like diving into a river. Sula is more solid, though; she will have a better foothold. While I help hold the gateway open. And guide. And talk. I talk all the time, don’t I? Sometimes my talk is useful. I hope’.

'I will do this,’ Sula nods firmly. 'I will bring him back. I won’t let him succumb to despair, not after he’s made so much progress. Just tell me what to do’.

 

 

Twitching from head to toe and clicking their teeth, Dorian, Levyn, and Sula make it through the tightly rammed maze of tall ice spikes towards a white mound that was once Alexius’ bed (Cole merely flickers out for a moment, and reappears in a squatting pose on the icicle-bearded windowsill).

Sula preps the bed for herself by casting a glowing red and gold rune - of the kind that she heated her and Alexius’ little mountain shelter with, and then taught all of Skyhold to use, to make the rooms cozier on biting windy nights, and to grow northern plants in the castle garden. Once the rune is charged up, Sula lies down, takes a deep breath, and closes her eyes, entrusting herself to Dorian and Levyn, who stand overhead, talking in agitated whispers, while the air around them begins to sizzle with magic.

The sizzle densens, congeals, turning into a slushy paste with countless tiny but razor-like shards scraping against Sula’s ears, burrowing into her eyes like a migraine. At some point, when the sensation becomes too much to bear, Sula inhales in a distorted bass, jolts up, and throws her eyes open… To find herself in the Fade.

Like Alexius’ room, the realm of Despair is chained by bitter cold. Only here, there is not the tiniest smattering of snow - which, with its downy white softness, would have made the barren dreamscape bearable to look at. Instead, there is nothing but tall graphite-dark cliffs, rather like the ones that rise from the lashing froth along the Storm Coast. Tall and steep, with gusts of chilling wind whipping in between them, they frame a bottomless pit with a tiny chunk of floating rock in the middle, suspended by the Fade’s contorted laws of gravity at the about the same level as the summit of the cliff where Sula has landed.

'He is there!’ Cole’s disembodied voice cries urgently, its echoes melting away into the howls of the wind. 'On the island! Small and lost and crumbling!’

'How do I get to him?’ Sula cries back, sucking in her stomach anxiously - for she cannot be certain if Cole’s last words described the island, or Alexius.

'Reach the top! Think of a bridge!’

'Yeah, that makes sense!’ Sula tucks a strand of hair that has been blown loose by the wind behind her ear, rubs her palms together - and starts climbing.

The cliff protests against her touch, caving in out of reach or smoothing over in places where a ledge was just moments before - which makes sense as well; it would not have been a figment of a demonic realm if it were helpfully pliable. But Sula soon finds a way to hold it down. A bit of holding her Marked hand over the rippling rock, showering it in white-hot sparks as though she were a blacksmith working iron - and the cliff side rumbles back in place.

It is not painful, like tying a chain between Alexius’ dreams and Felix’s - but it is rather taxing. By the time Sula drags herself onto the summit, she is flushed drenched in sweat, despite the cold’s continued efforts to turn her bone marrow to ice.

As she stands up and squints ahead, she cannot hold back a gagging lurch in her throat. The pit, as it turns out, is not a pit at all - but a gigantic, wide-open mouth, filled with several rows of greyish-yellow, half-decayed teeth. Barely visible through the sticky ribbons of tar-black mist that flail at the back of this enormous funnel of a throat - but still undeniably there.

And the cliffs, as it dawns on Sula after a long, disgusted look to her left and right, are not truly cliffs either. They are folds of coarse dark-grey cloth that covers two raised-up arms, blackened claws lifted to the wintry skies like mountain peaks. That is why they responded to her Mark - because of their demonic nature.

'You… You were not exaggerating when you said it wants to swallow him up,’ Sula tells Cole. 'It has grown so huge! And I had no idea!’

'He was better, for a long time,’ Cole replies sadly, still invisible - and yet, omnipresent. 'And now, he is worse. It happens. Despite the helping’.

Brushing her hair away again - more for comfort than to actually undo the mess the wind has made - Sula strides boldly towards the very edge of the cliff… Or, well, the demon’s claw. Her eyes peer intently straight ahead, at the figure that is kneeling in the middle of the island, face hidden, neck drawn in between hunched shoulders, and solid ground slowly chipping away from under its curled-up form. The bits of rock fall into the demon’s mouth like cookie crumbs, and the mountains shake with the force of the rising gale… Which is, in truth, the giant creature’s breath, as it sucks in the first small morsels, waiting for the main course to follow them into its maw.

'I understand that you are hungry,’ Sula says, her brow crinkling as she strains to follow Cole’s advice and think a bridge into being. 'But other people’s pain is a very unhealthy diet!’

Just as she says that, a bit of hovering rock, dozens of times smaller than the island where Alexius is trapped, manifests itself a foot or so away from the cliff’s edge. Then, another, and a few more, lining up into a path. Not a bridge exactly - but it will have to do.

Wrinkling her eyes tightly shut so as not to look down, Sula leaps onto the first rock. And onto the next. And the next. Takes a pause to breathe - and leaps again. And again - with the wind bringing her a soft, relieved 'Yes’, whispered in Cole’s voice.

She is nearly halfway to the island when the demon evidently realizes what she is doing. It inhales, thunderously, angrily - and all the floating segments of Sula’s path, except for the one she is standing on, cascade down into its insatiable throat.

'No, no, no!’ Sula cries, forsaking her own resolution not to look down and reaching helplessly after the falling rock shards - as if any of this scrambling could make the path whole again.

'I was so close! All right, I start over! Think of a bridge, think of a bridge…’

But instead of new rocks reappearing, her one remaining foothold sways under her soles, as if she were in a tiny dinghy in the middle of a storm. The swaying is accompanied by a most unsettling crunch - and soon enough, this little rock is also raining crumbs into the demon’s jaws.

Sula gapes at her own bare toes, unable to tear away from the shrinking rock underneath them; what finally distracts her is the sound of her own name, being called out in a raw, cracking voice.

'Sula! Sula! Are you… Are you real?’

It is Alexius; Sula’s crying for her rocks must have awakened him. He is still on his knees, but his upper body is now turned towards her, arms stretched forward, and his face is… Alive again. Branded with emotion. And his eyes - oh, his beautiful eyes - are back to their warm brown colour, with that burst of silver around the pupils that grows brighter when he is casting magic.

'I am real!’ she answers, out of breath, with her throat blocked by something sharp and scalding hot. 'I have been trying to get you out!’

'No, I need to get you out! Before… I lose you too!’

He staggers to his feet and thrusts his hands ahead of him, palm forward, a ghostly wall of green flame moving from him to Sula - and leaving a bridge in its wake. A broad, sturdy bridge, lime-white and overgrown with ivy, like the majestic ancient structure he saw in the Fade during one of the Elvhen culture lessons that he has been taking upon Sula’s advice from a spirit of Wisdom.

In a blink, the bridge reaches Sula’s little rock - and scarcely does it solidify from a glowing green apparition into hard, slightly cold, life-like stone, when she charges off her spot, racing towards Alexius, while he hurries towards her, each step coming easier and easier for him.

They fly into each other’s arms in the middle of the bridge; and there is even enough room for them to spin, with Alexius lifting Sula off the ground, made incredibly, impossibly strong by the benevolent magic that bubbles through his veins.

'My dear friend, my sunshine, my guiding star,’ he mouths, setting her down and smiling at her, dazed and overwhelmed and not even aware of how tightly he is holding her hand. 'I… can’t believe this… I was ready to let it all go, to fall into the dark, alone and useless without my son - but then I heard your voice… Oh, Sula, if only I could tell you how…’

The demon shrieks. The sound is so shattering that it hurtles the entire realm into primeval chaos: the cliffs rise and fall and clash together; the sky crawls off along some insane diagonal; the misty black ribbons shoot up, taller than the loftiest summit. Not even the bridge can withstand the onslaught. Curving like the back of a startled cat, it then caves in, and Sula and Alexius find themselves plunging down, down - or maybe up, or to the side. It is no longer possible to tell.

But even in the middle of this torrential collapse, they keep holding hands - while their free hands are casting a shared barrier. A tight, bouncy bubble of saturated turquoise. Ready to withstand an avalanche - of snow, of rock, of whatever this realm will throw their way.

The barrier is far from wearing off when their fall comes to an end and they - unexpectedly and inexplicably - emerge from the stream of eroding mountains and overturned skies and whatever else… On top of a cliff again. And face to face with the despair demon.

It has shrunk again - as Cole gleefully comments from somewhere behind the scenes. Now it is perfectly like any other demon of this kind that Sula has so often encountered before. Gnashing its grotesque teeth, it assaults the barrier with blasts of icy magic - but their impact rarely amounts to more than a whiff of snowy powder.

And once the protective spell is lifted, Alexius is ready to face the creature. Letting go of Sula, he rolls up his sleeves and slings a bedazzlingly fast volley of flame orbs into its deformed face, also setting its rags on fire for good measure. The demon wails and rips madly into its own body, slivers of acrid burning flesh and cloth circling up like embers in the wind.

'It won’t burn away completely,’ Cole warns, making Alexius start (but one knowing nod from Sula is enough for him to accept that his misadventures have a disembodied narrator).

'Some day, it might return. Strong again. Hungry again’.

'I know,’ Alexius says gravely. 'I can sense it too. But… I have time, don’t I? I am not lying to myself again - I do have time?’

'I think you do,’ Sula whispers, taking his hands back in hers - before they both wake up. In a little room with green walls, where the ice spikes have vanished, splashing the floor with miraculously little thaw water; and where Dorian is standing firm, his hair slightly upended, vigorously shaking the hand of a guarded yet somehow blushing Levyn; and Cole is still on the windowsill, smiling contentedly as the glass under his back warms up with the rays of sunlight.

Chapter Text

‘Here is the gift I was telling you about, milord!’ Josephine smiles courteously and gestures at the grand bouquet that has taken up most of her desk. 'Freshly delivered from Val Royeaux! I must say, even if there was a little… hiccup when they were first tested, those enchanted horseshoes are being of great use to our messengers, especially now that Master Harritt keeps making more and more of them! Messere Alexius has some wonderful insights!’

'Of course he does,’ Dorian purrs with a languid smirk, twirling his hand to magically lift up the quivering, dewy mass of many-coloured petals and curling silk ribbons - which is now also entwined in speckled, glinting coils of telekinetic energy.

'He mentored me, did he not?’

Josephine shakes her head with the tiniest of indulgent eye-rolls, and tells Dorian before he backs away out of the room, the bouquet fluttering over his head like a fragrant cloud,

'For fear of being too bold, I do hope that you appreciate this gift, milord! It is probably a run-of-the-mill occurrence for a refined gentleman like you, but this particular secret admirer has obviously put a lot of effort into the arrangement! Just at first glance, I can see pink roses for admiration, and azaleas for gratitude… And oh, I believe that this flower means “I would like to get to know you better”. A very, very sweet sentiment, milord!’

'Yes, yes, quite,’ Dorian mumbles, already halfway through the door.

The plan is working perfectly. Let the good ambassador believe - let everyone believe - that the bouquet is intended for him, the owner of the most exquisitely chiseled profile in the Inquisition; the worthiest candidate there could be for having a secret admirer. Make it several dozen secret admirers!

They will never suspect that the mysterious enamoured stranger is actually a false front; a mere hireling. That he was sought out by Dorian during the Inquisition team’s latest visit to Val Royeaux, and instructed to assemble a bouquet out of very specific blossoms, making certain that it spelled out a very specific message in the flower language - 'I admire you; I am grateful for what you did; I would like to get to know you better’ -  and then to send it to Skyhold, addressing it to a Dorian Pavus.

They will never suspect that this addressee, this supposedly flawless object of everyone’s adoration, now intends to gift the bouquet to another. An impulse that he has been regretting ever since it flashed through his head, intrusive and imperious - and nonetheless proceeded to act upon, cursing himself every step of the way.

It is foolish. Sentimental. More than that - it is something he is not meant to do.

 

He is meant to hide in the shadows, to grasp at scattered morsels - a reckless rush into a curtained corner, while those of polite society pretend to be oblivious; a hasty kiss or two, stained with guilt and wine; a dive into the sheets, not to be spoken of the next morning.

He is meant to be contented with these scraps, to accept them thankfully, to expunge all thoughts of anything heartfelt and generous and sincere, like this flower language of his.

He is not meant to hope for more. And he has certainly taught himself not to.

But… But Levyn deserves more. He has to be given more than scraps, for what he did for Dorian.

 

Thanks to him, Alexius – Gereon - is back, on his feet again after briefly popping up from the Fade and then sleeping off the demon ordeal for two days straight.

Sula has talked Grand Enchanter Fiona into allowing him to teach some of the free mages how to both control their powers better and use them more creatively - with Fiona and Vivienne sitting in the back row and keeping watch (the latter still at the idea of a Tevinter teacher, but at least the Imperial Enchanter and the former magister have come to an agreement that nothing is more dangerous to a young mage than a lack of education).

And last time Dorian dropped by to listen to one of his open-air lectures, he seemed… almost cheerful. Especially during the part where Sula volunteered to assist him with a little demonstration of assembling an entire wheelbarrow with telekinesis - which those poor downtrodden children from southern prison towers gawked at like Dorian himself gawked at that snow stuff when he was hit by foul Fereldan weather for the first time (no, wait; he does not gawk - he surveys with an elegant expression of utmost bewilderment).

And none of this would have been possible were it not for Levyn; were it not for Levyn, Dorian, so soon after learning of Felix’s death, would have lost the only other remnant of the family that gave him a second home when his first scarcely felt like a home any longer.

Is that not a valid reason to be thankful? To want to show his appreciation with a kind gesture? Sula does that to people all the time, men and women alike, not feeling an ounce of shame - why should he? And besides… Besides, Sera does not hide; Bull does not hide either - perhaps, now that he is in the here to stay, in this bizarre land of dog lords versus cheese lords, and awful fashion, and more forgiving customs, he could… take a leaf out of their book? Perhaps?

Entrapped in this confounding inner argument, Dorian almost fails to notice that his stumbling feet have already carried him to Levyn’s quarters (the location of which he may have… covertly deduced from the conversations of other mages). The door is wide ajar, so all Dorian has to do is step across the threshold, surrounded by sparkles of magic that betray the telekinetically suspended bouquet he is hiding behind his back, and… And see the room - or a glorified corner of a corridor, even smaller than Alexius’ ascetic study - stripped of all belongings, with Levyn crouching in the middle of the floor, a travel pack set down at his side, desperately trying to grope for some knickknack that has rolled out of his reach.

'You… You are leaving?’ Dorian asks. His tone of disinterested politeness is but a wobbly imitation of what he had in mind, because of the sudden, crushing tightness in his chest.

'Oh! Lord Pavus!’ Levyn clucks awkwardly, rocketing to his feet and almost trampling over his own pack, his face more vividly pink than some of the roses intended for him. 'I… Yes, I… I have never been too good at this… joining causes… I will be better off back in Witchwood…’

'Wait!’ Dorian hears himself saying.

Another reckless impulse that he will later regret, and will have to block out with stains of guilt and wine and more wine and more guilt, and will never speak of the next morning.

'It does not happen to have… Anything to do with… your ritual? Because I came here… to thank you… He is not a model man, my mentor, not of late; but he is still very… important to me. And I am indebted to you for saving him’.

'The Inquisitor saved him, in the end,’ Levyn mutters, eyes cast down. 'I just floundered about and coughed up a spell… which stirred up a lot of… long-repressed feelings and memories… And reminded me of what kind of… person I am. Someone completely unfit for the Inquisition’.

'Few of us are fit, really,’ Dorian tries to feign a lighthearted chuckle - but, again, it is a pale imitation. Somehow, the poignant, almost tangible pain that radiates from every inch of Levyn’s slouching figure makes it hard to breathe, let alone act. Is this what Sula feels when trying to comfort people?

'Just think of it,’ Dorian begins to bend his fingers, counting off items on a list - which he has to do several times over, because his other hand is still behind his back, holding that bouquet up in the air.

'A street urchin. A dwarf whose friends repeatedly set a whole city on fire. A self-confessed Qunari spy and his gaggle of rowdy children. An apostate hobo. An uncouth lummox of a Warden. An Avvar barbarian. A bunch of lunatics that used to gather in the hills and worship the Breach. A different bunch of lunatics that named themselves after the Archon who put Andraste out of her misery. A scarecrow spirit that murders people. An aloof elf girl that shepherds the Tranquil. A recovering ex-cultist. An inimitably handsome aristocratic pariah - that would be me - and Maker knows who else… The Inquisitor takes anyone under her wing, so long as they ask nicely. That is her modus operandi, as we would say in Tevinter. You have nothing to feel insecure about’.

'You think too highly of me, Lord Pavus,’ Levyn says, his jaw tightening. 'I… I have always been inadequate, but what I did goes beyond mere insecurity’.

He glances up at Dorian and confesses, almost groaning as he speaks,

'I did not learn of the ritual secondhand. I know it because I had performed it before. To keep a demon from claiming a child’.

'A noble undertaking, if you ask me,’ Dorian remarks, ordering himself to relax already. To swallow this inexplicable pain. 'I bet you looked quite dashing while doing so’.

Levyn starts at that flirtatious addition, arching his eyebrows in grateful disbelief - but then shakes his head.

'The demon would never have manifested if I had not pushed the child over the edge… By poisoning his father’.

Once the words are out, he seems just as stricken by them as Dorian, and buries his face in his hands, hunching under the weight of profound shame.

'I was desperate… an apostate on the run… When offered a chance to redeem myself… for the good of Ferelden… I took it… And when I realized what I had done… It was already too late… The arl was dying… his young son, possessed… the castle and village, besieged by walking dead… And when my friend… my best friend… my only friend… came to save them all, she learned that I had turned into a monster… She let me live, as your Inquisitor would… But she - she was heartbroken… That was what that odd boy was talking about. He was reading my thoughts. Giving voice to my guilt. I… I can’t…’

Dorian could have come up with a multitude of witty responses - but the stifling pain is still not gone, so all he finds himself capable of is to cast the bouquet aside and wrap his arms around Levyn. Kaffas, Sula’s modus operandi is contagious.

'Processing confessions is not my strong suit,’ he says earnestly. 'Still, I am honoured that you confided in me. It is not for me to dispense judgement, but it sounds like you were a victim of circumstance. It goes around these days, apparently. You have dedicated yourself to protecting others since then, have you not? That is a decent start for redemption. I am certain Sula - the Inquisitor - would agree. I can take you to her, if you like. She is an expert on comfort and such’.

'Do you… Do you really think I should come clean to her as well?’ Levyn asks, rather squeakily.

'What I think is that it will torment you less in the long haul than running back to Witchwood - and hiding,’ Dorian says, gazing down into Levyn’s eyes.

Maker, but the man is good-looking. Not that it is relevant to anything.

'Come. Do not be afraid of Sula. She is a fluffy cloud descended on earth. Oh - and here is something to cheer you on!.. Damn, the thing got crumpled! No matter - let us improvise!’

In his haste to embrace Levyn, Dorian was too careless with the bouquet - and it now lays on the floor in a mishmash of bent stalks and loose petals and tangled ribbons. Far from the glorious sight it was fresh upon delivery. But with a renewed charge of telekinetic magic, Dorian manages to salvage the undamaged flowers and, pulling them out of the heap, weaves them into a massive colourful crown, which he lays gingerly onto Levyn’s head. Yes, an impulse - but one he stops regretting the instant he sees sparks of purest, child-like joy dance into being in Levyn’s eyes.

'I… You… Is this for me? Did you actually… get some flowers… Just for… Lord Pavus, I don’t deserve your kindness!’

'Please, just Dorian will suffice. Now that you have tried it on, you can dispose of it however you wish. I believe I saw a waste bin somewhere in the library’.

'No - no! I will wear it wherever you take me… I mean - wherever the Inquisitor is!’

'I think you will find her cheering for another one of Gereon’s lectures. Follow me, and mind the bees’.

 

 

They do, in fact, happen upon Sula in the courtyard, with the younger mages flocking around her like ever so many baby fawns, tense and wary, yet curious. The class is in recess, from the looks of it, and she is entertaining - or perhaps distracting - the students with a simple display of blue, yellow, and red magic ripples that shift and overlay above her cupped hands, creating an endless palette of other colours. Before Dorian and Levyn can reach her, however, they walk right into a scene that must have been the reason why Alexius called for a break.

In the gallery around the courtyard, his back propped up against a wall, stands a young man - a boy almost, just into his twenties. His face is almost the same pale-blue colour as his baggy shirt, and his chestnut hair is sticking to his forehead in icicle-like sweaty strands; his mouth is twisted and half open, and his breaths come out loud and rasping and frequent, as though he has been trying to outrun an abomination. Alexius is standing beside him, moving his hand up and down, fingers together and palm parallel with the ground, at a very slow, calming cadence, counting from one to ten in a loud, even voice as he does so.

’… Eight. Nine. Ten. And once more. Breathe on my count. Breathe, Connor. You are safe’.

'How can you say that?!’ the young man little short of screeches as soon as he is able to speak again. 'You - you kicked my uncle out into the street! You almost enslaved us! And now you are teaching us magic… the Tevinter way! The maleficar way! The d-demon summoner way!’

'That is fair,’ Alexius agrees, his voice still even. 'After what I did, I cannot force you to like me, or to enjoy my class. Though I admit I was glad to see you come today; to see you give me a chance’.

'The others talked me into it,’ Connor says, his voice leaping into a hiccup. 'They told me there nothing wrong about what you say… But… Every time you open your mouth, I… I remember… Blood mixing with mud and trickling down into the lake… Funeral pyres everywhere, people wailing for their lost families… All - all my doing… All because I was born a mage… Like you… Only with you… The Inquisitor was able to save everyone before it was too late…’

'It was not your doing, Connor!’ Levyn cries out, nearly throwing himself across the gallery to where the young man and Alexius are, with the flower crown sliding onto his ear. His whole demeanor as he flies into the conversation reminds Dorian of a wounded sea bird. Falling down, down, down, ready to meet the waves… And that sweeping rush inside Dorian’s chest makes him feel that he is falling with him.

'Jo… Jowan?’ Connor whispers, his eyes rounding as he discerns familiar features behind the thick stubble and the streaks of very first grey in the matted hair under the crooked flower crown.

'Yes,’ Levyn - Jowan - says, and Dorian echoes the name noiselessly, wondering at the thump his heart makes when he pronounces it.

'It’s me. And I am done hiding’.

Chapter Text

Wise people have warned that no good will ever come from a knife-eared heathen - and one cursed with magic, too - daring to rise above her station and to lead a vast, ever-growing army in Andraste’s name. And now each of her senseless, if not outright blasphemous, actions is proving them right.

First, the tattooed wench pardons the foulest of maleficars - the hissing, snake-tongued magister who seized the home of one of those dog-hoarding, wet-smelling Fereldan ‘nobles’ (castle, was it? how quaint) and plotted the demise of the whole world within its walls, no doubt stealing quite a few innocent babes out of their cribs while he was at it, so suckle the blood from their frail necks and sustain his hideous shrivelled self!

And Maker, not only does she pardon him - she flaunts this in front of good, law-abiding Andrastians too! She has the gall to deck herself in white and gold,the colours of the Chantry, and babble inanely about mercy - a feeble, spit-worthy excuse for leaving aberrations upon this earth!

And then, she does it again! She grossly overlooks the crimes of another maleficar, who poisoned that same Fereldan! Or was it his brother? His cousin? It does not matter: there was definitely poison involved, rivers and rivers of it! And also, demon summoning! Risen corpses dancing in the streets! The thrice-cursed mage twisting the minds of innocent children, and binding them to monsters from the Fade by the dozen! And yet - and yet all is forgiven by the so-called Herald of Andraste, the filthy witch who, as they say, performs unseemly rituals in the light of the full moon, riding one of those bizarre white forest goats, naked and seated backwards! All is forgiven, and the second maleficar, just as the first, is brought before the followers of the Inquisition as 'a new friend’! 'A good friend! 'The silent helper of so many people who have ever gotten lost in Witchwood’! 'A friend that was lost himself for such a long time, haunted by the things that were out of his control, and sincerely regretting all the tragic events he played a hand in’!

Wily words, wicked words, crafted specifically to cloud the judgement of the Chantry flock! And to hint to the other lawless blackguards that they can be as bold as they like, that they can wash themselves clean of any atrocity, and be embraced by the witch!

Picture this: while this knife-ear, who has so insolently usurped the title of Herald, talks to those gathered in the throne room of her lair, Skyhold, and sings praise to the second maleficar’s 'arduous journey from runaway in the woods to honest member of the Inquisition’, one among the crowd listens to her with especially rapt attention.

It is none other than… Thom Rainier! Backstabber and murderer; the epitome of greed and cowardice; the despicable mercenary captain who pushed his men to do great horrors - to slaughter a family of innocents! and likely more! so much more! - in the name of the treacherous Gaspard, and then ran, letting them take the fall! Ran, and hid from the reach of the Empress’s rightful justice under the canopy of the Fereldan woods (rustling, and shaded from bluish-green to yellowish-green, and most uncivilized!) and under a bushy beard (grizzled-black and also uncivilized). And if that was not enough, the man also stole the name of a valiant Grey Warden - whom he no doubt carved apart in his sleep, as his kind are prone to.

And so, this ruffian, this absolute bandit gets his earful of the usurper’s tongue-waggling, and decides that he, too, wants a share of undeserved forgiveness. He slips out of the throne room, and leaves for Her Majesty’s shining and glorious city of Val Royeaux, where one of his clueless, abandoned minions, Mornay by name, is about to be dealt with as law demands, in the very square where Revered Mother Hevara - one of these very wise people whom Thedas has not heeded- first warned the people of how dangerous the knife-ear was.

Before he rides off - on one of the Inquisition’s uncanny, if not to say terrifying, hideous, absolutely hideous mounts, fitted by the magister with glowing horseshoes that give them a far greater speed than nature intended - he tucks a note for the knife-ear under a ludicrous tiny red scarf with a fuzzy frill, which, along with an equally ludicrous hat with a bobbing 'pompom’, the wench has knit for the wooden gryphon of Rainier’s making. An inappropriate, uneducational toy, cunningly designed to befuddle the impressionable young and make them believe that such creatures still exist.

The note, according to some sources, reads as follows,

'Sula,

Out of all leaders I have ever fought under, you have been the most inspiring. I have told you this before, and I will tell this again: your readiness to look at any monster and see the hurt in their eyes is a sign of great strength. And such strength cannot but drive others to rise up. To do better. I look at Alexius, at Jowan, at everyone else you have forgiven - and know that I can do no less to be worthy of an Inquisitor like you. It has been an honour to serve you’.

It is, quite obviously, is a ploy. A coded message signalling that the impostor Herald is to follow Rainier to the city and disrupt both his and Mornay’s execution. Which she, of course, does.

She charges in on another one of those bewitched horses - reportedly fully clothed and facing forward in the saddle, but that is still up for debate - and appears before the people of Val Royeaux in a lyrium-blue flash. And since it is raining at the time - a clammy drizzle turning the air to soggy cold grey soup and trailing down the marble columns and reeling Maferath statues like sickly sweat against drained white flesh - this flash of corrupt Tevinter magic is reflected in each water droplet. Thus, the wench appears to be surrounded by a cloud of finest, sparkling sapphire dust. A false halo for a false Herald.

Upon dismounting, she races over the sweating cobblestones, right onto the gallows where the villainous Rainier stands, with his head lowered, the rain turning his hair into limp moist ribbons, and a simple undershirt clinging in a see-through damp film to his bulky, hairy body, since he has removed the gryphon-branded armour that he once wore, as the lying companion of a lying Herald, and placed it at his feet.

A creak of soggy wood - and the wench is by his side, grabbing his hand, their fingers locked tight as vice.

'The Inquisition is here to reclaim you, Thom Rainier,’ she announces to the whole square, not a tremour in her ensnaring witch’s voice, while the bandit looks up at her, face wet with the drizzle - and also, perhaps, with the feigned crocodile’s tears of a remorseless criminal.

'I know you wish your life to end, for what you did to those poor people, and to your soldiers, and to your own heart. But your life - the life of atonement - has only just begun. You may have hidden your name, but you never hid who you really are. Not from me. I know you. I look at you, and see a man that’s brave, and loyal, and kind. A wonderful, wonderful man. By killing that man today, you will be doing a great disservice to all the people whom he might yet save and protect and bring hope to. And also leaving behind a friend who would very much like to fight by that man’s side again. Who remembers the lesson he taught her - about the strength of mercy’.

Rainier is still gaping at her dumbly, not a syllable leaving his lips (all an act for the most soft-hearted spectators, of course!) when she, this disgrace of a knife-ear, stretches her arms forward, rain washing over her, and repeats, with a quake in her voice (also an act),

'I promised that the Inquisition would embrace everyone who regrets their past - and Thom Rainier clearly does! He has stood by me so, so many times, helping me seal rifts and make Thedas a safer, less broken place; and I shall stand by him now, defending his right to live!’

There is some protest, of course, on the day of the execution, and later - but the people are, alas, so gullible, and listen to the cries of those who claim that the Herald personally saved their families, and helped rebuild their homesteads from the ashes, and cared for their whimpering, scared children while they were at war - and that her judgement is to be trusted. That if she says that Rainier deserves a pardon, then he does deserve a pardon, guardsmen be damned.

Their voices prove louder, resounding over the square in some utterly stupid rallying call or other, and that call’s rising tide knocks the hapless servants of Her Majesty back. And where doubt lingers, Skyhold’s diplomats, as conniving as the usurper herself, smooth everything over. And the bloodthirsty bandit yet walks with the Inquisition.

Just as the magister.

Just as the demon summoner of Redcliffe.

Any and all evil finds refuge in the walls of the Inquisition’s lair.

This cannot continue! The knife-eared wench cannot be allowed to shield her blackened heart with the burning golden glory of Andraste! Something has to be done; measures have to be taken! Desperate, decisive, effective measures! Of the kind that the Empire’s shadowy league of assassins is so expert at. No matter how much gold is requested on the bottom line of the honoured contract with the House of Repose, it shall be a small price for cleansing the Inquisition of its usurping leader! Maybe after that, some use will come of those blundering soldiers, after all.

Chapter Text

‘Maker’s balls, that fellow in the market had good aim…’

Thom rubs at the spot on the chest plate of his new armour - stripped of Warden insignia but still sturdy, and polished to a mirror-like shine… mostly - where it was hit by a mud pellet. A little souvenir from a scowling, nigh on frothing passerby. .

Like a few other Orlesians they met thus far, skittering over to the other side of the street and casting long glares in Thom’s wake, the pellet-thrower was obviously was not among the… friendlier townsfolk. Not part of the crowd that was so moved by Sula’s speech in defense of the companion she had once known as Blackwall (and was ready to trust under either name, bless her incredible little heart) that they brought Mornay’s failed execution to a chaotic, stomping close, cupping their hands around their mouths and chanting 'Pardon Rainier! Pardon Rainier!’ till the guards had no choice but to resign to their demands.

The stuff that this unfriendly passerby hurled at Thom - just mud, thankfully, and unexpectedly, with so many horse-drawn carriages clamouring to and fro - has dried up by now, and all but flaked off. But he still continues with his frantic scrubbing, more to fill the tense, frozen silence with at least some sound and motion than anything else.

The only response his remark gets is a muffled grunt of disgust, coming from the rigid figure that stands on the other side of the gilded front door of the Boisvert Mansion, where they have been asked to wait while Sula, Josephine, and that gossipy Comte 'convene in private’.

Thom glances hopefully in the grunt’s direction - and then turns back to his chest plate. Cassandra still won’t look at him. And won’t talk to him either. Not directly.

'A good way to avoid pelting is to stay back in Skyhold,’ she says woodenly. 'One warrior would have been more than enough to give the Inquisitor balanced back-up should she need it’.

'Now, now, Seeker,’ Varric, who has been gazing idly at the mansion’s frontal adornments (mostly bendy-backed, bug-eyed statuary in flowing garments), joins in with a teasing tone.

'You know Blueberry does not doubt your abilities! Hero here asked to be included, and she obliged - just as she promised! She’s giving him ways to make himself useful! Can’t have a good redemption arc if you aren’t useful - I mean, look at Time Lord! You seem to be warming up to him…’

'He is different,’ Cassandra says through her teeth. 'We knew he was a villain from the outset. And I am not warming up to him; I have no idea what gave you that notion!’

Her last exclamation is a bit too loud, a bit too hasty; had things been… as they were, Thom would have even chuckled. It is true that she has been glowering at that old Tevinter less as of late - perhaps Sula’s clear fondness of him has mellowed her.

Thom himself was quite… curious to find the man nearly weeping over that note he passed him. He remembers wondering if he had been wrong to dismiss… Alexius - right? - as just another Preening Lord Dorian, except some quarter of a century down the road; remembers asking himself if they could be more alike deep down than he’d first assumed. Two aging monsters trapped behind the bars of their own regrets, only to have the cell lit up by a star-like beacon. Or two beacons, in Thom’s case. Sula - Sula is a beacon for everyone - and…  And Josephine.

This is one of the reasons why he asked Sula to take him here, after all. Someone - hopefully this Comte will name the bastard - is meddling with Josephine’s negotiations; killing her servants… And it… it hurts, seeing how worried this is making her. How she is losing sleep, the bruised indentations ever darkening under her eyes. It hurts thinking, quite despite of himself, that this unseen bloodstained hand might not stop at burned documents and dead couriers in the middle of an empty road. That it might reach for Josephine herself next.

It hurts, to the point when he has to double over, hand over his heart, grunting like he’d been stabbed. It hurts - even though Thom has only been allowing himself to admire Josephine from afar, for the longest time. Even though there has never, ever been anything between them, nor will there ever be, now that… she knows.

There has never been anything. Barring the first few casual, careless flirtations in Haven, a game they both played to lift the heavy grey of the snowy evenings - fully aware that it was just that, a game, and nothing would ever come of it. And also barring those little fireside conversations during the journey to Skyhold, when Josephine, tearful and half-feverish, was having nightmares of the blazing, screeching sky, and Sula just happened to be away, on the other end of the caravan, babysitting the refugees’ children, and Thom just happened to… not be away, and reckoned that there’d be nothing wrong about cheering up a lady with some friendly banter…

But since then - nothing.  He has done nothing, hoped for nothing, deserved nothing. And yet, it still hurts. Overwhelmingly and undeniably. And he cannot stay away when Josephine is being threatened. He cannot.

Tapping his chest plate again - not to get rid of the mud this time, but to keep that blasted ache locked in place - Thom lets his eyes travel idly past Varric and Cassandra’s heads, ready to latch on to anything, even something as stupid as watching a bunch of pigeons on a rooftop, just to clear off the murk of his thoughts… And then, springs to full alert, cursing.

'Fuck, look at that bastard up there!’ he huffs, slanting his eyes to indicate the direction. 'It’s an Orlesian assassin’s get-up!’

His tone is urgent enough even for Cassandra to deign to listen. She and Varric both crane their necks, and presently spot the same thing Thom has spotted. A crouching figure in tightly fitting, one-piece chequered clothing and a jester’s mask, frozen in a creepily exaggerated grin. Scaling the roof of the nearest building like a cat, limbs bending at the most fantastical angles, it prepares to leap over onto the upper-floor balcony of the Boisvert Mansion - but its flight ends just as it reaches its peak. Cut short by the soft click of the crossbow trigger.

A single well-aimed bolt released by Bianca - and the masked jester plummets to the pavement, suddenly limp and massive like a fat pheasant taken out by a hunter. There is a thud, an omelette crackle of a skull bring split open - and a piercing squeal of some poor sod who was in the middle of making his way down the street when the chequered corpse plopped at his feet.

'Varric, did you just commit a murder in broad daylight? On… Rainier’s suggestion?’ Cassandra hisses, outraged, as the three of them push through the mansion’s front doors - to hide away before the witness recovers and screams for the guards. 'How do we know it was truly an assassin?’

'Shush, Seeker,’ Varric - who himself now appears chequered, as he has stepped into the splash of light that burns on the floor of the mansion’s hallway, cut across by the shadows of the window lattice - cuts Cassandra off.

And she desists, with no further protest. Thom suspects that she does agree with him: as a former Hand of the Divine, she must have come across those sneaky freaks in tights that Orlesian nobles hire to off each other, or at least must have heard of them from Leliana. She just made a point of giving him another reminder that the words 'Rainier’ and 'murder’ go hand in hand.

But either way - Varric did not just shush her for the thrill of it. There is a voice coming from deeper inside the manor. Accented - Orlesian - and exceptionally calm. Bored even. As if he were talking about the weather.

'And now you see, Lady Montilyet,’ it says, and Thom feels his heart lurch, almost tearing itself off its fleshy hinges. 'The contract that demands your demise may be hundreds of years old, but the House of Repose takes its business very seriously. And add to that the new contract, just recently signed. For the life of Inquisitor Lavellan - who has, apparently, angered certain parties with her excessive leniency towards her prisoners. Your fate, my lady, may still be negotiated - but the Inquisitor’s is sealed. She cannot be allowed to leave here alive’.

'Maker!’ Cassandra gasps, unsheathing her sword with a screech of steel and rushing across the sun-splashed floor to find the voice’s source. 'It’s a trap!’

'A sovereign says that there was never any Comte,’ Varric mutters, while hurrying after her and hoisting Bianca onto his shoulder - because there are more jester assassins emerging all over. Slinking out of side doors; peering through the half-open door of that very balcony their now-dead fellow tried to reach; gliding like acrobats down the bannisters on spread-out, half-bent legs. Blocking all exits - daggers unsheathed and faces titled to the side, smiling, smiling, smiling, till looking at the lot of them makes Thom sick.

With a roar that sends the crystal chandeliers rattling, he throws himself into the middle of the chequered line, tearing into the jesters like a gurn stampeding over a pack of hyenas. Their daggers fly in front of him, whooshing through the air like they were trying to slash it all to ribbons - but Thom keeps his shield up, meeting each of their blows with a seething burst of sparks, metal against metal. And wherever he is left with a vulnerable spot, Cassandra steps in. Still not looking at him, still with her brow overcast; but never hesitating before she deflects a raised-up blade that would have otherwise skewered Thom’s eyeball, and knocks its wielder to the floor with a bash so forceful that her shield’s sharpened corner severs their jugular, a swirl of rusty red now marring the mansion’s pristine marble.

Those jesters that neither of them can reach, are taken out by Varric: click-squelch-splat, a bolt between the shoulder blades, then a bolt at the nape, then a bolt through the foot to pin the jester to the floor while Cassandra drives her sword through them.

To unleash his bolts more effectively, the dwarf has somehow clambered into a gigantic ornamental vase and is just barely peeking over its edge, which he uses as a support for Bianca. Getting out, though, ends up more troublesome for him than getting in, and once there is no assassin left standing, he has to make a series of meaningful coughs, before Thom and Cassandra take him under one arm each and yank him free. A rather comical scene, which makes Thom chuckle tentatively into his beard, gazing searchingly into Cassandra’s face. She rolls up her eyes - but it seems to Thom that the noise she makes is not… too disgusted.

Turning their backs on the rusted marble’s hideous new carpet of bodies, they hasten on. Through an open door across the hallway, and out into a three-walled room that blends into a small flowery patio.

Right at the room’s entrance, the three of them are greeted by chaos. In front of them, just a couple of paces away, dainty, gilded white tea table lies on its side, among hazy-green triangles of shattered glass, and glittering streaks of purplish powder - the kind that rogues use in smoke flask concoctions - and a couple of metal throwing stars, lodged deep into the painted wood.

And everywhere they turn, the glass shards crunching under their soles, they see star-shaped sooty bursts - markings left on the floor and walls where mage fire thrashed against the stone. In the middle of one such burst, lies yet another jester. There is a whiff of black smoke still snaking out of his mouth, which hangs open under the lopsided mask, a dark-crimson burn imprinted into the side of his neck like a blacksmith’s brand, tracing the zigzag of a lightning bolt.

'Oh, there you are!’ a familiar voice exclaims from the room’s other, darkened corner, where the silhouette of some sort of dresser seems to loom.

'I thought I heard sounds of another battle! Glad to see you made it! We are both fine - though it was a tiny bit challenging, throwing lightning at that assassin with one hand and holding a barrier over Josephine with the other! That’s why it was a really flimsy barrier - not like one of Ger…’

Sula - for it is Sula, ashen-faced with exhaustion and drenched in cold sweat, but determinedly cheerful - clumsily turns the last word into a cough, clearly embarrassed by her own chattiness, and shifts her eyes to Josephine, as if entrusting her with changing the subject.

Josephine nods in understanding - oh Josephine, lovely Josephine, unscathed, unharmed, oh thank the Maker… Thom has not even realized that all this time, through the entire fight with the creepy jesters, he has been carrying an invisible stone slab over his lungs - not until now, when it has been lifted.

'The real Comte Boisvert is in there,’ she says, gesturing at the dresser, which responds with a lot of incoherent moo-like noises.

'He refuses to be set free until a locksmith is sent for; this piece of furniture is too valuable to be simply hacked down around him, or so he gave me to understand. The assassin from the House of Repose has impersonated the Comte to lure Her Worship and me into a trap’.

'We heard him speak to you,’ Cassandra says gravely.

Josephine lets out a shuddering sigh - and before either of them knows it, she finds herself leaning against Thom’s chest. Which… Which obviously means nothing. She is simply faint from her ordeal, and he happened to be standing close… again.

Thankfully, Cassandra is too preoccupied by everything they’ve learned to glare - and Josephine is too preoccupied to flinch away… Not that Thom is thankful… Argh, his mind is a bloody mess!

'This spares me a lot of explaining, then,’ Josephine says quietly. 'I suggest we find our carriage and return to Skyhold. I think I have an idea how to solve my… predicament - but Her Worship is in far greater danger than I, and has to be protected!’

'I have faith in my friends; I know that we always do whatever we can to help each other,’ Sula beams - though towards the end, her smile turns rather… wobbly.

'And, uh… Speaking of help… I don’t want to alarm anyone… But I think I might need a healer. I am… nearly out of mana, you see - because of the lightning and the barrier… So I might have to ask someone else to remove this for me. If that’s all right’.

She gingerly opens her long leather jacket - and reveals that there is another throwing star, one that did reach its target, sticking out between her ribs.

So that’s… That’s why she is so pale. She is not just exhausted - she is wounded. Maker’s balls.

Josephine reels free of Thom’s embrace, gesturing in agitation.

'Oh no! How did I not notice?!’

'It happened too fast,’ Sula comforts her, her words beginning to slur together. She must have been keeping some semblance of strength through magic, and with the last of her mana drained, she can no longer talk, or stand.

Before she can finish, her legs give way, and she stumbles into Thom, Cassandra, and Varric, who all scramble to support her without disturbing her wound - while Josephine looks on, hands against her mouth.

'I… fought… through… the pain… to protect… a friend… like he would… I wonder…. if he’d… be… impressed…’

Now is really not the time or the place to guess who 'he’ is supposed to be.  Not when they need to rush Sula back to the carriage.

Chapter Text

Whenever the sun comes out over the battlements, painting the courtyard in hues of orange, the Tevinters of Skyhold (even Krem, who can sometimes be heard jokingly berating his chief for making him ‘freeze his arse off’ on monster hunts) start behaving like cats, taking up the warmest, most well-lit spots, with eyes narrowed into blissful slits, and refuse to budge unless absolutely necessary. So it happens now as well.

Alexius, who has been moving about the castle more and more boldly, with Leliana’s people occasionally surveying him from a distance, has found himself a sunlit patch of withered grass not far from the infirmary and, curling one leg under himself, has settled on an orange-tinted bench, a quill in hand - dipped in red ink, not blood, as some would insist - and a rustling heap of paper in his lap.

Coloured the shades of autumn foliage by the vivid rays, the heap is speckled all over with loopy black scrawls, which are traced by many an uncertain young hand and spell out just as many lists of 'Non-Violent Uses of Elemental Magic’… Sometimes also presented as 'Elliemental Magic’ or 'Ele-Mental Magic’, which earns the author a careless dash of red next to the word, and an indulgent smile - so long as the ideas listed in the essay are interesting, so long as they challenge the musty, fear-fueled outlook on magic that has been crammed into these children’s heads, spelling does not matter all that much. Especially since the hapless young things probably learned their letters by chanting the same sentence over and over after a Sister in a village school.

Alexius is deep into deciphering the fence-like penmanship of a boy who asks, both himself and his teacher, 'If we trap a ball of lightning in a glass flask, will it burn longer than a torch?’ (a question that he does not know the answer to, but that is utterly fascinating and deserves a special commendation), when a small, soft snort over his shoulder - not quite a chuckle, not quite an exhalation of surprise - makes him look up.

When he does, he discovers that he is being observed by Fiona, and hastily stacks away his papers into the corner of the bench, in order to get up and properly greet her.

'I do make an amusing sight, don’t I, Grand Enchanter?’ he asks, his tone far from hostile. 'My late wife used to tell me that I make faces while grading homework all the time; the habit must have returned’.

'No, it’s not that,’ Fiona replies, scrutinizing Alexius with an air of quiet astonishment.

'I just… Never stop wondering at how different you are from the man in Redcliffe’.

'Different stages of grief, Grand Enchanter,’ he smiles wryly. 'That man was… bargaining, with a ruthlessness I am sincerely sorry you and your people had to experience. Now he is - I am - slowly easing my way into acceptance. With the Inquisitor’s kind help’.

'For what it’s worth, I am sorry for your loss,’ Fiona tells him earnestly. 'Felix seemed a fine young man - unafraid to do the right thing. To speak up for us when we ourselves gave in’.

'He was,’ Alexius mouths, turning his eyes wistfully to the sky. 'He always said that he… was going against me for my own sake. And he was right. If it were not for him, Dorian, and Sula… the Inquisitor, I would have still been out there. Among the Venatori. Carting you, and those youngsters I now teach, off to Tevinter, as slaves… All I can do now is try to make them proud. All three of them. Four - my wife as well’.

He clears his throat, and looks away from the shining, cloudless blue, his eyes watery… From the bright light.

'Have you children of your own, Grand Enchanter?’

Her answer is evasive, and a bit tight-lipped.

'Unlike the magisters of your homeland, we southern mages do not get the privilege of raising a family’.

At this point, she also gets a compulsion to clear her throat, and suddenly adds,

'But at least… my son has done quite well for himself without me. Without even learning who I truly was. It’s for the best’.

'Is it, though?’ Alexius asks, holding her gaze intently. 'Have you spoken to the Inquisitor about it? I am certain she could arrange a reunion. And do it gladly. She… She thrives on helping others, in any shape or form’.

Again, Fiona grows evasive. Instead of either accepting or dismissing Alexius’ offer, she changes the subject.

'It seems that the Inquisitor truly did go from your number one enemy to your hero. You speak of her like a boy speaks of his first crush’.

'She is not my first crush!’ Alexius objects, the sun blaring through his reddened ears. 'I mean to say… I am no boy, and there is no crush, and…’

 

He gasps for air, indignant at himself - but before Fiona can draw the same conclusions as Seeker Cassandra and Scout Harding, they are interrupted by the arrival of a lurching thundering carriage driven by four horses in flashing, lyrium-infused horseshoes. The very same carriage that the Inquisitor - Sula, Alexius’ hero and dear friend - and her companions took to Val Royeaux.

Alexius scarcely manages to scramble out of the way, pulling Fiona with him, before the monstrously rattling thing rams to a halt, ripping up the soil and leaving almost a foot-deep trench in its wake, with a back wheel close to jumping off and rolling away, and with one side a fraction of an inch away from shattering against the infirmary wall.

The horses stomp in place, shaking their heads and slanting their eyes in confusion, while an armoured figure leaps off the coach seat   and tugs the carriage door open with such violence that one might think there is some personal vendetta between the two.

'Is everything all right, Seeker?’ Fiona inquires cautiously, dusting herself off.

The figure waves at her impatiently, without even turning around; but the answer - the terrible answer that rolls over Alexius with the unstoppable force of a rockfall, sending him into a wobbly-legged stupor - soon becomes apparent on its own. When Varric and Blackwall - no, Thom Rainier; yet another of the so many criminals so graciously pardoned by the Inquisitor - climb out of the carriage, carrying a body, heartrendingly limp and small.

'Is she…’ Alexius mumbles weakly, addressing no-one in particular. His pupils, tiny as pepper grains, keep darting fearfully to and fro, and his hands have turned to convulsively shaking claws, like someone has sent a charge of shock magic through his entire body.

'Is she… She can’t… Not Sula… Not her too… Not again…’

 

'Hey, take it easy, Time Lord’.

Varric has let the Seeker take his place and push her way through the infirmary door together with Thom - he was not much help to the latter, because of their height difference. He is now standing next to Alexius, reaching up to reassuringly pat the rim of his sleeve.

'Blueberry is alive. Just needs some spiky metal shit cut out of her. It will be fine. She made certain we had the best healers working here. They won’t mind treating the Inquisitor for a change’.

'I… I have to be there…’ Alexius says, with his gaze still unfocused and his voice trailing off like a sleeptalker’s. 'I have to… make certain… I know the healing arts!’

'I am sure you do,’ Varric agrees patiently, as though he were at the bedside of a friend who has had too much to drink and is now raving nonsense. 'But look at your hands - you will only make it worse!’

At long last, Alexius manages to collect himself, grabbing at his own scarred wrist.

'I apologize,’ he says under his breath. 'You’d think I’d learn, but… Here I am again, spinning out of control at the slightest threat to someone I…’

He bites his lips and resolutely strides into the infirmary, past Varric and the carriage’s last remaining passenger - Ambassador Josephine Montilyet, who seems to have fiddled with a lacy handkerchief to the point of tearing it to shreds.

 

'I can be of assistance!’ he calls out to the healer, who has only just laid Sula out onto a vacant bed - so still, so painfully still, with her head this own back and her… beautiful black hair half-undone - while the handful of other patients is watching in stifled, stricken silence.

Half of them must have believed her invulnerable before now; a living goddess, a being woven from magic and sunlight. Looking into her deep blue eyes, hearing her gentle laugh, feeling her warm comforting touch in times of sorrow - it all makes it so easy to forget that she will not be there forever; like Alexius once forgot that his wife and son would not be there forever. It makes it easy to forget that she, too, can bleed. That she can fall - that she can… be taken.

'If I cast a basic time-altering spell on you,’ he goes on, his voice sounding deeper than usual as he smothers a tremour, 'Your movements will speed up, and you will treat the Inquisitor more efficiently’.

The healer, busy getting Sula’s clothing out of the way, gives him a dark look.

'I am a woman of science; I can do my job without any magical… interference’.

'Magic is not interference,’ Alexius says, frustration and anxiety bubbling under his tense, very flimsily collected exterior. 'It is a tool, just as your scalpel. And it is not like the magic I used… before. I hear Dorian relies on this trick all the time in battle’.

'If this helps Sula, I’ll allow it,’ the Seeker settles the argument curtly. 'Time is of the essence, is it not?’

The healer does not protest further, beyond a muffled huff. Alexius moves towards her, reaches forth, makes a rotating motion with his wrists - and takes a step back, while a dome of gold-tinged green melts into being around the healer, filling the infirmary with the dappled dance of light and shadow, as if they were in a forest clearing.

The dome itself ripples and shimmers like a gigantic drop of tree sap, while the healer buzzes within like an insect, darting back and forth and sticking out her limbs in swift, blurred thrusts. A few seconds later, the buzzing stops, and the dome dissolves, revealing that the healer has already removed the 'spiky metal shit’ - an assassin’s throwing star, of all things; a chilling warning of danger yet to come - from Sula’s flesh, and cleansed, stitched, and bandaged the wound. She has even had time to administer a healing tonic and to tuck Sula in; so the convalescent Inquisitor now appears to be plunged into peaceful sleep, her eyes closed and her chest just barely rising under her clean white blanket.

 

'She is breathing,’ Alexius croaks, dropping to his knees next to the bed and shakily groping for Sula’s hand. Warm. Warm… Warm!

'Excuse me,’ the Woman Of Science coughs warningly. 'No disturbing the patients! If you want to stick around, make yourself useful!’

'Of course,’ Alexius says vacantly, staggering up. 'I… I know the healing arts’.

And it is healing arts that he performs, long after Sula’s companions have left, speaking over one another in agitation, blurting out something about the war room and Josephine. He walks among the other patients of The Woman Of Science, casting restorative spells (with her begrudging permission), dressing wounds, changing sheets. Working ceaselessly, obstinately, with no memory of such distractions as food or rest - falling into the familiar rut of driving himself into a numb weariness, the more numb the better, just to drown out the image of those bloodied surgeon’s tools, those closed eyes, those hands, warm but listless, earthy brown against the snow-white infirmary covers.

Still, he cannot keep Sula out of his thoughts for long. He never could. When the Woman Of Science finally decides that she has no further need of him and allows him to draw up a chair by Sula’s bedside, Alexius jumps at the chance he is given, and collapses into his seat with his eyes fixated on her sweetest, most precious freckled face - the face of a being woven from magic and sunlight. She will yet shine upon him; she will yet stay - not forever, but as long as fate allows.

'Please last through this,’ he speaks with his lips alone, ceasing a moment while the Woman Of Science has turned her back on him. 'Please live on. Please overcome this curse… of being loved by me’.

Chapter Text

Throughout her recovery, Sula often dreams of water.

It could be because of her state - bobbing lazily on waves of half-wakefulness, before diving down into hazy, sun-warmed oblivion again. Or because of how warped people’s voices sound when they come up to her, as if she were listening to them while submerged up to the ears into a bathtub. She thinks she can recognize Cassandra, and Leliana, and Josephine… They fuss and argue like they did on the first night of their journey to Skyhold - and gradually, their heated exchanges grow less and less coherent, fading into the rumble of the tide of a distant shore.

Either way, she dreams of water. Of sitting on a rock that juts out into the softly, harmlessly lapping waves, and letting the tickling froth hiss between her toes as she dangles her legs above the rippling, glimmering stretch of silken azure.

She has never seen water like this before. Certainly not when exploring the coastline of the Waking Sea, which is always ploughed by moving mountains of icy brine, easily capable of crushing a ship’s hull like a chestnut shell when they clash against one another, roaring in anger.

But this water is clear and shallow and calm; it kisses the white sand beach with a playful tenderness, and swathes Sula in sunny warmth when she slips off the rock and goes for a swim.

Sometimes, she imagines herself to be a sea creature, like the ones from the Antivan sailors’ tales that Josephine acted out when Sula got the rare honour of seeing her doll collection. And the spirits of the Fade (perhaps with her new friend Gina among them, rediscovering her old self) give her a seal’s short-haired coat and chubby, velvety tail, which flaps so funnily behind her when she zooms among the sprawling juicy-red underwater trees - corals, she thinks they are called - startling colourful schools of tiny fish.

At one point, when she emerges, resting her elbows on a porous chunk of coral that rises above the waves, the dream merges with a memory, and a faint pulse runs through her Mark to warn her that something is about to happen… Something that might disrupt the seaside’s bliss.

As the memory begins to play out, two people appear on the beach, ambling hand in hand towards the water. Sula knows who they are; she has seen them before, having a picnic in the equally blissful garden. Happy, laughing parent and tiny adorable da'len - albeit, a little less tiny in this vision - excited to be having another perfect day as part of a perfect family. A younger Gereon and Felix, all these years before things stopped being perfect.

It probably does not do to spy on what has to be one of Gereon’s own dreams - especially after he got so upset last time. But so far, neither father nor son seem to have noticed the seal-tailed interloper. They continue their walk across the beach, with Felix nearly leaping out of his broad embroidered little pants as he bombards Gereon with an impatient volley of ‘Come on! Did you guess it? Did you guess it?’.

'I really have no clue,’ Gereon says, chuckling. 'Let’s go over this again. I have a set of scales and a hundred sacks of gold… One of which contains forged coins. Forgeries weigh differently than the genuine coins, and I have to determine in which sack they are hidden - but I can only weigh the coins once’.

'Yes, yes, Papa,’ Felix rolls his eyes and kicks up a cloud of dust as he kneads the sand with his little feet. 'Now think! It’s soooo eaaaaasy!’

'How can it be easy?’ Gereon cries out in mock dismay. 'It was the most advanced collection of children’s puzzles that the book seller had to offer!’

'The book seller is no fun! And you are no fun!’ Felix declares, sticking out his tongue. 'I am off to swim!’

'Wait! Be careful!’ Gereon warns - but Felix already rockets along the last remaining sliver of sand, without even bothering to get out of his clothes along the way… And this is where the dream goes wrong.

Gereon probably cannot see it from where he is standing - but Sula’s coral branch gives her a clear view of the da'len’s face. With her heart feeling like it has moulded into a tightly clasped, white-hot fist, which punches down at her stomach, while her hands - which the spirits have elongated and flattened into seal-like flaps - grow cold with foreboding, she watches two red dots flicker in Felix’s eyes, blinding his pupils. The dots do not linger - but when they dissipate, the boy’s gaze is left glassy, unblinking, and devoid of all life and expression. As though he were a doll with a pair of eyes painted on its face. Always wide open, never seeing.

'I must keep swimming,’ he says - and his voice, too, resembles the creak of a wind-up toy. 'I must keep swimming’.

The da'len stays true to his word. He keeps swimming. Keeps moving his frail little arms through the unyielding, jelly-like mass of azure brine - even as each next stroke makes him weaker and weaker; and his dainty embroidered clothing begins to weigh him down, soggy and distorted by the heaving water into the unnerving likeness of a blood clot; and the waves, tame compared to the watery mounts of the Waking Sea, but still too big for a child, swat against his cheeks and mouth with cat paws of froth.

Her heart continuing to land punches inside her body, Sula forgets for a moment that she is experiencing a memory, where she cannot change anything and must contend herself with the role of a spectator - and that this memory ought to have a happy ending anyway, since Felix did live on to grow into the lovely young man Sula had the privilege of befriending… Before he had to say goodbye.

She slips off her coral and propels her seal body towards the struggling da'len - but her hands pass right through him, and the next wave that creeps up on Felix rolls over his lilting little head, sweeping and smothering, carrying him away, to where the azure tint darkens and Sula can no longer see the silvery reflections of sunlight looping across the sandy bottom.

'Kaffas, what’s gotten into you?!’ Gereon’s voice bellows through a frantic splash - and Sula leans back against her coral, both relieved and a bit woozy with recent worry, to observe him swimming hastily to the place where Felix went under, slashing through water like a speeding arrow slashes through air… Ooh, but he has stripped to the waist before jumping in! Wonder if the hair on his chest has gone grey with age?

Sula huffs and slaps herself with her seal hand. Now, that was completely uncalled for!

In the meanwhile, Gereon dives down, into the embrace of darker blue, and emerges, with an almost retching gasp, holding Felix close to his chest. While still wading back to the shore - with his face twisting in a way that makes it more than obvious that his heart is doing the same punching as Sula’s, and then some - he takes to feverishly casting one healing spell after the other, until the pallid, senseless da'len starts stirring.

A shudder contorting his little body, as if he were in the throes of a violent seizure, Felix opens his eyes - still blank as circles painted on wood - coughs out a murky mouthful of water mixed with sand… And shoves his father into the stomach with his knee.

'I must keep swimming,’ he announces, empty-voiced, staring through Gereon’s stunned, pain-racked face, as though he, too, were but an unseen spectator. Like Sula is.

'I must keep swimming!’

'Felix, what are you saying?! You almost drowned just now! Wait… You… You can’t hear me, can you? Or see me… You - you have been enthralled! With blood magic! But who would…’

'I must keep swimming!’

'No, Felix, you are not swimming anywhere. You will get yourself killed - because some sick bast…’

Even knowing that his words are swallowed up by hazy silence before they reach his son, Gereon continues talking to him, each sentence echoing in Sula’s heart in a pulsing pang - but when he stumbles over the curse word, she cannot help but smile the faintest of smiles.

'Because some bad person wants you to. I am taking you home. And putting you in bed to rest, while I wait for Mama to return from her trip to the library, and we decide what to do next. Won’t it be lovely - resting in bed?’

He forces a smile of his own, but Sula can hear his voice crack… deeper and deeper as his da'len gapes at him without a hint of recognition, only wriggling relentlessly and battering at his chest, trying to get him to let go. To let him swim off where the blood magic compels him.

'Won’t it be lovely - being so warm and dry and safe? And hugging Cattius? I am certain he is missing you with all his little plush heart…’

'I! Must! Keep! Swimming!’

Chapter Text

The rest of the way to dry land is a constant scuffle. As soon as the da'len’s feet touch the sand, the blood magic drives him to assault his father even more savagely than before, kicking at his shins and biting at his fingers whenever he attempts to lay a steadying hand on his shoulder.

Eventually, Gereon has no choice but to tap lightly at the boy’s brow, a circle of white light spreading from under his fingertips across the round little forehead like a ripple on a water puddle. When the ripple reaches Felix’s temples, it fades away, and the boy’s eyelids begin to droop sleepily; still feebly churning the air with his fists, like a puppy that is chasing butterflies in its dreams, he makes a long, well-savoured yawn, and curls up on the ground, his expression perfectly serene, as though he has merely worn himself out after a day of innocent games, with not a care in the world.

‘I am sorry, my baby,’ Gereon whispers, kneeling beside the sleeping child, picking him up into his lap with one hand, and passing the other over his soggy clothing, so that a waft of shimmering magic gently dries him off. 'This ought not harm you. I pray you will not remember anything when you wake up’.

'He must not wake up,’ a voice says, lowered and muffled by a mask of cloth - yet as startling as a deafening peel of thunder.

Both Gereon and the watchful Sula whip their heads around, and see that a figure in dark robes has stepped out of the lush, waist-tall ferns that frame the path leading down to the beach. One of its hands, gloveless, sports a recent cut; the other, in squeaky-tight black leather, still holds a dagger, which weeps tiny specks of red onto the pristine sand.

'Pity that I could not make it look like an accident,’ the figure continues, approaching with a casual spring in its step that somehow makes it more menacing - while Gereon scoops Felix closer and conjures one of his trademark barriers. A shining dome of coursing energy, as vivid in colour as the waves of the sea.

'But it does not matter in the end. Master Alexius only cares about the outcome. The proper return of his investment in you’.

The figure is close now, with just a pace or two separating it from the barrier, which has added an aura of cold, cutting turquoise around the robed silhouette. The monologue goes on, and each sneering, disdainful phrase is punctuated with a bolt of mage fire, which hits the barrier like a white-hot needle sinking into a toy ball, deflating it somewhat. Only somewhat.

For Gereon, still kneeling, still shielding Felix with his body, meets the onslaught with renewed releases of arcane power, building the barrier back up and losing a little more blood in his face - which he has half-buried in his da'len’s matted hair - every time the glassy dome solidifies again.

'You were warned. Repeatedly. The runt is no heir to the house. You could have expunged him, left him at an orphanage among the Soporati, where he belongs - but you kept him around. So he is to be removed by force. Permanently. And be replaced with another. An actual mage. If Lady Livia does not provide, Master Alexius has a number of different women in mind. All from high-quality bloodlines’.

Sula flaps her seal hands in shock, a thousand thoughts shifting in her mind and falling together, click-click-click, like puzzle pieces.

Master Alexius… That is not Gereon, obviously; he is still too young to be the official head of the family anyway.

So, an older relative - his father or grandfather or uncle maybe? And he… wants Felix - his own kin’s da'len - dead… for not being worthy? For not being a mage?

Now that Sula thinks of it, she never did see Felix cast a single spell, while Gereon and Dorian summon at least a spark of magic to help with the most mundane tasks, like she herself is fond of…

Is it really such a disgrace in Tevinter; a non-mage born to a line of mages? A blemish on the family name - an unsettling, reverse mirror of how highborn humans in the south treat their mage children? A… A crime, punishable by being put down like a sickly animal… The runt of the litter? Expandable and easy to replace - just as the poor mother?

Oh, these darling, long-suffering souls. They had to endure so much, even before the Blight tore them apart.

Sula shuts her eyes, shaking her head in sympathy - and when she opens them once more, the barrier is gone. The blood mage has finally breached it.

And Gereon - poor Gereon! - has had to press one palm hard against the sand, panting in throaty rasps and holding on to his unsuspecting, slumbering da'len with the last shreds of his strength. There is a laugh, dry, shrill, brief, like a raven’s caw; the robed shadow looms over the father and son, witj scarlet thorny snares extending from its gloveless hand, growing, ever growing, encroaching on little Felix, till they almost brush against his neck, so delicate, so easy to lock around and constrict in a single strangling jerk…

Letting out an agonized roar that must have surely burned up all the air in his lungs, Gereon tears his free hand away from the ground and sends the air boiling with a tremendous telekinetic blast. The impact hurtles the blood mage into a series of somersaults that ends in a heavy, groaning landing, probably crushing a few on their bones - yet they gather themself up, crawling back on all fours and grappling for the dagger that they have dropped on their way through the air.

Gereon, who has had to touch down again, seeking the support of the solid ground, crooks his fingers into claws. His nails turn a blinding white, and all of a sudden, a ring of flames, which burn the same eye-singing colour, springs up around him and Felix.

The blood mage freezes, a sizzling spurt almost charring their mask. Through the dance of the flame tongues, Gereon glares at them, shaking all over, and spits out,

'My wife is not a brood mare, nor is my son a runt!’

The blood mage gargles some indiscernible protest - and, ln one last, scarcely sane impulse to finish what they were sent here to do, flings themself across the flame ring. Their robe-clad body sinks into the broiling whiteness and dissolves to ash a split second later - but the hand with the dagger does reach through, taking a blind stab at Gereon and leaving the blade inside him before it, too, evaporates with an almost mournful hiss.

As the flames retract back into the ground, as abruptly as they emerged, not leaving any mark on the beach - save for the vaguely human-shaped pool of embers - Gereon yanks the dagger out, coughing and gagging and hastily ramming a wisp of healing glow into the squelching, red-leaking gash.

Here, Sula covers her face for a second or two, unable to look at the man that… is such a good friend of hers…  suffer in pain - a pain that she herself only experienced just recently.

Thank the Creators that Gereon’s wound isn’t quite as bad as hers; had the blade gone a little bit deeper, like that Orlesian’s throwing star did, removing it like this, without a surgeon, would have caused him to bleed out and… No, she must not let such horrid thoughts into her head!

He is all right; he has healed himself - and it is not too long before he is well enough to speak. In a bitter, barking voice, accompanied - as Sula discovers when she lifts her eyes to the shore line again - by a few spits at the would-be assassin’s ashes.

'And I never asked for! Any! Fucking! Investment!’

He ends on a pained, high-pitched note - and then the beach falls eerily, almost deathly quiet; even the waves’ voices are blocked out by silence. A chunky, white kind of silence, like cotton wool in one’s ears. As it blankets the shore, just as the chunky white avalanche once blanketed Haven, Gereon hangs his head on his chest… And the sleeping da'len vanishes from his arms - while his sombre face ages before Sula’s eyes, returning to what he looks like in the present.

The ash pool transforms as well: its contours become more defined, and colours other than grey seep through the porous surface. Then, its flattened layer rises above the sand, like some kind of bizarre dough, filling out into the curves of a chubby woman’s body. A body… Like Sula’s.

No, not just like Sula’s - this body assembled out of ember flakes and then coated in the colour of flesh, is precisely Sula’s. A Fade double of her, resting on the ground before Gereon: dead, drained, deaf to the faint sob-like sound he makes when he, too, recognizes her. With an assassin’s throwing star in her side.

Sula grips at the coral branch, as if she were about to drown - even though her seal tail is still there, still keeping her afloat. She does plan to release the branch, to swim back to the beach, to Gereon. To hold him and comfort him like she always does when he needs help getting over a bad dream… But this time, he does most of the work all by himself.

'Hello Despair, my old friend,’ he says, with just a hint of venom, choking down his sob and looking upon Sula’s lifeless double with his upper lip curling in a half-snarl.

'Playing with my fears again, I see. Forcing me to relive one of my worst memories, and then reminding me that Sula is now being threatened by assassins, like Felix was. I know that she is still in danger; I know that those bastards will not stop unless we stop them first, just as it happened… before. But she survived. For now, she survived. And I refuse - do you hear me? I refuse! - to wallow in what-ifs. I refuse to submit to you again. Because whenever you get your sticky hands on me, I turn into a monster - and I shall not become one again’.

With these words out, he breathes out, closes his eyes, and bends back, cupping his hands around his sides of his head and turning his face towards the sky. He is still shirtless, and Sula gets quite a good, unobstructed view of his upper body - his chest hair has not, in fact, gone grey - which she finds herself enjoying, with an alarming a wet tickle under the tip of her tongue, for half a minute or so. That is, half a minute longer than necessary. The angry little cry she makes, when commanding herself to look away, reaches from her side of the dreamworld to Gereon’s, alerting him to her presence.

His eyes grow round, and, looking like someone invisible has given him a slap across the face - leaving a pink imprint - he hugs his own shoulders to cover his naked form. Magic whirrs around him in a swarm of firefly specks; Sula assumes that he is conjuring himself some clothes… But instead of fabric, his exposed skin is hidden away by reptilian scales, large and dark with an emerald sheen. They cover him from the neck down, growing not only along his arms but also, apparently, from the waist down - so that he has to get up and hurry into the water, before his legs are glued together, merging into a long, coiling serpent’s tail.

While he is floating in the shallows, hitting the water with his new tail and watching with a bemused frown how the molten azure appears to distort its twists and loops, Sula finally bids her favourite coral goodbye and paddles up to him, calling his name in a soft voice that nonetheless nearly makes him shoot out of the water.

'Sula,’ he calls back, a bit out of breath, meeting her eyes with a smile of profound relief. 'It seems we are having the same dream again. Maybe because I… dozed off by your bedside in the waking world. Your Mark did not react painfully to this, did it?’

'No, not at all!’ she assures him; then, nods at the serpentine silhouette in the water and adds with a teasing smile,

'Scales, really?’

He shrugs, seeming almost apologetic.

'The image just… flashed through my mind - and the Fade responded to it. I think that… even though I am trying not to…’

His face falls.

'I still fear being a viper from Tevinter. A snake in the grass that preys on…’

Sula jerks her head resolutely, showing that she will hear none of this talk. She would not hear it from Cullen - and certainly will not hear it from Gereon himself.

'Well, now you are a snake in the water!’ she declares brightly. 'Entirely different thing!’

'True enough,’ Gereon gives her another, uncertain smile - but his eyes are still clouded over.

'How much did you see?’ he asks thinly, and Sula cannot help but cast aside her self-imposed restraints and place her seal hand on his serpent chest.

'Everything,’ she admits, eyebrows arched. 'But I won’t pry, unless you are ready to talk about it’.

'I… Thank you. Perhaps…’

A set of scaly fingers rests lightly on top of hers, and Gereon bows gratefully, so that their foreheads touch again, and the only thing that separates their lips is the golden burst of the sun that is scattering coin-like specks over the sea behind their backs.

It’s just… Just like in his quarters, when Sula tried to… She swore not to… not to let this repeat… Surely, he doesn’t… She must… must not!

She gulps and edges away from him - whereas he blinks rapidly, and whips his head from shoulder to shoulder, and forces himself to conclude his sentence,

'Perhaps we could talk of this another time. Right now, I… I just want to dream of something happy. To relish in the knowledge that you are… on the mend’.

'Of course! I understand!’ she beams - and rolls onto her back, showing her seal tail above the water.

'And seeing as the spirits have changed us both into sea creatures… I propose we explore what’s down below! In the sea world!’

'Excellent idea,’ Gereon tells her, and gradually, his pensive countenance brightens with that pure, rejuvenating enthusiasm that is so dear to Sula’s heart.

'I have always loved our northern seas… Even though it took me a while to want to come to the beach again, after the disaster you just witnessed. If this is your first time in tropical waters, I will tap into my… better memories so you can experience their beauty as I once did. There is so much to see!’

With his smile now broad and sincere, he offers Sula his hand - and when she takes it, keeping at a sensible distance just in case, the two of them, the seal girl and the serpent, dive into the well of gold-streaked blue, where the forest of coral lies waiting.

Chapter Text

Charter must admit: much of the mission has gone through some… unforeseen changes. Except for the main objective - infiltrate the headquarters of the House of Repose, and destroy the contract on the Inquisitor’s life - but not before copying the name of whoever signed it. So that they might be tracked down, and brought in for an interrogation. Very intense interrogation, both in the ‘being cornered by the Spymaster’s questions’ sense and in the 'being turned into a punching bag by Seeker Pentaghast’ sense.

Neither the Inquisitor nor the Ambassador supported this… approach at first. They still don’t, not wholeheartedly at any rate - judging by the long, overcast looks they give the Spymaster across the war table. If they had their way, they would have tried to resolve the matter 'diplomatically’. As they call it. The Spymaster calls it an extra threat to their lives; the Commander and the Seeker call it a bloody waste of mercy on a nest of vipers - and Charter cannot argue with either.

The Ambassador intended to traverse the many-tiered maze of Orlesian formalities and reinstate her family’s former rivals, the du Paraquettes, back to the noble status they had hundreds of years ago, when the feud was in full swing and the House of Repose was hired. This would allow the du Paraquettes to become a… party to that grizzly contract again, and officially call the assassins off.

The Inquisitor, for her own part, also came up with a 'diplomatic’ plan, as soon as her wound from the throwing star was gone. Which happened… much faster than with any other such wound in Charter’s memory. And her memory holds many, many images of skin and flesh turning into jagged, limp, purple-tinted flaps, and of cherry-dark drops swelling up endlessly along these flaps’ uneven edges.

The captured magister - still surveyed, out of the corner of a raven’s eye and over a passing scout’s shoulder - has outdone himself, keeping vigil in the infirmary, sustaining the Inquisitor (and the other patients as well) with restorative energy till he nearly wore himself into a bruise-eyed wraith. The latest report on his comings and goings around Skyhold mentions the Inquisitor - long since back on her feet - hugging him, and resting one hand on the side of his face, and saying repeatedly,

'I am well now. Please don’t torture yourself’.

To which he apparently replied,

'I am not the torturer. The threat to you is. I am… relieved that you have recovered; and I have faith that the assassins will be stopped, one way or another. But until they are, I cannot truly be at rest’.

Whereupon she smiled at him, and said so quietly that the scout had to lip-read,

'Promise not to do anything reckless, all right?’

'Not as reckless as turning back time, certainly,’ he said through a wry smile, 'giving in to her gentle touch like a man enjoying a cooling breeze on a mercilessly hot day’. Charter really has to talk to Jim about waxing poetic in official reports. It’s bad enough he wastes ink and paper on odes to the Commander’s hair.

Anyway. Back to the House of Repose.  

While the Ambassador was busy connecting dots on the enormous school board she had meticulously covered with paper snatches and sketches, with the words 'du Paraquettes’ dashed down boldly on the very top, the Inquisitor decided that she should go out and delve into the grimy backstage of the Empire’s gilded palaces. Rub elbows with stable hands and scullery maids, keeping her ears up to catch the whispers of the Friends of Red Jenny, which - as she hoped - might lead her to this crazed human who hates her merciful treatment of her prisoners so much.

Once the human’s identity was revealed, the Inquisitor wished to talk to them, to try and change their mind about her methods, to make them see her side of the story. Even to cite a couple of verses of the Chant, proving that being kind is exactly what the Herald of Andraste should strive to be.

More bloody waste, as far as Charter is concerned: the moment a human of this sort sees an elf and mechanically spits out the word 'knife-ear’, their brain just gets… shut off. Like the farthest sections of the Deep Roads. You can try to reach through, but you will only be met with darkness and rotting smell and darkspawn snarls.

But then again, who knows. The Inquisitor has worked miracles before. Maybe she would have been able to sort this out through reason and civil conversation, had she gotten around to it. But this is precisely the problem: she has been unable to. The House of Repose simply has not allowed that.

Every step of the way, at every stage of their investigation, the Inquisitor and the Ambassador have found themselves accosted by more and more assailants in chequered dominos and jester masks. And time and time again, they have returned from their excursions to Val Royeaux - audiences with magistrates and court historians and visits to taverns where the servants gather - with their clothes torn and specked with gore, and with their hair, especially the Inquisitor’s, standing on end and spitting sparkles after a recent discharge of combat magic.

Time and time again, they have trudged back to the war room 'for rethinking the strategy’ with a limp in their gait, surrounded by a clucking crowd of friends from the inner circle (with the magister always wheedling in among them; always inches away from grabbing the Inquisitor’s hand and squeezing it anxiously).

Time and time again, they have had to bend over their new notes, new check lists, new sketches for the school board at very awkward angles, so as not to disturb the freshly bandaged wounds.

Thankfully, none of those have been as severe as the Inquisitor’s wound from that very first confrontation with the House of Repose - but they have been there, nonetheless. The advisors have, more than once, caught the Inquisitor rolling up her sleeve and mending a broad cut along her forearm with a glittering, balm-like clot of healing glow; or fussing over a cut across the Ambassador’s cheek, lit-up fingertips moving like those of a pianist.

And there was also the time when the Spymaster - tailed by Charter with a stack of reports - walked in on the Inquisitor and the Ambassador sitting on the floor by the fireplace in the latter’s quarters, both appearing to drip a liquid, weeping glow, like melting golden statues; surrounded by scrunched-up pillows and yawning open chocolate boxes of every shape and size.

The Inquisitor was in the middle of gently combing and braiding the Ambassador’s hair, directing the strands with magic, while the little globes of green light were zooming around them like fireflies. This seemed to be having a subtly calming effect on the Ambassador, who was lamenting an incident from her past as a bard (which is not exactly… public information, but is known to some who work for the Spymaster).

’…And when I took off his mask, I knew him!’ she exclaimed, in between distressed, almost desperate bites of chocolate, just as Charter and the Spymaster were about to cross the threshold. Clearly hoping that the sweetness on her tongue would at least somehow alleviate the bitterness in her chest… In vain.

'We had attended soirées together! I still cannot but wonder what that poor young man would have grown to be… had I not… pushed him off those stairs’.

'I am so sorry, Josephine,’ the Inquisitor whispered in response, making a little pause in her braiding, with her eyes - reflective like any elf’s - glowing in the dusky, firelit room like two enormous blue disks.

'That’s why you looked so horrified when that jester came for me, and you kicked them in the nether parts, and they tumbled down the stairwell?’

The Ambassador nodded, her eyes crinkling shut and her hands dropping listlessly into her lap, so that the chocolate wrap fluttered away like a dead leaf.

That was then the Spymaster finally stepped in - or rather, burst in. Brisk and determined and almost angry.

'This is it, Josie!’ she said, appearing in the heart of the pillow fort like an ominous shadow. 'You and the Inquisitor have had your chance to be understanding towards these… people, and it is clearly not working! It is time I put my own plan in action!’

'Leli!’ the Ambassador gasped, rather affronted, hurriedly brushing the chocolate wraps as far away from her as possible. 'Do you think us little girls coddling a schoolyard bully? There may have been… setbacks, but we have it in us to see this through!’

As if to emphasize her words, the dots of the Inquisitor’s magic in her hair blazed brighter than ever before, merging into a bristling, porcupine-like halo.

The Inquisitor herself, in the meanwhile, tightened her fists against her chest and knotted her brow.

'You are not agreeing with… that poor misguided soul who sent assassins after me?’ she asked, her voice brittle. 'Who thought that I am… unworthy… for trying to reach a compromise with everyone?’

Upon hearing this, the Spymaster grew quite… brittle herself, much to Charter’s silent astonishment. She arched her eyebrows, and let out a swift, almost whimpering breath, and crumpled onto the pillows beside the Inquisitor.

'Oh, Maker… Of course not,’ she said; and Charter made an involuntary step back, not certain if the Spymaster’s sincere… unmasked expression was something that scouts, even the most trusted ones, were allowed to see.

'I am sorry. This was not an insult to your strength of character. Neither of you is child-like. Far from it. You, along with the Hero of Ferelden, are the best, most noble women I have ever had the honour of… being friends with’.

The Spymaster shook her head, and, one bitter smile later, the familiar mask was back on.

'But you know the nature of the Game. If you play when expecting your opponents to be as noble as you are, you get consumed’.

She made a meaningful pause, her eyes travelling to the Ambassador’s face.

'Josie… Let me do this for the Inquisitor at least. You know what the false Comte said; you related this to me yourself. The House of Repose does not want to negotiate for her life, because her contract is recent, and categorical. Let me send someone to destroy it, while I myself help you speed up the du Paraquette case. You both have risked your lives enough already’.

'So what do you propose? That we risk someone else’s life instead? The life of… whoever will destroy the assassination contract?’ the Ambassador demanded, so urgently that the Spymaster had to jerk her hand away when she thought to reach for the chocolate, perhaps to hint that she, too, could be part of this little get-together among the pillows - for she and the two other women were all on the same side.

The Inquisitor, too, chimed in,

'That is the opposite of noble!’

'Don’t worry,’ the Spymaster promised solemnly. 'I will put my best people on it. There will be no bloodshed. Just skillful subterfuge’.

Her second attempt to help herself to chocolate was met with no protest - and thus, settled by the fireside in a pillow fort, the Spymaster, Ambassador, and Inquisitor agreed upon the mission. Which was entrusted to Charter, and which she is handling right now.

As she mentioned before, the main objective is still firmly the same… But the details have changed.

Charter was supposed to choose and delegate two agents to bypass the security measures that the assassins have in place - which she is now somewhat familiar with, after sending Harding to lurk about in the surrounding rural Orlesian landscape and case the headquarters. Assisted, of course, by a couple of ravens, who flew over the back fence; perched, ever so innocently, on the water drains and windowsills, looking inside the rooms with their round unblinking eyes; and then flapped off back to Harding, who let them rest on her extended arm and probed them for details of the building’s layout with yes-or-no questions. The ravens responded, two caws for yes, one caw for no - and thus Harding learned that there are guards all over the perimeter, and that the contracts are kept in a strongbox in a small room adjacent to the private study of one of the House’s higher-ups. Not that tricky to reach - provided you gained access to the study first. And that… can be done. If you pretend to be the kind of person that is welcome among assassins.

One agent of Charter’s choice was to pose as a would-be recruit preparing for their first contract, and the other was to sneak off and pick the lock of the strongbox while the higher-up was distracted by 'interviewing’ the new dagger for hire.

But the two agents that she had her mind on - the two that she felt were best for the job - have been delayed in Emprise du Lion by a sudden snowstorm. And since there has been no time to select and brief anyone else, she will be going on the mission herself. With… With a partner.

One she least expected to bring along.

Chapter Text

They meet on Skyhold’s drawbridge, in the shadow of the massive gates, each leading a mount with lyrium-infused horseshoes by the reins.

Before they turn their backs on the castle, get into the saddle, and head out to the headquarters of the House of Repose, the elven agent - Charter, they call her around Skyhold, though he assumes that it is but one of many, many aliases that obscure her real name like a veil of smoke - gives him one final, doubtful glance from head to toe.

Her high-bridged nose, skillfully made more crooked through application of wax, is slightly crinkled, and the corners of her mouth - also given an unrecognizable outline thanks to theatrical makeup, which Charter evidently has a habit of using when going out in the field - point downwards.

It is the same expression that got stamped over her face long before she transformed it for the mission’s sake.

The same expression that she greeted him with the moment he first sought her out in the rookery, cleared his throat, and asked, quietly but bluntly,

‘Are you still looking for a replacement agent to accompany you on the House of Repose mission?’

'How do you know…?’ she hissed, pulling him aside and letting this unfinished question of her own hang in the air, piercing through it like a grappling hook.

He told her the truth. He always has, when dealing with the Spymaster’s people.

'Scout Harding is aware of… some details. We crossed paths earlier today, and she let slip how worried she is about the… snag you have run into. She was ready to offer her own skills, but feared that she was better at wilderness mapping and raven-whispering than infiltration missions’.

'And you are different from her how?’ Charter asked him impatiently - another grappling hook, catching at his innards this time. It has remained there, stirring within him unpleasantly each time she surveys him with that critical scowl of hers. Including this very moment, when they are just about to depart.

She is still unsatisfied. Still anxious that he might sabotage the mission by stomping his feet too loudly, or… or he doesn’t know… alert the guards with his creaking old man’s joints. It is true that he is no rogue; stealth has never been his forte - one glance back at the glaring explosion of time-warping magic in Redcliffe should be enough to attest to that.

But he can make up for it. With alchemical supplies. Custom-designed runes. Spellcraft. Cloaking charms. Short-distance teleportation. A glowing time bubble to speed the two of them up. Anything - anything at all to be a part of this. To personally make certain that the assassins cease their pursuit of the Inquisitor - of Sula; his dearest Sula; one of his two remaining friends; the woman who gave him reason to live.

He is ready to lay out the entirety of his mage’s arsenal at the snap of Charter’s fingers. Maker, Sula asked him not to be reckless - but he is ready to set a dozen, two dozen, three dozen wild shades loose in the den of those bloody murderers. If that is what it takes to destroy the contract on her. Which likely won’t be necessary - but still. He can do that too. He can do anything. Anything.

Through sheer happenstance, through bumping into a distressed, muttering dwarf on his way to the mages’ tower, he has been given a chance to help Sula, and he will cling on to it till his fingers bleed. What is the alternative anyway - remaining in Skyhold and waiting for the good old Despair to claim him?

So he explained to Charter. More or less.

He omitted the parts about how much Sula means to him, which he is afraid to linger on even in the privacy of his own thoughts. Afraid of that sweet, poignant, nearly tearful breathlessness that grips him whenever he imagines her beautiful face. Afraid of being a snake in the grass; a drooling widower seeking to replace his lost wife. And, at the same time, afraid of… stopping to ponder if he, perhaps, might be more than that, if he might allow his… love to become more than that - because the people he loves have a tragic tendency to die.

Making sure that his explanation does not include… any of that, he has repeated it again and again, until Charter - reluctantly - began to see him as useful. More or less.

He will not thank the Maker, or whoever else spins the wheel of fortune, for the plight of another - but it just so happens that the Spymaster is away in Val Royeaux with the Ambassador, finalizing yet more agreements to bring those wretched du Paraquettes back to the Orlesian court. And tailed by a whole throng of bodyguards, including, unexpectedly, Thom the criminal, who - according to Sula - volunteered to come along. As penance, maybe?

Whereas the sole male advisor, the phylactery-loving curly lion knight, is busy hunting down some red lyrium smugglers with Sula, in the vast, ancient forests, where, as the spirit of Wisdom explains, her people once planted groves upon groves of mighty trees to honour their fallen warriors.

She was to make the journey with but a few travelling companions, as she always does - but given the constant threats to her life, the Commander insisted on joining them, along with another throng of heavily armed soldiers.

This is excellent; most excellent. The lion knight may be too quick to growl at any suspicious mages - but, personal grudges aside, he seems decent for a southerner. Good-looking too. If he and Sula get to know one another better on this expedition, he might have it in him to make her happy. As she deserves.

But ah. He is thinking too far ahead.

Hopefully the Commander will be away long enough to remain unaware that the vial of ever-shifting, slightly glowing blood has vanished from his desk, borrowed by Charter, as she and the maleficar that it points to leave the castle on a not too authorized adventure.

Had the three advisors been around, they would have shut them down; and the Commander would have probably slapped the audacious maleficar into magic-stifling shackles again for good measure.

But Charter has had to make the final decision on her own… Well, there is also the Seeker, but she is too busy trying to run the castle all on her own. She wasted no words in telling Charter, while imitating a steaming boiled beetroot over a mountain of complaints from the refugees under the Inquisition’s protection,

'This subterfuge mission is best left in your capable hands; I trust you to do what’s necessary to complete it, as Leliana does. Now will you please let me focus on these!’

So here they are. The capable elf and her secret tag-along. Clad into appropriate dark armour, with hooded capes and collars tall enough to hide away the lower halves of their faces.

There are belts, too, broad and sturdy and with many straps and pockets for potion bottles and smoke flasks.

In Charter’s case, the belt is also equipped with wide loops of leather to support a keyring-ful of lockpicks and a whole row of blades of various sizes.

'If you get any ideas about reliving the old glory days, any and all of these may wind up in your jugular,’ she explains calmly when she notices him staring at her portable armoury. 'I will be keeping your phylactery close… Alexius’.

'Yes, please do that,’ he says. 'Because I will be wearing this’.

He moves his free hand to Charter’s eye level, and opens his palm to demonstrate something that he also… borrowed. From the Undercroft.

This little artefact, likely brought back by Sula from her many dungeon delves, is a small gold ring that tickles Alexius’ palm with a subtle vibration of magic. It is supposed to make the wearer invisible; so says the label that Arcanist Dagna attached to it. She intends to study it later on - and she will. Once he has used it for a little while.

'I know I mentioned cloaking charms; but this will work better, since I intend to cast other magic to aid you. This way, I won’t have to syphon mana into being stealthy, and focus on… our plan’.

Charter nods curtly, and upon her wordless command, they mount their horses, and the castle gates fall far behind them, crossed out by an endless streak of spinning colourful blobs. When, some time later, the blobs’ edges sharpen again, the two riders find themselves on the summit of a hill that overlooks a grand country mansion, all spotless marble and blaring gold; truly a painting-worthy sight, especially against the background of hazy, rippling waves of blooming lavender.

In the true spirit of Orlais - which is so revoltingly familiar that Alexius almost feels like he is back at the Magisterium again - the House of Repose advertises itself as a successful business association. And this certainly looks like the home of successful businesspeople. It would look even better engulfed in flames - but Alexius does remember the lessons learned in Redcliffe. He does know that, for the time being, he has to stomp back the pulsing surge of destructive energy… Unless Charter instructs him otherwise.

They leave the horses tethered to a tree trunk on the hilltop, concealed by the foaming greenish shade of the foliage. The legend is that Charter has come here alone, after all; why would a solitary traveler need two mounts?

A swift jerk of his elven handler’s head (Maker, she really is his handler; but with his past, it is only too fair, is it not?) - and Alexius slips on the ring of invisibility. There is an odd prickle behind his sockets, which quickly spreads to the back of his skull; the contours of the trees and the horses and the watchful Charter become  lumpy and watery, as if he were looking at them after forcibly waking up in the small hours of the morning; and his own hand, which he is holding up before his eyes, first loses colour, turning into some manner of thick glass cast - and then vanishes altogether, along with the rest of him. In essence, he is reduced to a throbbing, slightly foggy mind, floating in bleary nothingness.

Meanwhile, the shimmering Charter-like shape looks down at the streaking red clot - which has to be Alexius’ phylactery, attached to a chain round the elf’s neck - and, deducing that he is still nearby, 'hmms’ with the slightest note of approval and gestures for him to follow her. Thankfully, some of the bleariness clears off along the way, and by the time they reach their destination, Alexius is able to discern… most of the gilded gates, and the silver-helmeted guardsmen that lock a hostile circle tighter and tighter around Charter, whom they perceive to be unaccompanied. As planned.

'What is your business with the House of Repose?’ the owner of the biggest and most ornate helmet (if fortune is on their side, this had better be a compensation for lack of brains) asks Charter in accented, gargling Common, while the rest of the posse freezes, weapons bared, awaiting orders.

Charter looks straight into the indented holes where the guard’s eyes are supposed to be, and responds, not missing a beat,

'Let us put this way. The Black Hart is tired of cantering all on her own. She would rather have the protection… of a herd’.

'The Black Hart?’ the big helmet booms incredulously. 'But you are… she is… an urban legend!’

Charter clicks her tongue - and breaks into a torrent of rapid Orlesian that makes Alexius’ head spin. He never learned much of it, aside from saying 'Bonjour’ and introducing himself as 'père du Felix’ (back in his younger day, he chose to study Nevarran rather than Orlesian or any other southern language, due to an interest in Mortalitasi lore that would later be picked up by Dorian) - but even with his severely limited knowledge, he thinks he can catch a list of names. Those who had… dealings with the mysterious Black Hart, perhaps? And the rest of the… uh… words might be details about that these people that only the Black Hart would know? Probably? Or she could just be insulting the lot of them.

Either way, the guard does not take too long to fall for it. Clearing his throat so intensely that the silver helmet clouds over, he blurts out a short phrase that definitely has the root 'pass’ somewhere in it; and the gilded gates swing open.

Chapter Text

She spoke to the guards at the gate in Orlesian - to leave no room for being turned down. But she knows that Alexius is nowhere near fluent in it; she asked him as much as they were preparing for the mission. That - his failure to blend in with the locals - is one of the many reasons why she keeps having misgivings about taking him along.

Really, his only saving grace is the puppy-like devotion that, through some magical change of character, he seems to have developed towards the Inquisitor (he avoided mentioning it, but Charter does not need any overt monologues to feel it radiating off him; unexpected, defying all logic, but, now that blood magic has been ruled out, apparently genuine). And then there’s also his promise to use magic to provide a distraction.

Naturally, for the distraction to succeed, Alexius needs to be fully aware of what is going on around him. She cannot just… leave him stranded - mute and confused, with no cue to take from Orlesian chatter. That would be an unfair way to treat a partner agent, even the least efficient one. So she leaves Orlesian at the gates.

As soon as Charter is escorted by the guards to their boss’s study, hopefully tailed by an invisible Alexius - which takes passing through a suite of dizzyingly shiny, gaudy chambers (stuffed to the brim with clutter meant to impress wealthy clients: mirror-polished mahogany and overflowing golden cornucopias and carved heaps of ‘frolicking wild elves’, all crawling over each other, their spherical buttocks and ample stomach folds nothing like the worn-out bodies of starving beggars from city alienages), she asks the said boss to talk in Common.

And he agrees to indulge her.

'Very well, then; your credentials are most impressive, and the House would be most pleased to have you… on staff. Let us go over the clauses of our league’s policy, then,’ he says, in a languid, drawling voice that quite matches his appearance.

This man, the head assassin - or one of them anyway; Charter believes that these callous 'businesspeople’ had a whole board of bureaucrats overseeing them - is a lavishly dressed man who carries himself with the arrogance of a peacock, softly tapping a stack of neatly filled-out paperwork (which he pulled onto his bulky ebon-wood desk the moment Charter stopped talking), with cat-soft, gloved fingers, one pinkie extended.

One of the most… screaming parts of his glittering wardrobe is a gold mask covered in densely sculpted floral motifs. With a pang of distaste poking its acrid sting into the bottom of her stomach - a sensation that should not, at any cost, be reflected in her impassive countenance - Charter spots lilies for honour and lemon blossoms for keeping promises, among other elaborate swirls and curling petal clusters. The gall of this lot!..

Still impassive, still outwardly here to listen to the Flowery-Mask explaining the rules of his 'business’ - which, as it turns out, there is are pages and pages of - she sits cross-legged in a tall-backed chair that faces the desk… And suddenly feels a trail of goosebumps dance all over her, from head to toe - left in the wake of an unseen ripple of magic. The phylactery on her chest, which she has hidden from view by draping her cloak, in a seemingly casual flip, over her shoulder, also activates, thumping again and again against her shirt: an echo of the mage’s strained, peaking pulse as he is mustering all his strength to do his spell just right.

So Alexius has set to work. Following through with their arrangement. Creating an illusory copy of her; a second Charter woven from threads of many-coloured light like a three-dimensional tapestry.

So far, this tapestry’s rippling, slightly ticklish pall overlays her actual body, line to line, pore to pore; but it will remain in the chair in her stead when she steals away into the side room with the strongbox. Which, as she knows thanks to the Spymaster’s ravens, is tucked away just behind that embroidered silk screen in the corner, depicting yet another garish scene from the 'woodland frolicking’ of demonstratively voluptuous elves. Because apparently trapping them within the looming walls of the alienages is not enough; humans also need to humiliate them by turning scenes from the life of the Dalish into sugary pastoral mush.

For a moment, her stomach clenches with a temptation to lacerate the wretched thing to shreds and stuff them down the assassin’s throat till they come out of his backside. But it is just an idle fancy. She is a professional; she is on a mission; she is the Black Hart, master thief and juggler of faces and personalities, looking for steady employment with the House of Repose.

The phylactery calms down. Ale… Alex… She has somehow started stumbling over his name… The Tevinter must have finished building the illusion. Which means that it is time to move on to the next phase.

After the tiniest pause - a moment taken by the Tevinter to recharge his mana - the study’s window clamours with a sudden and violent draught. A gust of wind blowing from the lavender fields, rattling its way through the building. Nothing more. Certainly not a telekinetic push sent through the room by an invisible mage that hovers somewhere over the Black Hart’s shoulder. Certainly not!

While her mouth remains set into a neutral expression, Charter mentally smirks in satisfaction, just barely gritting her teeth behind her unmoving lips - to make absolutely certain that the smirk is locked tightly within her mind, with no escape. The head assassin turns away, grumbling, to glance over the window pane, with one hand clapped against the desk’s surface to keep his precious paperwork in place. And this is all that Charter needs.

A light-footed leap from her seat, a silent dodging roll across the floor - and she is behind the screen, squatting with her breath sucked in and with the cork of a potion flask between her teeth.

The shimmering liquid flows out noiselessly, coating her like wax coats an apple peel. A most useful formula, shared by the Friends of Red Jenny - it will muffle any sounds she makes during the next few minutes. Including the clicking of lockpicks as she tackles the door to the strongbox room.

Before she sets to work, however, she listens. Her ears prick up so high that they begin to ache; the bones of her wrists and ankles crackle noiselessly, a bitter cold seeping through them; and her heart seems to vanish from her chest, replaced with a yawning funnel. Even after all these years, after all this training, she cannot quite escape this moment of tension; cannot quite unlearn this teetering dread. This thought that the delicate construct that she and her… partner have balanced together might be upended and shatter into pieces, with the same head-splitting noise as that 'draughty’ window.

But then, the head assassin goes back to his lecture. As if nothing had changed. As if the chair before him is still occupied by the Black Hart herself, and not by a ghostly tapestry spun out of thin air by the experienced hands of an Imperial mage. And since he is babbling in Common, the Tevinter will know when to have the illusion nod her head in agreement, or make some other small gesture to reaffirm that she is listening. That she is sentient.

The cold and the emptiness are gone; Charter has nothing to fear now. A comforting warmth flooding in to replace the icy tension, she takes up her lockpicks and - almost blissfully - savours the melody of the sliding tumblers, which, now that she has bathed in a muffling potion, only she can hear.

The room’s lock is easy; that of the strongbox is somewhat harder - but it, too, yields to Charter’s tools sooner or later. Greased by the effect of the potion, the box silently flies open, revealing a few similar-looking scrolls with gilded borders and thick, candy-like seals. She flips through them until she discovers the one she needs - The Honourable And Most Important Agreement To End The Life Of Inquisitor Lavellan.

Her ears never ceasing to stay up, rotating slightly to register the muffled chatter coming from the study, Charter pulls the contract out of the strongbox, and hesitates for a split second: The Importante Treatie On The Demise Of The Montilyets is also in there, a hair’s breadth away. Nearly brown with age, it rests on top of the other scrolls like a withered, sun-dried autumn leaf; and just as a leaf, it seems to brittle, so easy to grind into dust.

But Charter resists its beckoning call, breathing out a stern 'No’ - for she has her orders; the Spymaster allowed the Ambassador to finish with the du Paraquettes in her own way. She is only here for the contract on the Inquisitor, and the contract on the Inquisitor she shall now take care of.

She passes her finger along the tightly packed lines towards the signatures, and mouths the name of the… illustrious client several times to herself, committing it to memory, to be written down and sent by raven to her people in Val Royeaux at the earliest convenience; they know what is to be done.

After that, she fishes for another helpful flask - an acid brewed for her by that mage… from… Antiva, she thinks? That fellow that she has brought along… What was his name again? Why does she suddenly feel a headache… reverberate through her skull when she tries to focus on his name? His face? He… he does have a face, right?

No matter. Whoever concocted it, the potion does its job. Charter spreads the contract out on the floor and gingerly pours the flask’s contents over it, leaving no gaps, as though she were adding syrup to a breakfast pancake. There is a hiss, a whiff of odourless smoke; the contract shrivels up, melting, melting like a handful of snow brought into a firelit room, until there is no trace of it left. Not a lick of ash.

Now to sneak back into the study, and make her way out of the building.

When Charter tiptoes out of the little side room and slowly lifts her head to peer over the edge of the screen that hides it, she sees that pompous Orlesian in the golden mask talk to… some kind of… replica of herself? And a really faithful one at that - had she not known better, she would have joined the clueless Orlesian in believing that there truly is a caped elf sitting in that chair face to face with him, nodding intently now and again and even swinging her foot above the floor in tune to the man’s monologuing… As if she were doing her best to refrain from dozing off.

Of all the most bizarre distractions she could have come up with! She is not even certain where this mannequin - or is it an apparition? - could have come from; surely, it is not the effect of one of her smoke grenades?

At least, all of the Orlesian’s attention is drawn to this… thing. This gives Charter a chance to plaster her back flatly against the wall, her dark armour allowing her to blend with the shadows between the lumpy, overwrought pieces of furniture, and sidestep all the way into the corridor, pushing the door open without a creak, for the muffling effect of the Red Jenny potion has not yet worn off.

Just as  Charter makes a swift, ballet-like darting motion, out of the field of view that opens from the study threshold, she hears the Orlesian finally bring his drivel to a conclusion,

'Well, these are all of our terms of service. I shall prepare a copy for you to sign, and will expect you to report for duty tomorrow’.

When he says that, the second Charter gets up from her seat. From where she stands, curled into an almost comical pose so that a passerby, especially one in a hurry, might easily mistake her for an ornamental statue of a frolicking elf, the real Charter sees that her copy’s back is smooth and blank and coloured into a deep, even inky shade, like one of those velvety pads on the base of chess pieces. If the Orlesian walked around her, he would easily discover that she is but an imitation, a decoy meant to fool him while the original dipped his Honourable And Most Important documents in acid.

The thought makes Charter’s heart - again, quite in spite of herself, quite in spite of her years of training - squeeze up her windpipe like a heated-up ball of slime. But before the Orlesian as much as begins to sense that something is amiss, the blank-backed ghost inclines her head… And dissipates into a whirl of purple smoke.

To the Orlesian, it probably looks like the Black Hart has shattered a flask with a roguish draught, and made a dramatic exit as befits a master thief - but in reality, it is just an illusion, blowing away in the wind. An illusion that, helpful as it has been, Charter does not for the life of her remember crafting.

Nor does she remember walking back to the hilltop where she dismounted. There seemed to have been… a bump against her side, as if a cat had rubbed at her in the murky corridor; then, a burst of chaotic, blurred colours, gold and green all coiling together like paint someone is mixing… And the next thing she knew, she was here. Under the overhanging canopy of a thick-trunked tree; staring in the wistful brown eyes of her horse.

Charter blinks and slides her hand over her face. She has never had such… lapses before - and she can’t let them turn into a recurring malady! This would sabotage the delicate work she is doing for the Inquisition!

…Maybe she should ask the Spymaster for a day off. Half a day off at least. So she can take a breath. Spend some time with Tessa. Set her brain right.

With every second she passes settling in the saddle, Charter grows more and more inclined to do just that - for she makes two more discoveries that she fails to explain.

First, there is the peculiar pattern of hoof imprints on the ground: as if there were two horses here, and one got untied and ambled away, deeper into the thicket. But that, of course, is nonsense: Charter went on this mission alone! Why would she need a second mount?

Another puzzling thing is a mage’s phylactery that her fingers unexpectedly brush against when she readjusts her cape. She… vaguely recollects taking it from Commander Cullen’s office while he was away, but as soon as she tries to ask herself whatever she did this for, her mind hits a brick wall, again and again, with the dumbness of a headbutting druffalo.

She must put the thing back where it belongs. Let the Commander decide what to do with it. Especially since it seems to be… malfunctioning. Nearly scorching Charter’s hand with countless tiny but pounding heatwaves - as though the mage the blood was taken from were nearby, convulsing in the clutches of a heart attack.

Even more nonsense. There is nobody here but her.

Chapter Text

Alexius cannot see it, just as he cannot see his own body, but he can certainly feel, very, very poignantly, that the blasted band of thrumming metal has eaten into his finger like a hungry barnacle. So far, no amount of twisting and tugging and vicious, cat-like scraping with his fingernails has shifted it an inch - and thus, he remains a pounding blob of consciousness, afloat in the murky, magically warped soup that the wooded hill has melted into.

 

On the upside, this means that Charter cannot see him pant and stagger, boiling alive in the prickly sauce of his own sweat and likely (at least, that's how he imagines himself) making slack-jawed grimaces as his entire throat is awash with a clotting tide of blood.

 

Maintaining the conjured image of Charter's double, even with the back cut off, and then teleporting them both out of the assassins' headquarters, has had the effect of a sprint up a steep hill on him. If he stops being invisible now, Charter will realize what a mess he is - and well, there is only so much embarrassment a man can endure, especially at his age. And when trying to keep up with one of the Spymaster's best agents, who is already quite unimpressed with him in the first place.

 

So yes, that is the upside. The downside is... In addition to melting off his physical form, the ring - either as a side effect or as an intended part of the original enchantment, just one that Dagna had not yet discovered when Alexius... borrowed it from her - also seems to have silenced his voice.

 

Noticing that his mount has gotten away, he has tried to call out to Charter and ask her to wait and let him search... But to no avail. The words, curt, barking, urgent - 'Where are going?! Stop! My horse is gone!' - bubble against the bloodied slope of his mouth, but never leave it, smothered mercilessly, as though someone malicious, and as invisible as him, were holding a pillow over his face. And with no frantic shout, not even a wheezing, breathless whisper, to draw her attention, Charter does not wait. Does not turn back. Does not as much as pause and glance around to check if Alexius has followed.

 

Is she punishing him? For... For not making his illusion realistic enough? For making the ghostly elf get up when the assassin bade her farewell, and, in the process, carelessly showing her unfinished back and nearly exposing their daring duo?

 

Has he failed? Has he proved himself inadequate as... Sula's rescuer? But the contract is gone now; so his sloppiness shouldn't matter... Should it?

 

'Listen!' he screams inside his overstrained brain, grasping at thin air with nonexistent hands. 'I know I could have performed better! But you... you did your part flawlessly! Thanks to you, Su... the Inquisitor is now safe! That is what's important!'

 

The unseen pillow of silence hits him across the face again, and he trips awkwardly to a halt - while Charter, already in the saddle, spurs her horse with her heels and rides off, showering Alexius in moist mud clumps mixed in with limp torn-out grass blades. Still without looking back.

 

He has no shoulders, technically - but there is some despondent, sagging motion somewhere... around the place where they ought to have been. And with that, Alexius glides off through the fog that still blots his vision - to catch the runaway horse himself.

 

He does stumble across the elusive beast eventually (but not before being slashed across the calves by the snapping, whip-like branches of what feels like two thirds of the entire Orlesian flora). This four-hooved... loiterer is quite preoccupied with grazing - of course he is; it's the same indifferent steed that Alexius, uh, test-drove to the Fallow Mire. But the touch of a disembodied entity upon his reins startles him to no end - the first time Alexius remembers him snap out of his usual dismissive mood.

 

The poor creature probably gets overcome by that very particular, shuddering sensation that sometimes wakes one up in the middle of the night - like there is a spider tap-tap-tapping up one's body, but no attempts to catch it bring any fruit. Snorting and baring his teeth, he takes off the spot a bit too fast, and canters back under the welcoming roof off the Skyhold stable a bit too abruptly, throwing Alexius off as he nigh on throws himself into the arms of a stupefied Master Dennet, eager to devour the load of carrots that he is carrying, basket included (and maybe to receive some pats on the neck and a reassurance that the creeping spider is but a figment of his equine imagination).

 

The flight out of the saddle could have produced an invisible bloody omelette - but Alexius' fall is broken by a bale of hay, where he sinks up to his eyeballs, once again noting bitterly to himself that having a ring of invisibility glued to his finger does have an upside. He would not have enjoyed limping bandy-legged before the Horsemaster, hardened little needles of crunchy straw stabbing him in places he did not know he had.

 

It takes him a while to dislodge himself from this pincushion-like trap. And while he wriggles in the hay, feeling like he is wincing (though he can never be certain, with no visible skin to distort), he chances to witness the arrival of a whole procession of fuzzy-edged silhouettes, led by a shiny, armoured cloud in a reddish fur cloak... and a black-haired figure that he does not even need perfect eyesight to recognize.

 

She is back; Sula is back. His darling friend; his lady of sunshine... Maker, did he hit his head when the horse tossed him off his back, or is this the usual dizziness that takes over him whenever she comes close?

 

Well. Either way. He looks upon her, through the gauze of the ring's enchantment, and senses a smile caress his unseen lips. Soon, she will hear the good news. She will learn that she does not have anything to fear from those pesky, weapon-tossing, paper-pushing self-important jesters any more.

 

If Alexius were in the position for it - and he does not mean just his current... straw-ful predicament - he would have made a tentative offer to celebrate. To seek out a secluded spot in one of those mountain groves that hug the slopes around Skyhold; and lay out a picnic cloth, with something light to nibble on, sweetened by the fresh mountain air; bring a book, perhaps, or a chess board; a bottle of wine, one of those dwarven music-playing contraptions to slowly dance to... Well, the knight could see to that. Alexius is in no hurry to join the fan club of his golden curls - but he knows that, at the end of the day, this man is worthier. Younger. Better. Purer.

 

Ah. Here comes another silhouette - another... subject to observe before this odd sore feeling, which does not have quite everything to do with his jammed position, completely overtakes him.

 

It is Charter, hurrying somewhere from the direction of the towerlet where the Inquisition's Commander has his office (perhaps she went there to return the phylactery). And as far as Alexius' cloudy eyes can tell him, she has already removed the wax and makeup, and changed into the greenish-brown scout uniform.

 

'Commander! Your Worship! I am pleased to report that the House of Repose has been successfully infiltrated. I have destroyed the contract, with no bloodshed'.

 

No mention of him. Alexius cannot say that he is surprised, or particularly hurt. Charter pulled most of the weight; and she might run into... unpleasantness if she mentions that she got a dubious Tevinter researcher involved. And carried his phylactery about without permission.

 

And ultimately, he was not doing this for credit - it is reward enough to hear this sweet, joyous exclamation of Sula's, and see her, albeit hazily, dance excitedly on the spot and embrace the knight and Charter alike. It is enough to know that she has seen this through. That Despair's whispers about losing her to assassins have been wrong.

 

Oh heavens, he told himself not to dwell on this... but he loves her. He loves her so much that his whole being aches. He loves her, with a fire that he thought long extinguished; smothered by ash and drowned in darkspawn blood.

 

And right now, it does not matter if he is subconsciously searching for a second Livia, or... or whatever else. He just... wants to lie here, in the hay, like some manner of uncouth vagabond, and get drunk on her voice.

 

'Thank you, Charter! You are incredible! I do hope that, next time you meet the lovely Tessa, she gives you a shower of kisses! You will deserve each and every one, for your wit and bravery! And a few for your beauty, of course!'

 

'Has there been any word from the Spymaster?' the knight cuts in, brusque and business-like.

 

'She is still travelling with the Ambassador, Ser,' Charter retorts, with an almost mechanical efficiency.

 

'I do hope that taking that Rainier along did not cause them any problems,' the knight mutters.

 

Sula makes a disapproving hmm-ing noise.

 

'Please do not be harsh on him, Commander. He merely wanted to lend Leliana's agents his sword arm. No-one is better suited for protecting Josephine than he is; he serves the Inquisition as an honest man now, and I know for a fact that the shield wall he builds between you and the enemy is unbreakable!'

 

Still discussing Thom Rainier, they walk away from the stables. Alexius swallows, comes to his senses, and finally uncorks himself, rolling out of the hay into a slurping mush that he prays is merely mud. Kaffas, he really needs to get that ring off and visit Skyhold's bath house! His quarters could have some tools that will help - not to mention a change of clothes.

 

Shaking his invisible form like a wet dog, he drags himself into the library rotunda - from where he intends to take a shortcut to the familiar little room with a painted jungle blooming on the walls... But falters in mid-step, hearing the muffled, sea-like beat of an argument's waves.

 

There are two raised voices crashing against one another, as a frothing tide crashes upon unrelenting rock. Dorian - and that elven sage, Solas, who always has... opinions to share about Tevene magic.

 

'It is in poor taste, flaunting arcane practices that were built upon the bones of an entire civilization!' Solas insists, impatience driving his voice into a rapid cadence.

 

'I no longer take the plight of your people lightly; Sula has taught me as much,' Dorian objects. 'But you can't just write off generations upon generations of brilliant researchers! We have not been sitting around twiddling our thumbs on our thrones of gold - we have also advanced magical theory, and if we clean up our mess, we might yet use our knowledge to help...'

 

He pauses, breathes in with a tangible air of confusion about him - and speaks up in a completely changed, hesitant voice... Mumbling words that make Alexius' stomach rocket upwards through his invisible body, and then plummet back down again.

 

'Wait. Why do I... get this feeling that I heard someone else tell me the same thing... Someone... someone that I knew once? A - a relative of my friend Felix? No; it can't be! His mother raised him alone'.

 

Alone? Livia never raised Felix alone - Dorian knows it! Why would he say something like this?  Why would he act... like he has...

 

'Forgotten,' a hoarse whisper intones into Alexius' ear, unattached to a visible body, just as his own helpless thoughts. It's Cole; Compassion - yet another of Sula's spirit friends. Thief of daggers and plums, entertainer of cats, the final shadow lingering in the corner of the eye of a dying soldier. The dark whirlwind with glowing red daggers that carved apart the Avvar in Hargrave Keep; and the soothing presence that guided Sula towards Alexius in the realm of Despair.

 

'He has forgotten,' the whisper sighs, and the bumps of chill bloat along Alexius' unseen spine.

 

'And Charter has too. I make people forget me all the time - but this is not like what I do. This is not helping. The ring is not helping, even though it thinks it is'.

 

'The ring?' Alexius asks dazedly, blindly clawing at where his hapless finger should be. 'This is also part of the ring's enchantment?'

 

As before, his inner voice cannot leave the confines of his mind - but Cole does not require spoken words to hear him.

 

'It was supposed to help,' he chants sadly. 'A marriage with no love, looming, locking, strangling. A racing mind and racing hands, racked by the unfairness of it all. "I am a magister, dammit! Why can't I choose what to do with own my life?!". Hoping against all hope to slip the snare. Hacking, hammering, moulding magic into metal. He wanted to trick his family, abandon them at the altar, run, run, run, unseen and unheard, the moment the ring, the new ring, the magic ring, was placed on his finger'.

 

'Ah,' Alexius says - tries to say - to himself.

 

So the ring was crafted by a countryman of his! Some hapless youngling, forced into an arranged union - something that Alexius himself just barely escaped, all because Livia happened to come from 'approved' stock. Approved until Felix came along and it became clear that he had little magic, that is. But he digresses.

 

It is not the worst plan, in theory. Having a... handy wedding band that would make you invisible. Evading your unloved bride under the protection of magic. Except...

 

'Then something went wrong, didn't it?' he asks silently - and Cole's singsong reply upheaves his stomach all over again.

 

'He overdid the enchantment. Hasty, harried, hungry for the freedom of being unseen. The ring got stuck, and he got stuck, melting, ever melting, with no face for people to remember, no voice to call to them when his existence turned into a dizzy dance of doubt. He became a ghost, like I once thought I was a ghost. Except he was not hurting anyone, like I had hurt people in the Spire. Not hurting anyone - but also not mattering to anyone. Not missed by anyone. Like he had never been born. "Kaffas, this isn't what I wanted! Why was I cursed with fat fingers?!".

 

'My own fingers are not that fat,' Alexius grumbles, half-amazed that he still has the capacity for being vain.

 

'No,' Cole agrees. 'But the ring has been alone for endless, friendless years. It is happy to hug your finger; it thinks that it is helping'.

 

Oh perfect. A clingy near-sentient enchanted ring with reality-breaking powers. Sounds like something an intrepid team of book heroes would be trying to destroy through three volumes' and hundred appendices' worth of adventuring. And he just... snatched it off Dagna's work table, with no second thought, no additional background research. He was not thinking of anything except aiding Sula... And now, with the cursed ring ingrained into his flesh as though it were one with him, he is to suffer the same fate as what he once planned for her, for his friend, his love - unrequited, improper, yet still ardent - long before she touched his battered old heart.

 

He will keep stumbling around Skyhold, crying for Dorian, for Sula, and remaining unheard by them, just as by Charter. Until he fades. Until he is erased from memory; from existence. Like he had never been born.

 

A delayed dose of poetic justice, he supposes. A taste of his own Venatori medicine. Oh, how his old friend Despair must be gloating.

Chapter Text

‘Dear Lady Lavellan - or can I address you as Dear Sula? I suppose I may risk an informality - considering the occasion!

'I am very pleased to inform you that Leliana and I have finished the very last step that we needed to annul the House of Repose contract! The du Paraquettes are a noble line once more, and the dispute involving our families and the league of assassins has been settled most amicably! Though the process took a tiny bit longer than I anticipated; probably because most of the House of Repose is otherwise engaged, hunting for the crafty thief that came to them seeking employment and then made off with no word, which coincided with a certain very important contract mysteriously vanishing. But I shall say no more - other than this: I believe that the thief will never be found.

'Now, back to the du Paraquettes. They are quite friendly, considering our thorny mutual history; they have even invited Leliana and me to a modest dinner to celebrate their family’s return to court. Which I am in the middle of preparing for right now, before we and our entourage return to Skyhold; the guest list is small, but I think a few of the names would make promising contacts for the Inquisition…’

Here, the delicate, impeccably smooth waves and circles and loops of Josephine’s calligraphy turn into a blotchy jitter - and the next paragraph is riddled with crossed-out words and sprays of ink from a wavering quill.

’…I know that, as Ambassador, I have to be there. I have to keep on networking; to keep on applying all my skills and knowledge on our cause’s behalf - especially now, when I no longer have the excuse of being worried for my family and friends (and myself, I suppose), which would have given me some leeway to slack off my job. But… There is something that does not allow me to… quite set my mind on it. Something that has happened to… I will dare call him… our mutual friend. You probably know who, and what, by now.

'Just like it happened with you when the minions of the impostor Comte attacked, an enchanted carriage (a most fortuitous invention, though it is still a mystery to me where the Inquisition procured those horseshoes!) should have already brought back Master Thom Rainier. Wounded in the line of duty. Wounded because he was trying to keep me from harm, just as he had sworn to.

'Not by the House of Repose, however - by the group of hapless poisoned Templars that accosted our caravan on the way to the du Paraquette estate. They made a most horrifying sight: with those mangled faces, like cuts of soggy, sinewy, beaten-down raw meat on display at the butcher’s; and with tiny eye orbs lodged inside that meat, milky-white and stained in places with leaky pink, and so unsettlingly devoid of sense; and with those crusted-over limbs, glimmering like those molten heaps of refuse I once saw when taking my siblings on an educational tour of our famous Antivan glassworks… Except with none of the enchanting beauty of stained glass.

'They lunged at us from all sides, making inhuman growling sounds. Leliana and her people dispatched them with several expert shots, particularly aimed at those wretched, unseeing eyes. But one of them managed to dodge the arrows, and would have tried to reach for me, the only unarmed member of the caravan, had Thom… Master Rainier not charged at this… being, the edge of his shield ramming into its ruby carapace.

'Sadly - as you yourself may have already witnessed, for I know your admirable custom of personally checking on those in need of healing - the red Templar ripped through Master Rainier’s armour with those oversized, jagged fingers-turned-claws before going down. And I… I would be most grateful if you let me know whether he is at risk of lyrium infection, as soon as you find out. If that does not inconvenience you. But please… Please.

'Oh, look at me, cramming all this verbose nonsense into a “brief” official note. I confess - I am procrastinating. I know it is my duty to attend the du Paraquettes’ party, but, for what must be the first time in my career, the weight of this duty feels unbearably crushing. To the point of making me sick.

'I don’t want to come, Sula. I want to follow after the carriage, to find Master Rainier in the infirmary, to personally thank him for his valour, to tell him that, even with what we’ve learned of his past, I…’

The letter ends, unfinished, with a single black imprint of a bird’s thin-clawed foot. A raven must have gotten impatient with Josephine’s scribbling, and snatched the paper out of her hand - rather rude treatment of the Ambassador, which Leliana will probably reprimand her messenger for later. But Sula, who has been rereading the letter again and again while curled in her throne, like a cat that has found a drawer to nest in, with her legs under her and her back hunched, still understands what Josephine has been going through.

She understands what it is like, to know no peace of mind because you worry for the well-being of a friend - or… if she is reading between the lines correctly… and has not merely caught some contagious Swords-And-Shieldness from Cassandra… someone who might become more than a friend. Even though she has not had anyone like that in her life, man or woman or any person in between - not for the past couple of years.

She has tried to tell herself that she sympathizes with Josephine’s budding crush on Thom - which, much to her joy, seems to be flourishing even after the revelation at Mornay’s disrupted execution - simply because she still remembers her own previous relationships, back in the days of living with her clan. But… But it is still fresh, this sweet pull within her chest, this tingle in the corners of her mouth.

She… She loves someone, right here and now - she loves them so much that she feels her heart unfold to twice its size, like a rose as it wakes up in the morning. But she has no idea who that person is. She does not remember their name or their face or their voice; she cannot even be certain if they are real or a character from one of Cassandra’s books.

They… They feel real, for sure; but if that is so, why does she, for all her scraping and searching (as if she were a raccoon rummaging through the pantry of her own mind), fail to grasp at anything concrete about them?..

Ah. What does it matter. Now is not the time to dissect her heart. She is waiting for a prisoner to be brought for judgement. She does hope she won’t have to wait much longer, because she also needs to rush to the infirmary and tell Thom that Josephine is very, very grateful… And find Cole, who has been trying to pass her a cryptic message all morning. Something about 'a ghost that is not a ghost; fading, fearing, falling into the trap he once set for you; love and shame sloshing in his chest and spilling over like salty froth’.

Today, the prisoner is the doubtlessly, saddeningly troubled human who wanted her dead.

Charter’s subordinate agents cornered him - she thinks it is a him - in Val Royeaux somewhere, handing out leaflets to the patrons of some tavern or other. In those thickly, sloppily printed missives, which most of the recipients merely chortled at before using them as napkins, Sula was shown as a witch, with long naked legs wrapped around the spiky knee of a demon, while a gaggle of ragged, exaggeratedly hook-nosed and bearded fellows (bandits? apostates?) was cheering on, some of them with heads thrown back, eyes gaping in two opposite directions, tongues wagging in thick squiggles, and fountains of dark liquid shooting out of their palms.

The poor, unsuccessful leaflet-peddler resisted arrest, from what Sula heard - and this must be why, when Cassandra suddenly walks out of a side door and strides vigorously up to her seat, there is a mage staff in her hands.

'Keep this nearby,’ she instructs Sula curtly, propping the staff against the throne. 'I have my sword with me. The man is absolutely unhinged; made hysterical by his assassins’ failure’.

And so he is, the poor darling. He has to be restrained by three Inquisition soldiers, with his puffy silken clothing skewed into a misshapen knot and his mask knocked off his glistening, steaming red face.

'You wench think you have won, outwitting the House of Repose!’ he screeches, snapping his teeth at the wrist of a soldier as she readjusts her grip on his waffle-like collar. 'But there will be other ways, other means of removing you! Of cleansing the Inquisition of you and your outlaw rabble! You have the word of Xavier Asignon!’

'More like “Ass Is On”, Sera grouses in the crowd.

Like Cassandra, she has come to watch the judgement with a weapon, and has pressed her index fingers and thumbs into an impromptu aiming frame, which she seems to align with the poor Orlesian’s crotch (with the silent approval of Scout Harding).

Sula stiffens in her seat.

'Asignon?’ she echoes, through a gasp of recognition. 'Are you related to Roderick Asignon? The High Chancellor?’

'He was my uncle!’ the Orlesian wails. 'He wrote to me of what a vile, usurping false Herald you were! And then you killed him! And started showing the full… the full hideousness of your true colours!’

'No, no, you are mistaken!’ Sula is in such a hurry to reassure him that she leaps from her throne. 'Your uncle died a hero, protecting the people of Haven from red Templars! And he died believing in what we are all doing here! He died a friend of mine!’

'That is what you want everyone to believe!’ Xavier cries, choking on his own saliva. 'My uncle was a true Andrastian! He would never have befriended a knife-eared heathen! A witch who consorts with the likes of Rainier, and that demon summoner from Redcliffe, and… someone else!’

'Messere, please, if you just listen to me…’

'I will listen to your screams of agony!’

With that, Xavier stomps his feet, sinking his fashionable high heels, dagger-like, into the boots of the two out of three soldiers. They manage to brave the pain, but are still disoriented just enough for him to wriggle forward a pace or two, groping for the mage’s staff - which, as Sula has only just realized, slid off the throne’s platform, knocked down while she was flying to her feet, and rolled across the floor.

'I will stuff your own cursed weapon into your venomous, lying mouth! I will dispose of you, if no-one else does!’

'Please be careful!’

But Sula’s warning passes unheeded - and as an untrained hand touches the staff, it responds to the wild turmoil of emotions that are so painfully tearing poor Xavier apart… And releases a charge of the energy it was enchanted with. Ice.

First, there is a gust of bone-eating wind, dense with large conjured snowflakes; and then, the floor turns white and fluffy, like the soft-stepping socks of a cat. But just as socks conceal a vicious hunter’s claws, so does this layer of snow burst apart, unearthing gigantic spikes of swirling blue.

Like… Like it happened before, once. In a little room with green walls… A room that belongs to someone Sula… cannot quite… remember…    

One of the spikes, unstoppable and lightning-fast in its growth, passes right through the chest of the hapless Xavier, turning from crisp blue to molten crimson as it impales him - a sight that makes Sera and Bull hoot in approval, and sends Sula into tears.

It is these tears’ sting, along with the dazing repetition of the same strangled whisper - 'No, no; I could have helped; I could have talked sense into him’ - that slows down Sula’s reflexes. Swaying on the spot, bleary-eyed and shivering, she would herself have either gotten covered with a magical ice crust (like Xavier’s corpse now is, turning white and lumpy like some sort of morbid Rivaini delight), or been raised up, bleeding, on another spike… But like Josephine, she has a… friend. Someone who is always ready to toss himself between her and danger, even if it means getting hurt.

She has, so far, been oblivious to his presence in the hall; she has no clue when or where he first appeared - but she can see him now. She can see him, thanks to the crust that has built up along his body, painting his silhouette out of nowhere in strokes of pure white and many-faceted sapphire and glittering silver.

He has pushed her out of the circle on the floor where the freezing spell still brews, a patch of howling, galeful winter wilderness in the heart of a firelit castle - and now stands before her like an ice sculpture, frozen and silent and so familiar.

She… She knows him. She remembers him. She remembers everything.

As if possessed by a discordant orchestra that screeches and thunders and pounds clamouring brass under the echoing dome of her skull, she hears snatches of conversations. First, the harsh, leering phrases, spoken by a stranger, an enemy: 'The Inquisition needs mages, and I have them’; 'All that I betrayed, and for what? Ruin and death’; 'You’ve won - there is no point continuing this charade’… And then, softer and softer, other words, playing on the lips of a changed, healed man, stranger no more: youthfully excited tales of magic, shaky whispers of her name - and Dorian’s - filled with joy or relief or wonderment, and warm, genuine bouts of laughter. And above it all, a gleeful chorus of memories, chanting his name back at her. A name that she - through some sick joke of the Fade - briefly forgot. Gereon. Gereon. Gereon.

Hardly does the little snowstorm simmer down, when Sula cautiously steps back into the circle, and cups his icy cheeks with her hands. She did the same thing when he was possessed by Despair, but was frostbitten a second later. Now, however, she does not falter, does not flinch. Her fingers are warm, untouched by sticky, biting cold: she has thoughtfully padded them with a shield of healing aura, which she now commands to spread. Rippling further and further with every flash of turquoise light. Delicately thawing the glassy prison. Fueled by the short yet powerful answer to the questions she kept asking herself earlier, which fills her chest with more and more unfolding, fluttering petals, and soothes at least some of her grief for the unfortunate Xavier.

It’s him. It’s him. The person that she loves - it’s him. Gereon. She… She should not tell him, because he almost certainly does not feel the same way - nor would she know how… how to as much as try doing that - but she loves him.

The crust is no crust now, but a cloak of fine, flowing silk, which falls off Gereon’s shoulders the moment the pulse of healing light reaches his frantically extended hand, making a simple gold ring slip off his finger and thunk to the no longer snowy floor. The sound still throbs in the air, metallic and shrill, when colour begins to return to Gereon’s face. A few more moments pass, and he inhales, nearly hiccuping, and opens his eyes. His beautiful, deep eyes, brown - carnelian - with a touch of grey.

'Sula,’ he slurs, collapsing to his knees. 'You… I haven’t… I am sorry… For saying that… you should never have…’

'You already apologized for that,’ Sula reminds him, gingerly stroking the bristling crown of his head.

'I can never apologize enough,’ he mouths - and then looks up at a very affronted Dorian, who has Fade-stepped across the hall to join them.

'Have you been getting up to some kind of twisted experiments?!’ he asks demandingly. 'One moment, I was fine, being my charming self, thinking of all the ways in which I adore Jowa…  the jovial company of… my reflection in the mirror - and the next, I could not remember anything about one of the most important people in my life!’

Before he can muster a coherent reply, Gereon gazes at him for a while with a thin-lipped smile.

'Let me put it this way. There is a certain object that the Arcanist needs to destroy as soon as possible. Preferably by throwing it into a stream of lava’.

Chapter Text

Sula fusses over both of them a-plenty.

She thoroughly inspects Thom’s bandages, and generously splashes whole tidal waves of sea-green magic against him, just to be on the safe side, and scratches something ferociously on a sliver of paper as both Thom himself and the stern-faced physician lady reassure her that not a crumb of tainted crystal broke off the red Templar’s claws to become planted in his body (the physician announces to her proudly that ‘the patient’s fluids are in balance’, which makes Thom cough into his beard in a slight embarrassment).

In turn, the Tevinter fellow that Sula brought along with her (A… Alexius; the damnedest thing - Thom thinks that, for a while, he forgot all about him, and the Redcliffe debacle; probably the fluids’ fault) also gets a shower of green healing light all over his… kind of twitchy, unsteady self, and then is instructed to 'lay down and rest where someone can take care of you; the sooner you get some sleep, the sooner another amazing sea world adventure will begin!’.

After that, Sula gives them a final once-over, smiles, waves, and hurries off to wade through more of that politicky shit in the war room. Probably something to do with the burial of that bastard that, according to the rumours reaching Thom here in the infirmary, attacked her in the throne room: she is very intent on putting him to rest in an appropriate, respectful way, preferably scattering his ashes over the same slope of the way to Skyhold as his uncle’s.

Her parting promise that she 'will be done very, very soon, and then will be all at your disposal!’ lingers in the air like the warble of a bird. But this warble is soon smothered by an almost… viscous silence, far from livened up by the snores of the sole other patient in the infirmary, a mostly recovered farmer with some faded burns along their leg, where a rage demon grabbed them for a split second, before Sula jumped in, fists full of whooshing, demon-dissolving light. The farmer has the physician watching over them, together with Mother Giselle (she seems to be telling the Mother something in a lowered voice; must be fluids again).

Thom knows this silence. It’s the same kind of silence that glued up his lungs when he tried befriending Madame Vivienne, and she shut him down, her smile pretty like a snowflake, and her gaze icy like a whole blizzard.  She mistook his concern over her faltering in battle for mocking a weakness, and it all just tumbled downhill from there. And Thom ended up smeared into sore paste like that poor bastard on the Storm Coast that they once found buried under a rockfall.

Well, they are all like that, aren’t they? With nothing but prickly ice and hefty rocks, aimed at places where it hurts, in store for… unwashed peons.

They are all like that - those who have so much gilt rubbed off against them, from lounging in their cathedral-sized mansions while men like him, coarse and hungry for at least some of that blasted gold, do their dirty work, that it has become second skin.

Sula is certain that they are good people, the sneering Madame and the cocky Tevinter and others of their ilk; and she just might just think it’s Satinalia come early - or… the grand Dalish winter holiday, that is - if the entire inner circle gets along. But Thom can scarcely see himself becoming bosom friends with a noble. Lady Josephine, with her lovely, approachable bearing, was a pleasant surprise - but even she is still many, many leagues beyond his reach, and if he tries to rise up to her level, he will only be met with more ice and rocks for sure; if not thrown by her, then by her peers.

And this… Alexius - for all of Thom’s foolish thoughts about how they might have some things in common - is just another one of their kind, at his core. It would be best if Thom just suffered through the silence; it would be best if he did not try to strike up a chat… All he would get for his trouble would be a snarling rebuff anyway.

But… But the foolish thoughts won’t leave him, just as the urge to get that silence’s goo out of his lungs… And to distract himself from the itching under his bandages.

So he risks it.

He coughs, and scratches at his beard, and says, straining to give his voice a tone of casual, friendly teasing,

'You do look kind of in a bad shape… Took a dip in an icy well?’

Alexius slides under his covers, showing only the glinting, vividly red tip of his nose and a straight, bushy, overhanging line of eyebrows that nearly obscures his bleary, bloodshot gaze.

'If you must know, I was hit by frost magic,’ he says, sounding morose and more and more nasally with every syllable, as the brief effect of Sula’s healing aura wears away. Thom supposes that even the arcane arts can’t really do anything about the common cold.

'Hilarious, I am certain’.

And there they go again. Thom was just trying to ease the tension - but won’t be long now before Alexius starts getting offended at him simply for existing. Which Thom… can’t exactly blame him for, but still.

He falls back on his pillows, fingering his bandages and preparing for a new bout of gooey silence… When suddenly, Alexius sneezes and curses in exasperation,

'Kaffas! I am not used to this! To being on… this side of the sickbed!’

Thom furrows his forehead. He… He wouldn’t be used to this, would he? He would be used to being the healer, not the one being healed.

Thom remembers how he little short of turned into a human battering ram and busted through the infirmary doors when Sula was brought in here; and he can easily imagine him spending weeks upon weeks with no food or rest, prolonging the life of his Blight-stricken son. The whole reason why he went crazy and began licking Corypheus’ boots - for a while. Still a despicable thing to do, but at least his motivations were… loftier than getting a purse of gold.

'Look, uh…’ Thom says impulsively, screaming at himself that he deserves to have his bandages ripped off and slapped across his face for every bloody word. He’s poking his nose in a noble’s business again; there surely is venomous snark incoming. The first rock to start a landslide of mutual loathing.

'Sula… told us some of your story… And… you may not care a rat’s arse about this… But seeing you work… for the Inquisition… and become a friend of Sula’s… despite everything… Was part of why I decided to turn around and face my past’.

Slowly, Alexius’ face emerges back from the quicksand pit of the blankets.

'That was not my original intention,’ he admits, just as impulsively, his inhibitions likely loosened by fever. 'All I wanted… was to meet the headsman’.

'So did I’.

At this point, Thom’s foolish thoughts no longer seem foolish. At this point, he makes no further attempts to dismiss them, to ram it into his head that Alexius is a snooty noble, nothing more. At this point, he cannot stop himself from studying the man’s face, searching under the glaze of sickness to find a familiar pain in his eyes.

'I was ready to rid the world… of the bastard that was Thom Rainier,’ he continues, with a grim frankness; and Alexius stirs, coughing quietly and trying to blink the feverish haze out of his eyes to give him more attention.

'But then, Sula stepped in… gave me a second chance… just as she did with you. And here I am. Trying to make myself into a better man, instead of wearing the mask of one. Trying not to disappoint the woman that saw past the monster in me. And also…’

Thom chuckles wryly, shaking his head. Now that he has started blabbing about his feelings, he might as well go all in. With luck, Alexius won’t remember much of his… oversharing, once he sleeps off his cold and wakes with a clearer head.

'Trying to ensure… the safety and happiness of another woman… the woman that… is so perfect in every way that it makes… my whole being ache… Even with me knowing that we will never…’

'Master Rainier!’

Although Thom has… kind of been counting on Alexius being too woozy with his cold to take his unexpected lovestruck ramblings seriously, something about his words - especially the part about aching - seems to have sparked his interest. He even wriggles out of his covers and props himself up on one elbow, with his face somehow… Flushed?

Thom does not get much chance to ponder this - for they are interrupted by the abrupt, breathless arrival of Josephine, who flies in like a lush blossom torn off its branch by the wind, and calls his name - his real name. The name that he could never have imagined her pronouncing with anything but disgust.

'Master Rainier! I… I could not wait for hearing back from the Inquisitor, and… How are you feeling?’

'Quite… well, milady,’ Thom scrambles for words, stiffening in his bed - as though he were trying to stand on ceremony while, in fact, sitting up with pillows under his back. 'I should return to the field in no time’.

'Oh, I am so relieved to see you convalescing! And I am very grateful to you for saving my life,’ she says, one delicate hand resting over the ruffles on her chest. 'I won’t deny being… saddened when I learned your true identity… But I think I should take a leaf out of our dear Inquisitor’s book. And let you rebuild a life for yourself. Free of lies and crimes’.

She bites into her lips, freezes - and then tosses her head resolutely and plants a light, fragrant kiss on Thom’s cheek.

For a moment, his entire world goes as blankly white as the infirmary sheets that he grips at, hoping that this will contain the vague, garbled scream-like noise that he can feel pulsing at the back of his throat. When he manages to blink the pall away, Josephine is already gone, having whirled off with a petal-like rustle.

Absentmindedly fingering the curve of his cheekbone, where his skin is yet warm with her touch, Thom turns his eyes back on Alexius, wondering if he is at all… appalled by what he has just witnessed.

But Alexius has turned his back on Thom - and remains lying like this until Sula returns and, after grinning at the burned farmer and clapping her hands over how well they’ve healed, flings herself into a stool next to his bed, casting more healing magic on him. Even as Mother Giselle watches her from afar, a folded letter pressed anxiously in her hands.

She looks like she wants to approach Sula, with whatever news the letter contains, but the latter has shut her eyes and taken Alexius’ hand, the way Solas sometimes does when he wants to visit someone in the Fade. A bit… too creepy for Thom’s liking, but the Inquisition mages seem to know their stuff.

Muttering to himself as he dozes, Alexius settles in bed more comfortably - and when Thom gets a view of his sleepy smile, which turns broader the tighter Sula holds on to him, he thinks he understands.

Chapter Text

Eleven years ago, Dorian was slapped across the face - a powerful, almost teeth-shattering blow - with the knowledge that he was to spend the rest of his life alone.

Alone, even as he stood between his parents, all poised and perfect like models for a formal portrait, the air on either side of him spitting electrically with unspoken resentment.

Alone, even as his father laid his hand on his shoulder, his eyes glowing with what, as a giddy child - hair standing on end and still smoking from his most powerful release of magic yet and a gap-toothed smile of triumph nearly splitting his tiny face apart - Dorian would have read as love and pride. Except… it was not really pride of him, was it; not pride of a living, breathing being of flesh and blood, with very personal passions and quirks and an intense dislike of moving masses of water. It was pride of a hypothetical Pavus heir, a lifelong project of every father in their bloodline; a meticulously designed formula, an alchemical solution poured into human form. Fifty shares brilliant wit, forty-five shares delicately measured physical proportions… And five shares obedience and propriety… Had the experiment gone right.

He tried to cling on to that pride, that love - if this was the only thing he was allowed to have, he had to make do, right? He managed to fit his part most of the time anyhow… But it did not make him less alone.

Alone; he was to be alone. The thought burrowed within him like a parasite, sucking life juices out of his chest, and leaving behind a burning bitterness. Not merely burning - piping-hot; blazing enough to melt him and forge him anew.

Eleven years ago, this new Dorian that emerged from the scathing fire of his wound, looked around him with a sneer and said, through a hiss of laboured breath,

‘Very well’.

Very well. So be it. If he was to be alone, he would be alone. He did not need anyone else. He did not care for anyone else.

He embraced his new existence, his meandering all on his own; he tore open his clothes (metaphorically; or perhaps literally - it is hard to tell at this point) and dared the loneliness to crash against his bared chest, like the salty spray of the heaving ocean that makes him so sick. He flung himself into the sickness, staggering against the tide, choking and submerging and spinning wildly, mindlessly, to the point when his innards packed into a wet lump like laundry under a slave’s churning hands. More wine, more heady herbal fumes, more bodies coiling against his, sleek, faceless, nameless. Because this was what he deserved; this was the only love he would ever know.

And then… Then there came one blaring-white, hungover morning, when every sound felt like his skull was being squashed in between two grinding stones, and every colour left a deep indentation in his eyeballs. Then there came the rustling of the curtains, drawn apart by telekinetic magic, and his inhuman hiss when the blasted colours grew even brighter - before spiralling around for a bit and gradually settling into a blurred human figure that he vaguely remembered slurring improprieties at the night… the year… the century before.

'There is a potion on the bedside table. Drink it; after that you should be able to control your limbs enough to go bathe’.

'Who… who are you?.. Did Hal… wrrrrd… you know… my… father send you?’

'I do know Halward; he is a colleague both at the Circle and the Magisterium. But he is not yet aware of your… misadventures, and I think it would be best if he never was’.

'You… talk too much… Go away… annoying Talky-Man…’

'Stuffing your face into that pillow won’t cure your headache. The potion will. And I don’t think we are yet well-acquainted enough for nicknames. Alexius will do’.

On that morning, which eventually stopped being so blaring, he gained a benefactor. A mentor. A friend.

Someone to listen, quiet and earnest, when, at long last, he gathered himself up and attempted to find the right words to describe all that spinning sickness, all that scalding hurt.

Someone to extend a hand, patient and steady, and welcome him into a household where the flawless mage formula had frizzled out, and produced instead of some thoroughbred fruit of a grand master plan, a sweet, precious son that scarcely managed to light a candle with a summoned flame tongue - and knew the love and pride of his parents, true love and pride, nonetheless.

Someone to make him feel less alone.

…At least, until the news came. A whisper passed on by the scurrying servants, heads bowed and faces cast in shadow as the curtains fell in heavy dark folds over the windows. A scream on the twitching lips of a rapidly breaking, breaking, broken man, amid the thumps of a fist clenched in helpless fury. The family that had accepted Dorian as a wayward child was falling apart, like a house of cards knocked off by the bony, blotchy-skinned, clammy hands of death and sickness… And he was alone again.

And again, he said, 'So be it’. And walked away, ready to drown himself in the sparkling, hypnotic tide of alcohol once more. Ready to scream at the world, to show them, one and all, that if he was to be alone, he was going to be damn great at it.

But now… Now, eleven years after his first teenage rebellion, having blazed his way through Tevinter and beyond, gathering loss and anger and betrayal around him like a comet gathers star dust - or so the astronomers say - he has landed in the rustic, amenities-deprived Ferelden. He has been taken in by a new… household. A new family - a bizarre, patchwork version of one, but a family nonetheless.

He has made peace with his old mentor; he has met several delightful oddballs that he has come to consider friends; he has started to get to know Jowan - dear Jowan, with his shy smile through strands of greying black hair, and soft eyes, only highlighted by the premature wrinkles of worry, and wonderful hands, which have a… heartwarming kind of tenderness to them, under the layer of cold, coarse scars.

He has almost forgotten what it feels like. Being alone.

Until today.

Today, he went to the tavern in Redcliffe, after Sula showed him a letter from the Illustrious Halward Pavus to Mother Giselle (of all people! He didn’t even deign to write to Gereon; probably because he no longer counts as a person, the Archon having stripped him of his title as punishment for joining the Venatori).

He took Sula with him, in case this turned out to be a trap, and the 'Pavus family retainer’ mentioned in the missive was to smack him on the head and drag him back to Tevinter in a potato sack.

He also took Gereon, as soon as the latter shook off his cold. For… picking up on any signs of Venatori involvement (fine, fine, he’ll admit it, but only to himself: he asked him to come for moral support).

And, since Gereon’s status in the Inquisition is more muddled than the history of Seheron, Seeker Cassandra had to join them as well, ready to smite heathen mages in case of shenanigans.

'Do come on board,’ Dorian told her, with subtle, not unkind mockery. 'If it does turn out to be a trap, you can kill everyone as we all escape. You are good at that!’

Oddly enough, the Seeker almost missed her cue to respond to him with a disgusted noise. She was already absorbed by monitoring Gereon - packed thoughtfully into the uniform on loan from an off-duty scout, to avoid being pelted with rocks and household utensils and vegetables of dubious freshness by the villagers that might recognize him as the chief blood mage, lord of nefarious plotting and arl-kicking and probably baby-eating.

The Seeker kept turning her gaze to Sula as well, as if measuring the distance between her and Gereon. But not with the intense, distrustful scowl Dorian would have expected from her.

Instead, she looked wide-eyed and slightly slack-jawed. Like she was about to pull out a bucket of that new treat that the more… fun-loving members of the inner circle had recently invented, when Varric’s merchant network procured some ears of corn for Bull’s nostalgic northern recipes, and Dorian encouraged Jowan to set it on fire… Which ended not in a fatality, as the poor fellow had apparently feared, but with an explosion of most delicious popped corn. Great for chewing on when one is watching some amusing spectacle unfold.

Oh, the look on Jowan’s face when he realized that he had created something instead of destroying it! The key to an instant lighthearted smile, no matter what Dorian might be doing when he thinks of it again.

But ah. That is neither here nor there. With Mother Giselle’s letter received and thoroughly discussed, they went on their merry way - four travellers on magical speedy horses. Once they dismounted at the Redcliffe lakeside docks and strode into the tavern, they discovered that the man that was waiting for them, shifting his weight on the spot and picking anxiously at the rim of his black fingerless gloves, was not a family retainer… but magister Pavus himself.

And that was when Dorian’s wound sprang aflame again - no, not just wound; wounds, all overlaying one another, interlaced with the last remnants of love and flimsy hope for being loved back, like Felix had been, Maker give him peace and the Fade equivalent of popcorn to observe the mortal squirming of the people he left behind. That was when, just as eleven years ago, he staggered under another slap across the face. And felt alone.

Alone in a most horrifying, bone-melting way - standing across the room (which had suddenly grown so stuffy, with the firelight hiding everything beyond an orange mist) from a stranger.

A man that he had once trusted and respected, eager as a pup to get that approving shoulder pat of his - and continued to remember with at least some fondness, even as his home stopped feeling like one. A man that had once been a father to him… and then… when his little project went off-kilter, when he noticed a mismatch between the hypothetical son that he put on a pedestal and the son that he actually had…

'He tried to change me,’ Dorian remembers himself saying, his control over his voice slipping and the scarlet slashes of the blood sigil eating through his vision all over again, his feet heavy and feebly shuffling like an old man’s.

Cassandra had graciously stepped outside, the moment she guessed that this was going to be a far more delicate, and personal, matter than a scuffle with a potato-sack-hauling retainer. But Sula and Gereon were still there, and Dorian’s choked confession had the effect of a sword passing through their chests. On the latter especially.

'Halward,’ he said in an icy, ominously low tone, stepping forward into the light and pushing his scout’s hood back.

'You?!’ the startled magister exclaimed (whereupon it dawned on Dorian that this was the first good look his father had taken at the silent figure behind the Inquisitor’s shoulder since the beginning of their meeting).

'So the rumours are true! The Inquisition has enslaved you!’

'This conversation has nothing to do with me, and you know it,’ Gereon continued, in the same lowered voice, while the sinews on his throat protruded thickly through his weathered skin.

'How could you do this? Stoop to blood magic? Sacrifice your son’s free will - in exchange for what? Being acceptable in polite society?’

'You are hardly one to judge,’ Halward snapped. 'You never had a son worth making sacrifices for!’

'How… How dare you! My son… not worth… sacrifices?!’ Gereon nearly vomited those words out, his lips contorting into a purple loop. Indeed, had Sula not caught his hand and gently but firmly drawn him into the giant soapy bubble of a barrier, Dorian does believe he would have tried to set Halward’s gilded fir-green robes on fire. And would have been decapitated by the Seeker once she smelled the smoke.

Having a shield of benevolent magic all around himself made Gereon cool off somewhat; but he did persist further, jabbing an accusatory finger at the slowly backtracking Halward through the barrier’s supple, faintly humming surface.

’ He may not have been a mage; he may not have amounted to much for the likes of you… for fathers that would destroy their sons by trying to carve them into who they want to see…’

Here, Sula wrapped both her arms around his and lifted her gaze searchingly to his face, her lips shaping out the silent words,

'That dream?’

To which Gereon nodded, leaning into her touch gratefully - and, after a pause, went on, with his jaw clenched.

'But - but he was… one of the greatest blessings in my life! He was kind, and brilliant, and brave - brave enough to choose truth and justice over the insanity of an old man… Just as Dorian is brave!’

Briefly, Dorian rather… fell out of the loop of the conversation. Being called brave; being put on par with Felix, whom he had always considered a better person (though not nearly as handsome) … It made him feel unsteady, like a he had tripped on a crumpled carpet that was not there. When he recovered from the odd palpitations of his heart, which had flown up to batter against his teeth, Gereon was already finishing up.

’…I never stopped trying, never stopped fighting, even if that meant losing my very soul, to save my Felix from death!’ he said, tossing his head up, under the shining gaze of Sula’s lyrium-like eyes.

'But the only thing you are “saving” Dorian from, through these sacrifices of yours… Is being Dorian’.

Halward bowed down, grimacing - and Sula used this opportunity to chime in herself.

'Why did you come here, Messere?’ she asked as her barrier faded and she rekindled it anew - around Dorian this time.

'If it is to finish what you started, none of us will let you hurt Dorian again. But if you have anything to tell him, anything that will help him put his past behind him, please do’.

'I…’ Halward replied hoarsely - and Dorian wondered if his throat, like his, was feeling like someone was combing it with a fish skeleton.

'Once I had a son who trusted me… A trust I betrayed. I came to… see him… To hear his voice again… To ask him to forgive me’.

Forgiveness is still a long way coming - and at this point, it is hard for Dorian to say if it ever will come at all (as they were leaving the tavern, Gereon clasped his forearm, and told him, his eyes set into a hardened, knowing expression, 'You might doubt yourself for not being able to forgive your father - but that is your right’). But they did talk, at any rate. And now…

Now, at the conclusion of an eleven years’ journey, Dorian is taking a breath of air. Resting in the fresh, swaying green grass in the wilds along the Redcliffe road, watching the clouds flow through the vibrant-blue heavens, like tufts of priceless stoat fur adorning a royal garment. Resting - truly. Serenely. With not even the shadow of worry that some pesky bug might crawl into his inimitably styled hair.

Sula is lying on one side of him and Gereon on another; and the Seeker is somewhere nearby as well, leaning against a sun-warmed tree trunk and (as Dorian assumes) helpfully watching for bears.

'You do have some errands to run for the locals, don’t you?’ he asks Sula, casually tilting his head to his shoulder and slanting his eyes towards her. 'I could use some brusque slope-climbing and bandit-slaying as a distraction. Something to properly wear me out before I trudge back to Skyhold and drink myself into a stupor. It has been that sort of day’.

Gereon clears his throat.

'Perhaps asking Lev… Jowan to keep you company over dinner would be better?’

Dorian rolls his eyes in mock annoyance.

'Again with the lectures, Talky-Man!’

As both of them laugh, Sula looking on with an affectionate smile, the teeth-shattering sensation of being alone lets go of Dorian and melts away like a cloud in the sky.

Chapter Text

The golden curl of the candle’s flame ripples in its endless dance, casting a reflection that shifts in colour like the mother of pearl and entrances the mind like the ebb and flow of ghostly, glow-touched vapours in the Fade.

Shimmering with this mesmerizing light, the tiny shard of ribbed rock draws Alexius’ gaze like a magnet, leaving him utterly petrified. Even though he knows he has research to tend to; he knows he promised Sula to send in a report before she returns from Sarhnia, where she travelled to follow up on some clues that she and the Commander discovered during their lyrium smuggler chase.

His own recent adventure (which he did has not really talked about, fearing that it would paint him as grovelling for Sula’s favour; ‘look, I helped destroy the contract on your life! Shower me in gratitude!’) inspired him to try and formulate a new and improved enchanted draught that would help the rogues of the Inquisition confuse their enemies by releasing two or three smoky, silhouetted doubles once the flask was broken. Each set of doubles would have to be unique, always tailored precisely to match the height and built of whatever specific rogue that might decide to conjure them. Which means designing the formula to account for infinite possible shapes of limbs and heads and shoulders and waistlines. Alexius was not daunted by the experiment; on the contrary, he delights in magic that he can really sink his teeth in… Figuratively speaking.

But - but somehow, he can’t quite get to writing down a proper academic conclusion for the first stage of his research.

He keeps getting distracted by this little rock shard, which he has carefully laid out on a clean sheet of paper like a priceless archeological discovery.

In truth, though, he scraped it out of the mud, from among the upended roots of trampled grass, in the remote corner of the Fereldan Hinterlands known as Hafter’s Woods - as per the fluttering, fraying, weather-bitten, blood-and-blood splattered map that Seeker Pentaghast made so many offended grunts at.

Scarcely amounting to half his thumbnail in size, it is the largest such shard that he could salvage. A remnant of an amulet that Sula used to wear around her neck.

He… He noticed it a while ago, when he and Sula were getting ready for an experiment with healing potions, and she caught the amulet’s thick cord - braided from straps of some sleek, greyish hide - in between her teeth as she was readjusting the hair bun at the back of her head, magic streaming through her fingers.

He did not intend to ask her about it, not out loud, in case it was a Dalish relic and he would be overstepping boundaries by poking his Tevinter finger at it and stumbling over clumsy questions. But she must have noticed him eyeing it curiously, scanning its diamond-like shape and the faint etching of a sword against its glimmering, green-streaked surface.

'It’s called Mercy’s Crest,’ she explained, parting her jaws and letting the amulet rest in her extended palm. 'I had it crafted to respect the traditions of a group of… wild warriors that live in this fort on the Storm Coast and venerate the Sword of Mercy’.

'The… the sword that Archon Hessarian used - to put Andraste out of her misery?’ Alexius asked, astonished. This was not the side of Andraste’s tale that he would have expected southerners to pay much attention to. Certainly not wild warriors inhabiting those miserable, brine-lashed crags.

'Yes, they are very fond of Hessarian, apparently,’ Sula confirmed, in the middle of pulling on the thick gloves needed to handle some of the reagents.

'They collect texts about how he regretted what was done to Andraste and everything… I think the Chantry would call them heretics; but I am Dalish - I run a risk of getting in trouble with the Chantry all the time either way. So I read their stories; I listened to their voices - and it…  rather resonated with me’.

She and Alexius both shared a soft, knowing laugh here. Of course - of course it would resonate. Sula would not be Sula if her heart wasn’t touched by tales of regret and repentance.

'These warriors, the Blades of Hessarian, were unhappy with their current leader, who was turning them into common bandits’, she explained, frowning as she raised a sample tube and a pipette with an herbal solution against the light.

'So I put on this ceremonial crest, to show that I came in peace, and tried to reason with him… He set his hounds on me and my friends; Thom had to slay him before he could rip me apart… And then the Blades decided that serving the Inquisition would be a far more noble task than stalking the coast and murdering people for their valuables’.

She stepped aside, letting the mixture hiss and spit while Alexius took measurements of its colour and temperature and wrote them down, gaze travelling back to her now and again.

'I could have stopped wearing the crest after that, because I had no more need for it… But I haven’t. I like the message it carries. Everyone deserves mercy’.

And she went on wearing it still - a symbol of forgiveness and second chance; a succinct reminder of what makes her so easy to admire… To love. She would have kept on wearing it even today, taking it with her to Sarhnia, tucked under all those layers and layers of scarves… Had that bloody arrow not splintered it apart.

They were still wandering about in the vicinity of Redcliffe, giving Dorian a chance to recover from the… heightened tones of the meeting with Halward - when Sula ran into an elderly kinsman, on his way to clean and decorate the shrine to his late wife. The road was long and treacherous, especially for someone who, being a second-class citizen, had never been allowed to carry arms in his life (a deplorable similarity between the south and the north), and the aged elf tentatively asked Sula to bring the small, modest, but tenderly assembled flower wreath to the shrine in his stead. She agreed, eyes radiant and one hand on his sharp bony shoulder - and it just so happened that the trek to the shrine, marked by the elf in the map in the heart of Hafter’s Woods, led right across the campsite of some rogue Templars.

Not red Templars, no. Those have a code, at least; a conviction that they have been wronged and that General Samson will guide them to salvation… which keeps on burning in their eyes until the red shackles close in, mincing their muscle and skin and brain matter into a zigzag-edged mass of broken rubies.

But the men and women in Hafter’s Woods had none of that. They were mere thugs, who had relished in killing, burning, and marauding under the pretext of 'finding apostates’ when their order still stood - and were now relishing all of that even more, not bound by pretense, free to gorge themselves on their own greed and cruelty as long as there were tiny defenseless elven homesteads and already half-barren, demon-ravished human farms for them to desolate.

Perhaps Sula would have tried to persuade them to abandon their bandit-like ways, like she had done with the Blades of Hessarian - but her very appearance, a hesitant figure under the arch of the draughty, overgrown ruins that they had claimed as base, was met with a hail of arrows.

Tossing aside the confounding map, the Seeker raced forth, her shield raised to meet new and new arrows, which filled the air like a cloud of angry wasps. Sula, Dorian, and Alexius himself, in the meanwhile, fell back to cover her advance with a stream of mage fire. Dozens of shooting stars zooming so close to earth, burning a sparkling path of white and purple and orange through the increasingly dense blueness of the evening.

They made good work of those blackguards, mostly… But at one point, Alexius made the dangerous mistake of gawking at Sula over his shoulder, a pulse of heat travelling down from his heart at the sight of her waltz in that blaring artificial starlight, commanding a destructive arcane flow with reluctance and yet with formidable skill. One of the few rogue Templars that still remained on his feet - a sallow, gap-toothed archer whose bow had been shredded to thin dangling strips by the Seeker’s blade, along with much of the left side of his body - mustered one last, wheezing breath… And threw an arrow at Alexius.

He did not even fire it - he had nothing to do that with. He just… threw it, before collapsing on the mossy stone and soaking his springy green cushion with his own gore. Threw it; like one would throw a stick when playing with those Fereldan dogs.

And, fueled by the thug’s final agony, the strike would have likely punched a spurting red hole somewhere in Alexius’ gut… But Sula, ever caring, ever protective, Fade-stepped in front of him, in a jitter of silvery light - and blocked the arrow toss with her chest.

The good old Despair, of course, could not pass up such an opportunity to strip Alexius’ vision of all colour except charcoal-like smudges of grey, and his hearing of all sounds, from Dorian’s worried outcry to the flopping of dewy grass against his feet; and to make his arms feel like they had been severed below the elbow - even though he could make out them holding on to Sula, who had been knocked off her feet and sank against him, so lifelessly heavy.

The greyness and the numbness let him go as abruptly as it had claimed him, almost making him squawk stupidly together with exhaling the air from his (suddenly functioning) lungs. All it took was for Sula to blink, and lift a limp-wristed hand weakly to grasp at the arrow shaft, and mutter,

'I… I am all right… I think it hit my Mercy’s Crest… I suppose I’ll have to requisition a new one…’

She will, won’t she? The old amulet fell apart beyond repair the moment Alexius telekinetically pulled the arrowhead free, while the Seeker and Dorian were dispatching the two or three remaining Templars. Calm and focused and collected, with none of that piteous shaking that had overtaken him when he was trying to help her at the infirmary.

He is not certain why he brought this piece of it back, digging for it in the dirt when Sula was not looking. Is he going sentimental? Senile? What power could a speck of glinting rock possibly hold over him, that he has become chained to it and cannot quite break free?

'You are thinking thoughts; dim and shadowy, beyond the places where the candlelight can reach,’ a rhythmic voice comments, and Alexius does not need to turn his head to know that there is a boy in a scarecrow hat sitting on his bedding. Probably cross-legged; probably swaying from side to side in cadence with the ebb and flow of secrets he is trying to sift through.

'You are confused by these thoughts, scared sometimes; which is why you refuse to bring them into the light. But they won’t leave you be, pushing, pattering, unseen feet in the dark. I can help make sense of them, so they let you go. If you like’.

Alexius shrugs and weighs the crest shard absently in his palm.

'I have relied on worse sources of counsel. Let us try to put this… whatever this is… into words’.

'The old crest is broken, buried, left behind,’ Cole begins slowly. 'She will make a new one to wear, cool and comforting against her skin, a mark of mercy, a memory of making things right - but it will not be a perfect copy. Nothing ever is, not here, not in the world of people, each with a story like no other written in the swirls at their fingertips and in the seashells of their ears. It will be different; different, but not worse. Not a replacement - a new companion. Just like…’

Alexius balls his fingers into a tight fist and finally looks behind into the room, swivelling in his chair with a loud screech of wood.

Cole’s eyes glow in the night like an elf’s; pearly and unblinking, they watch. Wait. In a profound, velvety silence broken only by Alexius’ breathing. The boy, for his own part, probably does not need to breathe - but it seems as though he has filled his lungs with air in anticipation. Eager for Alexius to stumble into the answer that he has helped unearth. The answer that Alexius himself has been to embarrassed, too doubtful to accept.

'Just like Sula herself is, for me…’ he whispers.

'She… She is not a replacement for Livia… They are both different, and equally worthy of love…’

He swallows, his heart pushing hot and heavy against his ribs.

'The… magisters who forced glamours on their slaves to make them act like dead family members… They never viewed them as equals… But Sula - we may have started… wrong… But now… she is my friend, as much as Dorian is… As much as Livia and Felix were…’

His nostrils flare, and his nails cut ever deeper into his palm, before he finally rams his fist into his desk and then releases the stone shard back onto the paper.

'I don’t have to fear becoming like those magisters. I don’t have to. I am better than that. Fasta vaas, I am better than that!’

He blurts out that last exclamation so loudly that he wonders anxiously for a moment if he has scared Cole into vanishing. But then, the boy - even though he is no longer visible anywhere in the room - speaks up again, as a cryptic farewell,

'He wants to help as well. The black wall has crumbled, but even on the rainier days he has met a tender touch. Lips on his cheek, hand slipped into his from beneath the golden ruffles. He has just returned from the rookery, from facing a floe of ice. Cutting, questioning, clawing for clues with hardened raven hands. “Josephine is not to be toyed with - especially not by someone like you!”. “That was never my intention! I may have lied about a lot of things, but I would never lie about my feelings!”.

Alexius starts. Is the boy talking about… Thom Rainier? That gruff Marcher whom Sula has given a second chance? And the Ambassador as well? If he has been to the rookery - that can only mean one thing (he cannot contain a shudder here). The Spymaster.

Sula did mention her being overprotective of her Antivan friend - and a former wanted criminal is hardly better company than a Tevinter cultist. Maker, he does not envy the man. But evidently… he survived the grilling - or so Cole says.

'He looked into the ice, stalwart, stoic, strong with the soothing silk of memories wrapped around his heart. Gold and fragrance, a dance of curls, a constellation of birthmarks. And the ice looked back at him, melting, mellowing, meandering through memories of her own. Not silk, though - furs, covers drawn around shivering shoulders, painted orange by the campfire that still burns across the ten years, in the same corner of her mind where the rose blooms. She remembered her friend, dozing, dreaming, held hopefully by the man of steel and shadow, turned from enemy to friend by a sip from a tainted cup, turned from friend to lover by the smile in the eyes that had once reflected the smoke and cinders left after his retreat from Ostagar. She remembered, the woman of ice, and she let him go from the rookery. Free to learn, to love, to look to the future with the eyes of a changed man. He is very happy - and he wants you to feel the same happiness. He is coming! He is here!’

'Wait!’ Alexius reaches after Cole - but the only reply he gets is the quiet, intermittent knock on his door.

'Hello?’ Thom’s voice calls to him, hoarse and uncertain. 'Alexius? Listen, I know it’s late… But I was wondering if you could… join me for drinks. At the tavern. If that’s not too beneath you. I had… a thought I kind of wanted you to hear’.

Amazed at what his own limbs are doing, Alexius gets up and lets the Marcher in - as far as his crammed living arrangements can allow. He catches a glimpse of a guard observing the scene from around the corner; but they do not betray any sign of disapproving, or trying to stop him and his late-night guest from talking. He supposes that he is slowly winning the Inquisition’s trust.

'Cole warned me of your little… intervention,’ he says, rather dryly. 'Something about… making me feel happy?’

'That kid and his brain-digging,’ Thom shudders, but not too strongly. 'Still can’t quite get used to it. But yes… Feel free to sneer at me in your superior Tevinter way - but since things are going really well between me and Josi… the Ambassador, I figured you and Sula deserve the same’.

Alexius draws himself up so tall that his head almost hits the ceiling. Cole is one thing - but when it comes to mortal wingmen (and women) he thought he had drawn the line at the Seeker.

'Sula? What do you know of Sula?’ he spits. 'Who gave you the right to stick your hairy nose into the… the private…’

'I know you have feelings for her,’ Thom cuts him short. 'And you won’t know if she returns those feelings until you ask her. That’s what I wanted to talk about. Over drinks’.

Alexius heaves a breath. He is ready to say no, to push Thom out of the door with a charge of telekinetic magic… Until he spots, out of the corner of his eye, the glint of the shattered Mercy’s Crest in the light of his candle.

'Very well,’ he says, putting the flame out. 'But if anyone else in Skyhold learns of this, I will have your blood for breakfast’.

Chapter Text

There were, in fact, other people who learned of Alexius and Thom’s… gossip night. Two other people.

One of them was the Seeker, who had come to the tavern to rest and refresh herself with some watered-down mead, likely after a training session that had lasted well into the dusk. She scowled when Thom walked by her, head drawn into his shoulders as though he were a scolded child. No surprise there: she is far less forgiving than her Inquisitor.

But when the two men settled down not too far from her, and Thom said, clearing his throat, ‘So, about you and Sula…’, the Seeker pulled her chair to their table with a head-shattering grind that only failed to draw the attention of the entire tavern because everyone else was busy watching an arm-wrestling match between the Qunari mercenary captain and the Soporati boy he has as his second-in-command.

'I know I should not interrupt,’ she began, with just the slightest hint at passive aggression - maybe jealous of Alexius discussing the affairs of his heart with a somewhat dubious character like Thom Rainier, instead of her, the Original Wingwoman.

'But… Have you truly changed your mind about pursuing the Inquisitor?! You… you have my full support. I have observed you fighting side by side with her, and sincerely fretting over her wounds. I am quite satisfied with the purity of your intentions’.

'That makes two of you,’ Alexius quipped weakly, while Thom made an awkward attempt at waving his hand. 'And… If you are so generous with your trust in me, Master Rainier here deserves it as well. Even with the… untruths he told the Inquisition’.

'Hm,’ Cassandra grunted curtly - and her scowl smoothed over. Which was already… progress.

The other person was Scout Harding, who had been hovering around the notice board, muttering something about settling the date for dance classes… not disappointing Sera… getting treats to make up for all the other classes she’d missed.

She lowered herself onto a vacant bench beside their table quite absentmindedly - but then, she looked around, met Alexius’ gaze, and chirped,

'Oh, good evening! Are Lady Pentaghast and Ser Black… Rainier trying to get you to ask the Inquisitor out?’

'How did you…’ Alexius mouthed, his voice even weaker than the previous time.

'Oh, please! I have known since the Fallow Mire! And I have seen Lady Pentaghast watching you two sometimes, with the same expression as when she is reading her books - so she must know as well! And Ser Rainier just recently had a meeting with Lady Nightingale - and I distinctly heard the word “feelings” as I was climbing up to the rookery with my report!’

'Maker’s balls, you really are one of Leliana’s best,’ Thom shook his head, coughing into his beard.

'I try,’ Harding beamed. 'And my gut tells me that Her Worship might be feeling the same way! You absolutely should discuss this with her! Beats sitting and pining!’

Discuss this with her. Discuss this with her.

The same advice was repeated, over and over, more colourfully as the drinks began to arrive, throughout what felt like half the night. Intermingled with reassurances that no, Alexius is not too old to be in love; that Sula would hear him out, and make any possible rejection as painless as she could; that if she hated him for being from Tevinter, she would have made it clear long ago - not that Sula has ever hated anyone, not even Corypheus, and he is a saint compared to Corypheus.

Tipsy and stupefied by the thundering cacophony of helpful voices, he scarcely remembers how he bade the three wingpeople farewell and escaped the airless, white-hot cage that the place gradually began to turn into.

Once he is outside, he leans against the wall, inhales, letting the night air wash some of the hazy heat off his flushed face, and looks up into the smiling crescent face of the moon.

'They are so en… enthusiastic, aren’t they?’ he tells it, sighing deeply. 'Perhaps… Perhaps I should?.. We have been friends for so long… She won’t mock me, won’t despise me - she shouldn’t; it’s not in her character… But Maker, I am still having misgivings… I have been telling myself my love is unrequited for so long, it has become a habit…’

He sighs again and walks back to his quarters, making a point of taking the long way round, so that the influence of alcohol, however subtle, dissipates. He does not want to accidentally start a fire while trying to light a candle, after all.

For he most definitely intends to light a candle. He needs to see what he is writing down - on the sheet of paper that he tentatively titles,

'Things to Say to Sula’.

He swallows a lump in his throat before he begins, a headache beginning to coil behind his left temple, small and slippery like a serpent hatchling fresh out of its soft slimy eggshell. Biting into his lips takes his mind off it, however - and thus, he poises his quill, sighs once more, and starts scribbling (with his face growing flushed again the further he progresses).

'Sula… Sula, my dearest friend - I am eternally grateful for what you did for me.

'Your presence, your radiant warmth, brought me from my knees when I thought I had sunk to depths from where there is no return.

'The pain of losing my family, of betraying everything I hold dear, is still with me - I will always carry it in my heart; but thanks to you, I can surmount it. I can live, truly live, not letting that pain conquer me. Because beside the pain, there is something else now. Hope, and determination to right my wrongs - and also, love.

'I love you, Sula. I admire you as a mage, a leader, an example to those poor young Circle-bred southerners who have no idea what they are capable of. I cherish you as a close companion, a fellow researcher and explorer of the world on either side of the Veil, an astoundingly compassionate friend… And I am utterly infatuated with you as a woman.

'Please rest assured that the latter part does not obligate you to do anything. If you do not feel the same way about me (which I suspect is more than likely) and yet are not entirely revolted, then I shall stay silent about it from now on, and shall do my best to make our friendship as comfortable for you as possible. Especially if you have already pledged your affections to someone else - in which case, I am tremendously happy for you.

'If, on the other hand, you decide that you want nothing to do with me - an understandable choice, what with the unfortunate implications of our peoples’ history - I shall also respect your wishes, and continue to serve you as a researcher. Efficient and distant and safely cut off from you.

'Please accept my apologies for disturbing you; the pain of bottling up my feelings for you outweighs the pain of possible rejection, but it is my fault, not yours, if you find me wanting’.

Ah. This is too stiff, too official, too derivative from an old-fashioned romance novel. He will have to revise this in the morning. So Alexius tells himself as he mechanically shuffles his papers and changes into a nightshirt and crawls into bed.

But in the morning - and such a goddamn early morning, too - he is awakened by the imperious tapping of a raven’s beak against the window pane, and has to drag himself sluggishly from under the patchwork quilt (magically knitted by Sula while he was in the infirmary, to keep him warm through the southern nights) and hand the winged messenger his research report - still with no conclusion, but with some tangible first rests at least.

Sula would have understood if the report had gotten delayed, but the ravens never will. They are the underlings of the Spymaster herself, and her goodwill largely depends on him being useful to the Inquisition.

As the demanding bird flies off, Alexius falls back into bed - moments before his heart lurches with a panicked premonition, and he has to jump towards the desk again, his legs almost twisting into a braid.

It’s… It’s just as he feared. He gave the raven the wrong paperwork; his report is still there, still mocking him with its lack of conclusion - but (as he discovers after some feverish rummaging, his hands feeling like they exist in a separate plane from his body) the plan of his high-brow speech on feelings for Sula is gone. Gone!

This is not how he intended to confess his feelings! This was meant to be a draft for a face-to-face conversation, not an unsolicited love letter! Kaffas, what will Sula think?!

Cursing so violently that he comes close to choking out his tongue, Alexius tosses the quilt over his nightshirt like some school-play-level imitation of an ancient Tevene toga, telekinetically knots a towel round his waist in lieu of a belt, and, cramming his feet into a pair of shoes with the ferocity of Seeker Pentaghast as she skewers a training dummy, marches to Commander Cullen’s office.

The lion knight is, thankfully, an early riser; Alexius catches him, already in full armour and cleanly washed, in the middle of setting down his latest Knitted Mabari Of Encouragement (so and so months without lyrium), which he must have been twirling around in his hands as a ritual to ring in a new work day.

'I need leave to Emprise du Lion!’ Alexius barks, right off the threshold. 'I… mistakenly sent the Inquisitor a wrong document instead of my research findings! I must hand the right one to her personally, and apologize for the mishap!’

The Commander blinks at him, probably dazed by the bright colour pattern of his… garment. Eventually, the sheer terror on Alexius’ face seems to convince him, and he says, his eyes darting from the frazzled quilt-wearing mage in his doorway to the phylactery on his desk and back again,

'Documents… are an important matter. I shall grant you leave. But you will have to travel with a scout’.

'Fine, fine,’ Alexius chops at the air impatiently with his hand to show that he is ready to agree to anything. 'Just… kindly let it be a fast one!’

The scout that is summoned to aid (and guard) Alexius, a round-faced, blue-eyed young fellow by the name of James, does prove quite fast. Both when strutting to the stables and harnessing a pair of horses for a magically sped-up journey, and when finding his bearings in the village of Sarhnia - which turns out to be a tiny smattering of bare-walled, box-like homes along the bank of a frozen river. Each with an identical painted door, once a bright, cheery blue, now peeling off in some places and yielding to black mould in others, which gives the wood a texture very similar to the broad strip of many-shaded, crackling ice that stretches beyond the rooftops.

The unexpected winter has clearly rendered quite a blow to these people; as he and James walk the desolate streets, asking for directions where the bulk of the Inquisition went, Alexius is rather reminded of the similar piles of ramshackle boxes that have stuck with him so vividly ever since his naïve charity missions to the Soporati quarters in the days of his youth. Except with white snow swirling down the narrow alleyways instead of yellowish-brown dust.

But even here, in these poverty-stricken, hunger-licked streets, where the air is clogged with milky gusts of hoarse breath and frightened whispers of more people going missing 'in the quarry’ (Alexius thinks; they are mostly talking in Orlesian), there is still some hope and warmth. They don’t have to go far to find Inquisition soldiers setting up clamouring soup kitchens, and children trotting about, decked in fuzzy, vivid garments that, with an involuntary flush, Alexius recognizes as Sula’s knitwork.

One little girl, turned into a cone by the many, many layers of warm clothing, freezes in front of him, maybe puzzled by his… clownish exterior (he is glowing subtly as well, having to sustain an aura of harmless fire magic to keep his teeth from chattering). Then, the child wordlessly holds out a pair of patchwork socks that are too big for her but the perfect size to warm the icy feet of a wayward magister… Who accepts the gift with an awkward cough; the last thing he wants is to catch that embarrassing nose-leaking sickness again.

'Please don’t scold her, monsieur,’ an adult woman - a mother or sister? - says to Alexius as she skids hastily across the icy pavement and catches the girl’s hand.

'She… has never been a big talker, and fell silent like a little fishie… after our Lucille went to work the quarry and never came back… Did not even go outside… But then she saw the Lady Herald out the window, giving things to people… And she brightened up… Started smiling and waving her hands like she does when she is happy… The Herald, Maker bless her, left her a whole sack of wooly clothes… And told her, in a real important voice, that she is an agent now, and her job is to hand these out to others… And she has been doing just that, monsieur! So… So please don’t scold her. She is trying her best’.

'So she is; the Herald chooses her agents well,’ Alexius says solemnly, before backing up a couple of paces to sit down on a snow-powdered pile of firewood and put the socks on (casting just a little greenish-gold spark of magic on himself to make his movements swifter, because he loathes wasting the smallest sliver of time).

The girl grins and bounces away to offer a scarf to a shuffling, coughing old woman; and Alexius and James the scout resume their journey, heading out towards that ominous quarry that has apparently been swallowing people like a bog hole - which is what Sula has gone to investigate.

They have left their horses in the care of the Inquisition agents stationed in Sarhnia - as they do need rest after such a lengthy journey, even a sped-up one. And it is when they start moving on foot, turning the badly trodden path from a porous snow drift (which is just barely lower than all the others) into a flattened dark-blue thread of boot prints, that Alexius realizes just how talkative his efficient new comrade actually is.

When he is not being deafened by the crunching of the snow, Alexius keeps hearing him gasp and whimper and bemoan just how gorgeous the Commander is, and how he, a simple scout, must stay contented with quietly pining from afar, his hand on his chin, his heart in his throat, his ears ablaze, and trying not to make too much of a mess of himself when he has to deliver a report. For he will never be in the same league as this perfect gift from the Maker, this, as dwarves put it, absolute and unrivalled paragon of beauty, this roseate daydream come true…

His litany of woes is rather… touching to hear, come to think of it. At some point, Alexius begins to wonder if he can scrounge up some counsel for the youth - go forth and tell your Commander of Perfection how you feel about him! But it's probably best if he kept his mouth shut; he is hardly an authority figure for boys with crushes. Look at what a fiasco his own… ideas about courtship led to - but before he can voice his opinion, poor James is cut short by a very urgent caw, which heralds the arrival of yet another feathered courier of the Inquisition.

Much to Alexius’ and the scout’s mutual bewilderment, the raven does not land on James’ forearm, even though he has already most helpfully extended it, in what must be a habitual gesture. Instead, it hovers for a few seconds before Alexius, almost whipping his frozen cheeks into a fleshy jelly with its strong black wings - and leaves, dropping an envelope into the hands.

The envelope is addressed - in Sula’s hand, his drumming heart screams at him - 'To Gereon Alexius, Inquisition researcher’. He feels a little… faint as he prepares to unseal it, needing to seek the support of a lichen-bearded boulder off the side of the path. (As a pleasant bonus, the lichen strands hide him from the curious eyes of James, like a curtain of matted fleece).

What… does this formal tone indicate, he asks himself nervously, his hands beginning to sweat despite the frost.

Has Sula already seen his… confession draft, and decided that she does not want to see him as anything but a researcher? Or… Or are these simply some findings on the local wilderness, like the ones she shared with him when exploring other regions of southern Thedas? She did sign those letters in the same fashion, didn’t she? Either way… Either way, he can face her response with grace; he has to. She deserves no less.

With a small flump, the seal comes off… And reveals neither of the things Alexius thought he would see.

'I must write this down,’ the envelope’s contents read. 'Or I will never get it out of my head.

'I can’t stop thinking of the time when Gereon made himself invisible by tampering with that cursed ring. I can’t stop thinking of how I - even though I could not remember him! - was still adamant that I loved him. Love him. Surely, that is a sign? A message - from the spirits, the gods, the ancestors, whoever - that what I feel is strong, and pure, and powerful. Too powerful to keep contained forever. Too powerful to force behind this wall silence, which sometimes makes me feel as though my chest is a well, and I am just pelting, pelting the rocks of unspoken words into it until it gets filled up and I cannot breathe any longer (I think Cole whispered that part to me, and he was so right).

'Gereon may not love me back, and I would never force him to, especially since he is still treated as my captive by some… But maybe I should still try and talk to him? Just… Try and let him know that, apart from being proud of how much he has done to heal from his losses, apart from being ever so excited to swap magic knowledge with him, apart from wanting to take a deep breath and just sing with glee when I think back to all these steps we took to build our wonderful friendship - I also believe that he is very handsome. That his age - which he sometimes jokes so wryly about - has only made him look more dignified, every line telling of experience and a storied past. That… No, I will probably not tell him of what Gina showed me in her naughty visions; that would be far too shameless.

'Just as it would be shameless to… roll up to him and offer myself in the place of his wife. And if my advances insult him, it will be my fault, and mine alone. But I just want… Oh Creators, I just want to look into his beautiful eyes and tell him that I love him! Is that truly so awful?’

Chapter Text

Varric is already in the middle of tackling the heavy locks that the red Templars have hung on the crammed, spiky, cart-carried cages where they have been holding the missing ‘quarry workers’ (potential fodder for more of those damned flesh-eating crystals) - when a shambling straggler, from among the quarry guards that their little team of five has just fought, drags his (its?) malformed, grotesquely asymmetrical lyrium-pierced body up the slope towards the cages, and swipes the larger, more swollen of its gnarly red arms at the dwarf’s coat tails.

The creature almost gets him, too - while the poor cowering captives behind the spiky bars gasp collectively and huddle to one side of their cages, further away, with their arms wrapped over their heads and eyes scrunched up, so as not to see the horrid demise of one Varric Tethras of Kirkwall, turned into a cat’s toy by the scraping, piercing crystalline claws of a red Templar.

This nearly makes the carts keel over and rattle down the rockside onto the steely ice far below - but Sula reacts not a second too soon and throws her arms apart, fingers curled, straining to freeze the carts in place with telekinesis. Dorian and Jowan, the other two mages in the party, hurry to join her, the semi-transparent green chains of their own magic adding up to the charge of Sula’s spell. And the remaining team member, Alvor of the Avvar - once the Hand of Korth, now Alvor Lavellanson, honorary Bull’s Charger in more ways than one – handles the rescue of one Varric Tethras of Kirkwall, his trusty war hammer cracking the head of the Red Templar like it was a piece of cherry-flavoured hard candy in one fell swoop.

'Dear Maker, I see the appeal that Bull finds in you,’ Dorian remarks, as the mages pull at the telekinetic chains to steer the carts with the cages away from the sheer drop before Varric can resume his lockpicking.

Alvor grunts vaguely, flexing his massive shoulders with an unexpectedly bashful look on his bearded face - and Dorian adds, casting a side glance at Jowan,

'I am just making light conversation!’

'I wasn’t saying anything,’ Jowan pipes up, reaching up to pull at his robe’s collar, now that he carts are on solid ground and the green glow of telekinesis has faded.

'I know you,’ Dorian reproaches him softly. 'I know what is passing through your silly, precious head: “Look! Dorian is impressed by someone else! Time for me to step aside! I was never good enough anyway!”.  Sounds familiar?’

'I… But it’s true that…’ Jowan mumbles. 'I am not exactly…’

It takes a gentle touch along his unshaven cheek, and a kiss on the inside of his scarred wrist, between the sleeve and the mitten, to make the stammering, almost weepy apostate fall quiet. While he is being… reassured, Varric manages to crack the locks, and, beaming gratefully at him, Sula steps forward to face the crowd of workers, whom Alvor is helping clamber out, on their stiff, malnourished, long-since-asleep legs.

She leaves vigorously through her journal - strapped to her belt alongside a potion kit - looking for a list of everyone missing from Sarhnia to do a little roll call… And squeaks in panic.

'Everything all right, Blueberry?’ Varric asks her.

'I… My journal became unbound after that great bear chewed on it, and I accidentally sent some pages with private notes to Skyhold… Instead on that dawnstone sketch I wanted to share with…’ she coughs out, now looking as crushed as Jowan. 'All right, all right, I will think how to talk my way out of this later… Now we must get everyone home… But ughhh, I am so stupid!’

Her anguish is only increased when a messenger raven suddenly flaps onto the scene, smacking her on the head with a scroll that, once she unfolds it, colours her face almost the same shade as the dead pile of lyrium beside her. But all those mishaps with the Skyhold raven post are the tiniest trifles compared to what comes next.

Sula is still gaping at the scroll that the raven brought when the ground lurches under her feet, and the crag at the mouth of which they have gathered reverberates with an ever-mounting rhythm, like distant drums approaching.

Sula’s ears shoot up, rotating to face fully forward, and the drumming fills them like the rumble of the sea fills a pair of conches.

'Fenedhis!’ she exclaims, motioning for everyone to get out of the way. 'It sounds like a stampede!’

Presently, she is proven right. The rocky passage boils with a rushing, living stream of enormous, humped leathery backs, with hardened, scimitar-shaped nose horns jutting out of it like shark fins.

Moving in a non-stop unison, gaping to their left and right with tiny, unseeing, filmed-over eyes, these massive creatures are easily recognizable as gurns, native to the deserts of the Western Approach. And as the team members’ widened eyes register the spikes of red lyrium that have ploughed through their skin, sometimes turning their humps into whole mounds of bleeding crystal, it becomes painfully obvious what these hapless beasts are doing so far away from home, and why they are running with such mindless determination, not faltering no matter which obstacle their red-pierced chest might run into. A tree, a cart - or, potentially, a person.

'More of the red Templars’ test subjects! Like those poor giants from Suledin Keep! They must have… broken free somehow!’ Sula cries, while poking her head from behind a boulder where she and Varric ducked, pulling the sluggish, dazed captive workers with them.

Beyond that boulder, begins the stony, snow-capped decline of the river bank. Fatally steep, had the carts careened down it, but manageable for a handful of people that are cautiously making their way further and further down on foot, crawling (sometimes on all fours, their rag-wrapped bodies too weak from all this time behind bars) out of the stampede’s way under the watchful eye of their dwarven shepherd.

Sula has remained at the bank’s topmost point, casting frowning glances from the retreating captives to her other companions - who have darted to the other side of the stampede’s path, and currently worry her more than Varric’s stumbling flock.

Unlike the workers, Alvor, Dorian, and Jowan, tossed by the living river against the many-tiered wooden scaffolding that spans the quarry, have nowhere to go but up.

And so they do. At least, so Alvor does, stuffing each mage under a log-thick Avvar arm and leaping from one wobbly, creaking platform to the other - even as some of the gurns, driven to a self-destructive rage by the ravenous crystals that that are lining their veins and gorging on their blood, begin to pound their one-horned heads against the support pillars, so that the whole construct, never too resilient in the first place, begins to sway, folding and unfolding as though all those ice-crusted planks and ladders were cut out of rippling paper.

'Do be careful!’ Dorian croaks, trying instinctively to reach for Jowan’s hand across Alvor’s broad torso, while his eyes follow, with scarcely a single blink, the crashing descent of the lower half of the ladder that the Avvar has just braved. Splitting into matchstick fragments, it plummets down into the gurn river; the shards of wood bounce off the beasts’ crystalline humps and inevitably wind up under their stomping feet, beaten down into fine sawdust… Painting a very clear picture of the fate that will befall Alvor and his wriggling, kitten-like mage passengers after the very first, slightest misstep or botched jump.

'Don’t fuss, lowlander,’ the Avvar booms, sounding indulgent as a parent tending to a frightened child… Which does not quite match up with the image of him making another powerful hop, like one of the mountain goats whose pelts and horns his former kin adorn themselves with, and landing with a controlled, assured grace on a jagged ledge of rock that juts out over the topmost tier of the scaffolding.

'This is just like settling arguments through the Trial of the Lady of the Skies!’

'All… All right…’ Dorian mutters through a shudder of an aftershock - not really understanding. Once he better musters the strength of his voice (and amplifies it with a light tap of magic-swathed fingers under his jaws), he yells across the quarry,

'Will these creatures ever end?!’

'I don’t know!’ Sula yells back, slowly pulling herself on top of her boulder and casting the same spell to speak up louder. 'But we have to… corral them somehow! I think the lyrium has driven the poor things mad; they will destroy Sarhnia if they reach it!’

'Well, I’d wager quite a few of them are already on the road!’ Dorian points out.

And as the thunder of the racing gurns blocks out even his magically bolstered voice, the five adventurers, and the poor huddled workers, are left to imagine the wild herd bursting into the little settlement, ploughing the streets in their agonized fury, hammering their lyrium humps against the building walls until the plaster begins to crack, and pinning helpless passersby on their horns, the crimson glow of the crystals growing brighter with the blood that washes over them, hot and fresh and steaming in the frosty air.

But, thankfully, that gut-clenching vision never comes to pass. For even though the gurns flood out of the crag and onto the open path back to Sarhnia, their pounding, lyrium-tainted tide is abruptly turned back as a wall of flame erupts in their way. It goes without saying that it’s not a natural flame: for one thing, it does not eat through the layer of ice and snow on either side of it; and for another, there are impulses of different shades coursing through it. Deep purple closer to the rimy ground, gorged with juicy colour like the peel of a ripened plum, with small curly strokes of over-saturated pink snaking in places against the dark background. Sky-blue in the middle, so vibrant that it hurts to look at it for too long, tears eventually misting over and turning the flames into a bleary chunk of something vaguely lilac. And white as a flare of lightning at the tips of the dancing fiery tongues, scorching the onlookers’ eyes even more.

Some of the gurns, perhaps too far-gone in the throes of their lyrium infection, canter straight into the fire without as much as slowing down; and the haze of purple, pink, blue, and white envelops the whole, licking their heavy, half-crystallized flesh off their carcasses in a split second. Soundless and clean.

All the rest obey the call self-preservation and, huffing through their oval nostrils, veer back towards the quarry. Now all that needs to be done is to lock them in where they cannot harm anyone.

Which Dorian and Jowan set to doing, from their perch on the top of the craggy wall, summoning their telekinetic chains again and pulling at the cage carts. Along with a rock or two, and any of the scaffolding debris that they can draw into the area of their spell’s effect.

Sula, of course, lends them a hand - but not before one last wondering, almost longing glance at the flame wall. It is too dense, and too dazzling, to make out the features of the caster on the other side… But the intent look on Sula’s freckled face suggests that she has recognized this style of magic. Perhaps she has seen something like it before - in the waking world, or in the Fade?

No matter. Before long, Sula becomes completely absorbed in aiding her fellow mages; the stone, metal, and wood all grind and bump together, gradually shaping a circular enclosure in the heart of the quarry - which is completed at the precise moment when the last of the gurns flees from the flame wall.

'What now?’ Jowan asks, shivering uncomfortably as the beasts within the enclosure begin headbutting one another and nearly pinning themselves on the ruby spikes that rise out of their neighbours’ sides (maybe in an attempt to peel off their own stifling coat of lyrium).

'Maybe we could put them to sleep?’ Sula suggests. 'Then send a raven to Minaeve and Helisma to ask if anything can be done about them? Maybe some of them are still healthy, just running along with the herd… or infected just a tiny bit, with skin-deep lyrium growths can be cut out before they spread? And if nothing helps, we can boost the sleeping enchantment until the gurns drift off to the Beyond!’

'But that would imply guarding them all this time to keep them from waking up too soon’ Dorian reasons. 'And we have other things to do around the Emprise! Like confronting that Pouline woman! About knowingly giving her people to the red Templars!’

'I can do the guarding,’ Alvor says, unceremoniously grabbing both mages again and beginning a downward climb (more careful and measured now that half the scaffolding has collapsed).

'It will be a good deed, and something to tell Bull about afterwards’.

'Oh, I think he will love the tale!’ Sula beams supportively. Moulding a barrier around Alvor and his burden just in case.

When her three friends land on solid ground again, the barrier going out with a soft pop and Dorian and Jowan nearly becoming fused together in an embrace, Sula turns around, leans over her boulder’s side, and asks,

'Hey Varric - everyone safe down there? Do you still have some of your sleeping powder left? You know, the one you used to knock out that behemoth?’

'Yeah, more than half a flask, Blueberry! And a spare one untouched!’ Varric wheezes back at her, pushing his stocky dwarven for up the slope. 'The workers are all fine - though a little overwhelmed by all the shit! Here!’

He straightens up and tosses Sula a round-bellied phial filled with what looks like fine, glittering amethyst dust. She catches it in mid-flight, releasing a shining, silky green thread of more telekinetic energy from her open palm and looping it around the vessel’s neck. She then yanks at the thread, so that the phial soars over the heads of the restless, shoving gurns and rains its contents on them, as if sprinkling them with salt.

Before the phial is even fully emptied, the gurns thrashing motions grow slower and more erratic, and one by one, the curl their thick legs under their low-hanging bellies and settle on the snowy ground; and the throbbing of clotted, streaking dark-red shadows within their crystals evens out to match the calmer, sleepy rhythm of their heartbeat.

'These are mighty beasts,’ Alvor says sadly, peering over the side of the makeshift enclosure. 'The red Templars did a vile deed, corrupting them. But then… They have no souls left for the birds to carry; even the hungriest scavenger will never touch their corpses’.

'I’d be worried if they did; the last thing we need is freaky infected birds pecking everyone to death,’ Varric mutters, while strutting towards Alvor to hand him his spare phial of sleeping powder. 'Hey, Bushy - if you really wanna stay and guard the critters, you will need this. In case they start waking up’.

'Thank you, Master Tethras,’ says Alvor - who has always been pointedly respectful towards Varric, probably because his people have a long history of trading with the dwarves.

As he reaches for the phial, the shift of the weight loosens one of the planks that he has been leaning on, and makes it slide to the ground, creating a gap… Which is small at first, passing unnoticed by either Varric or Alvor - but when it is Sula’s turn to approach the enclosure and check on the sleeping beasts, there is a sudden commotion behind the barrier of rock and wood, and a gurn horn bursts out through the gap, followed by a head, and finally, the whole body. A bulky heap of muscle and crystalline tissue, which rips free in an almost firework-like jet of smashed splinters.

One of the creatures, suffering from a particularly advanced stage of red lyrium infection, has not been affected by the powder as much as the others. And it looks like it is being very, very annoyed by green flashes of the barrier that a startled Sula has conjured to protect herself, and the companions that are standing nearest to her, from the rain of dagger-sharp wood pieces.

It limps up to her, with its head lowered so that the scarlet spikes that frame its chin, beard-like, almost scrape the ice, and with bloody tears leaking out of its beady eyes, which are half-obscured by drooping, swollen eyelids that are covered in red lyrium flakes like in dragon scales leaking. Then, the gurn inflates its nostrils, every breath a rattle, and makes a sound like the call of a trumpet, exposing a raw throat that has almost been sealed shut with red lyrium growths.

Through some miracle, the sound does not wake the rest of the herd; but it does make Sula stagger back, her barrier flickering out. Even more so as she observes the creature’s suffering, her shoulders sagging under the unspoken and yet screaming thought that this poor thing is too far gone.

'Oh,’ she says in a small voice, giving the gurn a weak smile as her back hits the quarry wall and it dawns on her that she has nowhere to dodge to.

'The… The nasty light is gone now! You shouldn’t be so upset any more, should you?’

But the gurn already has its dying mind set on one thing. Charge forth… And stomp, stomp, stomp, until it falls, slipping on the bloody pulp that its target will have turned to.

With a throaty, rather bawl-like roar, it flings itself at Sula… and rolls to the side, deathly still, its pounding, lyrium-speared heart stopped by a single strike of lightning magic. Which did not come from Dorian, or from Jowan, who have not had time to spring to Sula’s defense.

No, the bolt that put the infected gurn out of its misery was cast by another mage; the same mage that summoned the flame wall, which by now has sizzled down, allowing him to pass, the zigzagging trail of the Fade Step spell melting in his wake.

His attire - a bright patchwork quilt held in place by a crinkled towel - does not quite match his dramatic entrance; but nonetheless, Sula cannot contain a shrill, breathless 'Ah!’ when she watches him step over the dead gurn’s bloated, red-crusted neck and stop in front of her, as if awaiting judgement.

'Did you…’ he begins, with a laboured gulp.

'Yes,’ she mouths, her ears flaming a piping-hot magenta. 'And did you…’

'I did,’ he admits, also turning the same colour. 'The raven… I…’

She makes a tentative gesture, requesting him to stop speaking, while her eyes travel over her flabbergasted team mates (Dorian seems especially appalled by the mage’s garb), and the gurn enclosure, which still needs to be properly secured, and the river bank, where the quarry workers still wait to be escorted back home.

'Later,’ she tells him softly, beckoning him to join the rest of her companions in finishing their work to help the people of Sarhnia.

'Later,’ he echoes, and follows her lead.

Chapter Text

That promised moment, that later moment, comes only after the little party returns to Sarhnia - save for Alvor the Avvar, who is to watch over the sleeping gurns in the reinforced enclosure, until word arrives whether at least some of them can be treated for lyrium infection and brought back home to the desert (say, in those very cages the red Templars used for their human ‘harvest’).

Only after Sula hears out the report from the soup kitchens, and stops to visit and praise the little girl that has been helping her deliver warm clothes to the townsfolk.

Only after she walks inside the home of the quarry’s former owner, Mistress Pouline, and questions her, in a gentle but noticeably disappointed voice, about selling out her people to 'the knights’… And then ends up hugging her anyway, promising that her sentence at the hand of the Inquisition will be merciful, and Sarhnia will be protected, and rebuilt with her help.

The Inquisition agents have been allowed to rest between missions in one of the larger vacant buildings around town. Its owners, three or four siblings, all of army conscript age, perished in Celine and Gaspard’s civil war - and now their empty bedrooms house the road-weary team of adventurers, back from dealing with enough red lyrium to last several lifetimes.

It is in one of these bedrooms that Sula settles, stretching her legs, undoing her hair with a swoosh of magic, and casting off her long overcoat and buttoned vest and rumpling it all carelessly into a dark, shapeless bundle at the foot of her bed, where she is now sitting, the mattress creaking quietly under her weight. She digs her fingers into her cascading, unbraided locks, puffing out her cheeks as she prepares to heave a huge breath, when she hears a knock on the door and a hushed voice calling her name.

The breath that she has been holding turns into a blissful sigh; a smile slowly beginning to tickle her lips, she gets up and pads barefoot towards the door.

'If this is inconvenient for you, I…’ Alexius begins, biting involuntarily into his lips when he sees that she has nothing but an undershirt, a pair of leggings, and a mane of hair to cover her folds and curves.

'No, no, come in! I am sorry I did not give you enough attention earlier!’ she sings, ushering him inside and locking the door after him.

There is a pause: they spend a few moments just looking over each other, an unuttered laugh fluttering its butterfly wings against the back of either’s throat. Sula is the first to give in; she passes her hands through her hair again and tilts her head in disbelief.

'Look at you…’ she chuckles. 'Look at your smile, your gorgeous eyes… My love; ma'lath… To think that all this time…’

'All this time…’ Alexius repeats, almost inaudibly. 'I thought it never would work…  not with someone… old and broken like me…’

'I thought you would reject me… I thought you wouldn’t fall in love a second time…’

'But I did!’ he cries out, laughter still dancing in his eyes, at the corners of his lips, as he catches Sula’s hands in his and brings them to his lips.

Not quite kissing, not yet, but speaking into them, shutting his eyes with a slight frown creasing the skin in between. As if the laughter is laced with the bitter dregs of past pain.

'I did… I might be the last man in Thedas to deserve this fortune, but… I have truly been given another chance. A fresh start. Different - but just as precious’.

The last few words are punctuated with the first kisses. Feather-light, reverent; caring silken touches, like a painter’s brush finishing up her portrait, crafted with delicate attention and adoration. Then, his mouth grows thirstier, his strokes bolder; he continues pressing his lips against her hands, harder, longer, his tongue joining in - until he brings two of her fingertips into his mouth, knitting his eyebrows in concentration and moaning under his breath.

She echoes the sound, her eyes half-lidded now, her chest heaving under her shirt. The moan comes out louder than Alexius’; this seems to startle him, and he opens his eyes and lets her hands go.

'I… Was that too much?’

'No,’ she purrs, teeth grazing fleetingly over her lower lip. 'No, no… Too good to be true, maybe… But not too much’.

She slips one hand onto his back (which is still clad in his impromptu quilt robe) and runs the other along his cheekbone. Her fingers are wet from being in his mouth, but this does little to cool off his heated skin.

'Are you… prepared for this?.. Do you know what…’ he tries to ask thickly, swallowing hard when she moves down to his jaw.

'Don’t worry about me; I have had lovers before,’ she smiles, drawing back to look at his half-melted countenance.

'That whole thing about the evil Tevinter seducing the poor innocent Herald does not hold water. I do adore showing affection to my friends, in ways that some people think are childish - but I also enjoy intimacy. Just…’

Her gaze grows serious, almost tearful.

'Just don’t ask me to hurt you. I… I can’t do that… And if there are some things that you can’t do… please tell me’.

'Oh, I have done… a lot during my lifetime,’ he smirks, steering her towards the bed in a swirling, dance-like motion - which makes her brighten up again, and wrap her arms around him with a more eager force.

'And I can’t wait to do it all anew. There is nothing that I would be averse to; nothing I wouldn’t try to make you happy… carissima’.

'There is that word again,’ she beams, while he dips her onto the bed, his waist between her legs, his lips finding her skin again, drinking in her excited warmth, tracing the line of her clavicle.

'Carissima’, he breathes into the crook of her shoulder, pausing on his way to finally meet her mouth, like he wanted to do back then, when he first let it slip.

'Carissima’, each syllable rolls leisurely around his tongue, ending with a moan as he slips it between her parted, silently begging lips, and touches her own tongue, soft, quivering, awakening the sweetest shiver with every touch.

Her head now resting on the mattress, which is blanketed by her spread-out hair, she lurches underneath him, opening her legs wider. He breaks the kiss for a short, mischievous laugh, and sneaks one hand under the hem of her shirt, and then under her leggings, diving into her smalls and smirking broader, more voraciously, when he feels them soak through, flashes of lightning magic pulsing through the layers of clothing, like the luminescence of sea creatures passing under the rippling waves.

Somewhere in the midst of it all, he edges further onto the bed, shifting his weight to his knees, because the hand he has been using for support it needed elsewhere: the sight of her radiant face, as the touch of his spell brings her to the height of pleasure, is enough to spur on his own arousal, and he has to flip back the folds of his quilt and stroke himself to a panting, groaning peak.

'You can use both hands; please, don’t overstretch yourself,’ she tells him, half-teasing, half-concerned, as soon as she is able to talk, the blue slits of her blissful eyes igniting with a spark of interest.

He obeys, finishing his work and collapsing across the bed… But presently begins to fidget, undoing his towel belt in a frantic jerk.

'Kaffas, I ruined your quilt!’ he croaks, wriggling on his back like an overturned beetle.

'No more than I ruined my own clothes,’ she murmurs, sliding up to him and pulling the stained 'toga’ off his chest, to join her smalls, and leggings, which she has kicked off to the floor. He hmms softly to himself and summons of a font of crisp, bluish spell energy to cleanse their hands and bodies.

'If this can’t be washed away, even with magic,’ she continues, savouring the spell’s touch, 'I will make another quilt and use the… clean parts of this one for, say, throw pillows for your room. You can help hold the yarn; it will be fun!’.

'You are too generous,’ he tells her drowsily, rolling up her nightshirt and idly caressing her thigh, soft much like a pillow itself, and lined with tiny stretch marks, which he studies with the dedication of a map maker.

She, too, does not miss the chance to appreciate the entirety of his naked form.

'The body ages slower than the face,’ he tells her wryly - and has to comically squish his face, much like a cat would, when she prods a finger at him, shushing him.

'Don’t even start with it! You are a delight from head to toe!’

'Not as much as you, I am certain,’ he mouths, taking her hand again and resumes his kisses, moving up her forearm. One kiss for each branch of her intricate vallaslin.

'I did not know your body was also inked,’ she says, once she stops giggling.

He pauses for breath and instinctively moves his hand to the silhouette of a sharp-nosed Tevinter ship, tattooed between his ribs.

'It does not have a deep meaning…’ his gaze clouds when he says this, and his fingers curl into a fist over the ship’s sails, which are pulled taut by a never-ending breeze.

'Just something to cover up the scar you saw me get… you know. In that memory. You can still feel it underneath; it never did go away’.

'But you managed to turn it into something beautiful,’ she pulls herself up to rest her head on his chest, and kisses him tenderly over the left side. Above his heart.

'I am so proud of you’.

His hand relaxes, and he lifts it to cup her cheek, eyebrows arching.

'My work is not yet done,’ he muses, curling a stray lock of her hair onto his fingers. 'Maybe it never will be. But I have… reasons to keep on going…’

Something snaps in his voice; he exhales, almost with a rasp, and blurts out,

'Thank you! Thank you, thank you… For allowing me to live… to grow… to love you… Thank you for everything!’

His feverish exclamations of gratitude blend with impatient bites at her lips. Until, somehow - it is not like either of them has been paying much attention to their various twists and flips all over the covers - his foot becomes tangled up in her discarded overcoat.

This has a sobering effect on him; he sits up, scoops the coat and vest (and the stained quilt and underwear as well) with a grappling lash of green light, and steers his catch telekinetically into an empty laundry basket in the corner of the room. But, no sooner does the spell dissipate, when he slaps himself across the forehead and grumbles,

'Ah, damn it; I shouldn’t have mixed my things in with yours… If someone sees the basket, they will know I was here! Let me hide the quilt away somewhere until we figure out how to… salvage it’.

'Again with the quilt,’ she laughs. 'Don’t worry so much! And…’

She scrutinizes him with a mix of incredulity and anxiousness.

'You were not going to leave and sleep on your own, were you? You have nothing else to wear; you will freeze, stumbling about naked!’

'But if I stay, they might…’

She holds his gaze, just as resolutely as she did during their first meeting, when she said to his face that the Redcliffe mages were not 'his’ to bargain for.

'If we have nothing to be ashamed of in our own eyes, then we have nothing to be ashamed of in the eyes of others. I am done hiding my feelings. Friendship or love or both. Stay with me. And don’t be afraid’.

He stays. Nestled under the covers by her side, in a complicated braid of limbs, like on that howling icy night on the way from the burned-down Haven to the new shelter of Skyhold when they first began to bond.

He stays, as he will on the many, many more nights to follow. The many more nights when they will have nothing but each other’s warmth to drown out the hissing of demons, both those from the Fade and those from the gilded Orlesian chambers; and to ease the ever darker, ever more looming dread of the approaching final confrontation with Corypheus.

He stays. And they both drift off to sleep - not knowing that, across Orlais, in a desert of orange sand rather than white snow, another tired traveller is drifting off as well. A young Warden, who stumbled into Commander Clarel’s encampment on cottonwool legs, face greyish-white and glistening as wet clay, a black, thorny collar of swollen veins around his throat, and begged to join her recruits because, in his own words, he wanted to 'make a difference’ before his sickness took him.

But the difference he is making is not… quite about upholding the Warden oath that prolonged his life. He is repaying a debt to Ser Jean-Marc Stroud, a Warden pariah hunted for questioning the Commander’s orders. Stroud rescued him from wasteland raiders when he was on his way to visit the site of his mother’s death - and now he has set aside his sombre pilgrimage, and his return to his faraway northern home. For the sake of investigating what Stroud believes to be corruption in the Warden ranks - a corruption that the young man is all too familiar with.

As he talks to his new brothers and sisters in arms, always on high alert for any scrap of information, he uses the Orlesian language, which he is fluent in. As far as grammar and vocabulary is concerned, at least - but a foreign accent, however subtle, is not that easy to hide. So, not to draw suspicion, he introduces himself as an Antivan. Tristan.

That is the very first name he comes up with, on the spur of the moment… And it makes for a rather decent cover, right? Tristan comes from the word triste, he thinks, meaning sad. And that it the direct opposite of Felix.