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Genesis of a Dragon

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The first week of it was the worst. Waking up one morning to discover you suddenly inhabited a body not your own was, to grossly understate it, a bit disorienting. Even more confusing was the fact that everyone around him was dressed like they were ready for a renaissance fair or or a con. Except that was their day-to-day attire.

He thought for sure he was dreaming when he saw an elf browsing a dusty old book. An actual elf. Not someone wearing plastic glue-on ears. The elf looked normal at first glance, but his features were too elegant and streamlined to not be just a little alien. The elf’s eyes threw him even more. On top of being just a little too large and vibrant, the pupils were vertical, like a cat’s.

When the elf caught him staring, he glared. “Can I help you, shem?”

Shem. His first clue.

Not long after he watched, slack jawed, as a boy no older than ten manifested a ball of light as a group of adults watched on. An older man saw his shocked expression and laughed softly. “He’s learning quickly, isn’t he? Barely been here a month, and already grasping the basics of the spirit tree. Watch out, these new apprentices are catching up to you.”

He could have maybe processed the fact that there were elves and people doing magic if not later that very same day he didn’t call up fire in his own hands. Despite his panic, the fire wasn’t… hurting him.

He’d been about to stop drop and roll when a man in armor approached him, hand raised. A wave of energy passed him over, and the fire disappeared. He swallowed hard—his mouth suddenly tasted of metal.

“You know the rules, apprentice. No casting outside of classes without supervision. Just because the First Enchanter said you’d be taking your Harrowing soon doesn’t mean you can ignore the rules,” the armored man said, shaking his head.

First Enchanter. His second clue. The pieces started to fall into place, and he tried very hard to not have a panic attack in front of what was very likely a templar.

“Right,” he spoke. His voice was different. Lower, more even, than before. “Sorry. Just… practicing.”

The armored man continued down the corridor, muttering something about mages and not getting paid enough.

He had panicked. Barely registering his actions, he’d all but run to what looked promisingly like a library. He’d grabbed a book off the first shelf without even checking to see what it was, found a vacant table, and opened the book and sat down.

He’d really hoped to the casual observer that he was just engrossed in the text, not fully experiencing an existential crisis.

This wasn’t happening. This was a dream. An extremely realistic dream. If not, then an elaborate prank.

Why—how the hell had he fallen asleep on his couch watching Game of Thrones and woken up in a video game? That kind of shit didn’t happen to actual people.

He’d spent what felt like an eternity of trying to rationalize. It didn’t make sense. He wasn’t sure it ever would.

His downward spiral of existential dread had been interrupted by someone shaking his shoulder. He snapped his head up to see a face he’d only previously seen before behind a computer monitor.

“Are you alright? You’re white as a sheet.”

Jowan. From the mage origin. Given that Jowan was here, he could assume this was before the Blight. That was useful to know, anyways.

He’d thought quickly, trying to come up with a reasonable way to play this off so no one would think he was possessed (which he supposed he technically was?) and get a templar to run him through.

“Yeah. Just… it just really hit me, you know? The Harrowing,” he said. The templar had said something about his—or whoever’s body he was inhabiting—expecting a Harrowing soon.

Jowan looked surprised. He gulped—was that not the right thing to say? “Really? You’re that worried? But you’re always so confident.”

“Uhm… I just didn’t want you to see how scared I am.” He was fucking terrified.

Jowan’s expression softened. “You know you don’t have to hide anything from me. You’re my best friend, you can tell me anything.” Jowan shifted a little uncomfortably, “Honestly, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Nira passed her Harrowing last month, remember? And she’s only seventeen. But to be fair, that’s Nira. Irving’s star pupil.” Jowan rolled his eyes. “Still, you’re easily the most talented of the current apprentices. I overheard Irving and Greagoir talking earlier, and they expect you’ll do well once the time comes.”

He listened carefully as Jowan spoke, trying to gather context. Someone named Nira was Irving’s favorite. That was usually whoever the Hero of Ferelden ended up being, right? And apparently he was supposed to be a competent mage. Great. So he was inhabiting a body with the power to set a city on fire, but none of the knowledge on how to actually control it.

He’d felt his hands starting to heat up. He’d clenched his fists under the table, nails biting into his palms painfully. Stop it, stop it, stop it… He’d managed not to burst into flames, at least.

Jowan had then grabbed the book laid out on the table. “What were you reading? I called you a couple times, but you were so focused I don’t think you heard me.” Jowan turned the book so he could read the cover, raising an eyebrow. “‘Koslun: Philosopher or Tyrant?’” He asked skeptically.

He’d sighed, realizing he was going to have to do a tremendous amount of bullshitting to keep suspicions from rising. Fortunately, he knew his Dragon Age lore.

“Yeah. The Qunari are more interesting than you’d think, especially with how they see magic. Did you know they fear magic so much they collar them and sew their mouthes closed?”

Jowan’s face turned very, very white. He passed the book back so fast it might have been on fire. “Sounds like light reading. Come on, or we’ll be late for our afternoon lecture.”

He looked back down at the book and realized with a start that it was definitely not written in English. The letters were strange and blocky. There were a couple characters that he thought he could recognize if he squinted really intensely. It looked vaguely closer to ye olden English, like, from before Shakespeare. But that was all he could reasonably compare it to.

Marvelous. Not only was he trapped in a body not his in a place that was supposed to be fictional, but he was also now illiterate. An illiterate mage. Yeah, no way he was going to be able to explain his sudden inability to read.

Fortunately, no one called on him to read out loud.

He learned shortly enough that his name—or the name of the man who’s body he was wearing—was Edmund.

Edmund Amell.

Which meant he was inhabiting the body of a potential Grey Warden.

It was weird hearing people call him that, but he learned to respond to it quickly enough.

He’d spent most of the first weeks in the tower not talking much and listening like his life depended on it. Because it probably did. He listened in the lectures in silence with the text open in front of him, trying to learn the words on the page by listening to the instructors speak. It helped a little, but really not enough. Most of what they talked about sounded like nonsense anyways—something about repulsion fields compounding aura amplification in conjunction with minor spirit interceptors.

He was doomed. His calculus classes had made more sense than this. He knew general information about magic from codex entries, but when it came to actual technical know-how he was no better than the newest apprentice.

He used the lecture hours to get the hang of writing with a quill and ink on scrap pieces of parchment, which was significantly more challenging than he expected.

In the practice sessions where they were actually required to perform magic, he used nerves from his impending Harrowing as an excuse to not participate. Most of the instructors bought the excuse with sympathetic eyes and allowed him to observe.

There was one that still made him participate, citing that “he would want to be well prepared.”

He was handed a staff and instructed to cast a paralysis spell on one of the other apprentices.

There were so many ways for this to go wrong.

He took a slow breath, trying to remember the information about paralysis spells from the game.

The caster saps a target's energy, paralyzing it for a time unless it passes a physical resistance check, in which case its movement speed is reduced instead.

Edmund gripped the staff in his hand, imitating the casting position from the game. It felt awkward and stiff.

He needed to use his mana to draw on energy from the Fade. Which would probably be a simple matter if he knew how to actually do that.

Edmund took another deep breath and pulled from something deep within him. It felt… like a door opening, but the hinges were rusty and resistant. The door opened the slightest crack.

He felt energy pass from him towards the other apprentice, but nothing really happened. He glanced uncertainly at the instructor, who motioned that he should try again.

He refocused. That door inside him needed to be open more. He took another deep breath, pulling at the door.

It flew open, unleashing a torrent of power like floodwater.

He cast again.

The apprentices robes caught fire.

“Shit! I’m so sorry!” He dropped the staff as the apprentice started screaming. “Stop drop and roll, come on!” Did the same principles for putting out normal fires even apply to magically conjured flames?

Edmund looked desperately to the instructor… who was not moving. He turned wildly to the other apprentices in the class. They weren’t moving either. No one in the entire hall was moving, except for him. And the still screaming apprentice who was currently wrapped in a rug, rolling on the floor.

He hadn’t paralyzed the apprentice like he was supposed to. He’d set him on fire… and cast mass paralysis on everyone else in the room.

He reached back within himself and pulled that psychological… magical…. whatever door closed as hard as he could. The paralysis lifted, and the flames vanished. The poor apprentices clothes were mostly ash, now, leaving him nearly naked in front of his entire class.

The instructor stared in astonishment that quickly turned to anger.

Edmund smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. Harrowing nerves got the best of me.” The Harrowing excuse felt paper thin, but it’d held up so far.

“Young man, you must regain control over yourself, or you will never master the de—the challenge.” The instructor scolded.

The demon, he completed silently. He knew something of what to expect. More than they thought he knew. But also, somehow less.

He was vaguely aware of the other apprentices staring at him and turned to see them wearing blatant awe and jealousy on their faces, which confused him.

It was cleared up for him later that evening when he found Jowan in the mess hall.

“Is it true?” Jowan said, dropping his plate on the table and sitting next to Edmund.

He raised a brow. “Is what true?”

“Don’t start being humble now!” Jowan knocked his shoulder good-naturedly. “Keili says you cast mass-paralysis on the entire practice hall!”

“On accident.” He shrugged, going back to his porridge.

“Ohoho, you may be able to fool old Enchanter Brigsby, but you can’t pull the wool over my eyes. I know you, you’d never pass up a chance to show off. Where’d you find the time to learn such an advanced spell, anyways?”

He added that to the list of attributes he was learning that described the actual Edmund. A talented mage who preferred the creation schools of magic, which caused some eyebrows to raise at his apparently sudden “proficiency” with fire. Despite his gifts, Edmund was apparently a troublemaker and rebellious often enough for most of the enchanters to expect chaos from him. And also apparently a showoff.

Jowan was still going on about his apparently impressive spellwork when an unfamiliar elven woman seated herself on the other side of the table from him. Her yellow robes identified her as a full mage, no longer an apprentice.

She was… striking, was one word for it. Her hair was light enough to be mistaken for silver and pulled into what was a probably painfully tight bun at the top of her head. Her features were severe in the way that implied she rarely smiled.

Jowan gave her a sideways smile. “Well well, look who finally decided to grace us with her presence.”

The elf rolled her eyes. “Hello to you too, Jowan.”

“How’s it up in the nice mages quarters?”

She shrugged. “They keep me busy.”

Jowan snorted. “I bet. Between kissing up to Irving and snogging that templar of yours, it’s a wonder you have any time for lowly apprentices like us.”

“Just because you’re my friend doesn’t mean I won’t electrocute you, you know.” Her voice was cold, but the corners of her mouth twitched upwards ever so slightly.

Jowan was unfazed. He tilted his head so he was looking down his nose at them and pitched his voice comically high. “I’m Nira Surana. I am practically perfect in every way. I scored higher on my spirit assessment than any other mage in twenty years. I took my Harrowing three years early.”

Nira Surana. Surana. Edmund gave her a contemplative look. She was the other mage origin. And apparently, actually a competent mage. But why was she already Harrowed? The Hero wasn’t supposed to undertake the Harrowing until right before Duncan’s arrival to the Circle, and she’d been a full mage for a month at this point.

He didn’t want to think about the possible implications.

Nira only looked amused. “I didn’t come here so you could sing my praises, but it is an unexpected surprise.”

Jowan groaned, biting into a leg of chicken. “Leave it to you to take mockery for a compliment. So what are you doing here?”

“I was wondering if either of you had heard the news. About what’s happening down south.”

“South?” Jowan asked. Edmund stilled.

“There’s a war effort going on in the Wilds. The king is calling for mages to support the army. Wynne, Uldred, and six other senior mages left this morning along with a squad of templars.”

“Really? How do you know about this?” Jowan asked, eyes wide with interest.

Nira shrugged. “Studying under the First Enchanter has its perks, like interesting information. You really should have accepted when he offered the role to you, Edmund.”

He filed that in with the rest of the information he’d gathered: offered to study under Irving, and declined.

“Well you know me.” He said with a non-non-committal shrug. “Besides, it seems to suit you.”

“My dear Edmund, did you just offer the good lady a compliment?” Jowan laughed, “Watch out. Jealous is a bad look on a templar.”

“Shut up, you ass.” He flicked spoonful of porridge at that mans’ face. If he was gathering this correctly, Nira and Cullen were a Thing™. Which was strange, because he was sure the game had implied that Cullen and the female mage had a tentative flirationship at best by the time Duncan came around.

One more thing that was different.

“How is that going, by the way?” Jowan rounded back on Nira. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing could land both of you in serious trouble if anyone actually found out.”

Nira gave him a hard look that clearly communicated her willingness to electrocute him. “What ever do you mean, apprentice? Ser Cullen simply supervises me as I study in the library, doing his duty as a templar serving the Maker.”

“Leave her alone. You’re hardly one to talk,” Edmund said, thinking very distinctly of a certain Chantry initiate. He made a mental note to see if he couldn’t find Lily somewhere around the tower. Maybe he could do something, keep things from getting out of hand?

Jowan shifted uncomfortably and returned to his dinner with renewed interest.

“I should probably go. I still have to prepare tomorrow’s lesson for the new apprentices,” Nira stood. Edmund felt apprehensive as she looked at him and her silver eyes showed fear. “I… I’m sure I’ll see you again soon. Good luck.”

That was… odd. He gave Jowan a questioning look, and the man only shrugged. “You know she’s always been a little weird. I think all the special treatment has damaged her brain.”

“I don’t think that’s how that works.” Edmund frowned. That wasn’t just odd. It was a warning. Nira was working close with Irving. She had access to information. She was worried.

The Harrowing. It was happening soon, then.

“Whatever. Come on, let’s go to the practice hall. You’ve got to show me how you cast that spell earlier!”

Edmund tried to protest, but Jowan all but dragged him to the practice hall. It occurred to him that Jowan was desperate to learn, to become a better mage. The reason Jowan turned to blood magic was because he was terrified of Tranquility.

Jowan was a good guy, just not the best student, apparently. Maybe it was just the learning environment that kept him from excelling. And blood magic itself wasn’t really the problem, as the games had lead him to believe.

He did honestly try to recreate the spell and explain to Jowan how he did it. Over the course of an hour he failed to cast mass paralysis, but succeeded in setting the curtains on fire not once, but four separate times.

Somewhere, the universe was laughing at him. He was a firefighter, for Christ’s sake. It was almost too ironic that any time he tried to do magic something went up in flames.

“Well, on the bright side, your fire magic seems to have improved greatly,” said Jowan. “I remember you used to not even be able to light a candle. You must be really worried about this Harrowing if you can’t even cast straight.”

He frowned. The real Edmund apparently really sucked at fire magic.

“I’ll feel better once it’s over with.” Edmund replaced the practice staff to it’s place on the rack. “Come on, let’s turn in for the night.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Duncan looked at the looming tower. The moon was bright tonight, its glow illuminating the surface of the lake.

The senior Wardens who accompanied him had chosen to remain in the inn by the lake, deciding one Warden was enough to deliver the king’s message to the mages and probably make for a quicker visit and less fuss.

A brief stop at the Circle on the king’s behalf to request more mages for the army, and then off to the deep roads for reconnaissance. He feared a Blight was beginning, but the deeps would need to be inspected before they could know for certain.

For now, the tower awaited. Perhaps he might look at recruiting while he was here.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

He’d had some weird dreams before. None of them ever felt like this, however.

The Fade wasn’t green like in Inquisition or quite as brown in reality as it was in Origins, but it was strangely colorless, filled with shifting shades of grey. Half-buried pillars and strange tree-branches protruded from the ground at odd angles and statues floated in mid-air, featureless like mannequins. Edmund shuddered and forced himself to look away from them.

He followed the path set before him. Floating high in the horizon was a dark shape. The Black City, if he remembered right.

The Fade was shaped by perception, he reminded himself. He could impose his will on this reality.

Now he just needed to figure out how to actually do that.

Before long he came across “Mouse.” Edmund narrowed his eyes—he knew what to expect.

Mouse gave a long-suffering sigh. “Someone else thrown to the wolves. As fresh and unprepared as ever. It isn’t right that they do this, the templars. Not to you, to me, to anyone.”

Edmund nodded. “Yeah, templars kinda suck.” He eyed the rodent. Follow the script and play along, or…

“But they keep doing this, don’t they? We’re treated like rabid dogs, and we let them get away with it! It’s always the same. But it’s not your fault. You’re in the same boat I was, aren’t you?”

From a certain point of view, certainly. “Mages forced to face spirits, and spirits caged and forced to face mages. A shit deal all around.”

If a rodent could frown, this one did. “I’m no spirit,” True. Not a spirit, but a demon. Mouse’s form glowed as he shifted to a human form and introduced himself. “Allow me to welcome you to the Fade. You can call me… well, Mouse.”

“I don’t have time for this,” said Edmund. “Look, I know what’s up. You play all meek and helpless, get my trust, I encourage you, you help me fight a rage demon. You butter me up to try and get me to let you in. Then, in a thrilling twist, you were a demon the whole time! Shocking! Only, not.”

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to antagonize what was likely a very powerful demon of pride, but Edmund found himself not caring. If he didn’t get help from somewhere, he was probably going to get himself killed.

He knew the script. Time to see what rules he could break.

“You…” Mouse narrowed his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice had a distinct reverberance it didn’t have before. “You know?”

“Look. I don’t want to have to fight you. The mages and templars caged you here to serve as a test for apprentices, right?”

Mouse didn’t answer, and instead began pacing a circle around Edmund. He turned in place, keeping his front to the prowling demon.

Mouse laughed, voice significantly deeper than before. “I can see it now. There are pieces of you that don’t fit. Already possessed, but not. Wearing skin not yours, but not taken.”

“You can tell?” Edmund asked. If there was anyone he could get insight from, it was probably a spirit. Or demon. Whatever.

“Curious. I wonder—if I rode your body, would both remain? Or would we all shatter in the collide?”

“I’d rather we didn’t find out.”

Mouse laughed. “Well. Now we are at an impass. I may simply have to kill you.” Edmund stilled. A death in the Fade… he remembered from the second game: death in the Fade lead to Tranquility.

“No.” He surprised himself by the authority in his voice. “I want your help.”

Mouse smiled. Its mouth was filled with teeth like razor blades. “A deal?”

“Of a sort.” Edmund shrugged. He dated a lawyer, once. He knew how to argue. “Like you said, I don’t fit. Can you put me back where I do fit?”

“No. I cannot do that.”

“Then teach me magic. If I can’t go back, I need better control, or to at least know what I’m doing. A Blight is coming. I need to help stop it.” If he couldn’t go home, he could use what he knew to change things. Make things better. And if he didn’t get some serious help with controlling his new powers, he was going to burn himself alive before he saw his first genlock.

Mouse resumed pacing. “Interesting. And what, little mageling, would you offer me in return? I cannot wear your skin. What else do you have to give me?”

“Information.”

Mouse growled. “I am Pride, boy, not Knowledge or Wisdom. Try again,” the demon hissed, it’s skin becoming more purple and scaly.

Edmund crossed his arms. If he remembered a certain egg head correctly, Pride could form from Wisdom. Maybe he could still appeal to that nature. “Exactly. You will know things no one else in the world does. No one, but me. Just think for a second! You could bribe other spirits driven by those attributes with knowledge they could find nowhere but from you. You become the authority. I know things. Not just about where I am from, but about things here that haven’t even happened yet. If you help me, you could too.”

The exterior of Mouse was fully shed now, and Pride loomed over him. Edmund stood very, very still.

“I accept,” said Pride. Edmund couldn’t bring himself to be relieved—he had, after all, made a deal with a literal demon. “You are a true mage. When faced with a test, most would answer the questions. You… you asked questions of your own.”

“It helps to have a cheat sheet,” said Edmund with a small smile.

Pride laughed. “Keep your wits about you, mage. True tests never end.”

Chapter Text

Every morning since what he silently referred to as the Incident, he half expected to wake up at home, or in a hospital. And every morning he found himself still in the tower. The morning after the Harrowing was no different.

“Are you alright? Say something, please…” Jowan was leaning over him.

“I’m… I’m okay,” he said, sitting up slowly. He was alive. So the demon had let him go, and the templars hadn’t stabbed him. An excellent turn out, all things considered.

“I’m glad you’re alright. They carried you in this morning. I didn’t even realize you’d been gone all night.” Jowan shuddered. “I’ve heard about apprentices who never come back from Harrowings. Is… is it really that dangerous? What was it like? I know I’m not supposed to know… but we’re friends. Just a little hint and I’ll stop asking, I promise.”

He’d made a deal with a demon. It was going to come back and bite him in the ass, but he could at least hope it would be a long time from now.

“I had to enter the Fade.”

“Really? That’s it?

“Basically. And if a demon possess you, they kill you,” Edmund explained. If the game was anything to go by, Duncan might be here today. Jowan might make his escape today.

“That… makes sense. They want to see if you can resist a demon and stop yourself from becoming an abomination. Thank you, for telling me. I asked Nira when she went through hers, but she wouldn’t tell me. I feel better at least, knowing.” Jowan sighed. “And now you get to move up to the nice mages quarters upstairs. I’m stuck here and I don’t know when they’ll call me for my Harrowing.”

“I… I’m sure it will be any day now.” Edmund said, but Jowan clearly picked up on the uncertainty in his voice.

“I’ve been here longer than you have! Sometimes I think they don’t want to test me.”

“Maybe. Maybe they’re just waiting to make sure you’re ready.” They weren’t.

“The Tranquil never go through a Harrowing,” Jowan said softly. “You do the Harrowing, the Rite of Tranquility… or you die. That’s what happens.”

“I know, Jowan.” Edmund rose from the bunk. “Look, we can talk more about this later. I should go see the First Enchanter.”

“Oh, yes. I was supposed to tell you to go see Irving as soon as you woke up. I’ll see you later."

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Nira sat in the chapel, listening to the priests reciting the Chant. She offered up a prayer of her own, though she still had yet to get a straight answer out of the Sisters if the Maker even listened to elves. Still, she gave thanks that Edmund had passed his Harrowing. With luck, her friend would be waking shortly.

“Blessed art thou who exists in the sight of the Maker…” An apprentice knelt before the statue of Andraste and prayed fervently.

“Blessed art thou who walks in His steps.” Nira completed the prayer. The apprentice turned to see her, and Nira recognized her as Keili.

“Oh, hello—Would you care to join me?”

Nira took a knee beside Keili, who resumed her prayer. Keili turned to her as she finished. “I recite the Maker’s blessings every day. It brings me peace in troubled times.”

“And are you in trouble?”

“No, not really. It’s just…” Keili fidgeted with her robes, “I don’t want to bore you with this.”

“Are you sure? I might be able to help.”

“I hope that one day, the Maker might hear us. That maybe I’ll be forgiven, and this curse will be lifted.”

Nira frowned. “You mean magic.”

“Of course. What else?”

Nira could understand Keili’s point of view, she supposed. But she also lacked the context of what not being a mage was like. All she knew was the tower, and the power inside her. “Why do you say magic is a curse?”

“Magic causes such misery. It is dangerous and vile and wicked. The Chantry must protect the world from us. Being born with something so terrible must be a punishment. I wish I could be rid of it,” said Keili, staring wistfully up at the statue of the Maker’s Prophet.

“There’s Tranquility. But that seems a fate worse than death,” said Nira.

Keili’s eyes lit up. “Yes—that removes all magic, forever, doesn’t it? Perhaps I shall request it.”

Nira placed a hand on Keili’s shoulder, a plea in her eyes. “No, Keili. You do not want that. You… you are far too pretty to be made Tranquil. You would be at terrible risk.” She saw what happened to mage girls who lacked the will to say no.

Keili frowned. “Then perhaps this is simply something I must suffer through. I should go. My mentor only allows a few minutes every day for religious contemplation.”

“You are not alone. You can speak to me about your fears if you feel the need, though of course there are Chantry Sisters who may be better suited to help you.” Nira nodded to her and stood. “I hope you succeed in turning the Maker’s gaze on you.”

She made her way to the study rooms, searching for a particular tome on wards. As she browsed the shelf in question, an elf seated at one of the tables cleared his throat loudly.

“Do you need something? If not, please move. You’re in my light.”

Nira glanced at the elf and rolled her eyes. “Hello to you too, Eadric.” She glanced at the text laid out in front of him. “‘Elven Blood In Tevinter Rituals.’ Isn’t that book banned?”

“I got permission from the First Enchanter and the Knight Commander, don’t worry. It’s fascinating—our people are more attuned to magic than humans are… or at least, our ancestors were. That’s why so many ancient Tevinter rituals specifically call for elven blood. With so much of our history lost, looking to Tevinter is the closest we can get for clues. I suppose we’ll never really know for sure.” Eadric shrugged, turning the page idly. “Maybe the Dalish elves would know, but I’ve never met one.”

“Dalish?” She’d read something about the Dalish, but elven culture wasn’t really her focus. She identified more as a mage than an elf, anyways.

“They live in the wilderness, traveling where they will. I’ve heard they keep the old beliefs alive.”

“I wish I knew the old language, at least.” Language—that was something she was good at. Her grasp of ancient Tevene was passable, but there were some ancient rituals recorded exclusively in the dead language of their ancestors.

Eadric nodded. “As do I. Perhaps one day I will have the chance to learn it. Say, are you from an alienage? I’m from a farm outside Highever. My mother worked as the cook’s assistant there.”

Nira frowned. “My mother was a mage apprentice; I was born to the Circle. Irving once told me I have relatives in Denerim’s alienage, but I’ve never been there or met them. I was given to the Chantry, and then I showed subtle signs of magic when I was two years old, so… they just kept me here.”

“Oh. Wow.” Eadric shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter where we’re from, does it? We’re in the Circle.”

“I suppose so.” Nira spotted the book she’d been searching for and pulled it from the shelf. “I’ll get out of your light now. I’ll be seeing you.”

“Good day.”

Tome in hand, she returned to the First Enchanter’s office.

But first, she made a detour to the outer hall.

Cullen was standing at his usual post, hands clasped behind his back. She smiled as she approached him, and he grinned that goofy grin of his when he saw her. As there was no one else in the hall with them, she stood on her toes to kiss his cheek.

“Fancy seeing you here,” she said. As if the two of them didn’t have each other’s schedules and routines memorized by heart at this point.

Cullen blushed and stammered. “H-hello there…” He rubbed the back of his neck and laughed softly.

“I’ll be practicing some dangerous magic later. I may require some… supervision.”

At first, Cullen’s interest in her had only been… a convenience. If she got a reputation as “Cullen’s girl,” then the other templars—the more dangerous ones, specifically—left her alone. And so long as the Knight Commander didn’t realize what was up, most everyone else was content to let them be.

But as time went on, she realized that she had actually developed feelings for him. He was charming, and a gentleman—never once asking more of her than she was willing to give. Often he was content to simply sit and read with her in silence, or play a friendly game of chess. And he made her laugh.

“Well. I must… c-certainly do my duty. We wouldn’t want any, ah, out of control spells, w-would we?”

Nira giggled. That stutter would always be adorable. “Same time as always?”

“Never miss it.” In one of his occasional moments of confidence, he lifted her chin, gently, so she could pull away if she wanted. When she did not, he pressed a kiss to her mouth.

“I need to go, Irving’s expecting me. I’ll see you later.” She turned and left her templar blushing in the hall.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

The Knight Commander had not taken the king’s request well, as Dunacn expected. The Knight Commander and First Enchanter argued around him while he waited for them to come to a decision.

“So many have already gone to Ostagar—Wynne, Uldred, and most of the senior mages! We’ve committed enough of our own to this war effort—”

“‘Your own?’ Since when have you felt such kinship with the mages, Greagoir? Or are you afraid to let the mages out from under Chantry supervision where they can actually use their Maker-given powers?” Irving crossed his arms in irritation.

Greagoir matched his posture. “How dare you suggest—”

Dunan looked past the arguing men to see a young dark-haired man leaning in the doorway, looking on with great amusement. Duncan cleared his throat loudly. “Gentlemen, please. Irving, there is someone here to see you.”

“Don’t mind me. I was just about to pull up a chair and some snacks,” said the younger mage with a shrug.

Greagoir scowled. “This one has always been insolent.”

“Come now, Knight Commander. This is our newest brother in the Circle.” The First Enchanter motioned that the young man should join them.

Dunan glanced over the man as he approached. He was tall and handsome, and despite his lean build there was strength in him. Irving had mentioned this mage when Duncan first arrived—one of the fastest Harrowing’s in the Circle’s history, apparently. He definitely held promise. “This is…?”

“Yes. This is he.” Irving nodded. Irving had said that despite the mage’s gifts, his temperament was not well suited to the Circle. Duncan hoped to take the man as a recruit, if the Knight Commander would allow it.

“Well Irving. You’re obviously busy. We will discuss this later.” Greagoir left the room, shaking his head as he went.

“Of course. Now then… where was I? Ah, yes. This is Duncan, of the Grey Wardens. Duncan, this is Edmund Amell.”

The man inclined his head in Duncan’s direction. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

“You have heard about the war brewing in the south, I expect,” said Irving, “Duncan is here recruiting mages to join the kings army at Ostagar.”

“To combat the darkspawn, yes, I am aware. You’ll need all the help you can get, I expect,” said Edmund.

“That is correct. The power you mages wield is an asset to any army. Your spells are very effective against large groups of mindless darkspawn,” said Duncan, “I fear if we do not drive them back, we may see another Blight.”

“It’s already too late.” The mage sighed. Duncan raised a brow, but before the young man could elaborate his thoughts, the First Enchanter spoke.

“Duncan, you worry the poor boy with talk of Blights and darkspawn. This is a happy day for him,” Irving said. A pale elven mage walked in, carrying a dusty tome in her arms. She cast them a curious look, but set the tome on the First Enchanter’s desk.

“We live in troubled times, my friend,” Duncan warned.

“We should seize moments of levity, especially in troubled times.” Irving nodded to the elven mage. “Thank you, Nira. You have been a great help. You may take the rest of the day for independent study.”

“Of course, First Enchanter.”

Duncan recalled Irving mentioning her, as well—a gifted mage who knew nothing but Circle life. Irving was grooming her to someday take over his position, or perhaps take on the role of Grand Enchanter some day.

“Now,” Irving turned back to Edmund, “The Harrowing is behind you. Your phylactery was sent to Denerim. You are officially a mage within the Circle of Magi.”

Edmund let out a long sigh, tensing visibly at the mention of the phylactery. “Thank you. It’s good… to have this behind me.”

Irving nodded in approval. “I present you with your robes, your staff, and a ring bearing the Circle’s insignia.” Irving took the items in question off his desk and held them out to the young man. “Wear them proudly, for you have earned them.”

“It doesn’t feel like it,” Edmund muttered softly. Irving frowned, but continued.

“It goes without saying that you shall not discuss the Harrowing with those who have not undergone the rite. Now… take your time to rest, or study in the library. The day is yours.”

“If you say so.”

Irving glanced at Duncan, seeming to now remember that he was in the room. “Would you be so kind as to escort Duncan back to his room, child?”

“Of course.” Edmund smiled.

“If you’ll both excuse me, I have matters to discuss with Geagoir,” Irving said, waving them off.

Duncan followed the young man down the hall. “Thank you for walking with me. I am glad for the company.”

“It’s no burden. Besides, I wanted to talk with you more,” said Edmund.

“Yes? What about?”

“I…” the young man paused, seeming to be experiencing some inner argument with himself. “Nothing much. Just, I’m honored to meet you, is all.”

“Thank you, dear boy.” Duncan smiled. It was nice to hear, especially when he faced hostility as a Warden more often then not.

They walked in silence a few paces more until the young man could apparently no longer contain himself. “I want to join the Grey Wardens,” he blurted suddenly.

Duncan raised a brow at him. “Oh, do you?”

Edmund nodded, looking at Duncan with intensity. “The darkspawn are a menace. And I don’t want to let someone do the fighting for me, not I have power and knowledge that could help stop them and save lives.”

“But you could do that simply by requesting to join the kings army. Why, specifically the Wardens?” Duncan watched the young man carefully.

“Because I know. I know this is a Blight, and I know there aren’t enough Wardens in Ferelden right now to stop it. You need all the help you can get. You need me.” Edmund squared his shoulder, voice resolute.

If nothing else, the boy already sounded like a Warden. But Duncan narrowed his eyes at the mage. “How could you know this is a Blight? It is only rumor at best.”

Edmund laughed. “Recruit me, and I might even tell you. Oh, look. This is your room.” Edmund opened a door on the hall, gesturing that Duncan should enter. It was a very blatant attempt to not answer that question. Another mage was standing a ways down the hall with the elven woman from earlier, both of whom were clearly waiting on Edmund. “Look, I’ll… talk to you later. Probably.”

“Yes. I expect so,” Duncan mused. He watched the dark-haired man run off to his fellows and shook his head. He would make for an… interesting Warden.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Edmund sincerely hoped he hadn’t totally botched things with Duncan by going off-script. As it was, he prepared for the imminent “quest” before him. Jowan was fidgeting so nervously he may as well have had an exclamation point over his head.

What threw him was the fact that Nira was standing next to Jowan, though she seemed more annoyed than anxious. He supposed the three of them—Nira, Jowan, and Edmund—were friends, and it made sense Jowan would include her in this too if he trusted her.

“I’m glad I caught you too,” said Jowan, “Are you done talking with Irving?”

“For now, at least.” Edmund shrugged.

“I need to talk to you. To you both,” said Jowan. “Ed, do you remember what we talked about this morning?”

Nira raised a brow at the apprentice’s hushed tone. “Why are you whispering? It looks very suspicious.”

Jowan shushed her, looking around in wild alarm. “I—I just want to make sure we’re not overheard is all. We should go somewhere else. I don’t feel safe talking here.”

“You’re starting to worry me, Jowan,” said Nira.

“I’ve been… troubled. I’ll explain, just follow me.” Without another word he turned, leading them towards the chapel. He lead them to where Lily stood in a prayer alcove. “We should be safe here.”

“In the chapel? The templar’s favorite haunt?” Nira said, looking around. A few other templars, mages, and priests were occupying the rows of seats, but none of them paid their conspiratorial group any mind.

“We can see everyone from here. Anyone comes close or looks our way, we can change the subject,” said Lily.

“I’ve seen you around before.” Edmund said. Technically true. She was always just a collection of pixels, though.

Lily nodded. “I often attend my duties in this chapel. Perhaps that is why I seem familiar.”

Jowan blushed ever so slightly. “I told you both a few months ago that I… met a girl. This is Lily.”

Nira looked rightly scandalized. “Jowan, you’ve been giving me shit about Cullen for months now, and this entire time you’ve been carrying on with an initiate? Shame on you.” She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. Again, her voice was cold, but her eyes betrayed fondness.

Edmund gave Lily a sad look. “My condolences, Lily.” For everything that’s about to happen. I’ll do what I can.

Jowan chuckled, “Very funny, Ed.”

“So what is this all about? You can’t have pulled us here just to have a friendly chat about love.” Nira smirked. “Need me to tell you about the birds and the bees? You are old enough to know now, after all.”

Edmund wondered idly how much time Nira spent around Wynne.

“Maker, no!” Lily and Jowan cried in unison.

Jowan sighed. “Remember when I said that I didn’t think they wanted to give me my Harrowing? I know why. They’re going to make me Tranquil.” Jowan’s voice was shaking. “They’ll take everything that I am from me—my dreams, my hopes, fears… my love for Lily. All gone…”

Nira’s eyes softened. “Oh, Jowan…”

Jowan fidgeted with his robes. “They’ll extinguish my humanity! I’ll just be a husk, breathing and existing, but not truly living.”

“But why would they do this? You’re not the strongest mage, certainly, but you’re hardly a danger.” Nira said, disbelief all over her features.

“Thank you for your endowment of my mediocrity. There’s… a rumor about me. Some people think I’m a blood mage.”

An accurate rumor, Edmund thought silently.

“And so they think making you a Circle mage will endanger everyone.” Nira muttered, piecing it together for herself. “How did you find out about this?”

“I saw the document on Greagoir’s table. It authorized the rite on Jowan, and Irving had signed it.” Lily explained.

“Do you know anything about this, oh Irving’s-right-hand?” Edmund side-eyed Nira.

She shook her head, clearly shaken by the thought. “No. Believe it or not, Irving doesn’t tell me everything. He knows Jowan’s my friend, and Irving’s like a father to me. He probably didn’t… didn’t want to hurt me.”

“There’s only one thing to do then, isn’t there?” Edmund said. The three turned to look at him expectantly. “Jowan needs to escape.”

Nira looked completely aghast at the thought. “Are you insane? There has to be a better way, I wouldn’t reach for apostasy first. I could talk to Irving, try to convince him to change his mind, tell him Jowan isn’t dangerous.”

Edmund looked at Nira and recalled the mage origin was faced with a choice. Assist Jowan, or turn him in to Irving. His gut told him Nira was going to go for the latter. He sighed—in the long run, it didn’t really matter.

“I have a sinking feeling that Irving won’t be changing his mind,” said Edmund.

“I need to destroy my phylactery. Without it, they can’t track me down. We need your help—both of you. Lily and I can’t do this on our own.”

“Give us your word that you will help us and we’ll tell you what we intend,” said Lily.

“I-I…” Nira stammered, then looked away from the young couple to stare at the wall. “Let me talk to Irving first. Please. I can get him to see that these rumors are foolishness and nothing more. There will be no need for any of this.”

Jowan looked pained. “He won’t listen. Look, try if you like, but… don’t take too long. And try not to be suspicious. If he finds out, we’re done for.”

“It will be fine, Jowan. I promise.” Nira gave a weak smile and then all but fled the chapel. The three of them watched her go in silence. Edmund knew she would sell them out.
Here goes nothing. “I’ll help you,” Edmund offered.

Lily breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Thank you. We will never forget this.”

“Right. So we need to get into the repository, but don’t have the keys. I’ll talk to Owain and see about getting a rod of fire to melt through the locks instead. I’ll go, you two stay here. Wait and see if Nira comes back and what she has to say.”

Jowan blinked. “Wow. You came up with that… really fast. Been planning your own escape, have you?”

“Of a sort. I’ll be back.”

Edmund had made a very pointed effort to avoid the Tranquil during his month in the tower. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded, as they were kind of… all over. Quiet so that they were very easily overlooked, but he saw them enough to be unsettled by the sheer number of them that roamed the tower, performing tasks like robots.

Owain looked at him with emptiness as he approached. Edmund tried very hard not to look at the sunburst brand on the man’s forehead. “Owain. I need a rod of fire, please.” he said shortly.

“Rods of fire serve many purposes. Why do you wish to acquire this particular item?”

“I need it for research on… burning things.”

“Here is the form—‘Request for Rod of Fire’.” Owain passed him a slip of paper. He was uncannily reminded of when he had to get his parents to sign permission slips in elementary school. Except those were in a language he could actually, you know, read. “Please have it signed and dated by a Senior Enchanter. I will release the rod to you once I have the signed form.”

“I’ll be back soon.”

Edmund did not wait for the Tranquil’s farewell and turned, heading towards the door to the Circle’s storage tunnels.

“Senior Enchanter Leorah,” He said as he approached an older elven woman who stood by the doors. She turned her attention to him. “I’m here to help with your… little problem.” He gave a sidelong glance to the storage door. The elven woman’s face paled.

“You—what? How do you know about—”

“Not important how I know. What’s important is that Irving doesn’t find out, right?” Edmund felt a little bad about blackmail, but he needed this form signed somehow. And there was no way he was going to Irving about this. “Sign this request form for me, and I’ll deal with the spiders for you.”

“You’re quite brazen, aren’t you?” Leorah frowned at him.

“Look, if you don’t want my help…” Edmund started to turn away, but the enchanter caught him by the arm.
“Wait! Wait. Let me see that form.” She all but took the form from his hands. “A rod of fire, hm? Fine. Clear out those spiders, and not a word to Irving.”

“My lips are sealed.” Edmund turned. Time to kill some spiders. Some very, very large spiders. At least it would be a change to practice his spellwork without anyone watching.

Edmund shuddered. Welcome to Thedas.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

She ran into the unfamiliar man she’d seen conversing with Irving and Greagoir earlier as she headed to the First Enchanter’s office. Despite his armor he was no templar—he lacked the distinct smell of lyrium.

Nira would not have spoken to him if he had not first addressed her.

“Greetings, you are Irving’s pupil, are you not? I saw you earlier, and regretted that we did not have the chance to speak.”

“I—yes. My name is Nira Surana.” Nira bowed the the man. He was Irving’s friend, and worthy of at least passing respect.

The man returned the bow. “Well met. I am Duncan of the Grey Wardens.”

“May I assist you, Ser Duncan?”

“I’m simply enjoying the splendors of the library. The Circle of Magi is fortunate to have so many wonderful books at its disposal.”

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” She eyed the tome the man had displayed on the podium. Effective Magics and Tonics: Slowing the Blight.

“Perhaps. I shan’t bore you with the details, though. You seem preoccupied. Might I ask what you’re doing?”

Nira shrugged, running the index of the library in the back of her mind. “I’m simply on my way to see Irving, I had a question for him pertaining to the finer points of countermeasures to the ambient effects of reverse-warded glyphs.” She learned this strategy early on—if a non-mage was bothering you, spout advanced magical theory. Their eyes glazed over before the fifth word.

Duncan, however, simply smiled. “I won’t keep you overlong, then. I simply wanted to ask you a few questions about the Circle.”

“I can spare a few moments, I suppose.”

“Thank you. I seldom get the chance to speak with members of the Circle. A mage like yourself must must have opinions on the current affairs such as the war. As you know, the king is gathering an army.”

“Yes, I’d heard. Mages will likely be an asset in the war.”

“You do not fear using the power at your disposal, do you? It is dangerous, yes, but necessary,” Duncan said, and Nira felt she was being very carefully observed.

“So long as that power is used responsibly. Magic is dangerous in any situation, and demands to be treated with respect and care, especially on the field of battle.”

Duncan laughed softly. “You sound just like Irving. He has taught you well. Well, I’m sure you’ve better things to do than chat with an old man.” The Warden waved her off.

“We don’t have much in the way of information on the Blights, but everything we have on darkspawn and the Blight plague should be in the study lounge, down the hall.” She said.

Duncan raised a brow in surprise. “Thank you. And good day, young lady.”

Nire continued on her path to the First Enchanter’s office. He seemed a decent enough man, and she could easily see him getting along well with Irving, even if he was a little odd.

“Ah, child.” The First Enchanter turned to her as she entered the office. “I can see you are troubled. What is the matter?”

Nira shuffled in place, not sure exactly how to ask her question. “When will Jowan go through his Harrowing?”

“When he is ready.”

“He is ready now,” Nira said. Jowan was certainly not the most gifted mage, and he all but paled in Edmund’s shadow, but he was competent.

“I am sure you think so, but it is not your place to decide,” Irving waved a hand dismissively, but aimed a questioning look her way. “Why do you ask?”

“Jowan is afraid he’d going to be made Tranquil.” Nira had seen the Tranquil all her life. Most treated them like little more than furniture. She saw them as a threat—a warning at what the Chantry held over them. She did not want to see one of her oldest friends shuffle about the tower in a haze of nothing.

“And how does he know this? I suppose that young initiate he dallies about with revealed it to him.”

Nira’s jaw fell open slightly.

Irving laughed softly. “You think I did not know? I know about your young templar, as well, though I understand why you keep him close. He is a convenient shield against more unsavory elements, and as he’s taken no specific… vows, on the matter, I have no need to report him to Greagoir.” Irving shook his head. “I did not become First Enchanter by keeping my eyes and ears shut. You should learn from that, child.”

Nira sighed. Lily, as an initiate in the Chantry, would have taken “those specific vows.” And thus violated Chantry law. But Tranquility for Jowan over an ill-advised romance… no, there was something else at play here. “Why, Irving? Why are you doing this to Jowan?”

“Greagoir says he has proof—eye-witness testimony—that Jowan has been practicing blood magic. I cannot say more.” Nira’s blood went cold. No. Jowan would never, could never bring himself to consider the forbidden arts. “Were it up to me, things would be different. But the Chantry—” Irving sighed, placing a hand on Nira’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort. “I am sorry, child. This Rite of Tranquility will happen.”

Her throat felt almost too dry to speak. “You… you’re absolutely sure? There’s no way this could be a mistake? Jowan has for-sure been… practicing blood magic?”

“There is irrefutable evidence. I am sorry, I know the lad is dear to you.”

“Then I suppose I must abide by the Circle’s will.” It was out of her hands. The Circle—and the Chantry by extension—always won out in the end.

“It must be done. It’s not such a bad thing. Jowan will come to terms with it, as will you.”

Come to terms with it. That was one way to put “no longer able to feel emotion.” Nira looked up at her mentor, wondering how many friends he had watched undergo the Rite in his years. Too many, likely. He didn’t want this any more than she did.

He did what was right, even if it hurt. She had to have that same strength.

“First Enchanter… there’s something you should know. Jowan is planning on escaping the tower.”

Irving frowned. “He asked you to assist him, and instead you came to me. You realize Jowan is breaking the Circle’s rules. I commend your loyalty.” Nira didn’t feel worthy of commendation. She felt sick to her stomach. “If Jowan wishes to destroy his phylactery and escape, help him do it.”

“Do you realize what you’re asking?” Nira asked.

“I could simply report them to the templars, but Lily has also broken her vows and must face like consequences. For this, we need irrefutable proof of her crime. The Chantry will stand behind her, claiming she has been framed or is in the thrall of a blood mage. There must be no doubt in their minds that she helped him voluntarily.”

“You’re right.” Nira straightened her posture. She was doing the right thing here. “If loose one of our own, we should not let another equally guilty hide behind the Chantry while our own suffers.”

“Astute as always, Surana. That is the kind of thinking necessary of a First Enchanter.” Irving’s face practically glowed with pride. “Every so often, we must remind the Chantry their members are not as perfect as they pretend. Tell Jowan and Lily you will aid them. Help them enter the repository, if that is what they intend.”

“We will catch them red-handed.”

“No one will be able to dispute the severity of their crimes.” Irving nodded. “Go. Convince them that you will risk all for their cause. I will wait outside the repository with a contingent of templars. Let them see the mischief into which their initiate has led our student.”

“Of course, Irving.” Nira turned to go, but stopped short, and looked back. “First Enchanter… they didn’t just come to me. Edmund knows as well. And… he committed to help them escape, almost no questions asked.”

Irving sighed, sadness coating his words. “Ah, of course. Jowan and Edmund have always been thick as thieves, and Edmund more than a touch rebellious. I’d hoped his Harrowing would mellow him, but alas…” said Irving, “If Edmund does not bring this matter to me, I cannot guarantee that he will not face severe punishment.”

“I… I understand, First Enchanter.”

“Now go on. Perform well, and you dedication will be rewarded.”

Nira turned towards the chapel, determination guiding her steps. She was a Mage of the Circle. She would remain loyal.

She encountered Edmund in the hallway. She stopped in her tracks, blinking at the sight of him. His hair was pulled into a sloppy bun at the back of his head and seemed to be… smoking, just every so slightly. The shoulder of his robe was torn and his arm was bleeding onto the tile.

“Maker, Edmund. What happened to you?” She crossed the few paces to him, bringing a healing spell to her fingertips and pressing it to his wound. It looked like a bite mark. A very large bite mark.

“I got into an argument with a rather disagreeable storage crate,” he deadpanned. “You made your choice, then?” His eyes were hard. Nira shifted. He looked almost as if he knew.

“I spoke with the First Enchanter. Jowan was right; Irving wouldn’t listen. They plan on going ahead with the Rite.” She turned away as soon as she was finished with his wound. “Come on. Let’s get back to Jowan and Lily.”

Chapter Text

Edmund turned the rod of fire over idly in his hand. Why would mages need an item to produce fire when they could just conjure it straight out of their hands? Wasn’t it kind of redundant?

Jowan breathed a visible sigh of relief when he saw Edmund and Nira approach their little corner of the chapel. “Waiting makes me so nervous. What did Irving have to say?”

“You were right. Irving won’t change his mind about the Rite. Let’s get you out of here,” said Nira. Edmund had to give her points—if he didn’t already know she was lying, he might not have suspected her.

“I have the rod of fire.”

“That was quick!”

“To the repository, then,” said Lily, leading the way. “Freedom awaits.”

Edmund heard Jowan whispering to Nira as they walked, “I’m so nervous things will go wrong.”

“What will you do after you escape?” asked the elven mage.

“Lily and I will get married somewhere… away from the Circle and it’s rules.” Jowan got a far-away look in his eyes. Poor guy actually believed they had a chance.

“Perhaps in the outskirts of Ferelden.” Lily lightly touched her lover’s hand with her own.

“Or in Orlais. Just… far from here. We’ll live a quiet life, away from magic. Maybe we can buy a farm one day.”

“Maybe look at heading to Rivain,” Edmund added absent-mindedly. “They’re not so strict about magic up there, and the Chantry has less influence. Though they do have more pirates.” Though if he remembered correctly, the Circle in Dairsmuid did get completely demolished in the mage-templar conflict. A problem to look at later, provided he lived to see it.

He needed to get a notebook soon, and write down everything he could remember about the game, every stray piece of lore. He had an excellent memory, but he didn’t want to risk forgetting, and he lacked access to the internet for answers. If he could use what he knew to save lives…

“That’s an interesting thought,” said Jowan. “For now let’s just concentrate on what we’re doing.”

They reached the repository, which was suspiciously un-guarded. Lily gave her obligatory about the Victims Door. Lily primed the door with the password, and Nira’s hands came alight with magic as she sent a bolt of arcane energy to the wood.

The handle turned of its own volition, and Edmund pushed the door open.

Lily approached the next door and looked back at Edmund with excitement. “You have the rod, yes? Melt the locks off!” It wouldn’t work, but it also wouldn’t hurt anything to try. “What’s the matter? Why isn’t it working?”

“Lily… something’s not right… I can’t cast spells in here. Nothing works.” Jowan waved his hands uselessly.

Nira moved to inspect the door. “There are wards carved into the stone, a sort of combination of how the templars nullify magic and the spells we learn that can disrupt spell casting,” she said, tracing the runes. “If you gave me a week I could find an override. But we don’t have that kind of time.”

“I should have guessed!” bemoaned Lily, “Why would Greagoir and Irving use simple keys for such a door? Because magical keys don’t work. How do you keep mages away from something? Make their powers completed worthless! That’s it then, we’re finished. We can’t get in.”

“There’s a door just over there that leads to a different section of the repository where dangerous magical artifacts are kept. We might find a way in to the phylactery chamber through there,” said Edmund, starting to the door in question.

He wondered why this door wasn’t warded the same way. Because it actually needed accessed on occasion? But the phylactery chamber would need accessed whenever a new apprentice was brought to the tower. He sighed—don’t question real-life plot holes, especially when they’re convenient.

He threaded the tiniest bit of mana into the rod of fire, and it sparked to life. Rather than just casting a cone of flame, like it did in the game, it formed a small intense tongue of blue flame. It reminded him of welding tools.

He set to work on the locks, melting through in short enough order. He nudged the door open and prepared his staff in his hand. “There will be sentinels guarding the hall. They will try to stop us.”

“You’re… very prepared for this.” Nira noted, also readying her staff.

Edmund just shrugged. “Just call it intuition. Let’s go.”

After his… encounter, with the spiders in the storage room, Edmund felt he had a more reasonable grasp of his abilities. And he wasn’t entirely sure his bargain with Pride didn’t have anything to do with it, either.

As it was, he was reasonably sure he wouldn’t hit anyone on his side.

He caught the first sentinel in a blast of fire. It stumbled forwards a few more paces before crashing to the floor, metal joins melting together.

The second sentinel charged at them. Nira’s body let out a burst of magic, and the sentinel stopped, then fell, a motionless suit of armor.

Edmund gave her a questioning look.

“The sentinels are clearly controlled with a similar spell to the Animate Dead enchantment, only modified for specific activation and attuned to metal, not flesh. Disable or disrupt the enchantment, it’s just armor.”

Edmund tried that particular trick with the next sentinels they encountered. While Nira’s dropped harmlessly to the floor, the one he targeted… kind of exploded. He sighed, and just decided to pretend he meant to do that.

He would just settle for setting them on fire.

The artifact room was a crowded space. It reminded him of Dumbledore’s office, actually, with curious gizmos and nick-knacks lining every shelf and table. “I wonder what all these things do,” he wondered, eyeing a shelf of multicolored glowing crystals.

“All of these things are powerful and dangerous, likely connected to dark magics,” Nira said softly, eyeing the artifacts around them with open wariness. “Don’t touch anything.”

“Agreed,” said Lily.

Edmund ignored them and approached the prophesying statue.

“There’s something odd about that statue,” said Jowan at his side.

“Greetings,” the statue spoke. Even though he was prepared for it, the effect was distinctly unsettling.

“Maker’s breath! Did it just say something?” Jowan sputtered.

The statue of Eleni Zinovia gave her speech, and Edmund found himself mouthing the words as she spoke.

Jowan prodded the statue with a few questions, while Nira and Lily warned them off of it.

“Eleni Zinovia,” Edmund addressed the statue. It had no eyes to look at him with, but he distinctly felt its focus shift to him. “What do you see of me?” Pride had noticed something out of place. Maybe she would, too.

“An untethered soul, sundered from heart and home. A hermit crab changes the shell, but stays the same within.”

“And the original shell?”

“Lies beyond my vision.”

“Bah, it’s all ambiguous rubbish. It could mean anything,” scoffed Jowan. “I can do it too, see? The sun grows dark, but lo! Here comes the dawn.”

Edmund glanced at Jowan. The night is long and the path is dark. Look to the sky, for one day soon the dawn will come. Huh. Maybe Jowan had a little prophet in him.

Nah. Probably just a narrative coincidence.

“Stop talking to it, please, both of you!” Lily begged.

“These things are locked away for a reason. Let’s leave it alone.” Nira turned, surveying the rest of the room and approaching the sagging wall. “I think the phylactery chamber should be on the other side of the wall behind this bookcase. And the wall looks like it could come down at any moment.”

“Hah, brilliant!” said Jowan. “We just need to find something that can knock it down. Here, Edmund, help me shift this bookcase.”

The two men shifted the bookcase while Nira inspected the amplification artifact. “This is an Auxiliaum Incantatiem, an old Tevinter artifact meant for amplifying arcane effects, though some scholars theorize they date back to ancient elven times. I’ve read all about them. They’re incredibly rare. The last official record of them is of Archon Vespasian in the Glory Age utilizing one for—”

“Hold your horses, Hermione,” said Edmund, rolling his eyes.

“—what?” Nira blinked at him.

“Nothing. Just, get out of the way.” Edmund moved to stand behind the artifact, aiming the rod through it.

The resulting explosion didn’t just collapse the wall—it shattered it. Shrapnel flew about the chamber, and they would have been hit if not for Nira’s quickly erected barrier enveloping them.

Several book shelves were alight with fire. Nira conjured ice to douse the flame and turned an incredulous look to Edmund. “I swear, what is it with you and fire recently?”

Edmund laughed nervously. “Just expanding my toolkit, is all. It’s all under control, ok?”

“Well, let’s not do that again, please,” said Jowan nervously. “The whole point is to not draw attention to ourselves, remember? I’d be surprised if the entire tower didn’t hear that blast.”

Edmund shrugged. They were going to get busted, anyways. “It’s the Circle, Jowan. Explosions are a fairly regular occurrence around here. Now, shall we?”

The next room was the phylactery chamber itself. There was snow collected around the walls and icicles tanning from the shelves. He should be cold, standing in that room, but he felt no different. Perk of being a fire mage, maybe?

“We must find Jowan’s phylactery quickly,” said Lily.

“Pity ours have been sent to Denerim, yeah?” Edmund said with a glance to Nira, who did not meet his eyes.

“Would you destroy yours too, if it were here?” asked Jowan.

Edmund said “yes” at the exact same time Nira said “no.”

“You could still escape,” Lily said to Edmund, “I don’t think they’d be able to catch you. You’d know how to evade them. You’re clever… not like me.”

Lily had one thing right—she wasn’t clever. Kind, but not clever. Honestly, their escape plan was doomed even if Irving and Greagoir didn’t meet them outside the door. The phylactery would be destroyed, sure, but how did they plan on getting out of the tower itself? The only door out was heavily guarded and required not only a keys to open, but at least five men to actually move the massive doors, and Jowan likely escaped alone through blood magic.

“Let’s just find the phylactery,” Nira said, leading the inspection of the room.

Edmund browsed the shelves of red vials. They were all clearly labeled, but he still couldn’t read the script.

“Here it is!” Lily called out. The three mages moved to where she stood, opening a small case.

“That’s my phylactery! You found it!” Jowan took the vial in his hands, turning the glass over in inspection. “I can’t believe this tiny vial is all that stands between me and freedom. So fragile… so easy just to be rid of it… to end it’s hold over me…” Jowan dropped the vial on the ground. Edmund snapped his fingers, and small flames began to burn up the liquid. “… and I am free.”

“Then let’s move.” Edmund stomped out the fire and turned to the exit.
“Jowan, I…” Nira’s voice was quiet, but echoed of the chamber walls.

“What is it?”

“… nothing. I’ll just miss you, is all.” Her gaze was fixed on the floor.

Jowan didn’t seem to notice her shame. “I’ll miss you too. But we don’t have much time, let’s go.”

They climbed the steps of the stairs, and Edmund felt uncomfortable doubt overtake him. There was only one mage helping Jowan in the game, not two. What if Duncan didn’t recruit him? What if he recruited Nira instead? She would probably make a good Grey Warden. She was a powerful mage, and dutiful. He was a pretender who could barely keep from setting his own pants on fire.

Jowan let out a triumphal laugh as they exited the basement. “We did it, I can’t believe it!” The room was suspiciously empty, but that would change in a moment. Already Edmund could hear the approaching footfalls of men in armor. Jowan turned back to Edmund and Nira. “Thank you both so much… we could have never—”

“So what you said is true, Irving.” Greagoir lead the First Enchanter into the hall, and at least a dozen templars followed behind them. Cullen stood among them, Edmund noted.

“Gr-Greagoir,” Lily stammered, taking in the scene before them.

“An initiate, conspiring with a blood mage. I’m disappointed, Lily. She seems shocked, but fully in control of her own mind. Not a thrall of the blood mage, then.” Greagoir glanced at Irving. “You were right, Irving. The initiate has betrayed us. The Chantry will not let this go unpunished.” Greagoir eyed Edmund and Nira next. “And this one, newly a mage, and already flouting the rules of the Circle. And your own assistant is involved, no less!”

“It’s not their fault!” Jowan cried, positioning himself in front of them. “This was my idea!”

“I am disappointed in you, Edmund. You could have told me what you knew of this plan, but you did not.” Irving shook his head in disappointment. “But Nira is here under my orders, Greagoir. I take full responsibility for her actions.”

“You—wait, you… you led us into a trap?” Jowan turned, such heartbreak on his face that Edmund even looked away.

“Jowan… I’m so sorry, I—”

“Don’t you dare speak to me!” Jowan stepped away from her, reviled.

“Enough!” said Greagoir. “As Knight Commander of the templars assembled, I sentence this blood mage to death. And the initiate has scorned the chantry and her vows. Take her to Aeonar.”

Edmund felt time slow as Jowan went for a knife he’d lifted from a sentinel. He could stop Jowan. He knew what was about to happen. He could grab Jowan, hold him so he couldn’t do anything. Eamon wouldn’t be poisoned, Connor wouldn’t get possessed, and the people of Redcliffe wouldn’t have to fear the undead.

But Loghain would still make an attempt on Eamons life, that was certain. And if he didn’t use Jowan to do it… Edmund wouldn’t know how to stop it. There was no way he could save everybody. He had to keep the story close to where he could predict it.

“The… the mage’s prison. No… please, no. Not there!” Lily backed away hiding behind Jowan from the approaching templars.

He stood by and watched as Jowan slashed his palm. “No! I won’t let you touch her!” Power gathered around Jowan, and when he unleashed it, all the templars and the First Enchanter collapsed like puppets cut from their strings. A pool of blood started forming around Cullen.

Edmund stood to the side, watching as Nira shook herself out of her horror and rushed to the templar’s aid, healing magic ready at her fingers, and Lily backed away.

“By the Maker… blood magic! H-how could you? You said you never—”

“I admit, I… I dabbled! I thought it would make me a better mage.”

“Blood magic is evil, Jowan. It corrupts people, changes them…”

“I’m going to give it up. All magic. I just want to be with you, Lily. Please, come with me,” Jowan begged.

Lily turned her face away. “I trusted you. I was ready to sacrifice everything for you. I… I don’t know who you are, blood mage.”

Jowan fled.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Duncan followed the sound of the chaos down to the basement entrance to find a full squadron of templars, the Knight Commander, and First Enchanter, on the ground holding their heads as Nira Surana and Edmund Amell aided them to their feet. He halted in the doorway, observing the situation.

“As good as can be expected, given the circumstances!” Greagoir was calling out, “If you had let me act sooner, this would not have happened. Now we have a blood mage on the loose with no way to track him down!”

“He can’t have gone far,” said Nira. “You could still capture him.”

“Believe me, we will use our every resource. Where is the girl?”

Duncan watched as a priestess emerged from her hiding place behind the stairwell. “I… I am here, sir.”

“You helped a blood mage! Look at all he’s hurt.”

“Lily did not know Jowan was a blood mage,” Edmund said, crossing his arms. Duncan saw the young man glance in his direction, the first to become aware of his presence. Almost like he expected Duncan to be there.

Lily held up a hand. “You’ve been a friend, but you needn’t defend me any longer. Knight Commander, I… I was wrong. I was an accomplice to a… a blood mage. I will accept any punishment you see fit. Even… even Aeonar.”

Greagoir motioned to the few templars who were on their feet. “Get her out of my sight.” He turned to the two mages. “You two. You were in a repository full of magics that were locked away for a reason.”

“Did you take anything from the repository?” Irving asked.

“No, First Enchanter,” said Nira.

“Very well.”

“Bah, these antics have made a mockery of the Circle! What are we to do?”

“I simply did as I was told.” Nira moved to stand slightly behind Irving.

“As I said, Nira was working under my orders.”

“And this improves the situation? The repository is off limits to all, save for you and me!”

Irving crossed his arms. “I had my reasons. I take full responsibility for Nira’s actions. Though I cannot say the same for the second accomplice.”

All eyes turned to Edmund. Greagoir directed his ire at the young man, instead.

“Do what you like,” Edmund shrugged, nonchalant. “I stand by my decision to help Jowan.”

Greagoir scowled, taking a threatening step towards the mage. “You helped a blood mage escape. All our prevention measures are for naught—because of you!”

Duncan stepped fully into the hall, inserting himself into the situation. “Knight Commander, if I may…” Greagoir gave him an irritated look, but did not interrupt. “I am not only looking for mages to join the kings army. I am also recruiting for the Grey Wardens.” Duncan eyed the two young mages before him. Nira, at worst, would likely face solitary confinement, but otherwise she had a future in the Circle. Edmund’s fate was less secure, and he had already expressed an interest in the Wardens. His skills should not go to waste. “Irving spoke highly of this young man, and I would like him to join the Warden ranks.”

Edmund actually breathed a sigh of relief.

“Duncan, this mage has assisted a maleficar, and shown a repeated lack of regard for the Circle’s rules,” said Irving.

Greagoir nodded. “He is a danger. To all of us.”

Duncan placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “It is a rare person who risks all for a friend in need. I stand by my decision. I will recruit this mage.”

“No!” Greagoir snarled, “I refuse to let this go unpunished!”

“As a Grey Warden Recruit, it is no longer within your power to punish me, Knight Commander,” said Edmund, a smirk on his face. “That privilege is reserved for my new commanding officer, here.”

“Greagoir, mages are needed. This mage is needed. Worse things plague this world than blood mages—you know that. I take this young mage under my wing and bear all responsibility for his actions.”

Greagoir shook his head. “A blood mage escapes, his accomplice is not only unpunished, but is rewarded by becoming a Grey Warden. Are our rules nothing? Have we lost all authority over our mages? This does not bode well, Irving.”

Irving sighed, exhaustion showing on his aged face. “Enough. We have no more say in the matter.”

“For whatever it’s worth, thanks for everything, Irving. It’s been a pleasure. And I expect I’ll see you again sooner than you expect.” Edmund inclined his head respectfully to the First Enchanter.

Irving sighed. “Be proud, child. You are luckier than you know.”

“Come,” Duncan said, “your new life awaits.”

“From the frying pan to the fire,” Edmund muttered. “Give me a moment to grab a few items, and we’ll be off.”

The young man left to gather his belongings. Duncan turned back to Irving and Greagoir, who were focused now on the elven mage.

“Irving, your meddling in this affair has made this more difficult than it needed to be. There must be consequences,” Greagoir said.

“Nira did her duty by reporting Jowan to me as soon as she learned of his schemes, proving her loyalty to the Circle. Furthermore, she used her gifts to heal us after the blood mage attacked. As I said before, I will bear the full responsibility for her involvement,” said Irving.

“That’s not good enough. There must be some punishment, if not to do justice, then to demonstrate to the rest that the authority of the Chantry is still to be respected. Knights,” Greagoir addressed the rest of his templars who had finally regained themselves. “Please escort Nira Surana to the solitary confinement cells. She will be kept there while we conduct an investigation as to how far this corruption spreads.”

“But—I—First Enchanter?” The young mage looked desperately to Irving.

“Greagoir, you cannot—” Irving protested.

“You’ll find that I can, Irving, and that you should be grateful that I am only sentencing solitary confinement. Likely the investigation will be over before the months’ end and you’ll have your assistant back in no time.”

Duncan watched as a blonde templar escorted her away. He was on thin enough ice with the Circle—he didn’t need to damage relations permanently by recruiting two mages when just one had incited fury. She would be fine.

Edmund returned not a moment later, a light pack slung over his shoulder. “Let’s be off.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Fresh air filled his lungs for the first time in what felt like ages. Duncan was quiet on the ferry ride to the shore, but it gave Edmund time to think.

Nira’s existence proved that there were probably other “Player Characters” wandering around out there. Tabris, Aeducan, Cousland, Mahariel, and Brosca. Maybe they didn’t need to head right to Ostagar. Maybe they could look at hitting up one or two of these locations to pick up more recruits.

“What’s the plan, Duncan?” Edmund asked.

“The rest of my traveling party will be waiting for us at the inn. From here, we will go to Orzammar. The king has requested we approach the dwarves for aid, and we need to scout the deep roads in order to determine if this is truly a Blight.”

Edmund raised a brow. “You say that like you don’t already know it is.”

Duncan gave him a curious look. “I cannot ask the king to act on my fears alone.”

Edmund was quiet the rest of the way to the shore. He couldn’t decide on what to tell Duncan. He could barely believe the truth himself.

They were headed to Orzammar. That much was already different than the game, which usually faded to the cutscene arrival at Ostagar immediately after the protagonists’ recruitment. He could try to convince Duncan to recruit Brosca and Aeducan while they were there.

Three other Wardens waited for them on the shore, all of them human men. Duncan made brief introductions, naming the other Wardens as Sam, Oliver, and Farrien.

“This is Edmund Amell, our newest brother in the Order.”

Sam nodded. “Excellent. Welcome, we look forward to having you in our ranks. Duncan, did the Knight-Commander agree to send more mages for the king’s army?”

“I am afraid Greagoir and Irving will be loathe to release any more mages than they already have. What we have will have to work. His Majesty will have to be disappointed.”

“Can’t say you didn’t try. We best get underway, the sooner we get to Orzammar, the sooner we can bring definitive word to the rest.”

Without further ado, they were underway. Edmund realized he was faced with an even greater challenge than before—survive outside the Circle in a world he had no practical experience in.

This… would be interesting.

Chapter Text

Liri rolled a copper over her knuckles idly, listening as Beraht made his usual threats to Rica. Much as she loathed the bastard, he was their only chance right now.

“I can’t keep gambling on you forever, precious. You’ve got a sweet look, something to light a man on fire—but you’ve gotta make it count.” Beraht took a long eyeful of Rica. Liri’s free hand brushed against her sword.

“Please, Beraht. I don’t want to do this in front of my sister—”

Beraht laughed. “Why not? She knows the slope of the land, don’t ya, girl?”

Liri slipped the copper into her pocket and began to sign. “Didn’t I tell you the next time you spoke like that about my sister I’d shank you through your ribs?”

Beraht glanced at Rica for an interpretation. “We owe you everything, Beraht. We won’t let you down.”

Liri glared at her sister. “That’s not what I said.”

It was probably for the best that Rica censored her, but it irritated her nonetheless.

“That’s what I like to hear,” said Beraht. “Before me, your sister was just another duster. Now check her out! Braids down to here, gold-capped teeth—she can recite elf-poetry and play the string-harp. Every man’s dream! All she’s gotta do is find a lord, squeeze out some kid who looks like him, and we’re all living the easy life in the Diamond Quarter.”

Rica looked up at Liri, a small amount of shame in her eyes. “Please don’t get involved. You know that never goes well.”

“I don’t like him treating you like this,” said Liri. Like they really had any other choice.

Beraht glared in their direction. “You just keep your head down and say ‘aye’ to any job I decide is low enough for scum like you. In return, I put out coin so precious Rica can doll herself up and get a bellyful of some nobleman’s brat. Then, you both go free. And I get to join the family and be called, ‘mi’lord’ for the rest of the little prince’s life.”

Liri looked at the carta boss incredulously. There was no way this ended after that. Beraht would hold them for life, one way or another. “So what are you doing here?”

Rica passed on the question, and Beraht looked the both of them over again. “Checking on my investments. And right now, they don’t bear much gold. I’m giving you another week, precious. If you haven’t found a patron, you’re back to sweeping streets.”

“But… I have.” Rica’s eyes lit up. “I’ve met someone… that is, I didn’t want to promise, but he seemed interested.”

“So get off her back and tell me my job for the day.”

“Your buddy Leske’s waiting outside. He knows what I’ll need from you today. Don’t even think about bungling this job. Your whole family is on loose sand with me right now.” Beraht’s voice carried more threat than usual, which was actually impressive. “And I know you don’t have anywhere else to turn.” With that, Beraht left them alone in their little hovel.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“You don’t have to hide anything from me, Rica.”

“I’ve always tried, though. At least I’ve made sure you don’t have to buy your future with what’s between your legs anymore,” said Rica with a long sigh. “I should have told you. Beraht’s been warning me ever since two of his other girls found patrons at Lord Harrowmont’s reception. They’ve been getting gifts already. Lord Rousten gave Elsye a surface-silk gown and she’s not even pregnant. Beraht’s getting impatient.”

“Have you had that much competition attracting nobles?” More and more girls were working the Diamond Quarter with the hopes of bearing a noble son, it seemed. It was a strange feeling, watching the other casteless girls put on pearls while she put on armor.

“Well, there are enough of us now that they have a name for us. They call us noble-hunters.” Rica rolled her eyes. “It’s not like we’re stalking them for food!”

“Besides, I hear deshyr taste awful, all gristle and fat.”

Rica laughed, hiding her mouth behind her hand with cultured grace. All those etiquette classes were paying off, at least. “Besides, if they didn’t want what we were offering, believe me, there would be nobody doing it.”

“I don’t understand why the work I do for Beraht isn’t enough.” Liri shook her head as she signed.

“I know you’ve worked hard to keep him from throwing us out. I can only imagine the horrible things he’s made you do.”

Not so horrible, maybe. A couple heads bashed in here, and couple threats made there. A few drops of poison in a goblet and a knife or two in the right back. All in a day’s work, really. She was really better suited to the life of a thug than one trying to schmooze nobles anyhow.

“But… there are a lot of desperate dwarves in Orzammar. He could buy any one of them to run messages and knock skulls.”

“We wouldn’t even be in this mess if I could join the army. Or the Silent Sisters. I already have most of their requirements met, anyhow.” Liri chuckled in spite of herself, drawing a soft laugh from her sister.

Rice turned serious again soon enough. “Be that as it may, you know as well as I that the nobles would never allow it. It’s sheer folly, one more way the nobility protect their status. They say casteless soldiers are more danger to each other than to darkspawn… the it’s an insult to the smith to let us touch a fine-made weapon.Truly, they just don’t wish to insult the Warrior Caste by showing that given the same opportunities we could lead an army just as well.”

That much, Liri knew. She could list a dozen dusters off the top of her head who would make for excellent warriors or even generals, but instead they were resigned to life in Dust Town, if not begging, then thumping skulls for the carta. “They would rather we all be killed than admit they’re wrong.”

“I have little love for the nobles, but they know—more than we ever will—what the darkspawn have taken from our kind. Every noble I’ve met has had a brother or a nephew killed in the Deep Roads. Yet, they let their arrogance blind them to the fact that we could help defend the city against the darkspawn. They would even turn to the humans for aid before us, it seems. There’s talk floating around of an alliance against the darkspawn, even that the Grey Wardens have stepped up.”

If there was one good thing about her sister’s position, it was the information. Rica overheard all kinds of interesting things as she worked the Diamon Quarter. The job wore on her sister, even though she hid it well behind layers of cosmetics.

“Beraht asks too much of you.” Liri could see how her sister’s shoulders sagged whenever she didn’t think anyone was looking. It wasn’t as bad as when they were younger. At times Rica even seemed hopeful. But that weight was still there.

Rica fidgeted with the buttons on her sleeve. “You know the nobles are desperate for children. They can barely field enough soldiers to hold the walls against the darkspawn. If I could… give one of them a son, the whole house would celebrate. And we’d all be raised up to noble caste to join the family. It’s what Beraht’s betting on. That’s why he’s paid for my clothes, my voice lessons. He wants to share the reward.”

“And you said there was a noble showing interest?”

“Yes. That is, I hope. He certainly seems… charming. He treats me like a real lady, not just someone to tumble and forget.” Rica was actually smiling. Even if the job Beraht had her set to was sometimes… unpleasant, it was good that Rica could at least find a little joy in it.

“You gonna tell me who he is, or am I supposed to start guessing?” She needed to know—someone needed to do a background check, and Rica wasn’t the one. Who is he, who are his trading partners, does he beat his women behind closed doors, do his friends. All important things to know.

“I-I don’t want to say… in case I’m wrong,” said Rica. Liri narrowed her eyes at her sister. Was Rica blushing? She was actually blushing. “It just seems too mad to think of one of the most important men in Orzammar with… someone like me.”

“You know the other options. Cleaning middens, begging, going to the surface… working the street corners again…” Rica shuddered. Unpleasant as it could be pursuing nobles or slitting throats, neither of them wanted to go back to selling a tumble for a single copper. They were worth more than that, at the very least. “No, unless you find a way to save us all from darkspawn and become a Paragon, we’re pretty much on Beraht’s leash for life.”

Liri barked a laugh. “Someone like me could never actually become a Paragon.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. Gherlon the Blood-Risen was born casteless, you know, before he went to the surface. And he came back and won the throne!” Rica exclaimed. Her fancy education was paying off, at least. “Many Paragons have humble origins. All that matters is that the Assembly recognizes their achievements. And once they get that vote, they found their own house, and are as noble as if the ancestors themselves made it so.”

It would never happen. She wasn’t anything special, just another casteless doing her best to survive. The day she became Paragon would be the very same day nugs started to fly.

Still, Rica’s hope was a little contagious. Just a little. “That would certainly surprise Mother.”

“Oh, don’t pay attention to her. She’s just a bitter old drunk. She also said you’d never learn to walk, or stop dumping the bed. Make something of yourself just to spite her.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Maybe you will.” Rica smiled fondly. “But until then, we can only serve as Beraht demands, and he won’t like it if either of us is late.”

“You’re right. See ya later.” Liri gathered her gear, adding a couple more blades to her belt.

“Don’t get into too much trouble. I’ll see you tonight.” Rica turned to her trunk and began to pull out her expensive accessories.

Liri tried to exit the hovel without catching her mother’s attention, but alas, no such luck.

Her mother glared over at her in a haze as she passed, a bottle of moss-wine clutched in her hand. “Whozzat? Why are you bothering me? Rica?”

It was one of those days, apparently. Liri and Rica looked alike, sure, but when she was deep in the bottle her mother could never tell one from the other.

“It’s the guardsmen. You’re under arrest for drunkenness.” If drunkenness was an actual offense, all of Tapsters would be incarcerated.

Her mother stared at her. Even though Liri signed slowly, it took the drunken mess a moment to puzzle out the hand signals.

“Don’t sass me, you ungrateful brat! I made you and I can make another just like you.” She took another swig. Everything about the woman stank with alcohol.

“I’m the only reason you’re here and not dead in a gutter.” Too many times, she or Rica had had to pull their mother physically out of a ditch. They stopped trying to drag her out of her emotional ditch years ago.

“Then you shoulda left me there!” She spat, “What’ve I got that’s worth livin for?”

Not much, apparently. “What about me? What about Rica?”

“I know you both hate me…” she shifted from rage to weeping faster than a coin flip. “… I-I know what I done to ya, but… it was for your own good. The world’s a cruel place. You… you had to learn that.” And then it was back to rage just as fast. “You think you’d be where you are now if I’d let you hide from a few slaps? Everything you are, I made you!”

“Think that’s something to be proud of, do you?” A few slaps, indeed. How many times had she hid behind Rica when this woman went on a drunken rampage? Too many. How many years had she and Rica stood on the street corners, selling themselves for less than they were worth, just for what little money they made go straight into a bottle? Too many. Only now that they had a real chance at changing their fates did their mother start claiming she made any of it happen.

“I tried my best! They treat us like dust, tell us we’re cursed. How else are we supposed to live? We got nothin! There’s no way out. For any of us.”

“You’re wrong. I’m going to make something of my life.” Did she actually just say that? Wow. Rica really was rubbing off on her.

“Sure. That’s what they all say. You only got one coin to spend in this life, and it’s between your legs.”

Liri turned away to stop herself from decking the woman upside the head. She started towards the door.

“Hey, where’s she goin? Why’s she leaving?” Her mother slurred. “Don’t leave me!”

Liri turned back just in time to see the woman fall sideways out of her chair, only to be caught by Rica before hitting the stone. “Never mind, Mother. Why don’t you just lie down? That’s good.” Liri helped Rica move the semi-coherent drunk to the nearby cot. Almost impressively, a bottle of moss-wine still rested tightly in her grip.

“I’m going now. Hopefully she’ll dry out by the time I get back.”

Unlikely. But miracles happened every once in a while, even in Dust Town.

Leske was waiting for her in his usual place in the square.

“About sodding time. I was starting to think I’d have to bust in and get an eyeful of that spicy sister of yours, ga-row!”

She was so not in the mood for this today.

“Haven’t I told you not to talk about Rica that way?”

Leske was unfazed. Apparently he missed the murder in her eyes. “You’re just jealous because you want the majesty of Leske for yourself, you shameless hussy. What do you say?”

“I say that you just like Rica because she can’t break you with one hand.” Liri cracked her knuckles as she finished, just to emphasize the point.

Leske cleared his throat and looked away quickly. “That does have its appeal. But much as I’d love to keep chatting, we’d better get down to business.”

“And here I hoped our mission was for me to make fun of you.”

“No such luck.”

“So what’s the job?”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

He learned a lot on the five-day walk to Orzammar. The most important things were how to pitch a tent, how to cook over a fire, and that the body belonging to Edmund Amell was not nearly as physically fit as his own actual body.

He supposed he would have to adjust soon. If he made it to the “main campain,” he was going to do an awful lot of walking around Ferelden.

If any of his traveling companions questions his lack of general know-how, they didn’t voice it. He supposed that it could easily be explained that he was in the Circle for so long he didn’t know anything about the outside world. It was a really convenient excuse.

Duncan spoke little during the journey, only occasionally making small talk, but mostly giving instructions or asking the occasional question. The other Wardens were more talkative, with each other and with him.

He found himself remembering with an uncomfortable start that none of the men he was traveling with would survive Ostagar. That made it somewhat more difficult to speak with them.

The others seemed to interpret his sudden solemn attitude as homesickness, even going so far to tease him about it. He didn’t see a need to correct them.

Two of the nights they camped on the road, he found himself in the Fade with Pride. Pride worked with him on his focus, on his ability to reach into his mana smoothly on command. Edmund told Pride about cell phones. Pride taught him his limits, how far he could push before he reached his breaking point, and what to do if that ever happened. Edmund told Pride about the Internet. They traded back in forth, and for now at least it seemed like this little dance would work.

Though the training in the Fade didn’t seem to affect him physically, it did leave him waking with a killer headache in the morning. What he wouldn’t do for some tylenol.

Sam and Oliver were discussing the best way to kill an Ogre when Edmund realized they were nearing the gates to Orzammar. He quickened his steps to match Duncan’s at the head of the group.

“Will you be recruiting while we’re here, Duncan?”

“Should we find someone worthy, I don’t see why not,” said Duncan. “There is always room in the Wardens for those with the will and skill to face the darkspawn.”

Edmund drummed his fingers against his staff, which he’d used throughout the trip as a glorified walking stick, lost in thought. He hadn’t told Duncan. Didn’t know how to tell Duncan. Didn’t know if he should.

He didn’t even know when they would be arriving in Orzammar, time-line wise. The Commoner Origin was supposed to take place a week before the Noble Origin. They would probably only be able to recruit one or the other.

If he had to guess, they would be there for the Noble Origin. He recalled Duncan standing at the commission feast with other human wardens—there to scout the Deep Roads for some mysterious reason. Like they were apparently doing now.

“Well find some here. I’m sure of it.”

The market around the cities entrance was bustling, surface dwarves selling wares from armor to artwork. The company of Wardens passed through the middle directly to the gates themselves. Edmund didn’t know how to put it any other way. They were… enormous.

The guards recognized Duncan nearly on-sight and let them in almost without question.

Edmund felt like he was stepping into an entirely different world—which was becoming a common sensation, unfortunately. The game simply didn’t do the massive Hall of Heroes justice.

Stone dwarves loomed in a massive parade as they made their way to the city proper. Edmund could almost here Orzammar’s theme music playing in the back of his mind.

The city was strangely dark—but if he remembered correctly dwarves had dark-vision, so the denizens of the city probably saw fine. As it was for the party of humans, the waterfalls and pools of lava cast an eerie glow on the entire city, enhancing the other-worldly effect.

His eyes began to adjust to the darkness as they were escorted through the city. Being that the shortest of them was still two feet taller than the dwarves around them, they caught a lot of attention from passers by.

He’d have thought he’d have gotten used to being watched from hanging around templars, but this was different. Awe and curiosity, not suspicion.

Their escort brought them to what he assumed was the Diamond Quarter. “This is the Grey Warden compound here in Orzammar. It is a small location, meant for those who stop here before going on to face their—” Sam stopped mid explanation and swore loudly, having caught an elbow in the ribs from Oliver. He glared at his companion before continuing. “before they scout the Deep Roads. Yeah.”

Edmund rolled his eyes. Before they went to face their Callings, yeah. That wasn’t something they told their recruits.

“We will be staying here while I take care of the matters in the city,” said Duncan, as they entered. “Take a few moments to refresh, and then we will meet with the King. Be on your best behavior, all of you.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Endrin spoke with them only briefly, busy with matters of state, but promised to cede his request to study in the Shaperate until such a time as he could be spared to address the Grey Warden concerns. That itself could make the trip worthwhile—he’d found mentions of an old Grey Warden outpost in the Korcari Wilds while in the Circle library, but the Shaperate was more likely to have specific information.

Otherwise, Endrin suggested Duncan take his Wardens to the Proving grounds, where a Glory Proving would be fought later that afternoon, declaring that such an event would be declared as a showing for the honor of the Grey Warden’s arrival. Some of their best would be competing in the fights today.

Duncan eyed the dark-haired mage as they walked the streets of the Commons. Edmund carried himself with an impossible mix of confidence and uncertainty, and had an uncannily accurate intuition. Duncan felt he likely knew more than he let on. Provided he survived the Joining, Duncan hoped to get answers about some of the more… unexpected things he’d said.

For now, he lead his Wardens to the Proving ground. Perhaps one among the contestants would prove to be Grey Warden material.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Liri’s purse was heavier than it’d been in a long while. They’d eat well, for the next couple days at least. She glanced back at Leske as they walked through the Commons. He was trying too hard to look casual.

“Don’t worry. Just follow my lead, Beraht won’t suspect a thing.”

“I hope you’re right, salorka.”

Beraht and Jarvia stood by the counter when Liri and Leske entered the shop.

“… the king is old, his rule won’t hold much longer,” said Beraht.

“Prince Bhelen seems more sympathetic to our interests than Trian. I’m not certain where Prince Aothor stands. He’s been careful publicly, but he’s extremely popular—and that makes him a bit of a wild card,” said Jarvia.

“We’ll have to get more eyes on prince number two. But Bhelen has some tastes of his own that he knows I can provide—” Beraht glanced their way, realizing that they’d entered the shop. “We’ll finish this later. It’s about time you two showed up. What happened with Oskias?”

“We searched him and everything he had, didn’t find anything. He was clean,” she signed as Leske translated. There wasn’t any way for him to censor her either, since unlike Beraht, Jarvia understood hand speech.

“He didn’t have anything? You expect me to believe that?” Beraht crossed his arms, glaring down at them.

“He said he was keeping it all topside,” Leske added.

“Jarvia, send a dig-troop topside. If Oskias has a hiding spot up there, I want us up to our elbows in it.”

Jarvia nodded. “As you say.”

Beraht turned back to Liri. “And the matter of… punishment?”

“Don’t worry. I killed him myself.”

“That’s very interesting, seeing as how my cousin was at Tapsters this afternoon. And he says he saw something change hands between you and Oskias and then the duster sodding stood up and walked out on his own two feet! Does that sound like what I asked? Jarvia, what does that sound like to you?”

Jarvia sneered at them. “It sounds like some jumped-up face-brands thought they could take a bribe and let him walk free. That’s just not right.”

“The lady says it’s not right. You wouldn’t disagree with a lady, would you?”

Yeah, but if Jarvia was a lady, Liri was an elf. It wasn’t lost on her that both Beraht and Jarvia had their hands on their swords. “I’m not stupid enough to kill Oskias in public.”

“Right,” Leske continued, backing her up with confidence. “I mean, no one’s gonna say spit to you, Beraht, but we can’t move that free. We needed to get Oskias somewhere private. We took him to the lava sinks behind the mines. You won’t be seeing him again.”

Beraht’s hand lifted from his pommel to stroke his beard. “Hmm… I don’t like you making me look weak… but it’s smart to keep the Sword Caste’s from asking questions.” Beraht barked out a laugh, shaking her head. Jarvia just looked disappointed she wasn’t going to be shanking them. “That’s what I like about you two. Now, I got something else for you. Make some use of your… unique skills.”

Liri gave him an uncertain look. She had a lot of “unique skills.” He was going to have to be more specific.

“Let me guess: we don’t really have a choice.”

Beraht chuckled. “You’re catching on. There’s a Proving happening today—all the best fighters from the upper castes, last man standing—you know the sort of thing. They’re showing off for some Grey Wardens who are looking for candidates to drag off to a life of eternal glory.” Beraht began to pace as he spoke, a gleam of greed in his eyes. “Now, it’s not often we get every name fighter in Orzammar lined up like that, and I have certain acquaintances who… take an interest in this sort of thing.”

“And you’re taking bets on the fights.”

Beraht carried on without a look to them. “There’s a lot of coin to be made when people get the fever up. Favored fighter’s an officer named Mainar, veteran of four darkspawn campaigns. I also heard rumors that one of the prince’s was signed up—likely Aothor, he’s won five Provings previously and likes to test himself against the warriors—but so far there’s been no confirmation. Regardless, Everd is a long-shot. Just got back from a Deep Roads offensive. Some young buck who’s got all the ladies drooling. I’ve got a lot of money riding on him, mine and other peoples. I expect to see and eight-to-one payoff. Understand?”

He painted a clear enough picture. She nodded. “Aye, I do.”

“Good. When the name Mainar comes up, I want you to slip this drug into the bastard’s water. It’ll slow his reflexes, just enough to take the edge off, not enough to show. But it wears off quickly, so don’t use it until just before the fight.”

“Alright. We’ll go right now.”

“You bet you will. Here’s your pass to get on the grounds. The Proving starts as soon as the clock strikes. Here’s your passes to get on the grounds. And when I say I have coin on this, I’m not talking about some pittance. Like the value of your life. If I don’t see Everd’s name on the winner’s sheet, you’d better make sure I never see you, or your sister, ever again.”

Very subtle. Nice, Beraht.

Leske followed her out of the shop and across the bridge. They had a Proving to fix.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Edmund stuck to Duncan’s side like glue as they entered the Proving Grounds. Maybe they would be recruiting the Commoner Origin, after all. If Brosca approached Duncan, he wanted to be there and see for himself.

Dwarves milled about around them as everyone waited for the fights to begin. Most made their way to the seating area, some stopped by the concessions stand to get a leg of roast nug. He was considering grabbing one himself when a redheaded dwarven woman approached them. The other dwarves avoided her like she carried the Blight. Probably because of the geometric brands spanning her forehead like a crown.

He’d bet gold this was Brosca. If he had any gold. Which he did not.

She shuffled in place, looking up at them with an equal mix of apprehension and curiosity. Duncan bowed to her in greeting. “Stone-met, and blessings on your house.” The lady dwarf just blinked, frowning. “That was the proper greeting for an outside the last time I visited Orzammar. Has it changed? Or is there a reason you’re looking me so strangely?”

“In my part of Orzammar, we just say 'Hello'.”

Edmund frowned. She was using sign-language. He… hadn’t expected that, honestly.

If Duncan was as surprised as he was, he hid it better, and could also understand her hand-signals like he could. “We do the same in my part of Ferelden,” the man laughed, “Hello, then. I am Duncan. I’d say ‘of the Grey Wardens’ but I suspect you already know this. Pleased to meet you.”

“I am Edmund, of the same,” Edmund said, signing as he spoke. Damn. Now that he looked at her closer, she really looked like his sister, and the sign language made it even more uncanny. Given that she understood Duncan without him signing, Edmund gathered that she wasn’t deaf like his sister.

His sister. Melody.

Damn. Now his heart hurt.

He pushed thoughts of his family away. He couldn’t afford to be homesick now.

“Are you a member of the Silent Sisters, perhaps? I have met others of your Order in the past.” That’s right. Utha. It made sense Duncan would know some sign-language. He made a mental note to add that to his record journal.

Brosca shook her head. “No. I’m just Liri. Of… of nobody.”

Duncan put the pieces together. “Ah… ah, of course. That’s what the face-brand means, then. I remember that now.”

“Aye. And yes, you can have me arrested for harassing you, if you want.”

Duncan laughed. “For saying hello? My friend, to a Grey Warden nothing short of a slavering darkspawn waking you in your bedroll counts as harassment.”

Edmund rolled his eyes. “You certainly know how to make a sales pitch, Commander.”

“I only speak the truth.” Duncan shrugged. “And in truth, I am very glad to have met you, young lady. Whenever we come to Orzammar we always stay in the Diamond Quarter. It’s easy to forget how much of the city we miss. We Wardens are always looking for those who have the courage to spend their lives in battle against the darkspawn. It is rare we find those with both the skill and the will. The best Wardens are ruthless to their enemies, compassionate to their friends, and inspiring to their troops. It’s a lot to look for, but I hope to find it here.”

“And I think we just did,” Edmund said softly.

“In any event, we hope you find what you are looking for. Come, we should get to our seats.” Duncan bid her farewell and lead him through the halls.

“She’s Warden material, Duncan,” he told the man as they walked. Duncan cast him a curious look.

“What makes you say?”

First of all, she was probably guaranteed to survive the Joining. Because plot armor. Did that apply to reality? Probably not. Whatever. “She works for Beraht, a local crime lord. Good at what she does. Anyways, you’ll see soon enough. The fights are about to start.”

“We’re scarce been in the city a day. How could you know this?”

“I use my listening ears. Come on.”

The stadium was packed with dwarves, all cheering loudly like it was the Super Bowl. Duncan took the seat of honor, while he and the other Wardens sat at his sides. The Proving Master stood at the edge of the balcony. When he spoke, his voice boomed over the crowd. He eyed the runes carved into the floor. They probably served to amplify sound.

The opening speech was grand and long. Most of it was honoring the ancestors, calling down their favor on the combatants, and praying for the Stone to comfort those who fell. There was a little thrown in there about honoring the Grey Wardens and the glory of the call, towards the end.

The first combatants entered the arena. Officer Mainar, and “Everd.”

The two bowed to each other. If he hand’t been watching Liri as closely as he was, he would have missed it when she scooped a handful of dirt into her hand.

“Fight!” The Proving Master gave the signal.

Mainar rushed at Liri, who easily evaded the swing of his club and threw the handful of dust directly into his eyes. While he sputtered and flailed about, Liri struck the back of his head with the pommel of her blade, knocking him out cold.

“The winner is Everd!” The stadium went wild. “A truly memorable fight. The young cadet vanquishes the wily veteran.”

Mainar was carried off the field, and “Everd” returned to the waiting rooms without a word.

The Proving was set up in a series of brackets, with only the victors advancing to the next round. A few more pairs of dwarves went at it. He recognized a few of the names.

He nearly fell out of his seat when the Proving Master announced the fourth pair of combatants.

“The warrior Burbek Turin will do honorable battle against Prince Aothor Aeducan!”

If he thought the crowd had been loud before, it all but exploded.

“Aeducan?” Edmund asked, looking to one of the nearby dwarves.

“Oh yes. The prince often competes in the Provings, and has since he was old enough to wield a blade. He enjoys spending time with the warriors and testing his mettle against theirs. Should the ancestors favor him today, he will become a six-time champion of the arena. He’s a crowd favorite, that’s for certain.”

Edmund studied the dwarven man in the pit. From here all he could make out was fine blond hair and a well groomed beard, and that the man wore heavy armor and carried a sword and shield.

If they stayed in Orzammar long enough, maybe they could get both dwarves.

The dwarves wished each other luck, and donned their helms and drew their blades. Prince Aothor’s opponent carried a great sword. The two circled each other around once, then twice. Aothor made the first move, raising his sword and charging in.

His opponent parried the blow and returned in kind. Aothor caught the blow with his shield and pushed back, causing the other dwarf to stumble, but not fall.

They kept this pattern going for a short while. “Liri takes her opponents out before they can get going. Aothor has the stamina to wear them down and outlast them.” Edmund half-said to Duncan.

Duncan looked at him, confused. “Liri?”

Edmund shook his head. “Everd.”

The match ended with the princes victory as Duncan pieced together his words and chuckled.

The next several bouts proceeded in this manner. Liri would let her opponents rush her, making them do the work in attacking her, before turning their own moves against them to put them down quickly. With Aothor it was more of a back-and-forth, a steady give and take in the blows. He mostly tuned out the battles where neither of them were fighting.

He checked the bracket. The way things were lining up…

The final fight was going to be Aothor Aeducan vs. “Everd.”

Oh shit.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Oh shit.

Sodding ancestors, why did this kinda thing have to happen to her?

Aothor Aeducan. A fucking prince.

Maybe Beraht could have warned them that an actual royal would be taking part of the event, but no, that wasn’t important, apparently.

What was the worst about this situation was that even if she did put down the guy who would likely be the next ruler of Orzammar, she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it. A fucking waste of bragging rights, right there.

Prince Aothor bowed to her. This couldn’t get anymore surreal.

“You’ve fought well today, Everd. Win or loose, your ancestors surely smile upon you this day.”

Considering that Everd was currently locked in a storage trunk, that was unlikely.

She shrugged, bowing to the noble and readying her weapons. Aeducan strapped on his helm and did likewise.

“The battle for the championship is here! Combatants, make your ancestors proud, and fight for glory!”

At the signal for the battle to begin, the prince started to close the distance towards her.

Liri took her dagger and threw it, aimed true at his head. He raised his shield to guard his face. Which meant for at least a split second, he couldn’t see her.

It was all she needed.

She ran, circling around to get an opening at his flank. By the time his shield came down, her sword was already aimed at his back.

He spun on his heel and parried and stepped back, safely out of range.

Liri scowled. She bent and picked up the dagger from the ground. Aothor swung at her while she was down. She easily rolled away from the blow and sprung to her feet a few paces away.

So far, the rest of Orzammar’s “best” wouldn’t have lasted an afternoon stroll through the alley’s of Dust Town. The princeling was the first one to put up a decent challenge.

They went back and forth, parrying and striking until they nearly settled into a rhythm.

He was trying to draw this out. He wanted her to wear down, to get sloppy.

She was tiring. Three straight bouts with minimal rest between—her arms were starting to get stiff. Aeducan did this kind of thing regularly. He had the advantage here.

She needed to end this quickly.

She sheathed her dagger, but readied the sword. With her now empty hand, she gestured him to come at her.

The crowd was jeering and screaming—she couldn’t tell what cries were directed at which fighter. As it was, Aothor shifted his stance, planting himself to the stone.

She sighed—leave it to the noble to be uncooperative. She charged him. He easily knocked the sword to the side before cutting in with his blade.

Perfect.

She caught his wrist with her free hand and twisted. The prince called out in surprise and dropped the sword. Liri kicked it away and went for her dagger.

She was just a fraction of a second too slow.

Aothor swung back with his shield, catching the underside of the helm. Sparks danced in her vision as she stumbled backwards, but she kept her feet under her.

Aothor was staring at her, eyes wide behind his helm. Liri blinked. Sound came back into full focus. The crowd was… furious. Slowly, she reached up to her head and felt hair. She looked down. Everd’s helm was lying on the stone at her feet.

Shit.

The Proving Master’s voice boomed over the space. “Who are you? How dare you disrupt this sacred—”

“That’s not Everd!” Shouted Mainar. An astounding observation, truly. “What imposter did I fight?”

“Casteless,” the quiet voice came from the man standing in the pit with her. Liri looked at the noble. He wasn’t angry. Just… really confused.

“Casteless!” Roared the Proving Master, “She insults the very nature of this Proving!” soldiers poured into the pit. “Guards, take this… filth, away!”

The prince turned and exited the stadium without a single word to her.

The guards encircled her, cutting off any avenue of escape.

Beraht was going to be pissed.

Beraht.

Rica.

Her blood turned to ice. She dropped into a dead sprint, running for the doors.

She wasn’t going to make it. She knew that. But she had to try.

A guard grabbed her as she ran by and struck her in the back of the head. Her vision went black.

Chapter Text

“My lord—my lord Aeducan! Are you alright?” The Proving’s Master practically hovered over him. “This disgraces us all, my lord. Rest assured, that casteless filth will be publicly executed for desecrating the Provings and bearing arms against a prince of Orzammar.”

Aothor was surprised the guards had even arrested her and not simply cut her down where she stood. “There will be time enough for that sort of thing later. Have the guard-captain rally his men, the people are high-strung—there’s no need for a riot today. See to it that everyone returns to his home or place of work. Order will be maintained.”

“As you say.” The Proving Master all but ran from the room to carry out his command.

Aothor sighed, pulling on the ends of his beard. He looked over at Gorim, who was trying very hard to not looked like a concerned mother, and failing.

“Are you certain you’re unharmed, my lord?”

“Only thing that’s truly damaged is my dignity, but that will recover with time.” Aothor stretched out his leg. He was also certain he’d pulled something during the fight—that woman was fast, he’d barely kept up.

“Don’t worry. This Proving’s been disqualified, all record of it struck from the memories. Officially, today’s contests didn’t even happen,” said Gorim.

“She almost beat me, Gorim.” Aothor shook his head, “If the fight hadn’t halted the moment her helmet came off and we’d kept going at it, I’m not sure I could have won. Where does a brand learn to fight like that?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say carta. Those thugs have tried meddling with Provings in the past, but usually it doesn’t go farther than illegal gambling, or occasionally drugging a contestant. To actually enter a casteless into a match…”

“Either this wasn’t a part of their plan, or they’re sending a message.” Aothor gathered the last of his gear and joined his escort back to the Diamond Quarter. Gorim walked at his side, close enough that they could converse at a whisper without the others overhearing. “Regardless, this creates opportunity.”

“What are you scheming?” Gorim asked.

“Execution is a waste of her skills. If she can fight like that in a tournament where the intent is to disable or disarm, not kill, imagine what she could do if pointed into the Deep Roads?” Aothor mused. “No. There are four options at our disposal. The worst is execution. Second worst is exile, either into the deeps or to the surface. Then, a more preferable outcome is to sentence her to the Legion of the Dead.”

“And the best outcome?”

“The best outcome is one that makes a broader statement. Have you, per chance, heard there are Grey Wardens in the city?” Aothor smiled at his friend as he put it together.

Gorim chuckled. “You know, some believe you only care for competition and sport, just another muscle head bent on glory. You’re more manipulative than you let on.”

“Hush. I have a reputation to uphold.” Aothor knocked his friend’s shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got to deal with this.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

It wasn’t until later into the evening that they got back to the compound. Every noble in Orzammar, it seemed, felt they had to express their deep regret for the apparent insult at the Proving grounds that morning, and all assured him they would see the offending casteless punished severely.

Duncan stood in the compound with his Wardens, who were all discussing the days events with great enthusiasm.

Save for the mage.

Duncan pulled the man aside. He needed answers. “How did you know Liri was wearing Everd’s armor? No one else seemed to suspect.”

The young man fidgeted with the sleeve of his robe. “I have a killer intuition,” he said, “Look, this is going to sound crazy, but just listen. I’m… I’m good with spirits. And sometimes, they’ll tell me things. What I have now are names. Five of them. Mahariel, Aeducan, Tabris, Cousland, and Brosca. Names of individuals who are nearly guaranteed to survive the Joining. And yeah, I know about that too. Anyways, that’s Liri Brosca. She’s on the list.”

Duncan stared at the mage. He… had not been expecting that. “Aeducan?” he asked after a moment of processing.

“The second son, specifically.”

He recognized several of those names. Tabris —Adaia. He recalled hearing that she’d had a daughter at some point who got into all kinds of mischief. Cousland… one of Bryce’s sons, perhaps? Maybe it would be worth it to make another stop back at Highever.

Of course, this was all based of information from supposed spirits. “What else do you know?”

“More than I probably should. But I want to use what I know to help. That’s why I wanted to join you so badly,” Edmund confessed. “I don’t think I could stand knowing what I do and not use it to to help.”

A commendable attitude, at least. The steward of the compound entered the room, pulling his attention away. “Commander, a guest is here to see you.”

Duncan nodded to the dwarf. “Show them in.”

The dwarf hesitated. “Sir, it’s… it’s Prince Aothor. He’s here to see you, specifically, alone.”

Duncan frowned, glancing back at Edmund. “We will continue this later.”

A blond dwarf awaited him in the hall, a second dwarf faithfully by his side. Duncan bowed to the prince. “Prince Aothor. It is an honor to make your acquaintance. Stone-met, and blessings on your house.”

“And upon yours. You are the Grey Warden Commander, yes?”

“I am. You may call me Duncan. How may I assist you, your majesty?”

“I am glad to have finally meet you, though I certainly wish it could have been under less… interesting circumstances. You attended this afternoon’s Proving. You saw what occurred.”

“That I did. It was certainly an event to remember.”

Aothor shook his head, stroking his beard absently. “To put it lightly. The Proving was already scheduled for today long before we got word of your arrival, but because of you the event doubled as a showing for the Grey Wardens to view potential recruits. But you know that already, of course. The match for today as already been completely disqualified and removed from the Memories. Even though the competition was declared a farce, the Wardens don’t have to leave without a recruit.”

Duncan raised a brow at the prince. “Here to volunteer?”

The dwarf laughed. “Ancestors, no! Don’t get me wrong, I hold your Order in high regard. But my place is here in the city. This is where I belong. Orzammar is my duty, and my heart.” Aothor sighed. “The casteless woman from today. She’s been placed in the cells, along with a suspected accomplice, who’s being interrogated as we speak. I’ve ensured there will be a trial. A public one, with Shapers presiding. Most of the high castes will call for blood. The best I might be able to arrange is Legion or exile.”

He could see where this was going. “I could remove her into my custody as a Grey Warden recruit. An interesting idea, your majesty.”

“Just think it over. You saw her fight today—I fought her first hand. Stone, if half our warriors could move like that, we’d have reclaimed Aeducan Thaig years ago and have a dozen more mines,” said Aothor, “Execution is a waste.”

The door to the hall opened and three dwarves wearing armor ran in. The red-headed dwarf shifted his position to stand between them and the prince. “Hold and declare, soldier,” he said.

“It’s alright Gorim, I asked these guards to bring me updates on the prisoners.” Aothor nodded to the guards to speak.

“Um—well, you see sir, it’s… I swear it’s now our fault, we just—”

“On your time, guardsman.” Aothor’s voice and expression was calm, but his posture had gone rigid.

“Yes mi’lord. As you say, mi’lord. Um… the prisoners are gone.”

“What?” Exclaimed Gorim. “They escaped?”

“We’re not exactly sure,” one of the guards admitted, scratching his head in puzzlement. “The captain believes it’s even possible that they may have been… removed.”

“We suspected carta influence. This only confirms it,” Aothor muttered to Gorim. Duncan watched as the dwarf turned to the guards. It was like a flip switched and suddenly he was no longer looking just looking at a young dwarven man, but a true Prince of Orzammar. “Run back to your captain, men. Tell him a search must be organized at once. I and my second shall be along to assist in the endeavor. If we do not move quickly, we’ll be lucky to find our prisoners in pieces, if at all.”

“Yes sir!” The guards saluted without hesitation and turned, marching out of the compound.

Aothor turned to Duncan with a polite nod. Duncan bowed to the prince as he turned to leave the compound. Aothor halted, then turned back, unstrapping a mace from his belt. “Here. I’d meant to present this to whoever won today’s championship, or at least advanced enough to face me in the finals. If that casteless woman does find her way into your ranks…”

“My lord, are you certain? That mace belonged to Foral Aeducan, your ancestor,” said Gorim, light protest in his voice.

“My ancestor, and also a Grey Warden. It is only fitting it return to the Order, one way or another,” Aothor said evenly. “Until we meet again, Warden Commander.”

Duncan watched the prince and his second leave.

When he exited the hall, he found all his wardens hanging out conspicuously close to the door. He needed to teach them how to eavesdrop properly.

“We’re going to help look, right?” asked Edmund, looking at him expectantly. Duncan turned the mace idly over in his hand.

“Naturally.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Liri was used to waking up in the muck and the dirt. She wasn’t even unused to waking up behind bars. It was rather telling of the kind of life she’d led.

“Are you awake?” Leske hissed from another cell, “Can you hear me?”

“Of course I can hear you. I’m dumb, not deaf.”

“How hard did they sodding hit you, anyways? Did you have to put up such a fight?”

“What happened after I went down?”

Leske started pacing his cell like a caged animal. “As soon as everybody saw your face brand, the place went mad. Shut all the doors, examined everybody for family and caste. One of the guards recognized me and figured we must be working together. They burned three candles to the stump interrogating me about who put us up to this.” Liri eyed her friend. Bruises and small lacerations trailed up his arms. “I think they knew, ya know, about Beraht.”

Liri sighed. “How much trouble are we in with the law for this stunt?”

Leske started counting off the offenses on his fingers. “Public whipping. Loss of your left hand for stealing the armor. Loss of your right hand for befouling a smith’s work… then public flaying for impersonating a higher caste… and if all that doesn’t kill you, they’ll put you to death for polluting the Proving. I heard rumblings about someone calling for Legion or exile, but death and dismemberment is the more likely bet.”

“And how much trouble are we in with Beraht?” The law was one thing. But judging by the bloodstains on the walls, they weren’t dealing with the city guard anymore.

Leske let out a slow whistle. “Jarvia will probably pull our teeth out one by one and then have them made into a necklace, then probably chop out our tongues—sorry, I mean my tongue, then cut off our eyelids and break our kneecaps. Then I suspect Beraht will have us hung upside down by our small toes until all the blood rushes to our heads and our brains explode.” They were silent for a moment. “Yeah, I’d rather take my chances with the city law.”

Liri cracked her knuckles. “Beraht said he’d go for Rica if we were caught. We need to move.”

The dungeon door swung open. Jarvia eyed them in their cells with nothing short of delight. “Good. You’re awake. Beraht will be glad to hear that.”

“What do you want?” To break their fingers one by one and wear their flesh as a trophy, probably.

“You caused a lot of trouble today. Beraht lost a hundred sovereigns for Lord Vollney. The entire Proving was declared invalid, and the Assembly already called for an investigation. You can’t imagine the state Beraht was in when he told me to get you,” sneered Jarvia.

“We didn’t have any other choice. Just let me explain what happened.”

Jarvia waved a hand dismissively. “All Beraht needs to know is that you exposed him in front of not only the entire Warrior caste, but also the ruling house. Now, all the high castes are asking questions. And as long as you have tongues—or hands—to answer them, you’re a threat. Enjoy your last night together. Sorry we had to put you in separate cells, or I’d suggest you have a last tumble.” Jarvia laughed, throwing her parting words at them over her shoulder as she walked out the door. “Beraht will be by soon to make sure you maintain your silence.”

Well. That was that, then.

Liri looked at the guard left behind. She’d seen him around before—loyal exclusively to Jarvia, but dumb as a pile of rocks. He also didn’t know hand speech, so talking with him would be a mite complicated.

Fortunately, she knew how to communicate with his type without any kind of words.

The clothes she wore were little more than a burlap shift. Not only was it extremely ugly, but also uncomfortably itchy to boot.

She grabbed it and pulled it up and off her body.

Leske made a choking sound. She didn’t know what he was all excited about—it wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before. Probably just shocked that this was her go-to plan.

The guard turned around at Leske’s strangled sounds. “What’s—oh. Oh-ho. Oh,” he said, so very intelligently as he took in the fact that she was standing naked in the cell. “What’s… what’re you doing?” His feet carried him towards her cell without him seeming to even realize it.

Liri gave him an innocent look, fanning herself with her hand, trying to convey that she was simply overheated. She leaned on the bars, putting her features on obvious display. He was standing very, very close now. His breath was awful.

She reached out sharply, catching him by his shoulders and slamming his skull forcefully into the bars. He collapsed onto the floor.

Leske, no longer able to contain himself, started laughing. “You are one crazy duster—you know that, right?”

“Never underestimate the stupidity of lustful dwarven men,” she signed before lifting the keys off his body.

Leske frowned. “I feel a little called out.”

Liri shrugged. She tossed him the keys once she was out and started stripping the guard of his gear. As iconic as it would be to storm out in nothing but her name-day suit, it was a pinch impractical. He didn’t actually have much in the way of weaponry, only a small club and a dagger. Better than nothing.

By the time she’d finished adjusting her newly stolen armor, Leske had found a trunk in the corner with gear and was half-way through armoring up.

“We’ll probably have to carve our way through most of this place. Ready for a fight?”

“Let’s go.”

The first room of men they encountered attacked them nearly on-sight. Thankfully, there were only four of them.

“You know, given your reputation, Beraht probably should have left a lot more guards.”

“What’s the matter, disappointed?”

Leske shook his head as both of them picked up better weapons from the dead goons. Liri made sure to pocket their coppers. “No, just… I knew these guys.” Leske was a little pale in the face as he looked at the dead dwarves. Liri recognized a few of them, but she didn’t have any names to put to the faces. Leske shrugged. “Come on, time’s rusting.”

The next several encounters went the same way, and this time, Liri recognized more and more of the dwarves that leapt to attack them. A few of them she even tried to talk down with no avail.

She looked at the dwarves at her feet. Ezbektek. Rulen. Herles.

Beraht expected them to escape. That’s why there was only one guard in the room with them, and about the dumbest the carta had to offer. He expected them to escape, and he was making them carve through every friend they’d ever made in his service.

Liri looked at the end of the hall. Beyond the next door, she was sure she’d find the boss himself. And he would be ready for them. He was making them walk to their execution.

Liri clenched her teeth. Not if she could help it.

She turned and motioned for Leske to follow her into the stockroom. She ran the odds in her head. Traps were unlikely—that was Jarvia’s style, not his. So, muscle. Likely upwards of ten heavily armed dusters waiting to ambush them before they could reach the exit. Yeah, that was definitely more his style.

The store room had a lot of things. Most were useless unless you knew what you were doing. She started digging through crates, trying to find the ingredients she needed.

Leske hovered over her as she worked. “What are you doing?”

Liri glared at him. As she was currently busy crushing different ingredients between two rocks, she was unable to reply.

After a few short minutes she capped a flask and turned to go. Ordinarily she’d like to let the mixture settle for a day or two, but they were a bit pressed for time. As it was, it would give them just enough punch to get through this.

Liri stopped at the door the the large chamber and pressed her ear to the stone, listening.

“I’m cutting the whore free. If that freak for a sister of her’s can’t stay in her place, I don’t need precious Rica, either.”

Liri breathed a sigh of relief. Rica was alive.

“Rica? That the one you got all done up in lace? I been wanting to get my hands on that.”

“Heh. I know what you mean.”

Liri pushed the door open.

“She’s all yours if you want her, boys. And let me tell you… it tastes as good as it looks.”

Liri resisted the massive urge to rush forwards and stab Beraht in the face. She tapped Leske to keep him from doing the same. For this to work, they needed to be by the door.

Beraht and eleven other dwarves waited for them in the room, all built like brontos and armed to the teeth. Unfortunately, her hunch had been right.

Beraht turned to them, sneering. “What in sod-all is that doing out of its cage?” He asked like he didn’t already know. “Come on boys, the little whore needs to learn her place.”

With one hand, Liri raised a rude gesture into the air. With the other, she began to shake the small vial. When the men pulled their blades she hurled it into their midst.

She grabbed Leske and pulled him back into the hallway, closing the stone door as poison gas filled the room. The two of them leaned their weight against the stone to keep the men from pushing it open. The resistance from the other side was weak, at best. The men were gasping, coughing, some screaming.

Leske turned to her with wide eyes. “What did you do to them?”

“Soulrot bomb,” she signed. “This one didn’t have time to settle, so it’ll only be effective for a couple minutes at best. But it’s enough to give us a chance.”

The two of them waited until she was certain they wouldn’t be harmed by the gas before entering the room. A green haze still hung in the air, but it didn’t harm them any at this point. None of the thugs were dead, but they weren’t that far from it. All she and Leske really had to do was slit their throats as they walked by. Beraht was the most lucid of them, leaning on one knee and looking up at them in rage.

“When we’re done with you—”

He never got to finish the threat, as he choked on his own blood when Liri pulled her blade across his neck. He slumped to the stone, harmless.

Leske laughed. “Did you see him there, all ‘when we’re done with you,’ and then you just charged in and sodding slaughtered him! You have got to be the luckiest duster in all of Orzammar. Beraht’s dead and we’re standing here. Hail to the sodding king!”

Liri sheathed her weapons. “As long as he never made it to Rica.”

“Well, he sure was talking like she’s alive. But I won’t turn down the chance to take another peek. Hey, could you tell Rica I killed him? I mean, it doesn’t do you any good if she thinks you're the most virile warrior in all the Stone…”

Liri glared at him. Some things would never change. “Are you sure you want to say that while I’m armed?”

“Ah—ah, excellent point,” Leske shuffled nervously. “Now let’s go find a good place to hide.”

They didn’t even get the chance. No sooner had they pulled the door of the cover shop before they were surrounded by city guards.

“There they are! Seize the fugitives!” The guard captain ordered. “Drop your weapons and walk down slowly. We will use force if you resist.”

“I carved through the carta. I’ll carve through you, too.” Liri signed. It was probably not a very good idea to be threatening the guards. But at this point, she couldn’t be bothered to care.

The captain sputtered in rage. “You do not speak until the Shapers have judged you!”

Technically, she wasn’t speaking, so she didn’t see what he was all upset about. “You should really be thanking me. I just did you guards a big favor.”

The guard stopped paying attention to her halfway through her sentence. “Men, restrain them!”

“One moment, good man.” Liri blinked. Maybe the lingering Soulrot gas had affected her a little after all. Had the Grey Warden been standing there this whole time? Humans were kind of hard to miss, after all. “Was it not suggested that the crime lord Beraht had arranged their convenient escape?”

Was he… trying to defend them? And was that Rica standing behind him? The fumes were definitely screwing with her brain.

“Regardless, the penalty for impersonating a higher caste is death.”

“Actually it’s public flaying. But yeah, a side effect of that is usually death, so go on I guess.” For a guard, he didn’t know his own rules very well. Not exactly something that instills faith in one’s city guards.

The guard went red in the face. “If Beraht is as influential as you say, perhaps he also masterminded Everd’s impersonation.”

Not… exactly? But close enough, she supposed. The whole impersonation thing hadn’t been at all a part of the plan. She wasn’t sure if that helped or hurt her case. “Last I saw of Beraht, he was suffering from a bad case of dead,” she signed, inclining her head back towards the door to make the implication clear.

The guard captain blinked up at her, taking a moment to fully comprehend what she’d said. “He’s dead? Beraht had many enemies, but also powerful allies. They—”

“Beraht would have butchered us if she hadn’t killed him first!” Leske said, crossing his arms.

“She has once again demonstrated her courage.” Duncan was smiling. Why was he smiling? “We Grey Wardens travel far and wide in search of those with the potential to join our ranks. It seems I have found one.”

Oh. “You want… me. You want me to join the Grey Wardens? A casteless dwarf? Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Weren’t the Grey Wardens like, legendary knights? What did they want with a duster like her?

He nodded. “Let me make my offer formal. I, Duncan of the Grey Wardens, extend the invitation for you to join our order.”

The guard captain turned angrily to the human. “This woman is wanted for crimes against Orzammar and against the Ancestors. You can’t do this!”

Duncan barely even glanced down at him, focused solely on Liri. “I can and I am. It would mean traveling to the surface lands and thus leaving your people, but it does offer you the chance to strike a blow against the darkspawn and the Blight.”

And the opportunity to, you know, not get arrested.

This couldn’t be real. Nothing this… good, had ever happened to her in her life. Now without it coming back to bite her in the ass. “What’s the trick?” There had to be a catch. There had to be.

“While it is no trick, it is a dangerous life. I can promise you no guarantee of safety. I can also give you nothing in return for these hazards. In joining me, you leave all you know behind.”

If danger dissuaded her, she wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. And if joining would save her life, it wasn’t even much of a debate.

She caught Rica’s eye through the crowd. Her sister nodded.

“I guess you can count me as a Grey fucking Warden.”

Duncan looked like he was trying very hard not to smile. “Then before these witnesses, I hereby recruit you into the Grey Wardens. Know that you are most welcome.”

“This… is highly irregular. The warrior families will be… most upset.” The guard captain sounded very much like he wanted to hit something.

Leske chuckled, nudging her arm. “Look at you, duster. A Warden! And to think I knew you when you were stealing bread!

“We must be off now, and quickly. If you have goodbyes to say, say them now,” said Duncan. The human turned a pace away, and the guards dispersed across the street, dispelling the crowd that had gathered to watch the situation.

“From Dust Town to the Grey Wardens… you don’t watch out, salroka, you’ll end up a Paragon. And then I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Nugs will fly before the Assembly names someone like me a Paragon.” There was a lot she wanted to say to Leske. For all the shit they gave each other, he was the only solid friend she had in the city. “I’ll miss you, Leske.”

“Aw… that’s the problem with women. Too sentimental.”

Liri punched his shoulder. He cried out and winced, holding his arm. She hoped it bruised. “Just remember that I can still break you with one hand.”

“I'd be a fool to forget.” He chuckled. “I’ll miss you too. Now go on, get out of here.” Without another word, Leske turned and slipped into the alley behind the shop and disappeared into the depths of the city.

She wondered if she’d ever see him again.

Liri hadn’t even turned around before Rica all but tacked her with a hug. Liri gasped, unable to breathe. She rubbed her ribs after her sister finally released her, afraid something was broken.

Rica, busied herself with fixing Liri’s hair. “I can’t believe you’re leaving. And as a Grey Warden! When Ser Duncan said he wanted to recruit you, I nearly fell over. When I heard you were arrested… I rushed to the arena, but by then you were gone, and Ser Duncan and Prince Aothor were telling everyone they had to find you and were already coordinating the search parties.”

Liri blinked. “Prince Aothor was involved?”

“Oh yes. He was adamant that you be brought in alive and unharmed.”

That… didn’t really make sense. But it didn’t really matter, now. She was leaving. For good. “Will it be safe for you, if I leave?”

Rica was practically glowing as she nodded. “This has been a lucky day for us both. I spent the afternoon with my new patron. If everything works out, I may even be able to greet you as an equal when you return.”

When. Not if.

“Truly? You won’t starve?”

“Yes. For the first time, I think mother and I will be fine. He… he calls me his amber rose. Isn’t that sweet? He has a voice like a poet. He has already promised to move mother and I into better lodging, where he can find me more quickly when he wants me.”

“And you’re sure you’ll be happy like this?”

Rica placed a hand on Liri’s shoulder in reassurance. “I am. Truly, I could never make a life fighting darkspawn. But if I can bear a son who makes his house proud, that’s all I can ask.” Rica pulled her into another hug—this one didn’t crush her lungs. “Go. Tell Duncan you’re ready to be more than a whore’s little sister. You’ve always been too big for Dust Town. Maybe you’ll be the one to save the world.”

“Maybe I will.” Liri let go of Rica with monumental effort. “I love you, Rica. Stay safe.”

“I am glad you were able to speak once more with those that care for you. Are you ready to go?” Duncan asked. Liri nodded. There wasn’t much else to say. “Excellent. Before we brave the Deep Roads, I would like to make you a gift of this mace, since you have so few possessions of your own. It was once wielded by the Warden Foral Aeducan. I believe he was related to your king. I am certain you will continue his proud example.”

Liri turned the mace over in her hands. The craftsmanship was beyond anything she’d ever seen in her life. She smiled. If being a Grey Warden meant getting fun toys like this, then this was definitely the life for her.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Aothor was just about to bring his search team into Dust Town when a runner informed them that the casteless woman had been found—and immediately recruited into the Grey Wardens.

Aothor tried not to be irritated as his team returned to the Diamond Quarter. It was the outcome he’d wanted, after all. But just not the way he wanted it to happen. Ideally it would have been done formally in a trial before the Shapers, not in the middle of the street.

It still made a statement. Just one he had less control over.

Trian stood in the entry chamber of the palace, obviously waiting for them. Aothor sighed. It really was that sort of day.

Aothor bowed, as did Gorim at his side. “Greetings, brother. You are looking well.” He looked upset, which was as close to well as Trian got.

“Where have you been all day?” Leave it to Trian to be direct.

“I competed in todays Proving, as I was scheduled to. There was a bit of a situation that arose, and I remained until everything was settled and in order.”

“You were meant to attend tonights dinner with the leaders of House Brodens and House Rousten. Your absence is an offense and brings shame upon our house. Have you no sense of duty, brother?”

“I am aware, my lord,” said Aothor, straightening his posture. “I simply prioritized the apprehension of a criminal who defiled one of the most sacred places in our city over canapés with Lady Brodens and Lord Rousten.”

“That is a job for the city guardsman. You are a prince, and your negligence to your duty has insulted our allies. Despite your upcoming commission as a commander, you have shown you would rather play soldier than attend to your place as a Prince of Orzammar.”

Aothor bit down on his tongue. Arguing with Trian was a bad idea. It was best to allow him to think he’d won, if for no other reason than it was the only thing that would shut him up. “As you say, my lord. Will that be all?”

“Get to bed. You will be attending tomorrow morning’s strategy meetings with Father and the Grey Wardens for the strike into the deep. Do not be late.” Trian left them without another word.

Gorim let out a slow breath. “He seemed… tense.”

“When is he not?” Aothor mused as they walked down the hall. Once they were alone in his room with no ears to hear, he sighed. The statement had been made, but probably in the worst way possible. Time for damage control. “How much would you guess today has cost us?”

“Hard to say until the backlash hits. Houses Rousten and Brodens will be offended, obviously, but I imagine they’ll get over it quickly. I would advise making personal visits of apology, just in case.” Gorim stroked his beard thoughtfully. “The fact that you personally involved yourself with the search does get you points with the Warrior Caste Houses, however. They like to see you being involved with the men. Keeps them inspired. But…”

“… but the Noble Caste Houses will disapprove. Still, as long as it’s viewed as taking a personal interest in restoring order and apprehending a casteless criminal, I doubt even the most traditional families will raise any fuss.”

“Yeah, about that…” said Gorim. Aothor braced himself. “Duncan gave Foral Aeducan’s mace to the casteless woman when he recruited her. In public. And it’s already known you intended to present it to the victor or furthest advanced in today’s Proving. It won’t be hard for anyone to piece two and two together.”

Aothor shook his head, beginning to remove his gear. “Right. That’s going to ruffle some beards.”

“To put it lightly. I knew passing it off was a risky move.”

“Alright… that can easily be explained. As there was no victor of the Proving, I simply returned the mace to it’s place with the Grey Wardens. What they did with it after is not my concern.” That wouldn’t be good enough, but it should serve to redirect the worst of the ire.

“There will still be some who make the connection. Or others who will think to invent one as an excuse,” said Gorim.

Aothor sighed, placing his armor on its rack. “So basically we probably pissed off enough lords to expect at least three assassination attempts in the next week. How do you think they’ll go about it?”

Gorim considered for a moment before pulling a few coins from his purse. “Four sovereigns says two go for poison, one for blades.”

“Oh, you think they’ll be brave this time?” Aothor mused, matching the coin count. “My coin is on all three trying poison.”

“You’re on.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

“These are my fellow Grey Wardens, Sam, Oliver, and Farrien.” Each of the human men nodded as Duncan said their names. “And you’ve already met Edmund Amell, a Grey Warden recruit like yourself.”

Liri observed the humans around her. Her neck was going to start hurting pretty quickly, craned back to look up at them like it was. Two of the Wardens seemed to be warriors, while one of them carried a bow. Her fellow recruit was dressed more like a noble than a soldier and carried a walking stick.

Wardens took all types, she supposed. She was proof enough of that.

“We will be accompanying a strike team into the Deep Roads in a few days. Until that time, it would be best if you did not leave the compound, for your own safety.”

She nodded. The compound itself was easily ten times bigger than her house. She practically felt like royalty just standing in there.

Duncan nodded to Edmund. “Please show Liri to the armory. Both of you will need new equipment before we head into the Deep Roads.”

“Of course,” the man said, turning down the hall.

The armory wasn’t as grande as she’d been imagining, but what was there was obviously of fine make. Liri touched a set of plate mail with borderline reverence. Everything she’d worn before—and what she was currently wearing—was pieced together from scrap leather, mostly from old shoes.

She passed the plate and found a set of heavy leather armor. Luckily this was made for a dwarf, and would only need to be tightened in some places to fit her well. She lifted the set against her body. A loud crash came from the other side of the room followed by a loud string of curses and she turned to see Edmund on the floor, tangled in a set of light chainmail and cloth.

She moved to stand over him. Weird feeling, looking down at a human. “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying on armor, obviously,” he said, completely deadpan. Liri gave him a questioning look. “I’m a mage, ok? It’s not like we go wearing armor around the Circle on a daily basis. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Liri sighed and offered him a hand, and helped him to his feet. “You’re a mage? Like, those people who talk to demons and shit lightning?”

“I prefer fire to lightning, and usually try to keep the demons to a minimum, but yeah, basically,” he said, peeling the light armor off of himself. “Have you never met a mage before? I thought carta hired apostates sometimes.”

“Sometimes. I never worked with any, though. You surfacers tend to stick out around here, and my line of work usually relied on not being noticed.” She showed him how to adjust the straps and actually wear the armor properly. She eyed his “walking stick” leaning against the wall. She wondered when she’d actually get to see some magic in action. “Have you ever seen darkspawn before?”

“Never in person. Pictures though, in books. Nasty beasties,” Edmund said, trying the armor again. He struggled with it a bit, but managed not to fall over again. “I’ll probably have it easier than you, though. At least I can hurt them from a distance. You’ve got to get up-close and personal.”

Liri shrugged. “That’s what bombs are for.”

Edmund stilled. “You know how to make bombs?” He grinned. “Teach me.”

Liri chuckled. The mage was ok.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Making bombs with Liri was easily the most fun he’d had since arriving in Thedas. She had a sort of manic energy about her as she showed him to proper steps involved in making a pitch grenade. He proposed the idea that if they made the components flammable, in addition to slowing darkspawn down, he could also light them up. They set to work testing different types of grease and oils.

Over the course of the four days they spent in the compound, they managed to set the dinning room on fire three different times and cover the bathing room floors with a questionable green slime. The other Wardens were less than pleased.

Liri just seemed to be glad for something to do and someone to talk to. Of the Wardens, only he and Duncan understood hand-speech, and Duncan spent nearly all of his waking hours away from the compound researching at the Shaperate or discussing strategy with the nobles and warriors in the palace.

He only saw Pride once while they were Orzammar. The demon lurked in the swirling grey nothingness of his dreams.

“Why can I only use fire?” he asked the spirit, holding a small flame in his hand. It burned bright, feeding off of the steady stream of mana he fed into it.

“You can use more than fire,” Pride answered.

“Not reliably.”

The demon prowled around him. “Every mage has an affinity for something. Healing. Barriers. Some are even more naturally inclined towards blood magic.” he explained. “When a mage is young, they default to their inclination. You are as young a mage as any there ever was, in terms of your ability. But magic stretches as far as one’s imagination, and imagination stretches as far as one’s knowledge. You have plenty of both.”

Edmund fed more heat into the flame. It turned from orange to blue and grew smaller, but more intense. Like a rod of fire, or a welding tool. “So you’re saying that as long as I practice, I’ll be able to move beyond basic combustion.”

“Yes, and no.”

“Helpful.” The flame flickered at his frustration. For a moment he thought it would die, but instead it exploded. Because of course it did.

Pride laughed. It liked to see him struggling. “You are an invader. Living in flesh not yours. The magic at your command is, likewise, not yours, and thus will never truly obey you. You are a foot crammed into a shoe of the wrong size—you can walk, but if you attempt to run, you will stumble.”

“Great. I love being compared to a foot.”

“If I offend you so, perhaps you should have sought out a deal with Compassion, not Pride.”

Compassion. Cole.

Edmund shook the thought of the spirit boy away. “You mentioned blood magic, earlier. Honestly, I’m surprised you haven’t offered to teach that to me. I though that was part of the whole ‘I’m an evil demon who eats babies and possesses mages’ schtick.”

Pride shrugged, continuing with his circular prowl. Edmund reminded himself that while their deal held, he was still being hunted. “Ordinarily. But I do not think you could perform blood magic.”

“Why not?”

“Do you want to?” The demon asked, looking down at him curiously.

Edmund considered. Maybe. It was supposed to be something of a shortcut, as far as magic was concerned. And there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with it, as long as he didn’t go killing people to fuel his magic. And it was powerful.

“Would I be able to?”

“No. For the same reason that I am not able to possess you. A soul is a fragile thing, mageling. Yours holds by a thread. Blood magic would, I think, sever the connection entirely.”

“You’re saying it would kill me?”

“I am uncertain,” Pride grinned, wicked teeth on full display, “Want to find out?”

Edmund shuddered. “Maybe some other time.” He sighed. They would be going into the Deep Roads by the week’s end. “Can we start working on barriers and shields? I need to be able to provide defense.”

“Ah, but I have done much tonight already. It’s your turn. And if you want to begin barriers tonight as well, I will require something extra.”

Pride stilled, and it was Edmunds turn to pace the circle around him. He considered the options before him. Pride found the technology from earth fascinating, but maybe it was time for a change of pace. Something… a little closer to the demon’s interests.

“Have you ever heard of Soldier’s Peak?”

Chapter Text

“Greetings, my lord. You are dressed and ready. Excellent.” Aothor turned to see his second leaning in the doorway.

“Good morning. I believe you owe me four sovereigns,” said Aothor, nodding to his untouched breakfast tray. Gorim frowned and inspected the plate.

“In the grilled nug?”

“No, though it was a bit undercooked. Shameful.”

Gorim prodded the eggs curiously. “Ah, smells just a little bit sour. It’s… deathroot? Spider venom?”

“Yes and yes. Quiet Death, if I’m not mistaken. They really weren’t playing around.”

“Suspects?”

“The last two were Gavorn and Rousten. This one, though… I’m not so sure,” said Aothor, accepting the coins from Gorim.

“I’ll arrange for a quiet investigation in the meantime. I couldn’t find the armor’s matching dagger, but I scrounged up a rather fancy longsword. Do you wish to wear your shield to the noble’s feast?”

“Of course,” said Aothor, strapping the shield to the back of his ceremonial armor. “Let them see me as a warrior.”

“If every other noble has a shield and three swords, you’ll feel awfully underdressed,” Gorim chuckled.

“You, my friend, are ridiculous.”

“One can’t take all this marching about and speech-making too seriously. Moving on to the business at hand… the king expects you to make an appearance at the feast, but there’s no rush. The noble family heads will spend hours boring your father with petitions and petty grievances.”

Aothor shook his head at his friend. “The art of ruling is hardly boring, Gorim.”

Gorim shrugged. “If you say so. Listening to a hundred lords complaining that their neighbors use the same underhanded tactics they themselves employ would tire on me after about… oh, a minute? ‘This lord had my brother killed,’ ‘This lord seduced my wife,’ ‘This lord did the exact thing I’d planned to do to him, but he did it first.’”

“You do have a point, unfortunately. Many among the nobility pretend they are the honorable man in a den of thieves and assassins when they’re truly just as corrupt as their neighbors.”

“An unfortunate truth. You, my lord, are at least an example to the rest, what they could aspire to be.”

“Excellent. Because there’s not enough pressure in my life. Thanks.”

“Just doing my duty.” Gorim laughed. “Anyways, as part of the celebrations, permits have been auctioned off to the Merchant Caste who wished to sell wares in the Diamond Quarter. Lord Harrowmont has also opened up the proving for young warriors to test their mettle before tomorrow’s battle. Perhaps we should go show them what single combat is all about. And by we, I mean you. Heh, I’ll practice my cheering.”

Probably for the best, Aothor decided. Gorim was an excellent second, but on his own in a fight he left himself with too many openings. Nearly got his skull cracked last year.

“I could do with some exercise, and I want a chance to earn my dignity back after last week. Let’s go have a look at this Proving,” said Aothor.

A woman approached them as they walked down the hall. “My Lord Bhelen?”

Aothor turned to her. He looked like his brother, certainly, but very rarely did anyone confuse the two of them. He blinked at the sight of the woman, certain his eyes were playing tricks on him. For a second he was back in the arena, facing down the casteless warrior. He blinked again. A casteless woman, but not the same one from last week, stood in the palace halls. She simply bore an uncanny resemblance to the woman he fought in the Proving.

Still, a casteless was roaming the palace. Trian would have an aneurysm if he found out.

The woman went deathly pale, realizing who she was speaking to. “Oh! I am sorry… I am so sorry, your Highness.” The casteless woman beat a hasty retreat down the hall, and into Bhelen’s room.

Aothor glanced at Gorim, who shook his head. “We should probably leave it be.”

Aothor chuckled. “Now what kind of older brother would I be if I didn’t snoop unnecessarily into my younger sibling’s affairs?”

Gorim groaned, but followed dutifully after him into Bhelen’s chambers.

The casteless woman half-hid her face behind her hands. “I… I’m sorry. I thought you were Prince Bhelen coming down the hall. I… forgive me.”

She was certainly very pretty, Aothor noted. Eyes like serpentstone and ruby-red hair done up in braids and blemish-free skin—save for the obvious black brand on her cheek. It wasn’t hard to deduce what Bhelen had her here for, especially when the neckline of her gown plunged lower than the deeps themselves.

Her resemblance to the woman he’d fought last week was uncanny. He wondered idly if it was possible there was a relation between the two of them.

“No harm done, my lady.”

“I will show myself out, with your leave, my lord.”

Aothor held up his hands in what he hoped was a calming motion. “Don’t leave on my account, though you may go if you wish. I’ll not mention you to anyone.”

The two dwarven men left her in the room as they continued down the hall.

“You’re not having her removed?” Gorim asked once they were out of earshot.

“Now why would I do that?” Aothor asked, composing his face into what he hoped was convincing innocence.

Gorim had known him too long to fall for it. “You’re hoping she hangs around so Trian finds out Bhelen’s been… inviting… a casteless dwarf into the palace,” Gorim said, shaking his head. “You, my prince, are more manipulative than you let on.”

“Hush. I have a reputation to uphold.”

The Diamond Quarter was a bustle with activity. Merchants called to passersby to observe their goods and nobles stood in debate at every corner.

One such debate was happening very loudly right in front of the palace doors.

Bruntin Vollney was barking down at another man, a scholar, if Aothor was right.

“I-I’m sure we can work this out reasonably… i-it’s in the records! There’s nothing I can do! Pleas Master Vollney, my work is accredited by the Shapers.”

“These books are lies written by the enemies of house Vollney,” Bruntin growled.

“I only write what I find in the records!” The scholar turned at Aothor’s approach, a plea in his eyes. “Lord Aeducan! You can vouch for my work, can’t you? Your father loved my ‘History of Aeducan: Paragon, King, Peacemaker!”

“I recall the book, yes. A well written study.”

Bruntin went red in the face. “This… worm, has written a book that slanders my house!”

“Your behavior slanders your house,” Aothor said evenly. “What does the book in question say?”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s all lies!”

“I asked you what the book said, Bruntin. I expect an answer when I ask a question.”

Bruntin gulped, shifting in place. “He says that Vollney—the Paragon who founded my house, known throughout the world as the greatest of men—was a fraud!”

“N-not precisely,” the scholar interjected. “When the Assembly names a Paragon, that man or woman is, by definition, everything one can aspire to be in the world. They form their own noble houses, and are revered as living ancestors. But Paragons start off as men.”

“Vollney was more than a man!”

“And why has this work upset Bruntin so badly?”

“Vollney became a Paragon by the narrowest margin in history—one vote. A vote mired in rumors of intimidation, intrigue, and outright bribery. The records of that vote are kept in the Shaperate and are a matter of fact.” The scholar glared at Bruntin. “Not liking history does not make it any less true.”

“You have an excellent point, scholar.”

“You’re taking his side? What if he published a book like this about your Paragon Aeducan?”

“Covering up the truth harms us all, Bruntin. Even if a lie would be more comfortable.”

Bruntin crossed his arms across his chest. The effect was rather childlike. “You would not say so if it was your house, but I will respect your wishes. For now. Excuse me, your highness.”

“That fool has no idea how weak his house is or how low he sits in it,” said Gorim after Bruntin’s retreat. “Shall I have him killed, my lord?”

Aothor looked after the way Bruntin had gone. He hated to waste. Waste of life, waste of skill. But Bruntin wasn’t putting either to good use. “What do you think, scholar?”

“Well… historically it has been prudent to eliminate a small threat before it becomes larger…”

He turned to his second. “Hear that, Gorim? Do the prudent thing.” After last week, now was not the time for statements. Now was the time to re-establish his hold.

Gorim nodded in understanding. “How do you want it done?”

Aothor considered for a moment. “Publicly. Make sure everyone knows why.”

“Understood.” Gorim turned away.

The scholar looked at him with something approaching admiration. “You’re shown yourself more daring and aggressive today than most believed of you. Some day, I hope to write of the great exploits you are sure to perform.”

“Word has been sent,” said Gorim, returning to his side. “He won’t live past the hour.”

The scholar bowed to him. “You’ve shown House Aeducan to be a friend to research, history, and the glory of our people.”

“Make sure you remember this when you write about me.”

“Of course. Heroism and pity for the small man have always been hallmarks of House Aeducan,” said the scholar. Somebody needed to tell that to Trian. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must try to make sense of these notes. Good day your Highness, and thank you.” He ran off to the Shaperate.

Aothor sighed. “If the poison didn’t already set the tone for the day, I’m certain that just did.”

“Happy birthday,” Gorim chuckled. “Come on, the market awaits.”

The wares on display ranged from the fine works of local smiths to surfacer pastries imported all the way from the Orlesian empire. The merchants fawned over him whenever he neared a booth, overstating their honor for his attention and showing off their goods with pride.

His attention, however, was drawn to two casteless women standing slightly apart from the crowd. He approached them curiously, and they giggled to themselves as they noticed them.

“What have we here? Two handsome, strapping noble lords! You both look so grand,” said the blonde, fanning herself with her hand.

“And isn’t this the man of the hour? The king’s son?” said the brunette, looking him over in a way that made him feel akin to a roast nug.

He took them in. Casteless, but beautiful women dressed in fine silk and jewelry. Noble hunters, obviously. Like the girl in Bhelen’s room. The girls turned their focus to Gorim, who fidgeted noticeably under their attention.

“Who’s your friend, my lord? Another noble from the honored House Aeducan?”

“This is my loyal second,” Aothor said. They were both certainly very… attractive. And it was his birthday.

“But not from a noble house, girls. Ser Gorim, Warrior Caste.”

The blonde sighed. “Oh, that’s too bad. You’re quite handsome.”

“Worry not. You’ve still got the attention of a handsome prince,” he said, winking suggestively.

The brunette giggled. “That you are, my lord. Can I interest you in a little bedded diversion?”

“For you, my lady, I’m always interested in bedded diversion.”

She giggled, and he saw something like hope fill her eyes. “Shall I come to your chambers after the ceremony, then—?”

The blonde crossed her arms indignantly. “I talked to him first! I want him.”

“He’s looking for a woman, Teli, not a little girl.” The brunette chided. “I’m Mardy. And I know how to give my lord a night he’ll remember.”

Aothor grinned. “I don’t saw why both isn’t an option.”

“Oh, my lord has his energy about him!” Mardy said, glancing at her fellow noble-hunter. “There will be no three-to-a-bed, if that’s what you’re thinking. We’ll both require… full experiences, all to ourselves. If you think you can manage us both, though…”

“Rest assured, my ladies. I’m more than up to the task,” he said, and the two broke into another fit of giggles.

“This should prove most interesting. We will wait for you together, my lord, and show you the proper way to celebrate a princely commission!”

“I await with bated breath. Until this evening.” Aothor kissed each woman on the hand before turning back down the road.

Gorim gave him an amused look. “Well, at least I can rest easy knowing you’ll be well taken care of.”

Aothor shrugged, grinning at his friend. “What can I say? It’s my birthday, and I don’t see anything wrong with celebrating it in such a way. Besides, House Aeducan can always use more blades, and if it gets them out of Dust Town, then even better. A win all around, wouldn’t you say?”

“If you insist.”

“Aw, your just jealous because they didn’t want you because you’re Warrior Caste.” Aothor shoved Gorim’s shoulder

“Am not.” Gorim shoved him back.

“Are too.”

“Don’t you have a reputation to uphold or something?”

“Hush. Let me enjoy some of the perks of my station.”

His good cheer lasted for about two whole minutes before shattering like broken glass. Trian was storming down the street in his direction, Bhelen ever in his shadow. Trian looked slightly more grumpy than usual, which was actually a mite impressive.

“Atrast vala, Aothor! How surprising to run into you out among the common folk,” said Bhelen. Aothor glanced around. The nobles and wealthy merchants around them barely seemed to classify as “the common folk” to him.

Trian crossed his arms. “Especially since duty requires that you attend our king father at the feast today. Have you so little respect for him to disregard his wishes on a day set aside for you?”

“Lord Harrowmont told me we wouldn’t be needed for hours at least—”

“Silence!” Trian barked, “If I want the opinion of my sibling’s second, I will ask for it.”

Gorim hung his head and took a step back from the conversation. “Yes, your Highness.”

Aothor frowned. He and Gorim were more brothers than he and Trian were. “Please do not speak to Gorim like that,” said Aothor. If it were anyone else but Trian he was speaking to, he would be ordering it.

“I speak to lower houses and castes as they should be spoken to. Now do as I say.”

Aothor looked to his younger sibling, who was rubbing his forehead tiredly. “Bhelen, it seems ages since we’ve had the chance to talk. How are you doing today?”

Bhelen gave him a small smile. “I’ve been dealing with him all afternoon. How do you think I’m doing?”

Trian rounded on the youngest brother. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

Bhelen shrugged innocently. “Nothing, Trian. I’ve been having a great time. That speech you gave the legless boy about hard work and making something of himself was fantastic…”

“As heir to the throne, it is my duty to impart wisdom and judgement upon those who need it.” Trian said, completely missing the sarcasm in Bhelen’s voice. Aothor and Bhelen shared a knowing look. Stone, if Trian was more of an ass, he’d practically be a donkey. “Now then, Aothor, get to the feast!”

“I will go when I am ready,” Aothor said.

Trian scowled. “Stubborn, aren’t you? When I’m king, I will help you get over that. Come, Bhelen.”

Aothor offered Bhelen a sympathetic smile as he passed. Ancestors preserve him—if he was the one who had to follow Trian about all day, he wasn’t sure he would go a week without knocking the crown-prince’s skull in. Bhelen must have the patience of the Stone itself.

Gorim let out a slow breath. “That was fun. Nothing like being talked down to by the next king.”

“Hopefully becoming king will calm Trian.”

“We can only hope. Perhaps we should get going?”

He purchased some snacks for the two of them from one of the food vendors—the merchant nearly burst into tears when he’d done so—and they continued on their way. He caught sight of another weapons stand and gravitated towards it.

“I am… so honored to have you visit my booth,” the merchant said. Aothor nodded absently. He’d heard those exact words a thousand times already today. “Your highness, I have a… proposition, but I dared not approach.”

Gorim looked at the man incredulously. “Yet you dare now?”

Aothor motioned for the man to continue. “If you have something to say, say it quickly.”

“Um, yes. Just so. Here is the thing. What I mean to say is…”

Aothor rubbed his forehead as the merchant stammered on. “Should I walk away and come back so you can try again?”

“No, no my lord. I’m sorry, I’m just so nervous.” The man took a deep breath and composed himself. “I had a dagger made. For you. A gift for your first command. I, uh, sent a messenger to deliver the dagger to you. Prince Trian had him thrown out of the palace. I don’t know what offense he caused, but I had him beaten severely.”

Aothor frowned. There were many things in that story he could choose to remark upon. He thought better of it, and simply asked to see the blade in question.

The man presented it, cradling the dagger like he was holding a newborn babe. Aothor turned it over in his hands. Gorim looked over his shoulder as he inspected it and let out a low whistle.

“That’s an amazing piece, merchant,” Gorim remarked. That was an understatement. Despite it’s ornamental appearance, it was easy and comfortable in his hand. The blade was strong, and when he tested it in his fingers he could tell it could keep a remarkable edge.

The merchant was glowing. “You do me much honor, ser. The blade has been crafted over a period of two years by masters of every art. I wished to bless your first command, and hope that someday, when he rules, he will wear it.”

Aothor faltered.

“Trian is heir. He will rule when King Endrin returns to the Stone,” said Gorim.

The merchant nodded slowly. “If the Assembly wills it. Forgive me, ser, but whispers say the second child of Endrin will be chosen.”

“Whispers, indeed.” Gorim eyed the dagger again. “It’s a princely gift. If Trian recognizes it, though, it may send the wrong message,” said Gorim. He gave Aothor a considering look. “Or the right one, depending on your view.”

Aothor turned the blade over in his hands again, considering. He’d considered the possibility that he could be chosen instead. The Warrior Caste definitely favored him, if not most of the Nobles. But Trian was the named heir. For right now, that wasn’t his place. Still…

“I’ll take the dagger.”

“Thank you! You bring uncountable honor to me,” he said. Aothor accepted the matching sheath and attached it to his belt behind his longsword.

Gorim huffed as they turned away. “What he means is that you’ll bring uncountable gold to him if you wear that piece in public.”

“If he can manage to produce weapons of this quality, then I say he deserves it,” said Aothor. He looked down at the dagger, tapping the blade with his fingers again. “This is Stormheart, if I’m not mistaken. It should take well to enchantments. Shall we go see if there’s anyone about selling runes?”

He slipped the blade into it’s sheath and they proceeded to the end of the market, where he spotted a stall that looked promising, given that half the items on display were glowing.

Aothor hadn’t even said a greeting before the vendor began to stagger, pale in the face. “Prince Aothor! Here! In my booth? I am so…” He trailed off and collapsed on the ground, fainted.

Aothor peered over the edge of the booth at the unconscious man. It wasn’t everyday he got that particular sort of reaction.

Gorim laughed softly at his side. “You make quite the impression these days.” Gorim looked at him, something like sadness in his eyes. “Is it hard to be the king’s child, never able to just blend in?”

Aothor sighed, turning away from the booth. “I am what the Ancestors made me.”

Gorim nodded. “As are we all. Shall we move along?”

Aothor headed towards the gates to the Commons, where his escort to the Proving was waiting. After the way today was going, he really needed to hit something.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Liri paced the compound restlessly. Four days. It felt like so much longer than that, but that was all it had been. It was for her safety that Duncan insisted she stay, but it grated at her nerves to see the humans come and go as they pleased while she had to stay put.

The mage didn’t leave the compound much. She couldn’t tell if it was simply because he didn’t
want to or he was hanging around for her sake. It was entertaining, watching Edmund’s fumbling attempts at making grenades. More often than not the ingredients would start to smoke before he’d even bottled them. She wasn’t sure if that was a mage thing, or just him.

After several days working together the two of them had balanced the pitch grenade mixture so it was equally flammable as it was sticky, and they had a good stockpile to bring with them to the Deep Roads to actually test out on darkspawn.

Darkspawn. Tomorrow, she’d actually be going into the Deep Roads.

Duncan and the three Wardens had already left for the day, attending some feast or something with the king. Edmund had chosen to stay behind, claiming he wanted to practice some magical techniques.

She found Edmund standing in the armory, his back to the door. Liri leaned in the entrance and watched him for a moment. The air around him seemed to fold, then shimmer, then became a solid sphere of light that encircled him. Curious, Liri picked a small pebble from the floor and tossed it at him.

It bounced off the light harmlessly.

But Edmund jolted, froze, and the barrier exploded into flames.

Edmund turned to her as the fire died out. “You broke my concentration.”

Liri shrugged. “Sorry. What were you trying to do?”

Edmund sighed, turning his staff over in his grip. “Practicing. I’m trying to hold a barrier. I can get it up, and it’s solid, but as soon as I loose focus…” he sighed, then made the hand signal for explosion to emphasize his point. “I’ll get it though. I don’t really have the choice to not.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask, but how do you know hand speech?” It wasn’t nearly as common on the surface as in Orzammar, from what she knew.

“I had—have, a younger sister. Melody. She lost her hearing when she was really young. So my whole family learned. And Duncan knows some because he knew a Silent Sister who joined the Grey Wardens.”

“You seem to know Duncan well.” She’d watched all the humans interacting together. Edmund only seemed to really speak to Duncan.

Edmund shrugged. “Not exactly. I’m going to try the barrier again, so stand back unless you want to lose your eyebrows.” Liri did as he asked. She liked her eyebrows. Edmund looked at her for a moment, considering. “Hey, do you want to throw things at me?”

Liri gave him a questioning look. He could be a little obnoxious sometimes, but she hand’t yet experienced the urge to hurl projectiles at him.

Edmund sighed fidgeting with his staff as he spoke. “No, I mean, like the whole point of these barriers is to stop arrows and blades, that kind of stuff. They’re not strong enough for that yet, but the only way to get there is to practice. Could you throw things at me?”

Liri grinned, nodded, and turned from the room. There were some exceptionally stale loaves of bread in the kitchen that would work perfectly.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

“Congratulations. Frandlin Ivo is as fierce a competitor as I’ve ever seen. You’ve vanquished every warrior of note in today’s Proving. The ceremonial helm commissioned by your father for today’s winner is yours.”

The Proving Master held to helm out for him. Aothor shook his head. “I would like it given to Frandlin Ivo. He fought bravely today.”

“The people will remember your honor and generosity for all time.”

Aothor returned with his escort back to the Diamond Quarter. The mood of the people was vastly improved from last week. In fact, most everyone around him seemed content to pretend that last week’s events had not occurred at all.

The first thing he noticed when he walked into the throne room was the four humans. Aothor stilled as he surveyed their group, then let out a breath of relief. Duncan, thankfully, had thought to leave the casteless dwarf at the compound. Aothor could scarcely imagine the uproar that would occur if they had actually brought her with them.

“My Lord Aeducan, might I bother you for a moment?” Ronus Dace approached him before he was even fully through the door.

Aothor turned to the deshyr. A man well respected by the rest of the Assembly, but a schemer like his fellows.

“Many thanks for your willingness to hear me out, my lord. I wish to speak with you of a matter most urgent.”

Aothor nodded to the man. “I have a few moments to spare.” He could at least listen to what the man had to say.

“There is a vote coming before the Assembly next week, and a word from you could go a long way towards helping our cause.”

“And which cause would that be? They all come and go so quickly, I can barely keep up.”

Lord Dace chuckled. “Such is the nature of the Assembly. The lot concerns the status of the so-called Surface Caste. Lost to the Stone, air-touched, and so forth. Centuries ago, narrow-minded men declared that any dwarf who left to live on the surface forfeited his caste, and his house if noble. That he was, in essence, no longer a dwarf. I only seek to remedy an injustice, to retie the bonds of anyone who can trace himself to one of the noble houses, wherever he may live. Please my lord, agree to speak for this noble cause.”

Aothor considered the man. It was certainly a progressive view, and one that would bring new blood and more blades for Orzammar. But he couldn’t place the man’s interest in the topic. Lord Dace was known for being quite traditional. “Why so interested in this particular cause?”

“Those on the surface are out lifeline. They facilitate trade with the surface. They’re honorable, and… um…” the man sighed. “Let’s be honest. I don’t care a whit for those who have wandered from the Stone. My wife, however, is a gem of a different color. She has a cousin, a useless sort, but she is quite fond of him. He joined a speculative venture to the surface, hoping to make his fortune, and went bust. Now he wishes to come home, but he cannot, for he has no house and would be casteless. For my wife’s sake, I take up his cause. Will you lend me your voice?”

Ah. There it was. Aothor recalled hearing about that small scandal some months ago. He might even have bought in to Lord Dace’s ‘cause’ if he didn’t know for a fact that he and his wife despised each other.

There was another angle here. He just couldn’t see it yet. “What is in this for me, should I speak on your behalf?”

Lord Dace smiled, stroking his beard. “I keep my ear to the stone, my prince. I hear many things, some of which could be of great help during your mission tomorrow. A little forewarning to help your forearming, if you know what I mean.”

An interesting offer. “I sympathize with your cause. Orzammar loses too many good men and women to the surface every year.”

“Thank you, my lord. When your father presents you to the noble houses, I will ask for your opinion on the matter. You merely need to say that you feel our surface brothers should be returned their noble rights. What could be more simple?” Lord Dace waved him off.

Aothor mingled, receiving congratulations and well-wishes from the crowd. He caught a scoff aimed at him and turned to see Lady Helmi eyeing him disapprovingly.

He inclined his head to the noblewoman. “Lady Helmi. Your daughter fought well in the Proving today.”

Lady Helmi frowned, off guard from the praise to her daughter. “I… thank you, my lord. There are many among the Assembly who still disapprove of Adal’s participation. She would be honored to hear such praise from you.”

“And she is deserving of it. Is there something I can do for you, lady Helmi?”

Lady Helmi frowned, stern demeanor returning. “Your mother would melt the stone if she saw who you just spoke with.”

“You disapprove of Lord Dace.” A statement, not a question. There had long been tensions between Helmi and Dace.

“Only in that he is attempting to play you false. If you become his puppet, your first command will be marked by every major house turning their back on you.”

Well, that much was obvious. Perhaps Lady Helmi had the pieces he was missing. “I’m listening.”

“If you are to play in the games of the Assembly, make sure you know the motivations of the players. Last spring, a guild from the Merchant caste invested heavily in an expedition with a guild from the surface. Lord Dace backed the merchant guild, pouring a great deal of money into the venture. The expedition was a disaster.”

Aothor chuckled, stroking his beard. Patronizing as she could be, Lady Helmi was nothing if not observant. “So, this is his play to cover his losses. Of course.”

Lady Helmi nodded. “Clever child. Lord Dace lost a great deal of money and prestige. The surface guild has no way to repay the investment. But it does have several members who are descended from noble houses. Houses Helmi, Bemot… Aeducan.”

“And if the surface dwellers are restored to their houses… we would be forced to pay their kin debts. Thank you, Lady Helmi, for helping me see the bigger picture.”

“Of course, my lord. Let him think he has you. Smile and nod, and when he asks his question, tell him that the so-called surface caste are right where they belong.”

Ah. And there was her angle. “I’ll think on your words.”

“Good. Your houses reputation hangs in the balance.”

Lady Helmi turned into the crowed, and Aothor turned, glancing back at Lord Dace. He could not speak up for the surfacers rights—that would play into Dace’s hands. Neither could he denounce the surface—that would fall in with Helmi’s schemes. He could not afford to do either, yet he needed to do something

The solution was obvious.

“You return. Were my instructions unclear?” Lord Dace asked, turning to him as he approached.

Aothor crossed his arms, looming as to be imposing. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.”

Lord Dace scoffed. “And what would that do, besides get you cast into the Deep Roads or put down like a beast? Are you upset about something?”

“Your plan for the surfacers would have forced my house to pay surface debts. On your behalf. I may be just a little upset.”

Lord Dace glanced quickly to the floor. His bluff had been called. “I suppose it could. I mean, well, it’s the spirit of the law that’s important, right? Our poor disenfranchised surface brothers… bah! Well played, your Highness. Welcome to Assembly politics. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Dace moved towards the door. Aothor caught him firmly by the arm. “Not so fast,” he said.

Gorim spoke from over his shoulder. “You forget who you’re speaking to. This is the guest of honor and child of the first house of Orzammar.”

“For now. We shall see what the future holds. Trians grasp on the throne is in no way certain and much can happen before then. Now, let me be.” Dace tried to pull away, but Aothor tightened his grip. So, someone had designs on Trian? Not surprising, actually.

“Your schemes are an insult to House Aeducan. I cannot let this go unanswered.”

Gorim picked up on his intent right away and turned to the hall, pitching his voice to carry over the ambient conversation. “Lords, ladies! Lord Aothor Aeducan has challenged the honor of Lord Dace!”

The hall stilled as every dwarf turned towards them. Aothor could feel Dace trembling in his grip.

From the throne at the head of the hall, Aothor heard his father chuckle. “What’s all this? My son is already baring his teeth?”

Several lords began to holler and cheer. “Fantastic! I thought tonight would be all talk and drink!”

Aothor grinned. There was nothing a deshyr loved more than a test of arms to prove honor. This would definitely re-establish his position.

Lord Harrowmont eyed him with concern. “You realize that it is Lord Dace’s son Mandar, a formidable duelist, who will defend the honor of House Dace in the Proving?”

Of course. He’d faced Mandar in the ring before. A talented fighter, if a bit over confident in his abilities. An honorable man. One good to have on your side.

“I will face any man to defend the honor of my house,” Aothor announced.

“Very well. There is to be a Proving, then.”

Cheers rose up across the hall as the mass of lords began to push to the doors to head to the Proving Arena.

Guards escorted Aothor and Gorim ahead of the rest while others were dispatched to bring Mandar to the ring.

Gorim nudged his side. “What are you playing at here?”

“Helmi has an angle here. Her house has always been traditional, especially in matters of caste. Dace is trying to suck our house dry of every coin. Both have their own motives, and I can’t play into either of them. The third option was to still call Dace out and settle the matter in combat.” Aothor explained.

“But that means killing Mandar and making an enemy out of Dace.”

Aothor gave him a look. “Who says I plan on killing Mandar?”

Gorim blinked. “But it’s an Honor Proving.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to kill him. Only get him to submit. Killing is just… the most popular and expected outcome.”

Gorim fit the pieces together and laughed. “You get into Helmi’s good books by stonewalling Dace’s schemes, and Dace owes you for sparing Mandar. Have I mentioned that you can be manipulative?”

“Hush. My reputation, Gorim.”

“Sod your reputation.”

It didn’t take long for the seats in the arena to fill up, and in short enough order, Aothor found himself standing in the pit across from Mandar Dace. Mandar was in full plate, expression stony as he met his gaze from across the ring.

The Proving Master gave his address to the crowd. Aothor gave a small bow to Mandar, who did likewise to him. “Let’s give them a show, eh Mandar?”

Mandar remained silent, tightening his grip on his maul.

“The Proving begins now!”

They paced forward at an equal speed, clashing in the center of the ring as Mandar brought his maul down in a heavy swing and Aothor pushed the blow aside with his shield. Mandar had significant reach with his two-handed weapon and was using it to his advantage, using long swings to keep Aothor from getting in close enough to land a hit. He was strong, too, and had the endurance to keep this up for as long as he needed.

Aothor kept a consistent pace with him, pulling in close enough to tempt Mandar to attack him and pulling back just out of reach. If he could get the warrior to overextend his attack, it would give him the opening he needed.

His chance came when Mandar tried to change his stance on his back swing and lost his perfect control over the heavy weapon, leaving his front exposed. Before he could recover, Aothor seized the opening and closed the gap between them, slamming Mandar in the face with his shield three times. As Mandar stumbled back Aothor followed up with a blow from his longsword, sinking the blade deep into Mandar’s shoulder. The warrior cried out, but the sound was cut short by Aothor pringing the pommel of the blade to strike at the man’s temple, knocking him out in a second.

The crowds erupted as Mandar crumpled to the ground.

“This Proving is at an end. Mandar Dace has been found wanting by the ancestors and House Dace is guilty of dishonoring House Aeducan,” announced the Proving Master.

Lord Dace buried his face in his hands. “This is my fault. My son has died defending my honor…”

“Not quite,” said Aothor. He inspected Mandar. He was still breathing, and as long as he got immediate care, he would continue to do so. “Mandar Dace fought honorably for his House. I would not have Orzammar loose such a man today.” He waved the medics into the ring and directed them to Mandar before leaving the pit himself.

Gorim and the rest of his personal guard met him outside the arena and escorted him back to the palace, fending off the nobles who attempted to shower him in congratulations and praise.

Two Proving victories in one day—not bad, if he had to say so himself.

The party back in the palace was livelier in the aftermath of the bout. Lord Meino clapped him on the back and offered his own congratulations and thoughts on the fight.

“When he mistimed that back swing, I knew he was going down,” He said, pouring Aothor a full goblet of wine.

Lord Bemot sighed, singing from his own cup. “Poor bastard. Still, couldn’t wish it on a nicer house. Merciful of you to let him live, my lord. Ronus won’t forget your generosity.”

“Well put! Our new commander taught House Dace a serious lesson—”

All conversation died as King Endrin’s voice carried over the hall, commanding attention. “The hour is late. These deshyrs have waited patiently, as have the Grey Wardens.” The king turned to him, and Aothor instinctively straightened his posture under his father’s gaze. “Are you ready to be presented to the heads of the noble houses?”

“Of course, Father.”

“So dutiful…” Endrin smiled fondly, “Very well, let us begin. Lords, ladies. Grant me a moment of your time. We are here today so I may present to you my second eldest child. Blessed by the stone and born of the blood that ran in the veins of Paragon Aeducan. Who would pose a question to the prospective commander? Who seeks to know the prospect better?”

Silence met his call. Aothor looked over the crowd. His bout with Mandar had been both a question and an answer in the eyes of the nobility.

“No? Very well. The ritual is complete. I give you Orzammar’s next commander, Aothor Aeducan!” Cheers and applause rose up as the gathered lords toasted in his honor. “Tomorrow, Commander Aothor will lead part of a mission to strike a great blow to the darkspawn. Not only does this recover access to some of our most valuable mines, but it also allows our honored guests, the Grey Wardens, to strike far into the Deep Roads.”

Duncan bowed to the king. “Thank you, King Endrin. While the darkspawn seem to withdraw, it is only because they are massing on the surface. This could mean a Blight, and my men and I will discover the truth.”

And uncomfortable hush fell over the dwarves at Duncan’s words. Aothor watched as the crowd collectively shuddered and glanced towards his father for an indication of how to react.

Endrin simply gave a graceful nod to the Warden Commander. “We are honored to have you with us, my friend. Now everyone, feast, drink, and celebrate. For the morning brings battle!” The king raised his cup and the lords cheered as one, all too happy to resume the party. Endrin put a hand on Aothor’s shoulder and pitched his voice so only he could hear. “As for you, my new commander, find your brother Trian and send him to me.”

Aothor nodded. “Of course, Father.”

“Walk well, Commander.”

The noise of the party faded away as Aothor took the halls to Trians chambers, Gorim ever at his heels.

The crown prince gave him a contempt-laden once over as he entered the room. “So, you’re a commander now. In name, at least,” he huffed, “Shouldn’t you be attending our king father?”

“I noticed neither of you were at the feast,” Aothor remarked.

“The world does not start and stop with your meager achievements. Not even tonight. Now, do you have some purpose in bothering us?”

Many things in this world were ever changing. Trian being an ass was not one of them. “Father wishes to speak with you.”

Trian visibly puffed up with pride. “Of course he does. We must discuss strategy before tomorrow’s battle. Bhelen, stay here and stroke the new commander’s conceit if you life, but then get to bed.”

Bhelen let out a long sigh as Trian left the room. “All day I’ve put up with that. He can really grate on the nerves.”

“You bear it well, at least,” Aothor gave his brother what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I don’t know if I could, especially since it’s sort of his right to be an ass.”

“Is it also his right to secure his own power at the expense of everyone around him?”

Aothor frowned. Bhelen wasn’t even joking, he was saying something serious. “Is this something I want to hear?”

“Probably not, but you need to all the same,” Bhelen said, dropping his voice low and quiet even though the three of them were completely alone. “Trian has begun to move against you. I never thought his much-proclaimed honor would allow him to act on his jealousy. Aothor, Trian is going to kill you.”

Aothor noticed Gorim shift at his side, tensing at a possible threat. “How do you know about this?”

“I overheard him giving orders to some of his men, and I was shocked. Then it began to make sense. Trian’s decided you’re a threat to his taking the throne. Maybe he’s even right.”

“Don’t you start with that, too,” groaned Aothor.

“He fears what you are becoming, in the eyes of the people and the Assembly. Trian’s the named heir, but only the Assembly can proclaim a king. It would be unusual for the Assembly to ignore the king’s choice, but it does happen.”

“The founder of House Bemot became a Paragon and king in one move from the Assembly, and he was a commoner,” added Gorim. Aothor glared at his second. That didn’t help.

“That was an extraordinary case. But at least a half-dozen times, the Assembly named a lesser family member—or even someone from another house—as king. Usually it’s the popular younger brother of an undesirable prince.”

“So you believe Trian thinks the Assembly would prefer me?” So far none of this confirmed anything. Even Bhelen overhearing orders could be a misunderstanding of some kind.

“Look at it from his perspective. You’re more personable than he’s ever been. You defeated the heir to House Dace, one of the most powerful houses in Orzammar, because his father dared to challenge your houses honor. You’ve won several Provings and have high regard among most of the Warrior Caste houses. If you win glory against the darkspawn tomorrow, it will only strengthen the case for you as the next king. Trian fears Father will replace him on the spot. If not, the Assembly will surely turn against him when Father dies. And you know his pride won’t allow him to simply stand aside.”

All valid points, certainly. But Bhelen was giving him ifs and could-bes. That wouldn’t be enough to justify turning against Trian. Aothor gave his younger brother a considering eye.

“And what’s your angle in all this?”

Bhelen chuckled. “It seems Trian has shown that brothers can’t always be trusted. I am next in line. If Trian succeeds in his plot against you, how long do you think I’ll live?”

Aothor glanced at his second. “What do you think of all this?”

“Permission to speak freely?”

“Always.”

“Trian would be a terrible king, but no one wants to say it. He has just enough backing in the Assembly to make it ugly when your father dies, but not enough to become king,” said Gorim, “Killing him now makes your house stronger now and saves a great deal of bloodshed later.

Aothor scowled. Gorim had a point. Bhelen had several points. Some of them were on his head. Regardless, he couldn’t do anything about it. Not yet.

“For now we’ll wait. See what Trian chooses to do.”

Bhelen sighed. “Very well. I’ll keep my eyes open,” he said turning for the door. “I don’t want to lose the brother I actually like.”

“I appreciate your concern, and the warning.”

“I’m taking your place as Father’s second, so I’ll be at hand tomorrow. For now, we should get some sleep.”

Gorim turned to him once Bhelen was gone from the room. “What do you think?”

“Trian’s not a schemer. He’s stubborn as the Stone, but just as dense. If he’s plotting something it won’t be subtle. Our best bet is to keep a warry eye on him and wait for him to make a mistake.” Aothor pulled at his beard in irritation. He wasn’t going to act against Trian, not without any other options. At the bottom of the line they were still brothers, and if you couldn’t trust family, who could you trust? Besides, he didn’t even know if he would want to be king anyways. The throne had never been a realistic consideration before.

“Let’s go. You don’t want to keep those lovely ladies waiting.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

The sensation of darkspawn crawling at the edges of his senses, however distant they were, set Duncan and his fellow wardens on edge. What was worrying was not the number that they felt, but rather the number that they didn’t sense. This far into the Deep Roads there should be more, and the absence did not bode well.

Lord Harrowmont gave his address to the assembled troops. “Trian and his men will clear the way for the Grey Wardens to descend into the easternmost caverns. Those are the caverns still infested with the worst of the darkspawn. We cannot risk our own troops in there.”

“Understood, Lord Harrowmont. We can sense the darkspawn and avoid them once the way is open,” Duncan said.

King Endrin gave the Warden party a salute as he sent them off. “May the Paragons favor you, and the Stone catch you if you fall. Come, men, glory awaits!”

As the squads divided onto their respective routes, Duncan fell in step with their dwarven recruit. “You must be extra cautious when engaging darkspawn in melee combat,” he said, “Their blood is toxic. If any of it gets into your system, you will be tainted by the blight.” Though the Joining would cure that taint in a sense, it would be several weeks until the ritual would be performed in Ostagar, and the corruption was painful and could take a life in as little as a few days.

“Aye, I hear you. I’ve heard all kinds of nasty things about the ‘spawn. Gotta say that I’m not exactly eager to see one up close and personal."

Duncan chuckled. “They are hardly pleasant creatures, I’ll admit that. But this is the life of a Grey Warden; I did warn you that this was no life of comfort.”

“Neither was the one I came from,” she signed, shrugging her shoulders absently. “I haven’t seen much of you since you recruited me. Deshyrs been keeping you busy?”

“Some, though I spent most of my hours in research. When I was not discussing strike tactics with the king, I was researching in the Shaperate. While I was in the Circle library, I found mention of an old Grey Warden outpost built during the Exalted Age, not far from the war camps at Ostagar. I found more detailed maps and information in the Shaperate highlighting several things that may be of use to us,” said Duncan. “But that is a matter for another time. For now, we should focus on the mission at hand. I trust you made use of the week to prepare?”

Liri looked up at him, eyes alight as she adjusted the large pack strapped to her back. “Prepped and ready. Me an’ magic boy whipped up a whole bag of tricks to throw at the baddies. Can’t wait to try them out.”

Duncan glanced back at the mage, who walked at the very back of the Warden squad. He had a thousand-yard stare on, eyes far away as they walked. Duncan shared a glance with Liri—she noticed it as well.

“Are you nervous?” Duncan asked Edmund. Edmund snapped back into focus, blinking at the two of them absently.

“Yeah. Plenty nervous. And…” Edmund trailed off, holding out a hand with his palm up. “Something feels weird down here. Like the Fade is farther away.” His hand sparked and sputtered for a moment before a small flame like a candle lit in his palm.

Duncan frowned. “Will this affect your ability to cast?”

“I don’t think so. I think I felt it since we’ve been in Orzammar, but it’s more pronounced down here. I’ll adjust in a moment, but it feels… weird.” Edmund clenched his hand into a fist and the small flame puffed and died.

“As long as you’re roasting the baddies and not us.” Liri shrugged.

The other Wardens all drew their weapons. Duncan’s hands fell to his blades without a single thought.

“Prepare yourselves—darkspawn are approaching.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Aothor prodded a genlock corpse, turning the deceased creature onto it’s side and exposing fresh stab wounds.

The scout huffed, doing a similar check on a hurlock. “Looks like someone beat us here. And these are still fresh—whoever did this is likely still here.”

Aothor frowned. “They would need to have an Aeducan signet ring to get in.”

“It could have been stolen, recently or generations back,” suggested Frandlin.

“Or an ambitious cousin out for his own glory.”

Aothor pulled on the end of his beard. This was supposed to be a simple task. Get in, get the shield, get out. Why did everything have to get so complicated? And worst of all, he couldn’t get Bhelen’s warnings about Trian out of his head. “We’ll see soon enough.”

“Understood. “Let’s move, men.”

Now in addition to being on high alert for darkspawn and deepstalkers, they also had a third party involved with unknown intent. But he was probably safe in assuming that they were no more friendly than the genlocks.

They were approaching the location now, his Stone sense indicating that the tight tunnel opened up to a larger cavern ahead. Rounding the corner, he saw that it wasn’t empty, either.

A company of unfamiliar armed dwarves awaited them. The one who was obviously the leader of said group chucked at their approach. “So glad you could finally join us. We feared you’d gotten eaten by darkspawn. Turns out the shield isn’t as easy to retrieve as I was lead to believe. I bet you know where it is, though. So maybe you tell me where it is, and I won’t mutilate your body so badly that your father doesn’t recognize you.”

“Who are you? How did you get in here?”

“I’m your better, that’s who. And as to how I got in, that’s a question you’ll have to ask the Stone after I butcher you. Now, where’s the shield?”

Aothor shared a glance with Gorim. Mercenaries, likely. Paid a lot of gold by someone powerful to kill them and swipe the shield. But who provided the gold? Aothor surveyed the men before them—fifteen men, well armored and held themselves with training. Only a few houses had the kind of spare gold to doll out on an excessive group like this. One of them was Aeducan. Bhelen’s warnings grew louder in his subconscious.

“You’re an idiot, and now you’re going to die,” said Aothor. The scout, he noticed, had been using the interaction as an opportunity to slip along the edges of the cavern… towards a ballista positioned on the far wall.

“Just kill em, boys. We’ll find the shield on our own.”

Aothor and Gorim charged forwards in a practiced motion, shields raised and weapons ready. Fandlin followed at just a pace behind, going wide to take out an archer aiming their way. The mercenary leader and three others ganged up on the prince and his second. For all their bluster and fancy armor, their teamwork and coordination wasn’t even that good. They didn’t check each other’s blind spots, bumped into each other with mistimed motions and poor synergy. Aothor and Gorim stood back to back, fending off the men who encircled them.

It didn’t take the scout long to take down the mercenaries manning the ballista and turn it against the enemies forces. One by one they fell, with the scout and Frandlin taking out the archers and the mercenaries own poor teamwork doing them in before Aothor and Gorim’s blades.

Aothor surveyed the aftermath of the encounter. He and Gorim had only suffered superficial injuries, Frandlin’s shoulder had been grazed by and arrow, and the scout was untouched. Not bad, overall.

“Search their bodies. If there’s any evidence about who set this up, I want to know about it.”

“Right away, sir.”

They set to work, rummaging through pouches and satchels. Aothor found a familiar ring of silver among the leader’s possessions.

“Is that an Aeducan signet ring? I guess that explains how they got here,” said Gorim.

“Could be Trian’s,” said Aothor, softly so as to not be heard by the others. He hated the words even as he spoke them.

“Trian’s? That means…”

“I don’t know. But I don’t like what this could be.” Trian wasn’t a schemer. This didn’t fit with what he knew of his sibling. But all the evidence was lining up.

“I would be a major victory to get the shield first. But he showed his hand and failed. You said that if he was planning something he’d blunder. This is it. And the first way we can hurt him is to find the shield for ourselves.”

“Sod it.” Aothor turned and kicked a loose stone, sending it flying into the shadows of the cavern. “Alright, form up boys!” he called to the others, “Let’s get this over with.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

He thought he was mentally prepared for darkspawn. He thought he knew what they looked like, he thought he knew what they sounded like. He thought he was prepared.

He was not, in fact, prepared.

Outside of their humanoid shape, there was nothing recognizable about them. Their skin looked like some bizarre mix of leather and scales. They didn’t have any lips, so there was nothing to hide the horror that was the mouth full of bladed teeth. Worst was their eyes. Milky white and void of anything, empty and unblinking.

And the smell. There were no words for the smell. He was grateful he didn’t have to get close to one to kill one, they stank badly enough from a distance. Poor Liri tossed her lunch immediately following their first encounter with a pack of genlocks. He felt particularly guilty—darkspawn smelled bad on their own, but set on fire? That was a whole new level of nasty.

For his part, he focused on defensive magic. He didn’t yet trust himself to not set his friends on fire. That didn’t mean that his barriers still didn’t occasionally combust—because they did—but the explosions they created were actually pretty effective against the darkspawn. He could even pretend to the others that it was intentional.

Casting still felt strange. Before, it was like swimming. Now, it was still like swimming, but you were going against the current instead of with it. It could have something to do with the way the dwarves don’t dream and they came from the Stone. Maybe the Stone was a natural magic suppressant.

Between the encounters with darkspawn was an inordinate amount of walking in silence. Having Liri in the party was particularly helpful, as her Stone Sense gave her a mental layout of the immediate area. That, combined with their maps and the Warden’s ability to sense darkspawn, they made pretty good time and were able to avoid the larger groups of darkspawn.

One thing bothered him, however. He didn’t even know where they were supposed to be going. Edmund pulled one of the Wardens—Sam, he thought—to the side while the group took a short rest.

“Is there any chance you can tell me what exactly we’re doing down here? I get that we’re scouting, but for what?”

“Evidence of a Blight,” Sam answered evenly, adjusting his bracers.

Edmund gave him a flat look. The Wardens would already know it was a real Blight. They would be hearing the Archdemon. “And that evidence would be…?”

Sam sighed. “Largely it comes down to darkspawn activity. They’ve already pulled back in bulk from the gates of Orzammar and have been appearing in larger numbers on the surface, but that’s not enough to convince the likes of King Cailan or King Endrin. And we need both to agree that it’s a Blight before we can even open negotiations for Orzammar’s military support.”

“Isn’t Orzammar obliged to help in times of Blight?”

Sam shrugged. “Supposedly, but there’s nothing to enforce that. Duncan thinks he’s found out about some old treaties lost in the Wilds that could compel certain groups to aid us, but it sounds like a longshot to me.”

So, that’s why there weren’t any other forces at Ostagar. The treaties hadn’t been reclaimed yet, so there was nothing to compel the dwarves or mages for aid.

“Alright, makes sense, I guess. But what other evidence do we need?”

“One would be breeding grounds and how active they are. If it’s a Blight, the darkspawn are going to try and inflate their numbers as much as possible,” said Sam. Edmund tried very, very hard not to think about how disgusting a broodmother would be in real life. “Another thing to check are deep roads exits and if they have darkspawn encampments, and also see if there are active darkspawn forges in the area. If we can find enough to verify any of this, we can start talking about alliances.”

“How long do you think it will take to find all that evidence?”

“If we’re lucky, we’ll be seeing sunlight again in a week’s time.”

Edmund sighed. One week of tunnels. If it was already this bad, he didn’t know how he was going to survive the Deep Roads quest later in the game.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Aothor knew something was wrong the moment he stepped into the cavern. The ring of dead dwarves in the center were hardly subtle, after all.

Aothor took one step, then two, and before he knew it he was running. He skidded to a halt standing over the body of his older brother.

Gorim, as always, was just a pace behind him. “By the Stone, it’s Trian!” Aothor knelt by Trian’s corpse.

“It must have been a darkspawn attack!” Frandlin cried out, turning in place in an effort to see if there were any laying in ambush.

The scout shook his head. “This doesn’t look like darkspawn,” He said, examining one of Trian’s men. “No bites, no scratches, no mutilation…”

Aothor stared into Trian’s vacant eyes. One by one, pieces began to fall into place. He barked out a laugh, but it was hollow of any emotion. He held his head with his hand, realizing the corner he was in. “Bhelen outplayed me. He played his game and I just didn’t see it.”

Gorim gave him a confused look. “What?”

“Someone’s coming!” the scout called.

Aothor looked up from his place at Trian’s side as Lord Harrowmont, his father, and a host of other dwarves entered the chamber… lead by Bhelen. Sod.

“Hurry Father! Before it’s too…”

The assembled dwarves gasped in unison as they took in the sight of Aothor knealing over Trians body. King Endrin pushed past the others towards his two sons.

“By all the ancestors, what has happened here?” Endrin cried out, falling at Trian’s side.

“It seems we weren’t fast enough. Bhelen was right.”

Aothor met Bhelen’s gaze from across the chamber. In that moment, he couldn’t even bring himself to hate him. His gaze was pulled back to his father, who had tears welling into his eyes.

“My son… tell me this isn’t what it looks like.”

It looked like one of his sons had turned against the others. Which was exactly what had happened. It just wasn’t him.

“Would you even believe me?” He asked his father. Bhelen had stacked the deck too well. He wasn’t coming out of this whole, no matter what he said.

“My lord is innocent!” Gorim protested.

“Ser Gorim, your loyalty makes you a useless witness,” said Lord Harrowmont. “It falls to the others to tell the story.”

Aothor did and said nothing as the scout and Frandlin lied to Harrowmont. They were in Bhelen’s pocket, because of course they were. Everything had already been set up. He wondered how they had already arranged to execute him.

“Do you have anything else to say, my son?”

Aothor looked up at his father. This was his last chance. Endrin was the only one who might hear him. “Can you not see that this is all a set up?”

“I want to believe that, I really do.” And his father turned away. “Bind him. He will be tried before the Assembly. To Orzammar!”