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Brink of Darkness

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He will never admit to it, of course - and it would have been utterly pathetic if he had.

 

He is probably a laughing stock among the Venatori as it is, after this fiasco in Redcliffe. Moping like a kicked stray dog whenever his failed assassination target does not pay him a visit in the dungeon would have been a most humiliating, jingling, crooked-toothed jester's crown to cap it all. It would have pulverized, obliterated the last few shreds of pride he can still scrape together. And... And yet.

 

And yet he does feel rather... lonely - well, lonelier than usual - if the appointed hour passes by (just after the changing of the guard, whenever that falls on the actual clock; this dismal pit does exactly offer much to tell the time by) without him hearing the usual soft patter of bare soles against the sleek, worn-down, mossy stone, and the bright young voice calling out a greeting into the dark.

 

She is evidently busy as a proverbial bee these days, this impossible Herald, this little master of surviving against all odds and stubbornly carrying other people - and monsters - up with her. The preparations for the grand march on the Breach are well underway; Haven must be a whirlwind of chaos at this point, if the echoes of the hectic clamour reach even these dank bowels of the Chantry.

 

A fascinating project, if destined to fail. Ambitious. Ambitious indeed. And quite intriguing from the arcane theory point of view.

 

The southern mages - his mages, once; almost his mages - pooling all of their mana together to make the Herald's (technically stolen, but it matters little at this point) Mark strong enough to pierce through the Breach itself, and then sew it shut with that ethereal, burning thread? Were he on the southerners' side, he would probably have been excited to be part of all of this. The Herald certainly is - the focused, joyous determination glows through every inch of her small, round self whenever she sets aside her duties, even if for half an hour, and rushes down the porous, chipped-off steps into the dungeon, beaming at every guard she passes.

 

'Hello there, Jeremy! Ser Cremisius is away with the Chargers, clearing out the mountain passes - but he said he hopes the gift fits! Your back ought to hurt less now!'

 

'Ahh, Martha! I see your hand is healing well! I was a bit anxious when we had to pick all those mask shards out of your skin! Don't worry; Lady Josephine has sorted things out! That Orlesian had no business insulting you like that! What does he know about cows anyway; I bet he does not even notice how pretty their eyes are!'

 

'No, no, Coram, please - I told you before that you are no less of an Elvhen than me! There's no need to kneel! Unless you dropped one of the baby booties I knitted and want to pick them up? If they are sullied, I will wash them for you! Your da'len is beautiful and deserves the best!'

 

And then, at last,

 

'Serah Alexius! Good afternoon! Have you eaten today? You can just nod if you are not inclined to talk. Dorian promised he would come by later; maybe finally bring you a book to read, if Leliana is done checking it for secret Tevinter messages...'

 

These cheerful little exclamations, empty as they are (because, at the end of the day, the Herald is nought but his triumphant enemy, and he is nought but a discarded bloodstained rag at her feet, for her to toss about as she pleases), have become so engrained in his subconscious that, when he spends long enough without hearing them, his heart sags with a heavy sort of restlessness. Not nearly as heavy, as strangling, as corrosive, as when he awakens in the small hours from a hazy, rose-tinted vision of holding his Livia in his arms... But all the same. He feels like something is missing, and when the Herald does arrive, he softly, noiselessly lets out a breath he does not quite realize he has been holding.

 

Today, too, he perks up with the abruptness of a dreamer startled from a trance, at the approach of shoeless elven feet... But this time, instead of inexplicable, rather irrational relief, comes a rapid thrust and twist and pull of an unseen blade.

 

The Herald's gait is slow, shuffling, devoid of the usual lively bounce. She drifts among the guardsmen like a shadow, making no conversation except for a small, curt noise to acknowledge their presence; and when she reaches a dark corner, on the very rim of the field of view that opens from the caged magister's cell, where the golden circle of torchlight ends and the inky pool of nothing begins, she rests her back against the mouldy wall, and looks up, unseeing, at the thick and low ceiling that hangs overhead like a massive crypt slab... And, with a shudder and a gargle somewhere in her chest, bursts into tears.

 

In the gloom of his cell, the magister inclines his head in grave understanding. Of course. It is impossible to remain as vivacious as the Herald all the time. No shoulders, not even hers, - which he has caught glimpses of, through the slip of a self-knit shawl, round and peppered with the most ador... the most irrelevant freckles - would withstand the strain of carrying the burdens of the entire world.

 

Sooner or later, you have to stagger, knees buckling, the ground floating away. Sooner or later, the tears have to come out - an eruption of pain that has been building up in your very bonemarrow all this time, as you pushed on, a smile on your face, carrying, carrying everyone up with you.

 

He was there, once - he was in his twenties once, as young as the Herald, younger than her even; he thought he could change the Imperium for the better, and ended up curled into a sorry little ball on the marble floor of the Magisterium's bathroom and sobbing from the stress of delivering for his very speech to a sea of indifferent faces. He got up after that; he pushed on, ready to burn his whole being away just so he could be a good father, a good mentor, a good public figure, a good man - until he lost everything. Until he went back to being that sorry little ball, curled up in the toothy shadow of one of those tacky dog lord statues, while his son touched his shoulder and lied through a sad smile that everything would be all right.

 

If he were a different man, a good man from his dreamed-up boyish nonsense, a man not doomed and lost in the dark, he would have reached out and tried to offer the Herald comfort. It would have been the least he could do, in exchange for the comfort she gave him, even after all the insults she had had to endure. In exchange for the tiny flicker of light she kindled in his dreary cage when she persuaded Dorian to start paying him visits; the last remnant of home to brighten the days before his imminent execution.

 

But... But he is doomed, just as this entire blasted world is doomed, for all of the Herald's efforts to sort through its messes.

 

So he says nothing, merely swallowing a lump in his throat and pushing his hand - much bonier than he remembers it - through the prison bars, to tentatively grasp at thin air and then draw back when the Herald unglues herself from the wall, clenches her fists and throws up her head to steady herself, and sweeps away from the brink of darkness to return to her duties.