The horses and mules picked their way two by two down the path, red rocks rising all around. The air swam hot over dunes in the distance.
Above, a shadow crossed the sun, with a challenging, tearing scream. Cassandra’s mount started and reared its head, eyes rolling, dancing. A high dragon: a big one. The wave of alarm spread quickly through the other animals as it circled back.
Only after the dragon left the sky could she calm the horse, leaning down to pat its shivering neck.
Beside them on the trail, Leliana’s horse was already taking careful steps forward. Cassandra glanced at her. “Tell me we won’t be fighting that today.”
A quicker shadow passed over her face before she said, “Take it up with our Inquisitor.” Ahead, astride his own horse, Cadash was pointing up, roaring with laughter at something Blackwall said.
Wardens and dragons and more Wardens. Leliana had come out of Skyhold with them by her own choice, but this could not be easy for her, and she was hiding her dark moods less successfully.
“Maker preserve me,” Cassandra said, trying for levity. Leliana’s smile was only half of one, and her hands tightened on the reins.
Cassandra turned her gaze back to her horse. How have I said the wrong thing now?
The southern Inquisition camp was atop one of the desert rock formations, a sandblasted overhang with little shade and no water, but a good view of Nazaire's Pass in the twilight as they arrived.
The Orlesian scholar camped across the way happened to know a great deal about dragons, and specifically the local one, which might be useful. The man conversed well, with little foolishness.
When she returned, she found Leliana standing apart on the edge of the tent circle, hand-feeding the caged ravens brought from Skyhold. She held a piece of meat while a bird tore into it, then stepped away into the shadows to fetch another. .
The raven dropped its meal and struggled in the small space to retrieve it. Cassandra reached into the cage to help. It snapped, seizing her hand.
“Don’t!” Leliana wheeled around and caught the raven as she pulled back bloody fingers.
“There you both are!” Varric’s voice broke in. He stepped out from between the tents. “Any word from Hawke? When’s the meet?”
“No word yet.” Leliana didn’t look up from the cage, smoothing the bird’s feathers. “You need to wait.”
He held up a hand in surrender. “Okay, okay. I get it. Wait … Seeker, are you bleeding?”
A tear through to the skin and a stain across her left knuckles. The glove would be harder to mend. “It’s nothing.” She flexed the hand.
“If you say so.” Varric shrugged and turned back toward the camp, making for the cookfire.
Leliana finished her business with the raven and locked the cage. “The birds are not settling as they should.”
Because you are not, she thought, but held back. “It is nothing. I should know better.”
Leliana took off her soiled gauntlets and examined her own hands, pale in the growing dark. “Put this on it.” She handed Cassandra a jar from the supply chest. “Their beaks are beyond filthy, you know. I go through enough myself.”
It was an apology, and Cassandra accepted it. She set her jaw against the sting when she rubbed the salve into the cut.
As they walked between tents toward the fire, Leliana slipped on a cheerier tone. “Well, it is Warden Blackwall’s turn to feed us tonight, no? Has he produced anything?”
The smell of cooking suggested he had. Cassandra let her change the subject. “You really still doubt him?”
“There is something about the man I can’t let go. Though I am fairly sure it’s not his cuisine.”
She chuckled, following Leliana past the Inquisition banner into the camp’s center, but it was her turn to stay troubled.
The next morning, Hawke’s promised word arrived: a raven from Craggy Ridge Camp to the northwest, carrying a sketched map and directions to the Tevinter ruin where, she wrote, they might find answers, if not peacefully.
The five of them set out across the expanse of sand below the pass. The sun, unrelieved by clouds, beat on their small party through hot wind and radiated back from the sand. Blocky, angular shapes of other ruins rose up every now and then in the distance, between the red rocks.
Varric was full of enough words for all of them, mostly about how much he hated the desert, but plainly looking forward to seeing the Champion again. Cadash and Blackwall laughed at his jokes and passed waterskins back and forth. It had to be gallows humor with the Warden, approaching the unknown doom of his sisters and brothers.
Leliana walked with her hood pulled up, bow and quiver across her back, absently surefooted, silent. Cassandra took rear guard, cursing the blowing sand that would get in everywhere it could chafe. Varghests, hyenas, and other hungry beasts had plagued the company on the way in; she followed the others and watched the rocks for their dens, and the dunes for signs of equally opportunistic raider bands.
Distances were deceiving through the heat-haze, and they trudged for much of the day to reach the opposite side of the valley. The wind was stronger across the sand flats bordering the Abyssal Rift, driving up dust clouds over brush and wizened trees colonized by deathroot.
Finally, a figure unfolded from the shade of a stone ahead, and Varric let out a whoop. Hawke raised her staff and waved, and when they met, lifted both him and Bianca up in a bear hug.
Her companion, an open-faced man in Grey Warden colors, got up beaming at Leliana. “We came straight from Crestwood,” he said. “I thought we’d miss you.”
“It’s been too long,” Leliana said, and—with a surprising softening—stepped forward into a similar hug, staying on her feet.
“Sister Nightingale,” he said, muffled. “Still not used to that.” She patted his back like one of her lost birds.
Then she turned, folding down her hood so the sun touched her hair, and gestured to Cassandra. “Warden Alistair, Cassandra Pentaghast. I don’t know why you haven’t met before. He was a templar, you know.”
“Almost. Not for long.” He took Cassandra’s hand, eyes widening. “But … wow. We heard of you even in backwoods Ferelden. I had a—” Leliana nudged him. “Sorry. You don’t care. Right. The mission.”
Cassandra shook it. “It is good to meet you, too. I hear things from Leliana, when she wants to reveal them.”
“None of your secrets,” said Leliana, smiling a little, blue-eyed in the sunlight, “don’t worry.”
He laughed, wryly, like a man who had none. Cassandra liked him more for it, and for the smile.
Cadash interrupted, then, to greet him with a hearty “Well met again, Warden.”
Hawke stepped in beside them, rubbing her sunburnt, red-streaked nose. “Glad to have you both with us, Seeker, Sister.” Her eyebrows made it a question.
“I have an interest in the fate of the Grey Wardens, as you must know,” said Leliana.
“I wish it were a better one. We’ve already seen lights from the tower.” She regarded the group, leaning on her staff. “Lucky we have one mage.” Her expression, uncharacteristically solemn, sharpened the edge on Cassandra’s nerves.
She and Alistair had come south along the edge of the Rift, she said, over the Giant's Staircase, picking up rumors of Wardens traveling with Venatori along the way. This was still the place. It would undoubtedly be dangerous.
Inquisitor Cadash held up his hand, glowing green, and closed it into a fist. “Bring it on.”
But none of them were prepared for what they saw.
Maker, we should have known, should have stopped them.
Cassandra fought the blighted magic that held her as, in the shadow of the ritual tower’s pillars, the Inquisitor strained to move, and the living Wardens stood like the statues above them.
Above them, Magister Livius Erimond smirked as demons circled, rage and terror feeding on the red-eyed mages and the blood—so much blood, too much for the waiting barrels of sand and straw. A noble, ancient order reduced to puppets and victims.
Cassandra forced her blade forward with a shout, denying his authority to hold them—
And the spell shattered into shards of light as Cadash sprang up from where he’d been doubled over his hand, power flaring from the mark.
The magister tumbled to the ground with an apoplectic “Kill them!”
She rushed over the bloody stones straight for him, bracing her shield tight for impact, knocking the bodies that had been Wardens aside. Behind her, Leliana cried out, and arrows sang past her.
Hawke’s voice joined in, a barrier leaping into existence, blue-tinging her vision. And then the others, “For the Grey Wardens!” and “Bianca!” as she forged toward the dais, Cadash on her heels with his axe. A Warden mage came at her, blank and automatic. She shattered his spell again and he fell against his rage demon, which surged over him, sizzling and roaring heat.
The demon frozen, fractured, gone with a shriek, and she was on the steps, close enough to see Erimond’s grin turn vindictive as he got to his feet, jerking a raven-feathered arrow from his shoulder. He raised his staff, mouthing words. Behind her, Leliana’s battle cry became a choked gurgle.
Cassandra flinched, glancing back. Amid the melee, a wall of energy caged Leliana, lifting her off her feet, shrinking around her as her body contorted.
When she looked again, the magister was gone. “Rusting shit!” Cadash threw up his hands and jumped back into the fight.
No trace of him, but there was a path to her. Cassandra ran. As she gathered the will to break the cage, Alistair yelled something and the snap of a templar dispelling passed her through the air. The man was useful.
Leliana fell in a graceless heap. Stunned: she must be stunned.
Cassandra slid to her knees. Blood and straw tangled in Leliana’s hair, split arrows scattered around her. She reached out, almost shook her, then thought better of it. Her arm felt solid and unbroken. She was breathing.
The Inquisitor bellowed to one side. Hawke moved in from the other, renewing the barrier. Demons closed the distance behind her. She raised her shield to cover them, and in its shadow Leliana’s eyes opened. Cassandra let out a breath herself.
She twisted to slash back from the ground, stabbing and hamstringing until the last demon screeched and evaporated.
Leliana’s hand came up to grip her arm.
“Are you hurt?”
“It’s nothing.” Leliana pulled herself to a sitting position. “Did you—”
“No. He escaped.”
Another darkness on her face before she composed it. “I should have aimed better for his throat.” She reached for her fallen bow and felt along its length for cracks.
Only the seven of them remained on the tower top, amid the corpses and the blood and the smell of death. Alistair lowered his sword, his back stiff, bloodied blue and silver like the dead around him. “Clarel,” he said in a numbed voice. “She ordered this. Maker.” He stumbled toward the wall and caught himself against it, looking sick.
Cadash stepped over to pat his shoulder in gruff sympathy. “Water, friend? Or something stronger?”
Leliana’s expression was a mask that betrayed nothing as she pulled her hood back up and stood. Spiked pillars rose behind her like an empty hand thrust over the abyss.
Hawke was feeling in her pockets, and eventually produced a glowing vial. After a muttered exchange with Alistair and a shrug from Blackwall, she drank down the lyrium and raised her staff.
A rush of fire consumed the Wardens’ bodies, throwing back an intense heat across the stones.
“Ashes we were, and ashes we become,” Cassandra said, rising from her knees. This at least was the right thing to say. “Maker, grant them a place at your side.”
Leliana bowed her head. Alistair stared into the distance. “I know where he’d run. There’s an abandoned Warden fortress that way. Adamant.”
Hawke nodded as the flames hissed and spat. “If that’s where he’s gone, let’s get out of here.” She glanced at the Inquisitor. “We’ll scout it out and catch up with you.”
The journey back to Nazaire’s Pass seemed twice as long in the strained, somber mood among the party.
Varric’s face was set in a grimness she recognized from Kirkwall, which didn’t suit him. Behind him, Cadash had begun a quiet discussion of battle strategies with Blackwall.
Leliana stayed impassive, keeping pace with her and showing no injury. But she was paying attention: she interrupted with a rather vicious point about setting traps for the Venatori using their own codes.
Cassandra felt neither calm nor cool-headed enough to debate siege strategy. Erimond’s smug disappearing face hung before her, and all she wanted to do was obliterate him. As she’d failed to, in order to fail again.
She took point and walked ahead as fast as she wished, spurred by queasy anger at the magisters, and at the Wardens for collaborating. Those knives, descending. A demon army. Will they truly rest with the Maker? Do they deserve it?
No answer presented itself before they reached camp.
The Inquisition soldiers had prepared an entire dinner, in anticipation of meeting the woman Varric talked so much about. When they saw no Hawke, their faces fell, and most trailed back to their tents.
Cassandra had little appetite, but she folded her legs on the dusty rock by the fire and made herself eat what she would need.
Across from her, in the shadow of the tents, Varric, Cadash, and Blackwall were passing a bottle of Antivan brandy, on their way to drinking themselves insensible.
Leliana sat equidistant from them, just inside the firelight, not eating or drinking, face occluded in her hood.
Setting aside the remains of her meal, Cassandra tried to quiet her mind in the way she was trained. The first lesson, the hardest lesson for a rageful child. Concentrate on the fire, will your emotions to burn. Rise out of yourself.
But she couldn’t. The Wardens’ choice offended her on a deep, elemental level, the blood magic and possession and lies and desperation. She could not be calm.
How could they? Making deals with these Venatori. Thinking a demon army could ever be a good thing. Allowing themselves to be taken in, deceived, used to betray their own reasons for being.
Just like the Seekers, and her heart was still sick to think of them. Daniel. The other innocents.
She glanced over again, but Leliana was turned inward around her grief, unreachable.
Enough. She could not be calm. She would go out in the dark and look for a fight, and maybe the Maker would grant her one.
Leliana stared into the fire, arms folded on her knees.
The flames filled her vision, became the burning at the tower. The Wardens. Other flames, other times. The charnel stink of battle and corruption.
The magister’s sneering voice. “In death …” Her mind skittered away from the word.
Cassandra charging straight for him, a silhouette against his red-bright magic, not looking back.
Arms burning, draw-aim-loose, draw-aim-loose. It had been a waste of energy to shout—as if her voice could hold demons—but she nearly had him before the spell flashed down and pinned her like a butterfly in crushing, headsplitting air, stupidly vulnerable.
She shuddered, remembering the ripping feeling of breathing again, opening her eyes to see Cassandra, grateful to still have eyes.
The bruises were stiffening all along her body, making graceful movement impossible. But she lived to accept it and walk on, while the Wardens were dying. Maybe the last of them. In front of her, while she watched.
If only she’d poisoned the arrow. If only she’d scouted the west earlier. If only she’d gotten to Clarel, not taken them for granted, learned their secrets …
She could have done better. Stopped this. Prevented this. The Nightingale’s refrain, she thought, once more with feeling, and pressed her lips together to stop a cheerless smile. The Nightingale’s curse.
She returned her gaze to the fire.
By the time Hawke and Alistair limped into camp, the moons were up, and the dinner was long cold. They helped themselves and thanked the two soldiers still on duty before collapsing by the tents, battered and bloodied.
Varric, on his third bottle, poured for them. Hawke drained hers and poured more. “They were there,” she said to Cadash. “Holed up, reinforced. I’ve a map somewhere. In the morning.” She sank back into methodical drinking.
A little way from her, Alistair studied his cup, looking more than ten years older. He glanced up and caught Leliana’s eye. “No chance of a song, I suppose.”
The question was as familiar but strange as he was. Hardly anyone now would ask or dare. Leliana shook her head.
He held out the cup to her. “She always loved your singing.” There was only one she he could mean. “Told me you could sing the Blight away, at least for a while.”
“Did she?” A small new pang inside all the others. Leliana took it and drank.
“I shouldn’t complain. Not everyone gets a nightly lullaby from Corypheus.” His smile was grim, edged; maybe like one of hers.
In the letters and journals and histories she’d unearthed over the years, indescribable was the most common term for the Calling. Then came horrible and beautiful. But she’d never know what they meant.
The fire snapped, sounds of the night thick in the desert air.
For her old friend’s sake, and to be that girl for a moment again, she started to hum, testing her voice: Andraste’s prayer for the dead. Under her breath, imperfect, but the song needed nothing from her.
Varric and Hawke fell silent. Alistair’s face relaxed, as if the false Calling had quieted.
When it was done, she took another swallow of brandy and handed back his cup. The firelight was too bright, the dead too present. She had to go.
Leliana climbed to her feet, ignoring the aches. She squeezed Alistair’s shoulder and left him there with the other men and Hawke. If only a song could really help—but this would have to do.
They might think she’d gone to bed, but she walked by her tent and kept going. As she passed them, her ravens croaked and beat their wings against the cage.
Away from the fire, the rock faces of the pass, blue-gray in the moonlight, were filled with nooks and niches where one could perch unseen. Not the best news for their security, but it suited Leliana’s purpose: to find a high dark place where she could watch the stars.
When she’d climbed to a promising ledge above the path, a breeze picked up, cool on her face. She unfastened the hood and raked fingers through her hair, felt dried blood and scraped it away.
Then she leaned back on her hands, dangling her feet over the drop. The desert spread out below in a thousand shades of ink and silver; the sky was a sparkling void that called her as the dwarves feared.
She looked up at one solitary point of light, bright and cold. She’d told someone a story about stars once. It might have ended differently if they had more time. If.
But that path was closed; and she’d never wanted that pain again, though it laced through her life like a needle through skin.
No: she wanted to escape it, transcend it. Freeze it out, if she had to. She didn’t have the luxury of feeling it—
Unexpected footsteps below interrupted her line of thought. Boots on gravel, then a silhouette that passed into moonlight and resolved into Cassandra, trudging up the path with a large, mottled, spiky shape slung over her shoulder.
She tilted her head and stopped. “Leliana? Is that you?” She sounded worried, the way she’d been ever since they left Skyhold. She radiated it, all through her voice and movements. No better at hiding than poor Alistair.
But she was, far too evidently, right to be. Leliana leaned over the edge, despite her protesting bruises. “What in the world do you have there?”
“I was just … patrolling the area. I found a … whatever this is. Or it found me.”
“Another unlucky creature, then.” She gestured up. “I just came out to see the stars.”
Cassandra lowered the dead thing to the ground with some effort and gazed up. “I can barely see you.”
“It’s not a difficult climb.”
Leliana told her where the footholds were, and caught her hand by feel for the last of it.
When she was secure on the ledge, Leliana let go. Cassandra sat down not far away, a darker, warmer patch against the rock, on the border of her space.
“Are you all right?” More concern in her tone. “No, that’s a foolish question. I think none of us are.”
Leliana let the night sounds fill in between them for a time, looking up, and Cassandra followed her lead, sharing the ledge without speaking.
The moons sank lower behind the ridge, and stars stood out brighter.
Eventually, she fit her thoughts to an acceptable sentence. “This … abomination with the Wardens,” she began. “It can’t go on. We can’t let it. I can’t—”
“I understand,” said Cassandra.
“It is a horror that Corypheus seems to love. Deceiving them this way, so it makes a mockery of their purpose.” She shifted position. “And it makes you think of her, does it not? The Hero of Ferelden.”
The pain laced itself tighter. Yes, she wanted to say, but—
Leliana knew she wouldn’t break down here in front of her. The ability was well sealed away, already frozen. And Cassandra was carrying too much already. But it drew her, for a second, in the dark; a selfish temptation, if she could have.
Cassandra gave a small sigh. “I am sorry. I will leave you and take my … creature into camp.”
She climbed back down, her warm presence fading, and then the sound of her feet.
Leliana exhaled heavily. And now she was alone the way she wanted, wasn’t she?
She pushed herself back against the rock wall, looked up at the star again, and hardened herself like a diamond, locking her burdening feelings away. She would not fail again. The world couldn’t afford a repeat of that refrain.